The Datto’s Last Ride 2014

Desert Road

The Desert Road

On this adventure I promised to take those with me to the most remote rock-hole in the whole of Australia. Initially I was going to approach this place from our position out from O’Grady’s Well and across the NT/WA Border north of Lake Mackay, but I was refused permission to do this by the Central Land Council. So we had to go the long way around via the Desert Road and the Kiwirrkurra/Balgo Business Road (as it is called). I explained to the other participants that this would be a hard and sometimes rough trip and that it would test their mettle. And test it, it did!

We set off towards Walungurru/Kintore Community along the Desert Road from our previous night’s camp in an old roadworks quarry. The 25km journey did not take long and we arrived shortly after the Community Store opened to fill our fuel tanks and to buy some munchies from the well stocked shop.

While we were there we were approached by the Manager of the Renal Clinic by the name of Noel, who invited us over for a cuppa tea and a look around the Renal Facilities which have been provided there by private enterprise to accommodate patients who need regular dialysis. Noel gave us the background of the enterprise and him and his wife’s work there. All very enlightening and interesting.

We managed to tear ourselves away from our new found friend and were on the road again by 11 o’clock. The necessary photos were taken at the Northern Territory / Western Australia Border where there was a plaque by Len Beadell, the famous Outback Road Builder.

Mt Webb
Mt Webb

At Mount Webb, about 100km further west, we took a faint track to the north which eventually leads on to the Wirramanu /Kiwirrkurra Business Road. This latter road was put in in the early 1990’s when the Outstation Movement was taking place. It was to provide access to a number of Outstations and a link between the communities. It is seemingly only used once or twice a year when sport carnivals are on for the desert communities. It is becoming more popular with a number of tourists using this link track during the winter months. But the visitation is still low judging by the overgrown state of the track in places.

Contemplating Lake Mackay
Contemplating Lake Mackay

The track runs for around 55km from the Desert Road via the southern shore of Lake Mackay / Wilkinkarra to a water tank with a hand-pump which is known by travellers as Dwarf Well but by the Indigenous Owners as Marruwa. Once on the ‘road’ it is graded and some of the dune crossings either capped with clay or sandbagged. This has no doubt been done to facilitate easier access for mining vehicles. Close to Lake Mackay the road swings away to the east while the track heads north and then northwest past the shores of Lake Mackay. We duly got out and had a walk on the hard white salt surface of the lake. Then I had to change a tyre as I had staked it with a large and very sharp piece of Mulga. I decided to make for Dwarf Well Tank. The sun was in our eyes for most of the way and this made driving difficult but we made it to our destination just on 7pm as the sun set. Nobody has been here or at least used the place for a while. The pump still works and the bath is still there

Handpump and bath
Handpump and bath

 

Here we had a day’s rest to catch up with small mechanical repairs, tyre repairs, the washing of clothes and our bodies and for general relaxation. The time was well spent. I decided to have a snooze in the afternoon and soon after, Wylie the dog, jumped in the Datto and curled up next to me. One of the jobs we did whilst at the Tank was to pick up all the accumulated rubbish left by passersby and burn and then bury it. I found an old engine dipstick lying in the bush and used it to clean away seeds that were stuck between the radiators.

Dwarf Well Camp
Dwarf Well Camp

 

Washing day
Washing day

 

 

 

 

 

 

We set off the next morning to drive the track for about 12 kilometres and then to veer off along the southern side of a sand dune to look for the original Dwarf Well as I had the co-ordinates given to me by a fellow desert traveller. At a clay-pan we got out for a walk around and a look and discovered relatively fresh bicycle tracks and camel tracks on the surface of the pan. Were they travelling together or were the tracks just a coincidence. Some people take unneccessary risks  in the deserts and on this track even though there is water available at relatively regular intervals. Internet research comes up with a name of  Eddie Mittelette, a Frenchman, who does research on Indigenous Languages, and rides his bicycle everywhere. It could be his tracks.

The track north
The track north

 

A wet claypan
A wet clay-pan
Bicycle and Camel tracks
Bicycle and Camel tracks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I swung the nose of the Datto almost due east from the clay-pan and headed out along a track in the general direction to a waypoint on the map, which would be the ‘original’ Dwarf Well. From the outset the going was rough with the Spinifex Grass clumps seemingly getting larger as we moved along. Every now and then there would be relief in an area which had been burnt earlier in the year and with new regrowth. Eventually we found what we surmised was the ‘original’ Dwarf Well which has fallen in through lack of use.

