Where the Mighty Rivers (Sometimes) Flow

The flooded “Long Crossing” on Cooper’s Creek in 2016.

5 October 2017 

William O’Chee and his son Rory went to explore Queensland’s waterways.

While ‘Hear The Boat Sing’ regularly features the waters which are home to rowing clubs great and small, there remain some majestic rivers which have not yet been turned over to rowing. This is most definitely true of Australia.

The great 20th century Australian poet, A.D. Hope, once described his homeland in these terms:

Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity

 Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: “we live” but “we survive”,
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

With most of Australia’s population concentrated around the coast, her inland rivers are rarely considered. In my home state of Queensland – a vast state two and a half times the size of Texas – a number of such waterways flow into to the legendary inland sea known as Lake Eyre.

As these largely ephemeral rivers make through the parched countryside, they carve it with myriad channels and gullies collectively known as the Channel Country. It creates an extraordinary landscape, especially when seen from the air.

Last month, I undertook a 3,500 km road trip with my photographer son, Rory, to the Channel Country to capture Queensland’s answer to Monument Valley, a sprawling 6,000 km² cattle property which has never been photographed before. (As I lack any artistic skill at all, readers should easily pick who is responsible for which photos in this article!)

Just over an hour from the coast, we cross the Great Dividing Range. Rivers on the east of the range flow to the Pacific Ocean. Rivers rising to the west of this flow into one of two systems: either the 2,800 km Murray-Darling system that flows south to the Great Australian Bight, or the else rivers of the Channel Country that disappear into the desert.

For most of the day, we travel through mixed farming and sheep grazing country, across little streams that will ultimately flow into the Murray-Darling system. Our goal, however, is the Channel Country, and after ten hours of driving we cross a little stream on the outskirts of a town called Tambo. This stream is the headwater of what will ultimately become the Barcoo River.

At this point, the Barcoo is nothing but a small creek, and the town is better known for producing the world’s best teddy bears, which are made from sheepskin. No less than Prince George is the owner of a Tambo Teddy, which was given by the Queensland government as a gift when he was born.

Tambo teddies owner Mary Sutherland with one of their creations.

The Barcoo holds a place of legend in Australian story and literature. It marks the division between the somewhat more tightly settled country to the east (and everything is relative here, for the tightly settled areas are made up of sheep and cattle stations of 40,000 acres or more), and the wider open spaces on the other side of the Barcoo.

Here, towns of more than 80 people are about 100 km apart. A further two and a quarter hours of driving gets us to Barcaldine (population 1,316), where we overnight. The Australian Labor Party had its origins here in 1891 under the “Tree of Knowledge”, a tree in the main street. The tree died some years ago, but, like the union movement, its preserved trunk remains.

The next morning, we drive to Longreach (population 3,137), the birthplace of Qantas. Those who have seen the movie Rain Man will know that Qantas is the only airline never to have had a fatal accident. Longreach is also home to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. A stockman is the equivalent of an American cowboy.

The Stockman’s Hall of Fame is a national museum dedicated to the heritage of the life in the Australian Outback. Qantas also has a museum in the town, complete with a number of heritage aircraft.

While these are the big tourist attractions, the town actually derives its name from the long reach of the Thomson River, on which it is situated.

The visitor information centre at Longreach in the original office if the Queensland & Northern Territory Aerial Service, better known as Qantas.

Actually, to speak of a single reach is a bit of a misnomer. The Thomson River flows along the western outskirts of the town in a series of channels, only one of which holds permanent water. The rest, as can be seen from the photo below, are normally bone dry.

However, the Thomson is a massive river when the water runs. This is because the country is largely flat, with only a small number of channels carrying the water from the plains.

The Thomson flows several hundred kilometres to the south until it joins the Barcoo to form Cooper’s Creek – the only confluence of two rivers anywhere in the world that forms a creek. Cooper’s Creek is one of the two major watercourses that make up the Channel Country. Of Cooper’s Creek, more later, though.

Establishing a rowing club on the main branch of the Thomson River would not be out of the question. There are a number of tourism operators who provide river cruises all year around, and unless the river is in flood, the waters are broad and generally placid. It would make a course to rival the best in the world.

A paddle steamer cruises on the Thomson River at Longreach.

The only problem a rowing club would face is that it would be a very long drive to find competition. The nearest rowing club, the Rockhampton Fitzroy Rowing Club, is over 680 km away!

From Longreach we head west to Winton (population 954), where 120 years ago an Australian poet by the name of A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson wrote a song we now know as “Waltzing Matilda”.

We spend an hour to grab some food and stock up on sufficient fresh water to survive three days without assistance. We also fill the fuel tank, and the 100 litres of jerry cans we are carrying. We won’t see another fuel station for four days, and most of the roads we travel will be dirt.

Then we head west again, and disappear into the vastness of the Outback.

