Heading north along the Stuart Highway out of Alice Springs and through the undulating hills which surround the town, it isn’t long before you see the sign that denotes that now there is no speed limit. The vast distances to travel, between towns and roadhouses in the Northern Territory, has made for the re-introduction of the ‘No Speed Limit’, which had been changed some years before, by a government with a different ideology. Just ‘drive to conditions’ the sign denotes. This, however, was of no help to me, as I have to self-regulate my speed due to my choice of tyres for the trip. Travelling in the Outback has its compromises. To facilitate Off Track adventures I fit the thick walled cross-ply tubed tyres. These in turn are very good for driving Off Track or in sandy country as potential stakes are deflected off the tough side walls of the tyres, but have a downside of building up heat when on sealed roads, which could perforate the tubes and cause a blow-out. So for me 80kmh is the go to keep the heat down. You definitely get to see more country, as the pace is slow.
No speed limit….Go for it!
Out of Alice Springs, the highest altitude marker between Darwin and Adelaide , on the Stuart Highway, is one kilometre past the Tanami Road turn-off. Here the altitude is 727.2 metres above sea level.
The next point of interest is the Tropic of Capricorn and not long after I turned east on to the Plenty Highway. This highway is single lane bitumen for 100 kilometres up to Ongeva Creek and after that it can be good for short distances and really bad for long distances, which will include severe corrugations and bulldust holes. Originally the Plenty Highway was just a track for access to some stations but was graded through to the NT Border at Tobermorey Station in the 1960’s. Traffic in either direction on the sealed bit can throw up stones as they drop two wheels onto the dirt but on the whole drivers are sensible and slow down so as to minimise damage to cars. Where the name came from is anyione’s guess but all I can say is Plenty Rough Road!
I called in at Gemtree Holiday Park to catch up with a Facebook friend. Kate McMaster and her husband Aaron run Gemtree and have a good business there catering for families in particular and gem fossickers. The area close-by to Gemtree is well known for Zircons and Garnets. In an earlier part of our lives we were interested in such things and fossicked for Garnets and Judith had one made up into a ring by the Gemtree jewellers. Although it was still early in the day I decided to stop over at the park and had a most relaxing afternoon and had a pre-ordered hot dinner delivered by quad bike to my campsite.
Once off the sealed road I was battling the corrugations and finding the softest tracks, even if they were halfway up the windrow. My journey now took me to turn north along the Binns Track, 22 kilometres east of Atitjere-Harts Range Community. I was heading for Mt Swan Station which is owned, together with Macdonald Downs Station, by the Chalmers Family. Charles and Cora Chalmers took up the Macdonald Downs Station lease which included Mount Swan in 1923. They worked hard to build up a viable business and to raise 6 children and they built up a special rapport with the Alyerre Aboriginal group who custodial lands these were. Now, the third Chalmers generation, Charlie and Sonja Chalmers, run this working cattle property of 2067 square kilometres (half a million acres). Apart from running a Store on the station they have also established a vibrant Aboriginal Artist Collective, and have outlets throughout Australia and major world cities. In recent times they have built a Gallery a short way from the Mount Swan Station homestead, where they facilitate groups of visitors to meet the artists and view their work in situ. The Gallery also has a Café which is open for business when groups arrive. I was very impressed by the art at the gallery which included large paintings, wooden bird figures, human totem figures and bush jewellery.
Next and I was off to Tower Rock. This geological phenomenon lies 27 kilometres the north-west of Mount Swan Station by station tracks. It is the first privately enacted Conservation Reserve in the history of the Northern Territory where 470 hectares have been excised from the station and is named the Mac and Rose Chalmers Conservation Reserve. The rounded granite boulders, piled on top of one another are similar to other such features like the Devil Marbles or The Pebbles near Tennant Creek. The Conservation Reserve features a wide range of native plant species and wildlife. Within the reserve is the grave site for Mac and Rose Chalmers.
