Paddling through the desert

By James McCormack 25 August 2014
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The idea of paddling down the Cooper Creek in the Central Australian outback was madness. And yet, thanks to La Niña rains, it was not only possible but appealing.

THE PROBLEM WITH the desert was rain. Rain that turned the hard earth fertile. Rain that gave birth to life itself, to wildflowers that smothered the sands, to birds that clouded the skies. Rain that filled the creeks and billabongs, causing them to break their banks, to burst forth in flood. Rain that led to water – yes, water – covering the land, so that from the air Central Australia looked more like a lake than a desert.

At first, this rain seemed good. Especially when, on a flight across Australia’s usually arid interior, I looked down at all that water and came up with the crazy idea of floating a dinghy – one of those blow-up Kmart thingies, with flimsy plastic oars – through the desert.

But then it kept bucketing down. It was 2010 and the country had entered a La Niña cycle, cool and wet. At Central Australia’s Innamincka Station, more than 730mm of rain fell that year. Usually it receives 180. In fact, since 1882, when record keeping commenced, only once had Innamincka’s rainfall come within a bush cooee of 2010’s. That was in 1974, and it was the last time Australia’s largest lake, Lake Eyre, filled.

All this was good for the land. Farmers sang. Bird lovers cooed. It was not, however, good for transport. Roads were flooded and even when the waters receded each fresh rainfall turned those routes not already buried into quagmires. Driving was impossible, even for four-wheel-drives. No-one could get out. Or in. And that, in terms of a dinghy float, was my real problem with the desert rain. I couldn’t get to the creeks in the first place. On and off the cycle went, not just for the remainder of 2010, but for the next three years.

The 1500km Cooper Creek

By August 2012 the La Niña cycle was winding up. The water that once covered the land had evaporated. But Cooper Creek still had a run. Its flow had dropped – from 300,000 megalitres a day in 2010 to just 300 – and soon there would be no flow at all, but I could still, I hoped, make it down. Especially with a packraft.

My original plan of a Kmart dinghy seemed foolish even by my standards, so in the interim I decided instead on a packraft. Better designed. Burlier. And, at just 3kg, far lighter.If the Cooper was too low to paddle, I could simply pick up my raft and carry it, for days if necessary.

I didn’t choose the Cooper solely because it was one of the few inland systems still flowing. I chose it because, of all our creeks and rivers and waterways, Cooper Creek is the most Australian. In it, we find a true reflection of Oz; 1500km long yet still a creek, even its name seems an example of Australia’s perversity, akin to our calling rangas ‘Bluey’. Then there’s the fact the Cooper, the nation’s second-longest waterway, never meets the ocean. Its destination instead is Lake Eyre, a below sea-level dead end.

When it makes it, that is. Most years, the Cooper’s waters can’t even muster the stamina for that. Flows are either sucked up by the desert air or sucked down into the desert sands; prior to the 2010 floods the Cooper hadn’t reached the lake in two decades. Most years, Cooper Creek simply fizzles out.

I like this. It befits our country’s character. In the heart of Australia, there is no fertile food bowl. No glorious mountains. Just a hard and unyielding centre that offers enough, on occasion, to eke out an existence. Drought and crop failures give rise to a country that regards disappointment as the norm. Yet despite the failures, the hardships, the lean times, there are, as recent years have demonstrated, good times too. In fact, like our economy, on the Cooper there is little in-between. Boom or bust. Feast or famine. Flood or drought. Life or death.

Speaking of death: Burke and Wills. The Cooper’s history is intertwined with that of our most famous explorers. That their expedition received the recognition it did says something about our country, for it was a balls-up of epic proportions.

Despite this, many make a pilgrimage to the so-called Dig Tree at the base camp they established on the Cooper, upstream of Innamincka, and to their graves nearby.

But suggesting that tourists flock to this part of the world would be wrong, for even today Innamincka remains remote. The town is in the middle of nowhere. In the eastern half of Australia, only Birdsville is arguably more isolated.

Contradiction of Innamincka

The town has a permanent population of 12. This is a reflection of substantial growth. For decades prior to the 1970s, it was abandoned. Like the Cooper, Innamincka – when I arrived – seemed emblematic of Oz.

The pub and the trading post, low-slung affairs with corrugated iron roofs and few pretensions, both fronted onto an open square, an outback version of a piazza, only rough-edged and dusty and studded with golf-ball-sized stones.

