Cooper Creek, Australia’s mystery river

Cooper Creek has fascinated me ever since my boyhood. It was the stream alongside which was the ‘Dig Tree’ of Burke and Wills fame. Sometimes it is empty, sometimes it is full. There is a book whose title is The Cooper is Coming. The Creek starts as two Queensland rivers that merge, and then trickle out to nothing before the water gets to Lake Eyre, except in the great flood years, like 1974, 1990 and 2010. It is 1400 km long and has claim to be the most variable river in the world.

I saw it first in 2010, when we went on an organised tour to Lake Eyre. We were unable to land at Cowarie station because of the wet, and put down at Etadunna, close to the Cooper, and travelled 30 km or so further on the Birdsville track bypass to the point where a small punt was operating. It was an extraordinary discovery: a broad river in the middle of the desert, about half a kilometre wide, flowing at about five knots and about 10 metres deep. A year later, wanting to see the same place when there was no water, we drove there ourselves. It was still full and flowing.

Once there is a body of water out there, it takes a long time to get rid of it: the general slope from the Great Dividing Range, once you get out on the plains, is one inch per mile. Cooper’s catchment is around 300,000 square kilometres— a good deal of central Queensland west of the Divide. In fact, rain in Queensland west of the Divide can go in only three directions: south to the Darling River in NSW, west to the Cooper, the Warburton and Lake Eyre, or north to the Gulf of Carpenteria. Most of it goes west.

You can think of the outcome of heavy sustained rain as a slow and growing flood. As the Cooper goes west it fills up every little hole and stream-bed, every clay-pan, every dry lake. At Innamincka in South Australia, a new stream starts once the Cooper flood has reached a certain point. It’s called Strzelecki Creek, which then flows south for a couple of hundred kilometres until it reaches Lake Blanche, which it fills up. Lake Blanche is quite big — more than 800 square km. Further downstream again, the Cooper finds Lake Hope, a long, thin and rather deep lake, and it fills that up, too. The guys from Etadunna station will harvest 300 tonnes of freshwater fish for the Adelaide markets once the entry to Lake Hope is above the Cooper flow; the fish are going to die anyway. From the air, when we flew in the area in 2010, there was water in every direction.

One arm of the Cooper goes north shortly after Innamincka, runs for 100 or so kilometres, and fills the Coongie Lakes, of which there are a number, only one of which you can reach by road. For four years we have had our names down for a trip there with Desert Sky Tours, and in  two of those years the road was impassable because of water. We made it this year, and it was a splendid experience in every way.

Here are two views, neither my own work, though I took a photo myself from somewhere near the tree in the first

Unknown-2Coongie Lakes


picture. The aerial shot shows another lake. I’d love to have seen the system from the air.

We stayed at Innamincka in the Cooper Creek Homestay, a fabulous place in a village that has a population of about 50. As the sun went down and the cold came in, the outside pit fire was lit, and the several guests sat around it, drinking something and yarning until dinner was announced, when we all trooped in to the big kitchen and dining room, serving ourselves. The food? The best of what my mother cooked in the 1950s. And how delicious it was.

Our fellow guests included three guys who were looking after gas and oil wells in the area. They went to work by helicopter, which came for them at 7.15 each morning and returned them at 4.30 in the afternoon. The site they were working on was a two-hour drive away. Two more guests had come from hundreds of miles away to remove asbestos from a shed on the way to Coongie Lakes.

A few kilometres out of the village is the site of a hot-rock electricity site that was to provide electricity to the town (currently serviced by a diesel generator), but the company seems to have collapsed. There were many stories, and they made me decide I would learn some more about the geo-thermal electricity alternative in due course.

Yes, it is all a long way from anywhere. It took us two days of serious driving from Adelaide just to get to Innamincka, with Coongie another day trip. But Howard Humby, our driver, was the model of a tour guide, calm, courteous and competent, and we finished by driving through property after property in South Australia rather than going down the Barrier Highway from Broken Hill. What a trip! And after Coongie we went to the Dig Tree, too, a beautiful but immensely sad place, when you know the Burke and Wills story.

And, to finish, here is the Cooper near Innamincka.


Join the discussion 5 Comments

  • L A P Wilson says:

    Great story Don – I am one who shares your fascination with the outback wilderness locations and went with a son to see the Lake Eyres in 2010 at their 100% full level which I understand is classed as a 1 per 100 years event. We did it tough – swags and sleeping bags, couple of pub meals, the rest from packs, cans, open fires. Worth it all even the chiropractor bills to get my back straight again.

