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
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.