On the muddy banks of the Cooper and Strzelecki Creeks, AT reader Diana Bell follows in the footsteps of Burke and Wills

I’de always wanted to visit the Dig Tree. Sarah Murgatroyd’s The Dig Tree, a well-written account tracing the journey of Burke and Wills, inspired me. Finding several likeminded friends, we planned our trip and headed west from Thargomindah in southern Queensland. As the 4WD drive thudded onto the unsealed road from the bitumen, my excitement grew.

The drought conditions increased and occasional sand dunes glowed red in the late afternoon as we crossed long channels identified by snaking coolibahs and gidyea clumps, where the Cooper overflows in flood, making this area one of the best fattening pastures in Australia. We were unprepared for the enigmatic beauty of Cooper Creek.

Our destination was Innamincka on Cooper Creek in northeast South Australia, 71km from the Queensland border – the Dig Tree being a few miles from the SA border on the Queensland side. Innamincka is one of the most remote tourist communities in the world. It’s located where the Cooper and Strzelecki Creeks meet and is perched on a gibber plain (stony desert). It’s not a town so much as a settlement of people who run the pub, general store and homestay and Parks and Wildlife. Time and space are different out here. The plains are red and brutal. How Burke and Wills tackled this space is for the modern tourist to wonder at. And there are swarms of tourists, thanks to the 4WD and roads improved by Moonie Gas and Oil exploration. These improvements have reduced to some extent the inhospitable and unpredictable environment.

Large coolibahs and red gums line the banks of a fragile water system, providing a compelling and reassuring presence. Time is defined by seasons of drought and deluge. Rain both locally and higher up in Queensland changes the environment into a muddy morass and time stands still until the water and mud subside.

In her book Innamincka, Elizabeth Burchill – one of the Inland mission nurses stationed here in the 1930s – writes that the word is a compound of the Aboriginal words yenie (for “your”) and mincai (meaning “home”). According to her account, the place had been a great Aboriginal trading centre. Native tobacco or pituri, valued as a stimulant, was traded north and east, and when the white man came he commandeered the trading paths for his own stock routes.

The Dig Tree historical site is administered by the Nappa Merrie (Aboriginal for “water” and “sandhill”) pastoral lease, which was taken up in the 1870s by John Conrick. He drove cattle and sheep from his father’s Western District property and lived on the Cooper, learning its habits, making a go of it as a resourceful white man does, establishing relationships with local tribes and passing Nappa Merrie on to his sons.

The Dig Tree is a grand old coolibah overlooking a magnificent bend on the Cooper and was the site of Depot 65 on the ill-fated expedition. Burke and Wills set out from here on December 16, 1860, leaving behind William Brahe and his party. Brahe spent four months waiting for the explorers’ return, and left early the same day the explorers finally arrived, late on April 21, 1861. The present day serenity of the place belies the drama of the returning expedition, finding Brahe’s departing trail only a few hours cold. The ancient coolibah, already some centuries old, became the white man’s message stick when Brahe carved “DIG” into its trunk, beneath which he buried provisions and a short message. Later Burke replaced these items with his own message, before moving downriver. Sadly, the returning Brahe and Wright on May 8 missed the buried news of Burke’s return. Time at the Dig Tree is interpreted by history as a tragedy of errors.

Burke and Wills shared the bountiful Cooper Creek with the kindly Indigenous tribes of the Cooper – but, as Wills admitted in his diary on June 21, 1861, “. . . and yet we have to die of starvation.” These places of death are carefully memorialised downstream from the Dig Tree. The invisible existence of the Indigenous people is compelling; they populate the explorers’ diaries, filling the Cooper and Coongie Lakes with their presence. One can only imagine how lively the Cooper must have been before white man invaded this unique place. Rock carvings at the nearby Cullyamurra Water Hole show spherical shapes that thousands of years ago may have been representations of the power of a sun and moon that rose and set above the Cooper.

It rained at Innamincka and we couldn’t follow our schedule to travel south along the Strzelecki Track; we had to wait for the mud and water to subside as no sealed roads leave the township, the closest being 140km away on the way to Thargomindah. Instead of thinking schedules, we spent our days exploring and trying to grasp the red gibber vastness, the ancient gnarled quality of the land and the noisy crowds of Grey Nomads. On the fourth day we scuttled back to the bitumen, slipping and sliding past Nappa Merrie and cheering as we bumped onto the bitumen two and half hours later.

We were back in civilisation, but touched and not a little troubled by the ghosts along the banks of the Cooper.

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