The Journey Begins
21 Sep 2010
Location: Melbourne to Pooncarie
Instead of camels the 2010 Burke and Wills Environmental Expedition is using two Mitsubishi Pajeros to travel from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the original 1860 exploring party which was the first to cross the continent of Australia.
“Having used the Pajero to cross Australia myself on family trips since the nineteen eighties, I know they are reliable”, Dr. Jonathan King, the expedition leader told journalists on August 20. This was the date the team departed from Melbourne’s Royal Park, 150 years to the day that Burke and Wills left from the same spot with their camels.
“As a father of four young children I drove our trusty “Pajo” as the kids called it from Melbourne to Ayres Rock and then right up to Kakadu and deep into Aboriginal territory” said Dr. King “and some days we drove 1000 kilometres a day on back roads without seeing another car – so we had to have faith in the vehicle”.
Speaking at the 20 August departure expedition patron Jack Thompson said the environmental expedition is “a timely audit of the countryside which will enable us to see just how much the bush has altered since Burke and Wills reported on the outback 150 years earlier”. Thompson who played the role of Burke in the 1985 classic film “Burke and Wills” said Wills had written a very descriptive diary which Dr. King and his team would use as a basis for comparison. He explained “The bush needs friends, as we have used it pretty hard in the last 150 years and we have to make sure we can use it productively for another 150 years”.
The famous actor also said there were many environmental issues to be examined along the 1860 track including feral pests like rabbits, foxes, pigs, goats, camels and cane toads all causing damage to the soil. It was time, he said, to repair the outback along the track of Burke and Wills and replant trees and vegetation to keep the topsoil intact so that it does not blow dust storms onto Sydney like it did in September 2009.
Dr. King’s honorary team of four environmentalists – the same number as Burke’s, includes himself as the Director, Documentary Film Presenter and journalist ; and also his deputy Steve Broomhall, the Outback Operations Manage and Stills Photographer who was a stockman on the legendry Brunette Downs cattle station; Michael Dillon, the world renowned film maker who is Director of the Documentary Film being produced for Channel 7 and who has film on Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb this mountain – the highest in the world; Ben Beeton the Artist in Residence who has served on many outback projects and who will be recording the environment through which they pass.
They have also named their two Pajeros after Burke’s horse “Billy” and Burke’s camel “Raja” and painted these names on the front of the vehicles. They also fitted two Get Around Campers trailers to the Pajeros to carry their film equipment, tents, sleeping bags, camping gear and supplies – at any time these modern adventurers can survive for a week on their own with enough food and water. Telstra also lent them satellite phones and are paying for the data transmission in case they need to make or receive calls outback.
After leaving Melbourne in their two Pajeros, the four adventurers started following Burke’s route as faithfully as possible interviewing old timers along the track whose ancestors had met Burke and Wills or who had inherited stories. They drove to Moonee Ponds, where they parked the Pajeros for the first night stop over camping nearby with Victorian operations Manager Christine Lasowski and husband Henry and where they spent time interviewing local environmentalists fighting to preserve local creeks, including the MP Kelvin Thompson.
They then followed the route through driving rain with the Pajeros performing well despite their heavy load. On the way they visited Bulla, Clarkefield, Lancefield and Mia Mia north eastern Victoria where they stayed with Heather and Andrew Paterson at the Burke & Wills Winery right on the original Burke and Wills track and enjoyed bottles of Dig Tree and also Burke & Wills wines. They also visited the memorial to John Dighton, the farmer who became the first Australian to fly a powered plane in the early nineteen hundreds. The people of Mia Mia also put on a 150th anniversary festival to greet the modern expeditioneers with Land Care displays explaining how the locals were caring for the land today. They also visited the Mia Mia Art Exhibition celebrating the 150th anniversary of Burke and Wills where Jonathan interviewed the artist and TV presenter Peter Russell-Clark and bought a painting of the two 1860 explorers he had done called “Ghost Riders in the Sky”.
After Mia Mia the Pajeros pulled the heavy trailers past Bendigo where they interviewed local experts on film about preserving the water in the rivers. They then drove on to Boort where they visited Mt. Hope Station where Burke had stayed and also Pyramid Hill which Burke’s artist Ludwig Becker had climbed and painted a view of Mt. Hope.
