The bash plate that protects the underbelly of our Landcruiser scraped loudly over the jagged dolomite splinters, as we crunched slowly over the exposed limestone ridges. I inched the vehicle forward in first gear low range until it had cleared the obstacle. Then I had a quick look underneath. No worries, just a few marks, I thought. I smelt petrol! Sure enough, there it was. A hairline fracture had been made in the upslope steel plate of my long range fuel tank and a small seep of petrol. The old soap trick made a temporary repair and she was good as gold again. Soon we were bouncing along the bumpy track once more. We were driving into the late afternoon sun making for the Spring Creek camping area in the northern section of Gregory National Park in the Northern Territory. This park lies 190km east of the Western Australia/Northern Territory border. The turnoff to the park lies a short drive past the Timber Creek Township on the Victoria Highway to Katherine. Progress had been slow this day as the track winds its way over limestone ridges and around large boab trees silhouetted against the setting sun.
Tired and dusty we crept into Spring Creek camp to find that we had it all to ourselves. The creek was flowing and a refreshing swim was the order for the day. Back at the camp the flies welcomed us in their millions. This particular camp site is situated on a slope and I wondered why the land managers could not be bothered to provide a level camping area. We were able to get a good rest however as the resident mob of mosquitoes did not appear. Early to bed and early to rise, that’s the way to beat the flies!
Gregory National Park has been developed to cater for recreational four wheel driving. This is in direct contrast with so many parks and trails which have been closed of to 4wd travellers throughout Australia. The park, which is managed by the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory, 10500 square kilometres in size and is made up of acquired section of the pastoral leases of Innesvale, Auverne, Delamere, Humbert River, Bullita, and Victoria River Downs(VRD) Stations. To a larger extent the country acquired from these leases was of marginal pastoral use. The park was declared in 1990 and after a successful land claim by traditional aboriginal owners; it was split into two sections. The section south of Timber Creek on the Victoria Highway is the larger of the two sections and designated 95% 4wd access. The northern section is reserved for aboriginal cultural use. Some area will be opened for tourist access in the future. Development is ongoing and there are three major access tracks throughout the park at the present time.
Augustus Charles Gregory footslogged through this harsh country in the year 1855 in search of pastures and mineral wealth. Gregory’s expedition was the first European expedition to this part of North Australia following almost in some of the footsteps of Ludwig Leichhardt, who traversed the eastern region of the Tropical North in 1845. Then on his next expedition, in 1846, Leichhardt disappeared without trace. Some historian are of the opinion that he was killed by aborigines somewhere in the North-west of Australia not far from where Gregory had explored nine years later. Gregory explored the catchment area of the Victoria River and concentrated his efforts around the Wickham and Baines River areas. Thomas Baines, one of Gregory’s party, was an artist and explorer and was credited for ‘discovering’ the West Baines and East Baines Rivers. Gregory had the honour of having the Boab tree named after him, thus……adansonia gregorii.
The Australian Boab tree is closely related to the African Baobab tree.
There are two trains of thought as to how the seeds made their way from Africa to Australia. One is that seeds were washed into the sea along the coast of Africa and drifting along sea currents to the northern Australian coast. There they were devoured by birds who deposited them inland. The other thought is that Africans migrated via Asia across the land bridge to Australia some 60,000 years ago and became the first Australian Aborigines. They might have brought seeds with them. Later the modern day Australian Aborigines migrated from Central Asian and intermarried with the African Aborigines. The Australian Aboriginal legend of the Boab tree is very similar to that of the African legend. It goes something like this and no doubt, there are many variations to the theme. “When the tree God created the Boab Tree it was to be the most beautiful of all trees in the universe, with the most beautiful flowers and bearing the juiciest fruit. But as the tree grew to maturity its flowers were mediocre and its fruit had a bad odour and tasted vile. The Tree God became so angry that he yanked the Boab out of the ground and slammed it back in the earth upside down and that is why today, when you see a Boab tree, it looks as if its roots are growing up in the air. So there.
Many of the plants of the Top End of Australia were named by Ferdinand von Mueller who was a botanist and member of the Gregory Expedition.
