29 January 2012

Davenport Range National Park

Friday, 20 January 2012

Northbound. We left Alice Springs for good at about 10:30AM (admittedly a tad late – but we had to make a couple of phone calls and stock up on food and fuel for the next few days) to hit the North Stuart Highway.
But instead of following in John McDouall Stuart’s tracks we veered off the Stuart Hwy after just 68km.
We weren’t done yet exploring, we were eventually going to join the Binns Track again!

Towing the trailer and the fact that we were running a bit late meant we had to improvise slightly.
That's why we didn’t stay on the Plenty Highway to join the Binns Track near Harts Range, we opted for the shortcut and turned onto the Sandover Highway instead. The Sandover Hwy is a major unsealed road in pretty impressive condition, better than most sealed highways we’d encountered in Queensland! Almost 250km we pushed on in a northeasterly direction, past Utopia and through Aboriginal land to ‘Ammaroo’, a cattle station in the middle of nowhere. 

After throwing in a quick (and improvised) picnic lunch we left the Sandover Hwy and finally joined the Binns Track again, heading north on a minor unsealed road now. This road, connecting several Aboriginal communities and cattle stations with the Sandover Hwy, had it all: corrugations from the regular to and fro between outstations, bull dust, washouts, the remnants of blown tyres, ditched wrecks in various states of decay, local families camping next to their broken down cars…
100km further on, near ‘Murray Downs’, we turned right yet again.
The Davenport Range National Part was our "piece de resistance" and we were in for some fun four-wheel driving! One minute the narrow track would run along atop a rocky ridge, some tufts of Spinifex only sprinkled on its flanks, next minute we’d be at the foot of the range and crossing the Frew River, its water tannin-stained and stagnant but picturesque just the same.

There was quite a bit of birdlife around, we saw a Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus), White-faced Herons (Egretta novaehollandiae) and lots of Spinifex Pigeons (Geophaps plumifera) among others.

Around another corner and the ruins of the old ‘Hatches Creek’ tungsten mine appeared on the horizon. Tungsten (also known as wolfram) from this mine played an important during wartimes.

We had to keep moving though, no time to fall into any of the deep shafts, it was still another 40km to go to the Old Police Station Waterhole – and it would take us at least another 1 ½ hours to get there. The weary explorers started wondering if they’d get to camp before dark.
The donkeys and cattle couldn’t have cared less…

We made it to the waterhole with a few minutes of daylight to spare. We even had enough time to examine all the camp sites along the waterhole to pick the best one of the spacious sites – for once again we were the only travellers around and the only complaints about our arrival were coming from a young bull, a few Australasian Darters (Anhinga novaehollandiae), Little Black Cormorants (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris)and a flock of Australian Wood Ducks (Chenonetta jubata) that took off rather noisily.

We set up camp somewhere halfway along the waterhole under the gum trees, built a neat little campfire and placed the camp oven on the coals a little while later.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

The temperatures hadn’t dropped much over night and it warmed up again quickly in the morning. As much of an oasis the Old Police Station Waterhole was, we were still surrounded by harsh desert country in the height of summer.
Steve and Flip decided to jump into the waterhole right opposite the ruins of the old police station, a quick swim in lieu of a shower. Not much left of the old building and what little is left of the old stone walls these days can easily be overlooked (hint: there's a little spec of red in the centre of the image below).

Standing on the edge of this tranquil waterhole in the remoteness of Davenport Range National Park, a million miles from civilisation (or so it seemed), it was hard to imagine how back in the old days this place could have possibly been in need of a police constable to restore order among a bunch of unruly miners and put a stop to quarrels between early pastoralists and local Aboriginal people.

We left the national park mid-morning, bypassing Wutunugurra and Epenarra, to enter it again in its northwestern corner at Whistleduck Creek.
Irrmweng (pronounced: Ear-moong-a) Waterhole proved very popular with Little Black Cormorants, the Toms family outnumbered yet again!

