Desert Rescue 2015

Dry Spinifex grass

Dry Spinifex grass

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. “If only” is a catchphrase often used after the event. But in the heat of the moment (and it was around 45C that afternoon), as Trip Leader, I decided to abandon my beloved Datto as we could find no remedy to repair the overheating engine. We were also running low on water supplies as we had been feeding all the radiators with this precious commodity. I asked Jeremy if he could give me a ride out as his passengers seat in the Landcruiser was available and he agreed. And so, as the sun dropped lower towards the horizon we shovelled Spinifex bushes out of the way to make a clearing in the sea of these bushes so that we could have a safe campfire for warmth and food preparation for the night. Marla and Neil, in the diminutive Mazda BT25 ute, offered to take some stuff for me and I managed to get essential items rescued  but around $9k of gear in camping gear, accesories and parts added, still remained after we had left the site the following morning

Hindsight suggested we should have towed the Datto out to where the bushtrack runs, north to south. That may have been possible but every vehicle had been overheating for the past two days and we were struggling to find a safe passage through the scrub. Our position was where the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts meet, more or less.

Desert is more a misnomer for these areas as one always relate deserts to sparse vegetation and open sand dunes.

Crashing through the Mulga

Crashing through the Mulga

Here the desert vegetation can be extreme. The sand dunes are still there but all the growth had increased from 2009 to 2011 when exceptionally good rains fell over the whole country

And so here I was stranded in the desert.

Here I stay

Here I stay

Hindsight suggested we should have dug the spinifex away from the Datto but at that moment I was not coming back and it did not cross my mind. I even removed the number plates off the Datto. It was only when I got home again and calculated all the stuff I had left behind that I decided to do a rescue mission….and another adventure, of course.

Over the past 8 months I have been scraping together the parts needed to retrieve the Datto. I now have a new waterpump, a reconditioned radiator, spare tubes for the tyres just in case they have gone flat and perished over the past 8 months, and a new battery just incase the solar panel has not been able to keep the charge up to the batteries in the Datto.

I have a new group coming along too

Andy (my mechanic) and Adam (his cousin) in a Ford Ranger, two young fellas who will keep us old fellas entertained, no doubt
Adam from Melbourne in a Landcruiser twin-cab and Bryan from the Sunshine Coast.
Iain from The Blue Mountains in New South Wales in a highly modified Landrover Discovery and John from Peterborough
Myself,  and Uncle Milton from Snowtown, in the Datto towing a trailer full of fuel, tucker, swags and parts. Uncle has featured in many of my travel tales as we used to go exploring around South Australia after the turn of the century

All Permits are in place (A Permit is a de-facto Visa to travel within this great land). As you are wondering what Permits may be, here is a short history lesson:
In 1770 Captain James Cook, on behalf of the British Navy, sailed around the Southern and Eastern Coasts of Australia. He saw some natives but as they were not wearing any clothes he considered them as sub-human and declared the Great Southern Land as Terra Nullius (uninhabited land). He planted the British Flag and annexed the Great Southern Land for the British King. In 1788 the British people invaded, what is now known as Australia, and set up camp in Sydney Cove without permission. At this point the fact was that the land was inhabited by the world’s oldest living culture and that around 260 tribal lands existed over the whole of the continent. The British Settlement expanded and after a few years the real invasion began and the Europeans spread like running water to take over all of the land. There were an estimated 720,000 indigenous peoples living here in 1788. By 1900 the indigenous population had been decimated down to under 100,000 souls. Then Federation of the States took place and the country of Australia was born. The indigenous peoples, having been forced to assimilate, found a voice and started petitioning the governments of the day to get their ancestral lands back. In 1976 the Northern Territory Land Rights Act came into being. Vast tracks of land were handed back to the indigenous landholders. To manage these lands, Land Councils were established and they, being corporations, funded by the Australian Government within the framework of Australian Law, manage the lands on behalf of the Traditional Owners. And so Permits were established for outsiders to comply with for visitation to these lands and they have become de-facto Visas in their own right. The indigenous peoples, having even more say in how their lives are managed, took the Australian Government to its own High Court and won its case. The High Court ruled in 1992 in the case of Mabo vs the Crown, that Terra Nullius did not exist. Since that time Native Title Claims have been settled giving the indigenous peoples more autonomy over their lands within the framework of the Australian Constitution.( Its more complicated than that as Europeans (whitefellas) have a tendency to do so)

And so : My Visas are approved and in order to show to anyone who cares to see them.

