Located 418 km north of Mount Isa and 15 metres above sea-level, Burketown proudly announces to the world that it is 'The Barramundi Capital of Australia'. This small town on the flat plains of the Gulf near the Albert River is really nothing more than a school, a pub, a couple of service stations, a council office, and three general stores.
It currently has a population of 235 which is about as high as it has ever been. In 1868 there was a population of 70. This had dropped to 15 in 1871, risen to 265 in 1911 and dropped back to 59 in 1947. There seems to have been no real boom period in the town's history.
The first Europeans into the area were Burke, who is the source of the town's name, and Wills. They reached the coast near Normanton in 1861.
A subsequent visitor was Frederick Walker - one of the many explorers who, while looking for Burke and Wills, opened up the whole Gulf area.
Walker's grave is located 71 km south of the township on Floraville Station. The inscription reads:
'On August 17 1848 Frederick Walker, aged 28, was appointed to the position of Commandant of the Corps of Native Police having emigrated from Australia from England. The Corps commenced with fourteen troopers recruited from four different New South Wales tribes. In 1850 Walker had three units and two lieutenants in the corps and by 1852 he increased the Corps with 48 additional Aboriginal troopers who were drilled and trained in the use of carbines, swords, saddles and bridles. The Native Mounted Police Corps were responsible for maintaining law and order beyond the settled districts. On 12 October 1854 Walker was dismissed from the service for impropriety of conduct due to his heavy drinking. After his dismissal he continued to live on the frontier and briefly formed an illegal force of ten ex-troopers from the Native Police Corps to protect settlers in the Upper Dawson region. In August of 1861 fears had grown for the safety of the Burke and Wills expedition and Walker was sent at the insistence of the Royal Society of Victoria to search for the ill-fated expedition.
Frederick Walker was in many ways a remarkable man. His exploration of the Gulf assisted in opening up the region and his maps were considered accurate. Walker did not find Burke and Wills but he did find Camp 119, the last Burke and Wills camp before they turned south on their return journey. After lengthy explorations of the Gulf region Walker was then employed by the Superintendant of Electric Telegraph to survey a 500 mile route from Bowen to Burketown in a bid to compete against South Australia to have Burketown the end of the Trans-Oceanic link from Europe. Although Frederick Walker lost the race and Darwin became the terminus. He did survey the line. He arrived in Burketown with his party of four Europeans and four Aboriginal assistants at the height of the Gulf Fever - a typhoid which affected the Gulf after the arrival in Burketown of a vessel on which all the crew except the Captain died. Walker commenced his return journey but at Floraville he became ill and after several days he also died of the Gulf Fever on 19 September 1866. The entry in the expedition's logbook recorded the passing of a pioneer of the gulf: 'as soon as the horses were brought up and a couple saddled Perrier and Ewan were starting for the doctor of the Leichhardt search expedition which was camped about six miles off. But he (Walker) died before they mounted. He died at noon and was buried on the evening of the same day. So ended the life of a remarkable Australian.'
Frederick Walker's grave became a mystery as to its location for many years until discovered by Mr. Walter Camp of Floraville Station after many years of searching.
Another explorer who came through the area at the same time as Walker was William Landsborough. He, too, was looking for Burke and Wills. It is an irony of the Burke and Wills saga that it was the people who went looking for the duo who really opened up the Gulf area - Burke and Wills made no contribution to the discovery of the area in their own right.
Landsborough was impressed with the land between the Albert and Nicholson Rivers and named it the 'Plains of Plenty' which was enough to cause a minor flurry of interest. Nat Buchanan was among the pastoralists who raced to take up holdings on the Gulf. He managed to secure land between the two rivers. It was claimed at the time that an area of 25 sq. miles was worth £1000. This was partly related to the belief that cattle raised on the Gulf could be cured and sold to the lucrative Dutch East Indies market.
In 1865 the town site was established when William Landsborough arrived in the tiny settlement with a number of native police. He had recently been appointed police magistrate and commissioner of crown lands in Carpentaria.
Around this time a boiling works was set up on the banks of the Albert River by the Edkins brothers. Boilers, vats, cauldrons and equipment were shipped up from Sydney and beef from the area was successfully salted and smoked for export.
By March 1867 the Edkin brothers were exporting cured beef and barrels of tallow to Batavia and Singapore and they were sending horns, hooves and hides to Brisbane and Sydney for secondary processing.
