Corner Country Calling
3 February 2012
It is a region defined by a rich history of exploration due to its unique landscape and geology. Early explorers carved routes through the Corner Country looking for the fabled inland sea. Pastoralists brought sheep and cattle to settle the land, and miners established communities in their search for gold and opal. Now, all sorts of RVers and travellers journey to the Corner Country. They seek to experience its dramatic, changing landscapes, vivid cultural heritage and uniquely Australian spirit.
The Corner Country is known for its harsh and hot living conditions, but it's not all desert. In fact, it's made up of a variety of diverse and intriguing landforms. The area is characterised by vast gibber plains, spotted with saltbush and dominating ranges that seem to rise out of nowhere to create prominent escarpments and deep gorges.
It's home to majestic wedge-tailed eagles, riding the thermals or feasting on road kill. It houses bluegrass, saltbushes, gidgee wattle and mulga trees. Immense savannah grasslands give way to vibrant red sand dunes, salt lakes, dry flood plains and empty river channels. The landscape can appear almost otherworldly in the searing heat of a mid-summer drought, and alive with glorious flora and fauna when rivers have broken their banks. It is these constant surprises and contrasts that capture the attention and affection of today's travellers.
Most of the year, the landscape seems uninhabitable. How can this region be bursting with native animals and wildlife? How have humans survived and built lasting communities and townships, like White Cliffs, Tibooburra and Cameron Corner?
The answer lies in managing life's most important resource: water. The search for water is a recurring theme in stories about the Corner Country. It is a defining characteristic of the geology, ecology and human habitation of the region.
Approximately 110 million years ago, during the Early Cretaceous period, much of central Australia lay beneath the waters of an inland sea. It supported a myriad of marine and terrestrial life forms. While this sea is long gone, its effects are still evident today. The large salt pans, ranges and gibber plains were all formed in some part due to the presence – and subsequent absence – of the inland sea. The opalised fossils of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures found in the region stand as testament to the richness of life the inland sea supported.
Now, water is scarce. Flora and fauna have adapted accordingly, by burrowing underground or lying dormant to avoid the extremes of heat and drought. Red kangaroos are a prime example, they delay reproduction in adverse weather conditions.
Humans also adjusted to life without regular water. The area was home to nomadic tribes for thousands of years and was traditionally occupied by several Aboriginal groups. Milparinka was home to members of the Maliangaapa people and Tibooburra was home to the Wadigalis and Wangkumaras.
RVers interested in the indigenous heritage of the area should visit the Tibooburra Keeping Place Museum. The remains of Aboriginal tools and artefacts are on show, along with stone, wooden and photographic materials. Mutawintji National Park along the Broken Hill-White Cliffs Rd is a significant place for local Aboriginal people and worth a visit. It contains Aboriginal rock art and engravings, dotted among the spectacular overhangs and rocky gorges. You'll also see the remains of fireplaces, stone flakes and grinding stones. I recommend doing a guided tour with the traditional owners. Contact the park office in Broken Hill for more information.
Indigenous populations understood the land and knew how to find and conserve water. Without their help, many early European explorers and settlers would not have survived the harsh climate.
In 1829, Charles Sturt set out from Sydney with a group of men to explore Australia's heartland in the hopes of finding an inland sea. This was a mistake made by many explorers at the time. Sturt and his men were so convinced they would find it that they dragged a whaling boat through the rough, uncharted terrain. Visitors to Tibooburra can view a life-sized replica of this boat at Tibooburra Pioneer Park at the end of the main street. This is a great spot for a picnic lunch too.
In 1844, Charles Sturt set out again, this time from Adelaide. He was still searching for an inland sea, plus the existence of an interior mountain range. Sturt's team got caught in a drought, and scurvy and extreme dehydration became rife. They were forced to make camp by the only remaining waterhole at Depot Glen, which Sturt fortuitously found by following an Aboriginal track.
They remained trapped there for six months waiting for rain in the blistering heat, and their equipment was ruined. To keep his men sane, Sturt made them erect a pyramid of stones on the summit of Red Hill. This soon became a monument to Sturt's second-in-command, James Poole, who died from scurvy just before the rains broke.
Today, Depot Glen is accessible by road and located on Mt Poole Station near Milparinka. Visitors can climb to the top of Red Hill to view the massive pyramidshaped cairn built by Sturt's men. You can also inspect Poole's gravesite under a grevillea tree carved with the text "J. P. 1845." Depot Glen is a must-see spot for any traveller and, like much of the region, is virtually unchanged since the time of the early explorers.
The discovery of gold and other precious minerals in the Corner Country around the 1880s lured thousands of hopeful miners and their families to the region. European populations skyrocketed in the initial boom, but quickly fell when the harsh and unforgiving reality of life without water and gold set in.
The ghost town of Milparinka is a prime example of the boom and bust economy of the time. Here, travellers can wander through a number of fantastic heritage buildings and imagine what life was like for early pioneers. The Milparinka Courthouse, built in 1896, contains interpretive panels about local history and pioneering life. The Barracks Information Visitor Centre, a former police station built in 1883, provides tourist information and a souvenir shop.
