DOWN in the COR­NER

DIRT TRACKS THROUGH THE COR­NER COUN­TRY.

4 x 4 Australia - - Explore - WORDS RON MOON PHO­TOS ELLEN DEWAR

THE TRACK had be­come fainter as we wound our way over the rough, rocky hills, be­fore it dis­ap­peared com­pletely. Some­where we had missed a turn and, while I knew where I was on the Hema Nav­i­ga­tor and could see where I wanted to go, get­ting to our des­ti­na­tion wasn’t an op­tion shown on any screens. We dropped into a dry, nar­row creek bed and wound our way far­ther into the hills, oc­ca­sion­ally get­ting out and clear­ing scrub and tree branches so we could get through with­out rip­ping the ve­hi­cle’s duco and body pan­els to rib­bons. Forced out of the ever-nar­row­ing creek, we bumped across sha­ley rock ridges and bare, craggy hills, oc­ca­sion­ally dis­turb­ing a euro or hill wal­la­roo out of their noon-day slum­ber. We fi­nally crested a hill af­ter five or so kilo­me­tres of slow cross-coun­try travel and spied the ru­ins we had come to see. The Warata Mine (some­times spelt Waratah) was orig­i­nally worked in the late 1880s, but, like most of the mines and dig­gings in this re­mote cor­ner of NSW, it was never a rich mine or gold­field. Gold had first been dis­cov­ered near Mount Poole in 1880, and by early 1881 more than 2000 dig­gers were scram­bling over the hills look­ing for any sign of colour. A lack of wa­ter and any rain­fall, how­ever, kept gold pro­duc­tion to a min­i­mum. Still, the town­ships of Ti­booburra and Mil­parinka sprang into ex­is­tence to ser­vice the in­flux of peo­ple, while pi­o­neer graziers bat­tled the el­e­ments to form vast sheep and cat­tle prop­er­ties. In the late 1880s con­di­tions were so dire in these re­mote places the NSW gov­ern­ment sent a re­lief party to the fields via the Ghan Rail­head in SA at Fa­rina. By 1902 the fields were yield­ing very lit­tle gold and most of the min­ers had de­parted, leav­ing the build­ings at Mil­parinka to slum­ber and de­cay be­neath the blazing sun.

Our quest had started a few days ear­lier in the once great min­ing colos­sus of Bro­ken Hill. While min­ing still goes on there, the great sil­ver and lead mine that brought prosperity and

HEAD­ING NORTH ON BACK ROADS, WE TRAVERSED ROLLING SALT­BUSH AND GIBBER PLAINS

peo­ple to this part of NSW is just a shadow of its for­mer self. Still, the town is a great place to start any travel in western NSW and boasts a great her­itage along with some of the finest art gal­leries and friendly drink­ing holes you can find any­where.

As we’ve been here be­fore on nu­mer­ous oc­ca­sions we didn’t want to dally too long, so we pointed our lit­tle con­voy of Mercedes-benz X-class dual-cab utes north and headed to the once rich min­ing en­clave and then on to the ghost town and now arty ham­let of Sil­ver­ton.

While Sil­ver­ton has its fab­u­lous pub, a range of art gal­leries and a mu­seum, along with a scat­ter­ing of min­ing ru­ins nearby, one of the places not to miss is the Day­dream Mine, which be­gan op­er­at­ing in the 1880s. A smelter was built nearby, and by 1885 more than 500 peo­ple liv­ing in the nearby town of Wil­son were re­ly­ing on the mine and the smelter for their dayto-day ex­is­tence. To­day the mine is very much like it was, with small shafts and drives lead­ing deep un­der­ground to where the rich ore body spread its veins of sil­ver through the rock.

While it is a ‘tourist mine’, it’s about as close as you can get to what an old mine was like, with its dark tun­nels, rough walk­ways, low ceil­ings and cramped work­ing con­di­tions. We had Ruth, the owner of the mine, lead us through the labyrinth, and it was a mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence, not only for the in­sight into how the early min­ers worked and lived but also to learn how short these early min­ers were – my hel­met took a ham­mer­ing from the low ceil­ings.

We spent the next few nights at Eldee Sta­tion, one of the many farm stays you can ex­pe­ri­ence in the Cor­ner Coun­try of NSW. Lo­cated on the edge of the Bar­rier Range north of Sil­ver­ton, Eldee Sta­tion not only acts as a great base to ex­plore the area, but it has a num­ber of 4WD tracks that take you deep into the rugged hills and into hid­den glens, where trick­les of life-giv­ing wa­ter act as mag­nets for the area’s wildlife. Back at the home­stead, Steve and Naomi Sch­midt are the con­ge­nial hosts and of­fer ac­com­mo­da­tion, camp­ing, meals and re­fresh­ing drinks. Head­ing north on back roads that only see the oc­ca­sional sta­tion hand or prop­erty owner, we traversed rolling salt­bush and gibber plains, the lines of creeks etched with the dark green of aca­cia and mulga trees. It was here, in a rocky sec­tion of range coun­try, where one of the Mercs blew a tyre. Not that it was the ve­hi­cle’s fault; rather the ve­hi­cle was sup­plied, as most utes are, with ‘Pas­sen­ger’ or ‘P’ rated tyres, which we have found to be com­pletely in­ad­e­quate for the job in the out­back. To travel out here com­fort­ably and safely a ve­hi­cle needs, at the very least, a ‘Light Truck’ (LT) tyre. At Smithville House, the ma­jor de­pot for the main­te­nance crews work­ing on the Dog Fence, we met up with Dave, the NSW op­er­a­tions man­ager of the Bor­der Fence Main­te­nance Board, and Sharon Harrington. We yarned a bit about his job and the peo­ple liv­ing and work­ing along the Dog Fence that stretches more than 600km along the NSW/SA and

