A guided four-day 4WD tour into the remote Corner Country where NSW intersects with South Australia and Queensland.
Aptly named, the Corner Country is the vast area of northwest NSW stretching out to the borders of South Australia and Queensland. It is accessible by 4WD only, via a network of picturesque unsealed highways whose quality varies dramatically depending on the weather and how recently the grader has been through. If you dream of those sprawling, vibrant outback landscapes and the blood-red desert sands of the Sturt National Park, Tri State Safaris’ four-day Corner Country Tour comes highly recommended.
The tour runs from Broken Hill and you have the option of travelling as a passenger in Tri State’s comfortable and tough 4WD minibus, or tagging along in your own fourbie. While the benefits of the former are clear – sit back and enjoy the ride – the latter offers 4WD owners of all experience levels a safe and informative way to enjoy driving on isolated, rugged and at times challenging outback roads. The tour cost is lower in your own vehicle – though you’ll need to take fuel costs into account – and you can tune in to the on-the-road commentary of the knowledgeable and friendly guides via your UHF radio. All guides are extremely experienced in off-road touring, so you’re in safe hands.
The Travel In crew opted to ride in the minibus, joining a group of four aged from 50 to 75. While the company’s motto is ‘Remember when a holiday was a real adventure’, the trips are appropriate for all ages.
“Adventure isn’t just hanging off a cliff or jumping out of a plane,” according to Michael McCulkin, owner-operator of Tri State Safaris and our tour guide on the Corner Country trip. “For us, adventure is doing something you haven’t done before, doing something new. We take people to places they mightn’t have been game enough to go themselves, and they get a great deal of satisfaction from that.”
For us, the adventure began when we left Broken Hill behind and set forth on the Silver City Highway, swinging left at Wilcannia before rolling into the eclectic opal mining town of White Cliffs in time for lunch – toasted sandwiches at the general store café.
We had a look around this dusty frontier town – the sleepy main street, the disused but once ground-breaking solar farm, the driveways leading to quirky underground homes, the opal shops – before heading over to Red Earth Opals, a café and opal mine offering tours of its small but still active mine. We descended into the earth for the hour-long tour, before visiting the lunar landscape of the opal fields where we each became somewhat obsessed with kicking over rocks to find specimens. There are quite literally opals everywhere in this town.
Climbing back on the bus we remarked that a chiropractor would enjoy profitable business in this town, where residents and guests spend their days hunched over gazing intently at the dry, rocky earth.
We then headed over to the famous Underground Motel, our home for the night.
A novelty in every sense, the Underground Motel is a fun warren of rooms, with an art gallery and museum, plus a licensed restaurant serving delicious country meals.
After a hearty brekky at the Underground Motel, we headed north to Milparinka, a tiny former gold mining town that’s little more than ruins today, save for a few historic buildings including the pub and the courthouse. The gold rush hit the town in the 1870s, but prior to that its significance was its proximity to Preservation Creek and Depot Glen, where Charles Sturt’s expedition was stranded for six months in 1844 owing to a lack of supplies and drought conditions. We’d return to visit that site on our way back south.
We rolled into Tibooburra in the afternoon, and were delighted by this charming settlement, which Michael confessed was his favourite outback town. Tibooburra is the Aboriginal word for ‘heaps of rocks’, and that’s exactly what we found in and around town.
Gold was struck at Tibooburra after Milparinka, but stocks were disappointing. This, combined with its sheer remoteness, meant it remained very small. Today it’s the most remote town in NSW. It has a relaxed, friendly vibe and a sleepy pace typical of life around these parts, a stark and blissful contrast to the hustle and bustle in which most of us live.
We visited the museum, which houses an excellent collection conveying the challenges of outback life in bygone years, as well as the replica of Sturt’s whaling boat gracing the park, before settling into our accommodation at the Family Hotel. Across the road from the pub itself, the Family Hotel cabins are clean and comfortable, with accommodation for singles, couples and families.