When the wind picked up, tumbleweed rolled across the square, and wind devils swirled and scoured the sand. But that was not what gave the town its symbolism.

Like Australia, Innamincka seemed to suffer from a split personality, to be wedged between contradictions. On one hand, there was the hard and lean, rough and tumble of the outback, on the other, the pudgy softness of modern, wealthy Oz.

The pub was a case in point. One half was a cavernous yet ersatz buffet hall, bland and new-ish, its architectural raison d’être seemingly to express a cautious safety. But the bar – coated in a patina of ramshackle charm – was its counterpoint. There is nothing neat and ordered about the outback, and the bar was an authentic reflection of that.
But there was another way that this part of the world illustrated modern Australia.

I had questions about the Cooper’s birds, wetlands, ecology and the like, so I tracked down the local park rangers. I explained my plan: hitch 60kms up to Nappa Merrie bridge, and from there float down the Cooper for five days. And then I asked – as I was doing a story for Outdoor – if they could field my questions.

“Y’gunna need permission first.”
“Permission? To ask questions?”
“No. To come down the creek, if you’re starting from Nappa Merrie.”
 “OK. Well, can I get permission from you now?”
“Sorry. You need to speak with the District Ranger for that.”
“OK. Where’s he? Or she?”
“Port Augusta.”
“You’re joking.”

He mentioned Port Augusta casually, as if the 1500km return drive was a jaunty day trip. Perhaps to locals it was.

“But all I wanna do is float down the creek.”
“Well, you shoulda looked into it before you came.”
“Look into it?” I asked. “There’s canoe hire here in town. Your website mentions canoeing as one of the park’s attractions. So do your brochures.”
“That’s just between Cullyamurra Waterhole and Innamincka. Anywhere else and you need permission.”

I suggested including this snippet of information on the website might be somehow, oh, I don’t know, pertinent. The hard look I received in return implied it wasn’t. The issue, he said, was safety.

Safety? Seriously, safety? Oz, I thought, what’s happened? You’ve let that prim and hysterical bitch, Ol’ Miss Nanny State, spread her claws even out here. Let her clutch away our three Rs: risk, responsibility, reward. Let her shrieks drown out our most cherished of values, that of “having a go”.

“Look,” I replied, “if you were talking registration, fair enough. No problems there. But permission? Because of safety? We’re not exactly talking Class V rapids here.”
As one of the flattest river systems in the world’s flattest continent, the Cooper’s flow is sluggish at best. On those rare occasions a raindrop falling near its headwaters actually reaches Lake Eyre, it takes a year to do so. Granted, the park’s greater concern was paddlers getting lost in the Cooper’s myriad channels. But between Nappa Merrie and Innamincka even the geographically incompetent would need to work diligently at this, for here the creek is far more cohesive. It was one of the reasons I chose this stretch. Yet this, I discovered, meant little.

As our conversation concluded, however, one positive emerged: I could get permission by phone. The catch was that Port Augusta’s district ranger was in meetings all day; I rang every five minutes without success the entire afternoon.

I should have been prepping gear, or visiting nearby Innamincka Station, or at least getting fabulously drunk in the pub. Perhaps even getting my original questions about the Cooper’s ecology answered. (Although, in another sign of the times, this would never have happened. Because I was “media”, the local rangers wouldn’t tackle patently dangerous topics such as wetlands and birds; any questions had to be emailed to Parks SA’s media liaison unit. Naturally, I didn’t bother.)

The next morning I was still on the phone trying. In the interim, it occurred to me that since my put-in was in Queensland – that’s right, outside Parks SA’s jurisdiction – and as paddling from Cullyamurra down was permitted, the only section in question was the 15km from the border to Cullyamurra. With a packraft, I could walk this if necessary. I mentioned this to the District Ranger when I finally connected.

It was not an adversarial conversation, but neither was it light-hearted. At one point my mind wandered, and I considered the irony of this happening here, in a town now cashing in on its history of pioneers, frontier spirit and derring-do. A tourist poster in the pub gushed, “Innamincka is sure to bring out the explorer in every Australian.” If, I thought, those explorers can just get permission.
Which, after 10 minutes of arguing my point, I got. “I’ll let you do it,” he finally said. Then added, “This time.”