Dwarf Well
Dwarf Well

I took a bearing on Labbi Labbi Rockhole of 38 degrees. It was hard going all the way. Spinifex, Mulga, Grevilleas, shrubs, trees, and bushes barred our path. I recall driving this way in 2008 but then the countryside was in drought and the foliage was sparse. Now, after three years of very good rains during 2010, 2011 and 2012, the flora has increased in size and density. Driving at a slow speed I remarked over the radio that there was a carpet of small flowers amongst the grass tufts and almost drove straight into a beautiful freshwater lake. It is normally a dry clay-pan but now it was a small lake with ducks, waterbirds and parrots in abundance. My name for this place was Surprise Lake. We had to drive around it. The flora was magnificent around the lake. Too soon we were back in the unrelenting Spinifex and lots of small anthills as well and I hit a few. A little further on I found a reasonable clearing free of Spinifex, to stop for the night. We had covered 81 kilometres for the day which was quite an achievement. Today we saw two magnificent Bustards and a mob of Camels.

Camels closeup
Camels closeup
An open patch
An open patch
Desert flowers
Desert flowers

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hard going
Hard going
Spinifex flowers
Spinifex flowers
Kaleidoscope of colours
Kaleidoscope of colours

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surprise Lake
Surprise Lake
Exploring on foot
Exploring on foot

 

 

 

Out of camp by 8.35. A hard drive with the vehicles overheating at regular intervals. During one of the interludes waiting for the engines to cool down, I found a cool breezy refuge on a granite hill.

Alec Ross Range in the distance
Alec Ross Range in the distance

We had lunch there and a general discussion which way to go. As per usual I was given lots of advice, which, on weighing it up, did not sound feasible and so  I ignored that and made for another hill through some burnt Mulga. That resulted in more punctures and unhappy travellers. Then I found another granite  hill and then had to drive around the ridge trying to find a suitable route to get down again.

Coming down the ridge
Coming down the ridge

Then there was another  a short Mulga stake run and three small sand dunes and we were at an ancient clay-pan.  I had seen the pan coming up on my digital mapping and was pleased to find it completely dry and hard and, although it was only 2.30pm, I decided that we should camp here.  We each found a shady tree  to hide from the sun and there was enough dead wood lying around to fuel our fire for the night and morning. I refuelled and made some phone calls and went for a walk on the clay-pan and found stone age implements lying on the margins of the pan. One of our group found a Zircon shard. Today we had less punctures but only managed to drive 24km.

Early morning Claypan Camp
Early morning Clay-pan Camp

 

Stone Age Knife
Stone Age Knife
Grinding stone
Grinding stone
Stone Age Grinder
Stone Age Grinder

 

 

 

 

 

Zircon
Zircon

The next day cloud cover shielded us from the relentless sun. Out of camp by 8.30. We had a good run for a short while and came across another lake clay-pan. Saw two bustards again. Wondered of they we following us?  After that there was some good country, then some bad and then some really rough country. At one stage I got out of the Datto, tripped and fell into a Spinifex clump. Ouch! We did a number of dune crossings. I ran up quite a few without getting over and then had to resort to finding a better crossing. We did 48km for the day. Wylie the dog got left behind by accident at one stop. It was a mad rush about 2km back to find her. She was trotting along our tracks. The day was overcast but the engines still got hot. We had 13 punctures for the day.  I found a clearing in the Spinifex at 4.30pm and called a camp. We had had enough! We were now 15km from Labbi Labbi Rockhole in a staight line.

Overgrown country
Overgrown country
Cresting a dune
Cresting a dune
Another claypan lake
Another claypan lake

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were expecting rain but luckily it didn’t rain. We had journeyed but one kilometre out of camp the next morning when we had the first puncture for the day. What followed was another hard day picking my way through the Spinifex but at last the country opened up as we neared the salt lakes and the fringe area of Lake Hazlett. We crossed Brookman Waters and it was slightly damp but it offered no problems. Then we followed the ranges to the north looking for an easier way through and eventually crossed over them at a low point to come out right on Chugga Kurri, the fabled oasis in the Hidden Basin of the Tanami Desert. I could not see any water in there nor was there any bird life as often quoted by other visitors to the area.  The place is well vegetated with a forest of trees on the margins of Nicker Creek and the Ghost Gums and Desert Eucalypts stood out amongst the greenery. Here too the countryside was very overgrown and in trying to cross a tributary of Nicker Creek I managed to hang the Datto up with its wheels in freeplay.