ETD is 8am on 15th May.

We got away on time, the only difference being that the boys decided to tow the trailer for me as my Nissan Patrol has a petrol engine and uses a lot more fuel when towing.
Iain had come over from The Blue Mountains in New South Wales to join us driving his trusty early model Landrover Discovery. He had come a day early to get acquainted. Uncle arrived the evening before from Snowtown and John lived up the street a bit and joined us when we collected him from his home. The evening before we celebrated Judith’s birthday together, with a dinner.
About 70km out I saw the temperature gauge rise and fall quite rapidly and that only meant one thing, a water leak somewhere. Sure enough, that heater bypass-hose we were talking about the other day, let go. After the engine had cooled down a bit Andy used some heater hose that Adam kept in his ute and soon we were on our way again with the temperature needle showing cool running. And it stayed that way for the whole trip.
The transit stage is always a bit boring and a long drive and with Iain saying we were going too fast for him to keep up while he plodded along at 90kmh. I rang Adam, my mate from Melbourne who was about 8 hours behind us, to see where he and his mate Bryan were, and they replied that they were in the Adelaide region. Adam had flown in from Thailand the night before just saying Hello and Goodbye to his understanding wife, before jumping in to the Landcruiser and heading out. We got to my favourite campsite a few hundred metres past the Pootnoura Siding and Telstra Tower just before sunset. The boys soon found some dead wood and we had a roaring fire.

Roaring fire

Roaring fire

Getting us oldies up and going is always going to take time and those availing their goods and chattels to the trailer seemed to bring a lot of stuff with them. We managed to get going at 8.30am and just as we reached the bitumen again Adam’s Landcruiser came thundering towards us with all the lights on. They had made good time and had still had 6 hours sleep at a roadside stop. Now that we had two Adams in the group we had to refer to them as Big Adam and Young Adam.
Once we crossed in to the Northern Territory where the 130kmh sign stood big, we invariably put the foot down without thinking, leaving Iain floundering in our wake. As we passed the turn off to Rainbow Valley I mentioned over the two-way radio that there was a unique sundial carving in the cave about 300metres from the road. Big Adam did a U-turn and said that he would catch up as he wanted to see the sundial. He and Bryan did just that and still caught up with us in Alice Springs.

Sundial

Sundial

After refuelling and some shopping for necessary items we drove through the West McDonnel Ranges Valley into the sunset. It was time to camp and I found a reasonable campsite in some old stockyards on Owen Springs Reserve.
The following morning I had only driven about 100 metres when I smelled petrol fumes. I stopped immediately and hoisted the bonnet. Andy soon found that an injector seal had given in. Of course no one had a spare seal. Big Adam very kindly offered to drive the 45km in to town on the Sunday morning to search for the necessary part. And he and Bryan did just that and came back with the right part which cost all of 20cents. Andy, assisted by Bryan soon had the engine up and running again and we were off once more.

While we were waiting for the parts the youngsters climbed the windmill nearby and I pointed out a cave I went down in my younger days and the young fellas climbed down to have a look. When Big Adam and Bryan came back they also wanted to have a look but used the winch of the Landcruiser to lower themselves down and up again. In the mean time someone spotted a Dingo lurking nearby, but it ran off when the cameras came out..

Tnorala / Gosse Bluff

Tnorala / Gosse Bluff

A short sojourn atop the lookout at Tylers Pass gave a great view of Tnorala/Gosse Bluff, the meteorite crater. Soon thereafter the luxury of driving on sealed roads ended and we were thrown back to the reality of severely corrugated roads.