In addition to the warm outback hospitality and extremely friendly staff, the Family Hotel is famous for its Clifton Pugh murals. A three-time Archibald Prize winner – including the portrait of Gough Whitlam currently hanging in Parliament House – Pugh spent weeks on end painting in the outback during the 1960s.
He was mates with the pub’s owner at the time, Barnie Davie, and it’s thought Pugh got stuck in Tibooburra during prolonged heavy rain and painted the walls of the pub to relieve the boredom. As part of the mural, Pugh painted a devil that resembled his ex-wife’s boyfriend, and multiple nudes, two of which turned out to be the publican’s daughters. Cheeky! The artwork frames the bar, rendering the place so much more than a watering hole – a living, breathing outback art gallery born of mateship and passing time; two concepts still very much alive and well in Tibooburra today.
Tibooburra is the undisputed capital of the Corner Country, but this being a tour of the territory we had Cameron Corner in our sights. It’s a four-hour drive from Tibooburra, so we set off early on a daytrip.
Needless to say, there were a lot of kilometres under the tyres, but with the profound and ever-changing outback beauty filling the windows, it was a case of ‘only boring people get bored’.
Through the day we experienced a vast range of outback landscapes, from the granite boulder country surrounding Tibooburra we travelled across plains covered in snow-white quartz that, mingled with the red sand, created hues of gentle pink and grey, not unlike the galahs that flew in raucous mobs above. We cruised through ‘jump up’ country, where flat-topped ridges and escarpments stood like ancient monoliths guarding the Corner, itself defined by rolling red sand dunes and the occasional clay plan. The vast and varied beauty of the Corner Country needs to be seen to be believed – it is nothing short of stunning.
Visiting in early spring, we saw a staggering amount of wildlife, in particular emus with chicks. We must have seen hundreds of chicks, plus countless kangaroos, stumpy tail lizards, a brown snake (from the safety of the bus) and plenty of majestic and formidable wedge-tailed eagles soaring through the skies looking to capitalise on all that abundance.
We eventually reached the Corner, passing through the famous Dog Fence – at 5614km it’s the world’s longest fence. Then we left NSW behind and passed through SA for 100m or so, before entering Qld for lunch at the Cameron Corner Store.
After a hearty meal at this iconic outback pub, we had our fill of tri-state games, such as seeing if we were strong enough to throw a rock across three states, or if our backsides were expansive enough to be located in three states at the same time. Yup, I was successful on both counts. What a woman!
We then headed back to Tibooburra in time for another delicious feed at the Family Hotel, followed by one too many beers to celebrate our last night.
On our final day, we said goodbye to Tibooburra and headed south on the Silver City Highway towards Broken Hill, swinging past Milparinka to Preservation Creek and Depot Glen to learn more about this historic location.
Clearly very knowledgeable on the subject, Michael imparted fascinating insights into Sturt’s ill-fated expedition to find a non-existent inland sea.
The theory went that since there were rivers flowing inland, there must be a sea at the end of them – they even dragged a whaling boat with them. But when water supplies ran dry and drought conditions made them impossible to replenish, Sturt’s party was forced to seek refuge and await the rains at Preservation Creek.
Not used to losing men, Sturt was devastated at the death of his right-hand man at Depot Glen, James Poole, whose grave stands in the small cemetery beside the creek, his initials and year of death carved into a scorched tree. Sturt’s Cairn is also located at this site, a rocky monument he charged his party with constructing to alleviate the maddening boredom of sitting around waiting for rain.
This site is a fascinating and important piece of early Australian settlement history, and wandering around peaceful waterholes where great difficulties were endured and so much time passed felt rather profound.
Drought was not an issue for us – we called into the Packsaddle Pub for lunch. This is another iconic outback hotel, where old boots swing from the rafters and locals are only too willing to spin a yarn at the bar. The pub offers accommodation for weary travellers, but we pushed on to Broken Hill, where we said sad goodbyes to the tour and each other.
We’d crammed a lot of history, scenery and encounters with colourful local characters into four days, for a truly unique and authentic experience of the real outback. Another one ticked off the bucket list!