We learnt that local Aboriginal people frequent places along Whistleduck Creek for rain making ceremonies to this day. In the 1930s, an old man named ‘Lame Tommy’ was well known for his rainmaking skills and Aboriginal people as well as pastoralists would ask for his help to break periods of drought. Lame Tommy could make the rain stop too.

We had considered camping here for the night, but the water was the colour of black tea and didn’t look too inviting. It was still pretty early in the afternoon, so we backtracked to the main road. At this point we were only about 70km away from the Stuart Highway. After passing Kurundi Homestead the trip turned into something like a rollercoaster ride for a while, the road rather narrow at times, sharp corners, unpredictable turns on top of steep crests, dips with shallow water ove rthe road – holy moly!

We reached the campground at Devils Marbles less than 2 hours after leaving Whistleduck Creek coming full circle.
Steve and Flip had soon gathered enough firewood from the side of the Stuart Highway. Tonight’s dinner would be the last one cooked on an open fire: beef rump steaks, jacket potatoes topped with cream cheese and vegetables.

Boh boh!

26 January 2012

A Burke and Wills Moment at Ruby Gap

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Years ago, on our last excursion into the East MacDonnell Ranges we visited Emily and Jessie Gaps, Corroboree Rock and Trephina Gorge. Today we would give all these beautiful places a miss and keep on driving. A few kilometres short of Ross River we turned onto the Arltunga Road, as well-maintained as scenic, this formed gravel road road can get busy with cattle trucks at times. It is now also part of the recently established Binns Track.

What was most striking throughout the day were the fresh scars of recent bush fires. For quite a few weeks before embarking on this journey we'd been receiving Watch and Act messages from Bushfires NT, warning of raging bushfires, thick smoke and road closures throughout the Red Centre. While we had been noticing that along the Plenty Highway and in the West Macs fresh green was re-appearing in most places, the area around Arltunga, some 30km down the track, was still looking rather desolate and bare after more recent fires in late December.

There are some walking tracks to explore the Government Battery and Cyanide Works, Police Station, old mine workings and residential areas around the Arltunga Historical Reserve.
But on our arrival the area looked rather locked-up and deserted to us, nothing much happens here during summer. The old Arltunga Hotel was closed, it looked like drinks hadn't been served here for while, a handwritten sign on the hotel's front door read “Reopens in March” – it didn't say which year though.

It would have been a slightly different picture in the 1890s, I guess. In 1887 alluvial gold was found in a dry creek bed nearby, prompting a gold rush. Arltunga, with a population of up to 300 in its heyday was in fact Central Australia's first town!

The first mining rush in Central Australia brought all sorts of fortuneseekers into this area. To start with they had been looking for rubies. In March 1886 they thought they'd discovered the red gemstone in the bed of the Hale River, some 45km to the east. But the red stones turned out to be no more than high grade garnet, of much lesser value than ruby – and the “ruby rush” quickly became a thing of the past. A good thing for the miners that gold had been found here at Arltunga in the meantime...

We were on our way to Ruby Gap Nature Park not for the gemstones but for the four-wheel driving and the nature experience, the park's remoteness and  the rugged beauty of its landscape.
The track beyond Arltunga narrowed quickly and became pretty rough. A 4WD with high clearance is absolutely essential to tackle ruts, washouts and causeways. It took us a bit over 2 hours to make the 40km to the park's entrance where we stopped on the bank of a very dry Hale River for a picnic lunch.

Sitting under a shady gum tree on the grassy riverbank we considered our options. Glen Annie Gorge was still another 9km further upstream: 5km of driving through the sandy river bed to Ruby Gap followed by a 4km walk (one way) rated difficult due to the very rugged terrain.

The walk was totally out of the question. We certainly weren't keen on stumbling through hot sand and over boulders and rocks in 40+ÂșC for hours. No way, we knew better than to expose ourselves to the extremely hot conditions!

