Coffs Harbour to Birdsville – the long way
Three states with great mates: A 13-day getaway to Birdsville races and back via the corner country and flinders ranges
This trip was something we had all been dreaming of for longer than any of us would ever admit. A once in a life opportunity to see the heart of Australia with good mates and family.
With our sights set on Lightning Ridge, our first stop on our way to the Simpson Desert, this was always going to be a big trip, although a dip in the artesian baths at the end of the day gave us something to focus on.
The climb from sea level to the 1100m mark as you crest the Great Dividing Range heading from Coffs Harbour always amazes me. Travelling through Glen Innes and Inverell we stopped not long after for a quick bite at Nancy Coulton Lookout. A brilliant spot alongside the Gwydir Highway.
Our first sight of dirt roads was right around Collarenebri, just near the QLD border and a little over 100 clicks from our destination at Lighting Ridge. Although, a stop off at the Royal Hotel in Warialda to quench our parched throats along the way was a must-do.
Heading northwest we jumped onto the Lightning Ridge - Collarenebri Road, a gamble that the road would be good and would save 50kms off the trip. We rolled out the swags for the night at the Opal Caravan Park, just 300m from the Artesian Baths.
After a thorough soaking in the morning in the mineral rich baths we left Lightning Ridge heading towards Goodooga, through Brewarrina and onto Bourke for lunch on the picturesque Darling River.
We took the Bourke-Hungerford road and headed towards Fords Bridge for one of outback NSW's great Pubs, the Warrego Hotel. Built in the 1880s out of little more than mudbrick and iron, the pub has stood the test of time.
With the sun threatening to leave us stranded we decided to head for camp at Wanarring. This would be our first insight to driving dusty corrugated roads into a setting sun. After about 20km the call was made to drop 10psi out of the tires to make help smooth out the corrugations. A further 30kms along the track we decided to let a bit more out as things weren't getting any better.
We pulled into Wanarring and headed straight to the Outback Inn Hotel, the only pub on the Paroo River in NSW. As the 12 hardy travellers ploughed in and ordered up a storm from the bar and grill the kids settled into a game of darts while the adults were chatting to a few locals at the bar.
Before leaving Tiboburra we topped up the tanks at TJ's roadhouse and headed for the tri-state border. We were immediately set upon by South Australian flies upon crossing the border, not even giving us respite for the mandatory photo at the corner marker where all three states intersect.
We then headed up to the corner store for a beer and had a good laugh at the toilet blocks. Men - Flip Dry. Ladies - Drip Dry.
Nearly side-tracked by Tri-State Golf, we headed off and past Bollards Lagoon where we spotted someone's tracks through the mud. We decided to stay on the hard stuff and keep an eye out for the 'big yellow bus' which we didn't end up seeing. The station owner has taken the bus away as the amount of rubbish being left by passers-by was getting too much to take. This was a real hit as it's taken me many years to do this trip and I had been looking forward to seeing this. The only thing you should leave is a footprint and a tyre track - it's a simple rule that everyone should follow.
On passing the old track and Merty Merty Station, we turned left onto the Strzelecki track where we would continue until we made camp for the night. We set up quickly and Trenny got the fire cracking. Time for a chat and reflect on where we had come from and what we were about to see as the next day's travel would see us heading for the Flinders Ranges.
The next day had us staring down a strong head wind and conscious of fuel supplies. The Cruiser, Triton and Navara all had long range tanks so thoughts were on Downsy's Colorado. On approaching Mt Hopeless we heard a cackle over the CB "hey my gauge is on E". A quick top up from the Jerry Cans put it back to the ¾ mark and enough to last until the next fuel stop.
After days on the open plains, heading into Arkaroola had us all feeling a little claustrophobic but it brought with it a sense of humbleness as we drove north up to the Village. The geological formations in here are absolutely breathtaking. This is definitely a place you could easily spend a week exploring.
One of the many gullies below the main camp in Weetootla Gorge would play host to us that night. The next day, somewhere between the Aboriginal communities of Nepabunna & Iga Warta and Copley & Leigh Creek we found ourselves on the side of the track replacing a shredded tyre on the 100 Series, the first of many. The Outback is as harsh as it is beautiful.
