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!

1 comment:

Magnetic Island Artist Edward Blum. said...

Wow, a trip is in order. My wife and I have always dreemed of going on a tour through this beautiful part of Australia. After seeing your blog you just might be seeing us. Thank you.