Alice Springs & The East MacDonnells

Blog #17 – Alice Springs & the East MacDonnell Ranges – Days 95 to 110 of 180

Corroboree Rock

We drove through some beautiful scenery on the way into Alice Springs.  It had been 11 years since I had been there last on a photography holiday with my mate Bernie Rosser.  The place has not changed. 

One of the joys of returning to civilization is flushing loos & hot showers followed by being able to use a washing machine & dryer.  We checked into the Alice Springs Tourist Park – Greg onto a powered site and me into a single room cabin as we needed to store everything from the car onto the cabin floor plus take out the ARB cage & car fridge out so the mechanics could get into the back of the vehicle to fix the rear door.  This took both of us nearly three hours.  Finally done it was then off to the local ARB store for a replacement globe and a new UHF aerial. 

Like everything to do with 4WD vehicles nothing is cheap.  I could not get a single globe so a pair cost me $116 and the new aerial was another $235.  Everywhere on this trip we have not been able to find anyone who can fit these items as they were all flat out.  We have become quite skilled in doing our own maintenance and repairs as long they are not too major.  So back to the caravan park to do some work.  The replacement of the light was fairly straight forward but fitting a new UHF aerial was a lot more challenging routing the cable through the front grill (the one on the left is the new aerial) then along the side of the engine bay and finally through the engine firewall and down into the cable channel to its destination in the back of the radio under the driver’s seat.  That part alone took us nearly an hour as we discovered that the original cable had many cable ties each needed to be cut as we followed the cable path.  Finally done, turned on the lights and they worked turned on the radio and did a radio check – all good.  That was the easy part done and next day Toyota would start on the door.

Next morning delivered the car in for the service and repairs at 8am – not used to being up this early!!!  This was also a major service as well so it was going to be expensive.  Such is life!!!  Back to the tourist park for breakfast and catch up on the blogs whilst I waited.  A very fruitful day as I managed to complete three blog posts and start working on the accompanying photos.  Late that afternoon I had a call from the Toyota Service Manager giving me the good news that the service was now complete followed by the bad news that the rear locking mechanism on the door was broken.  They had managed to jimmy open the back door so that they could find the actual problem.  Sadly, they did not follow my instructions and take photos of how much dust was in the back door panel (apparently there was quite a lot) this was all cleaned out but the parts would need to come from Sydney which would take a week.  Bugger!!!  This sort of pulled us off our touring schedule as we would need to stay around town until the parts arrived.  I could not see the point in refitting the cage and all the bits and pieces if the door was still not operational.

It was time to go cap in hand back to the Tourist Park and see if we could extend our stay.  Sadly, their cabins were fully booked and I would need to be out in two days but they did work hard and get us two powered sites for the extra days which were close to the loos and showers (always a bonus).  The repair bill was getting expensive because of the broken lock.  We had now spent $1500 on accommodation plus $552 for the spare parts (they had to be paid for before an order was made) with a further charge for 2 hours labour ($290) still to come.

My next issue was to find storage for all my gear from the cabin and here the staff at the AS Tourist Park came up trumps.  They phoned around and found that all other caravan parks were full and the only alternative I had was the self-storage places of which there were three in town.  The closest was 2 minutes away.  I rang them and lovely young lady said it would be easier to drive around and check out the sizes they had on offer.  I ended up renting a 1.5 mtr x 1.5 mtr x 2.0 mtr lockable steel container.  I rented the space for 2 weeks for $71 which I thought was very reasonable considering it would be storing most of my camera gear.  Next it was off to the locksmiths where a very good lock set me back another $127.  Having my gear safely stored behind electronic gates and a well locked steel container made me feel much better.  2 ½ hours later all the gear had been moved from the Tourist Park into the container and locked up.

At this stage Greg found out that his driving licence had been suspended.  He had received notification that he required a medical to maintain his heavy vehicle driving licence.  His doctor said that since he was retired he may not have to do the medical report that is required – bad advice.  Because VicRoads had not received the report they suspended his licence – back in March!!!  Good thing he had not been pulled up in the past three months as that would have been a hefty fine.  After ringing VicRoads to confirm the requirements, he was told he would need to have the medical certificate and they would accept one from an NT doctor.  Took a few days but Greg finally had his examination and passed.  This was then emailed to VicRoads and within 24 hours he was back to a compliant licence.  It does pay to check these details and yes, I have my HB/HT licence up to date.

By the way the reason the caravan parks were so full was because of the Australian Beanie Festival – I kid you not this festival actually exists.  Apparently, you can pay up to $500 for a humble beanie.  We saw some examples when we went to the Gillen Club for dinner that night.  There were some absolute shockers to say the least. 

I had great plans to do a lot of photography around Alice Springs but then COVID decided to stuff up our plans a bit more.  A Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) worker had been at Alice Springs Airport from a mine site out in the Tanami Desert who had tested negative but managed to give two of his family the virus when he got home to Adelaide.  Suddenly we were in a snap lockdown for three days.  On the bright side if we had been home in Victoria our foolish politicians would have had us in isolation for weeks.  Sod you Dan Andrews, I don’t miss you or your politics for a second on this trip.  Sadly, the locals had been looking forward to celebrating Territory Day and their once-a-year chance to light off fireworks and this was in the middle of the 3-day lockdown so the celebrations were cancelled.

My plan was to visit the Reptile House & the Desert Park, as they are great places to visit, but this was also delayed.  Finally, after lockdown was done it was time to explore.  I took many photos at these two venues but being highly critical of my skills was not totally happy with the shots.  Sometimes I think I do this to give myself an excuse to come back and try again to get better shots.

Whilst at the Desert Park we had some excitement as we saw a wild wedge-tailed eagle attack the tame wedge-tailed eagle whilst they were working with the birds in a flight show.  I managed to capture a few shots of them before they dropped from sight around a tree.

Having part of my childhood out here in Central Australia I was well aware of the good works of John Flynn the missionary who founded the Australian Inland Mission & the Royal Flying Doctor Service.  He was a man of vision and many people in remote communities owe their lives to him.  He is interred in a memorial on the road to the West MacDonnells called Namatjira Drive.  Originally the granite boulder on top of their gravesite had come from Karlu Karlu (The Devils Marbles) but the local women there wanted it returned as the stone had been taken from their sacred site.  A deal was made with the local women from the West MacDonnell ranges to supply a granite boulder from their area so the original stone could be returned to the sacred site in the north.

The purpose of the Australian Inland Mission was to minister to the spiritual, social and medical needs of people in the Outback.  In 1917, Flynn received an inspirational letter from Lieutenant Clifford Peel, a Victorian medical student with an interest in aviation. The young airman and war hero suggested the use of aviation to bring medical help to the Outback. Shot down in France, he died at just 24 years of age and never knew that his letter became a blueprint for the creation of the Flying Doctor Service.

At this time, Flynn also met Hudson Fysh, a founder of QANTAS. In 1927, QANTAS and the Aerial Medical Service signed an agreement to operate an aerial ambulance from Cloncurry, Queensland.

When the first pilot took off from Cloncurry on 17 May 1928, he was flying a single engine, timber and fabric bi-plane named ‘Victory’ (leased by QANTAS for two shillings per mile flown). He had with him the very first of the flying doctors, Dr Kenyon St Vincent Welch.

The first pilot, Arthur Affleck, had no navigational aids, no radio and only a compass. He navigated by landmarks such as fences, rivers, river beds, dirt roads or just wheel tracks and telegraph lines. He also flew in an open cockpit, fully exposed to the weather, behind the doctor’s cabin. Airstrips were, at best, claypans or, at the worst, hastily cleared paddocks.

Flights were normally made during daylight hours although night flights were attempted in cases of extreme urgency. Fuel supplies were also carried on flights until fuel dumps were established at certain strategic outstations. The DeHavilland could carry a pilot and four passengers at a cruising speed of eighty miles per hour for a range of 500 to 600 miles.

In its inaugural year, the Aerial Medical Service (which changed its name to the Flying Doctor Service in 1942 and the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1955) flew 50 flights to 26 destinations and treated 225 patients.

For the next ten years, Flynn campaigned for an aerial medical service. His vision was to provide a ‘mantle of safety’ for the people of the bush, and his vision became a reality when his longtime supporter, H V McKay, left a large bequest for ‘an aerial experiment’ which enabled Flynn to get the Flying Doctor Service airborne.

The Flying Doctor Service had a doctor, a pilot and John Flynn, the man with the vision, but at the time lacked the communication technology to deliver services efficiently. Alfred Traeger helped to hurdle this barrier with the invention of a pedal-operated generator to power a radio receiver. By 1929 people living in isolation were able to call on the Flying Doctor to assist them in an emergency.

Transistorised receivers later replaced pedal radios, making it possible for doctors to give radio consultations. It also meant neighbours, families and friends, scattered over thousands of kilometres, could exchange news and gossip after normal transmission hours. This time became known as the ‘galah’ session, aptly named after the noisy, chattering bird.

Flynn was cremated and his ashes placed at rest under the Flynn Memorial, just west of Alice Springs at Mount Gillen – the very centre of the vast territory to which he brought communication, medical comfort and pastoral care.

Mount Gillen

The burial service for Flynn was linked up to the Flying Doctor network and was heard at remote stations and settlements across the outback.  The RFDS and the AIM are working testimonials to Flynn’s drive and vision.

Flynn’s dream had become a reality. Flynn once said “If you start something worthwhile – nothing can stop it.”

One thing that most of my friends will find very strange about the Alice is the very strict liquor licencing laws in this town (and in many other NT towns as well).  Armed police guard the entrance to the liquor outlets which are open from 2pm to 9pm but closed on Sundays.  You are questioned as to whom you will share the alcohol you intend to buy and asked where it will be consumed.  They have no sense of humour so answer truthfully.  You can purchase any amount but only once in a 24-hour period and your licence details are shared with all other liquor outlets within the town to ensure compliance.  I was even asked my age – didn’t realise I looked underage!!!

After what seemed an eternity (12 days) it was time to leave Alice and head out to the East MacDonnell ranges, in particular Trephina Gorge.  I had already visited Emily & Jesse Gap on the way out of town so it was push on and get a good site as they are limited out there.  Found our perfect spot for the next three days and the camping is as cheap as chips in NT parks ($3.30 a night but some are $4 a night but still very cheap).  Rather primitive facilities (long drop toilets, no showers) but the scenery more than makes up for it.  We had considered doing the complete tourist loop out around to The Gemtree but Greg’s back was giving him a lot of grief from being pounded up and down on dirt roads.  He was lucky to survive a crane accident some twenty years beforehand when his large crane collapsed and rolled over on a mine site.  He spent months in intensive care and even longer in rehabilitation.  This would become more of an issue as we planned the back end of the trip through Queensland with hundreds of kilometres of rough dirt roads between campsites.

Once camp was setup at the Gorge Campground it was time to relax.  There was a lady camped in the next spot who had an electrical problem when her Anderson cable connection had disintegrated on the roadway coming in as her cables were too long.  Her van was an older Jayco Penguin (Jayco as a brand is fast becoming known as Junko to my fellow travelers).  Time to raid our supplies again as no-one in the campground had any spares.  This was the second time I donated a plug to the cause of broken-down travelers.  Greg had soon replaced the plug for Simone plus fixed some other minor issues on her van.  She and her fellow travelling companion Wendy had been touring Queensland & NT together bush walking and bird watching for the past few months.  Wendy, at 81, was much fitter than I was and used to hike around the trails each day which would have flattened me from just starting them!!!

On our second day we drove back to walk around Corroboree Rock.  This was another sacred site that I had visited back in 2010 and is quite spectacular. I remember when Bernie & I first visited here we thought that some careless tourist had discarded blue plastic shopping bags and they had blown up on the rock.  This amused the guide and our fellow photographers as they were actually small gaps in the rocks with the sky streaming through from the other side.  In our defense there was a lot of blue plastic bag trash strewn around Victoria at that time.

The weather out here at this time was lovely and warm days followed by very, very cold nights (down to -2 degC).  We had burnt most of our good wood so it was time for a replenishment run up towards Ross River as no firewood can be collected in NT parks.  We found ample wood close to the road about ten minutes outside the park.  Most of the dead trees we were finding are a type of acacia and generally burned well.  It is definitely handy having an electric chainsaw, especially with new chains that I bought in Alice, as it made short work of cutting timber for the next two nights.

We had bought both vehicles out as I wanted to explore the John Hayes Waterhole but we had been warned it was a rough track getting in there.  So, we parked Greg’s car at the information booth and turned onto the track to see how bad it was.  It was a very rough track with very sharp stones and some sandy sections through the creek beds.  It was only 4 klms in but it took us nearly 45 minutes of tough driving.  Never once had to use low range so from that perspective it was not extreme.  They do warn people that the track is for high clearance vehicles only and they are right.  At the end of the track is a small camping area on rocky ground and pathways to three different walks.  I opted for the easy 100 metre walk into the waterhole clambering over small rocks in sections to get there.  I was hoping to see lots of birds using the waterhole but there were none and I had the wrong lens to take shots of the lovely little waterhole at the end of the track.  It was very cool in the gap in the rocks and the water was ice cold. I settled for some shots of the rock formations around me as it was too hot to walk back to the car and return.  Then it was the slog back out which seemed even rougher.  Halfway back we came across a Subaru Outback which I would not regard as a high clearance vehicle and warned him that the rock steps in front of him could potentially wreck his vehicle.  His response “I am not an idiot and if it gets too tough, I will turn around and come back” – who am I to question such assumptions when I knew a) there was no place to turn around & b) the track got infinitely tougher with the road cut between steep banks.  But we left him to it to encounter two young guys trying to set a world record for speeding on narrow dirt tracks – nearly gave me heart failure as I slammed on the brakes to avoid a collision.  Greg & I were ever so happy to get back to the main track and leave them to sort out who would help who.  Back to camp and relax and watch the ever-changing colours in the hillside.

There were a lot of birds around our campsite but mainly in the very early morning with little of no light.  I heard the calls of the gray honeyeater, western bowerbird and numerous others that I could not identify.  Just across from our campsite there was a fresh (bore?) water tap where the birds had learnt to hang upside down off the tap to quench their thirst.  Some kind soul had placed a small aluminium tray and filled it with water but the stones they put in it had cut a hole so it was useless.  I replaced the tray and carefully placed the stones to ensure no cuts would occur and refilled the tray for the birds.  Hopefully they would be grateful for the bath and fellow travelers would ensure it stayed filled.

