Talk about the ‘Channel Country’ to your mates, and many people will probably tell you they know where it is. After all, the words ‘Channel Country’ are bandied around as if its geographic borders can be clearly found in a road atlas. But if you were asked to explain exactly where to find it, how do you reckon you’d go? Would you try “the catchment area and rivers that flow into Lake Eyre”? How about “east of the Simpson Desert, west of Charleville, south of Cloncurry and north of Packsaddle”?
In reality, the Channel Country comprises the Barcoo Shire, Boulia Shire and Diamantina Shires, but it also overflows (excuse the pun) into New South Wales and South Australia covering 150,000 km². Indeed, some people refer to this same area as Corner Country, or Kidman Country.
Whatever you call it, it’s true to say that the Channel Country has a rich modern history in culture and agriculture. It’s produced cattle-fattening pastures that have founded the economic empires of cattle kings like the legendary Sidney Kidman. While the flooding rains of the Channel Country has made some rich, the region has also shattered the dreams of many others. For those early colonists who tried to open the outback to pasture and mining operations, extended droughts and burning temperatures brought many to their knees.
Among these were the first European explorers whose routes criss-crossed the Channel Country and whose stories provided a relentless narrative of hope and despair. Following in their footsteps — and visiting the windswept landmarks, prominent sites and local museums along the way — is a great way to get to grips with the sheer enormity of this region. An added bonus is the opportunity to drop into some of the country’s most iconic pubs along the route, many of which were established only a few years after the first parched white pioneers trudged past in search of a new beginning.
If you’re journeying to the Channel Country from the south, you’ll find yourself following the route of Captain Charles Sturt and his expedition which ventured this way searching for the fabled inland sea in 1845. The party came to a halt at a place called Depot Glen. Forced by drought to remain in place, and running short of water, the team lived like rats for nearly six months, digging into the side of the hill near a water hole desperately seeking shelter.
These days, visitors to the area face a much more appealing prospect. Just a few kilometres away from Depot Glen, the Albert Hotel at Milparinka was built in 1882, and it’s still a cracker. With great food and local hospitality, it’s an oasis for weary heads, with accommodation provided within pub itself, as well as at the basic camp site right next door. If you’re happy for a walk, you can also camp on the banks of the Evelyn Creek for free. And before you leave, don’t forget to follow the Milparinka heritage trail which includes the Courthouse, barracks, old post office as well as the Family History Research and Mining Heritage Centres.
If a stay at Milparinka has whet your appetite for all things Sturt, check out the ‘Sturts Steps Touring Route’ online. Among other places, it will lead you to Fort Grey in Sturt’s National Park, where the expedition travelled after leaving Depot Glen. There’s a campsite here with nearby walks and interpretive signage explaining the area’s ecology and history.
From here, it’s a logical step to visit Cameron Corner before pushing on to Innamincka. Innamincka is renowned as the location of the ‘Dig Tree’ which forms the backdrop to the tale of Burke and Wills’ untimate demise in 1861. Sitting on the banks of the Cooper with a fishing rod in hand, it’s ironic to think that this wretched pair of explorers died surrounded by such an abundance of fish, yabbies, freshwater mussels, waterfowl and edible plants.
If you’re approaching from the east, it’s likely that your fastest and most direct route into the Channel Country will be via the Warrego Highway through Charleville. This route brings you across the path of explorers such as Sir Thomas Mitchell (1846) and Edmund Kennedy (1847).
Mitchell first explored the Barcoo River, but it was Kennedy who followed it to the Cooper. In fact, the local Shire Council lays claim to this being the most exceptionally unique place in Australia — and indeed the world — because it’s the only place where two prominent and significate inland rivers (the Thomson and Barcoo) meet to form a creek (Cooper Creek). This occurs 40km north of Windorah, which is itself the gateway to destinations such as Birdsville and Longreach.
If you’re approaching from the north, you’ll enter Channel Country via Boulia and Bedourie. Boulia is the self-proclaimed capital of the Channel Country and home of the fabled Min Min lights. The Min Min Lights are small, mystical lights reported to appear, disappear, hover, and have a will of their own. Indigenous tradition tells of lights coming from the stars and in modern times, the lights have been labelled as ghosts, swarms of bioluminescent insects and even UFOs.
Whether you see the Min Min lights is a matter of good fortune, but you don’t need to take chances when it comes to getting a good night’s rest. At Bedourie, the local council’s caravan park is a welcome oasis. While basic, the campground has well maintained amenities and the adjacent aquatic centre is a sight for sore eyes with its thermal pool that guarantees to soak away your driver fatigue. Keep your eyes peeled and you may see brolgas in the nearby Eyre Creek and around camp. As an added bonus, the Park is located just across the road from the Royal Hotel that was built from adobe bricks in the 1880s. Drop in, have a beer and chat with the locals, then consider what stories the walls would tell if they could talk too.
Out this way, main roads between towns like Birdsville and Windorah are unsealed. So, remember to avoid driving in the dust-cloud of the vehicle ahead otherwise you won’t be able to see where you’re going, and on-coming rigs won’t see you either.
Be a ‘Scout’ and be prepared, for almost anything. At a minimum, always carry enough spare fuel to get you to your destination and back again. Don’t drive past a fuel station without topping-up because, depending on your route, you may need to travel over 250km before you get another chance. Always have extra water on-board to cover you for 48 hours — that’s 12 litres minimum for each member of your travel party.
On many roads, you’ll need to reduce your tyre pressure to increase your footprint. And remember too that it’s not just fatigue that kills. It’s also the Fatal Five: Speeding, Seatbelts, Drunk & Drug Driving and Driver Distraction.
PLAN TO SUCCEED
Before setting off on a tour in remote Australia, here’s a few things to keep in mind:
- The best time to visit is April–September. Summer should be avoided due to the high temperatures and possible heavy rains making road access impossible in some areas.
- Fit good all-terrain tyres with plenty of tread, preferably new. It’s not unusual to see vehicles with highway tyres limping into Birdsville riding on their rims.
- Always carry a couple of spare tyres to deal with the unexpected.
- Have your suspension in good nick, or new. Now’s the time to upgrade from OME as corrugations are a killer out here.
- Rescue beacons and satellite phones are a must. Mobile reception is limited to in (or near) towns. This leaves masses of areas in-between where you could get lost.
- Don’t forget your coin purse. Places like Innamincka have coin-operated public showers and honesty boxes.
Things to do and places to go:
- Bedourie is the place to be in July with Camel Racing, Pig Racing, a Camp Oven Cook off Competition, Golf Chipping, Woodchop Competition, Foot Races. Under 18s can enjoy the entertainment for free.
- On the first weekend of September, the Birdsville Races are held. But did you know that the Windorah International Yabby Races is on the Wednesday night prior?
- Obtain your fossicking licence and visit Yowah, Toompine and Opalton fossicking reserves to look for opal.
- Birdsville Roadhouse has a large selection of tyres in 60 sizes.
- Stop and try the pies at the Birdsville Bakery — trust us, you’ll want more than one.
- If you’re looking for an extended outback adventure, consider registering as a volunteer at the Bush Heritage Ethabuka Reserve near Bedourie. Work on the property and stay for free.