Archive for September, 2008

Day Off #3 – Homebush Hotel, Penarie.

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Saturday, 23rd August 2008.

Several people had told us that if we were in the area we were to visit the Homebush Hotel at Penarie. Given such strong recommendations we decided the 120 kilometre round trip was worth the effort and in addition to cold beer there were also hot showers. It was now seventeen days since my last hot shower and I am always tempted by a cold beer !

When we got there we were greeted to the secesionist state, the Principality of Penarie, by Prince Phil and given a tour of the establishment before being supplied with frothy cold beer (…..mmmm, beer….) by Sir Edward Edward who is about to have a sex change operation and become the first one legged princess. Homebush was an experience to say the least and the free accommodation and hot showers were most appreciated. One of those must see outback pubs.

Day 20….all this walking is getting in the way of understanding the expedition…

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Friday 22nd August 2008.

This morning was clear andbright but the wind was still blowing a hoolie. I stood on the top of the sandhill ready to resume my walking and it was windy enough to blow a dog offa chain. There are very few trees around here, just salt bush which grows knee high andso there is nothing to shelter you from the wind or to stop the air rushing across the plains. Head down, bum up, I started heading north. I reached the sand ridges mentioned by Wills which are still clothed with pines and continued on to their next camping spot.

This camp was close to a dam that was being constructed in 1860, but the name given to the place does not exist today. There is a station close by at the foot of a sandhill and the remains of the dam still exist, but the exact location of the camp is difficult to place with any degree of certainty. I spent some time with the station owners, Greg andLorraine, looking around the site and puzzling over the location of the original homestead. Although the time spent doing this was enjoyable it is a constantly recurring dilemma that I have had to face while planning and executing this walk – how accurate can an interpretation of the Burke and Wills track be ?

Working out where I wanted to walk meant working out the track taken by the expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf. Many people are currently investigating specific sections of the track of the expedition andone could spend a lifetime puzzling over where the expedition went. There is something quite appealing in identifying locations and camps described by Wills and the locations that Becker and Beckler sat to paint and sketch, but there is a danger that one can become too caught up in taking this to the nth degree and spend one’s time puzzling over minutiae and lose sight of the bigger picture.

I wanted to place myself in the same environment as the Expedition and see the landscape that Burke and Wills experienced andso the important thing was to identify the natural features that affected the decisions they made. I wanted to study the cultural landscape of the Expedition rather than spend my time trying to find blazed trees that may or may not date back to 1860, yet here I was wandering backwards and forwards puzzling over Wills’ description in the campsite. I had only done 24 kilometres today and the sun was about to disappear and here I was wandering up and down a creek line looking for a campsite. I decided to have a day off tomorrow and revisit this area with fresh eyes on Sunday.

Distance travelled today; 24.0 km.
Today Dave is at White Elephant Lake.
After twenty days of travel, Burke was at Balranald.
Dave has had two days off so far. Burke and the expedition have had seven days off by this stage.

Day 19…walking with Wills…

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Thursday, 21st August 2008.

Walking today had a very different feel about it. I was on station properties, away from the tracks, trails and roads I had been on previously and I was not only walking, but with a map, compass and GPS in hand I was navigating using a copy of Wills’ ‘Surveyor’s Field-notes’. The walk so far had been interesting and I had been asked many times about where the expedition went and how I had determined Burke’s track. Through Victoria I used a number of sources to plot the expedition’s route; Wills’ rather sketchy notes attached to his astronomical and meteorological observations made while calibrating his instruments, Becker and Becklers’ diaries, newspaper reports, Burke’s dispatches to the Exploration Committee, cheques written by Burke and expenses incurred along the way and historical information on property names and owners, locations, inns, wayside stops etc. All this information combines to give a pretty accurate picture of the expedition’s movements through Victoria, particularly as many of the properties and place names still exist. However the walk so far had been predominantly on publicly accessible roads and tracks.

