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South Australian Outback Adventure – Trip Log 9

Part 9 – The Burke & Wills Trail

With the Simpson Desert behind us we’re heading south through Burke and Wills country.

Click here for all posts about our South Australian Outback Adventure

As the sun rises across the caravan park in Birdsville we’re up and about and getting packed up to hit the road as soon as we can.

Our long drive home starts today and our goal for the day is to reach Innamincka which is over 400km away down the Cordillo Downs road.

The last time I drove the Cordillo Downs road was with Jen on our way to Cape York in 1998 and I remember it being very rough and slow going for the most part, so I’m keen to get on the road ASAP to avoid needing to rush.

Yesterday we made it to the top of Big Red and ‘officially’ completed our crossing of the Simpson Desert, It’s a trip that’s been on the bucket list seemingly forever and now having completed it I’m already making plans to come back and explore further.

We’ve pushed our Landcruiser pretty hard and for the most part it’s performed well. The only real issue being the need to beef up the rear suspension when it’s fully loaded to avoid scrapping the tyres. I’m thinking at this stage that some airbags might do the job but I’ll investigate further later on. Reducing weight will also help.

Solving this problem will be added to the ‘Project 80’ to do list – Click here to read more about ‘Project 80’, my mission to convert our 80 Series Land Cruiser into the ultimate $20k family touring 4WD.

By about 8:00am we’re packed and ready and we drive over to the Birdsville Bakery to see what’s on offer.

After missing out on our bakery lunch yesterday we’re heading there first thing this morning for breakfast instead. This is also helping to motivate the girls to get ready sooner.

Packing up camp at Birdsville Caravan Park
Breaky time at the Birdsville Bakery

Savanna was hoping for hot chips but is happy to see a vegetarian pastie on the menu and Sara, Sienna and I are all smiles with a meat pie.

And of course you can’t have pies for breaky without a chocky milk or iced coffee as well.

With no time to waste sitting around eating, we jump back in the car and hit the road out of town heading east along the Birdsville Development Road towards the turnoff to the Cordillo Downs Road around 116km away.

The road is unsealed but in good condition and it’s smooth driving which is handy when you’re trying to eat a hot meat pie!

Soon enough we arrive at the Cordillo Downs Road turnoff and 26km in we reach the Queensland / South Australia border.

While the road is in pretty good condition so far, there are a lot of loose rocks on the surface which can chip away at the tyres so I pull over and drop the tyre pressures down to around 26 psi to soften them up.

The improvement in the ride is immediately noticeable and I lower our speed to around 70 to 80 km/h which I’m comfortable with at these tyre pressures.

Just over the border we come across ruins of the ‘Cadelga’ homestead and stop for a quick look around.

The buildings have definitely seen better days as has the old car nearby.

Cadelga Station was once an outstation of Cordillo Downs but is now abandoned but lives on as interesting rest stop and potential overnight camping spot.

Continuing south for another hour or so we arrive at the Cordillo Downs Shearing Shed, and make this our tailgate lunch stop.

Cordillo Downs Station runs Hereford cattle which it has done since the 1940’s after years of drought in the 1930’s wiped out most of the stations sheep stock, and dingos killing the newborn lambs made it impossible to restock.

The heritage listed stone and corrugated iron shearing shed remains as a reminder of the stations sheep shearing heritage.

Cadelga Outstation Ruins – Cordillo Downs Road
Cordillo Downs Woolshed

After a quick and simple tailgate lunch, we’re back on the road and soon crossing into the Innamincka Regional Reserve, a 1.3 million hectare reserve surrounding Innamincka and the wetlands of the Cooper Creek system.

The reserve was proclaimed in 1988 and protects the internationally significant wetlands while still allowing pastoralism and gas and oil mining and recreational use.

All day I’ve been waiting to find the ‘rough’ road that I remember from driving this way in 1998 but so far it’s been very easy going.

However entering the reserve we notice a definite downturn in the road condition but it is still way better than 20 years ago.

We make a couple of more stops to check out some young calves that are on the road and collect some firewood and by mid afternoon we are rolling into Innamincka at least 2 hours earlier than expected.

Arriving in daylight with hours to spare makes a nice change from our usual form of arriving after dark and we find ourselves a nice spot to camp on the banks of the tree lined Cooper Creek just outside town.

There’s plenty of muddy brown water in the creek and pelicans . . . lots of pelicans.

