Running out of river

The end of the flood.
The end of the flood.

Here is the latest "Campfires and Crows" column from former KI resident Rex Ellis:

I have recently returned from one of my Warburton river boat trips to Lake Eyre, and it will be the only one I will get in with this particular flood.

It was the 13th time I have followed this particular river to Lake Eyre. Apart from the first one in 1974, when we had trouble finding land to camp on, and actually managed to cross Lake Eyre from north to south… this was the most unusual of the lot.

After having to change the departure date four times, and losing half of my customers because of it, we only had the two boats operating. Believe me, it’s very embarrassing to get to a river before the water arrives, and that was the problem this year.

The massive Goyders lagoon swamp near the top of the Birdsville track had not had its usual infill from the Diamantina River for two years, and was practically dry at the beginning of the year.

As was all of southwest Queensland which had been in serious drought for a number of years. The cyclonic rains there in March were very patchy, and most soaked in to the channel country, before a moderate flood reached Birdsville in April.

Actually it was quite high, with Birdsville cut off for a short while, but there wasn’t much behind it to sustain a prolonged flood. I monitor all this closely, because timing is crucial, when I actually get my boats in the water, for a number of reasons.

Finally the water ‘got out’ of Goyders lagoon swamp, filled Goyders lagoon, and headed down the Warburton channel. But even then, I had to change a departure date due to its unpredictable rate of travel, but finally got in to the river only a day after it had gone through.

If people ever query my prices, this is one reason why it costs a lot of money to go to Lake Eyre by boat, and many of my well travelled clients tell me it is one of the worlds great adventure travel experiences.

We were under way, with the usual floorshow nature puts on, with birdlife being the main performers. Every trip that I have done on this river, there are always several species that are present in abnormal numbers.

On this occasion it was White backed swallows, Willy Wagtails, White faced herons, and Australian shelducks (Mountain ducks).

Because it was ‘new water’, the numbers and species were not as prevalent as when the water has been there for weeks.

The highlight was a rare Grey Falcon, one species the overwhelming majority of serious ‘Birders’ have never seen.

I have only seen about a dozen in my life, and half of them would have been on this river. 

The other regular performer were the Dingoes, many of which have never seen a human being.

Their behaviour varies from casual interest, to several continuing to lie stretched out on the bank, barely bothering to raise their heads. We often have them swimming the river in front of the boats, but not on this occasion.

A couple of years ago when we came across two swimming, a lady foolishly reached out and scratched the back of one, which increased its revs, but could just as easily have reached around and given a very serious bite. She could dine out on that one for a while.

On another occasion, a Wedgetailed eagle caught a rabbit, and proceeded to rip it apart on the branch of a dead coolibah.

However, all this paled into insignificance when we suddenly found ourselves in a series of ‘rapids’, where there is usually nothing of the sort. Low water, then around a bend, and there was the head of the flood two hundred metres in front of my boat!

We were also in water saltier than the sea. I thought I knew a bit about this river, but had never struck this situation before (salt water half way down the running river, and running out of water).

I had been close behind the head of bigger floods, but never actually overtaken them. On this occasion our boats were simply going faster than the floodwaters. We had to wait for a couple of hours before enough fresh water arrived to float the boats and boil the billy!

We kept going, having to wait every now and then, waiting for rapids to settle down (we are not exactly designed to ‘shoot rapids’) and to get enough water to travel.

We were only 20 kilometres from the mouth when we reluctantly turned around and headed back.

Because we had taken so long to reach this point, and would have had to wait a couple more days for enough water to get through a very tricky area of channels and ‘broadwater’, there wasn’t enough time for several of the parties commitments.

Although it was disappointing not to get to the Lake, like on most unusual trips, the journey is a lot more interesting than the destination. It certainly was on this occasion.

Rex Ellis’s Outback Books are available at