Launch time on Cooper Creek

10am had come and gone. So too had everyone leaving Innamincka that day. They’d already vamoosed to their next destination, and so vehicles were rare. I waited four hours for a ride. I was ready to give up when a truck with three gas drillers pulled up.

I think my paddle intrigued them; you don’t tend to see so many in the desert. I jumped in and we bounced off across the plains. I asked about working here in summer.

“She’s warm,” one of them allowed. “Maybe 52, 53 degrees.”
But right now, imagining midsummer’s fury seemed difficult. The landscape in general appeared, well, not so “deserty”. There was grass everywhere and the few sand dunes we passed were thick with wildflowers.
“That’s only ’cos we’ve had some good years. Usually, mate, it’s like the surface of Mars. Nothin’ but rock, sand, goannas and snakes.”

On we rumbled, over the border into Queensland. At Nappa Merrie Bridge, I jumped out. Here, a retinue of pelicans, ducks, egrets and cormorants gathered to cheer me off.

Or, more likely, to enjoy the spectacle of my demise. Granted, the launch was not auspicious. Even inflating the raft proved difficult. The wind was up, muscular and buffeting, and the half-inflated craft flapped around like a fish on land. And when I first stepped into the Cooper to actually launch, knee-deep mud sucked my sandal clean off. I groped around to retrieve it, momentarily releasing the now-floating raft.

The wind caught it immediately and the raft began scampering across the water like an energetic dog let off a leash. I gave up on the sandal and dived, catching the raft by a fingertip. Finally, when – with one particularly inelegant jump – I wobbled on-board, my greatest fear was that I’d be blown straight into a nearby cluster of half-submerged, raft-puncturing trees before throwing in a paddle stroke. It occurred to me that a wiser man, especially one who hadn’t paddled in three years, might have done a test voyage back in Sydney.

But the wind at least was blowing roughly parallel to the Cooper; I ended up quietly floating under the Nappa Merrie Bridge. Time quickly felt syrupy, thick and sweet and molasses-slow. Combined with the calmness of water, the effect was like a shedding of skin.

Views were few on this opening section. The riverbanks were smothered by lignum, which grew in tangles metres high and created thick, impenetrable walls. But soon the Cooper opened up. The lignum barricades broke and Nappapethera Waterhole stretched like an open field before me, hundreds of metres wide and at least a kilometre long. Pelicans were everywhere. They studded the water like rocks did the plains nearby.

At the waterhole’s far end, a dingo trotted down to the water’s edge to size me up before watching me paddle into an outlet, where the Cooper funnelled into a narrow channel only a little wider than a country road. Here at last the water flowed. There was for the first time a noticeable current, smooth and ripple-less, and I drifted indolently on it, paddling only where necessary to dodge errant foliage.

I camped on the floodplain at the end of the next waterhole, Nappa Merrie, on sand covered in dingo tracks. The night, when it came, seemed as much about light as about dark. The Milky Way glowed hot. Shooting stars fell from the sky, like teardrops, leaving streaks that lingered. Eyes shone from nearby trees. An owl in one. A feral cat in another. And always there was my fire, its flickering embers sending a column of smoke swirling skyward.

Australia’s most famous coolibah

The waterhole was mirror-like at dawn, but the wind soon turned on. There was nothing gradual about this. As if controlled by a tap, it was on or off. Not a breath one minute; seconds later a belting gust arrived. It never left for the day. I loaded the raft and paddled off.

The sheen was off the water now, and the Cooper took on the colour of dull cocoa. For kilometres it ran in a broad channel, varying in width between that of a tennis court and of a football field. The banks were at times sandy and steep, at others low and grassed. Lignum came and went. The only constant was the coolibah trees dotted along the banks.

One of those coolibahs was, however, more significant than most, for an hour of paddling brought me to Australia’s most famous tree, the Dig Tree.

Although several hundred years old, it was not an imposing tree. The trunk, though thick, rose just one metre before splitting into a network of branches, and were it not for the walkway constructed around it, it would not stand out from any other tree. Even the original “DIG” sign carved into it was gone. All that remained was the barely visible carving denoting this as Camp LXV of the Burke and Wills expedition.