The first track of significance is that of the now abandoned Bullita Stock Route which starts at the Bullita Homestead camp ground. From Timber Creek on the Victoria Highway it is about 60km to get to the camp ground. On your way there you may drive in to Limestone Gorge to camp, and enjoy a swim or to go for an interpretive walk through the gorge or both.
At the start of the Bullita Stock Route you must fill in the intentions book so that the rangers may know if you become overdue at the termination of the track. Your first challenge is to cross the East Baines River. Now, there are markers across the river. On the left side is an easy flat run and on the right side some heavy duty rock ledges. I chose the easy run and almost to my peril. The rock ledge is about ten metres wide, less than 30cm of water with mosses growing on its surface, and very slippery indeed. Traction was minimal and I let the vehicle idle through and the thought of slipping odd over the edge into a dark green watery chasm caused a rush of anxiety. I was very relieved when we reached the opposite side and clambered out over the embankment. It is best to take the difficult route. There are no warning signs to inform you. Now the track meanders along through open timber country where the twp predominant trees are the Boab and the Nutwood. After 9km from the river you come to the Spring Creek Jump-up. Well, more of a jump down. And it is rough. Great chunks of limestone karst lie scattered along the track and this is where we split the fuel tank. Another 4.3km and you are at Spring Creek camp site where a dip in the perennial pool is worth its weight in gold.
Gregory’s report on the possibilities for a cattle industry in this area saw that only 37 years after his visit, such an industry was thriving, working of course, to the detriment of the local traditional owners. During the period from 1893 to the advent of the road train in the late 1950’s, drovers led their stock to Wyndham in Western Australia for shipping to the markets. Mobs of up to 500 cattle at a time were moved along the Bullita Stock Route. The drovers rested up along this track under the Boabs and close to water holes. They left their marks on the Boab trees and carved fictitious names into the bark. Modern-day travellers are requested not to do the same, most likely for the reason of political correctness.
It is 18.2km from Spring Creek camp to the second crossing of the East Baines River. Here, in the early morning sunlight, I managed to gouge the side out of the bottom sill panel because someone had chopped a tree down and had left the stump on an acute bend when entering the river. I have since asked the rangers to remove the stump. At this crossing there is a nice water hole to relax at. Bird life is as always, prolific and you may cast a line for the chance of a fish for dinner. A further 7.7km brings you to an intersection. Turn left and follow the track for 11km to a camp called Drovers Rest. The camp site is at the convergence of Barracbarrac Creek and the East Baines River. Close by there is a 3km long water hole which is good for canoeing and fishing for the elusive Barramundi. Silver Cobbler, also known as Catfish, are plentiful. Return to the intersection and from there the track follows on for 31.4km to the Bullita access road, the last 20km being an easy drive. Do not forget to sign the Exit Book. It is 18km back to Bullita Outstation.
The next track is the Humbert and that takes you on a 62km journey through some interesting country to the exit of the park at Humbert River Station. This trip should take about 6 hours.
The track is easy except at the Humbert River crossing where the driver should acquaint with the angled rock bar before attempting to drive across.
The Dingo Yard/Wickham River Track branches off about 1km from the Humbert River crossing. It is 48km to Dingo Yard and a further 11km to the Wickham River. At present you have to return to the Humbert Track to exit the park but in the future you will be able to exit via Mt Sanford Station, Daguragu and Kalkarinje (Wave Hill). The 59km to the Wickham River should take around 6 hours to drive.
The track follows along the ridges until you get to the top of the ranges and then it drops down into the valleys to the Wickham River. The track starts off as moderately rough and then progresses to very rough in places. It is overgrown and has rocky sections and sharp loose stones. Progress is slow as you meander in and out of gullies and ridges. The vegetation changes from Paspalum grasses to Spinifex with low heath at the top of the range. Wattle and Eucalypts form the main part of the open timber country. There are lots of feral Donkeys, Dingoes, wild Pigs and Brumbies. Along this track is an unnamed spring. Take time out to explore this spring and to see all the life forms that live so high above the normal water courses.
Gregory National Park offers the off road enthusiast a chance to travel through some very remote country and to enjoy the challenges of driving over some pretty rough terrain.
Overnight campsites are located near water and after the evening chorus of the Blue-wing Kookaburra a quiet sets about the bush which is only broken by the croaking of frogs or the call of the Boobook Owl.