Round Hille near Haasts Bluff

Round Hill near Haasts Bluff

Haasts Bluff

Haasts Bluff

We slowly made our way towards the Kintore road and then once there drove through the outskirts of Papunya Community and then continued along the Kintore Road. About 15km west of Papunya I found an open area near an old abandoned bore and we made camp for the night

 

Gnamma Hole

Gnamma Hole

 

Ron Moon had told me about some Gnamma Holes just off the road on the way to Kintore and he had given me the co-ordinates

‘Rainfall is low and unpredictable in Australia’s arid regions, but water can be found if you know where to look. The traditional owners of the lands depended on and protected such seemingly hidden water sources for many thousands of years. When Europeans arrived, they relied upon, and often forced, this ancient knowledge from the Aboriginal people to help them locate a variety of water sources, that included wells, claypans, soaks and springs. One of the main sources of water for the Aboriginal people were ‘gnamma’ holes. These natural cavities are commonly found in hard rock, particularly granite outcrops, and as such act as natural water tanks, which are replenished from underground stores and rainwater run-off. Gnamma holes vary in shape and depth, and the small surface area of the hole helps to minimise evaporation’(Source WA Museum)

Whilst there the young blokes were bursting with energy and virtually ran up a hill nearby to get a better look.

We old blokes pottered around below trying to stay upright and found some ancient rock engravings  nearby.

We arrived at Walungurru / Kintore during the lunch hour and had to wait for the fuel bowser to open at 2pm. A lonely Tea Tree provided shade just out of town and we crammed all cars in to get cool. The local Police came by to say G’day and Noel (from last year) came by to invite us for a coffee. We politely declined as we were having lunch already. Whitefella’s who work in the communities are starved for conversation.

After refuelling and buying last minute supples and around 2 hours and 150km later, we turned off the Gary Junction Road in Western Australia along a seldom used track which skirts the western slopes of Mount Webb.

It was time to fix the seed screens to the bull bars and radiator grilles to help minimise seed collection in the radiators. I had my mapping running on the dashboard via a USB GPS and 10 inch computer screen and seeing as I had been that way the previous year it was relatively easy to follow the overgrown track loaded into my map. But I did lose the track once or twice in the real world until we had cleared the range.

Where's the track

Where’s the track?

I found a campsite between two hills and we settled down after a brilliant desert sunset.

Spekky Sunset

Around 2am a light breeze sprung up. I drifted back to sleep. Then at about 5am I heard a clanking as if someone was messing about with a saucepan. We all heard it but no one cared to investigate. At sunrise, around 7am, we found our billy missing from the campfire. John went looking for it and found it about 50 metres from our camp. We can only surmise that a Dingo was responsible for the attempted theft! “A Dingo took my Billy!!!”
After leaving, we struck an obstacle within 100 metres from the camp. The track slewed sideways over a dune and some drivers had to have more than one attempt to get over.

Traction troubles

Traction troubles

Now we were on the Yagga Yagga Aboriginal Business Road (as it is known by). This two wheeled track, which connects Wirrumun/Balgo Community with Kiwirrkurra Community, via Lake Mackay, was bulldozed in the early 1980’s when there was a lot of mining activity in the area. It also connects with Yagga Yagga, Lamanbundah, Mangkala and Bilbarrd Outstations, all abandoned at present, but there if the traditional owners want to return.

Wilkinkarra/Lake Mackay once again dazzled us with its brilliance of whiteness

Contemplating Lake Mackay

Contemplating Lake Mackay

Leaving Lake Mackay behind, we had a brief sojourn discussing two vehicle wrecks along the track, before arriving at Maruwa Well also know to other travellers as Dwarf Well. Here a tank on a high frame with solar panels to power the pump, was installed some years ago to facilitate an Outstation, but this did not happen, and it all fell in to disrepair. Then a hand-pump was installed. After only eight pumps this hand pump delivers the softest, sweetest water of the Great Sandy Desert. And some wag left an old enamel bath there for all passers-by to use. Andy kept on telling me that he thought I was telling porkies about this bath in the desert. He could not believe his eyes!