Once the expedition passed Balranald however a lot of these primary sources of information get a little vague, particularly the names used for the waterholes and stations. From Camp 20 Wills’ daily journal and surveyor’s field-notes give an accurate picture of the expedition’s movement. Translating the traverses booked by Wills into locations on the ground is not always as straight forward as it seems. Wills’ bearings vary in accuracy depending on the terrain and density of tree cover, and the Expedition’s speed fluctuated and Wills does not enter intermediate distances, just times and a dead reckoning distance at the end of the day. However, with a copy of Wills’ traverse for Tuesday 18th September 1860 in hand I cut through the belt of timber that Wills was rode through at 10.25 a.m. and I was off across Pitarpunga Lake on a bearing of 300° magnetic.

For those of you unfamiliar with outback lakes and who are wondering how I cut across the middle of a lake, Lake Pitarpunga is an ephemeral lake which spends most of it’s time devoid of water as a dry, dusty depression. 28,000 years ago it would have been part of the lush, green Riverina wetland, similar to the nearby World Heritage Willandra Lakes system which includes Lake Mungo. However as a result of increasing aridity since the last glacial maximum, it is now spends most of its time dry as a bone and only fills after local rain. Australia is the driest inhabited continent and has the most infrequent and irregular rainfall of any country in the world, so local rainfall is difficult to predict. Lake Pitarpunga has been in drought for the last sixteen years, so it is a long time since this lake has seen surface water. The lake is has a diameter of about 10 kilometres, so it took me just under two hours to cross.I wandered across the dusty, dry surface, dodging around the few salt-bushes and occasional outcrop of lignum that grew here and there. Although I was alone in the middle of a large dry lake, in a isolated remote spot I felt a closer connection to the expedition than at any time previously while walking because I was navigating across the landscape following Wills’ field-books which were written as he navigated across the same landscape.

Interpreting Wills’ field-books took up a proportion of the morning and I only had time to complete 26 kilometres. Wills passed to the eastern end of a large sandhill and I finished the day standing on top of the same hill. As the sun set a blustery cold change came through from the south-west and the wind picked up, whipping up the sand and making life rather difficult. We sought shelter behind a few stunted trees on the shore of Lake Tinn and tried to cook dinner in a howling gale while being sand-blasted. After waiting an eternity for the billy to boil we gave up and ate cold scrambled eggs before diving into the swags at 7.30 pm !

Distance travelled today; 26.0 km.
Today Dave is at Lake Tinn.
After nineteen days of travel, Burke was between Kyalite and Balranald.
Dave has had two days off so far. Burke and the expedition have had seven days off by this stage.

Day 18. …a wretched punt at a struggling little township…

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Wednesday, 20th August 2008.

Early in the morning I was back at Balranald. I went down Mayall Street to Sturt’s Crossing, the spot where Dennis Hanan operated the “wretched punt” he had purchased from Captain Cadell to ferry the expedition across the Bidgee (‘big water’). I then went out past the hospital and Memorial Park to where the expedition camped. Local folklore recounts the expedition crossed the Murrumbidge and camped on the northern bank opposite the Balranald Inn. However Wills’ journal shows the expedition crossed at the punt and then camped about a kilometre from town on the river flats in a bend of the river.

Wills started his journals and field-books in earnest here in Balranald. He had worked as a shepherd on the Edward River nearby at Deniliquin and although he hadn’t been to Balranald, he was familiar with this country. It would seem that Wills felt that this was a suitable place to start tracking the expedition’s route, and so here at Camp 20 he got out the first of many little field-books and wrote in pencil on the pencil on the cover ‘VEE Surveyors Field Notes’. From here on I would be able to follow the expedition’s progress much more accurately as a result of the detailed information left by Wills.

