The Cleland Hills, outliers of the George Gill Range, are surrounded by sand plains and dune fields in the predominantly flat landscape on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert. The hills are mostly composed of porous Mereenie sandstone which can hold water and that will support some plant species within a restricted range. The highest points are Mount Winter 800m above sea level and Mount Forbes 759m above sea level. The Cleland Hills support the surrounding open-woodland with an understorey of spinifex or porcupine grass. Buffel grass is also present and this advances summer wildfires which burn the country from time to time.
The Cleland Hills and surrounding areas, lie entirely within the Haasts Bluff Aboriginal Land Trust. The main land use is Indigenous. Threatened species of wildlife include the Emu, the Princess parrot, the Blackfooted Rock Wallaby and the Long-tailed Dunnart. This year was my third visit to the area since 2006, and, as in all instances, access had been granted with Traditional Owner permission to camp and explore the hills and surrounding landscapes.
Mike Smith, Australian Archaeologist of renown, did a four year (1986-1990) ‘dig’ at Puritjarra, a large sandstone overhang along the eastern side of the Cleland Hills. Dating back to before 22,000 years ago this site was used as an occasional resting and transit place by the ancient peoples who lived in this land then. Right next to Puritjarra there is a small water collection point as it seeps through the rocks, enough to give the transients sustenance on the nomadic journeys. Ochre remains were found at Puritjarra dating back between 13,000 and 32,000 years before the present. Less than five kilometres to the north lies the permanent water hole of Muranji and the level of water had not changed in the three visits I had been there over the past seven years.
There is a defined track leading to the Cleland Hills that runs partially along Deering Creek and for all intents and purposes I have called it the Deering Creek Track. The area surrounding the Cleland Hills has been subjected to Oil and Gas exploration since the late 1970’s and on from that time. Various seismic tracks scar the landscape if you look carefully for them or via Google Earth on the internet.
In 2006 inland Australia was in drought condition. By 2012, however, the drought had been broken and the desert landscape was lush with grasses, healthy spinifex clumps, low shrubs and trees. We were fortunate then also to come across a small flock of Princess Parrots which roam a limited area close to the Cleland Hills. Now, in 2013, the drought conditions have returned. Only one water catchment had water in it and that is Muranji Rockhole. In fact the level of water at Muranji has stayed pretty constant during all my visits there. But all other waters have dried up. Due to this phenomenon we noticed a distinct lack of wildlife in the area apart from the ubiquitous Camels who roam these dry inland plains. Even Camels come to grief at times as we witnessed dried up Camel carcasses at the base of two waterholes.
On a previous visit to this area I had started to drive close the sand stone escarpment of the Cleland Hills but that proved too difficult as the sand is extremely soft and after a short while I turned around and made for known seismic tracks.
This time we veered off our Alalya Waterhole access track (which had taken us to the western extremity of the Cleland Hills) along another overgrown seismic link track which took us to the access track from the Deering Creek track to Muranji Rockhole. This required careful driving as there were many dried out trees with sharp wood splints that stake tyres with impunity. This track joins the Deering Creek track again at the disused airstrip about 5 kilometres to the south of the Cleland Hills.
We were pleased to find Muranji Rockhole full of water, green with grass and that the dreaded burrs, which we had encountered there in 2006, had disappeared. I do know that volunteers had been to Muranji prior to that time to try to clear the area of these burrs but had not heard of subsequent visits. Close-by to the Rockhole there is a carport type structure and some rubbish bins. The Traditional Owners obviously come here from time to time. The place has also been used as a camp for archaeologists and other researchers who may have visited the area. This time the “Carport Campsite’ was reasonably free of rubbish as it looks like someone has been and tidied up since last year.
We set up camp and then decided to go for a walk along the escarpment. I chose to drive as my walking days are virtually over due to prosthetic limbs. Bill decided to come with me. First, however, there were two dry creek-beds to cross and after doing some roadwork with the shovel we made it to the other side. Our journey took us along the front of the Cleland Hills escarpment whilst Jeremy opted to walk up the valley behind. We stayed in contact via two-way radio. We would not have made a distance of two kilometres before the sand became incredibly soft and the wheels started digging in deeper than they usually do. I decided then to turn around and to follow Jeremy up the valley instead.
When looking at these sandstone walls we keep an eye out for overhangs where the ancient nomads may have stayed on their travels. We also look out for signs of where water may accumulate in storage ponds or seepage out of the fissures within the sandstone crevasses.
A window appeared in the sand stone with overhangs to each side. This seemed like an ideal place for transients to rest as they pursued their nomadic life. Some faint paintings are to be seen. The roof of the cave has fallen in somewhat and the living space has been minimised. Ripple rock effects adorn the ceiling remnants of an era too long ago.
In the afternoon Bill and Jeremy went for a long walk along the escarpment and found various places where the ancients had had some activities, such as cave painting or spear sharpening.
Early morning brought vivid colours to the escarpment around Muranji Rockhole. The night before one of my two faithful fold-up camping chairs collapsed in a heap, and now Bill had nothing to sit on. After breakfast he went for a walk and found an old plastic chair left behind by itinerant campers at the ‘Carport Campsite’ and claimed it as an asset and vowing that he would return it one day. It looked strange travelling along on top of the roof-rack.
A faint wheel track follows the escarpment to the south but after only and few kilometres it peters out and disappears at a small creek crossing. On previous visits we followed the creek up stream until we found a place to cross but this time we managed, by careful wheel placement over the rocky ledges, to cross without too much effort.
The Eastern aspect of the Cleland Hills has a number of sandstone overhangs which have from time to time been used as shelters by the ancient nomads. Hand stencils and other ochre based rock paintings can be seen. The largest of these overhangs is Puritjarra which spans around 45 metres and is 20 metres in height. We spent a bit of time here looking at everything that was unusual in the sandstone formation. Puritjarra has pictographs, petroglyphs and stone artefacts. The shelter itself would not protect you from the wind but it would keep you dry in times of rain. One can only sit a while and think what it must have been like for those travellers and short time visitors of so long ago. After the four year archaeological dig Mike Smith reported that he had returned the site to its original condition so that no one could say that it had ever been disturbed. And so it looked every time that we have visited there. Even after only one year no footprints were visible which concludes that not many people visit this site
Further along the escarpment we looked at numerous places where the ancients might have visited but found no other art. In the absence of wildlife we were pleased to see a track made by a large goanna, most likely a Perentie which pleasing to know as they are not seen too often these days.
Always aware of the sensitive nature of the country and our ability to leave marks with our travels we tend to minimise out impact as we travel dodging foliage where possible and choosing the right direction when crossing creeks and also knowing when to back-off.
We made progress this day as far as Gill Creek and made camp there after going for a walk up the creek to look for rock pools. Water was not to be seen this time. We did however find some rather strange looking art objects on a low line of rocks which border the creek.
We camped for the night on the banks of Gill Creek. This part of the journey was the end of our visit to the Cleland Hills. I had envisaged to circumnavigating the hills but time constraints and the difficulty of the terrain made me change my mind. Next time !