The first of the resident environmentalists then visited their campsite – Alfred Hupermann, a specialist on the rising salt levels and Doug Small a specialist on environmental issues in north eastern Victoria. They explained in great depth the impact settlement had on the environment over the last 150 years and what local farmers were doing to improve their land and ensure production for future generations.
The famous “Fish Lady” Fern Hames then joined the Pajeros as the next environmental specialists to talk about the need to build up the native fish populations in rivers like the local Lodden which they visited. Fern who carried models of Murray Cod and Silver Perch explained how she was protecting these native fish against predators like the introduced Carp for which she also had a life-size model.
The expeditioneers then interviewed old Laurie Martin who confirmed how difficult it was to catch fish in the Lodden compared to the old days when he would catch more than sixty a day “Just sitting by the bank of the rivers”. Ollie Jane, another local, confirmed the decline in native fish stock blaming dams, reservoirs and pollution but explained how the rivers were being repaired for future generations.
Moving on to Swann Hill in the tracks of the 1860 explorers, they interviewed local Aboriginal elder Ivy Bell. Her tribal people were living on the track in 1860 and she told them how badly the pioneers had behaved towards them. Although she blamed ignorance and racism Ivy said things had improved in recent years and she had high hopes for future generations of Aborigines who would not suffer from the same discrimination she had suffered from. This was very helpful for our modern investigators to discover the price paid by Aborigines first hand as a result of Burke and Wills exploration.
Then it was time for the Pajeros to pull the Get Around Campers trailers over the mighty Murray River and into New South Wales.
Once in NSW the expedition drove the Pajeros onto to smaller bushy tracks where Burke and Wills had actually gone inland west from Balranald. While in Balranald they met Ron Dueyea a shearer whose great grandmother had cooked the meals for Burke and Wills when they stopped in Balranald. As Dr. King remarked “It just shows how close our history is when a local comes up to you in the street and explains their family connection with explorers from 150 years ago!”
Striking out across the Mallee and driving through Mulga Scrub country the Pajeros although on gravel roads travelled as smoothly as if they were on bitumen, despite pulling the large Get Around Campers. “It just goes to show” Jonathan said “I was right to select Pajeros for their challenging expedition”.
While staying at Turlee Station a 145,000 acre sheep station they interviewed on film Des Wakefield the owner who said he had been coping withy Climate Change for all 37 years he had been managing his property and had developed an effective stock level strategy for coping with drought by reducing or increasing sheep numbers in different years.
Driving over to Wamberra the expedition interviewed on film the most visionary pastoralist they had met to date – Patti Byrnes. Patti’s great grandmother had also cooked for Burke and Wills and her great grand father had carted supplies for Burke up to Menindee. She explained how she was saving native vegetation and protecting native species like the Mallee Fowl by building large reserves on her land and reducing stock levels to give the land a chance to recover from past levels of over-stocking. Working with indigenous people she has built fences around their reserves to protect the Mallee Fowl and native trees, shrubs and bushes – the names of all of which she knew off by heart.
Hearing heavy rains were forecasted the expeditioneers then decided to follow local advice and drive a couple of hundred kilometres through the Belah and Mulga trees to Mungo National Park and then on to Pooncarie which was the first inland village on bitumen.
It does pay to get local advice because no sooner had the Pajeros reached the bitumen at Pooncarie than the skies opened up and it rained steadily all night as the happy campers lay snugly in their sleeping bags safely in Pooncarie.
Now after more than one inch or rain or 25 ml, the expedition members are waiting for the rain to stop and then – even though they have two trusty Pajeros which can cope with muddy roads and would undoubtedly get through – they will resume their trek up to Menindee, where Burke and Wills established their first major base camp after leaving Melbourne.
It may take days for the rains to stop and then they have to wait at least two more days for the gravel roads to dry out before they set off deeper into the outback again. However they are more than happy to wait in the sure knowledge that once the roads have been declared open by the authorities they will get though to Menindee and then resume their drive to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Written by Jonathan King