The camping area lies within a corral of granite hills made up of bound boulders, some precariously perched on top pf one another to make striking feature. There is a small fee to camp and you are asked to collect wood for your fire before entering the reserve. Long-drop toilets are provided but they are pretty much in the open and some upgrading is necessary. There are a number of walks that may be undertaken by the fit and agile and these are shown on the information board close to the gravesite. Being a handicapped walker these days I did not stray far from my vehicle. There is no water out there and this is so evident by the absence of birds.
Just before daybreak a mournful Dingo was calling the pack and the Desert Thrush was twittering its repetitive call, no doubt looking for water. I made a Satellite Phone call home to wish my dearest a Happy Birthday and after breakfast, and, before the flies woke up in earnest, I set off for my next destination, the Dulcie Ranges National Park.
Bush ingenuity…a floating gate post
I can only praise the creators of digital mapping software because without it we modern day travellers would be wandering in all directions. I have a small laptop that is positioned on the dashboard of the Datto and it shows me progress via satellite navigation in which direction I am travelling. Arriving at the turn off point on the Binns Track, heading east, there was no signpost, and the track indicated little use by other vehicles. Access through station fences happened invariably at cattle watering points and tracks were obliterated for hundreds of metres around. So my mapping stood me in good stead. I also had some notes emailed to me by a mate, who stated amongst other things, that there was a drum marking the turn-off to Old Huckitta Homestead. That drum is now missing. Nevertheless I found my way to the ruins.
The Dulcie Ranges National Park was established in 2001 but little as far as development seems to have occurred since then apart for minor fencing and work around Aboriginal Rock Art sites. A broad resource survey of the Dulcie Range in 1989 recorded 100 rock art sites, 49 archaeological sites and 5 Aboriginal “Dreaming” sites. A major art and engravings site within the Park (Ataperraperre) is centred around Mount Ultim and has been registered as a Sacred Site. A Sacred Site has also been registered close to the Old Huckitta Homestead ruins (Atnwarle).
The Dulcie Range is principally within the traditional estate of the Atnewale clan of the Akarre Arrernte people. The Range would have been of considerable importance to Aboriginal people offering many reliable waterholes and springs, abundant shelter as well as considerable animal and plant resources.
I was able to drive up to the Old Homestead ruins. It lies just outside of a permanent spring. I wonder why it had been abandoned with such a vibrant spring at hand. I walked up the small gorge with some difficulty however as the little gorge id very overgrown. Right at the source of the spring in the rusty remains of an old windmill. Looking up at the rock overhangs above I could imagine that there were paintings to be discovered, and so I set out to climb up.
After virtually crawling about 15 metres over rough rocks I realised that even if I managed to get to the overhangs I will have a battle getting down again as my balance has now been compromised seriously with my degenerative disc disease. And so I struggled back down the short distance and was relieved to get back to flatter ground again.
On leaving the fenced off ruins area I followed a track heading north along the fence-line. The track meandered through some gullies and light scrub and after about 4km I came to a gate and a signpost denoting a site of cultural significance. I did not enter as the sign requests that a permit is required and that a site custodian should also be present. So I will pursue this for a future visit.
Now other tracks led anywhere so I set my sights on the Plenty Highway once again and reached it by without much effort by following a once grade track along a fence line. Once again the road surface on the Plenty was not all that good and I had to find the ‘right’ wheel-track, even if it meant driving on the wrong side of the road. About 20km shy of Jervois Station I came across a Japanese cyclist heading east. I asked if he had enough water and he indicated that he was OK but I am not sure if he understood what I meant.
After the Harts Ranges the scenery from the road is a tad dull with few visible features. Arthur Creek lies around 70km further along the road and that is where I camped for the night. Although it was only 3pm and the flies were extremely friendly, I had to stop to make up two new brackets for my rooftop solar panel frame, as they had broken. The road was dead quiet and I had no other campers using the place. Just on dusk a group of Dingoes started howling in unison and not that far from where I was encamped. They may have snared a kill as there were lots of cows with young calves in the area.