Maruwa

Maruwa

After spending some time having baths and washing clothes we pressed on along the track. At one stage we were behind schedule, if there was a schedule, but now we were in a better position.

We had stopped for one reason or another and as I could not raise the either of the two Adam’s on the radio, I decided to turn back to look for them. They weren’t far away. It turns out that they had stopped to have a look at some camels and then smelled smoke and soon after realised that they had a spinifex fire on board. If it wasn’t for the quick actions of Big Adam and Bryan, who knew just what to do, they may have had the Ford Ranger burnt out totally. Two fire-extinguishers were expended within minutes. Spinifex seed build up in cavities of the chassis can cause these seeds and dry foliage to rub up against the hot exhaust causing a fire.

Below is an example of a burnt out Prado near Well 23 on the Canning Stock Route

Alloy meltdown

Alloy meltdown

As the day took us, it was slow going over the washed out track. The sun was just above the horizon in the west and I found an open space in the sea of spinifex and we made camp. There was seemingly little wood in sight but after scratching around the boys came up with enough wood for the night and we settled down.
We had only started for the day when we came to Bilbarrd Outstation. This Outstation has been abandoned for some years though it would seem that there has been recent activity as a new water holding tank has been installed below one of the tankstands. The hand water pump does  not work. We continued to drive on over the rough track having only a Willy Wags fly in front of us for some of the way. At the Intersection of old seismic lines and the Yagga Yagga Track, there was a Helicopter parked together with a number of Avgas fuel drums. We wondered what was happening out here. Maybe they were shooting camels? There was all kinds of conjecture brought to the fore, but we were later to learn that aerial survey work was being done on behalf of the Commonwealth Government.

This was the place where I had intended to turn south east towards where the Datto lay.  However the track from here was still very overgrown and Big Adam came up with an idea to forge another route to our destination over some open country he had seen about 10km back along the track. I went along with that idea and turned the lead over to him and off we went.

Initially the going was reasonable but then we had to cross some dunes and I suggested that we leave the trailer behind just taking necessary stuff with us. Some of the steeper dunes were a challenge but we lowered our tyre pressures and got over OK. Andy thought it was a lot of fun.
We were getting into some open country when Big Adam asked me if the country was as clear before with only fresh stubble Spinifex. I said no as we had to battle overgrown conditions and heavy foliage last year. It was evident that a bush fire had burnt a large area of scrub in the intervening eight  months.

And so, after 26 kilometres cross country from the track we came upon the burnt out wreck of my beloved Datto. It was hardly unexpected but hoping against hope I had tried to rescue the old car which had taken me to many places. I think that maybe a lightning strike in summer had caused the fire as about 10 square kilometres of scrub had been burnt and raging through and over the Datto, had burnt it and everything in it to a crisp. (I have since learned that Government contractors were doing aerial burnoffs by throwing incendiary fire bombs out of a helicopter to clear the country for survey work during the winter months. So there was anopther possibility). There was nothing recoverable but John thought that the radiator looked OK and removed it from the wreck for restoration later on. It was a disappointing end to a lot of expectations, but there you go. That’s life.

The Wake

The Wake

We held a Wake that night and some were feeling seedy in the morning. As the objective had been reached Big Adam and Bryan decided to to leave early as they had business commitments back in the south and Young Adam and Andy decided to tag along with them. This left the old blokes in the group to their own devices to amuse themselves. We followed our track out and even tackled the big dune from the steep side and won. Once back on the track we swapped the trailer to my Datto and the young ones departed.

