It had been a big Friday night bash at the Innamincka Hotel. Late August, the night before the annual picnic race meeting, and the remote outpost was cluttered with locals primed for the weekend celebration and tourists on their northerly winter migration. In the red dirt car park, within stumbling distance of the pub, was a neat row of prized utes and, just beyond them, a less orderly cluster of lumpy, inert green swags. A lanky, lonely station hand in a checked shirt and longhorn jeans warmed his back against the sun’s early rays and shakily sipped his way through a Bundaberg rum breakfast, while his fellow revellers slumbered on.
Down on Cooper Creek, the wildlife greeted the dawn with a little more enthusiasm. Pairs of little corellas noisily checked out of their nests for the day and whistling kites prowled the skies above flotillas of pelicans intent on an early catch. Fred and Jan Pfeiffer, of Mount Gambier in South Australia, sipped their first cuppa of the day and planned their own fishing foray as a misty chiffon veil gently lifted from the creek.
“We feel at home here,” said Fred, who, with his wife of 47 years, has made the pilgrimage for each of the past 12 years. “Most of the people coming out here are like us, seeking a little outback adventure.”
“And the fishing is a big attraction,” said Jan, who has come to know the many waterholes and prime fishing spots well. “We love catching yellow belly (golden perch) and sharing them with our friends. We like the quietness and the solitude and meeting people.” And there’s plenty of that for these honorary campground hosts, known as the unofficial mayor and mayoress of the Policeman’s Beach campground.
FROM BOOM TO BUST AND BACK
Offering some of the best camping, fishing and boating in Australia, the Cooper is a major inland destination for convoys of adventurous Australians. Many are attracted by the abundant wildlife that finds refuge here from the surrounding desert and gibber plains; others are captivated by the rich Aboriginal heritage and the heroic tales of explorers Burke and Wills, who met their sorry end on the Cooper’s bank in 1861. This is a classically Australian boom or bust environment; often dry and dusty and baking beneath a scorching sun, but sometimes awash with floodwaters and wearing garlands of delicate wildflowers.
And then there’s Innamincka township itself, the former police outpost and base for the Australian Inland Mission (a forerunner of the Royal Flying Doctor Service). Surveyed in 1890 and originally named Hopetoun, it became an important staging post for cattle being driven from central Queensland to the Adelaide markets, along what is now called the Strzelecki Track. But the frontier town struggled through the early part of last century; its population never soaring above 20 and the remote settlement began to drown in its own isolation.
Outback tourism finally resuscitated Innamincka and today it cheerily hosts 30,000-40,000 visitors each year. These days they can take their pick of 27 kilometres of campgrounds with water views, savour a great pub meal, hire a canoe or pick up some fresh hot bread or frozen bait at the well-stocked Trading Post.
Of course, the fertile banks of the creek had been a meeting place for Aboriginal people long before the white fellas set up camp. Members of two major language groups – the Yandruwantha and the Yawarawarrka peoples – were the first residents of the region, drawn by the abundant water and food supplies of the Cooper, its chain of waterholes and the flanking floodplains and deserts that bloom after rain. At Cullamurra Waterhole, one of the Cooper’s few permanent waterholes, their Dreaming traditions and myths dating back at least 30,000 years, are painstakingly etched in burnished quartzite tableaus. These detailed Panaramitee pictograms represent some of the oldest rock art in the world. Elsewhere, stone quarries, middens, burial sites and stone arrangements speak of their abiding relationship with this vital inland artery.
It was explorer Charles Sturt, searching for a mythical inland sea in 1845, who became the first European to sight the brown ribbon of water guarded by austere red gum sentinels. It was a dry year and the waterway barely raised a current, so he couldn’t justify naming it a river. Instead, it took the conservative title Cooper Creek, after a South Australian judge of the day.