The local recollection of the location of the expedition’s camp is not the only inaccuracy relating to this area. When the expedition was in Balranald the waggoneers demanded Burke reduce the loads on the waggons because of the waterless stages ahead which would be hard on the horses. It is well known that Burke left some of the expedition’s equipment behind, however what he did with it has become the subject of speculation. In ‘Dig Tree’ Murgatroyd makes the rather bizarre statement that Burke held an ‘impromptu public auction’. ‘After hauling his supplies at great expense for more than 400 kilometres, Burke chose to sell of a valuable selection if his equipment in the middle of nowhere’ she wrote. The equipment did not belong to Burke and it was not his to sell off. It belonged to the Victorian colonial government and Burke was not in a position to sell anything, having taken delivery of the equipment from Richard Nash the government storekeeper. In order to lighten the waggons load he chose to leave some equipment behind in the care of the merchants Messrs Sparks and Crawise, to be collected later or disposed of by the Exploration Committee as they saw fit. The equipment was still there ten months later when Howitt passed through Balranald on the Victorian Contingent Expedition. Howittmade an inventory of the items, took what he needed and wrote to the Exploration Committee asking for instructions for dealing with the remainder. It would seem that Murgatroyd used secondary sources of evidence as her main source of reference when determining what happened to the stores and erroneously concluded Burke held an ‘impromptu public auction’. Now Burke made many questionable decisions and he certainly was impetuous at times, however it is important that Burke be criticised for the impetuous decisions he did make and not the ones Murgatroyd assumed he made. I think ‘Dig Tree’ is not a bad read if one wants to read the history of the expedition written in a journalistic style, and in fact I have given away almost a dozen copies of the book to people I have met along the way. However without Bergin’s1983 UNE thesis she would have had little to write about and I don’t think Tom gets sufficient credit for his contribution. The publishers’ claims that the book contains ‘dramatic new scientific evidence’, is ‘meticulously researched’ and ‘looks beneath the myths to find the truth about the ill-fated expedition’ are surely a little overstated as the Balranald assesment is only one of many innacuracies within Murgatroyd’s book.

Incidentally, Burke and the expedition left Royal Park 148 years ago today.

Distance travelled today; 23.7 km.
Today Dave is at Paika.
After eighteen days of travel, Burke was at Kyalite.
Dave has had two days off so far. Burke and the expedition have had seven days off by this stage.

Day 17. …waxing lyrical…

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Tuesday, 19th August 2008.

Today I decided I would walk all the way to Balranald, a distance of about 37 kilometres. It was sealed road all the way from Kyalite with few diversions along the way, so I took off early to make a mile. As they say at the Harding household, “the sooner you start, the sooner you get there”, which seems to have some sort of logic.

As I had walked into Kyaliteyesterday I had passed a roadhouse with a big sign advertising ‘clean showers’. I told Annie about the showers and she initially thought I was joking. The last time we had had hot showers was at Berni’s in Mia Mia, some 13 days ago and although we had been scrubbing up in buckets of cold river water, the lure of a hot shower was too much of a temptation for Annie. She drove off in the opposite direction to check out if the roadhouse really did have showers, letting me know I would suffer terribly if I was lying about the availability of hot water. A few minutes later the radio crackled angrily as I was informed that the roadhouse had closed down a few years ago but they had not removed the sign. Luckily Annie found a shower at the Kyalite Hotel, so she got her shower and I did not have to endure the pain she threatened to inflict upon me. (Personally I don’t know what all the fuss is about washing your hair – if your hair gets dirty just do what I do and shave it off, saves on shampoo and you never have a bad hair day. Do be warned however, if you chose to shave off your hair make sure you have a good quality beanie to wear at night in the swag otherwise you will freeze. I like a good Polartec beanie as my ‘spare hair’.)

Unlike my early start, Burke took a while to get the waggons across the Wakool River and they only marched nine miles from Kyalite before camping on the plains. I stopped on the plains nine miles from Kyalite and looked around before continuing northwards. Several cars and a couple of trucks stopped to see if I was OK, which was very considerate of them – if you are in the outback and see someone walking or a car stopped by the side of the road it is the done thing to stop and ask if they are alright, it’s just the way it is in the bush and I appreciated the concern shown, however I decided to avoid further interruptions by walking along the powerline track off to the side of the road.