With our swags setup we jump back in the car to take a drive out of town on the search for more firewood.

It’s also an opportunity for Savanna to have another driving lesson and she gets a solid 30 minute practice session in including plenty of stopping, starting & gear changing while I jump out and throw the wood we’ve found on the roof rack.

Arriving back at camp, Sienna is tasked with building us a camp fire while Savanna prepares the ultimate in simple road trip dinners . . . ‘baked bean toasties’.

A can of beans, the loaf of bread we bought in Birdsville and some butter is all we need.

And of course our trusty toasty maker that’s been in our camping kit for a couple of decades.

4 minutes each side on the coals and the first two toasties are ready to eat, with more following soon after.

It’s a beautiful quiet night on the banks of the Cooper Creek with just the murmur of other nearby campers in the darkness.

Baked bean toasties – Super simple road trip tucker

Next morning as the sun rises the birds come alive with plenty of crows, galahs and cockatoos making their presence felt.

The slightest breeze rustles through the trees and smoke from other camp fires hangs in the air.

The warm morning light is perfect for getting some good shots so I’m up out of my swag and take a wander along the creek with video camera in hand. When I get back to camp Sara is up and has the campfire going again and while I’m getting the billy on for a cuppa we’re visited by a dog from another camp who comes over looking for some attention and no doubt some breaky as well.

It’s become a recurring theme for us on this trip where other peoples dogs come and hang out with us which the girls are very happy about.

The famous explorers, Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills passed through here in 1860 on their ill fated expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria 2000 miles to the north.

The intrepid explorers succeeded in their mission to reach the north coast but tragically they only made it as far back as the Cooper Creek before succumbing to hunger and exposure.

Burke and Wills

Our plan for today is to take a drive out to both Burke and Wills’ graves and also the ‘Dig’ tree at the site of their final base camp or ‘depot’.

There’s no hurry to get going though as we have all day so we break out the new camp oven we picked up at Snowy’s and attempt to make a nice damper for breaky.

Unfortunately though our first attempt with the new oven isn’t a resounding success.

We put most of the coals on the lid to bake from the top down but also some underneath and give it about 25 minutes baking time.

Our old camp oven is a cast iron variety but I’ve opted for a carbon steel model this time to help keep the weight down. Not having any experience with the lighter steel variety it will take me a few cooking sessions to get used to how much heat it needs.

This time it turns out to be too much heat and the result is that our damper is overcooked and very ‘crunchy’ on the outside and undercooked in the middle.

So we put the lid back on and give it another 15 minutes with less heat to cook through and it turns out ok – a long way from perfect but still edible.

We still smother it with butter and jam and give our jaws a workout and keep the rest of it to snack on during the day (or use as a weapon if we need something hard and heavy to throw!!).

With breakfast done it’s late morning by the time we jump in the car and drive the kilometre or so into Innamincka township.

A perfect morning on the Cooper Creek
Our first damper with the new camp oven – crunchy on the outside, undercooked in the middle (too much heat!)

Innamincka is a small but busy town servicing local travellers and the oil and gas industry which is thriving in this area – we’ll see more of that as we head down the Strzelecki track tomorrow.

There’s a great pub, a trading post for supplies and fuel and even a public toilet block with showers.

The towns history dates back to the early 1880’s but it was 20 years before that Burke and Wills met their untimely deaths nearby.

Our first stop on our ‘Burke & Wills discovery tour’ is Burkes grave site which is only a few kilometres out of town.

The site is marked by a concrete memorial stone with a plaque proclaiming that ‘Robert O’Hara Burke Died Here 28th June 1861’.

Innamincka Township
Burkes memorial about 3km outside Innamincka

A few months after leaving Melbourne, the Burke & Wills expedition had made it as far as the Cooper Creek about 40 km upstream from present day Innamincka and they setup a base camp or ‘depot’.

Burke, Wills and two other men, King & Gray then set off in mid December 1860 to reach the gulf and 7 weeks later, despite the summer heat, they actually succeeded in reaching the outer edge of the mangroves that line the northern coast line.

But despite this success, they were already desperately low on supplies and 3 of the 4 men would not survive the return journey.

Charles Grey perished on the return trip to the Cooper Creek and when the remaining 3 men arrived back they discovered the depot party had left only 9 hours earlier.

The depot party had buried some provisions just in case burke and wills returned. They blazed a nearby coolabah tree telling the men to ‘DIG’ – the tree is still standing today and is know as the ‘Dig Tree’.