But what about just driving the next 5km to Ruby Gap?
We had already crossed the dry Hale River a couple of times. In the scorching summer heat the sand had softened to a point where driving on without letting the tyres down wouldn't have been a smart thing to do – especially after realising that we'd left the compressor behind. We wouldn't have been able to pump the tyres up again later! Travelling on without at least one other accompanying vehicle wouldn't have been a smart thing either. Too rugged, too remote, too risky.
Yes, we had our satellite phone and we had let people know where we were going – but we were a long way away from any help if we'd got ourselves in trouble out here.

We played it safe, called it a “Burke and Wills moment” and our expedition to Ruby Gap Nature Park a success just the same.
Burke and Wills reached the Gulf of Carpentaria in February 1861 after crossing Australia's interior. They declared their expedition a success although they never actually planted a flag on the beach, jumped in the surf or even saw the sea. In fact, they couldn't make it through the mangrove swamps of the Flinders River!

The Toms family thoroughly enjoyed their little expedition into Ruby Gap Nature Park.
These explorers travelled through some awesome country, experienced a truly ancient landscape – and made it safely back to their base camp on the Todd River without any loss of life or equipment in the late afternoon.

Boh boh!

25 January 2012

Ellery Creek Big Hole

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

"Naaaaaw... Why didn't we come here last night?!"
That's what the three explorers exclaimed in unison when they arrived at Ellery Creek Big Hole in the West MacDonnell Ranges this morning.

We could have been the only campers in this beautiful camp ground just a stone throw away from the waterhole last night. We could have enjoyed the tranquillity of this remote place without any generator noise, sewerage smells or whizz-banging neighbours. And we would have been about $20.00 better off for the night as well.

From Glen Helen it's only a short 43km drive on sealed road towards the Alice on Namatjira Drive (or 88km from Alice Springs). From the car park it's only a short walk on a paved path (wheelchair accessible) down to the creek.

Ellery Creek is yet another important tributary of the Finke River. Even during dry spells there's water in this big waterhole. This ancient river cut right through the red rocks of the West Macs, shaping a picturesque gorge, creating this beautiful deep pool.
What a sight for sore eyes and weary walkers – and an important lifeline for native wildlife!
A flock of about a dozen of Black Cormorants (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris) took off from a nearby gum tree to settle on a few rocks on the other side of the gap.

The water was clear and pleasantly warm – Flip jumped in without further ado!
An Australasian Grebe (Tachybabtus novaehollandiae) took little notice of the visitors and kept diving for food only a few metres away from where the exploring party was soaking up the peaceful and relaxing atmosphere.

Too hot to even consider walking a section of the Larapinta Trail (once again, excellent information provided by NT Parks & Wildlife), we had a very enjoyable time down by the water.

On completion of our loop through the West Macs we returned to 'G'Day Mate' and booked in for another 2 nights. We were still keen on exploring the East MacDonnell Ranges the next day, leaving the camper trailer in the caravan park.

Tonight we went across the road to the Heavitree Gap Tavern for a few cold drinks and a bite to eat. We nearly missed out on the yummy beef casserole (they serve very decent $10.00 meals down here, daily) as we caught up with the manager of Heavitree Gap, an old mate from Darwin. Many yarns from the olden days and a few cold drinks were shared before we eventually decided we needed a feed, minutes before the kitchen closed for the night. That was lucky!

Boh boh!

23 January 2012

Palm Valley and the West Macs

Monday, 16 January 2012

It's been a few years since our last stay in the Alice and it will probably be a while before we return...
From our caravan park we ventured northbound through 'The Gap' and into the centre of town only a few times. Alice Springs more or less resembled a ghost town with a lot of shops and residential dwellings up for lease or sale, the only hive of activity being the Yeperenye Shopping Centre.

To be honest, I was excited to swap deserted Alice Springs for a few days in the West MacDonnell Ranges.
We'd obtained the 'Mereenie Tour Pass', the permit granted by Central Land Council to access the Mereenie Loop Road (the gravel road out to Watarrka (Kings Canyon) National Park) and Gosse Bluff on Sunday, filled up, fuelled up – we were on our way to Hermansburg on the Larapinta Drive.
We didn't actually enter the community with its historic precinct dating back to the missionary days this time, we turned the opposite way to follow a very dry Finke River on our way to Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park.