The water from the tap tasted much better than the Alice Springs water we had in our tanks so we drained them and refilled with this water.  One thing I have learned on this trip is that water quality is very variable and you should take the opportunity to utilise ‘sweet’ water whenever possible.

One other very interesting site near our campsite is a huge ghost gum.  The claim is that this the largest ghost gum in Australia and it is heritage listed.  All I know it is huge and well worth the visit off the main track!!!

Ghost Gum

All too soon our sojourn here was over and it was time to start the trek north to Darwin.  COVID is still an issue but our plan was to stage north through the NT over the next 18 days and fingers crossed we could fly on the 30th to Ange’s 40th birthday in Perth provided there was no further outbreak in NT.

Next the trek north back through Alice Springs then onto Ti Tree Roadhouse, Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles), Banka Banka Station, Daly Waters Pub & Mataranka Homestead.

The West MacDonnell Ranges

Blog #16 – West McDonnell Ranges – Days 88 to 94 of 180

The West MacDonnell Ranges

After a hearty breakfast and a reasonably good coffee it was time to depart from Kulgera Roadhouse heading towards the West MacDonnell Ranges but not before airing up our tyres as we would be on tar for the next few hundred kilometres.  I thought I had lost my HEMA Red Centre map at the roadhouse so was keen to find a replacement at the next large roadhouse at Erldunda 74 Klms away.  Sad to say they didn’t have what I wanted but they did have something for an early lunch for us and as the place was a madhouse full of grey nomads heading north, I just wanted to leave and go anywhere else but with them. by the way the map had dropped into the footwell of the car as I had turned to go for a drink – you wally David!!!!

Turning east along the Lasseter Highway from Erldunda we had 106 klm to go before turning West then North towards Kings Canyon along the Luritja Road.  We had planned on free camping at a wayside stop some 50 klm from the turnoff but were not very impressed with that site so decided to push on.  I had read that Kings Creek Station was a better, and cheaper place, to stay than at Kings Canyon Resort a another 30 klms up the road so headed there.

Arriving late in the afternoon we booked in for two days but immediately ran into a problem with the sites allocated to us still in use by someone else on one and too small to fit my trailer on another.  Back up to the office where they were most apologetic and allocated me another site which was slightly bigger but really meant for small camper vans.  I managed to squeeze into the site before unhitching the car as I was blocking the roadway whilst Greg setup some 50 metres away in a small cul-de-sac on the edge of the campsites.

I soon setup the awning and put up two walls to block the wind which was very chilly.  Next was to setup my bedroom on the second floor which did not take long.  Next was a trip to the ablutions block for a much-needed hot shower after a long day.

We decided that we would eat out for the two nights for our stay and because the wind was strong and cold early nights were in order as a fire would be a waste.  The food was quite good and the young lady who served us said buying six packs of beer was cheaper by far than individual drinks, $32 ($5.33 a stubby) for a 6-pack vs $45 ($7.50 a stubby) individually, how could we refuse!  As the kitchen closed at 7pm we headed back to our beds as the wind was getting colder.  I had three young backpackers camped next to me huddled around a small fire and very rugged up.  My 5 blanket doona was going to be a lot warmer so I was tucked up in bed by 7.30pm and left them to it.  Of an evening I have plenty of movies and tv series to watch as I had them stored on a hard drive.  If I did not want to watch a show, I had a few hundred eBooks to read or I could type some notes for the blog so I wasn’t short of evening entertainment on this trip.

About 9pm I could hear about 5 dingoes start howling and they were very close.  Like many places in the outback the dingoes come into the campsites to scavenge for food scraps and you are advised not to leave anything out.  This went on for nearly an hour but I was not game enough to go out and find how close they were.  Next morning, I was up around 7.30 am making a cup of tea when Greg showed up to tell me that the dingoes were right outside his door doing the howling last night.  He certainly was not going outside to tell them to bugger off!!

I was disappointed that I could not get a helicopter flight out over Kings Canyon as the company that runs the flights were short of pilots.  The other offerings of a camel ride or a 4WD buggy tour of the station did not really interest me so I decided to do some bird photography in the grounds.  There were plenty of wild cockatiels wheeling around all day but never quite close enough, Noisy Miners by the dozen, Crested Pigeons & Ring-necked Parrots.  I finally found something that will eat Paddy Melons – the Ring-necked Parrot.  As the melons were in plentiful supply and the birds seemed unafraid of humans, I cut up two melons and placed them on the berm about two metres behind my trailer.  Within 5 minutes I had three birds feeding on the melon sections so managed to get some good shots.  I should have cheated and smashed them on the ground to give them a jagged rather than a cut edge – oops sharing birders secrets now. Eventually I managed to get some half decent cockatiel shots as well but no sharp flight shots.

Our next part of the trip around the Mereenie Loop required permits which we would need to purchase at the Kings Canyon Resort as the Kings Creek station had run out of them.  No real impost as it was on the way to our destination.

Next morning, we packed up early and had a less than memorable hot breakfast served from a bain-marie but it was filling.  On the road again for a short trip up to Kings Canyon Resort to get our Mereenie Loop Passes.  We were asked if we had 4WD vehicles as this road is not recommended for 2WD but having driven it I know it can be done if you travel slowly as it is very corrugated.

Ginty’s Lookout

First stop was only 10 klms further on at Ginty’s Lookout.  This section of road to drive up here was quite steep and has been tarred.  Locally it is known as ‘the Jump Up’, as the road from Watarrka (Kings Canyon) ‘jumps up’ very quickly.  At the top of the hill on the right is the lookout which is also a 24-hour campsite with spectacular views towards Kings Canyon.  We stopped and checked it out for future reference if we ever came back this way.

We continued on and I was looking for the famous ‘Lift Um Foot’ drum on a sharp bend.  At first, I thought it had been removed as there were new road signs in multiple languages about driving to the conditions and making sure you had your seat belt done up.  There were also signs saying only drive on the left as well.  I wonder what our foreign visitors make of such outback humour sighting this drum.  Apparently, painted on the other side of the drums was ‘Puttim Back Down’ but this has been removed in the current incarnations as speeding on these roads is not recommended. 

Many people don’t know but my parents were school teachers and had been posted to Areyonga back in 1957 – 1958.  It is hard to imagine the difficulties in getting to this very remote community back then when all the roads through here were dirt or sandy tracks.  These days I carry all sorts of recovery gear including four MaxxTracks to cope with any offroad experiences.   My father used to use tin sheets tied on the roof to aid in getting through the sandy sections in his ’56 Holden, he also had to report in on the radio schedule to tell Hermannsburg Mission that he was leaving/arriving safely to his destination. So, I had my 3rd & 4th birthdays in this small aboriginal community.  Mum had asked that if I ever came back this way could I make a trip into the community and take some photos for her.  The previous day I had rung the MacDonnell Ranges Land Council seeking permission to visit this closed community and was told that would be OK but I couldn’t stay the night there.  That was OK with me but when we got to the turnoff the road was partially blocked saying Road Closed – Locals Only. 

I used to be a local so drove in

As I had once been a local, I decided to drive around the sign and go in whilst Greg waited on the side of the road for my return. Please note that some of these images contain photos of some aborigine people who may no longer be alive. I apologise for this knowing some of their customs but most Australians who have never been out to the outback need to see what it was like back then. The photos were taken by my sadly departed father Allan Woolcock who died far too young at 47. All the photos were from his slide collection. Any photographic faults I will put down to using the old slide film used in those days and the fact that most people did not realise that slides had to be treated carefully – the heat and humidity of his future postings to Papua New Guinea did not help their condition.

Myself and sister Liz 1958. Mum said I was very shy as a youngster. The aboriginal ladies loved the colour of my hair.

The road into the community was quite good and it was only 19 klm from the turnoff with just a few corrugations.  The approach road in is very narrow and twisted with very steep canyon walls crowding the road which ends in hill called Helicopter Hill (don’t ask me why). 

The first person I met was rather suspicious as to why I was there but pointed me too a large orange building 100 metres down the road and told me there would be someone there who could help me.  This building, I discovered, was the old school building where my parents had taught. 

Areyonga 1991

Sadly, my father is no longer with us but I am sure he would be just as excited as Mum was when I said I would be visiting here.  An elderly lady came out to see what the fuss was about as I am sure there are not many visitors coming into this small community.  When I explained that I had once lived here as a very young boy 64 years ago and my mothers name was Ann she became very agitated and yelled out for her friend to come out.  The first person I had spoken to was the elderly lady’s daughter and she explained that her mother and two friends had been at school around that time.  Another very elderly lady came out all smiles and said I must take her photo and her friends’ photo to show my mother that they remembered her.  I hadn’t told them but they said Mum was a short lady and talked funny (Mum was born in Liverpool in the UK and is only 4’ 8” tall so very short) and they remembered my sister & I but especially me because as a small child I had golden hair.  Mum said the people would be constantly touching my hair as they had never seen that colour hair before.  Soon we were joined by another elderly lady who was in the same class back then.  So now I had met the last of the elderly people who remembered my parents from back then – Emily, Stephanie & Lidja. 

Sadly, not many aborigines reach the old age as the Europeans achieve on a regular basis.  This was rather an emotional trip into here for me and for Mum especially so close to my birthday.  As I could not camp here, I took some photos of the town to share with Mum plus the photos of her old pupils and headed back out to Larapinta Drive.  On the way out I ran into another thing that Areyonga is well known for and that is the largest herd of wild donkeys in the region.  I saw a half dozen on the side of the road and stopped to take some photos.  I was doing my best hee-haw out the windows to get them to prick their ears for the photographs – I am sure they were not impressed but they did oblige.

Back on Larapinta Drive it was time to find a campsite for the night.  The road north is called Namitjira Road.  Albert Namitjira was a well-known aboriginal artist back in the 50’s and I had always admired his landscape paintings of the West MacDonnell Ranges.  At the intersection to turn north towards Mt Sonder I saw the signs for Tnorala (Gosse’s Bluff) and the road going forward was now all tar.  From the side of the road this massive crater site which occurred from a meteor strike some 140 million years ago really stood out from the local countryside.  I should have read up a bit more about this place because I was hoping to camp in there for a night but found out from signage once we drove in that it was a sacred site and no camping was allowed.  I then noticed more damage to my vehicle as I walked back from the information bay – the front left bash plate was hanging on by one bolt plus the Anderson plug that controlled the electric brakes from the trailer had been ripped off somewhere between Areyonga and here and would need fixing.  These roads out here are very tough on vehicles and trailers so you need to be prepared.  When I checked my maps for the next campsite, we realised we would not make it by dark and would need to camp on the side of the road before it got dark.  It was already very late in the afternoon.  On the drive out I saw my first susurration/murmuration of budgies although I have read a large group of budgies is called a chatter. I prefer murmuration as the flight of more than a thousand birds wingbeats is like a murmur on the breeze.  What an amazing sight as a vast flock of these small birds wheeled around very low to the ground.  There was no place to pull off this track so I hurriedly took some shots out the car window.  Hopefully one of them will be in focus as holding large cameras and lenses with one hand does tend to miss focus or blur shots.  Greg who was in front of me never saw them.

Back on the road Greg quickly found a flat piece of ground to camp on about 50 metres from the roadway.  We had enough time to fix both new issues as we do carry quite a lot of spares and tools to fix these minor issues.  Another cold camp of crackers and cheese as it was too cold to sit outside without shelter.  The next morning, I awoke to sound of rain drops pattering on my roof and Greg’s admonition to get up, pack up and get off this dirt patch just in case we had a downpour.  One of the difficulties of visiting these remote parts of the outback is that you not only have no communications but you cannot get up to date weather reports.  And to top that off it was my birthday!!!  At this stage of our journey, we were four days ahead of my schedule and my birthday would turn into a search for better shelter.

Tnorala (Gosse’s Bluff)

Luckily for us the rain did not last long as I headed up the road to Tyler’s Pass Lookout which promised a fine view over Tnorala (Gosse Bluff).  By the way if you ever want to drive The Red Centre Way, I highly recommend buying The Red Centre Way: A Complete Guide for your iPad as it is a great resource (especially if you read it in advance – not like me just when I want to find places!!!) – a free plug for Gary Weir & Amanda Markham and their website Travel Outback Australia.com.  The lookout lived up to its name and we took this opportunity to air up before continuing on.  From my guide I had found a perfect camping spot on the Finke River called Two Mile Camp just near the closed Glen Helen Gorge Resort.  This was only another 130 klm from the lookout so away we went.  These ranges are truly spectacular with deep reds and ochre plus having the two highest peaks in the Northern Territory – Mt Sonder & Mt Giles.

Mt Sonder

We stopped a few times to grab some snapshots of the scenery before arriving at the Mt Sonder Lookout just above the Finke River.  This is an extremely good viewpoint of the mountain ranges from Redbank Gorge to Ormiston Gorge plus the added bonus of being able to check campsites below us looking for a new temporary home for the next five days.  We found a lovely spot along the Finke River directly below the lookout across the river.  We had also noticed a Queensland registered X-Trail parked at the lookout when we there and over the next few days noticed its owner had not returned.  I drove up there after three days and took photos of the vehicle and its rego to give to the Police in Alice Springs if it was still there when we drove into town as it was a bit concerning.  This is very lonely country out here and many people enjoy hiking through the hills but I would hate to think something had happened to the owner and no-one noticed or did anything. NB: I subsequently reported this to the Alice Springs Police – hopefully the vehicle owner is OK and was just enjoying an extended bush walk and rugged camping.

We celebrated my birthday with our last bottle of red purchased in Coober Pedy some weeks before and a lovely chicken cacciatore.  All of that serenaded by the calls of the whistling kites nesting in the tree behind us and musical calls of the butcher birds and budgies.  Nature at its best although we could have done with some more sun.  To all my friends who will have wished me a happy birthday on Facebook I will respond once I get to Alice Springs next week.

The campsite we chose was right in the centre of lots of interesting places for me to go and do some photography as long as the sun was shining.  The day after my birthday I walked into Ormiston Gorge (the easy walk not the 2 hour jobs) and into Glen Helen Gorge.  Not sure why the latter is no longer open but you can still access the gorge by a foot trail.  Most of my images were from the roadway as that was a more photogenic spot.