The Police Cells Gallery, built in 1883, is now a Mining Interpretive Centre that houses traditional working models of mining equipment. RVers can enjoy a picnic in the shade of the Harry Blore Memorial Park across the road from the precinct, or go for a walk along the Milparinka Heritage trail.
Luckily for us travellers, many of the mining towns in the Corner Country survived the ravages of time and have become great destinations for RVers. White Cliffs is an opal mining town you simply must visit. The landscape is pockmarked with thousands of mineshafts built by optimistic miners, and resembles an eerie moonscape.
Here, you will find unique underground living environments that allow locals to avoid the extremes of temperature on the earth's surface. Aboveground, it can be 50°C or freezing. Belowground it is sublime, with controlled temperatures of approximately 22°C all year.
Building materials were scarce in the early mining days. Many miners lived in calico mansions made from hessian bags. Other more imaginative (or desperate) miners started converting their old mine shafts into homes to escape the oppressive heat. This was the start of White Cliff's famous underground living, and it's this kind human ingenuity that has enabled the White Cliffs community to survive.
RVers can enjoy free camping at nearby opal fields. No license is required to fossick, but make sure you don't dig on registered claims. I went opal hunting with the local postie, Mick, and his razorback pig. Mick has lived in White Cliffs for many years and had lots of advice about fossicking. Many of the locals are willing to help. If you care to spend a bit of time having a chat in the local pub, you're sure to glean a few tips and tricks.
Many opals have been found in White Cliffs area, including the famous cricketball sized opal named pineapples. Fossicking can be a lot of fun, but take care when moving around the sites, particularly if you're travelling with children. There are many mines that are only loosely covered with corrugated iron sheets.
For those who want to experience the true White Cliffs lifestyle, why not spend a night in PJ's Underground Bed and Breakfast? As the name implies, it is entirely underground, and is a fantastic place to experience classic White Cliffs living. PJ's also has a wonderful opal showroom and offers mine tours straight out of their back door.
Another more sombre attraction in White Cliffs is The Pioneer Children's Cemetery. It stands as a poignant reminder of the harsh reality early pioneering families faced. Official records are limited, but it is estimated over 500 children died between 1892 and 1899. They were the victims of typhoid, diphtheria and dysentery caused by contaminated, poor-quality water and unhygienic living conditions.
Tibooburra, the capital of the Corner Country, beckoned the brave and foolhardy, the adventurous and ambitious. From 1881, the allure of gold at nearby Mt Browne also attracted visitors. The town is very much alive with history and heritage, and you can be assured of a friendly wave from passing motorists and fellow RVers. The Tibooburra Family Hotel is a must visit spot in town. In the bar you can see the infamous mural painted by Clifton Pugh in the late 1960s. I must warn you, it leaves nothing to the imagination. There are many images of naked people cavorting along the wall. It was the source of much controversy at the time it was painted. Police even threatened the close the pub if an offending male appendage wasn't covered! Apparently, a mulberry leaf was glued to the spot, but later fell off in the hot weather.
Today, a small sign stands in front of the appendage, and a $2 donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service will earn you a peek behind it. There are also original works by Russel Drysdale and Rick Amor still on the pub walls.
Both pubs in Tibooburra and the general store will supply most of your needs, and there is a caravan park, free camping spots and National Park camping nearby. Heritage abounds, and if you have a metal detector you may be rewarded. Some say that people have even found gold in the main street after rain. I wouldn't count on it, but searching could be fun!
Geological tours of the Tibooburra area and other locations in the Corner Country are available from Milparinka visitor centre. If you're into ancient landscapes, I recommend you take part. The rocks here are among the oldest in Australia and their 200 million-year history is fascinating.
Leaving Tibooburra, you may want to ditch the van for a while and travel to Cameron Corner. It is at the intersection of the three states and is the most remote location in outback QLD. There is only one store there, the Cameron Corner Store. Make sure you fill up on the necessities in one of the larger towns before heading out there.
I took the Jump-Up Loop Road. It was given this name because of the area's distinctive long and flat-topped hills known as jump-ups. The drive took about three hours and the scenery was breathtaking. There were kangaroos, emus and birds at every corner. I would recommend this road for any traveller who has a lust for adventure and wild, beautiful landscapes. Allow time for a break, so you can sit back and take everything in.
Check the local ranger's office for maps if you would like to do a self-guided tour. The sunsets are breathtaking, so make sure you find a good high spot to watch one. Like most of the Outback, the night sky here is simply spectacular. So turn off the TV, set up some camp chairs, and spend time quietly contemplating the universe.
On your way to Cameron Corner, you'll pass through the unique and vast Waka Clay Pan. In fact, you'll drive right through it! The landscape here is stark and alien with its cracked ground and never-ending horizon. You simply must stop to take photographs. Your friends will think you've been to the moon!
Eventually, you'll arrive at the dingo fence and Warri Warri Gate. This fence is the longest man-made structure in the world, running for 5,000km along the SA and NSW border. Once, a single break in the fence resulted in 20,000 sheep being killed by three wild dogs. The fence is an Australian icon for many reasons. I felt a sense of achievement and wonder as I gazed upon it. It's another sign of man's struggle to survive in a wild, tough landscape. I reckon every Australian should make their way to this place at one point in their lives.