I beached the packraft metres from the tree. There were three men there. Two of them, the Butler brothers Warwick and Morris, were in the middle of a 20-day walk through the desert, raising money for charity. The third, Jim Wilby – a knockabout bloke, solid and ruddy, who spent most of his working life as a cop in outback Queensland – was driving their support vehicle. But today was their first rest day, so we had time to chat.

“I come out this way every year,” Jim told me, “sometimes for three months at a time. I was in Vietnam and I suffered a few consequences. It’s great therapy being here. Better than any treatment I can get in the city. I sit down by a waterhole, watch the birdlife, do a bit of fishing. Poke around. Meet a few people and talk to ’em.”

“Why here? Why not elsewhere?”
“I was born in the country and sorta knocked around the bush all my life. I’m not a city person. I don’t like the coast. If I want sand, I won’t go to the beach, I’ll go to the desert. Lying around on a beach is a total waste of time as far as I’m concerned. You see one girl in a bikini there, you seen ’em all. See a girl in a bikini out here and it’s a bonus, really.”
“A rather rare bonus,” I granted.
While talking, we noticed a murder of crows picking away at something downstream.
“I wonder what they’re doing?” I asked.
“Prob’ly feasting,” said Jim, “on the last bloke who floated a little yellow dinghy down the Cooper.”

Wealth of wildlife on the Cooper

From the Dig Tree, the channel began braiding. Until then, route finding had been obvious. No more. The creek split – bifurcating, trifurcating – before regrouping and then going through the process again. False channels beckoned. The sole navigable route was not always obvious.

But at least the Cooper always came back together. And whenever it did, whenever it loosened its belt and spread a little wider, pelicans clogged the creek, and herons and occasionally brolgas picked away in the shallows. Egrets, startlingly pure and white, sat on low branches over the water, and were joined by cormorants and darters.

In the thick of hollow gums, corellas and galahs clustered. A family of hawks – five of them – perched in the high branches of one tree, a solitary barking owl eyed me from another. Turtles sunned themselves on the banks. I saw two feral cats, each the size of a dog. And even the dingoes, usually wiry fellows at best, looked fat and well-fed.

I camped that evening on a small island near Oontoo Waterhole. The birds took exception to this territorial invasion, and told me so in every possible way. Caws. Cackles. Sighs. Groans. Grunts. Gurgles. Whoomphs. Tweets. Chortles. Least impressed of all were the corellas; they shrieked at hysterical levels. And then it just stopped.

It didn’t fade. One moment the world was being torn apart by screeching, the next there was only the quiet chirp of crickets and the campfire’s soft, near-breathless exhalations.

It took less than an hour’s paddling the next morning to reach the border. It was not a warm reception. Although little seemed to change between Queensland and South Oz, there was nonetheless one fundamental difference: snags. Evil snags.

Over time, the Cooper’s waters had honed fallen tree limbs, worn away the leaves and soft appendages at each branch’s tip until all that remained were hard, sharp points. Like spears. And South Oz, it seemed, had a profusion of them; all were hungry to devour the soft, pneumatic flesh of my raft. Worse yet, in the Cooper’s silted waters, thick and opaque, they couldn’t be seen. Only the telltale V-shaped ripples blemishing the smooth surface gave them away.

The waterhole that never runs dry

Cullyamurra is Australia’s greatest waterhole. Deeper in parts than most of Sydney Harbour, it is reputedly the only one in the country never to have dried up.

I reached it mid-afternoon, just as the light was softening; for 7km it stretched in a soft, almost feminine curve. River gums lined its banks and birds had gathered in numbers to angle for the abundant fish. For obvious reasons, Cullyamurra was highly significant for locals, the Yandruwandha people, and they left hundreds of rock engravings at the waterhole’s entrance.

Archaeologists aren’t entirely sure of the engravings’ significance; some believe they have ceremonial and ritual importance. Others have another, perhaps more prosaic, theory: the engravings were like a guidebook, an ancient Lonely Planet if you will, mapping and decoding the country for travellers passing through.

I found a camp site halfway down the waterhole. It seemed unfathomable that Burke and Wills couldn’t survive here (although they did refuse all lessons from the locals in gathering bush tucker; what, after all, could natives know?). This land on the banks of the Cooper seemed so soft and benign, and teeming with life. But I wanted to know the other side of this country. In fact, its true side, for the Cooper is an anomaly. Practically a lie.

The vast majority of this land, wrapped in desert and gibber plain, is quite frankly hostile.