The next day was a total blowout with gale force winds which started at around 2.30am forcing us out of our beds to hurriedly hammer in more tent pegs so the campsite would not be uprooted and destroyed.  If possible, the winds got even stronger around 6.15am and again we were out but this time with 50cm pegs as some of the 30cm pegs had started to lift. Back to bed again as it was too cold to be up and about but could not sleep listening as the wind whistled through the site.  I heard others packing up and driving away but opted to stay snuggled up until 11am when the wind abated a bit.  There would be no solar today so Greg & I opted to run the generator to get the batteries up to 100% and hope the wind died so we could start packing up for our trip into Alice Springs tomorrow.  Photography is a bust today with gray skies, intermittent showers of rain and the landscape looking very drab.  Hopefully the sun will shine tomorrow and there will only be light breezes to pack up.

The rain continued all night but the wind finally abated around dawn.  Not the best night’s sleep I had ever had but it was pack up day so out of bed.  We had packed most things away the previous evening so we finally left our site around 0945 am. There was one more site I wanted to visit some 21 klm away called the Ochre Pits on the way to Alice Springs.  As we were leaving the rain started to drizzle and the cloud cover draped over the hills surrounding us. It was a very cold 8 degC when we hit the tar and not pleasant.

It is only a short walk into the Ochre Pits and the rain had stopped for the moment.  There were budgerigars everywhere but mainly young ones.  The young budgies had fledged and they were out testing their new freedom by flitting from tree to tree practicing their flying techniques.  Greg had stayed up on the road luckily as the parking spaces for caravans was nil – I reversed into a coach space to get my trailer in.  I set off with my new favourite landscape lens – Canon’s 11-24mm f/4 – to see the pits for myself.  Signage warned against taking any ochre ($5,000 fine) not that I needed it.  It was an interesting site with yellow, red & orange stripes through the rock formation.  Took my photos and headed back to the car just as the misty rain started again.  What a miserable day.

On to Alice Springs and the caravan park we had booked into as our home for the next seven days.  Not looking forward to the repair bill for my car but it is to expected when you travel on rough dirt tracks named as major roads in the outback.  I would definitely come back to the West MacDonnell as the scenery was magnificent but it would need to have the sun shining on it!

Vehicle issues to get fixed: drivers side foglight, rear door still broken/jammed, snapped UHF radio aerial. won’t be cheap to get it all repaired.

Next time will be about the Alice and the East MacDonnell Ranges.  Still living the dream on our epic journey.

The Finke Desert Race & Lamberts COA

Blog #15 – The Finke Desert Race & Lamberts COA – Days 83 to 87 of 180

One of Greg’s images of a big banger

Whilst in Finke we chatted to some motorbike riders who had also come in to watch the race as we were total newbies and had no idea where or what a good campsite would be.  I also had not realized, until I re-checked the map, that we were on the edge of the Simpson Desert and we were now in sand dune country.  They had been to three of these races and suggested we camp around 10 klms out along the track on the eastern side as the prevailing winds generally blow east to west at this time of year.

So away we went along the track looking for a nice open camp spot.  We found one 8 klm out of town in the shadow of a large dune which would cut down any strong winds that would be blowing.  We were between two corners so I had some good opportunities for photography.  Due to the stuff up of me not downloading the programme I was blessing our good fortune that we were the only people camped along this 500 metre stretch of track.  Duh!!!  We were a day early but by Saturday there was a constant stream of traffic on the road of people looking for campsites which continued on into the night.  I also thought the road would be closed as well but this never happened either at least near us.

Our views were fantastic and the camp was setup with an ample supply of firewood at hand.  With safety in mind, I had no plans to do any photography closer than 25 metres to the track because if anything went astray it would be hard to outrun an out-of-control vehicle.  When using long lens such as a 200-400mm or a 100-400mm there was no need to be any closer.  Now all I needed was not to have the spectators camped up closer to the corner getting too close to the track and blocking my photographic angle.

A couple of times I turned on our small hand-held radios and scanned the airwaves to see if we could pick up some details on the event.  We were in luck and found that the modified cars and dune buggies would start at the Alice Springs end at around 7.15am on the Sunday morning.  Given that the race was in two legs of 243 klm each way we calculated that the first one would reach us around 9.30am. 

After a pleasant day relaxing and having a few beers we were settling in for the night when a late camper came over to see us.  He had just driven up from Coober Pedy that day which is no mean feat given the distance.  He wanted to know what side of the track he should camp – old hands we were by now as we had been here two days – and told him to camp on our side of the track so his vehicle would not be coated in dust from the racetrack.

Next morning, we were up bright and early ready for the race.  As the sun was very bright, I opted to sit under the awning and setup tripod with the big lens whilst I was comfortably ensconced in a deck chair.  Very lazy way to take photographs but very efficient as it was going to be a very long day.

A big banger in action
Bring the noise
Love the sound
Going going gone

The time was here!!!  We could hear the roar of a V8 racing engine in the distance.  I was pre-focused on the bend some 250 metres away when the first machine came roaring around the corner in a spray of dust and pebbles.  He was absolutely flying (we found out later many of them were achieving a speed around 160 klm on this dirt track on the straightaways) – even firing at 14 frames a second, he was gone in a flash.  We didn’t know what time separation were between each vehicle but the noise they made on approach gave us adequate warning.  The breeze was quite strong this morning and helped blow the dust off the track which not only helped the drivers but also the photographers.  I also recognized that there was a gap in the high sand dune behind us and about a further two kilometers away that the vehicles came over so recognized the dust plumes as soon as they reached that crest.  This helped me get setup for the next shots with plenty of time.

Getting there
Last one

It was non-stop action for the next two and half hours with two crashes within 100 metres of us but behind us so no photographic evidence of the vehicle carnage.  We heard it however so ran over to help when no-one climbed out of the overturned wreck.  By the time Greg & I and some other spectators arrived the two occupants were out of the vehicle and were OK.  They asked if we could turn the vehicle the right side up to minimize any engine damage and let the oil flow back down to the sump.  I could see that this thing would not be going anywhere in a hurry as the rear axle had snapped and a wheel had come off.  Various other bits and pieces were strewn along the track that they had left as they cartwheeled off the track.  We helped pick up all the bits and pieces we could find and returned them to the driver.  Not sure what racing team they were but the driver had Glorified Bus Driver on his T-shirt.  One of the support vehicles showed up so we returned to our camp.  Luckily there was a fair gap between the crash and the next competitor coming through.

Unbelievable, the next vehicle coming through barrel rolled off the track in exactly the same place but on the opposite side of the track.  Luckily for them they landed wheels up.  They hopped out and assessed the damage, which must have been minor, as we heard the engine start and the drove down and across and parked beside the other wreck.  I thought there day was done as well until, 20 minutes later we heard the engine fire up again and astonishingly they bounced back onto the track and disappeared towards Finke.  They build these vehicles very rugged and tough.

By midday all the cars and dune buggies had gone through and there was a hiatus as the vehicle sweepers cleared the track of debris and broken-down vehicles to get ready for the 2- & 4-wheel bikes.  Whilst fast and spectacular they are not quite the same as hearing the big bangers roaring down the track with 700 horsepower engines powered by Ethanol fuel screaming by your location.  They started at 1pm and continued all afternoon but fortunately no-one came off or broke down near us.

Excitement over it was time to recharge batteries and copy the images off the cards and onto hard drives for future processing.  All up Greg and I took nearly 8,500 shots that first day many which will end up in the digital scrapheap but there will be some gems in there.  I will post a few within this blog.

Time to settle back, light the fire and have a few ales talking about the day.  One of the reasons we had camped so far out of town was that we were warned that if you were close to the town, you would not get a good night’s sleep as the mechanics started tuning vehicles around 3am for the next morning’s 7.15am start. 

This day I decided I would try getting some drone footage as I needed the practice.  The new drone had not had much usage on this trip as most days we experienced so higher than usual wind speeds plus the law forbidding the flying of drones in national parks which limits its use.  One thing I soon learned on day 2 as the cars roared past is that you cannot fly a drone and take photos too which was very frustrating for me.

In the end I stuck with the drone but the results left a lot to be desired plus the DJI Mini 2 did not record sound on the videos I was shooting – more things for me to learn on how to operate this machine properly.

Once all the cars and dune buggies went through and the sweeper vehicle did a pass we sat back and waited, and waited, for the bikes to start.  Unbeknownst to us at the time, and there was nothing be heard on the radios, there had been a fatality where a spectator had been out by an out-of-control racing buggy some 30 klms short of Alice Springs.  Later we learned that he was an avid amateur photographer who was standing within 2 metres of the track taking photos.

The race was cancelled at that time.  After another hour the decision was made to allow the bikes to return to Alice Springs in groups of 25 or so.  At this stage we still did not what had happened until a rider had a spectacular crash right in front of us.  I immediately took my camping chair over to the trackside as I felt he would be more comfortable sitting in that than lying on the side of the racetrack.  His mates had picked his bike up and parked it on the other side of the track but he was in no fit state to do anymore riding that day.  I told his mates I would stay with him until the sweepers and the first aid truck would show up as they were in the second last group.  From him and his mates we learned what had happened and why they were not racing.

After another hour the St John’s medics turned up.  Apparently, they had taken their Toyota Troopie up the racetrack which was very loose sand and managed to get themselves bogged.  Very embarrassing for them as they then needed to snatch strapped out by the Police.  So, Greg & I helped the sweeper truck load his motorbike up onto a tray trailer whilst the rider was assessed for injuries.  He had lost some skin up his right arm and had very badly bruised his right leg when he hit the ground after his wheel caught in a rut on the churned-up track.

Given that he could not lie down they made a decision to load him into a race marshal’s car with the magic green whistle (pain killer) along with one of the medics and keep heading for Alice Springs.

Excitement over Greg & I returned to camp but first sent the OK message from our Spot3 EPIRB to let the family know that we were both OK if they saw that a 60’s plus male had been killed during the race and thought it was us.  It was a sad way to end what had been a fantastic event for Greg & I to witness.  I had seen many videos of previous Finke desert races on YouTube and had always wanted to be at the event.  Another thing crossed off the bucket list.

The rest of the afternoon we spent relaxing and packing away all the non-essentials so we could leave relatively early the next day.  The exodus by campers started soon after and continued all night which meant a less than ideal sleep that night.

Next morning, we finished packing and headed back to Finke.  A brief moment of excitement for me when Greg told me to veer off the road onto the racetrack as he was having difficulties on the road as it was so cut up by the volume of traffic.  The racetrack was deep sand and soon I was struggling as well but managed to get through the last 500 metres into Finke but on the other side of town from Greg.  Straight on the radio to find out where he was only to find out I had another casualty on the vehicle – this time my GME aerial had snapped from the constant whiplash of the last section of track.  Luckily, I had installed a second dual channel ORICOM radio for this trip so soon was back in contact with Greg.  It does make a big difference using inbuilt radios in cars as the handheld 5Ghz units do not have a great range and many times I lost touch with Greg if I was more than a kilometre away.

Next stop was to be Lambert’s Geodetic Centre of Australia which I originally planned to be at on my birthday on the 19th June.  However, this was only the 15th and we were not going to camp out there for four days as I needed my vehicle repaired.

The Lamberts COA was only 12 klms from Finke then 11 klms up a goat track off the main road.  There are actually in and out tracks but in many cases the in track had been washed out and you were forced onto the out track.  This was alright until you struck a convoy of five vehicles coming out like I did.  I had to back up into the scrub so they could get past which was very untidy to say the least.  No often my trailer gets to be a bulldozer to back my way off the track.  Luckily no serious damage or scratches happened.

Greg & I can now say that we have both visited this site and our names are in the visitors’ book for remembrance.  A shot of single malt each and a passing traveler to take a photo commemorating the event before getting back on the road again heading for the Kulgera Roadhouse.

Finally arrived at Kulgera late in the afternoon.  This roadhouse is very rundown and the facilities are old and decrepit.  However, the price was right for what we wanted – 2 unpowered sites at $10 for the night.  This was to be a one-night stop so we left the trailer and van hooked up to the vehicles. Time to venture into the pub which I had heard was quite famous for its roof ornaments.  I will let you be the judge of the roof decorations – what can I say but ‘Only in Australia’.

A beer in hand it was time to ring Toyota in Alice Springs to find out when I could get booked in to get my repairs and service done.  I was shocked that I could not get in any earlier than 10 days.  Given that I would need to unpack the vehicle plus remove the ARB cage from the rear plus all that gear I would need to book a cabin at a caravan park to store everything out of site.  I did not want to give a free hand to an opportunistic thief to all my camera gear and spare parts just sitting it beside my camper trailer.  Next task was to find accommodation with a cabin plus a powered site for Greg for at least a week.  On our second try we were in luck and managed to get booked into the Alice Springs Tourist Park in the centre of town.

Dinner was had in the pub as we discussed how to fill the next eight days as we needed to be in Alice by the 23rd June.  Greg showed no interest in going to Uluru and as I had already been there, we decided to headed up into the West MacDonnell Ranges via the Mereenie Loop as the next part of our adventure.

My water tanks had been filled at Kathleen Creek over ten days before and it was very high in dust particles – you could see it in the water I was boiling for my tea.  We decided to dump all that water from our tanks (Greg had filled his tanks as well there) and fill up with water supplied at Kulgera.  A bit cheeky I know but there was no water to be had were we going so it was a necessity.  We also topped off our fuel before heading on the next leg of the adventure into the West MacDonnell Ranges and a place where I spent my 3rd & 4th birthdays.

Airing up at Kulgera

Oodnadatta To Finke via Dalhousie

Blog #14 – Oodnadatta to Finke via Dalhousie Springs – Days 79 to 82 of 180

The Goat Track

It seems such a long time since we left home nearly three months ago but the time has flown by.  I suppose this is because each day we added to our adventure.  After replenishing supplies in Oodnadatta and getting over the sticker shock of paying 198.9 cents per litre for diesel & $84 for a 30 can block of beer it was time to head north to Finke for the desert race.

We were only interested in the latter two – Open means you can use the road not a statement on the roads condition itself
The road north

My planning to this stage had been pretty good but for some reason I had not downloaded the programme for the race so did not realise the race was on the Sunday & Monday so was busting a gut to get to Finke by Friday.  All planning was built on that date.

On turning up the Mt Dare Road some 17 klms out of Oodnadatta heading north disaster struck.  We pulled over to transfer the beer we had just purchased into the fridge in the back of my vehicle but found that the door lock/spring had broken and we could not get the door open.  NO COLD BEER!!!!  It almost made me turn around and go back to Oodnadatta and see if their mechanic could fix the issue but as it was getting on into the afternoon, we needed to make a mile and find a roadside campsite for the night (driving at night out here can be hazardous to your health plus I had no headlights).  Greg luckily had a spare car fridge in the back of his car so we turned that on to chill our beers.  Disaster averted for the moment and off we went again.

