Wayne Nielsen puts plenty of red dirt under his tyres through Mad Max and Charlie Sturt territory after more than two decades between visits – how much has the Outback changed in that time?
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There are numerous ways to wind back from Adelaide to Brisbane but we chose to check out the Corner Country in north-west NSW and see if much had changed from our last time through, 23 years ago. It is a region rich in the history of early explorers. It includes vast areas of unforgiving Strzelecki Desert, great Outback character towns like Tibooburra, the mighty Dingo Fence and, best of all, hundreds of kays of unsealed roads that my muddies cannot wait to rip into.
But the MTZs were going to have to wait a while to wreak their havoc as the blacktop slipped listlessly beneath the 4WD on the Barrier Highway heading into Broken Hill and then 26km out to Silverton. Not many places in Australia have such a short history but long legacy.
The town was surveyed in 1883, the population peaked in 1885-86 at 3,000, and by 1901 the silver rush was over and only 286 hardy souls remained. The legacy though lives on in this amazing place.
The buildings remaining from those heady days, such as the Methodist and Catholic Churches, the Masonic Lodge, school, Surveyor’s cottage and Municipal Chambers, are in great nick. But our favourites were the gaol and (not surprisingly) the Pub which is an absolute corker.
Many classic Australian films have been shot in and around the area. Mad Max II, Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Razorback and (most importantly for us Country and Western fans) The Slim Dusty Movie all took advantage of the unique landscape and lighting conditions. Mad Max is a strong presence with a museum and a replica car parked out the front of the pub… whose walls have enough photos of the films and local history to keep the adults and kids busy over lunch.
A mere 6km out of town, on the way in, is the turn-off to the compulsory viewing Day Dream Mine – which showcases authentic mining 1880s style.
The miners, many of them children as young as 10, picked the good ore from the bad – working in the most unbelievable conditions hundreds of metres underground. The tunnel roofs are very low in places and, but for the hard hats and miners’ lights, we would have had a few head cuts as souvenirs. 92,000 tons of ore was mined by hand. A truly amazing feat in the harshest possible conditions in the harshest possible place.
Again the MTZs had to be patient on the mostly black ribbon ride to Tibooburra – but what a bonza little town it is, nestled roughly 100km inside the SA and QLD borders.
The record summer temperature is 47.9 degrees C so it is not a place for the faint hearted… although early explorers such as Sturt (1884) and Burke and Wills (1861) passed through, trying to open up the Outback. Again there is plenty of history. The Family Hotel opened in 1882 just in time for Charlie Sturt to wet the throat, and it’s still going strong. The town has plenty of supplies and an excellent caravan park for those looking for a hot shower. It provides a great kick-off point for exploring the Sturt National Park.
The Park was established in 1972 when five pastoral properties (Mount Wood, Olive Downs, Mount King, Binerah Downs and Fort Grey) were progressively resumed and it is an 803,910-acre slab of Australia’s finest arid land ranging from the gibber plains and sand hills of the Strzelecki Desert section to granite outcrops, flat valleys and high flat-topped mesas rising up to 150 metres.
Two sides are bounded by the famous 5,614km long Dingo Fence built in the 1880s to keep dingoes out of Queensland. Today it still has the same function but it’s also the passport checkpoint to curtail southerners attempting to flock into Queensland to steal our sunshine! In the old days it was possible to follow the fence – but that would see a quick and expensive prosecution these days with plenty of signs warning against the practice. Work gangs still maintain the fence and 4WDs flying blindly over sand dunes don’t assist in maintaining their safe working environment.
The Jump Up Loop Road/Middle Road put a smile on the MTZs’ sidewalls. They always feel better with red dirt billowing out behind and rocks flying. The track takes in much of the rich pastoral history still evident throughout the Park, which is smattered with massive dams. They are so big and there are so many, one wonders how the cockies could ever have run out of water – especially when supplemented by so many bores/windmills. But that’s the Aussie Outback for you.
Mount King Homestead ruins sit above Twelve Mile Creek and we were captivated pondering how it would have been in its glory days, perched midway up a rise that is Mt King overlooking two of the huge dams. Concrete footings give away parts of the layout – the fireplace broken but obvious, and huge concrete verandah slabs would have been under shade at different times of the day.
Higher up, a massive fabricated steel aboveground water tank had the precious fluid pumped up from the dam and provided pressurised water to the homestead. It beggars belief that the homestead has not been preserved. It actually looks as if it has been demolished rather than fallen apart.
Our map had us in the middle of Connia Creek which, when in flood, must be about 5km wide… but you just know that being here when it is wet would be a really, really bad idea. Jump Up Lookout is a good chance to stretch the legs and take in the vast desert views. Olive Downs campground has sit-down comfort stops and is an excellent place to stop the night or have lunch with plenty of open campsites and shade.
The Olive Downs Historic Shearers’ Quarters is another fantastic stop. Struth, she would have been bloody hot in the tin sheetmetal structures; but the showers would not go amiss after a long day bending over struggling sheep. Sadly the surviving homestead is restricted access only, which is typical of most grey shirt Parks.
Cameron Corner is the obvious focus of any Corner Country trip. Named after John Cameron, the Surveyor who pegged the NSW-Qld border from 1880-1882, the post marks the junction of SA, NSW and Qld and in one of those classic Outback quirks, the Cameron Corner Store has a NSW postcode, SA phone number and (reportedly) an SA grog licence!
Fort Grey Campground is another excellent place to camp and take a hike. There are two walking options – a short 4km trundle to the Old Fort Grey Homestead which was built as a fort to protect Sturt’s supplies and sheep, or the longer 7km loop walk to a tree blazed by Sturt. Being a blazed tree tragic, the loop walk was a ‘must do’. Sadly the tree died as a result of the ’56 floods and unless you are a blazed tree nutter, save the boot leather. No blaze can be seen and three galvanised posts hold up the tree. The walk crosses the dry lakebed of Lake Pinaroo and has numerous points of interest – but make sure to carry plenty of water as my companion Wendy nicknamed it ‘The Death March’!
Things have changed in 23 years. There is a bit more bitumen, more green logs in the National Park and the unsealed roads are a bit more graded. What hasn’t changed is the magnificent scenery, the remote challenge of man against the elements, Cameron Corner Store and the cold beer… complete with a new stubby holder to complement the 23-year-old one waiting patiently back home on a shelf in the man cave.
The Corner Country is a broad description of the north-west Outback region of NSW. We covered Silverton, 26km out of Broken Hill; Tibooburra; and then the Sturt National Park and Cameron Corner, the junction of NSW, SA and Qld.
Caravan parks at Silverton and Tibooburra with campgrounds in the National Park and at Cameron Corner.
Camping and Road Use Permits are in play and can be booked online at NSW NPWS, and at the self-registration in the campgrounds.
This is remote travel so be prepared:
Bring plenty of water.
Carry extra food, fuel and spares.
Winter temperatures can reach –5 degrees C, so make sure to have warm clothing and camping gear in those months.
Bring your own mill-cut wood. Do not burn wood from within the Park, and observe fire bans.
SUPPLIES AND FACILITIES:
You need to be totally self-sufficient as this is a remote area; do not take chances. Fuel and supplies are available at Tibooburra and Cameron Corner.
Degree of difficulty depends largely on road and weather conditions but generally it is an easy trip… but remember, it is the remote Outback.
MAPS AND GUIDES:
A map of the park can be downloaded from the websites Hema Sturt National Park and Hema Outback NSW.
CONTACTS AND INFORMATION:
Sturt Visitor Centre NPWS office:
(08) 8091 3308