I had slept seven hours by 3.30am and as it was close to Full Moon and bright as daylight outside, I decided to make an early start. But an hour elapsed between rising and setting off, as breakfast had to be made and eaten and the usual packing up had to take place. Once you have a camping routine you have to stick with it.
Early morning showed up four large Kangaroos on the road and something I had not seen before in my years of driving the Plenty. There were a few night birds too. The road surface was atrocious in places and at one point I was down to 20kmh. As the day began to break I was coming off a plateau and the early morning colours were great. Two vehicles passed coming towards me and then as the sun rose above the horizon it made visibility too hard and so I stopped to do another refuel and to wait for the sun to gain some height.
Once I had cleared the Northern Territory Queensland Border, 4km east of Tobermorey Station, the roasd name changes to the Donohue Highway and it rises back up on to a long plateau which gently drops down in to the Georgina River catchment. The 249km gravel road to Boulia was in exceptional condition at the extremities of its range and as one got closer to Boulia it deteriorated. This is the western side of the Channel Country and when it rains the waters run deep and wide. The Mitchell Grass plains in the early morning were stunning. There were only a few travellers about. I stopped and spoke to one elderly couple towing a road van to tell them to take care on the Plenty. There wasn’t much water in the Georgina River and once past the river system the road rose up again to another small plateau. Sections of the Donohue Highway have been sealed so as to cut down water damage repair costs.
Georgina River flood marker. The top of the pole on the left shows the 7 metre mark.
At Boulia I did a refuel, had a shower and had something to eat before setting off down the sealed road to Bedourie. Once again the Gibber Plains come to view once one gets out of the tree line. Later that day I ambled through Bedourie remembering the hot spa I had there last year. I was going to stop at the artesian pool but considered it too late in the afternoon to get the key and so I kept on driving.
Not long after Bedourie I looked for possible campsites either side of the road and pulled in a hundred metres or so off the road and under the trees on the banks of Cootamietchie Creek. The flies were seriously friendly as I set about cooking a meal. They died down after 6.30pm and I was able to eat my food in peace. Full Moon rose in the east and threw eerie shadows about me.
I was ready to turn in for the night when I thought that seeing as I was going to have another near daylight night, I might as well keep on driving. And so I did. Just cruised along at 80kmh. I had the whole road to myself with no traffic in either direction and no animals either. There are still some unsealed sections on the road to Birdsville but they were in good repair. Around 11pm I pulled off the road at Dingo Caves viewpoint , about 16km out of Birdsville and slept soundly.
I had to wait for the servos to wake up for a refuel at Birdsville and then I went and rustled me old mate Ian up for a coffee and a natter. By 9am I was on the Birdsville Development Road heading east towards and then south by taking the Cordillo Downs Track to Innamincka and beyond.
The drought has hit hard out here. All one can see is Gibber Plains. When it rains the grass seeds lying hidden in between the rocks will spring to life for a sea of green grass for a couple of months and then the pastoralists can fatten their cattle for the next market. But for now, things are not looking good!
At the Queensland South Australia State Border some wag has made an alteration to the Cordillo Downs sign changing it to Dildo Downs. This is also where the good road ends and then deteriorates to a graded station track once in South Australia. And the track is a typical station track, meandering along in a never-ending series of bends.Cordillo Downs has a large Wool Shed which was built in 1883 from sandstone rubble quarried close-by. For over 60 years Wool was shorn and transported away from here to southern markets and overseas. It was once regarded as Australia’s largest Sheep Station and ran 85,000 head of sheep. In a good year now it can run up to 7000 head of cattle. The owner of Cordillo Downs Station has made the Woolshed available for close-up viewing by the public.