Plan was to drive until 1630 or get to Hamilton Station whichever came first and camp up if we could find a place to camp.  Finally rolled into Hamilton Station around 1700 hours to find that the road we had planned to use to get to Dalhousie Springs was closed off due to road damage and was not passable.  Decision time on what to do.  This is where the Aussie outback laconic response to questions on distance became very apparent.  A fellow traveler who was going to Dalhousie as well told us that there was a good campsite to be had at Eringa Waterhole “just up the road and not too far”.  We should have pushed him a bit harder for an exact distance but according to our Hema maps the waterhole we saw looked to be about 44 klms further on.  Decision made – push on.  The actual distance was another 70 klm on and it was now dark – I still had high beams and spotlights luckily.  By now we were exhausted after driving on rough tracks for 250 klm that day.  Doesn’t seem far but when towing trailers and caravans the task is much more taxing on your concentration but we got there.  There were quite a few fellow travelers camped up already by the time we arrived but that night was to be a cold camp and cheese & crackers for dinner (washed down by a couple of cold ales) then early to bed.

The young blokes camped next to us had suggested we might want to camp on the other side of the waterhole as they might be a bit noisy.  The offer was politely declined as were absolutely knackered and just wanted to sleep.  I think the cumulative days of travelling were taking a bit of a toll on us but a good night’s sleep would fix that.

Next morning dawned clear and crisp.  We had not unhitched the previous night so it was easy to get on the road early.  All the roads but one into Dalhousie Springs were closed due to rain damage from some two months previously and had yet to be repaired.  So away we went until we were almost at Mt Dare (9 klm short) to get to the turnoff.  Within 200 metres of turning off this road turned into a goat track of biblical proportions.  There were washouts and steep rocky parts with very sharp rocks so we had to be careful of our tyres.  I stopped a traveler coming the other way to ask him what the road was like further in as it was 61 klm into Dalhousie Springs from the Mt Dare Road – he told me that ”it improved in about another 5 klms” – lying swine!!!!  The road was an absolute shocker for the rest of the way.  It took us nearly three hours to do that 61 klms.  This would have to be the worst road we had ever driven on this trip so far and we would have to repeat it on the way out in two days’ time.  We were spurred on by the thought of the 35 degC pool to relax our tortured muscles at the end of the trip into our new home at the campground. 

Finally got there to find quite a large crowd already there but managed to get a spot close to the amenities block.  Setup camp then off a swim.  The water was lovely and warm and the campsite provided free noodles to help you float around and relax.  The pool is quite large, around 300 metres long and about 20 metres wide.  After a very relaxing two hour soak it was time to get out which was very bracing given the temperature differential and the very cold wind that was blowing.  As soon as we got back to our camp the wind lifted again so we put up three walls to keep us relatively sheltered.  The wind persisted through the night and into the next day which made it quite cold but did not stop us from going for another swim the next day.  We talked to a few other campers about the rear door issue and found that it was not uncommon for this to happen on these dirt roads.  I even turned on the satellite phone and rang Jacob Toyota in Wodonga (they service this vehicle) and asked if there was anything we could do.  Their response was that unless we could get the trim off the back door to get to the locking mechanism then it was best to leave it until we could get to a Toyota workshop in Alice Springs.  Another fellow traveler told us that there was a Toyota trained mechanic at Mt Dare who may be able to help we decided to relax and enjoy our stay. 

Many people had admired my travelling home so I was happy to extol the superior engineering that went into building my trailer and was happy to show them.  It is sad that Drifta no longer manufactures these trailers as they are far superior to the trailers built in China which are not strong enough for these outback roads.  The other interesting thing about Dalhousie springs is that it is on the edge of the Simpson Desert and that all vehicles that come across from Birdsville on the French Line, QAA Road or the Rig Road end up here so it can be very busy.  The only downside to many of these remote places is that there are no communication services so you really need to be prepared in case of emergencies.

It was time again to pack up (the wind was still brisk) and head to Mt Dare in hope their mechanic may be able to help us with the rear door.  So away we went back along the goat track towards Mt Dare some 70 klms away.  This time it only took us 2 ½ hours maybe because we picked better driving lines or maybe I just wanted to get the hell off this road.  Arrived at the Mt Dare Hotel complex mid-morning to find a queue of vehicles waiting to fuel up.  Many of them had come across the Simpson Desert and were very well decked out.  I have never seen so many tricked out 79 series Toyota four door utes.  They made up nearly 75% of the vehicles we had seen in the past few days.  I was getting rather envious of the power that these vehicles generate with their big V8 motors when towing but am not envious of what they will pay to fill them up.  Diesel here is $2.27 a litre so you need deep pockets.  Next place with fuel is Finke a further 100 klms away and it is $2.40 a litre there.

The queue for fuel – this is at 10am in the morning

Thankfully I only needed 35 litres to top my tank but it still cost me $75.  We had heard that fuel runs out quite often here so we deemed it wise to fill up.  Unfortunately, the mechanic had gone away but their maintenance guy offered to have a look but first I would need to empty everything off the back seat plus take out the ARB cage and all the gear in the back of the car.  This is no mean feat to get this done and it took Greg & I nearly 2 ½ hours before I rolled the vehicle around to the maintenance section.  We tried every trick he knew but could not get the door open so we called it quits.  He was nice enough not to charge me anything for his work.  Back to the campsite and repack everything back in.  I was exhausted at the end of that exercise.  Again, I was surprised at how busy these bush pubs are. Maybe it was busier than usual because of the Finke Desert Race but you had to pre-book and pre-pay for dinner as soon as you booked in for camping.

I had a homemade chicken curry and Greg had a mixed grill.  The meals were delicious.  Two cans of G&T set us back $27 so they were making a mint out here even if cartage was an issue.  For the first time we heard dingoes howling around the campsite at nighttime.  We also paid $170 for two 30 can blocks of beer to see us through the next week. There were signs everywhere not to leave food out or leather shoes as dingoes had been known to chew on them as well.  It was a very crisp night but good for sleeping.  Packed up early and went and had breakfast at the hotel as it was much simpler than breaking out all our cooking gear, washing up the dishes then repacking.  When I started the car to hitch up the outside temperature was 4 degC and very fresh.

On the road by 0830 for the last leg into Finke only 104 klms away.  The NT border was only 10 klms up the road where we stopped and took the obligatory photos to show we were crossing into our 4th state/territory in the past three months.  We had filled out the obligatory health pass for interstate visitors and it was interesting to note the last 28 days had been spent in South Australia so the dreaded word, Victoria, was not mentioned at all.

We had wanted to stop at Charlotte Waters but some mongrel had souvenired the signs so we missed out.   The section of road once over the border was quite good and had been graded recently.  In sections you could see where large volumes of water had flowed down along the side of the road and washed-out huge channels.  Luckily for us these had been repaired and there was plenty of road to maintain around 80 klm/hr.  We rolled into the small community at around 10am and pulled up at the general store to stock up on fresh groceries and get some extra drinking water (bore water can be drunk but it does have a very mineral taste).  The store was well stocked with fresh fruit & vegetables at a reasonable price.

Now it was time to head north along the Finke to Alice Springs Road and find a suitable campsite to watch the race. But that will be in the next section of our adventure.

Oodnadatta Track Pt II

Blog #13 – The Oodnadatta Track Pt 2 – Days 73 to 79 of 180

Aussie Wild Budgie

I was determined to finish the final stretch of the Oodnadatta Track from Marla to Oodnadatta.  This last leg of the track is roughly 220 klm long.  This section was not part of the Ghan line as it deviated north just out of Oodnadatta so there really are no major points of interest.  The road was quite good and we had read that there was a good campsite to be found at Kathleen Creek some 120 klms out of Marla.  We passed the turn off to Todmoden Station so knew that the campsite was just a couple of kilometres further on the right. 

Luckily for us the section of creek was full and we found a lovely flat campsite area.  The game plan was to spend a couple of days here which turned into six days so we could fill in some time before the need to head north for the Finke Desert Race.

Camp on Kathleen Creek

Added bonus was once the camp was setup and beer-o-clock was upon us we discovered that two wild budgerigars had built a nest in a broken branch of the tree just on the edge of the waterhole in front of us.  They were not fussed by us being so close and chattered away on a branch only 10 metres away – probably critiquing our camp setup!!!!

Evening over the gibber plains

The next few days went past in a blur and it was very relaxing. As our only chore was to find firewood to keep us warm around the campfire at night.  We found a complete dead tree which another camper identified as Acacia Estrophiolata, commonly known as Ironwood, we can attest to that as it blunted both of our chainsaw chains in a matter of minutes.  We found the best tool to cut this timber was my Silky 650mm Katanaboy saw. 

Typical section of good dirt road across the gibber plains

This two-handed, professional, heavy-duty folding saw has a 650mm blade. Can easily compete with a chainsaw! Compared with the Katana, the legendary Japanese samurai sword, it is the largest folding saw on the market today. The long, well-balanced, taper-ground blade with an impulse-hardened, non-set tooth design provides extended working reach, faster cutting and handles large limbs and trunks with no effort. The non-slip, two-handed, rubberized cushioned handle provides a sure and comfortable grip even in the most difficult operating conditions. Suitable for serious tasks like cutting large timber and tree trunks. Exceptional design, strength, balance and superior finish quality. Comes with a sturdy nylon shoulder bag with Velcro fastening and a pocket for replacement blades. Made in Japan. So, the blurb goes – I know they work as I also have the 300 mm BigBoy saw for smaller jobs.  For those who do a lot of camping in NSW National Parks these can be used in place of chainsaws which are not allowed. A very good investment to add to your camping gear.

The next few days was spent doing some very lazy photography sitting in a camp chair as birds flew into the tree next to us.  Main visitors were galahs as well as our resident budgies with a few small honeyeaters.  There were Australasian Grebes on the waterhole as well as Pacific Black Ducks and Wood Ducks but they stayed too far away to get really good shots. Everyday we had a flying visit from a Black Kite but he also stayed too far away for a really good shot but I did try.

Finally, it was time to pack up and complete one of the more unpleasant tasks of camping off grid and that was to empty the toilet cassettes.  Being good campers, we had dug a pit over a metre deep that was out and away from the watercourse.  That task done it was time to hit the road for the last 80 klms into Oodnadatta.

A few kilometres outside of Oodnadatta we came to Angle Pole Memorial, which marks the point where the Old Telegraph Line and the old Ghan line turn north and commemorates all those involved in the building of the Overland Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Darwin.

We also passed many of the old mound spring mesas which have warning signs not to drive up and over them on the final leg into town which most people have respected.  Finally rolled into Oodnadatta to complete the track from end to end all 640 klm of it.

Sunset over the Oodnadatta Track

Time for another Oodnaburger washed down with a cold ale.  Replenish the beer stocks and purchase some nibbles, top off the fuel tanks before heading north on our next leg of our adventure.  We had completed the 617 klm of the Oodnadatta Track.

Arckaringa & Coober Pedy

Blog #12 – Arckaringa Station – Coober Pedy – Marla – Days 67 to 72 of 180

The morning we left Oodnadatta was a lovely crisp autumn day and was a good day for driving and as our destination was only 75 klms away would be a relatively short driving day.  The Kempe Road which is between Oodnadatta & Coober Pedy was in excellent shape when we drove the first section as though it had just been graded.  But straight after the turn off to the Painted Desert and Arckaringa Station it turned to absolute rubbish.  These were the worst corrugations we had come across so far and our speed was reduced to 15 klm/hr in many stretches for the next 48 klms.

In the distance we could see some low hills rising from the gibber plains with worn down mesa like sections that I had seen previously on Anna Creek Station in The Painted Hills.

One of the best pieces of kit I ever bought to put in my 4WD was a Travel Buddy oven.  I mainly use it to heat pies up for a traveller’s lunch but it could do a small roast in a pinch.  Today was a Four’n’Twenty pie day for us.  By the time they had heated up from frozen we were in the low hills of the Painted Desert.  These we enjoyed as we sat up on the lookout for Mount Batterby in The Painted Desert.  It was good to get out the vehicles after we being hammered by the roads for the past 1 ½ hrs.  We washed down the pies with a nice ice-cold beer.

We were still a bone crushing 10 klms from the station as no camping is allowed on any part of the property except the station.  At least there is access to photograph the Painted Desert from the road which you cannot do in the Painted Hills on Anna Creek Station. 

The price of $10 a night each at the station was very reasonable.  The sign on the gate says “Office is closed from 8.30am to 3.15pm as the kids are doing School of the Air”.  Another unique way for kids to learn on these remote stations.  Katy and her husband manage this large working cattle station on their own during the winter.  We setup camp as it was only just after lunch when we arrived.  Two other caravans were the closest to the showers and toilets but we weren’t too far away which was a bonus.  That afternoon was spent in the usual camp style with a beer in hand watching other people setup camp and judging their skills.  Some were very experienced and setup quickly but some were totally inept.  In the end I and another bloke with his wife had to help a lady secure her tent as the wind was gusting very strongly and she was struggling (ladies a bloke would have struggled putting up a tent in that wind by himself and we would have helped him too).

She was from Adelaide and had only setup this tent up in her backyard once before in a very sheltered spot.  It took all four of us nearly ½ an hour to secure this tent to the ground.  Personally, I would have burned the tent and stayed in one of the cabins.  It was not well designed and very flimsy.  Camping shops love people that have no idea and would sell them anything.  Still, I suppose a tent and some camping gear is much cheaper than buying a caravan or camping trailer when you have no experience.  It was also her first time driving on dirt roads as she had come up via the highway to Coober Pedy then turned left down Kempe Road then through Barry Station so only 98 klm of dirt in pretty good condition.  I did not have the heart to tell her how badly corrugated the road was out to the Painted Desert but the other bloke did in all its gory detail.

We spent two nights here and both were very crisp but not frosty.  The first night was the lunar eclipse which was a bit of a dud for photography but it did allow me to get a shot of the full milky way whilst the moon was obscured.  I will put the image in here somewhere and you be the judge of my efforts.  The next morning, I was up at 0530 the next morning to go and photograph Mt Batterby.  Whilst the light was good the sky was a bit blah so I used some Luminar 4 skills to replace the sky.  Again, I will put up the original & the adjusted image and see which you like best.

