The Strzelecki Track, South Australia

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Cooper Creek

The Strzelecki Track, South Australia

Passing through a remote and timeless landscape, packed with historical sites, the Strzelecki Track is one of Australia‘s great outback adventures.

The Strzelecki Track was given its rather unusual name by the explorer Charles Sturt in 1845, after the Polish explorer and scientist Paul Edmund de Strzelecki. Strzelecki, a Polish noble (often erroneously referred to as ‘Count’) and self-taught geologist, had been the first European to ascend Australia‘s highest peak in 1839, naming it Mount Kosciuszko in honour of the Polish democrat and nationalist, Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

Sturt was on the last legs of his ill-fated quest to find the ‘inland sea’, when he stumbled across the life-saving waters of the ephemeral Strzelecki Creek. He followed it north, and discovered the more permanent waters of Cooper Creek, enabling him to survive in the remote desert. 

Fifteen years later, the route was used by another exploration party: the ill-fated Burke and Wills. Burke, Wills, and John King would passed through as part of their last surge from Cooper Creek to Mount Hopeless, dying on the Cooper Creek bed from exhaustion and dehydration in 1861. 

Burke and Wills
George Washington Lambert, Burke and Wills on the way to Mount Hopeless, 1901.

However, the route long predates the European explorers. For centuries, Aboriginal people followed the string of waterholes in order to trade ochre, grinding-stones and pituri.

The Strzelecki Track became famous thanks to the exploits of cattle thief and expert bushman Harry Readford, later known as ‘Captain Starlight’. In the early days of settlement, ‘cattle-duffing’ (or stealing) was a common way of stocking a new station with cattle. But Readford had bigger and better plans. In 1870, he stole 1200 head of cattle from Bowen Downs Station, 130 kilometres north of Longreach, and drove it south over 1000 kilometres, to Hill Hill Station, South Australia where he traded a distinctive white bull and two other cows for provisions. He then headed slightly further south to Blanchewater Station, where he sold the mob for about £5000 – $860, 000 in today’s money.

Never before had such a large group of cattle been driven so far through Australia’s arid centre. The feat is made all the more impressive when you compare it to Burke and Wills’s failed journey, which had come to a tragic end in the same territory, just nine years before. The difference was that Readford communicated with and listened to Aboriginal people, allowing him to progress through the desert relatively easily. 

However, the distinctive white bull was recognised, leading to Readford’s arrest. Brought back to face justice in a court in Roma, Queensland in 1871, he was acquitted – despite overwhelming evidence – by a jury, thanks to their admiration of his feat! The verdict so outraged Queensland‘s legal establishment that the people of Roma had their jury duties revoked, for fear that they would refuse to indict criminals that they admired. Readford became an Australian folk-hero, setting up as a law-abiding station owner and drover in the Northern Territory.

wildflowers
Wildflowers in the Strzelecki Desert

From the 1870s until about 1930, the Strzelecki Track was in regular usage, servicing the region’s large sheep and cattle holdings and the small settlement of Innamincka. Lacking the reliable, government-sunk artesian bores of the Birdsville Track, the Strzelecki Track was always considered hazardous, and could be closed for years at a time if water sources dried up during drought.

In the 1930s, the stock-route days came to an end, and the track fell into disrepair. The discovery of natural gas in the Cooper Basin and 1959 and oil in 1970 revived the area. Santos built the giant Moomba processing facility in 1969, which continues to bring considerable traffic along the route.

Highlights of the Strzelecki Track:

Beginning in Lyndhurst, the Strzelecki Track heads north-east, passing over plains fringed by the lavender shadows of the northern Flinders Range. At Mount Hopeless, the track turns north, heading into the vast Strzelecki Desert, rolling waves of sand dunes of pink and red, punctuated by colourful wildflowers in the spring. Finally, the track comes to an end at Innamincka, near the remote South Australia/Queensland border.

The first point, Lyndhurst, is often regarded as the gateway to the outback. A sealed road links the town with Adelaide, while a dirt track heads north to Marree and the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks, and the Strzelecki Track heads off to the east. For decades, the town‘s Central Australian Railway link supplied the camel trains that serviced the remote stations to the north.

Ochre Cliffs
Ochre Cliffs, near Lyndhurst.

Five kilometres north of the town you’ll find the Ochre Cliffs, a quarry that was once worked by local Aboriginal people. Ochre from this area was traded north to the Northern Territory and the Gulf of Carpentaria and south to the coast. The cliffs – a desert mirage of red, yellow, white and brown – are now protected under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988.

Soon after leaving town, you’ll encounter historic Mount Lyndhurst Station, a 3500 square kilometre sheep and cattle station. Established 1869, Mount Lyndhurst once employed 80 people full-time, including 54 blade-shearers working in the 12-stand stone woolshed.

The next major point of interest are the sandstone ruins of Blanchewater Station, once famous for producing horses for Cobb and Co. and the Indian Army. In 1860, Blanchewater was the northern-most station in Australia, and it was here that Burke and Wills were trying to reach on their journey across the Strzelecki Desert. Just north, you’ll see the ruins of Hill Hill Station, where cattle thief Harry Readford traded three bulls for provisions at the end of his journey. 

