Diamantina is 400km north of Birdsville, the surrounding landscape more akin with the American Wild West... red rocky outcrops called 'jump-ups' in these parts - flat top, truncated, ancient mountain leftovers from some long-forgotten inland sea, and seemingly sown at random across these endless red plains with the scantest smattering of grey bush... until we reach 'Channel Country' that is, the tangled, snakelike, labyrinth of waterways rutted and wrangled by past torrential onslaughts, the larger trees with ripped, bare roots, the stark gibber plains with occasional sink holes.
So this is the mighty 'Diamantina' diaspora, the stuff of Outback verse, our truck rising and falling on a dusty roller coaster of a road. Wayward cattle stare languidly, the land a rutted moonscape of a floodplain, with washed up flotsam pushed high in the canopy of ancient stunted trees. Dry, scoured trenches flow wherever they wish.
Finally arriving at Hunter Gorge campsite, we meet National Parks Ranger Max tending the facilities and passing on upcoming weather details. "Yeah, some chance of rain... but less chance than yesterday. Changeable country this, that's for sure." Those dark eyebrows are raised. "In my first year we were all stuck out at the homestead for months." There's a sweep of that giant hand. "All you can see was flooded, for miles and miles." Max pauses, could be only in his 20s, in faded green Ranger garb, a mop of black hair under a wide-brimmed hat and the scant beginnings of a beard." He points down south, in the direction where we passed the old station homestead on the slightest rise... now the Parks office and accommodation, and sited on one of the few pieces of higher ground.
Our camp overlooks a flotilla of pelicans cruising the coffee-coloured Diamantina water, fishing as one, upstream then down... floating this way, then the other, beaks down trawling, beaks up again... and on they go until dark. Our neighbour too catches fish, 5-yellow bellied perch within hours of arriving, and graciously offers us one - a delicious gift we wrap in foil with garlic and lemon and cook on our fire, along with roasted slices of saffron-coloured sweet potato that melt in our mouths.
That night we listen to an ominous pitter patter of rain for most of the night, recalling the Ranger's earlier words, "Yeah, the isolation is kind of nice. But it can get tricky out here. You're a long way from anyone I reckon." Max's eyes had narrowed to stress how serious things can get. "Even with 10mm of rain the roads get impossible."
At 6am it's still dark, still raining and time to get up. We've decided to run for it, leaving those still sleeping in vans and camper trailers. We don't fear the river - not for now anyway - but we do fear the notorious red mud.
We breakfast on fruit and yogurt in silence, still dark, the wet drifts coming and going on a cool intermittent breeze, the smell of dust replaced by rain. Soles of our gumboots are layered in mud that's more like glue, even though the ground is wet only on the surface, the sand still dry below.
We finish packing and rev up the truck with very first light, but there's no other sign of life. From our riverside campsite we slip and slide towards the gate, our truck tyre treads clogged with mud that was sand just yesterday... the truck in low range and 2nd gear. Olympic tobogganing on greasy mud comes to mind
Max had said that "If you get to Brighton Downs, then you'll make it out." The window wipers settle into a rhythmic clap, our slicked-up tyres slip and slide, our truck barely missing a gate post. We are 70km from Brighton Downs, but are at least now out the gate.
It takes us over 2hrs to reach Brighton Downs, where we take a deep breath and ponder the legendary amounts of water flowing through the Diamantina system in one 'normal' wet season, and the improbability of anyone driving out once the rain got really serious. "2.4 cubic km a year" Max had said with some authority. "more than the water in Sydney Harbour."