The Warburton only flows every five or six years.
When it does, Rex Ellis is there.

Story by Mark Muller

The soft lapping of water against aluminium is virtually the only foreign sound floating through the desert landscape. It’s a sunny winter afternoon. Three small tinnies drift downstream, turning gently in the silt-brown water of the Warburton, their passengers playfully ordered to strict silence. Fairy martins swoop along the banks, a great egret wafts overhead and people bask in the calm that descends. 

This desert river, which has its origins in the Diamantina to the north east and then runs through the Simpson, Strzelecki and Tirari deserts on its way to Lake Eyre, only flows every five or six years. When it does, veteran bushman Rex Ellis puts the word out and gathers small groups of people keen to experience the rare occurrence. 

“These desert boat trips are, for me, the last of the real adventures,” Rex says later. “The Warburton (and I’ve been down it 26 or 27 times) is different every time. There are islands that appear that weren’t there before, channels, embankments – all that energy when a flood goes through resets the canvas from one year to the next. And it’s only nature doing it. It’s the only place in the world where we can get away with this. Because no matter how much experience you may have, it’s still a fine line. Things can still go wrong, and they will,” he says.

Indeed they will. The expedition had begun with the lure of boating along the Warburton from the Oldfield family’s Cowarie station half way up the Birdsville Track in outback South Australia, all the way to Lake Eyre. Rex first accomplished this feat in the big floods of 1974 and, in the years since then, when all the stars align, he’s shared the experience with paying customers on several occasions. 

The phone calls start going out in the weeks leading up to the trip – the Warburton’s got a run on, and there’s a chance to get on it and down to the lake. Once confirmed, the initial party of 12 duly gathers at Rex’s place outside of Morgan on the Murray River. One other will join at Copley, and two more will meet up at Mungerannie to bring the total crew to 15. Working as Rex’s key offsider is Graham Rivers – a mechanic and old mate, and a veteran of Rex’s expeditions.

The boats (purpose-built-and-kitted tinnies) are already up on Cowarie station. From Morgan it’s a matter of loading trailers with food, supplies and equipment in preparation for two weeks in the desert. There’s a drop into the butcher at Burra, where a load of meat and supplies awaits. “Logistics are important,” Rex says.  “There are always going to be challenges and the idea is to be organised enough to eliminate as many problems as possible, without the planning becoming a problem itself, in terms of having to adhere to plans,” he grins.

The first night is spent in the Carrieton caravan park before an early start to push up to Lyndhurst, where inclement weather throws a spanner in the game – the Birdsville Track is closed. There’s nothing for it but to wait and have a look around. As happens periodically through the trip, Rex bumps into someone he knows: Cornelius Johan Alferink, ‘Talc Alf’. Alf’s studio outside Lyndhurst is full of his signature sculptures in talc stone, and provides an interesting sojourn. From there the group heads into the northern Flinders for some geological explorations before heading back to Lyndhurst to get a jump when the road dries up and opens. 

Over the years Rex has amassed a wide, wide network of mates and contacts through out the bush. “It wouldn’t be possible to do these things without having good mates to work with and to have go along, also to provide good back-up. Having mates about the place means that whatever happens, it’ll be fine.” This is once more evidenced when, after a couple of phone calls, the group is able to camp in the very comfortable shearers’ quarters on the Litchfield family’s Mundownda station, just out of Lyndhurst. Gordon and Lyn Litchfield are hospitality personified and Gordon has a fire going in the pit for arrival. A meal, drinks and yarns around the fire ensue. 

Already the tenor of the trip is being set. Rex, in his forthright way, lays some ground rules. “If you think you’re here for a holiday, you can get that out of your head right now – you’re here for an adventure,” he says. “In fact some of you are probably going to need a holiday by the time we’re finished. But I guarantee you, we’ll get along – we’ll exploit your strengths and we’ll all look after each other’s weaknesses. By the time we’re done we’ll be able to walk into a town and take the place over, that’s how well we’ll be operating together!”

This story excerpt is from Issue #109

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2016