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Understanding the Channel Country

Unique geography and a fascinating history as a pre-historic sea, and subsequently precious land to Aboriginal people and European pastoralists is explored on a small group tour for mature and senior travellers into the Outback.

17 Nov 20 · 9 mins read

The Channel Country

By Marco Stojanovik

The Channel Country constitutes some of the most distinctive landscape in Australia: wide open flat alluvial terrain that is essentially desert that floods after heavy rainfall. An estimated 280,000 sq km, it covers the south-west of Queensland, a birth of the north-west corner of South Australia, and a small section in the north-west of New South Wales. Its name is derived from the many intertwined channels and rivers that cut over the vast floodplains during the times of high water; Cooper Creek, the Diamantina, Barcoo and Thomson rivers and their multiple shallow channels make up the main waterways. Intricately connected to this unique geography is a fascinating history as a pre-historic sea, and subsequently precious land to Aboriginal people and European pastoralists.

This article explores the Channel Country’s geography, history, and key highlights to assist your visit to the region. Odyssey Traveller conducts a tour of Channel Country as part of various small group tours into Queensland including our 11-day tour of Queensland, our 19-day tour of Queensland, our 15-day tour of Outback Queensland, and our 13-day tour to Broken Hill and back.

Sunset over Cooper Creek in outback Australia.

Geography

Queensland’s Channel Country is the source of most of the water in the Lake Eyre drainage basin, the river system west of the Murray-Darling that takes up approximately one sixth of the Australian landmass. This basin extends into the Northern Territory and South Australia, with one edge in New South Wales.

The Channel Country features a vast arid landscape, interspersed with flat-topped ridges, sand dunes, and ancient flood plains from rivers which only flow intermittently. This flat, basin-like expanse of land is a result of erosion over millennia, but also the ‘continental sagging’ that occurred between 120 and 98 million years ago when Australia was connected to the upper continent Gondwana near the South Pole. At this time, the Channel Country was entirely covered by a vast inland sea populated with strange prehistoric marine life.

Today, the principal rivers of the Channel Country – the Georgina River, Cooper Creek and the Diamantina River – drain the land from far to the north. Rather than a single stream though, a series of channels, washed, creeks, and waterholes flow through these rivers. Averaging only between 150 and 300mm annual rainfall, but with huge variation year to year, when rain does come it spreads out into these myriad ‘braided channels’ providing moisture and nutrients to the area, sometimes overflowing to form immense floodplains.

Sunset on the Thomson River, Longreach Outback Queensland, Australia.

Reaching up to 80km across and flowing thousands of kilometres, the channels move water from the country’s tropical north to its arid centre. On the rare occasion of a very good rain season the watercourses even discharge into Goyders Lagoon, Lake Eyre and the Coongie Lakes across state borders. In most years, however, the flood waters evaporate or fill the cracked ground and channels. Still though, even when this happens, strings of permanent waterholes are left remaining across the landscape.

The verdant vegetation and wildlife which occur after the floods are popular sites to behold. Some organisms, such as water holding frogs and inland crabs, patiently wait to emerge at these times. Other animals arrive from elsewhere. Bird life especially, although always present in some form, proliferates with the covering of the flood plains, as do several species of fish and large Cooper Creek turtles.

Cooper Creek turtle, South Australia

History

Indigenous Australians of over 25 tribal groups have inhabited the Channel Country area for approximately 20,000 years. The permanent waterholes and periodic pulses of substantial water have allowed them to live there in great numbers, presumably varying according to the shifting weather patterns.

In pre-colonial times, the Channel Country was at the centre of both a vast trade network and dreaming pathways running north to south, linking this part of the land with the rest of the continent. Goods such as ochre were sent north while shells and pituri moved south.

Aboriginal people survived in this apparently harsh environment because they had acquired knowledge over countless generations. When European explorers first arrived in the area in the 19th century their lack of this knowledge would prove fatal.