    Walked along the northern lake bank for a few km then flight over for an hour to see the Warburton/Cooper entry, then Sth Lake. I learned the lakes always fill south first north after that when it backs up – always assumed the reverse. The most incredible thing as you mention is the almost overnight ‘reincarnation’ of marine life, fish, shrimp, etc – the birds, big and small, arrive a few days ahead of this – they know it’s coming as the water surges down and fills, they waste no time to start breeding.

    Within a week or two the lakes and streams are teeming with fish, even though the stream and lake have been totally dry for years prior, and even though upstream creeks tend to be low salt, and the lakes very salty – the fish can cope with it. Nature sure is smart!

    I’ve previously read the exploration diaries of Sturt and Eyre – neither of them actually got to Lake Eyre, as I recall Sturt saw it from a tall hill about 30km away – just a gleeming white stretch of saltpan, but had to turn back – no water. I read recently around the mid 19th century an engineer/entrepreneur proposed digging a canal from Port Augusta to Lake Torrens (about 80 km) and also had the idea of a later connection on to Sth Lake Eyre.

    He suggested the permanent residence of a large body of water, albeit salty, would via more moisture laden atmosphere and over many decades (centuries?) progressively change both local climate and flora towards a more temporate type. Cost looked horrendous and benefits dubious and/or too long term. But todays technology with canal building methods, hotrock steam/power, desal water, etc – maybe the day is approaching – great dream.

    On the other hand there’s bound to be a yellow bellied prehistoric lizard or the like out there the danger to which would frustrate such an idea, even if economic.


  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Interesting stuff I have never out that way but I envy your experience.

    I think the company might be Geodynamics and seems it is still in business see Flannery had money in it and the federal government put some 10s of millions their way. It sounds like a good idea but I think there problems with corrosion of the pipes and their share value dropped significantly. Andrew Bolt had quite a bit to say about it’s failure.

  • Gus says:

    I always found it hard to live in Oz with the country’s dryness, occasionally only interrupted with torrential floods. Nature, of course, adjusts, which accounts for Australia’s peculiar fauna and flora.

    What a difference when you arrive in the Midwest, with its fresh water seas, great rivers of Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Wabash, to name just a few, with its summer thunderstorms and tornadoes and with its stunning lush nature. The green is so intense, it’s almost shocking to an Australian visitor. But only in summer. In winter all color goes away, evergreens are further north, and the landscape becomes dreary.

    And, yes, people do surf on the Great Lakes. You need a special board for this, because fresh water is less buoyant. You also need a good wet suit, because the best waves are in November when it’s quite cold and there may be even snow and ice on the shore:

    Waves can reach 30ft in a storm on Lake Superior. Because they’re short and choppy and because the water is less buoyant, Great Lakes storms can be deadly. There are many wrecks at the lakes’ bottom.

  • Nicole Parton says:

    What a gorgeous, descriptive piece, resonating on several levels. Yes, I do know the tragic Burke and Wills story, and have visited some of these Outback places. Thank you for writing this, Don: It brought back many fond memories.

  • John Morland says:

    Last year, my wife and me flew to Darwin and then drove to Tennant Ck to see the annular solar eclipse on 10th May. The eclipse, although not a total solar eclipse (the moon was to far in its orbit at the time to cover the sun entirely) was well worthwhile, especially as we saw it through light cloud and, at tne southern edge of the annularity path the “ring was asymetric. Through powerful binoculars (with special filters) it really looked 3D – a black ball in front of a glowing ball.

    Whilst in northern NT, we visited Kakadu, Litchfield, Kathrine Gorge and Mataraka (We of the Never Never). We took a flight over Jim Jim and Twin Falls (close to full flood) and flew a little over Arnhem Land – absolutely magnificent. NT is definitley worth a visit, although I must say it was expensive and some places we stayed (eg the crocodile hotel at Jabiru) needed some TLC.

    Anyway on the flight back, heading to Melbourne, we were at the pointy end of the aircraft (row 2 as I recall). Whilst sipping an interesting red from MacLaren Vale I noticed on the left hand side a massive salt lake and recognised it as Lake Eyre. I mentioned to the steward (who was topping up my glass) and he agreed with me it was Lake Eyre. Moments later the Captain made the announcement. I could not see any water, but the vast expanse of the lake and it surroundings in the late afternoon sun at some 38000ft was breathtaking.

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