What I envisaged above but dawn over the desert was not only cold but the sky was a bit blah!

 It was a very crisp 2 degC by the time I headed back at 8am for breakfast.  There is not much else to do except photography and walk amongst the Painted Desert hills out here.  Went back for the sunset shots which were not as good as I expected as the sun’s last rays were blocked by the hills behind me and the colours in the hills became very muted. 

That evening I was talking to the station manager and showing my first cut of the images I had taken.  He loved them as not many of the travellers had shown them any images.  I promised I would drop down and see Katy in the morning and give her some low-resolution images for her screensavers.

By this stage we had made our mind up to go and stay a few days in Coober Pedy to replenish supplies (hint: we were running low on red wine).  The station manager told me that there was a range well worth photographing if I like the Arckaringa Hills and that was called The Breakaways some 25 klms out of Coober Pedy.  So, we now had a plan for the next few days.

Most of our timing and stops have been fairly random on this trip but we now had a mission to make this years Finke Desert race just inside the Northern Territory.  This annual event is held on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend and is a 240 klm tortuous trip (each way) across the desert from Alice Springs to Finke.  So, we needed to spend/waste a few days before heading north again.

Next morning, I duly handed over 5 images to Katy on our way out of Arckaringa Station.  This next section of road was an immense improvement on the road in and we soon reached the turnoff from Barry Station onto Kempe Road.  The next 100 klm was a breeze on this very good section of road into Coober Pedy.  It crosses the Plain of the Moon which is a flat gibber desert with nothing growing on it.  Some say that we never made it to the moon and instead NASA filmed the whole event on the lunar landscape around Coober Pedy. Driving around this stark landscape, you do wonder if that is true. It certainly looks like the images from the moon.  You have to believe the scenery to believe it. 

The things you see on the side of the road

I was so pleased to get to town as the road had been long and fairly boring that morning.  The only excitement was being passed by a police paddy wagon who was going at a fair rate of knots.  When towing a trailer at 90 klm practically anything can go faster than you.  As soon as we had phone service we started to look up where to stay.  We opted for the Oasis Caravan Park very close to the centre of town.  We booked in for three nights.  The amenities were fantastic and even though you had to pay a fee of 20 cents for 3 minutes under a hot shower you could keep feeding in coins as the time was cumulative.  Water is a very precious commodity out here.  If you need to tank up your water tanks on your trailer or van it can be purchased from purpose-built pumps at $1 for 30 litres (no change given but not a big price either due to remoteness).

After setting up camp and a lovely long shower, fresh clothes it was time to go shopping.  They have an excellent IGA supermarket in Coober Pedy so we stocked the larder as we can only carry so much meat & veges in our fridge/freezers.  The bread was fresh (lovely bateaus) plus a good selection of fresh fruit & vegetables.  The next stop was the all-important grog shop.  This town has a very strict quantity purchase allowance which I found a bit odd.  You can buy as much beer as you like but you can only buy 2 bottles of wine & a single bottle of spirits.  They take your driver’s licence details which is shared to all liquor outlets in town so you cannot purchase anymore that day.  I have grown a taste for Rioja style wines and luckily for me they had some 2017 Gran Reserva so that was at the top of my list for the day.  Enquiries with the guy running it as to how much stock he had left and the answer was another 6 bottles.  I quietly asked if he could keep that behind the counter as cousin Greg would be up soon to get 2 more bottles and the following day, we would get the other 4 as our quota. 

Coober Pedy claims to be the opal capital of the world. It supports 70 opal fields and is the largest opal mining area in the world. By 1999, there were more than 250,000 mine shafts in the area.  These opal fields predominantly yield grey, white or milky opal. The base colour is light and is the lowest grade of opal. The crystal opal has a transparent or very translucent base. These opals can display lots of colours and high brightness inside the stone, which adds to its value. It is formed in old riverbeds in sandstone and differs from opals found elsewhere in Australia.  Black opal is mainly found in the Lightning Ridge fields, while boulder opal is found in the inland Queensland fields such as Yowah and Quilpie. Boulder opal is formed in narrow cavities in ironstone.

One thing I could never understand about opal mining is why pursue it – trying to find opal is based on pure luck. No-one knows how much or where opal can be found underground through exploratory means. Opal miners simply peg a claim where they think the opal might be and dig. Around one per cent of opal mining leads to success. Others that don’t have the time to set up a mine or the machinery to dig and burrow, can visit Coober Pedy to try their hand at noodling – the practice of digging through piles of excavated earth which dot the landscape.  Today there are very few opal miners left and most would struggle to pay their diesel bills to run their machinery let alone make a good living.  I did not notice a couple of large open-cut mining operations which must be seasonal as you could not work in a pit out here in the summer.

The town is famous not only for its opal fields, but the underground dugouts. There are churches, bars, houses, shops and accommodation all found under the ground. The dugouts provide respite to the harsh summer temperatures. Their advantage is the constant temperature which means you don’t need air conditioning. It is said that many of the early settlers to the town were former soldiers who had returned from the trenches of World War I and were experts in the art of excavation and digging.

The sun-baked lunar landscape surrounding Coober Pedy is the backdrop to many movies such as Max Max Beyond Thunderdome, Pitch Black and Ground Zero, among others. There is even an 18-hole golf course. Not a blade of grass in sight. It is reputedly the only golf course to have reciprocal rights with the oldest and most famous golf course, St Andrews in Scotland. Golfers prefer to play at night using glow-in-the-dark balls.

While to town’s population is small, there is a diverse number of nationalities – apparently around 50. We saw the Greek, Croatian and Italian clubs and visited the Serbian Orthodox church.

You can’t visit Coober Pedy without going to the nearby Breakaways. It is a striking rock landscape with flat-topped mesas in a stony gibber desert. More importantly to me was that Jack Absalom had painted these vistas many years ago and I really admired his work.  As with all of inland Australia, this area was covered by a sea millions of years ago. The Breakaways were once a large basin formed by the deposition of sedimentary layers over 75 million years ago. Much later – 25 million years later – an extremely durable silcrete layer formed over these sediments. It was later uplifted into a plateau and began to erode along lines of weakness within the durable crust. Surface rocks were formed from the erosion of this silcrete crust and are called gibbers. The massive plateau was broken up and eroded to the shape we see today – dissected tableland of mesas and ridges with steep sloping escarpments dropping onto the gibber rock plains. 

Kanku – Breakaways Conservation Park is Aboriginal owned and the entire park is a registered aboriginal heritage site. It lies 32km north of Coober Pedy and it consists of colourful low hills which have broken away from the Stuart Range, hence their name ‘The Breakaways.’

There are two lookout points which highlight the open spaces and colourful environment, leaving an impression of the long gone inland sea that our early explorers dreamt of. From the lookout, the locally named ‘Castle’ or ‘Salt & Pepper’ can be seen in an easterly direction. This outcrop has been used in a number of films and advertisements, while Panorama Hill situated in the middle, features in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Ground Zero. As the day goes by, the passing of the sun changes the desert colours, creating photogenic scenes that appear surreal.

The 74 klm round trip back to Coober Pedy takes you east along the hills to the dog fence. This 2m high wire barrier stretches for over 5,300km across three States, to protect the sheep country in the south from the native dog, the Dingo. The desert-like moonscape along the fence, with its fossilised shells, grey, soft clay dirt and cracks that appear to be bottomless, has been nicknamed the ‘moon plain’. It too has been the scene for numerous movies.

Above is the original image and the image below is what I wanted the sky & environment to be. Winter time out here and the skies are a bit bland most days.

Permits are required and can be purchased at the Visitors Information Centre. As at 2021 the cost is $10 per vehicle or $8 concession.

Damage to my vehicle by now was becoming cumulative due to the rough roads we had been travelling.  My original plan was always to get the vehicle serviced in Alice Springs but the list of damage was growing and we could not repair it.  My low beam lights had stopped working and I had a smashed glass globe on my driving lights in my ARB bulbar.  The light still worked but the glass was smashed.  We cut down a plastic drinks bottle and taped it over the area to protect the globe and it still works.  As for the low beams it is not a fuse so we think a switch is loose or full of dust but we could not rectify the issue.  Our travels have been 95% in daylight with the only night parts when I used to drive to remote locations for sunrise or sunset shots.

Larder & cellar stocked it was a road trip north to Marla.  This is a huge roadhouse & restaurant which has a motel & caravan park attached out the back.  This small stop was the last stop north for most travellers in South Australia.  It is only 70 klm’s from the NT border.  It is also the start/end of the Oodnadatta track.  Fuel here is relatively cheap compared to Oodnadatta at 152.9 cents per litre for diesel so we topped off our tanks and our jerrycans as we were heading east the next morning to complete our journey along the Oodnadatta Track but only the last section of 208 klm from Marla to Oodnadatta.

A night at Marla cost us $10 each for unpowered sites plus a tasty meal and a couple of beers in the restaurant.  The food was good and plentiful.  I had a good night’s rest and was up early to pack up my on-road home.  A large breakfast at the restaurant and a well-made coffee would be enough fuel until dinner that night.

On the road once again to finish the Oodnadatta Track part of our journey.

The Oodnadatta Track Pt 1

Blog #11 – The Oodnadatta Track Pt 1 – Days 58 to 66 of 180

Some history first before I get into our trip.  The road from Marree to Oodnadatta follows a line of mound springs known for thousands of years by the Aborigines until they were ‘discovered’ in the late 1850s by the explorers. The Oodnadatta track follows almost the same route as that taken by John McDouall Stuart when he successfully crossed Australia in 1862.

Stuart also had the proposed Overland Telegraph Line in mind as he travelled across the desert and eventually the 3178 klm telegraph line was completed in 1872 following much of his route.

Because of the availability of water, Stuart’s route was also chosen for the steam-train powered Central Australian Railway – the original route of the Ghan and work commenced in 1878. Oodnadatta, Aboriginal for ‘Blossom of the Mulga’ was proclaimed a government town in October 1890 in readiness for the coming railway. By 1891 the line from Port Augusta had reached all the way out to Oodnadatta which remained the rail head for the next 40 years. The town became an important centre and soon had a population of 150 people. The Ghan line was finally extended to Alice Springs in 1929.

From Oodnadatta, northbound passengers had to travel by camel to Alice Springs, until that section of the railway was finished in 1929. It is hard to find any tales about what that was like, but a person must have been really motivated to get to Alice Springs, to undertake that camel ride section!

Finally, the rail was extended to Darwin in 1942 to move troops and supplies north during the Second World War.  However, when The Ghan stopped coming through in 1980, the population of Oodnadatta (and the other towns along this route) declined rapidly.

Some of the visible remains of the Ghan railway are the many bridges and Fettler Cottages. Some can still be seen at Marree, Wangianna, Curdimurka, Margaret, Coward Springs, Beresford, Anna Creek, Boorthanna, Edwards Creek, Warrina, Peake Creek, Algebuckina and Mount Dutton.

Lake Eyre was named in honour of Edward John Eyre, who was the first European to see it in 1840. The lake’s official name was changed in December 2012 to combine the name “Lake Eyre” with the indigenous name, Kati Thanda. Native title over the lake and surrounding region is held by the Arabana people.

With the coming of diesel-powered railway engines, the days of the Old Ghan route were numbered. A road, of sorts, had been constructed from Port Augusta to Darwin during WW2, following higher ground well to the west of the train route. That was to become the Stuart Highway. In 1980, a new rail line was opened that roughly paralleled the highway, and avoided the flood prone sections of the old railway. The Old Ghan line and its associated infrastructure, fell into disrepair; the townships that had serviced the railway, shrank to either ghost towns or small, mostly indigenous, settlements.

The track now is on the iconic list of must dos for 4WD enthusiasts but in truth can be done by 2WD although it is not advisable as the road has lots of stones that will damage the underbody of the vehicles.  In many sections, driving well equipped 4WDs, we were down to 40 klm/hr due to heavy corrugations.

Our trip along The Oodnadatta Track

Marree

Rolled into Marree in the early afternoon and first order of business was to go into the pub and organize a one-night stay in their backyard.  Most outback pubs will let you camp and provide toilets and showers for a nominal fee if you will eat dinner and have a few drinks.  In this case the hot showers where a $2 donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). Setup camp, had a shower, threw on some fresh clothes and into the pub to book a timeslot for dinner.  Surprisingly we have found these bush pubs very, very busy and this one was no different – our dinner slot was to be 7.30 that night as they had a coach load of tourists coming in for dinner.

Marree was one of the main rail hubs for the old Ghan line.  Here the rail gauge scaled down from standard gauge to narrow gauge.  All passengers alighted and went to the pub whilst the railway gangers lifted each coach off its standard gauge dollys and placed them onto a narrow gauge dollys then hooked the train up to a new engine ready for departure.  I ran into an old aboriginal who worked the line back in the 1970s who told me it was ‘bloody hard yakka young bloke’ and I truly believe him!  It would have been very hard on the workers during the summertime.

This small town is where the Birdsville Track ends (begins?) and also where the legendary mail man ran his business.  Esmond Gerald (Tom) Kruse is legendary for running the mail and supplies up the Birdsville Track from the early 1950s. To most older Australians he became legendary after a docudrama titled “The Back of Beyond” was released in 1954 (the year I was born!).  It is hard to imagine how hard it would have been travelling the roads back in those days in very primitive trucks compared to today’s models.  His 1936 Leyland Badger was later restored for a documentary in 1999 called The Last Mail to Birdsville when Tom was 85yo. There is a museum in the pub to his exploits plus an old Blitz truck near the railway station.

The Marree Hotel was built in 1883 and is a lovely heritage listed building with 12 original rooms plus 28 ensuite cabins out in the yard plus room for us grey nomads and our vans and trailers.  The food was good and fresh and beer was icy cold – a good recommendation for any outback pub.

Next morning bright and early it was back into the pub for a typical aussie breakfast of bacon & eggs on toast washed down with strong tea.  And surprise, surprise my 86yo mother rings me to find out where I am!!!  I loved the shock in her voice when I said I was in the pub – I promised I wasn’t drinking beer at that hour of the day although I am sure the publican would have obliged if I had asked.

Time to hit the road the next nights stop would be Coward Springs so only a short drive of 140 klm and time to explore.  As we were following the old Ghan railway line there are numerous sidings, now lying-in ruins, every 20 to 30 klms.  Many of these sidings had a huge water tank on stilts, plus a desalination plant if the bore water was too harsh, plus a fettler’s cottage and maybe a large coal bunker.  It is hard to imagine these days of the labor intensity required to run these old-style railways. 

