The big camp ground around the legendary Dig Tree is on private land, part of the sprawling Nappa Merrie Station. Owned by the Kidman company, it was sold to Santos a while ago for $8 million and leased back. Now there's a new lessee and that means changes for 77-year-old Donald “Duck” Robertson. He wasn’t sure where he would fit into the new plan.
“Kidmans have looked after this place pretty well,” he said, waving away the flies. Tourists wanting to see the Dig Tree pay $11 at the honesty box to cover the upkeep of the modest facilities and the services of “Duck”, who has accommodation at the homestead.
Now Santos and the lessee want the council to look after the outback mecca on the edge of the Queensland border, about 70 rough kilometres from Innamincka.
As we waved at each other to brush away the flies, “Duck” explained that Santos had been buying a few properties around the Strzelecki region. The Kidmans had shifted all the cattle from Nappa Merrie and the new lessee was off buying about 8000 head to build a herd and pay off the $700,000 annual lease.
We had camped alone at the Dig Tree the day before, confronting the summer flies and heat that keeps most tourists away until around Easter. Then they come in their thousands, says “Duck”.
This year there will be a group of 40 veteran army vehicles, “Willys jeeps and stuff”, stopping over on their way to Birdsville.
Some campers stay a month, watching the Cooper go dry as the monsoonal rains in the north disappear. When the creek bed appears you can take a short cut across it to Innamincka.
“It’s been pretty dry around here,” said “Duck”. “They had four inches in Innamincka a month ago but we only had one. Breaks your heart.”
On a happier note Cooper Creek was now flowing strongly. The water had appeared a week ago. Probably come down the Thomson, he reckoned.
The permanent waterhole upstream at Nappa Merrie homestead would have 80 feet in it by now. “Where you see a homestead, you can be pretty sure there’s a permanent waterhole close to it.”
We were to learn later that everyone from Innamincka to Cameron Corner knew Donald “Duck” Robertson but not many knew he had been given his nickname when, at 12 months, he became the first baby to go on a mercy flight on the NSW Royal Flying Doctor.
Flown out from his home at Tibooburra, east of Cameron Corner, the doctor had asked the name of the sickly child. Told it was Donald, he had written “Donald Duck” on the wristband. For three quarters of a century the name had stuck.
“Duck” clearly enjoys the ranger job he has done for three years. He’s studied the story of Burke and Wills and, brushing away flies, reckons Burke was the problem.
“That expedition should never have left Melbourne. There wasn’t an explorer amongst them. Burke was the problem. An Irish cop. He gave Gray a flogging on the way back from the Gulf and he died three days later. If Wills had been in charge it would have been a different story. At least he was a surveyor.”
When we left the Dig Tree, “Duck” was on his way back with what looked like a couple of council workers in his ute. We hoped it was all going to work out OK. He pulled over to say goodbye, assuring us we would not stay long in Innamincka.
“The flies are really bad there.”