There was a time when I needed to travel through northwest of NSW, to look at the cassia plants growing in that region. I had planned a trip from Broken Hill north to Tibboburra, then east towards Bourke on the Darling River, and then to follow the river south to the Murray in Mildura. As always happened, as a young single woman, the University would not allow me to travel alone. So for company, I took a young laboratory assistant, who was about 16 years old. She did not have much experience of camping, or outback travel, so all the responsibility was on me.
Whenever I was travelling away from more settled areas, I always reported to the local Police station, before I left. It was just insurance, in case anything went wrong, they would know where to start looking for me. But when I reported to the Police station in Broken Hill, they told me there had been rain north of Broken Hill a couple of weeks before. They strongly suggested it would not be wise to travel north on dirt roads.
So I changed my plans, and actually did the circular trip more or less in reverse. This is how I reported the trip, in a letter written to my mother. My judgement of the country was biased, because I had grown up on the fertile Darling Downs in Queensland, where my parents still lived.
‘First we drove south on a good road to Medindee, which is on the Darling River. The road from Broken Hill is all bitumen, and very nice. From Medindee we went on an AWFUL road across to Ivanhoe, down to Hillston, then up to Cobar. It all took two days.
Most of the country is terrible. (my biased description). Miles and miles of plains, with never a tree in sight, no animals or birds, except the occasional crow, and the only vegetation a few low burr bushes. In any sort of wind, the topsoil must just lift off. I hate to think of the dust they must have there. I do not know if this is the normal state of the country, or the result of a long drought. It certainly looked as if they had not had rain for years. We spent the night in one of these treeless patches, because we were caught there at dark. The only thing more than a few inches high was a clump of ‘old man saltbush’, a few feet across, so we camped behind it. There was no wood for a fire, and it was the coldest night I have ever spent, and the morning was even worse. I didn’t get my toes thawed out until eleven the next morning.’
I should stop here to explain, we were travelling in a station wagon, belonging to the university. We carried food for several days, and plenty of water. When we camped, we folded the back seat forward, and we girls slept inside the car in sleeping bags. The lack of a fire to provide hot water must have been the biggest reason we were so cold.
From Cobar, we drove to Bourke, and from there just through the border into Queensland, but not as far as Hungerford, before we camped for the night. The next day, we tried to go down the Paroo River to Wilcannia, and that was when things started to get a bit haywire.
First of all, (believe it if you can) the Paroo was in flood, and I was not game to try to drive across the crossing. I walked halfway across (the water was FREEZING) and there must have been 2 feet of water there, so I did not feel like spending the next couple of days sitting in the middle of the river waiting to be rescued. We went back to a station and got directions – the station hand said he would draw us a mud map -- to go back through Hungerford, across the river on a causeway (but there was no water there anyway) and then down some station tracks to Wanaaring. We had no trouble there, as the road – or rather track – was quite good. The only worry was the lack of signposts, I literally followed my nose. I have never been so grateful for having a reliable sense of direction. At least I knew I was heading in the right direction.
From Wanaaring we followed the Paroo down to Wilcannia, and ran into a patch about 30 miles wide, where there they had had some rain, and there were lots of mud patches and soggy creekbeds and so on. At one creek I had given up, and was just preparing to go back to Bourke, when two men came along in another car. So we both took courage in company, and eventually found a way across. That was problem number two.
Actually there was another problem before then. We came to a gateway, with the usual slush in the bottom looking very unpleasant. I could see there had been cars going through the fence, but couldn’t find a break in the wire, and decided someone had cut the wire earlier, but later it had been tied up again. Anyway, we managed to get through the gateway, but found out later people did go through the fence. They lifted the posts out of the ground, put the wires flat on the ground, and drove over it. Then they put the posts back in the ground, and hey presto, the fence was fixed.
We followed the two chaps for a while, and I was feeling quite confident. But pride comes before a fall. Soon after they turned off, I got us nicely stuck in some clay. My own fault, I should have got out to look first. Anyway we couldn’t get ourselves out, and had to wait for a pull. I expected to have to wait for hours, but inside an hour, a couple of very sweet new-Australian chaps came along and pulled us out. How lucky can you be?
After then it was quite simple. We got back to Broken Hill the next day, spent the night in a motel, and as it started to rain, came back to Adelaide the next day. As a collection trip, it was successful, I found what I went for. The plants were very dry and sick, but they were still recognizable, which was enough for me.
I can finish by recalling the other travellers in the motel where we spent the night were amazed at the amount of mud on the car. They were not even aware there had been rain north of Broken Hill. You had to go off the main road to find it!