Steve and I camped here 11 years ago, on our honeymoon. This time we wanted to show Flip the spectacular landscape and pristine wilderness of Pam Valley.

The well-kept campground is right on the edge of a dry creek bed with beautiful views all round.
Our stay would have been perfect, except...we were outnumbered...
I admit it, the millions of obnoxious and bitey little black ants got to me that night!
I made sure I stayed in my chair with my feet up, Steve was on kitchen duty!

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Why didn't I think of it last night? Workboots = no ant bites on toes!

We packed up the camper trailer and dropped it in the day use area a few hundred metres down the track on our way into Cycad Gorge and Palm Valley.
The next 4 km weren't suitable for trailers where rocky ledges give way to stretches of round river pebbles (of varying sizes) and soft sandy holes in between. Withered cliffs rising steep on both sides of the ancient river bed, cycads and fig trees defying gravity.

And then, of course, there are the palm trees, Australian Red Cabbage Palms (Livistona mariae), to be exact. They're endemic to this part of the Central Desert. No other species of palm tree grows in these harsh conditions, its closest relative can be found in Lawn Hill National Park, Queensland.
Palm Valley's palm trees are stately yet threatened as many people who come to see them ignorantly wander off the well-marked walking track, trampling all over the little seedlings.

We followed the shorter of the two marked tracks through the valley, the Arankaia track ('Arankaia' – pronounced: unk-kee-ah – is the Western Arrernte name for the palms). It's roughly 2km and we completed it before it got too hot in the middle of the day.

Gosse Bluff was next on our list. We had seen the giant meteor crater from the distance on our last journey, this time we were going to have a closer look.
Once again the information and illustration on Tnorala (Gosse Bluff) provided by the NT Parks & Wildlife Commission and the local Traditional Owners was excellent!

In the Dreamtime, when a large group of women danced across the sky as the Milky Way, one of the young mothers accidentally let her infant topple over the edge. He fell down to earth, hitting the ground hard, the 'turna' (the woodden baby carrier) falling on top of the baby creating the crater of Tnorala, forever burying him underneath. The mother, as the Evening Star and the father as the Morning Star are to this day looking for their missing baby.

According to extensive scientific studies this crater was formed 140 million years ago when a giant rock from outer space hit the earth. Flip wasn't the only one who had a hard time comprehending how a meteorite could have such an impact and then simply vaporise, disappear into thin air...

Next we thought we'd give the local economy a boost and visit Glen Helen Resort – bad move!
Eleven years ago we had a great time down by the waterhole and later at the bar.
This time the straightforward act of booking a campsite for a night took half an hour although the place was neither packed (with only 4 or 5 other campers there) nor overly fancy.
Steve had trouble explaining to the staff member (who was friendly enough) that a camper trailer tent wasn't suitable for being carried into the walk-in unpowered grassed sites as it was actually permanently attached to the trailer. The manager couldn't be bothered getting involved in the discussion whether we could park up in one one of the caravan sites without hooking up to electricity which we didn't really need. Sorry, this lack of can-do-attitude just doesn't cut it

In the end Steve paid an extra $6.00 for a powered site, $36.00 in total for a powered site on dirt.
We gave the bar and restaurant a miss and had a lovely home-cooked chili con carne instead.

The management's DILLIGAF attitude became even more obvious during the course of the late afternoon when we visited the campground's facilities. While the demountable bathrooms were neat enough the sewerage pit outside was in a rather dangerous state of disrepair...

Lesson learnt, we won't be frequenting Glen Helen Gorge again any time soon!

Boh boh!

14 January 2012

The Outback Way – Plenty Highway

Thursday, 12 January 2011

We left Emerald early in the morning and made good way on the Capricorn Highway.
The pies we had for a late breakfast at the bakery in Alpha certainly hit a spot and kept us going. The 'QANTAS Founders Museum' and the 'Stockman's Hall of Fame' in Longreach will have to wait until next time though, we were on a mission.

From Winton we were going to follow the 'Outback Way', a series of remote roads that pass through the central Australian deserts and connect Winton with Laverton in Western Australia.

