Cupping my hand to drink from the cool water of Alalya Waterhole was a thrill and a culmination of a 30 year dream. After previous attempts to reach it had not eventuated, I was finally here in this very remote place on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert.
Accompanied by my mate, Bill, from Alice Springs, and with personal permission from the Ikuntji Language Group Traditional Owner and Custodian of Alalya Rockhole, to access his lands, a personal journey for me was completed. It would have been different if I had come at an earlier time in my life as the walk in and out of this place taxed my deteriorating body severely, but, to my satisfaction, I have lived this part of my dream.
Always interested in faraway places and adventure expeditions, I had read all of the books written by Michael Terry. He had crossed many parts of the desert regions of Australia in the earlier part of the 20th Century by camel or by tracked vehicle. I had also visited some of the places he had visited. Michael Terry was sponsored by business interests in South Australia to look for minerals and suitable grazing country in the heart of Central Australia. He had written about his visit, in 1932, to this area and to a place he named Thomas Reservoir, in the Cleland Hills, and of the ancient and strange ‘faces’ petroglyphs which were depicted on the surrounding rock ledges.
We managed to prise ourselves away from Alice Springs at around 9.30am and pointed the 4×4 west. The trip to Hermannsburg was uneventful and I decided to refuel there since the fuel outlet was open and although I carried 100litres of additional diesel, it always pays to top the tank up when you can. The $2.20 per litre price tag for diesel was a bit of a shock especially when Hermannsburg is only 116km from Alice Springs and the price difference was 50c per litre! Nevertheless, we topped the tank up and took to the gravel road. After a short distance I thought that it would be better to drop the tyre pressures so as to make the ride as tad smoother. Out past the Areyonga Community turn off, we encountered European Tourists with a disabled Jeep Cherokee. It had broken its drive belt and they had no spare. Other travellers had offered to give messages to the relevant authorities and hopefully they will be rescued.
Once on the Deering Creek track past The Camels Hump and over the Mereenie to Darwin Gas Pipeline, we encountered corrugations for a short distance. We saw many wheel tracks which looked fresh in places but as we drove past the back road turnoffs to Tarawara Bore, Haasts Bluff and Mt Liebig, the tracks became infrequent. After Browns Bore, the track looked as if had hardly been used for a while. Today we saw lots of horses and three Bustards. We made camp in a cleared area about 60 kilometres from the Mereenie Loop Road and soon found enough fire wood. Bill slept out in the open while I opted to sleep in the back of the Datto. It was a long night and I could not get comfortable but eventually worked the best position out and it was plain sailing from then on. The coolish wind from the east had died down at sunset but sprang up again around 5am making Bill added another blanket to his bed. I rang Judith on the Satellite phone to report our position.
I came out here in 2006 to look for artefacts and rock art in the Mount Winter area of the Cleland Hills. At Puritjarra Rock Shelter there had been an Archaeological Dig some years prior and it was interesting to see such an ancient place. I had also envisaged getting to Thomas Reservoir to look for the ‘faces’ petroglyphs, but this did not happen due incorrect information obtained from a third party as to the whereabouts of these places.
Spending hours in my study poring over maps and Google Earth still cannot give you an inkling of what conditions may be like on the ground and although I am used to the desert scape terrain, a drive, where few or no tracks exist, is always fraught with an element of the unknown.
In the morning we could not find the shot line/seismic track I had marked on my map. These seismic tracks were made in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s to facilitate seismic soundings in the search for oil and gas reserves hidden deep in the surface crust of the earth. I decided to push on to Muranji Rockhole in the Cleland Hills and then drive along the escarpment in the general direction of my destination.
The rock hole had less water in it then when I had seen it last in 2006. Bill climbed up the rock-face to see if there were more water holes on the top of the escarpment but could not locate any.
We drove out from the hills to skirt around some creeks and then took a compass bearing cross country towards our destination. There were a few deep creeks, soft dunes and long grass to negotiate and after 8 kilometres of this the going became too rough and the foliage too dense for my liking, and so I turned back towards Muranji. We made our way back to the main track, had lunch and boiled the Billy for a cuppa tea and then I had a look at my mapping on my laptop to get a better idea of the terrain and better co-ordinates. After lunch we went searching and then finally found the elusive shot line.
The old shot line/seismic track was very overgrown in places but it did make for easier running as compared to absolute cross country driving. The recent good rain years had grown the flora of the region and grasses were up to one and a half metres high in places. About 20 kilometres and about 30 sand-hills we came upon some other wheel tracks coming in from the south at a track marker. A little further along the same wheel tracks swung back to the south and in the general direction of our destination. Another traveller had been this way earlier in the year. I pressed on however and once we saw the profile of Mount Forbes to the south west, I swung the wheel in that direction and made for the gorge which cuts through the range near the tip of the Cleland Hills. We had driven 28 kilometres from the access track and about 4 kilometres in to the gorge.