A visit to Sturt National Park should also be on your to-do list. It is filled with unique geographical features that are sure to delight any traveller. There are many camping areas within the park that are suitable for caravans and motorhomes, such as Dead Horse Gully and Mt Wood Campground. The National Parks and Wildlife Service Visitor Centre is in a restored courthouse. It features an outdoor museum dedicated to the Corner Country, and is worth exploring. It also provides a range of valuable information, including road conditions, rainfall reports and maps for self-drive tours of the area. There are also well-signed walking tracks available.
The best time of the year to travel out here is during winter. It's cold in the morning, but the days are typically a pleasant 18°C to 20°C. Many of the roads are unsealed, but that's all part of the adventure. Always check weather conditions for rain before you venture onto an unsealed road.
Born out of a history of exploration and adventure, the Corner Country has captured the imaginations of travellers for many generations. Today's RVers will be rewarded with life-long memories and an appreciation of Australia's unique history and heritage. This is a beaut part of our great land, so go trace the footsteps of thousands of intrepid explorers, pioneers and miners and experience the true spirit of the Outback.
PLACES TO STAY NEAR
White Cliffs Opal Pioneer Tourist Park
Located in White Cliffs Township
Ph: (08) 8091 6688
Cost: Unpowered from $10 per site/night for two people. Powered from $15 per site/ night for two people
Pets welcome, bring your own firewood
Evelyn Creek camping areas
Located 1km west of the Silver City Highway and 1km east of Milparinka
No facilities, bring drinking water and firewood, pets welcome
ALONG THE SILVER CITY HIGHWAY FROM BROKEN HILL TO TIBOOBURRA:
Fowlers Gap Rest Area
108km north of Broken Hill
Suitable for overnight stay Bring drinking water and firewood, pets welcome
PACKSADDLE REST AREA
177km north of Broken Hill, just north of Packsaddle Roadhouse
Suitable for overnight stay
Bring drinking water and firewood, pets welcome
CHEAP & FREE TREATS
ABORIGINAL ROCK ART AND ENGRAVINGS
Mutawintji National Park (near Mootwingee)
PIONEER CHILDREN'S CEMETERY
MILPARINKA HERITAGE PRECINCT
Milparinka, 40km south-east of Tibooburra along the Silver City Highway
TIBOOBURRA 'KEEPING PLACE' MUSEUM
Open all year round, Mon to Fri, 8:30am to 5pm.
Ph: (08) 8091 3435
TIBOOBURRA PIONEER PARK
Main street of Tibooburra
Includes full-sized replica of Charles Sturt's whale boat
CLIFTON PUGH MURAL
Inside the Family Hotel Briscoe St, Tibooburra
RFDS donation of $2 to see the full mural
Ph: (08) 8091 3314
GREAT DINGO FENCE
Sturt National Park Contact Roads and Traffic Authority for reports on road conditions
Ph: (08) 8087 0660
JAMES POOLE'S GRAVESITE AND STURT'S CAIRN ON RED HILL
Depot Glen, 10km west of Milparinka
Visit any of the many lookouts at sunset
NATIONAL PARK STAYS
DEAD HORSE GULLY CAMPGROUND
Sturt National Park
1km north of Tibooburra then 1.9km to camping area
Bring drinking water, no pets allowed, gas/fuel stove only
MOUNT WOOD CAMPGROUND
Sturt National Park
27km east of Tibooburra
Access signposted on Gorge Loop Rd, which is signposted off Wanaaring Rd Bring drinking water, no pets allowed, gas/fuel stove only
HOMESTEAD CREEK CAMPING AREA
Mutawintji National Park
Access signposted off the Broken Hill- White Cliffs Road, 61km north east of the Silver City Highway then 14km east from there to the park's information centre Bring drinking water and firewood, no pets allowed
NATIONAL PARK FEES:
Vehicle entry: $7 per vehicle/day
Camping: From $5 per adult/night, $3 per child/night
Fees payable at self-registration stations
When travelling in remote regions, you need to make sure you always have a means of contacting help. Satellite phones are an absolute must and are even more essential if you're travelling alone, as mobile phones often don't work and UHF has a limited range.
MILPARINKA VISITOR CENTRE
Ph: (08) 8091 2524
Ph: (08) 8091 3308
NPWS BROKEN HILL
Ph: (08) 8088 3200
Ph: (08) 8082 6660
HOW TO GET THERE
From Broken Hill: Travel 330km (four hours) north along the Silver City Highway.
From Sydney: Travel 1300km (16.5 hours) west along the Barrier Highway passing through Dubbo. Or travel 1500km (17.5 hours) west along the Cobb Highway passing through Wagga Wagga and Hay.
From Adelaide: Travel 850km (10 hours) north east along the Silver City Highway passing through Broken Hill.
From Melbourne: Travel 1189km (14.5 hours) north along the Silver City Highway passing through Mildura.
WORDS BY FRED WRIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRETT SHEARER