Since we still had too many hours of daylight left to even start thinking about setting up camp and it was still much more comfortable in our airconditioned 4WD than in the stifling heat outside, we kept travelling on the Kennedy Developmental Road. Another 170km further west on the 'Outback Way' we reached Middleton, our final destination for the day.

Flip had been requesting another night in a hotel, so we thought we'd check into the Hilton for the night. The Hilton Hotel in Middleton is situated opposite the Middleton Hotel.

The Middleton Hotel was built during the Cobb & Co era and served as change station (one of nine change stations on the coach route connecting Winton and Boulia) to replace tired horses with fresh ones. Between 1895 and 1915 Cobb & Co ran a mail service on this route. The distance of 384 km took four days to complete in those days. One of those old mail coaches is still on display outside the Middleton Hotel, this charming little place in the middle of nowhere.

It wasn't quite what Flip had been expecting when the Toms family checked into the Hilton Hotel across the road (no airconditioning, no TV, no pool – no charge). We were the only guests tonight and we'd even brought our own beds!

A little later we joined the publican, his family and a handful of locals at the Middleton, had a fabulous dinner of corned beef, vegetables and white sauce (of course) and watched a glorious outback sun set over the grassy plains.
Dinner was followed by the recital of a number of rather inappropriate poems. Luckily Flip wasn't listening, he was outside getting a lesson in whip cracking by the granddaughter who was roughly his age. A fun night was had by all.

Friday, 13 January 2011

The sunrise was just as spectacular as last night's sunset!
The mail truck arrived just before 6:00, a few minutes ahead of schedule, to drop of the mail and some freight.

There had been no other traffic over night, everything had been really quiet. Just one Barn Owl had perched itself on our tent to swoop down on some little critter a few metres away. As the moon was very bright I could see the bird quite well from our bed.

For a gold coin donation to the RFDS, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, we were welcome to use the facilities at the Middleton Hotel. We donated generously to the Flying Doctors, not just because we really enjoyed the hot shower. Travelling in remote areas makes you appreciate this vital service as one day you could be relying on their medical help yourself.

After having my coffee mug filled we bid farewell to the friendly folks at Middleton and headed west once again.
We stopped just a few kilometres down the track at Cawnpore Lookout where an information board invited us to imagine what the region would have looked like some 98 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous period, when the Eromanga Sea below would have been swarming with crocodiles and Ichthyosaurus.

By mid-morning we arrived in Boulia, again, almost 4 weeks after our first stopover in the 'Land of the 'Min Min lights'. But this time we wouldn't head north, recounting our steps, we were westbound. The Donohue Highway which connects Boulia with the Plenty Highway in the Northern Territory had reopened after the rains before Christmas, the creeks in the Channel Country had subsided again, the road was now open to 4WDs with high clearance.

Fabulous country, we passed the red sand dunes of the northern Simpson Desert, crossed the Georgina River and its many tributaries in the Channel Country where majestic gum trees line the creeks, watched the whirly-whirlies do their thing in the wide open Mitchell Grasslands (treeless plains of Mitchell Grass, grasses of the genus Astrebla) and crossed the QLD/NT border in the early afternoon, the same stretch of road now called the Plenty Highway.
Tonight we stopped at Jervois Station where once again we were the only campers for the night.

Saturday, 14 January 2011

I'm glad we didn't drive on to Gemtree Caravan Park further west on the Plenty Highway yesterday. While the small shop is open most days of the week, the caravan park is actually closed between November and February, a piece of vital information that had eluded us until we noticed the handwritten sign on the front gate.
During the winter months this place apparently is bustling with caravanners and fossickers, lots of semi-precious stones can be found here in the Harts Ranges. During summer it's quite a desolate place, customers to the shop mainly coming in from surrounding Aboriginal communities.

The rest of the journey was a breeze, driving the last 90 km of the Plenty Highway on sealed road, arriving at the 'G'Day Mate Caravan Park' in Alice Springs in the early afternoon.

Boh boh!