It looked as though Burketown would become prosperous and the locals started talking about secession. However the population was decimated in 1866 by Gulf Fever (no one is quite sure what it was but guesses have included yellow fever, typhoid and dengue). Most of those who did not die moved to Normanton.
Today the Boiling Down Works is nothing more than a few boilers and rusting machinery in the middle of nowhere beside a dry river bed. They are a reminder that the town flourished briefly before the combination of Gulf Fever and the establishment of a cattle route across to Townsville dealt it the coup de grace.
Things to see
The Burke Shire Council has produced a sheet of things to do in the local area which is full of good suggestions, tel: (07) 4745 5111.
Frederick Walker's Grave
The grave of pioneer explorer Frederick Walker is located 71 km south of the township on Floraville Station. To get there head south off the Burketown-Normanton road at the sign which says 'Floraville Station' and then travel towards the station buildings. Before reaching the station turn left and the grave is located on the far side of a dry creekbed.
The Old Boiling Down Works
Travel north through the town, pass the pub, proceed past the hospital on your right, go across a grid and follow the main dirt road until you reach a sign which says 'Historic Sites'.
Of the town's other interesting sites there is the old post office, moved to the corner of Mulgrave and Burke Sts, which the local council converted into a tourist information centre but which is currently empty. One of Burketown's first buildings, it was constructed in 1887 and retains many of its original features. It is typical of the post and telegraph offices which were built in Queensland in the late nineteenth century.
To the south of the town on the Normanton Road there is a 100-year-old artesian bore. It is arguably the only really interesting bore in Queensland as it has been running for over a century and the minerals in the water have built up so that now it looks more like a piece of modern sculpture than a tap to an underground supply of hot water. The pond which has formed around the bore has also been coloured by the minerals.
Lawn Hill National Park
Located 220 km south of Burketown is the magnificent Lawn Hill National Park centred around the famous and outstanding, 60-metre high Lawn Hill Gorge which has been occupied by Aborigines for around 35 000 years. Erosion, caused by a subterranean creek, has created a beautiful oasis of limpid water, red rocks and verdant vegetation. Canoes are available for hire and there are some beautiful swimming spots along the river. There is also plenty of fauna in the area (including freshwater crocodiles which are not known to attack people) and a memorial to a police sergeant who was shot and killed while pursuing bushranger Joe Flick in 1889. The road to the Gorge is unsealed and arduous (take the signposted turnoff 76 km west of Gregory Downs) and the facilities are very basic. However, there are 20 km of walking tracks which will take you to historic sites where there are middens and rock art, and to the Island Stack, from whence there are excellent views of the Gorge, as well as a pleasant waterfall and swimming area. For further information and camping permits, tel: (07) 4748 5572.
A recent and exciting find in the park is the living presence of the gulf snapping turtle (Lavarackorum elseya), thought to have been rendered extinct owing to dramatic climatic change during the Pleistocene era. Prior to this, the only known example was a fossil found at Riversleigh. For more information check out: http://www.derm.qld.gov.au/parks/boodlamulla-lawn-hill/index.html
Well signposted from the main Lawn Hill Road, Adels Grove is 10 km from the national park. Covering 30 ha it was established by French botanist Albert de Lestang in the 1930s at the behest of the government as an experiment in the growing of tropical fruits and trees. There is an airstrip, a guide service, a kiosk and a caravan and camping site, tel: (07) 4748 5502.
Riversleigh Fossil Fields
55 km south-east of Adels Grove these palaeontological fields are now incorporated into Lawn Hills National Park. Although many of the finds (including huge flightless birds and other fossils dating back 20 million years) are now in the Mt Isa Riversleigh Fossils Display the site is still of interest. However, there are no facilities or accommodation and permission must be gained prior to entry, tel: (07) 4748 5572.
18 km west of the town, on the banks of the Nicholson River, is Escott Lodge (the turnoff is 3 km from Burketown), which is part of Escott cattle station. It was established in 1864 and now covers 700 000 acres with 9000 head of cattle. It has camping and caravan accommodation, with ablutions and laundry facilities in a parkland setting, surrounded by coconut palms and mango trees, tel: (07) 4748 5577. The email is firstname.lastname@example.org
World Barramundi Fishing Championships
This popular annual fishing event, which is conducted out of Burketown, takes place each year in April, offering over $7500 in prize money, with $2600 for the heaviest single catch. For further information ring check out: http://www.burkeshirecouncil.com/fishing_competition.htm
Burketown Shire Council
Burketown QLD 4830
Telephone: (07) 4745 5111