Day 19…walking with Wills…

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.

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