Hung up
Hung up

This resulted in having to be snatched out of trouble. We crossed many creeks, built crossings, helped each other with snatches and and crossed a small range over the top of it! We arrived at Labbi Labbi at 4pm having driven 35 kilometres for the 15 kilometre straight line distance!

Camp fire in the desert
Camp fire in the desert

 

 

 

Chugga Kurri
Chugga Kurri

I walked in to the rockhole with some difficulty and took the bucket with me to pour the cool waters over me. We filled our water-bottles with cool sweet water even though the water has been standing for a while. The good thing about Labbi Labbi is that it is too difficult for camels to access and this keeps the water clear. We watched Firetail and Zebra finches zoom in and out for a drink without taking much notice of us. Everyone except me walked to the cairn on top of the hill nearby and reported that there had been quite few visitors this year according to the notes left inside the bottle, which is preserved within the cairn. Having spent a long time by the waters edge soaking up the atmosphere it took me awhile to walk back to the Datto. We camped in a clearing about three hundred metres adjacent to the rockhole.

Labbi Labbi
Labbi Labbi

 

Ancient marking at the entrance to Labbi Labbi
Ancient marking at the entrance to Labbi Labbi

 

Labbi Labbi sentinel
Labbi Labbi sentinel

Everybody did their own thing in the morning. I mulled over whether to go back to Chugga Kurri again to have another look around or to travel north. In the end I decided to travel north but took a track running east from Labbi Labbi thinking that it may turn north after a short while. It didn’t and we turned around and drove back past the rockhole and out the way we had come it. Then we took another used track north which took us over the ranges and then into some very dense and tall scrub which I didn’t like at all and then I took my own direction back up on to a low section of the Murabba Range only to be stopped by a dune and some rocks. The day was hot and the Datto was boiling and so were the other vehicles. I had to make a decision whether to try to keep on heading north or return to our morning track which seemed to head back towards Brookman Waters. My decision then was to drive back to our lunch spot. We arrived there just on dusk and made camp for the night. The next day we intended leaving early in the morning and then stop when the cars started to get hot. We had the usual run of punctures for the day and a bush welding job had to be performed on a spare wheel bracket on one of the vehicles.

Welding job
Welding job

Out of camp by 7.30 the following morning and followed the track apparently made by an expedition driving Earth Cruisers in from Brookman Waters. Along the way I had a puncture and my right hand free wheeling hub got knocked out by a stick resulting in big wallop noises under the front. This had me worried, but no damage seemed to have been be done. We followed another track out from Brookman Waters but soon lost that as it was too faint and heading on the wrong direction for my liking and I set off on my own course in a direct line between the dunes towards a shot line about 60 kilometres to the west.

Heading into the Great Sandy Desert
Heading into the Great Sandy Desert

The going was rough with lots of burnt out country from long ago. I had another puncture, my third for the trip. The engines overheated but I eventually found a way on to a range for some cool air and some clear ground.

Unnamed range
Unnamed range
Negotiating the range
Negotiating the range
Being winched out of a gutter
Being winched out of a gutter

On the other side however the Datto fell into a hole which was hidden in the grass. It took two electric winches with snatch-blocks to get me out. The old Datto ran hot all afternoon and the going was rough at times. At 4.30 I spied some trees and found a lovely little oasis with no water, but with lots of wood and clear parking. After finding our respective camp sites for the night I had some help repairing the puncture and then I had a half a litre of water bath, changed into clean clothes and felt better. We sat around the fire for a while after having eaten but were soon in bed asleep as we were all dog tired.

My Oasis
My Oasis

The next day the countryside became easier for a while and not long after starting we came to the clay-pans. Some were dry but I kept on skirting them just in case. Just as I rounded one little point the Datto sank to its bulbar and nearly tipped over. I had to be snatched out backwards. The Datto started heating up again as were all the vehicles.

Wet and dry Clay-pans
Wet and dry Clay-pans
Wet underneath
Wet underneath
Camel watching
Camel watching

 

 

 

 

 

The countryside became badly overgrown.