Dr Hermann Beckler was obviously quite happy at this stage of the journey and wrote a glowing report of the area, a part of which I include here, copied from Jeffries translated book, because it gives a wonderful impression of the landscape;

The sight of the arid land is often pleasing to the traveller’s eye now and again he finds it charming. Whoever has learned to love nature finds her fascinating everywhere…the character of the western rivers is so tremendous, so impressive and often so enchanting that it is only with a heavy heart and after lengthy gazing that one turns one’s back on the many lovely spots, perhaps never to see them again. The delightful thing in this landscape is the graceful grouping, the roundedness and opulence of the trees and shrubs. The peace, the tranquillity that is poured over this landscape and the parklikeneatness of the whole area so satisfies our innermost souls that we revel in beholding it. Not one barren spot, no stony ground (scarcely even a solitary stone), no tree skeletons, barely even a single dead tree-trunk disturb the impression of a landscape filled with exuberant life.

After 37 kilometres – my biggest day so far – I got into Balranald (population 1,500) just before dark. I crossed the Murrumbidgee and strolled into town with a big smile on my face. I didn’t know what I had achieved or why I felt so good to be here, but I was pretty stoked to be in Balranald. A quick beer in the Shamrock Hotel and it was off to the Murrumbidgee Wier to scrub up and camp for the night.

Distance travelled today; 37.0 km.
Today Dave is at Balranald.
After seventeen days of travel, Burke was at Speewah.
Dave has had two days off so far. Burke and the expedition have had seven days off by this stage.

Day 16…hold the press, I’m front page news…

Sunday, September 7th, 2008

Monday, 18th August 2008.

Today was a pretty quiet and uneventful sort of a day. I started out at Lake Poon Boon and wandered along the dirt road to Stony Crossing. I only saw one vehicle, a council worker (…what’s white and sleeps four ?) on a weed eradication program who gave me a quick lesson in the correct pronunciation of Wakool. After Stoney Crossing I was on the sealed road and there was a bit more traffic, mainly B-Doubles hauling produce. Along with all the trucks was a white sedan that approached me slowly and then stopped. John from Balranald leaned out of the window and yelled “The camels are down by the creek with Mr Wills !”. How did he know what I was doing ? It turns out the interview I did with Hayley at the Guardian was on the front page of today’s issue – it must have been a quiet news day in Swan Hill ! I chatted with John, a Wati Wati man, for a while before continuing on towards the Wakool. By 4.00 pm I was at the river crossing at Kyalite.

Burke had ordered the men to move on from Poon Boon to Kyalite and they arrived at Henry Talbett’s punt at 8.00 pm. The wagons were still some way behind and so the men crossed to Talbett’s Kyalite Hotel and had dinner, before returning to the south bank and the horses and camels where they slept beside the camp fire under the stars. I went into the Kyalite Hotel having crossed the Wakool by the road bridge. Although the expedition had dined here, I opted for a couple of quick beers by the wood-fired heater before heading down to the Edward River to camp.

Becker noted that the following morning he hurried down to the Wakool to inspect the river. He noted some of its feaures in his notebook and then made two sketches, one a cross section of the river and one showing Talbett’s heavily laden punt crossing the river. The ferruginous outcrop is still there and exposed due to the low water levels and it is possible to identify the spot where Becker sat to paint – now on Australia’s largest commercial pistachio farm. The horses and camels crossed on the punt while waiting for the waggons and Landells was angered by Wills interference in the unloading of the camels which he claimed nearly caused the loss of one of the animals. The conflict between Burke, Wills and Landells would continue all the way to Menindee, but there would be more pressing personality clashes that would occur just up the road at Balranald.

Distance travelled today; 29.7 km.
Today Dave is at Kyalite.
After sixteen days of travel, Burke was at Swan Hill.
Dave has had two days off so far. Burke and the expedition have had seven days off by this stage.