But what Sturt could not have known was that this current-less creek in the remote corner country of central Australia was not always so tame. When monsoonal rains fall sometimes 1000 kilometres away in its 296,000 square kilometre north-western and central Queensland catchment, it can be a very different story. Floodwaters flush their way through the Thomson, Barcoo and Wilson rivers into the Cooper. If it’s a decent flow, the waters course down its northwest branch and swell the 100-or-so shallow lakes and internal delta channels that comprise Coongie Lakes. During a monster flood, the swirling brown tide can even crash on the shores of Lake Eyre.
But there was no such largesse in 1861 when Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills made the first south-north crossing of the continent, only to perish at Cooper Creek on their return journey. At the sites where Burke and Wills were buried and their colleague, John King was rescued by Aborigines, or beside their fateful depot camp (the Dig Tree on nearby Nappa Merrie station), the gravity of their situation becomes chillingly real.
Fortunately, these sites, (with the exception of the Dig Tree in Queensland) are protected today under the Innamincka Regional Reserve, declared in 1998. It allows for pastoralism, mining, tourism and other economic uses to coexist with the sensitive management of the Cooper and its wetlands, under the National Parks and Wildlife Service of South Australia.
In permitting this kind of multi-use, the reserve ensures the ongoing economic viability of not just the natural gas and oil reserves of resource giant Santos, but also the landmark Innamincka station. One of the best naturally watered pastoral properties in the northern cattle country, the station was bought by Sidney Kidman in 1904 and, at almost 14,000 square kilometres, remains the second largest of the Kidman holdings.
Reliable water sources aside, it remains a fickle feedlot for stock. “You make your decisions season by season,” says Graham “Pod” Morton, who, with his wife Marie, has managed the station for 12 years. “The dust storms can roll in like a big cloud and sandblast the windscreens of your vehicles. In dry times, the soil goes to powder and the wind just blows it away. We always have water; feed’s the problem.”
The Mortons are painfully aware that their livelihood depends on the Cooper, one of the last unregulated rivers in the world. To the northwest, the fortunes of more than 183 species of birds, 330 plant species, 11 native fish, 18 marsupials and 32 terrestrial reptiles also depend on the creek that feeds directly into Coongie Lakes, 130 kilometres from Innamincka.
This 340-square kilometre national park centres on a Ramsar-listed (the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands was signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971) braid of shallow lakes that shimmer like a swathe of shot blue silk. The southern lakes – Coongie, Marroocoolcannie and Marroocutchanie – fill first during flood, then the northern lakes Toontoowarani and Goyder. Coongie is the deepest, at two metres when full, and visitors at any time of year would be unlucky not to glimpse some of the resident and migratory waders that probe this shallow expanse. Many breed in the Northern Hemisphere in June/July and migrate to Australia during our summer to feed. The lakes’ fishing ban ensures they have no human competition.
Keen twitchers, Jean Wallace and her husband Bob from Brisbane, were two who flocked to Coongie during a five-month bird-watching odyssey. At Coongie they marvelled at the white winged fairy wrens, black kites, hard head ducks, hoary-headed grebes and coots. “We’ve been out looking for pink-eared ducks and it’s been magical,” Jean said. “Paddling out quietly in the canoe you see all sorts of birds feeding around the sedges that grow on the fringes of the lake.”
Former NPWS ranger, Shirley Meyer said, unlike Jean and Bob, who planned to make a week of it, many travellers visit this region intending to stay a day and end up lingering much longer. “Visitors feel a strong sense of ownership and identify with this place,” she said. “They are drawn to the isolation and proudly tell you how many years they’ve been visiting. We have lots of repeat customers. The campgrounds teem with wildlife by day and night so there’s always something to see.”
For regular visitor, Fred Pfeiffer the rigours of travelling to this far-flung part of Australia are more than compensated by the pleasures it holds. “This is still harsh country out here,” he said. “We always carry enough provisions and water for a fortnight, in case you get stranded or flooded in, but it’s a truly special place. There’s a lot of subtlety in this big landscape and you have to stop and look and give it time.”