Approaching
Approaching
Pushing down
Pushing down
Through
Through

Through

 

 

 

The Datto kept on boiling and there were bubbles coming from the radiator depths and it was decided to put some corrective sealant in. We managed to drive another two kilometres but the Datto boiled again. Then we removed the thermostat and in doing so broke one of the bolts that holds it together. When refitting the thermostat housing the broken bolt was put back with Locktite Glue. We refilled the radiator and took off again but within 2 kilometres the radiator was boiling again. The prognosis was then that the water-pump was not working as the water was not circulating and the crack in the gasket or head was not being repaired by the sealant.

Overheat
Overheat
Steam blow
Steam blow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taking the safety of the group at that stage into foremost consideration and seeing as we were getting low on water, I then had to make the decision to abandon my beloved old Datto and get a lift back out. Luckily there was a spare seat available in one of the vehicles. Others in the group kindly took some of my gear but the greater majority of stuff still rests out there in the desert. We couldn’t consider towing the Datto out as the terrain was too rough and I did not think that it may be feasible at that stage with all the vehicles overheating in the daily 42°C temperatures.
We camped where the Datto stood, clearing a space in the Spinifex to camp and light a fire safely.

I shall go no further
I shall go no further

 

 

 

 

 

Heading north again
Heading north again

 

 

The last puncture
The last puncture

We left camp earlier than usual. The drive out was as hard as the previous days and with about six dunes to cross but we made it to the ‘Business Road’ by lunch time.

 

 

At the deserted Lamanbundah Outstation we refilled all of our water containers from the hand pump. It took more than 30 pumps to get the water to rise up the pipe. It was also sweet water.

Lamanbundah Hand pump
Lamanbundah Hand pump
Broken down trailer and bush fires
broken down trailer and bush fires
Point Moody
Point Moody

 

 

 

 

Stretch Range near Yagga Yagga
Stretch Range near Yagga Yagga

 

 

 

 

 

Next we made for Yagga Yagga which turned out to be 125km away as we took the more westerly road. Bushfires were seen burning in the distance to the northwest and near Walgali Outstation.
Yagga Yagga Outstation is another deserted community with an erstwhile large infrastructure for about 20 houses. There was a large Community Store and a diesel and solar panel hybrid power station. Yagga Yagga was abandoned in 1998 as a result of the Elders of the region deciding that it was a cursed place as there had been no less than eleven youth suicides in a short period of time.
In my visit there of 2009 we counted no less that 120 solar panels still intact at the Power Station. This year there were two left. We camped in front of the ‘Supermarket’ listening to night noises and an expanding and contracting drum with its sonic boom from time to time.
The following morning plugged tyres had leaked air overnight and so puncture repairs had to be done. Some of us went for a walk around the abandoned township. The journey north was across flat country with some dunes but the road had been cut through the dunes to make access to Yagga Yagga easier. Later we marvelled at the spectacular Pallotine Headland as we approached Balgo Wirrimanu Community.

Palotine Escarpment near Balgo
Palotine Escarpment near Balgo

Getting our times mixed up due to WA time being an hour and a half behind Central time and being in the bush for a week the store had not opened yet. But the fuel bowser now has a 24hr credit card operationand this had to be explained to me ask I kept on looking at the wrong side of the pump. We did some shopping and the headed out to the Tanami Road. Once there we said our goodbyes to those who were heading home via Halls Creek and then the last two vehicles took to the Tanami which wasn’t too bad in places. 80kmh was the order of the day. We had a bite to eat at the Lajamanu turn off and then continued on and drove into the night to make up time. There were lots of cattle feeding next to or lying on the road and we had some near misses. We camped on a claypan off the road near Sullivan Well about 10km from Tilmouth Roadhouse

Tanami Road
Tanami Road

We had a quick breakfast at Tilmouth Roadhouse and then made it into Alice Springs by 10.30am

The wash up:
I am appreciative of the fact that I have been afforded the privilege to travel across this vast desert landscape with its diverse flora and fauna and human history dating back tens of thousands of years. It was a successful trip but I became stressed with the mechanical problems we encountered and the constant negative comments by some of our group who couldn’t see the wood for the trees and the adventure for what it was. I sacrificed my 4×4 for the safety of the group at that point in time but no one showed much care about that. It was an extremely hard trek exacerbated by the 74 punctures we endured over the 12 days as well as the mechanical issues.
Hindsight:
September turned out to be too warm for desert travel in 2014.
The countryside was far more rugged than my previous journeys out there and that all due to good rain years.
Tubeless tyres are not good for cross country driving

Conclusion:
I will go and rescue my Datto during the winter months

Posted in 4x4 Travel Stories.