In 1861, Burke and Wills died of malnutrition at Cooper Creek, having used it as a base for their expedition to the Gulf of Carpentaria, the first South to North crossing of the continent by non-Aboriginal people. Having run out of supplies, local Aboriginal people had helped the explores and given them food, but Burke didn’t trust them and chased them away firing at them with his rifle. So, despite being close to a water source and good supply of nardoo seeds, the explorers soon died. Experts have suggested they did not prepare the seeds in the correct manner of which the local indigenous people knew to gain its nutritional value.

Cooper Creek flowing through the desert country in the far west of Queensland, Australia.

After Burke and Wills perished at Cooper Creek, search parties were sent into the Channel Country discovering valuable new grazing lands in the process. After annual flooding, which can sometimes last up to six months, nutritious grasses appear and the land becomes excellent for cattle grazing. European settlement of the interior resulted from the 1870s, mostly in the form of sheep and cattle runs. Leading pastoralists included John Costello, Robert Collins, Patrick Durack and Oscar de Satge.

In the period after initial occupation, but before the pastoralists’ hold on the land was secure, there was a great deal of conflict over Channel Country lands with the Aboriginal population. That of the Kalkadoon people is well recorded. They resisted the pastoral invasion until 1884 when, in a set piece battle with European settlers and police some 200 warriors were killed. With that, large-scale opposition to the acquisition of Aboriginal land in western Queensland ended. The subsequent grazing, rabbit invasions and draught (1895-1902) would go on to reduce the Aboriginal population to station hands and house-help.

Although sheep were more common in the Channel Country, the ravages of the draught and attacks by dingoes impacted numbers at the turn of the twentieth century. Cattle thus took over from wool and lamb as the more financially secure option and soon became the major pastoral product in the region. The development of beef roads to carry trains of linked cattle trucks further enabled the area to develop as a cattle-raising area throughout the twentieth century. Today it is estimated that in the Queensland section alone there are between half to one million head of cattle.

Cowboy and cowgirl on horses keeping cattle together on countryside field in Queensland, Australia

Channel Country National Parks

In 1992-93 three national parks on Channel Country watercourses were proclaimed. The largest is Diamantina National Park, a former pastoral holding of 507,000 hectares. Here, a spectacularly variable landscape stretches across vast treeless plains, over sand dunes and along river channels towards eroded low ranges on the horizon. Many rare and threatened species fill this landscape. Lake Constance and Hunters Gorge particularly are important wetlands and support breeding populations of many resident and migratory birds.

The 23,400 hectares of Lochern National Park stretches 20km across the Thomson River and host several lagoons and waterholes, refuges for birds and other wildlife. Here you can wander through digyea or mulga woodlands, drive across the rolling Mitchell grass plains, and see pastoral-era relics including winged dams (known locally as tanks).

Welford National Park is a place of contrasting landscapes. Golden-green spinifex and white-barked ghost gums grow atop a vivid backdrop of red sand dunes; meanwhile, lined by river red gums, the Barcoo River winds through Mitchell grass plains and mulga woodlands. Remnants of Aboriginal heritage and use, including wells, stone hearths, and other cultural sites are scattered throughout the 124,000-hectare park. And it is home to an impressive heritage-registered restored pisé (rammed earth) homestead, originally built in 1882.

Red sand dunes, Welford National Park, Queensland, Australia

Highlight: Birdsville

On the very western edge of Queensland, the town of Birdsville has entered the popular imagination as a byword for the Australian outback. Ironically, it has begun to attract tourists from around the world, seeking out one of the most isolated towns on the earth. Draws here include the heritage architecture, including two quintessential outback pubs, the Royal Hotel and the Birdsville Hotel; the late 19th century Birdsville Courthouse; and the Australian Inland Mission Hospital, used as an outpost for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Every September, Birdsville plays host to the Birdsville Races, known as ‘the Melbourne cup of the outback’. The races were first held in 1882, but became hugely popular in the 1990s, often attracting up to 8000 visitors to the tiny town.

Birdsville is also in close proximity to ‘The Burke and Wills Tree’, a Coolabah tree on the banks of the Diamantina River said to be among the explorers’ final campsites before their demise. The tree was marked by Burke and Wills during their expedition with the letter ‘B’ and the camp number ’76’.

Diamantina River
Diamantina River, Birdsville.

