In April 2009 a group canoed down the Kallakoopah Creek, throught the Simpson Desert to Lake Eyre


The Australian 9 May 2009

Afloat on a secret trip through Simpson Desert

IT was four years ago that John Hammond and his group of mates resolved to paddle down the "desert jewel" that is Kallakoopah Creek, Australia's secret inland river, which snakes through the southern dunes of the Simpson Desert in South Australia.

Only back then, the Kallakoopah, a tributary of the Warburton River, lay dormant and almost dry, a parched creek bed punctuated by infrequent pools of water.

The mates, all in their 50s and mostly hailing from Berri in the South Australian riverland, had stumbled upon the river in 2005 on a 4WD trip through Kalamurina Station, a vast desert wilderness that stretches to the northern shores of Lake Eyre.

They agreed then to watch and wait for the kind of once-in-a-decade flood that might bring the Kallakoopah back to life.

In January this year those torrential rains arrived, around Mt Isa in Queensland's northwest. Over the following weeks and months, as Eyre's Creek and the Georgina and Diamantina river systems gradually began to swell upstream - which they tracked through Bureau of Meteorology stations - they knew their time had come.

As far as anyone knows, Hammond, John Dunn, Bill Starr, Majid Andary and Chris Harris are the first and only people to have travelled the length of the Kallakoopah by canoe or kayak.

Entering the mouth of the river near Cowarie Station in the middle of last month, the party disembarked 13 days and 370km later, 20km shy of Lake Eyre.

Speaking a fortnight after their return, Hammond recalls being disarmed by the sense of isolation - a feeling that they had somehow journeyed back to a pre-historic, pre-human age.

That, and the sheer volume of water that roared through the desert.

"It was incredible, we were just blown away by how much water was flowing down," says Hammond, a 55-year-old veterinary surgeon.

"This is a river that most of the time doesn't exist and we were paddling through these lakes that were 5km wide and 20km long - flood plains as far as the eye could see."

Almost day by day the landscape beyond the riverbank seemed to change as well.

The further south they paddled, the more barren and bleak it became as they reached lands in which the river had only recently returned. Gone were the coolibah trees and plantlife that had ringed the river when their journey began.

The skies were filled mostly with wedge-tailed eagles, but they also found pairs of corellas and galahs, a promissory sight that foretold of life returning to this once-parched land.

There was evidence of life in the sand too.

"The tracks - of dingoes and lizards and snakes and whatever else was out there - they were so dramatic, as if the animal's paws had dipped in black ink and they'd walked across a sheet of paper," Hammond says.

For the duration of their undertaking, there was not another human to be found.

Even proof of earlier visitors was extremely rare. There was an abandoned campsite made by local tour guide Rex Ellis, who has led 4WD tours in the region and has navigated Kallakoopah Creek in a power boat. And a plaque on a post with a hidden visitors' book - signed most recently by Ellis in July 2006, and before him Hammond's group from 2005, when they first dreamed of returning if the riverbanks burst.

They would do so in two canoes, equipped with electric outboard motors powered by solar panels if needed, and two kayaks.

The party also carried a satellite phone, a GPS system and an Emergency Positioning Radio Beacon, as well as enough provisions to walk out if necessary.

Before setting off, the men had also flown over the river in a light aircraft to survey the terrain they were about to enter.

These are far from professional adventurers. Comprising a doctor, a meteorologist, a farmer, a business proprietor and a vet, they are once-a-year outback enthusiasts and lifelong mates.

According to Harris, 58, the most difficult part of their journey was finding the mouth of the Kallakoopah, which was hidden behind trees in the midst of a vast flood plain.

"Without GPS I'm not sure you could do it. That was very challenging," he says.

The paddle proved remarkably smooth - they travelled 30-35km daily on currents of up to 5km/h - and it was undertaken in comfortable climes too.

More taxing logistically was the driving in and out through the endless sand dunes.

It took the men three days to drive the Birdsville Track to get started, and a group of three other Berri locals retrieved their vehicles from Cowarie Station then drove south to collect them at the other end.

When they arrived at their destination - not far beyond where the Kallakoopah Creek becomes the Macumba River - their sense of satisfaction was matched only by the wonder they felt at having just been in a canoe in the Simpson Desert.

"The thing I kept thinking was that Berri - our hometown - is on the Murray River and the Murray is just crying out for water," Hammond reflects.

"Yet here we were in the Simpson Desert, and there's more water than you've ever seen in a river in your life.

"The sad thing is the water ends up in Lake Eyre and it will just evaporate away. But canoeing in the Simpson - who can say they've done that?"