While heading north, keep an eye out on your left for the remains of the Old Ghan Railway. In some spots it's only half a metre above the natural ground level and then disappears into cuttings and stone headwalls with old bridges over the dry creek beds. Before you know it you're at Marree and home to "The mailman of the Birdsville Track - Tom Kruse". If you haven't read the book I would suggest you go and read it to get a feel for what life was really like and how harsh travelling this iconic track was.
Marree is a great place with such historical significance and, ironically enough, also home to the Lake Eyre Yacht Club. We decided to glamp it and stay at the caravan park and to our surprise the manager had managed to supply us with a grassy site, hot showers and shady trees. You also get to see a magnificent sunset from here over the open plains.
As dawn approached it was the day of the last push to Birdsville for the iconic 'Birdsville Races'. I'd heard so many stories and adventures from many mates of their trips, adventures of getting there and antics during the weekend. To say I was pumped was an understatement.
I took the first stint behind the wheel as I always wanted to drive out of Marree onto the Birdsville track, just like Tom did back in the day. With high expectations and the thrill of the exciting journey ahead, things went pear-shaped 20km short of Mungerannie, the D40 Navara of Gary and Jo went into limp mode, a cracked EGR valve that ultimately meant they wouldn't finish the trip with us.
After leaving Gary and Jo at Mungerannie Roadhouse to get their vehicle repaired the three remaining vehicles departed and tried to make short work of the 300km drive left to Birdsville.
The conditions were average at best in some parts so speed and pressures were dropped accordingly. The fear of animal strikes kept us mostly off the tracks at night but we were all exposed to one of the most amazing sunsets we had ever seen. Once the sun had dropped below the horizon the reds and oranges were mind blowing. We pushed on through the darkness, dust and glimmer of the lights in our little convoy and pulled into Birdsville around 8pm.
I was completely blown away by the amount of people camping on the Town Common between the town and the racecourse. From awnings and swags to camper trailers and caravans, even motor homes and camper vans. From a laidback town of less than 100 permanent residents Birdsville swells to a population of over 10,000 the weekend of the races.
We decided to hit Big Red on the Saturday morning to have our go at the big dunes. After a failed attempt at the hardest line the 100 Series eventually found traction via an easier track and crested the summit. The rest of us followed with varying success, and after conquering that line I dropped pressures again, down to 10psi this time, lined up 2nd low and tackled the hard line. Something I had always dreamed of ticking off my bucket list.
The Sunday after the races saw a mass exodus out of the town and from just after sunrise it closely resembles Sydney airport with the amount of Learjets and prop planes taking off. We had an easy start to the morning, and seeing it was Father's Day my son Hayden cooked up a storm of bacon, eggs and chorizo with toast, the bread fresh from the legendary Birdsville Bakery.
It was still a busy exit from town when we left along the Birdsville Development Road with plans of lunch at Haddon Corner. With a quick picture at the turn-off sign we headed down the heavily corrugated 15km stretch of track for a visit to the iconic corner. After signing the book to say we had made it and a bite to eat under the shade of the awnings we were off and heading towards the Dig Tree.
Knowing that we wouldn't make it that day we pulled off the road mid-afternoon near a dry creek bed and headed along it until we found a suitable camp spot with plenty of wood for a good fire. One of our final campfires on this trip.
The next day at the Dig Tree gave us a step back in time and brought us closer to our early explorers and the hardships they faced. We looked at the amazing surrounds where the supply crew stayed for 16 weeks while waiting for Burke and Wills to return.
We also had our own incident at the site with my youngest boy Koby stepping over an old campfire. Lucky enough he jumped straight off and I grabbed him and got his feet into ice cold water to stop any further injury. The back of the ute looked like a hurricane had gone through after I threw things left right and centre to get to the esky to serve as a makeshift ice bath.
He ended up with only minor blisters on the base of his feet. A good result when you consider we were hundreds of kilometres from any medical help. Preparedness is king in this country.
Mungerannie: There are rooms, showers, meals and campsites available with also hot artesian ponds just a stone's throw from the roadhouse.
Lightning Ridge: You need at least three days to explore this beautiful area, from the underground mines with rock sculptures, to the car door tours.