Callanna Siding was the first stop, just 14 km out of Marree, and is the first of many relics of the Old Ghan railway line. A rusty water tower and pipe is all that is left. These railway sidings were watering & coaling places for the steam locomotives of the old Ghan railway. Fettlers lived in small cottages at the sidings and maintained the site as well as the railway line between the sidings.  Some of the sidings were in better condition than others.  All of the rail line was either re-purposed or taken away for smelting in the 1980s.  The large water tanks and distillers are now rusting away and the buildings slowly crumbling into the dust.

What was left of each siding’s buildings had been vandalized and graffitied – this had to have been done by travelers. What is it about some people, who can’t leave a piece of our heritage standing, be it natural or manmade, without decorating same with their initials? Personally, I do not give a tinker’s damn that some muppet was here, whenever! Given the good condition of this track, it was not really an achievement to boast about either, by tagging places. 

In my research on what there was to see out along the Oodnadatta track I had read about the Mutoid Waste Company’s post-apocalyptic Sculpture Park.  A fellow traveller had this to say about this park (Max Anderson) on a traveller website: “To say it is a park is an over exaggeration basically it is a few acres of scrub, but it’s famous for “Plane Henge”, two Cessnas standing Christ-like on their tails touching wingtip to wingtip. They’re fabulous when viewed on the biblical horizons of the Oodnadatta Track, but just as good up close. ‘Conceived and raised by Mutoid Waste Company to mark the passage of the Earth Dream Journey 28 May 2000’ reads an inscription. The fuselages are painted with quasi-indigenous earth spirits – quite serene against the acid blue of the sky. Galahs have nested in the nose of one of the aircraft, small, noisy splashes of pink.

Mechanic Robin “Mutoid” Cooke added a new sculpture to his park each year, transforming materials that would not rot away. Today, gleeful giants fashioned from steel rails and engine blocks dance under the sun. There’s a steel tree of knowledge and a xylophone fashioned from hub caps invites travellers to make desert music.

All of it has been dubbed – rather brilliantly – “recycladelic”. “ I could not have said it better myself.  It truly was an epic site in the desert emptiness of the Oodnadatta Track.

The next highlight along the road is the lookout at Kati Thandi – Lake Eyre South. There is a viewing point (with interpretive signs about geology, history, flora etc) about halfway between Marree and William Creek. Lake Eyre is probably the most famous feature along the Oodnadatta Track. The usually dry salt lake covers an area of 9700 km² and is up to 15m below sea level. You can’t truly appreciate the dimensions of Lake Eyre from this viewing point, so it is recommended to take a scenic flight from Marree or William Creek. 

Warning! Don’t even think about driving out on the lake, even if it looks dry. Your car will break through the saline crust, and you will get bogged in the mud. When we stopped here, we could see 4WD tracks heading down to the edge but no tracks on the salt lake itself.

Curdimurka Siding was the next stop.  This siding was in the best condition of all the sidings we stopped at.  We took the obligatory photos and kept on travelling.  Up until the 1990s a yearly event called the Curdimurka Ball was held with up to 1800 attendees to raise fund for the historic Ghan.

During our travels we had seen many abandoned farmhouses and I felt rather sad seeing these ruins as I drive up through central South Australia as many of them represent the broken dreams of many people who came out here to farm and make a living in this rather inhospitable country. 

Coward Springs was to be our camping spot and was an oasis in the middle of a terribly corrugated section of road 15klms either side of this old siding.  The station now serves as a tourist spot to camp and relax in the mineral springs (a lovely 29.5 degC year-round).  The 2021 cost is $15 a night per vehicle or $2 each if you just want to stop for a quick swim.  We opted for 3 days of relaxation with no communications except if you had an Optus service then it was full on (very weird).  The second night we were relaxing in our rock star location hidden from the other campers (it pays to get to these places early!!) and we had seen Scott, the manager, put out a sign saying that another area was reserved for a group of campers across from us but had already put another couple in that area.  Late that afternoon the other tour group showed up and this extremely obnoxious women from that group stalked over to this couple and said that this area was reserved for her and her friends only and they should pack up and move immediately.  We had front row seats to this display and to say I was disgusted by her attitude would be an understatement!!!  I thought the aggrieved couple showed great charm in not responding violently to this verbal assault – I would have told her to eff off in no uncertain terms as they were setup before the reservation sign was put up.  I was so affronted by the behaviour that I wend my way through the shrubs over to the couple and told them that I had witnessed the abuse which was not of their doing and that they were welcome to come over and have a couple of beers with us and relax.

They did pop over and introduce themselves, Jim & Susan, they were on their way back to work at the William Creek Hotel, we had a lovely chat and a couple of beers.  They thanked us for our concern for their welfare which was not required – in my opinion bullying behaviour should be stamped on at every opportunity.

As fate would have it, they were packing up the next day and their car wouldn’t start.  Could we help – blood oath we could!  So first up leant them my jump starter kit but that was no go so drove my car around to do an old-fashioned jump start.  Finally got them started and on their way before they would have been late for their shifts starting at 11am that morning.  We were leaving the next day and had not intended stopping at William Creek but modified our plan to stay there for three days and catch up with our new friends.

We had missed the turnoff to the mound springs known as The Chalice & The Bubbler just south of Coward Springs so went down to have a look.  The road in was very corrugated and rough and to our surprise the first mound spring had about 40 tourists there so we continued onto the second one called The Bubbler.  These are quite unique and have been around for thousands of years.

I had been hoping to photograph the three resident brolgas living in the wetlands near Coward Springs but the closest I came was to hear them fly by one way at dawn then again on dusk giving me the equivalent brolga bronx cheer as the light was too low for flying birds – cheeky sods!! We were however entertained at night by numerous small field mice playing hide and seek around our campers.  This was fun to watch in the firelight until the little buggers raided our pantry and sampled 5 packets of noodles and a pack of biscuits.  We learned to close the lid on the dry food pantry (a 73 litre AluBox) that night and broke up the noodle packets and biscuits and fed the little vermin rather than just throw the food into the tip.  Lessons learned for the future.

The next day we packed and headed for William Creek just a short 75klms away.  About 20 klms further on we saw the signs for the next siding – Beresford Siding.  Compared to other railway ruins this one was still standing but rusting away in the sunlight.  To tell you the truth if we had known about this good camping spot, I would have just had a soak in Coward Springs for $2 each and kept going and stayed there.  This siding was the best campsite we had seen so far on the track, and it is free camping, with plenty of firewood available.

William Creek is another lonely little outpost on the track offering food and shelter to travelers during the cooler months.  This is the smallest town in South Australia with a current population of 12. It virtually shuts down in the summer due to the extreme temperatures and a lack of travelers.  The place is left to the flies and the hardy residents.  We booked in for 3 days as I knew I may not get a chance to do the aerial photography I wanted to do (still kicking myself for not taking a flight around Wilpena Pound).  The company that provides flights around both places is called Wrightsair and is staffed by some of the youngest bush pilots you will ever meet.  Average age is around 21.  When I checked in there was nothing available that catered for aerial photography but if they could get enough starters, they would let me know.

The caravan park was quite well laid out with good amenities so we setup in the unpowered sites up the back around 400 metres from the pub.  It is appreciably cheaper if you can stay off grid when camping especially when you are on the road like us for six months.  Powered sites generally cost double to triple the cost of an unpowered site.  Most places charge between $10 to $17.50 a night – National Parks are the most expensive we have stayed at plus having to pay entry fees as well.

We opted not to cook at night for our stay here and eat out at the pub.  Unfortunately, a lot of the original graffiti on the ceilings and walls has gone when it is was refurbished some years ago but there still is a lot there.  The characters we ran into in this pub were no exception.  The first night we made friends with a young bloke called Ajay who was there working at the hotel but hoping to get a chance at becoming a Wrightsair pilot flying around the lakes and hills but working as a barman to keep him going – he has graduated with a mechanical engineering degree plus a twin engine aircraft rating so he is a very clever lad.  Fingers crossed he will get that opportunity before the season closes in September.  Our new friends Jim & Susan were both working that first night so we agreed to have dinner together on the second night.  Full of good cheer (spiced rum & coke for me) and a good meal we returned to the bar where I met a group of young pilots.  They told me the best way to get what I want was to hire the aircraft myself.  Not sure what that price would be (thinking it would be well over my budget) had a few more drinks then it was off back to our campsite as I might have an early flight the next morning.  No such luck so stayed in camp typing the blog and selecting photos from the Peterborough & Wilpena Pound blog.  Again, no Telstra service out here but if you’re with Optus you are fine.  How bizarre that Australia’s largest telco is not available in the bush where it is needed the most.  Wandered down to the flight office to enquire what was available and was offered a flight that afternoon and would I require the door off the aircraft.  Hmmm, caution said that the windows open would be sufficient and it was organised for 4pm that afternoon.  The rate would be $400 per hour or part thereof which, to me, was cheap as all other offerings started at $300 per person without an option to open the window so I could take photos.

Charged up the batteries for the cameras and cleared off the CF & SD cards I would need for the afternoon.  I had been told that it would be chilly at 1500 feet altitude so wore long johns for the first time this trip plus carried my thickest jacket.  Rocked up at 1545 for the flight and was met by a lovely young lady pilot called Hannah.  She told me she had 70 hours of experience flying the Cessna 172 we would be using. Never having been a pilot 70 hours did not seem much but away we went.  These small aircraft are not very spacious and it was a bit of a struggle for me to squeeze into the backseat without standing on anything breakable in the aircraft.  Once inside and strapped in it was quite comfortable.  Because of the lateness of the day, we could not do both Lake Eyre & the Painted Hills as the aircraft had to be back on the ground no later than 6pm (sunset) as it was a company requirement.

The Anna Creek Painted Hills is a spectacular and recently discovered section of the pristine Breakaways country in the far north of South Australia. Breakaway country appears around Coober Pedy, Oodnadatta, Copper Hills, Arckaringa Hills, William Creek and Evelyn Downs.

The Anna Creek Painted Hills offers an amazing sight by air. It is a rocky outcrop of large and small hills, which emerge suddenly out of a flat, desert landscape. The area can only be accessed by air, due to its fragility and natural beauty.

I opted for the Painted Hills given that there was less than 20% of water in Lake Eyre plus the Painted Hills were in a remote part of Anna Station where there were no roads or public access.  The flight was thoroughly enjoyable although I don’t know whether my photographic skills were up to the task as I had not done any aerial photography before.  Hannah was an excellent pilot and fun to talk too about how she ended up out here as a bush pilot.  You will have to come here yourself and ask her.  The other major reason we had to be back in town that evening was that the ringers from the surrounding stations were coming to town (and one of them from Anna Station was her boyfriend) before mustering started.  I thoroughly enjoyed the flight and hopefully some of the shots turned out.  We were out 1.2 hours which came to the princely sum of $473.50 (including the usual credit card charge) which I thought was quite cheap as I had seen a quote for $580 each to do the same but it needed six people.

That night in the pub we had dinner with Susan & Jim and shared a couple of bottles of red.  It was a lovely night.  It is always good to make new friends especially when you are a long way from home.  Also bought Hannah a couple of drinks for being my excellent pilot that day and met her boyfriend.  Another young bloke we met that night was Rudy who had driven over 100 klm from Peake Station to come in for that one night.  All the ringers could get together before mustering which would take up the next three weeks without any days off.  He was like a cutout from a western with a very droll voice and extremely matter of fact.  We were asking about what it was like being a ringer on these vast properties and I was amazed what a life they lead now that horses are no longer used and everything is done by ute (Toyota 79 series no less) and motorbikes.  Nor did I know that they have quite a lot of feral animals out there which the owners require them to shoot onsite.  A truly fascinating character and thoroughly nice young man to meet.  These properties are also adjacent to the Dingo fence.  This is the longest fence in Australia (some 2100 klms) that keeps dingoes out of the sheep and cattle grazing properties to protect them from high stock losses from this apex predator.  Each section has to be maintained by the properties adjacent to the nominated fenceline.  Needless to say, all the ringers were there for a good time and drank until 2am before piling into their utes and driving 20 klms to Anna Creek station to sleep it off before going to their own stations.  I left at 11pm when they started doing shooters and arranged for Ajay to come and visit us the next day so he could go for a run on the UBCO 2×2 bike.  The ringers closed the bar out at 2am – I was glad to be in bed long before then.

In the morning I travelled back to Strangways as it is another historic site about two kilometres west of the Oodnadatta Track. It is about 39 klm from William Creek and I had missed the turnoff on the drive up. This site was one of many repeater stations along the Overland Telegraph Line. A fence protects the historic site. There’s a low stile to climb over. The walk to the ruins over stony terrain up a small hummock was not too bad with my arthritic knees, however, the outlook is worth the effort. Some stone-walled sheep pens and a large stone tank, which actually looks like the ruin of a house without doors, is all what remained of the former station.

Ajay came around after his shift that afternoon and had a beer before taking the bike for a ride around town.  He was very impressed and had a ball.  I was glad to make him the offer as there is not much else to do out in William Creek as it is in the middle of somewhere and nowhere.

Next morning, we packed up, hooked up and drove down to the pub.  Had an early breakfast there and said farewell to our new friends before hitting the road to our planned next night’s stop at Algeburkina Bridge.  This section was around 170 klm and whilst there were other sidings we could have visited the roads in were extremely corrugated and would rattle your fillings out.  After the second track we opted to stay on the main gravel road and get to Algeburkina Bridge and a campsite on the far side of the bridge that I had read about.

Unfortunately, when we got there, we found that the track to the campsite we wanted to use was blocked off by large boulders.  The weather that day had turned and we had a freezing 30 knot breeze blowing into the other campsites so opted not to stay here.  Could not even launch the drone to take a photo of this old ½ kilometer long steel bridge.  So took some images and also chatted to some other travelers who had shown up about their plans.  They also opted to push on to Oodnadatta as it is was freezing in the open camping spaces there.

It was well after lunch as we pushed on the road through the gibber plains.  These blackened stones gleam like they are wet when the sun strikes them.  It is hard to get over that nothing grows out here except saltbush and rocks.  Even paddy melons don’t grow here.  We saw no wildlife and no stock along this section of the track.  We did however see many hand painted pink signs welcoming us to the joys of Oodnadatta at the Pink Roadhouse for the last 20 klm into town. 

