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A Land of Drought and Flooding Rains

Submitted by: Burke and Wills
23 Sep 2010
Location: The Darling River Outback (2) Comments

The Mitsubishi supported Burke and Wills Environmental Expedition, is going from strength to strength thanks to the mighty Pajeros. They are getting the modern day explorers through heavy rains, muddy tracks, howling winds and bumpy unmade roads. Although the expedition was stuck at Pooncarie south of Menindee for some days waiting for a series of sunny days to dry out the gravel roads, the persistent crew pushed on to Burke’s first big base camp at Menindee and beyond.


Not that the wait was boring in Pooncarie because Macca contacted them by their Telstra satellite phone and had a yarn to Expedition leader Dr. Jonathan King, who explained the group’s environmental research mission on ABC Radio to a national audience of hundreds of thousands. This in turn inspired many listeners to contact them offering outback stories about surviving the harsh environment in low rainfall areas – in a land of drought and flooding rains, as poet Dorethea Mackella called Australia.


The road crew also watched the Channel 9 “60 Minutes” film shot at Cooper Creek earlier this year with Jack Thompson revisiting his old haunts along the river where he played Robert O’Hara Burke in the 1985 film classic “Burke & Wills”. The “60 Minutes” reporter Charles Wooley also flew Expedition director Jonathan King up to the Cooper to help Jack Thompson tell the story of Burke and Wills and their ill-fated expedition of 1860. As Jonathan cautioned, “We must keep teaching the story of Burke and Wills so we can learn the mistakes of history – Burke made so many mistakes and people travelling outback can not afford to make mistakes or they could die like he did, even in this modern age”. After the program was broadcast Jonathan then talked live with 100 Channel 9 guests in a “chat room” answering their questions and explaining the Pajero led Environmental Expedition.


With all this publicity on the ABC and Channel 9 the word soon passed around and outback people found the Expedition vehicles and offered their stories on environmental issues proving lots of rich material for cameraman Mike Dillon to film for the Channel 7 TV documentary to be shown at the end of the trip.


While waiting for the roads up north to dry the expeditionaires also visited Mungo National park where they inspected the Great Wall of China sand dune marveling as they walked around this desert world which once was a great inland lake where proud Aborigines lived 60,000 years ago as evidenced by the remains found there of the Mungo Man some years ago. Although they did not drive the Pajeros through the sand dunes both drivers were confident the vehicles could have coped with the terrain. They will have to wait for the thrill of this sort of driving until Big Red  and other challenges in the Simpson desert

After the track north dried out the Pajeros set off again driving north – ever northwards towards the far-flung Gulf of Carpentaria.   Before long they realized they were approaching desert country because much to their delight they spotted the first of the beautiful Sturt Desert Peas with their bright red petals and black pods carpeting the roadsides.


The expedition had been looking forward to reaching Menindee – despite the challenging road conditions – because that was an important base camp for Burke and Wills in 1860. In fact that was where Burke decided to leave most of the bulky party and cut out just eight men to go ahead in an advance party heading for the Cooper Creek, from where he would launch his bid to reach the Gulf. Once in Menindee the modern explorers began to investigate the great lake system filming local authorities like Margot Muscat who took them down to the banks of the Darling River and for a tour of the lakes (with her kindly husband Joe) and explained the importance of the lakes to the town and district and who seemed to run this friendly little town and who rolled out the red carpet for the tired travelers. Margot organized for them to stay with her generous son Daniel, in the house he was renovating – which of course saved the expedition accommodation costs as they could pitch their tents in his garden.


Local Aboriginal elder Beryl Carmichael then took them out into the bush to show them – on film – what plants provided food and what plants provided medicinal healing properties. She harvested red quon dong fruit to make delicious jam and also revealed the secrets of bushes like the Emu Bush.

They also interviewed Noeleen Ratcliff from Maidens Hotel which used to be called Tom Paine’s pub where Burke and Wills had stayed and Noeleen had lots of stories to tell about Burke that had been passed down through the generations of her family which had owned the pub since the late nineteenth century. The film crew also interviewed local historical enthusiast and bird watcher Geoff Looney beside the life-giving Darling River.


And all the time Jonathan King was interviewing all the locals; Mike Dillon was filming everything and everyone telling historical and environmental stories; Steve Broomhall was photographing all the time and artist Ben Beeton was creating works of art for the Arts Victoria website for Culture Victoria – www.cv.vic.gov.au


Then the big day arrived: Saturday 11 September – the 150th anniversary celebration for the visit to Menindee of Burke and Wills in 1860. The local authorities insisted that the two expedition Pajeros should be the stars of the show. So they asked the muddy track smeared 4wd vehicles to drive down the main street – where Burke’s camels had paraded 150 years earlier – then park right outside the local government headquarters., facing each other front to front like two lions guarding the gates of the city in days of old.  So the two Pajeros became the Guard of Honour for all the townsfolk who arrived for the big day and flocked through between the two Pajeros to enter the town hall where all the events were held.


After Beryl Carmichael’s wonderful Welcome to Country ceremony this lovely old elder called the members of the expedition forward and lined them up in a row and blessed them all with smoking gum leaves tapping them on the shoulder one by one as if knighting them and chanting a tribal mantra she wished them well with their journey to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Dr. King then gave the keynote speech explaining their environmental mission and invited locals to report their stories to the film crew. The local mayor, Des Longfellow,  then thanked the expedition for visiting Menindee and invited them to wine and dine as guests of the local Central Darling Shire.


The town put on a great show with olde worlde arts and crafts, traditional Aboriginal sports – explained on film by young rugby champion Harry Kyirby - , bush skills demonstrations and demonstrations of cooking, jam making and the grand finale provided by the expedition was a showing outdoors of the 1985 classing film “Burke and Wills” which Jonathan King introduced with a historical speech and a film which the local audience loved.


of course talks about environmental strategies for the future. Third generation grape grower Paul D’Ettore whose family had always depended on irrigation explained on film the importance of adapting to the changing climate and global warming giving such a good account of Menindee and its precious lakes that our expedition film crew felt they had enough information on Menindee to help the federal government formulate policies for the future and so they could get ready to travel further north to their next destination – Broken Hill where they expected to find even more exciting outback characters with even greater stories to tell.

2 comments on this story

Add a comment
David Howardwrote on 07 Nov 2010, at 08:14 PM

Hope you guys enjoyed the stay at Turlee. We loved it! Dave

Mark Sheenwrote on 29 Sep 2010, at 11:51 PM

Great to hear you guys are getting out. I will have to get on and do this trip sometime. Bet those Pajero's are nice and comfy-looking forward to following.


Burke and Wills

Mitsubishi Pajero Historian and author Jonathan King is organising the Burke and Wills 150th-anniversary Environmental Expedition. With help of actor and environmentalist Jack Thompson, the trekking team will be undertaking a two-stage expedition, with specialist environmentalists using detailed maps, to follow the infamous 1860 route (this time aided by Pajero four-wheel-drives). Throughout the journey they will be posting updates from the road; providing a running commentary, stories, video blogs, artwork and other findings as they retrace the legendary steps, beginning in late August. Keep track of 4WD4Life to keep abreast of this epic journey!

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