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Tiwal goes exploration sailing on historic waterways in Outback Australia

by Robert Dickson 1 Mar 17:59 PST
Outback sailing in the Tiwal © Melinda Henshaw

In June of this year Kiwi sailor, Melinda Henshaw, announced she wanted to see 'the real Australia'. It was a challenge I couldn't resist. So we loaded the TIWAL 2 and TIWAL 3 into the Pajero and off we went.

In 1830, explorer Charles Sturt managed to get a sailboat far up the Murray and Darling rivers. Now over 120 years later, technology has proven benefits for adventurers. Little did we know it, but these inflatable craft would define the trip for us.

We headed south-west from the Gold Coast to 'Lincoln Hills', near Stanthorpe. My family property was enduring a 'green drought': a little rain, but not enough warmth to make grass grow. Most of the stock had already gone, but about sixty Hereford cows are a big job for the solo 84 year-old owner. We helped rebuild the hay shed: the centre of the property's hand-feeding operation. To relax, nearby Storm King Dam was a nice place to sail in light winds. Fortunately, you don't need much water to sail a TIWAL.

Heading southwest to Walgett, NSW where the dry Barwon River slices through Ulah Station; we saw the first waterflow in over twelve months: an 'environmental release' of water from Copeton Dam. Third generation farmers, David and Vicki Fleming and family, watched the water trickle down the huge, dry channel. It would do little but remind them what's possible, and re-ignite some hope. There would be no sailing here!

Now inland Australia can receive little or no rain, yet the Cooper, Thompson and Diamantina Rivers will flood from the tropical north, flowing down through the arid centre. Though Lake Eyre rarely floods, it's spectacular when it does, and it was happening right now! So David reckoned we "couldn't miss the chance -You're 'half way there'!" (only another 20 hours driving to Lake Eyre!) The dye was cast! In different circumstances, David would have flown us and the Tiwal out there.

Rule No.1: Talk to the locals! Fortunately, we made a phone call to the Commodore of the Lake Eyre Yacht Club. It changed our plans - the floodwaters hadn't yet filled the lake. We were redirected to Innamincka, Cooper Creek and Coongie Lakes, above Lake Eyre.

So onwards into the real outback, through Bourke, Cunnamulla, Thargamindah and Noccundra; lively towns and unique outback Australian scenery. It is mind-changing to travel across these vast red, dry, shrubby plains; let alone finding roadside 'Floodway' signs in the middle of nowhere. Water here can spread to the horizon, and stop everything, but there was not a drop in sight. This is truly 'a land of drought and flooding rains'.

Noccundra Waterhole was our first outback sail. The little yellow TIWAL 2 was a colourful spectacle to fellow-travellers; and what a great way to relax and cool off after a long drive! Later, yarns around the campfire with friendly travellers under the roof of 'the million star hotel'.

We found our way across the red plains of western Queensland and crossed into South Australia to Innamincka. The roads to Coongie Lakes were flooded and impassable. The famous birdlife there would have to wait for another trip. However, Cooper Creek did not disappoint. What a relief to find this great stream in the desert!

With Bourke and Wills' buried nearby, there's plenty to contemplate way out here! The sights and sounds of river life, the beautiful giant river gums, the birdlife, peace and tranquility, and spectacular mood changes when the sun rises and sets, all calm the soul. The opportunity to sail here without the worry of towing a trailer. The birdlife ensures you never sleep in. Morning and evening breezes follow these watercourses, even on the stillest days. You can just set the sail, or float down the river and relax - fantastic! If you're lucky, the yellowbelly and cod are biting. Then there's the flies! Come prepared with a face net!

Innamincka Homestay and the Pub provided plenty of hospitality until it was decided we would sail downstream to 'Ski Beach' campground to try outback camping. We weren't alone, but you'd never call it crowded! A family spanning three generations welcomed us into their camp. We traded a sailing lesson for some fishing lessons and lots of laughs.

Relax under the rivergums or go exploring by day, then be mezmerized by the evening reflections and the cries of roosting corellas in the trees above you. Sail downstream with the mast ducking the lowest rivergum boughs, then tack back upstream to camp. Times have changed, but little else has out here! It's a great place to think! Watch an eagle circling on the thermals overhead. Cook your evening meal beside the ageless Cooper Creek as it flows south to Lake Eyre. These old gums knew Sturt, Bourke, Wills and King, and the tribes who watched them pass.

After a week on the Cooper it was time to head to the coast. We diverted to the friendly little opal town of Yowah, near Eulo: no sailing water, but Yowah has artesian water a-plenty to bathe in after a day of relaxing or fossicking. The opals were beautiful and the search for them intriguing. It's easier to buy opals at the right price from locals, than to find your own...though many did! Laughs and damper around the campfire are heartwarming. After saying 'just one more day' every day for a week, you realise there is far more to many places in Australia than meets the eye!

Back across miles of open country, to the amazing silo art at Thallon. How the artists manage to do such amazing works baffles and inspires us all! After a sail on the magnificent Balonne River at St George, a country music festival and poets' breakfast generates tears of laughter. After hearing a receital of Bill Kearns' poem, 'Entrapment' you cannot eat breakfast. Further on (much further) to beautiful Coolmunda Dam outside Goondiwindi: countless pelicans, but the water was too low; still waiting, waiting, waiting for rain.

A sail on Sydney Harbour on the TIWAL 2 was a final opportunity for some fun. How convenient it is to travel with an inflatable sailboat! Tacking and dipping between yachts racing on a glorious Sydney afternoon, with iconic Harbour Bridge in the background: what a contrast from Cooper Creek!

In all we travelled over 4000 kilometers. A reliable vehicle is all you need. The roads are generally in good order, and the many established camp-sights, caravan parks, motels and service station staff won't let you down. There are ten thousand unexpected surprises out there. There are many other waterholes, gorges, lakes, bays and rivers hidden across this great continent! While inflatables may make a 'great teething rings for crocodiles', there are zero crocs in ninety percent of Australia!

Who will be the first to sail down Cooper Creek into Lake Eyre? Out there, everyone becomes an explorer! Will it be you? As this drought breaks, the Australian Outback will become one of the most spectacular places on earth to visit.

The inflatables were by far the most compact and easily transported watercraft we saw on this journey. You can pack one as luggage in any vehicle and be on the water in 15 or 20 minutes. Anywhere! Experiments with a transom on a Tiwal for a small outboard are well under way. New electric outboard units promise to make them even more versatile and useful for eco-tourism, fishing or as a tender. The greatest benefit of inflatables is their easy portability: no trailer!

Inflatables are no-longer toys. Awarded 2014 Most Innovative Sailboat of the Year by Sailing World Magazine; when properly inflated to 12 PSI, TIWALS are a tough and rigid hull which conveniently packs down to fit in the back of even a small car, boat or caravan. They are made using dropstitch technology also used in SUP's, and they don't make a bad camp mattress if you get the pressure right!

Nautical Nomads of Australia, NZ, and the South Pacific, is where you are invited to learn and to share your water-bourne travells and destinations, equipment recommendations and nautical adventures!

Conclusion: The outback is a great place to travel and to sail! Where to next? Who's next? Many beautiful, secluded stretches of water and wonderful adventures await you!

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