It was early afternoon by the time we arrived and we made a decision that late lunch first before booking in here for two nights.    Both vehicles had suffered some damage with Greg losing his electrical connection to his van having pulled out and then shredded on the road plus I had a racket from my underbelly bash plate losing a couple of bolts so was making a racket banging under the car.  This track can be tough on vehicles, trailers & caravans.  Luckily, I had the correct 7 pin plug fitting needed so all the mechanic/auto electrician had to do was splice that into the shredded wires.  Cost $20 cash.  For me it was finding the correct size bolts to fit into the plate and tighten them in.  You guessed it price $20 cash.  Whilst the work was being done, we had an Oodnaburger with chips for our late lunch – a huge meal. 

The caravan park was in the street behind the roadhouse so lunch finished and both vehicles repaired we went to setup camp.  A very reasonable fee of $12.50 a night for each of us in the unpowered section but the very chirpy lady said we could hook up to the power if we wanted too.  We declined as we could see a lot more travelers starting to roll in and wanted to get setup and have a hot shower before the place became over run.  The facilities are very, very old and did not impress Greg very much.  I was just happy that the shower was hot and the toilet was clean.  Apart from the roadhouse there is not much to see in this small town.  For travelers this little outpost was the place to have a beer and swap stories then continue on.  The very cheerful lady running the place was full of interesting little tidbits of things to see and do in the surrounding countryside.  I was telling her about the Painted Hills on Anna Creek Station and she said there were better examples on Arckaringa Station some 75 klm away on the road to Coober Pedy.

Luckily Oodnadatta has Telstra 4G so did some research and found a contact number for the station.  Spoke to a lovely lady called Katy who said they had plenty of room and the cost was only $10 a night.  They had hot showers & toilets next to the camping ground.  That sounded good to me so our next stage was booked even though it was deviating from our plans.  That night we ran into another group of travelers who had just come down the track from Dalhousie Springs and said it was a fantastic place to stay.

Greg and I started to modify our travel arrangements and planned some deviations from our original plan.  As we were running out of supplies, we now planned to push on from Arckaringa down to Coober Pedy as we were told they had a very good supermarket there.  It was a bit of a deviation from the plan but neither of us had been there so it was worth the effort.  We had also planned to be at Finke for the annual desert race from Alice Springs, held on the long weekend in June, so we had to fill in a number of days so we were not stuck in Finke for too long.

Also did another favour for a fellow traveler who had broken a grey Anderson plug on his wiring hitch.  The roadhouse wanted $30 for a replacement and as I had a box full of them (I had bought 20 on eBay months ago very cheaply) I made his day by giving him one of my spares for free – hopefully I won’t break that many on this trip!  Maybe somewhere along the roads I may need a similar favour.

Had a relaxing second day and did a load of washing plus topped off the water tanks (whenever I get a chance, I make sure the two water tanks are full as this is a very dry country out here).  Dinner again that night at the roadhouse and two lovely bottles of red to wash it down then off to bed as we had a relatively early start the next day.

Left Oodnadatta at 9am after a final hearty breakfast at the roadhouse.  Greg opted to fill up before we left – diesel price here was 198.9 cents per litre – so you need deep pockets to fill up.  I still had ¾ tank so opted to fill up in Coober Pedy some 180 klm away where the diesel price was only 150.9 cents per litre.

Next time it will be The Painted Desert & Coober Pedy.

The Flinders Ranges

Blog #10 – The Southern & Central Flinders Ranges – Days 51 to 57 of 180

Wilpena Pound from Stokes Hill at Dawn

The road trip from Broken Hill to Peterborough was a tough grind towing a vehicle with strong headwinds most of the way.  This really sucks the fuel as it is not as easy towing what becomes a wind sail behind you.  Normally I can expect 12 – 13 litres per 100 klm for my Prado towing a 1700 kg fully loaded trailer but, on this section, I was up around 17.5 litres per 100 klm. It was a cold, windy and wet day with passing showers and not much to see.  One odd thing was that the fruit & vegetable quarantine station was 212 klm from the border near Yunta.  The man running it was a very grumpy soul as he was stuck out in the middle of nowhere.

travelling on the Barrier Highway on a freezing day

By the time we arrived at Yunta we were starving as it had been six hours since we had breakfast.  Decided to have lunch in the fuel station and so ordered a hearty lunch of a hamburger with large chips (note large).  When the food arrived, the chips were in a brown paper bag containing nearly 1 kg of chips – I kid you not x 2!!!  Lesson learned – ask what serving portions are before placing order – we had enough potatoes for 4 more meals.  The chips were very nice and the hamburger was excellent.  Truckie stops are the best places to eat on the road as the food is always fresh otherwise, they would not get a lot of patronage.

Back on the road again and I swear the day was getting colder.  Winter was definitely upon us.  It was only 12 degC outside but add in the wind chill factor it was only 2/3 of that.  Finally arrived in Peterborough late in the afternoon and found the caravan park as it looked as if we would need to be on a powered site for the next three days due to consistent cloud cover and not much solar.

The caravan park was very nice and the couple running it were very hospitable.  That night was our first frost on the trip and very chilly.  The sign behind the counter at the caravan park office could not have been truer – “It is always windy here & It can be very cold”.  When I was looking for information on the area, I found that the coldest temperatures ever recorded in South Australia was -8.2 degC at Yongala only 8 klms away.  Still, this was the last big town before we turned north into the Flinders Ranges so it was our last chance to do vehicle & trailer maintenance with mechanical businesses locally.  In my case I had to drive down to Jamestown 30 klm away to get a fuel filter replaced plus pick up a spare.  The Toyota dealership was very good in booking me in straight away to get the work done as they knew I was travelling.

You cannot stop in Peterborough without visiting the Steamtown Museum as this town was the centre of an extremely large rail network in the previous century.  This where the Indian Pacific & The Ghan crossed paths.  The SA Government was opening up farmlands north of Burra plus major mining operations so the decided to build a number of railways linking the region to a major port (Port Pirie) plus the rail line to Alice Springs and another to Silverton & Broken Hill.  In the 1920s Peterborough became the crossroads of the continent, with the original Transcontinental coming through from Sydney on the way to Perth in 1917 plus the original Ghan from Adelaide to Alice Springs in 1929.  Just to add confusion all these rail lines used different gauges. 

The original Ghan used the narrow gauge (3’ 6”) and the Transcontinental used standard gauge (4’ 8”) plus some broad gauge (5’ 3”).  Between 1923 and 1932 the population swelled to nearly 5000 of which 1300 were directly involved in working for the railways. Peterborough became the largest railway depot outside of Adelaide with its own workshops, a 23-bay roundhouse and a 3-gauge turntable.  In the early 1970’s with the introduction of diesel locomotives and a standard rail gauge the railways began to diminish in Peterborough.  With closure of the railways in the 1990’s the town’s population dropped dramatically and is now around 1900.  Today the standard gauge rail linking Adelaide to Darwin is some 200 klm to the west so all the towns north of Peterborough are now reliant on tourists driving through as even the rail lines have been ripped up and recycled. 

It was interesting learning of the early rail history as I remember going on holiday in Queensland back in the 1960’s on narrow gauge trains.  They used to call the carriages the ‘Red Rattlers’ as they swayed so much on the narrow railway gauge.  The old cars have been kept in good condition and they even have medical carriages plus a First-Class carriage including a piano.  Another oddity was where the small children slept in the sleeper cars.  It was a small alcove above the doors and the bed was over the corridor.  Good thing my mum never travelled on the trains in those days as she would be too short to even lift us little kids up into those beds unless she had a step ladder – she is only 4’ 8” tall!!!!!

Kids bed on the old Ghan is behind that little door up above your head

One interesting story, told by our guide John, was that during the war it used to take the troops nearly three weeks to get from Adelaide to Darwin as the line was not completed from Alice Springs until 1942.  I pity the poor sods who had to travel on that train in the summer time as it would have been roasting out there.

With the cold weather and rougher than average roads were taking its toll on Greg’s back so we opted to stay an extra day so he could rest up.  We did a short drive around the district looking at places of interest (few and far between) and started packing for an early start the next day up to Central Flinders.

We had not been booking in advance so we could have a very loose travel agenda and move on at our leisure.  Originally, we were going to stay at Rawnsley Park just outside the Ikara-Flinders NP but then found that it was cheaper to stay in the park at Wilpena Pound.  Without thinking we opted for un-powered sites as we would rely upon solar for power (SA Parks have a no generator rule to top up your power).  We hadn’t realized the park was densely populated with pine trees.  On the bright side our campsite was only 25 metres from the toilet & shower block – definite bonus.

As we drove north through Orroroo, Walloway, Carrietown to Hawker there were many abandoned and partially demolished homesteads as a reminder of peoples shattered dreams in this harsh land.  I have taken some photos which I will use later to composite into a large montage when I get home.  The views in front of us were spectacular as the ranges climbed into the sky from the flat dusty plains. 

Broken dreams

Finally arrived at Wilpena Pound Resort in the late afternoon and the staff in the office quickly had us booked in for three nights.  The only caution was that we could camp anywhere but we should stay away from the lycra brigade (her words) as their was a large contingent of bike riders occupying one side of the park.  Dutifully warned we toured into the park and found two flat spots side by side to make our camp.

Pleasantly surprised that the tree coverage in the resort helped keep the place much warmer than the open plains of Peterborough.  The next two days we explored the area around the park doing landscape photography from the Rawnsley Bluff lookout, Pugilist Hill & Stokes Hill.  My only regret is that I did not leave myself enough time to book a scenic flight over the Pound itself (next time and there will be a next time I will).  We also did a drive through Bunyoro & Brachina Gorges – truly magnificent countryside with many of the upheaved rock formations dating back some 600 million years ago.  Even better I managed to get some photos of the yellow-footed Rock Wallaby & a Wedge tailed Eagle.

Part of Wilpena Pound

Each morning I woke early and raced out to my chosen spot to get the light right when photographing the Pound.  As an interesting story I found out some interesting history of how Rawnsley Station & Rawnsley Bluff were named.  Originally this was part of a much larger property called Arkaba but when a young man emigrated from the UK named Rawnsley told the SA government that he was a trained surveyor he was sent out into this district to survey the pastoral leases as the farming lands were being increased with the promise of good sheep and wheat country.  After three months when asked for a report, he fessed up that he was not a trained surveyor and had not a clue on how to do it.  By then the station and the bluff had been named after him.  True story I promise!!!!  Today the bluff is called Arkaroo Rock and the beautiful colours of the rocks in this region need to be seen to be believed.  Definitely one of the places I have marked to do a return trip too.

Rawnsley Bluff in the early morning light

After three days it was time to move on and drive up towards Blinman & Parachilna Gorge on our way to Marree and the start of the Oodnadatta Track.  It was a lovely drive on a cool day discovering, and referencing for the future, some fantastic camping sites along the way.  We were on a mission to get to Marree so did not stop to do any exploring or photographing. This was a pity as there was some magnificent views in the Parachilna Gorge but nowhere to pullover. Will comeback and camp in this gorge next time and take the time to take more photos.

Two points of interest stood out once we turned north at Parachilna – the bakery at Copley who served up a delicious lunch of homemade pies – Greg had Kangaroo & Claret & I had Chunky Beef & Pepper washed down with the house specialty dessert of Quandong Pie with cream & ice cream.  Quandong fruit is a native peach and very tasty.  I cannot recommend this place highly enough as the food was fantastic it is just a long way to or from anywhere.  Unfortunately, no cheap fuel to be had here as the station was closed and the next place to get fuel was at Lyndhurst further up the road.

Fueled up and the next stop would be the start of the Oodnadatta Track at Marree. Will be glad to get there after a long days drive. Next blog will the Oodnadatta Track following the old Ghan line……

Broken Hill & Silverton

Blog #9 – Broken Hill – Living Desert – Days 45 to 50 of 180

Bajo El Sol Jaguar

Arrived in Broken Hill on a cold blustery day and following our Fuel Map app ended up driving from one end of the city to the other to save a cent per litre on diesel.  It does pay to take the results from these apps with a grain of salt.  Next on to our accommodation for the next four nights, and you guessed it, all the way back over the other side of town.  We had booked into the Living Deserts State Park run by Broken Hill City Council. Another good thing was that Greg’s girlfriend Anne had been ringing around to see if she could get us booked in for a COVID jab.  We were very pleased she was successful and we were booked into the Royal Fly Doctor clinic out near the airport for our first Astra-Zeneca jab the following day.  Thank you very much Anne for looking after us first by organizing our winter flu jabs in Mildura and now our first COVID jab in Broken Hill.

Reverse sunset from the Living Desert

This park is about 8 klms from town and is nestled in the hills.  The Starview Primitive Campsite only has 15 unpowered sites for $10 a night each.  We had sites 2 & 3 after we had quite a lot of initial difficulty trying to book sites 12 & 13 – the system had accidentally double booked two groups into the same place.  Two phone calls to the very helpful staff at the council sorted this out and the deal was done.  There is also a one off $6 fee to stay in the park so we could visit the Living Desert Sculptures.  This was a very clean facility with excellent showers & toilets (council staff cleaned every day) and would stay here again.  If you plan to visit, I suggest that you book Site 15 or the higher numbers as they are closest to the shower & toilet block.  Also try and use the first shower as it has a baby changing table (very handy to put your clothes & toiletries off the floor).  It was very peaceful out there with no traffic noises at night at all as the sculpture section on the hilltop above us was closed at 6.30pm.  We had a key pin to get in and out of the park whenever we wished and it was only 10 minutes to town if we needed anything.  Birding was a bit tough out there with only Painted Honeyeaters coming to visit each day along with the ubiquitous magpies (another Aussie icon) but no decent bird shots worth publishing.

Above us on a hill were 12 imposing sandstone sculptures carved by artists from all over the world in a 2400-hectare site donated by the Broken Hill City Council as a reserve to preserve flora and fauna unique to the region.  It was setup in 1992. A Gosford based sculptor Lawrence Beck proposed holding a symposium to add sculpture to Broken hill’s art culture. The council agreed and had 53 tonnes of sandstone blocks be transported in from Wilcannia.  Work began in April 1993 and was completed within 2 months.  Artists from Georgia, Mexico, Syria and Australia have created a unique collection to add to Australia’s and especially Broken Hill’s art collection.  The two art works I enjoyed the most were Bajo El Sol Jaguar (under the Jaguar Sun) by Antonia Nava Tirado from Mexico & Horse by Jumber Jikaya from Rustavi in Georgia.  The view from the top of the hill is grandiose as you look towards the sunset but it was nothing compared to what we had already seen at Lake Paramaroo near Menindee.