But despite the extra provisions, the men were weak from hunger and exhaustion and had no chance of catching up to the depot party.

They spent the next 8 weeks trying to survive and even attempted to walk to Mt Hopeless over 250km south west of Innamincka but they didn’t get far.

Burke & Wills succumbed to the conditions within a day or two of each other and only John King survived with the help of the local aboriginal people.

Leaving the site of Burkes grave we head back towards Innamincka then turn east onto the Old Strzelecki Track to visit the DIG tree which is on Nappa Merrie Station over the border in Queensland about 55km away.

There’s an $11 admission fee to pay on the way into the DIG tree site and we find a car park in the shade as the day is heating up.

This is the site of Camp 65 on the Burke and Wills Expedition, the ‘Depot’ where William Brahe and his team waited for several months while Burke, Wills, King and Gray made the trek north to the gulf. Brahe waited as long as he could but eventually had to pack up and head back towards Melbourne.

The coolabah tree he blazed still stands over 150 years later but most of the inscriptions on the tree are now overgrown with bark.

The feint outline of one still remains – it reads ‘B LXV’ which stands for ‘Burke Camp 65’.

Arrival or Burke and Wills at Camp 65 (Painting by John Longstaff)
Burke and Wills attempt to reach Mt Hopeless (Painting by George Lambert)
The DIG Tree (Photo credit: Peterdownunder via Wikipedia)
The last visible inscription on the DIG tree – B LXV (Burke Camp 65)

The last stop on our Burke and Wills tour is Wills’ grave, or memorial to be more accurate, which is a 20km drive west of Innamincka.

The memorial marks the approximate site where William John Wills died around June 29th 1861 on the edge of the Cooper Creek.

Driving around in our comfortable air conditioned 4WD it’s easy to forget just how harsh and unforgiving this country is until you imagine the ordeal that Burke and Wills faced.

Having succeeded in reaching the north coast, had they made it back to Melbourne they would have been hero’s, and rich ones at that. But sadly due to a cruel twist of fate it was not to be.

With the sun getting low in the western sky it’s time for us to head back into Innamincka for a quick visit to the pub. Savanna jumps back in the drivers seat and drives us the 20km into Innamincka. By now she’s had more driving experience on dirt tracks than on bitumen and I can’t help but be just a little bit happy about that.

William John Wills’ Memorial 20km west of Innamincka

Click here for all posts about our South Australian Outback Adventure

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Steve Baile
Steve Baile
I’m the founder of Expedition Australia, a writer, filmmaker & adventure travel junkie. Passionate about my family, health and fitness, hiking, 4WD touring, adventure motorbikes, camping and exploring as much of the planet as I can.


  1. Thanks Steve for all your “blogs/posts”. Hubby and I haven’t yet had the chance to set off around Aus so reading your stories are the next best thing ?. So happy for you also that you can share the experience with your lovely daughters who will remember this time forever. Safe travels

  2. Hope that we weren’t murmuring too loudly, as you camped next to my husband and I on Cooper creek! Great reading this update as we loved it there and all the Burke & Wills historical stuff.

    • Hey Suzanna, I thought it was you guys 😉 But seriously, it’s a great spot isn’t it?! It wasn’t your dog that came over to visit our camp was it?

    • Hi Dave, this blog is part of our ‘South Australian Outback Adventure’ trip so if you have that DVD then you’re covered.

  3. We(wife, 11y.o. daughter and self) watched your recent Simpson DVDs whilst touring in the caravan through Tasmania.We looked forward to a bit each day and we had done something similar on your ‘Big Lap’ on a different holiday. Really enjoyed the Simpson Desert crossing and motivated us to give it a go sometime. We have done Dalhousie and Oodnadatta before but this gave a greater insight on what to expect on the crossing and it made it not so daunting. We also all agreed that you must be very proud of your daughters and what they achieved throughout this journey.

    • Cheers Mike, I’m definitely on a mission to make ‘tough’ trips seem more doable for regular people like us. The Simpson is not super hard, but you do need to be prepared because while a breakdown probably won’t be life threatening, it would be extremely expensive to get fixed/recovered and definitely put a dampener on the trip.

  4. Hi Steve, It was really great to see another adventure from you. I have the DVD which my wife & I watched, non stop. Nice to see the girls still like the camping. Cheers

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