Ever mindful that the Innamincka Store shuts at 5pm I was pushing a bit harder along the corrugated track to Innamincka. The closer I got the more dust appeared on the horizon and it soon came about that I was in the thick of road trains carrying supplies to and from oil and gas mines in the vicinity of the Innamincka Regional Reserve.
I made it to the bowser by 3.30pm. Innamincka was busy with tourists everywhere and a number of road trains parked or moving around. I decided on taking the Old Strzelecki Track to meet up with the Strzelecki Highway cutting out some badly corrugated roads as I recall from previous experiences out there. This track, however, is also used by everyone, so it seems, and progress was slow with lots of dust and corrugations. By the time the sun started to set I was nearing the Moomba Gas Plant and then there were road-works.
Signs everywhere along the Strzelecki denote that there is no public access to anywhere off the road even though this is still the Innamincka Regional Reserve. I was looking for a place to camp, as it started get dark, and I needed to stop. About ten kilometres south of Moomba is saw a claypan about 150metres off the road and swung the Datto up over the sandy windrow and made it without sinking in the soft sand about. And as luck would have it there was some dry wood where I stopped to supplement my own supply. I set up camp for the night.
Quite a bit of traffic passed and many vehicles slowed down to obviously look at my fire but no one approached me. A couple of road trains tooted a hello and by 9pm the road was quiet. I rang Jude to tell her of my progress.
Another early morning getaway and I was on the road by 4.15am. Heading south and the Strzelecki ‘Highway’ is hard packed in places and generally good. There are a number of 7 kilometre sealed sections. I understand that the oil industry has been lobbying the South Australian Government to bituminise the whole of the Strzelecki as with the expansion of the oil fields and increased production more and more traffic and especially heavy vehicles are using the road now. But the government wants the oil industry to contribute to the roads and they will not do it and so a stalemate occurs. Reluctantly the government is sealing trouble spots along the road. I spoke with a truckie via radio near Montecolinna Bore and he said that there were some bad patches of corrugations further south. With this in mind I decided to take the track from Mount Hopeless to Mooloowatana Station, Mulga Bore, Balcanoona, Wirrealpa Station, Wearing Gorge to Blinman. Remind me not to do this again! I also drove into Montecolinna Bore Camping Area just to have a look. There were about 6 camps. Then I could not find my way out in the ore-dawn light and drove around in circles no doubt waking everyone from their slumbers!
The track to the east of the Flinders Ranges isn’t all that corrugated but there are so many twists and turns and poorly maintained cattle grids and washed out dry creek-beds that you are forever changing gears. The countryside to the east is rather featureless with Lake Frome lying off in the distance. As you get closer to the Flinders Ranges the view improves and Wearing Gorge is the start of the hilly country.
I was able to buy a nice coffee in Blinman and then set off on the last 250km towards home. I aired up at the information board for Flinders Ranges National Park back from 25psi to 35psi and did my last refuel using my trusty Tanami Air Fuel Pump. Two more solar panel brackets had broken. Now the driving was a pleasure on sealed roads again, after thousands of kilometres of rough gravel roads and bumpy tracks. Early winter rains had transformed the country side to a lush green colour which is a far cry from the drought affected areas of Western Queensland.
I enjoyed my trip away. This journey was a test to see how I would handle camping with the onset of health issues. I managed very well with my ‘in car’ fold-out bed, clothes, cooking gear, fridge, extra fuel and portable toilet. My power supply worked well with charging from the 160watt solar panel on the roof and with help from the cranking battery. My ‘bush tyres’, the MRF 16ply crossplies, ran well and without any punctures but they have come to the end of their life after 5 years and 45,000 kilometres, as the tyres have hardened and lugs have been breaking off. Time for a new set. The Datto’s 4.2 litre diesel engine is still running well with good fuel consumption and very little oil use now at 491,000km on the clock. It will do for a while yet!
And so to planning more trips away for this year, and in the future.