Highlight: Winton

The town of Winton in Central Queensland has several claims to fame. At the North Gregory Hotel, known as the “Queen of the Outbacl”, the first ever public performance of Waltzing Matilda” was done on April 6, 1895. Then in the 1920s clandestine meetings here helped launch a little airline known as QANTAS. Head to the Daphne Mayo dining room – named because it is decorated with etchings by Mayo – to see interesting historic photographs.

The history of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is commemorated at the Waltzing Matilda Museum, the world’s only museum devoted entirely to one song. Exhibits tell the story of Patterson and the writing of the song, while other displays explore the 1891 Shearer’s Strike and the history of QANTAS in Winton.

Winton is also regarded as the Australian capital of dinosaurs, thanks to a number of fascinating paleontological finds in what is known as the ‘Dinosaur Triangle’. Stretching from Boulia in the west to Chillagoe in the north and Roma in the south, this area is where nearly all of Queensland’s many dinosaur fossils have been found. You can learn about the Cretaceous sauropods that roamed the Winton area 95 million years ago at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum located 25km south of Winton.

Winton Road between Boulia and Winton, NW Queensland.

Highlight: Windorah

The town of Windorah, located in the Far West region of Queensland, is surrounded by scenic and diverse countryside. It is located on the banks of Cooper Creek, where the two rivers Thomson and Barcoo join together to form a creek – a haven for bird watching, fishing, water sports and just relaxing. Another attraction of the area is the stunning red sand dunes on the western edge of the town. The colours of the dunes change during the day and are an especially beautiful deep red at sunset.

Simpson Desert, Windorah, Queensland

Tour of the Channel Country

Odyssey Traveller visits the Channel Country and key towns such as Birdsville, Winton, Windorah, Longreach and Mount Isa as part of our various small group tours into Queensland.

  • On our tour of Broken Hill and the outback we begin and end in the ‘Silver City’ of Broken Hill, New South Wales. Our outback experience explores the mining history and artistic legacy of the capital of the outback, taking in the works of the ‘Brushmen of the Bush’ at the Broken Hill Regional Art Gallery and visiting the moving Lode Miners Memorial and elegant Broken Hill Leaving Broken Hill, we head towards Channel Country at Birdsville, stopping off at the opal mining town of White Cliff and Menindee Lake National Park on the way. From Birdsville we head south to Marree on the legendary Birdsville Trail, before visiting the flora and fauna sanctuary of the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, on the northern edge of the Flinders Range. Leaving the Flinders, we head back to outback NSW, passing through the ‘corner country’, possibly the most remote area in Australia.
  • On our tour of Outback Queensland we by-pass the tourist spots of your average Queensland tour– Brisbane, Cairns, the Daintree Rainforest – to take you deep into the outback. Our tour begins in Dubbo, NSW, before heading deep into Queensland’s outback, where we visit the Australian Stockman’s Hall in Longreach, see dinosaur remains on a day tour from Hughenden, and learn about the birth of the Australian labour movement at Barcaldine. Rather than head north to Mount Isa and Cape York, our tour turns south, heading back through Canarvon Gorge National Park, a lush rainforest gorge in the midst of the arid Australian outback, home to extraordinary Aboriginal art. Our Outback Queensland Road Trip then visits the opal-mining town of Lightning Ridge, NSW, before ending in Dubbo.
  • Our tours of Queensland, with 11 days and 19 days options, discover the big skies, stunning pastoral and desert landscapes, and fascinating history of the outback communities of western Queensland with a tour guide. On our 11-day tour, we visit Roma, Clareville, Windorah, and go as far North as Longreach, before heading back south0east via Barcaldine and Carnarvon National Park. Our 19-day tour goes further into Channel Country with additional visits to Birdsville, Mount Isa, Cloncurry, and Winton before reaching Longreach.

Odyssey Traveller has been serving world travellers since 1983. All tours provide an authentic and culturally informed travel experience, that goes beyond the usual tourist sites in favour of drawing out the hidden histories of our destinations. Our guides are chosen for their local expertise, and we move in genuinely small groups: usually 6-12 per tour. Our tours are all-inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

You can read all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Channel Country & Outback Queensland

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