Our goal is to reach the Diamantina River, the other major watercourse that makes up the Channel Country. The upper reaches of the Diamantina form a peculiar semi-circular shape. Geologists believe this was the result of an asteroid strike approximately 300 million years ago.

For much of its course, the Diamantina is ephemeral, meaning that it exists as a string of connected waterholes, or billabongs, but with no water flow between them. There will be no rowing on the Diamantina.

Throughout the day we bounce over rough dirt roads that purport to be major thoroughfares. Bitumen surfaces are rare, and as often as not double as emergency runways for the Royal Flying Doctor Service’s aircraft. If you need an ambulance out here it has to come by air, and the Flying Doctor has been saving lives since it was founded in this part of Queensland by the Rev John Flynn in 1928.

If you need a doctor out here – and pray you don’t – they will come by air.

Late in the afternoon we reach our destination, but it is still another 80 km of rough dirt tracks from the front gate to the homestead. When we get there, we find the station manager is nowhere to be seen. He’s probably working on another part of the property, which could be 60 km or more away. We find a spot for our base camp and set up our tents before doing a quick recce.

As I mentioned at the beginning, this cattle property has never been photographed before. We are here with the kind permission of the owners, whom I have known for almost 30 years. While they are happy for us to photograph here, they are keen to keep its location secret, so Rory, alights on the working title of “The Untouched Canyon” for this shoot.

One of the awesome buttes in The Untouched Canyon.

What an amazing place it is! Over tens of thousands of years, intermittent flood events have chiselled a labyrinth of valleys from the original rock. These have also left behind an amazing array of buttes and cliff faces that overpower the onlooker with their grandeur.

Over three days we set about cataloguing this extraordinary landscape, but the property is so massive that we capture only a small portion of it.

Tracks for the 4WD are few, and many of the features are so well hidden they escape us entirely. Then there are the snakes lurking in the spinifex. Queensland is home to some of the world’s most deadly snakes, including the inland taipan, the eastern brown, the mulga snake, the western brown, and the death adder. All of them live right here.

Although we carry an emergency first aid kit, it could be hours before we could even get back to the homestead to call in the flying doctor, and a couple more hours to wait until the plane arrives.

We also have to battle the heat. It is still only spring, but the temperature is 40 C in the shade, and there is not much of that. The river is a series of muddy waterholes, and the cattle have gotten into them, meaning swimming is out of the question.

However, the photos we get are stunning. After three and a half days of shooting, we reluctantly turn our heads for home.

Ahead lay many hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads before we get to our next stop, although the journey itself offers many consolations.

Emus amble along the side of the road – and yes, that is a road on which we are driving.

We are surprised by the number of emus (Australia’s answer to the ostrich) we see along the way. They trot along in family groups in which the father raises the offspring. Normally we might see one or two in a few days, but this year we see dozens of them beside the road. I snap a quick picture through the windscreen, which shows both our roadside travellers, and the dirt road itself.

The Channel Country outside Windorah twelve months ago.

Eventually we arrive at Windorah (population 115). The town is located where the road to South Australia crosses Cooper’s Creek. 35 km to the north, the Barcoo and Thomson rivers join to form Cooper’s Creek. The highway crosses it about 10 km to the east of the town, and the main channel is a permanent watercourse at this point in its journey.

The main channel of Cooper’s Creek outside Windorah.

Windorah is known for its large red sandhills just outside the town. They rise impressively above the broad flood plain, and present extraordinary photo opportunities. We have been here before; the last time was 12 months ago, when the Channel Country had received unseasonal rain, and the whole river system had come alive. Winter herbage had sprouted through the red soil, turning the paddocks into veritable wonderland of colour.

Since then there has literally been no rainfall at all. Not a drop. The normal summer rains which feed the Channel Country didn’t arrive last year, and Cooper’s Creek has receded to its drought time limits.

In spite of this, the Cooper is unlike any creek anywhere else in the world. Its main channel is broad and slow, forming a long, straight reach. The water is a striking yellow-brown, testament to the rich alluvium it carries all the way to Lake Eyre. However, it is cool, and the river crossing makes a popular and safe swimming hole.

The full extent of the Cooper’s magnitude is best appreciated here. When the flood waters come, the “long Crossing” – several kilometres of floodway – goes under water, and the town can be cut off for weeks. In 1974, there was so much water in Cooper’s Creek that it measured 43 km across, with the town left high and somewhat dry on a small rise in the middle.

Whether in flood or in drought, the town’s only other perennial watering hole is its sole public house, the Western Star Hotel. In the heat, it is an attractive place to retreat. We stop for a steak and to catch up on the better part of twelve months of gossip.

From here, we bid farewell to the Channel Country and begin the 1,250 km drive back to Brisbane. We shall return again to the mighty rivers of the Channel Country, hopefully next time to see them in flood.

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