After this, you’ll push through the Cooper Desert, with stark eroded forms due to rabbit plagues and heavy stocking in the late 19th century. On the other side of the desert, you’ll pass Moomba, the oil worker’s town run by Santos. Entry is restricted, but you can look out over the town from Merty Merty. 

An alternative route, known as the ‘Old’ Strzelecki Track, branches off at Merty Merty and winds across the Strzelecki Creek flood plain. Coolabahs growing on the flanks of sand ridges show just how deep this country can go under water after a good flood – incredible given the aridity of the land here. Here you also have the option of progressing to Cameron Corner, where the borders of Queensland, New South Wales, and South Australia meet.

The ‘Dig’ Tree on Cooper Creek, where Burke and Wills left their last carving.

Finally, the Strzelecki Track ends at the town of Innamincka (population: 44), which is little more than a pub, general store, fuel pumps, and an air strip.

The area surrounding town is famed for its connections to the tragic story of Burke and Wills. Head to the original graves of Burke and Wills, King’s Marker (where John King was found by Alfred Howitt’s party), and the Dig Tree, just over the Queensland border, where Burke and Wills carved an ill-fated message into a tree to communicate with the rest of their team.

Though not technically part of the track, Coongie Lakes National Park, to the north-west of Innamincka, is a must-see spot. Braiding off from Cooper Creek (and relying on its occasional flooding to fill), the 25 sq. km Coongie Lakes system are a shallow sheet of lakes, lined with river red gum, coolibah, and red azola. The lakes are virtually the only permanent freshwater expanse in the 5 million sq. km of Australia‘s red centre. The lake system is a RAMSAR-listed Wetland of International Importance, home to 183 bird, 18 marsupial, 11 fish, and 32 territorial reptile species.

Nearby Cooper Creek was the traditional home of the Yawarawarrka people, who have long found sustenance in the water here, fishing for yellowbelly, eating padlu beans, and cooking the ground roots of the ngardu plant as damper. Callamurra Waterhole Australia‘s largest billabong – is home to Panaremitee pictograms, some of the oldest Aboriginal rock art. The waterhole is an important archaeological site, which includes artefacts, graves, stone scatters, middens, and ceremonial sites.

Bird - Coongie Lake
Coongie Lake is part of a RAMSAR-listed wetland of international importance thanks to its bird and reptile life.

Odyssey Traveller takes on the Strzelecki Track as part of our tour of the outback, Broken Hill to Broken Hill. Beginning in the quirky Silver City and ‘capital of the outback‘, Broken Hill, this tour takes you through the remote territory where Queensland, New South Wales, and South Australia meet. Accompanied by an expert tour guide/tour operator, our outback adventure takes us through the heart of Australia‘s red centre, under a spectacular night sky.

For the itinerary and more information on this outback Australia tour, please click here.

Odyssey Traveller has been bringing Australian travellers to the world since 1983: now, we have shifted our emphasis toward exploring Australia, allowing you to see your own country in a new light. We are now offering a number of tours of the Australian outback, including our Flinders Range outback experience; our journey through the ‘Top End’, including Kakadu, Arnhem Land, and Litchfield National Park; a guided tour of outback Queensland; a trip through the Kimberley, Western Australia; and a tour devoted to Aboriginal heritage sites in Victoria, New South Wales, and South Australia.

Those keen to travel Australia may also be interested in our tour of Marvellous Melbourne and our trip devoted to the convict history of Tasmania.

Coongie Lake
Coongie Lake, South Australia.

Articles about Australia published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to Australia:

Selected small group package tours of Australia

Small group tour; Broken Hill and back

 Small group tour of New South Wales, Queensland & South Australia deserts, from Broken Hill. Learn about the history of the people who explored the deserts, from indigenous communities to Europeans, as well as Burke and Wills, visit White Cliffs, Birdsville, Maree.

Departing Sep, Oct, Mar, Apr

Small group tour of Australia's Flinders range

Escorted small group tour of the Flinders range in South Australia from Adelaide. Learn about Coober Pedy, Wilpena pound and water system of Lake Eyre as we explore and learn also about the history of the people who explored the Flinders.

Departing Jul, Aug, Sep, Oct, Mar, Apr

Escorted small group tour of World Heritage sites and more in the Southern States 

Discover the World Heritage Sites of the southern states of Australia travelling in a small group tour. A journey of learning around the southern edges of the Murray Darling basin and up to the upper southern part of this complex river basin north of Mildura. We start and end in Adelaide, stopping in Broken Hill, Mungo National Park and other significant locations.

Departing Sep, Oct, Feb, Mar, May, Aug

Articles about Australia

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The Australian Outback: A Definitive Guide

15 mins read

Explore learn and consider what is the outback in this article. For mature and senior travelers considering joining a small group package tours into the outback to see, learn and explore about this unique place, not only the landscape but the Aboriginal approach to living. On each of the tours for couples and the single traveler you learn something different but fascinating, from Outback Queensland, the Flinders, Broken Hill and the Kimberley and the wildflowers all contribute to this question, what is the outback?