NSW/QLD bor­der. The fence’s job is to keep wild dogs out of the sheep flocks of NSW and south-east Aus­tralia and, while some may be crit­i­cal about its ef­fec­tive­ness, there is no doubt sheep farm­ing in Out­back NSW would be fin­ished with­out it. We also chat­ted about how the roads that fol­low be­side the fence are pri­vate roads in the in­ter­ests of work­ers’ safety, and se­vere fines can be lev­elled against any­body who uses them. A sec­tion of pub­lic road trav­els close to the fence (about 20 to 30m from it) near Smithville House, so there is no need to travel on the pri­vate road.

Later that day we rolled into Mil­parinka, camped down on the creek and en­joyed a few beers at the lo­cal pub. Once the hub of a small gold­field the town was de­serted for some time, but it has had a re­vival since the lo­cal com­mu­nity got to­gether and re­stored the im­pres­sive stone build­ings. The reopening of the pub a cou­ple of years back also brought life and colour back to the small oa­sis, so don’t miss it on your trav­els through Cor­ner Coun­try.

Charles Sturt, the great Aus­tralian ex­plorer, was the first Euro­pean in this re­gion in 1844, and he and his men were trapped at nearby De­pot Glen (just north of Mil­parinka) for six months, as the coun­try, caught in a vi­cious drought, dried up in front and be­hind them. Not­with­stand­ing the dry con­di­tions, Sturt led one or two of his men on fly­ing recce trips west, north-west and north-east, leav­ing the re­main­der in camp to build a great cairn of stones on what we now know as Mt Poole. Named af­ter James Poole, Sturt’s 2IC, Poole died of scurvy while they were trapped here; the only fa­tal­ity on that in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­di­tion that saw, amongst other things, the dis­cov­ery of Cooper Creek, Eyre Creek and the eastern edge of the Simp­son Desert. Af­ter check­ing out De­pot Glen and Mt Poole we headed via the back way to Ti­booburra and, with the per­mis­sion of the lo­cal land owner, be­gan our foray into the hills look­ing for the Warata Mine.

At Ti­booburra, while most of us checked out the town, its sur­rounds and the two fa­mous pubs, one of our ve­hi­cles was rushed south on the main road to Bro­ken Hill to get some

bet­ter tyres, be­fore we pushed on across Sturt NP to Cameron Cor­ner and its friendly pub, store and camp­ing ground. The coun­try was dry and hot and the park, which is of­ten alive with kan­ga­roos, was near de­void of them, most far­ther south in the well-wa­tered coun­try of the sheep and cat­tle graziers.

The next day our lit­tle party, now in South Aus­tralia, crossed the roller-coaster dunes of the Strz­elecki Desert to come to the track and creek of the same name. We turned north across a bleak land­scape, the nor­mal dry and dusty chan­nels of the creek be­ing dot­ted with low scrag­gly trees, as wa­ter hasn’t flowed here for a long time. Along the way and some­times close to the track were the nod­ding arms of beam pumps lift­ing their pre­cious load of oil and gas, which is then pumped to a cen­tral pro­cess­ing plant be­fore be­ing pushed along kilo­me­tres of un­der­ground

pip­ing to the cities of south­ern and eastern Aus­tralia.

Such in­dus­tri­ous ac­tiv­ity has trans­formed this re­gion of Aus­tralia, the most ob­vi­ous of which is the good gravel roads that lead not only to gas- and oil-pro­cess­ing plants but also to our des­ti­na­tion, In­nam­incka. Across the bor­der in Queens­land such progress in its oil fields has seen the snaking rib­bon of bi­tu­men ex­tend from the bor­der all the way to Bris­bane. It is the eas­i­est way to get to In­nam­incka and the Cooper… per­haps too easy for us four-wheel­ers.

We spent the next few days around In­nam­incka and Cooper Creek, our luck hold­ing true with wa­ter flood­ing down the creek from rains in cen­tral Queens­land a few weeks pre­vi­ously. Such a flow adds a lit­tle piece of magic to vis­it­ing here, and we couldn’t help our­selves as we went down to the cause­way across the creek to drive through the run­ning wa­ters. It wasn’t nec­es­sary, of course, but it felt won­der­ful to do it af­ter a few days of dry, hot and dusty out­back travel.

We camped down on the ‘Town Com­mon’ along the creek, try­ing to take ad­van­tage of some of the sparse shade thrown by the tall red gums that line this fab­u­lous oa­sis, but also stay­ing away from the over­hang­ing branches that can drop at any time with­out warn­ing. It’s a top spot to watch the odd pel­i­can pad­dling its way up and down the creek, or to ad­mire the noisy birds perched in the trees. We even grabbed a kayak from the pub and en­joyed a pad­dle on this desert wa­ter­way; some­thing I’d rec­om­mend to any­one who comes this way.

Camp­ing by the Cooper. In­nam­incka and sur­rounds. Sil­hou­ette sculp­tures cre­ate a mi­rage of times gone by.

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