If you’ve never felt like you didn’t belong, if you’ve never entered an area that should you mess up you will die of thirst or hunger, then you haven’t been to the desert. Nor have you experienced Oz’s true character. The watered coastal zone, where everyone lives, is just a veneer.

The heart of Australia is heartless. It’s cold-blooded, not hot, just as happy to see you die as survive. Probably happier. And it has succeeded with people far stronger than you. Whatever else you might say about Burke and Wills, about any number of explorers and stockmen who’ve ended up as bleached bones in the red sand, they were in general grade-A hard-arses.

If I was to experience the desert, I needed to break free of the Cooper, giver of life, even if just for a day. So the following morning, I set off on foot due north from camp. I felt the hostility immediately, within steps of the Cooper. It said simply: you don’t belong here.

The wildflowers by the treeline stopped; the land erupted in thorns and spikes and thistles.

Soon the trees, then shrubs, vanished, and there was just openness. An expanse of bare skies and bare gibber fields. Of strewn bones and thin, parched grasses. And there was a mesa, flat-topped, several hours walk in. I climbed it, just sat, and took it all in.

Completing the Cooper Creek paddle

My final day on the Cooper. I awoke before dawn. I paddled out among the pelicans. They sallied around Callyamurra quietly and – with their angular shapes, necks like masts, daggered beaks at 45 degrees like sails – they resembled yachts on Sydney Harbour. At the waterhole’s exit, they clustered on a small island in a seething mass, jammed in like battery hens, so thick that seeing beyond them to the far bank was impossible.

The pelicans weren’t the only things choking the Cooper. Fallen trees were everywhere. The snags the worst yet. There was irony here: this was the one section National Parks had no problem with me paddling, and it was by far the section most likely to end in tears.

If only the Cooper was an extra 15cm deep, I found myself thinking. I’d float right over all those snags, float without a care. But then I noticed all the branches now sticking 10cm above the water. Fifteen centimetres would put them five below, right at the most dangerous depth. I realised there was no ideal depth to paddle the Cooper. No matter the level, there would still be snags. It occurred to me there was a lesson here: is life any different?

Perhaps that could be this trip’s Significant Thought. I’ve long considered every trip, if possible, should have one. But nothing had come to me yet. Perhaps this was it. But it wasn’t.

My Significant Thought came, in fact, at the very end of the trip. Exiting Mulkonbar Waterhole, a few kilometres out from Innamincka, I decided, on a whim, to stop paddling. I would go with the flow. Even if it took me hours, I would not offer one more stroke. Instead, I wanted to feel for myself exactly how sluggish and torpid the Cooper was.

My movement seemed imperceptible. I was staying still and the world floated past. A peaceful, cool world of an electric-blue sky and white river gum branches above. White: it stands out so pure and bright here. The white of a cockatoo flashing by. The white of an egret sentinel still. The white of bones, bleached. The white of clouds, fluffed and pure. Red may be the primary colour of the desert, but white would arguably come second.

On I drifted. If my time on the Cooper had been peaceful already, now I entered a deeper state. To drift: in our world today, the word sounds almost pejorative. Describe someone this way and they sound spineless, lacking direction or drive. Sure, describing someone as slow is borderline cruel, but slowness nonetheless has its advocates; witness the slow food movement. Virtually no-one, however, champions drifting.

But what I realised in these peaceful last hours as I floated towards Innamincka was that we don’t drift nearly enough. Because only now did I feel truly empty. Yes, the slow days on the Cooper had already primed me to get to this point. But it was only by drifting, by being entirely passive, by having all decisions made for me – about what pace to go, what direction to take, what effort to expend – that I perceived I was coming closer to some sense of awareness.

Awareness of what, exactly, I still can’t say; I didn’t try hard to figure it out. Analysing it would have popped the delicate bubble. All I knew was this: I was drifting. And because I was drifting I was empty. And because I was empty, now in that void an imprint was possible, an ineffable yet visceral imprint of the way of the Cooper, the way of the desert, the way of Australia.

And then, when I floated into Innamincka, pulled my packraft under the village common’s gnarled gums and set up camp, I was aware of something else: the way of Australia, or at the very least, the way of outback Australia, should not end there.

I went directly to the pub. I pulled a stool to the bar. I ordered. And then proceeded to get very, very drunk.