We had driven the Plenty and the Donohue Highways before but this time we wanted to drive the only section of the newly created Binns Track in the Northern Territory, that we had not done before, and this route included a visit to Box Hole Meteorite Crater.
I visited the Alice Springs Information Centre for more information and was met with a blank stare from the young lady behind the counter who had no idea what I was talking about. I did mention a 4wd track and then she came along with a publication that covered some of the info required. I scoured the internet road report sites for information as there had been a lot of rain the past few months and many roads were impassable due to wash-outs or water-ponding but saw little evidence of road damage reports.
I always drive the Plenty Highway with trepidation as it is strip bitumen for around 120km and invariably there are vehicles speeding along it, throwing rocks and pebbles in all directions and damaging ones windscreen. We made it to Harts Range Community without incident where I thought it prudent to top up with diesel as we were envisaging a long drive to Mount Isa with dubious fuel supplies along the way. Many times I have rocked up at an outback community and they have been either out of fuel or away on sorry business. This time around the shop was closed until 2pm so we went for a drive around to look at things including the Art Centre and old fossicking sites.
The short distance between the community and the Binns Track turnoff was severely corrugated, probably due to the fact that many locals drive cars with highly inflated tyres. This section of the Binns Track passes through McDonald Downs, Dnieper, Derry Downs and Ammaroo Stations. We crossed the Plenty River’s sandy base and the road was in reasonable condition to Dnieper Station. Close by lies the Box Hole Meteorite Crater, something that I had set my sights to see at one stage or another. It is marked as lying close to the station homestead to the north. We could not find an entrance and decided to go to the station homestead to ask for more information. However, right at the entrance gate to the homestead paddock was a sign showing the way through a gate to the crater. The bush track in was wide enough for the caravan but close to the crater and with nowhere to turn, was a deep little creek. I walked it and had a look and figured the van would be OK and drove through. At the crater there was no signage but it had been fenced off with barbed wire. Luckily the access point through the wire had been replaced with smooth wire so that we could squeeze ourselves through without getting our clothing torn. The crater is quite impressive, being about 20 metres deep and about 100 metres wide and we spent some time filming and exploring the area. We scoured the site for tektites but found none.
It was getting late when we got back to the Binns Track and drove about 5km up along the track before we pulled off into a clearing for an overnight camp. It was a beautiful clear starry sky that night and we found enough dry firewood to warm us around the camp fire. Early the following morning the local Dingoes sang their mournful songs telling everyone in the bush of our presence.
The countryside was still drying off after unprecedented amounts of rain in the centre of the Australia and there were numerous wash-outs and muddy patches along the way. The early morning threw a brilliant light on the vegetation and we both looked at a scene of lush growth that one seldom sees in these desert regions.
Paddy Melons and Native Morning Glory were prolific and even bright orange fungi was growing on a dead log. The grass was chest height in places and the cattle were fat. The condition of the track became worse as we drove further north and we had to negotiate the wash-outs with care. It did seem however that there had been previous travellers on the track and we assumed that the track was open right through to the Sandover Highway, where we wanted to get to.
Six kilometres short of Derry Downs Station the track turns to the west and according to my mapping crosses the Bundey River. A track goes north to Derry Downs Station homestead and another veers off to the north-east to Arapuntja Community. We had to negotiate a severe wash-out very soon after turning west and it seemed that a bypass track had been made by previous travellers in between some mulga trees. We decided to go that way too though the branches of the trees brushed up against the side of the van. The Bundey River is about 500 metres wide at the crossing point and is quite sandy with mid stream sand banks and tree growth. The track was quite washed out over the sand banks, but negotiable even with a caravan in tow. As we reached the middle of the river we saw what looked like a caravan parked under a tree and were surprised that someone would park there. On closer inspection it turned out to be a mishap. The van was on an acute angle pushing the Pajero 4×4’s towbar into a swamp. The Pajero was loaded to the hilt and including a tinny on the roof. It transpired that the driver had negotiated the water section but then had bottomed the Pajero out on the sandy track and in trying to get a better run at the track had bogged the rig beyond rescue. He had engaged diff-locks front and back and had tyre pressures down to 10psi.
All of this had been to no avail. He had no real recovery gear except sand mats and as he was on his own he was unsure what to do next. He had been there for 24 hours when we came along. He had called a number of people including the Police at Utopia Community on his satellite phone and they, (the Police), said that they would be there to assist by lunch time the following day. I said that we would go and look for an alternative crossing near the station homestead. So we backtrack through the river by reversing and doing a 5 point turn to get the rig turned around. Then we drove to Derry Downs some six kilometres to the north. The Homestead is now unattended as the station was bought up by the neighbouring Ammaroo Station some time ago. We could not find an alternative crossing at Derry Downs Station and so we had lunch in the shade of a tree and then drove back to the bog site. We unhitched the van at the tricky spot as I had noticed that we had put minor dents in the side of the van on our way back through the Mulga. We were met by a Policeman by the name of Ray, dressed as if he was going to a function, walking towards us along the sandy track. After introductions and some discussion about winching, it was decided that I would attempt to pull the Kimberley Karavan backwards with a snatch strap combination. I had to pull the van up and over an embankment and then we would attempt to turn it around, hitch it up to the Nissan and take it back across the river. This operation took two hours with me affecting eight snatches to get the van turned around before having to drive over a sandbank to get it hitched. Then there was much forwarding and reversing before I could safely tow the van out. During this process one Policeman got knocked over by the reversing caravan but luckily sustained no injuries. The owner of the Kimberley caravan, Jeff, came with me. The Nissan struggled with the van in the sand so that I had to use Low Range. I asked how much the van weighed and Jeff replied that it weighed around two and a half ton! No wonder my old bus was struggling! Then it was back to the stricken Pajero but that only need one snatch to get it moving. In retrospect I should have winched the van out which would have gone a lot smoother but I am not sure if the person being rescued would have been happy to take the breakage risk which I would have insisted upon. Later that evening we quaffed a few wines and munchies around the campfire. It turned out that Jeff had a mini wine cellar hidden in the depths of his van. The following day our journey took a 125km retracing of our steps as we made our way back to the Plenty Highway where we parted company with Jeff, who was on his way north.
Initially the Plenty Highway was very corrugated from that point onwards but it improved as we drove towards Jervois Station as road works had been done before and some were happening at that time. At one stage I was stopped by a B-double roadwork operator driver and he asked me if I had plenty of money as I was deemed to be on a restricted section of new road works and that fines for doing as much were excessive. I replied that there was no Detour signage in place. He argued that there was so I challenged him that we should go back and check as I was only driving at 40kmh and could not miss a bloody Detour sign! I suggested that he may have knocked the sign over with his back trailer and so he gave me the benefit of the doubt and showed me where to get off the precious road works. We had an ice cream at Jervois Station and then travelled on to Arthur River where we found a beaut camp spot on the banks of the dry riverbed. We stayed two nights and cooked good tucker over the open fire. Judith painted while I did computer stuff and the moving of the solar panel every now and then. Such are the things we do out in the bush!