Negotiating the cross country bits always sends the stress levels into overdrive as one has to make split second decisions where to place the 4×4’s wheels. In open country where Desert Oaks, Corkwoods and Ghost Gums prevail the surface area tends to give up less dead wood. In Mulga or Gidgea forests you may rest assured that you will stake even the hardiest tyre that has been produced. The chosen route, swinging the 4×4 away from overgrown areas was a tad easier and soon we were driving right into the gorge after a few deep and dry creek crossings. The gorge was very rocky and offered no good campsite. After a short distance I turned back and we made camp at the mouth of the gorge. Soon a starry night with a half-moon just hanging there greeted us. A cold breeze sprang up from the east again, and, after feeding ourselves with good contents from our refrigerator, we turned in for the night.
It had been a hard days driving through very rough terrain but the old car had coped well and so did we. The countryside is absolutely magnificent with not another soul within at least 100km from us.
Mount Forbes Mount Forbes Gorge sunrise
We were out of camp on foot by 8am and following a camel pad, which I was confident, would lead us to water. The little gorge to the east of Mount Forbes is about one kilometre in length. Bill was leading and I was hobbling behind with my walking staff in hand and carrying my .22 calibre rifle, just in case we had a close encounter with a bull camel. Bill would be agile enough to get out of the way but I would be at a disadvantage being in a partial disabled state! Suddenly Bill stopped, turned to me and indicated to be quiet by putting his finger to his lips. No less than 15 metres from us were four healthy looking Dingoes padding along the path towards us. They stopped when they saw us and then came forward about 5 metres. Then they got our scent, turned to heel and vanished into the undergrowth. I managed to get
one photo off.
At the end of the gorge we turned to the left and had a look around the pound area for any sign of a pond. No such luck and not having the exact co-ordinates the search continued. The trouble was too, that my research found no photograph or drawing of this place so I was only going on Michael Terry’s description of it being a reservoir. I then noticed that the creek followed along a valley and veered off to the east and into the hills. We followed the ridge line looking for rock art as we came closer to the creek. Once there, I immediately saw groove marks in the lower rocks which indicated that spears had been sharpened here. Soon after it became apparent that we were walking in to a small waterfall and pool area and that this was indeed, Alalya/Thomas Reservoir. We had walked about two kilometres from our camp.
We spent at least two hours in the cool of the pool area and I climbed or rather slid over rocks to see the famous ‘faces’ pecked out on the ancient, weathered rocks. I managed to find 8 faces but I do believe there may be as many as 16. I also saw a very ancient petroglyph, part which has broken away, and high up on a cliff face, which looks like the same style which I have seen in the Calvert Ranges, in the Little Sandy Desert of Western Australia.
The Zebra Finches kept us amused with their antics of coming down to the water to drink. We also found the remains of a Fox and a Black-footed Wallaby. What happened there no one will ever know but the resident Dingoes may!
Thomas Reservoir, so named by Michael Terry, is a reservoir in the sense that it holds water semi-permanently and when full, spills it out in to creek and later through the gorge and out into the perimeter of the sand-hills. Evidence of occupation can be seen on the low banks of the creek with many rubbing stones and grinding stones visible as well as flints and stone chips. It must have been a veritable oasis in the Stone-age.
I was loath to leave the place but we had to make our way back to camp. I was absolutely thrilled to finally come to Thomas Reservoir and to see the ‘faces’. We were both pretty buggered when we got back to camp and after lunch Bill had a siesta while I did jobs around the camp.
We broke camp the next morning at around 8.30am and headed back to the intersection of the Shot Line and the access track. Looking for our tacks of two days before proved quite difficult as we were driving into the rising sun and there were no shadows thrown as to where the wheels had pushed the grasses down. We found them once but soon lost them again and then must have driven over the Shot Line without seeing it. It took about 10km and an hour to find the track again…not that it was all that visible! A short while later we turned off the track again to follow the tracks we had seen two days before. About one kilometre in I staked the left hand front tyre and so the procedure of replacing the wheel and repairing the punctured one began.
I decided against following the tracks any further and returned to the shot line. Even though we had made our way across these dunes only two days ago it was still difficult to see our old tracks. On a number of occasions I had to back down a sand hill when the old Datto would run out of revs, and then have another go at getting over. For the best part of the cross country driving I was using High Range 4×4 in First and Second gear. This seemed to work well. We saw another Dingo during the morning but for the rest wildlife is scarce in this area. Fresh camel prints were to be seen but we did not see any camels. Just after 1pm we made it back to the shot line and access track intersection and stopped for lunch. Judith had packed two old tins of camp pie in our larder with instructions that they must be eaten. So we set about have camp pie for lunch. After lunch we decided that the remaining tin may be given to the dogs when we get back home.
Refreshed by our short rest and feeling better after a snack and a drink we tackled my next destination.