I had intended to visit an area about 30 kilometres to the west of the Mangkala airtstrip, but now, with diminished numbers I wasn’t so confident driving the petrol powered Dattoo out there into the wilderness. The area I intended to visit, was where two young Jackeroos, Simon Amos and James Annetts perished under suspicious circumstances, in  1986. The track was totally overgrown and I decided that I would come back when I have another bush-ready diesel vehicle in my possession and maybe also invite some interested participants along. Here is their story http://deathinthesand.weebly.com/

We drove on to Lamanbundah Outstation. There we replenished our water containers from the hand pump. The water looked a bit murky but tasted OK. We went looking around this Outstation with its 7 houses and other outbuildings and came to the conclusion that it had never been occupied. By this time it was mid afternoon and we were feeling lazy and so decided to camp around the back of one of the houses. . This particular house had two carports and a fireplace along the back wall. We parked in the carports and then we found some dead wood lying around and got the fire going.

In the meantime, John was playing with his motorised bicycle, which he had, unbeknownst to me, smuggled into the trailer load. I only realised that there was this contraption in the trailer two days into the trip when I saw a bicycle wheel in the back of the trailer which had an array of tarps and bags which I thought just contained clothes. It was carefully hidden. And I had no reason to get anything from the trailer for the first few days. I was a bit annoyed that not enough thought had gone into this and not enough discussion with me. I asked why he had brought the bicycle but he could not give me a straight answer. One cannot be too careful out there in the Never Never as things can go horribly wrong if you aren’t watchful. I have come to realise that many people have no real concept of the vastness of the Australian Continent and the survival risks. The bike was put together and for the next two stops John  rode his bike every afternoon giving the engine a run too. The bike was also used in Alice Springs to get around on.

The track to Yagga Yagga is overgrown in places, due to the water collecting in what has now become a man made dry creek bed. When it rains the water feeds the saplings in the creek (track) in an otherwise flat terrain. On a claypan near the Point Moodie track turn-off I found a broken Stone Age Grinder and so flint shards. These were the survival tools of the ancient peoples who roamed this land. I explained this to my travelling companions but they weren’t interested.

Negotiating a rather washed out section of the track I heard the scraping sound of metal to rock but did not investigate. Later I found out that the fuel tank had a small dent in it where it had hit a rock and that a weld on the tank had cracked making a small rupture, enough to let petrol weep out. We applied soap for the interim.

At Yagga Yagga there is another prime example of government wastage of taxpayers money. The town was built as an Outstation in the late 1980’s at a considerable cost judging by the infrastructure. I had heard that there were a number of youth suicides in the town which led the Elders to believe that the place was cursed. So in 1996 they just abandoned the place. The town was still being maintained by a skeleton crew by 2002 but then abandoned all together. The Outstation movement was an initiative of the Hawke Government era. There are many small villages like this one, abandoned, throughout Western Australia.

The next 50kmh of track wends its way through dune country and where gaping expanses had been bulldozed through the dunes cutting them in half. The sand has reclaimed some of of the lost area through the winds of time. It makes for a rather pleasant drive. The last 50 kilometres shatteresd ones perceived illusion of nirvana as the track deteriorates to the wort corrugations imagineable and there doies not seem a good speed to get on top of them. Close to Wirrumun/Balgo the track skirts close to the Palotine Escarpment and Hills to give a grand view of the lands to the south

After some light shopping at the Balgo Community Store we pressed on to Mulan where I caught up with an acquaintance and some local knowledge. I refuelled at the Community Store injecting a nice bit of cash into their coffers with a bowser pump price of $2.40l. I also paid for a nights camp out at Handover Camp on the shores of Lake Gregory and we set off for the last 10km of the days run with me taking the wrong track and having to do some cross country driving to eventually arrive at the correct destination

Lake Gregory

Lake Gregory

Apart from more horrendous corrugations, a lost suitcase on the road, a wad of money found therein, and 9.3kilometres of bitumen road surface in the middle of nowhere on the Tanami Road, we made it back to Alice Springs in two and a half days and after some R & R there, a 19 hour drive home in continuous light rain.

Tanami Road

Tanami Road

 

Posted in 4x4 Travel Stories.