Another reason to come to Broken Hill is to visit the galleries of two of Australia’s finest artists – Pro Hart & Jack Absalom. 

Jack Absalom has been a legend in Australia as not only a painter but a survivalist and had his own TV Show back in the 70’s.  He has also written a number of books on surviving in the Outback.  His gallery has some of his larger-than-life depictions of our outback landscape.  I especially liked his “Captain Starlight and the White Bull” plus “The Breakaways”. I bought some smaller prints to get montaged and framed for my office at home.  Very enjoyable experience.

Kevin Charles Hart was given the nickname Professor when he was very young as his peers thought he was a bit of a know it all.  Over the years this was shortened (another Aussie custom) down to Pro and this was how he became Pro Hart – a legend in our lifetimes.  Pro spent twenty years working in the mines as a young man and painted and drew what life was like living in a mining town.  He used to say that people had three faces: their pub face, their work face and their wife & kids face.  Many of his works depict life as he saw it around broken hill and the district.  His work was discovered by an Adelaide gallery in 1962 and his work steadily evolved over the years following.  He did all sorts of weird and wonderful things to create his artwork including dropping paint from hot air balloons, fired paint from a cannon, blew up sheet metal with black powder and turned those results into sculpture.  Many of his painting and artworks are quite quirky which suited me.  I especially like his portrait of the Yabbie Eaters (I am known for enjoying the odd yabby myself!!!).  Again, I purchased a couple of prints to be framed for home on my return from this trip.  He also loved flash cars and some of his collection of Rolls Royce’s & a Bentley are on display at the gallery.  This includes one hand painted by Pro with an Outback theme. We met his wife Raylee as we were on our way out and she told us that Pro had painted two Rolls Royce’s with an Outback theme but could not remember who now owns it.  She was a very charming lady and kept apologizing that she was not there to meet us when we arrived.  I felt most humble as she was such a lovely person.

Overlooking the small city was the Line of Lode Miners Memorial which sits atop a huge mullock heap towering over the city.  It is a reminder of the 800 miners who had lost their lives due to mining since the late 1880’s.  Alongside the memorial is a lookout where the plan was to have a restaurant up there but there is only a small café which served coffee & cakes (coffee was not that special) but the view was spectacular.

On our second last day we took a trip out to Silverton some 25 klms from Broken Hill.  Strange as it may seem the iconic Australian Company BHP was founded here as the Broken Hill Mining Company in 1884.  One of the company founders was Charles Rasp, who was a boundary rider on a sheep property, and he had named the number of hills on his rounds that had a break in them.  Here he later discovered silver on top that hill.  The original hill has now been completely mined away.  When the silver started to peter out in Silverton the mining operation moved to the current location of Broken Hill.  Today, more than 50 million tons of lead and zinc plus 20 thousand tons of silver have been extracted from more than 200 million tons of ore.  Organised labour and unionism have also been an important part of the social and economic fabric of this town.  The longest strike known as the ‘Great Strike’ lasted 18 months from May 1919 to November 1920.  The win for the workers here was recognition of the proper rights and conditions of working in the mining industry and is the foundation of many of the rights we have enjoyed in our working lives including a 35-hour week, workplace safety and compensation.

The town is dwarfed by the huge mullock heaps from 150 years of mining and perched on top of the Line of Lode is a beautiful building & a memorial to the 800 miners who lost their lives in pursuit of the underground wealth.

The day that World War I came to Australia & Broken Hill!  It was on New Year’s Day 1st January 1915 and the mine company was hosting a picnic for the 1200 staff, miners and their families out into the countryside to Silverton on modified mining carriages with bench seats.  It was supposed to be a joyous event but when they passed an ice cream cart operated by two Pakistani immigrants flying a Turkish flag, shots rang out.  Gool Mahomed was the owner of the cart and was well known in the district and supported the Turkish cause against the Australian Government.  His accomplice on this day was an older man called Mullah Abdullah.  They were referred to as Turks but in actual fact were from North West Pakistan and not Turkish nationals at all. Remember this is a month and half before the allied troops landed at Gallipoli on the 17th February 1915.  Four people were killed immediately and seven others wounded when the Turkish loyalist fired into the packed rail cars.  The casualties were – Alma Cowie, James Craig, Alfred Millard & William Shaw (deceased) & Mary Kavanagh, George Stokes, Thomas Campbell, Lucy Shaw, Rose Crabb, Robert Mills & Alma Crocker (wounded).  The train was quickly shunted back to the main railway station to take of the wounded and get the people out of the firing line.  The local police & the Volunteer Rifles were alerted and chased the two men to a rise some three kilometres away where the gun battle lasted three hours before both of them were killed at a reserve now known as White Rock reserve.  Another casualty on this day was the burning of the German Club in town but with no further casualties.  These were the only shots fired in anger on Australian soil during that war.

The road out to Silverton has many floodway dips in it so I do not recommend trying to set a land speed record on your way out otherwise you will be airborne most of the time.  It is a very quaint little town whose other claim to fame was that the Mad Max II movie was made out here back in the ‘70s.  For the kids of my generation Mad Max was an icon and we loved these movies.  There is a museum that has lots of artefacts from that time but sadly it looked very dated and full of tatty souvenirs.  We had planned on having lunch at the pub but it was totally packed out for Mother’s Day and the bakery was closed.  If they had opened they would have made a killing!!! luckily for us we had leftover pizza in the car fridge and some beer plus I have a Travel Buddy Oven in the back. Cranked the oven up to 150 degC popped the pizza in and drove around the sites for 1/2 hour – lunch sorted. very nice and hot washed down with a cold beer – lunch sorted.

Next stop was the Mundi Mundi lookout a further 5 klms down the road.  The view out over the huge flat plain was stupendous and I had come out here with a view to doing a photography shoot at sunset.  Imagine my disappointment when I whipped out my compass app on my iPhone to discover that the sun set off to my left into some low hills and not out over the plains.  O well, I will find that endless vista with the right conditions somewhere out in the deserts of South Australia, Northern Territory or Western Queensland, I hope.  We were also surprised to find a real oasis in the form of Umberumberka Reservoir, 5 klms further down the road, which was built back in 1911 and remained critical to the supply of water to the Broken Hill and Silverton communities until the development and commissioning of the Wentworth to Broken Hill pipeline in 2018.

View from Mundi Mundi Lookout

We had a very interesting time in Broken Hill which had to be extended as it started to rain early in the morning around 4am in the morning. I woke up to the pattering of rain on canvas and it is not a good experience to pack up wet canvas. So I grabbed my laptop from under the doona (I keep it there so the battery does not get too cold) and logged into the council’s website to see if I could book the same sites for two more days. O joy of joys we were in luck so quickly booked the sites and went back to sleep. When I finally got up for breakfast the rain was heavier and Greg was pleased I had managed to extend our stay which would allow our gear to dry out. So we didn’t waste a day we went into town to wash our clothes and get them dry for the next part of the adventure and packed as much as we could except for the walls of our tent, the 270 degree awning and the ground mat.

The following day the sun was shining with a light breeze which finally dried out the canvas so we began packing. An early arriver into the site showed up when I was halfway through packing up and was gracious, and patient, enough to not rush me getting packed up.

Next stop was Peterborough in South Australia before we turned north towards Wilpena Pound & the Oodnadatta Track. The next day we would be sleeping in another state………

Menindee and Kinchega NP

Blog #8 – Menindee & Kinchega NP – Days 39 to 44 of 180

Sunset over Lake Paramaroo

Whilst only 123 klm between these two small outback towns it still took us two hours of teeth rattling and jarred spines of corrugated road to get there with one 10 klm stretch of tar in the middle to give you a false sense of freedom until the dirt (and the corrugations) started again. 

We passed the camel man and his entourage 30 klm short of Menindee and gave them a wave on our way through.  The local rumours around Pooncarie were that a politician had been to open the floodgates to start refilling the Menindee Lake systems from the waters with promises to keep water in there permanently.  This we had to see!!!

Menindee is the oldest township in outback NSW and was founded in 1852 by Thomas Pain.  Maidens Hotel is the 2nd oldest pub in NSW (go on Let Google Be Your Friend and look it up!!!) and is still operational today.  We had a couple of meals there which weren’t bad for pub grub and the beer was ice cold.

The Kinchega NP is only about 4 klm south of the township and boasts a variety of places to camp but the one where we wanted to stay (Cawndilla) was closed because there was no water in that lake so we opted to stay at the Darling River campgrounds where there were 34 campsites spread out amongst the trees along the riverbank. 

Camp 1 Darling River Campsites – Kinchega NP

It was a case of first in best dressed along a single lane very dusty road.  After driving in about another 3 klm under a cloud of fine dust we opted to turn around and come back out as all the campsites (2 to 34) where under tree cover and a poor opportunity for solar, which we needed, to stay off grid for 5 days.  Plus, if it rained it would be a quagmire of clay which would stick to everything.  It took us a while to find it but Campsite 1 turned out to be what we needed and had only a short 100 metre dusty road into it plus no other traffic would be driving past the camp day & night coating everything with dust.

Camp setup it was now time to explore.  At this stage there was no water near us in Lake Menindee although could see blue water a long way in the distance when we stood on the berm road to the park. One place where could have camped for free was called the Bourke & Wills campsite on the edge of Lake Paramaroo but our research initially had not found it until we had paid our fees.  One thing many travelers we had met complained about NSW Parks was that it is almost impossible to change or cancel a booking inside 7 days without substantial fees being applied.   If it rained on that campsite road potentially it would become undriveable in very short order nor would you have been able to get to your campsite.

Kinchega NP was part of a vast pastoral lease called Kinchega-Kars and founded in 1870. At its grandest, it covered an area of over 800,000 hectares and stretched from Menindee to Broken Hill, 110 klm away. Over 6 million sheep had been shorn on its boards before operations ceased in the late 1960’s.  Kinchega NP was founded in 1967 and it’s 44,000 hectares split from the original lease.  The original Kinchega Homestead is now only ruins after a major flood destroyed it in 1956. The last family to work Kinchega, the Bevens family, had built a new homestead closer to the huge shearing shed which was on higher ground.  We took a photo showing the flood levels from various years showing how much the Darling River can overflow its banks in the good years.

Herbert Bristow Hughes was one of three brothers who had emigrated from the UK to make their fortune in this new land and setup this vast pastoral lease as an extension of the family holdings in South Australia.  However successive land resumptions by the government saw this shrink down to 140,000 hectares by 1958.  These resumptions were used to create soldier settlements after the end of the First World War and were a disaster due to farmer inexperience, drought, rabbit plagues and dust storms.  But once done there was no turning back.  At the end of the Second World War the government, failing to heed the lessons learned by the plague events and droughts of the 1930s & 1940s sub-divided the lands again for intensive pastoralism with devastating results.  This is an old land and when the seasons are good it seems it can support huge flocks of sheep but when the droughts set in this becomes a killing land that can no longer support such vast herds nor its native mammals.  Records from the droughts in the early 1880s reported up to 47,000 sheep dying and again in 1888 another 45,000 sheep dying on Kinchega holdings alone.  The numbers are not as bad in modern times as the flocks were much smaller but the death rates are still high during droughts.  Also, in this region of the 88 original mammal species there are now only 27 species left with the others regionally extinct by the 1990s.

Today the town of Menindee has shrunk to a population of 550 and has struggled due to the lack of water since the Darling River ran dry some years ago.  I am surprised as the Menindee Lakes/Darling River supplies the town water for Broken Hill with a population near 20,000.  It is a wonder that the situation was allowed to get this bad before an act of god replenished the water supply with good rains in Western Queensland & Northern NSW in the last three months.  Hopefully the NSW government will better manage the water stocks for the future.

Right off my soapbox and now for some interesting stuff.  We travelled along the river road to visit the site where the paddle steamer PS Providence exploded killing all of its crew.  The story goes that after a liquid lunch the captain & crew wanting to get a head start on their trip southwards stoked up the fire under the boiler without first filling the boiler with water for sufficient steam for their travels.  Some 15 klms south of Menindee the boiler exploded demolishing the ship.  It is believed that the bodies of the crew were buried at the Kinchega Homestead cemetery but there are no headstones to support this.  All that is left of the paddle steamer is the boiler remnants lying on top of the riverbank.

Other places of interest in Menindee are its unique railway bridge which used to be used for both vehicles and trains up until the 1970’s.  As bigger levees were built around the lakes and new roads constructed you no longer had to play dodgem with the trains using the same roadway.

After a few days relaxing at our campsite, it was time to go and see what the fuss was about with gorgeous sunsets from the Bourke & Wills campsite on the shores of Lake Paramaroo as it was a bit ordinary where we were camped.  Nature turned it on for us and we witnessed one of the best sunsets I have ever seen (see the photos).  It will be hard to beat but I am hoping for more special sunsets later in the trip out near Oodnadatta in South Australia.

We went up to see the water roaring into Lake Menindee from Copi Hollow & Lake Paramaroo and it was a pleasure to see the lakes being replenished.  Fingers crossed there will be sufficient water influxes to sustain the lakes.  It will become a bird haven again given time but at the moment there were only pelicans & cormorants around the lake plus the ubiquitous white-browed treecreeper.  I did spot a wedge-tailed eagle but he was too far away for a photo.

One oddity we found purely by chance is the small village of Sunset Strip.  Not to be confused with its famous counterpart in Los Angeles where the American Dream lives large as a place of movie stars & rock stars plus star studded clubs including Whisky-A-GoGo, The Roxy & The Viper Room.  Sunset Strip in outback New South Wales is similar, in that it is a where the Outback Australian dream lives large, but unlike its Californian counterpart, it that says nothing about glamour but everything about outback irony and the Australian dream – a holiday house with water views. Most owners would live in Broken Hill and would use these shacks/houses as weekenders.  It would have been tough these past few years staring out at a dry lake bed with no fish & no yabbies.  It was good to see that aussie humour is alive and well out here as the only thing thriving was the dunny tree!!!

Our last night turned into a bit of misery as it started to rain just after we had dinner in the pub and it was too late to pack by the time we returned to camp.  As you can imagine water and clay dust is not a good combination and everything, we walked on was coated with muddy sludge.  Eventually we finished packing up and carried out around an extra 50 kgs of mud on the vehicles which get flung off once you reach the tar with a loud thudding noise.  So, it was goodbye to Menindee and onto Broken Hill for the next 4 days.

The journey continues………