A little way out of Kalkukatjara (Docker River) Community, we swung off the Tjukaruru Road and headed along a little used track in a north-easterly direction. The track is marked on government mapping for a short distance but after that it disappears from the screen. It is definitely not shown on any other commercial maps available these days. The track passes through some very isolated areas and runs for around 260km up to where it meets the Alice Springs-Kings Canyon Loop Road in the Mereenie Oil Field. This junction is 280km west of Alice Springs.
We had obtained verbal permission from the Traditional Owner of these lands to drive the track. I have not established why the track was made as it is not used very often but it is a more direct route between Kaltukatjara and Areyonga Communities, cutting out a long drive via Uluru and Watarrka National Parks. For all intents and purposes it was made so that 2wd cars could use it initially, but in this year it is washed out in many places and not suitable for any vehicle other than high-clearance 4×4’s.
The day was dark and foreboding with the clouds hanging low over the Petermann Ranges, and we were wondering just what we might encounter further along when we started to approach the salt lakes.
A friend of mine drove this track in 2012 in his quest to find a hill named Mount Unapproachable. It was so named by the Explorer, Ernest Giles in 1872 when his horses became bogged in the quagmire of wet ground and try as he may, he could not reach it. The name of this hill always fascinated my friend and he made it one of his ambitions to get there one day. Having had experience with salt lake driving I tend to shy away from such ventures and all I could do was to hope that we may get a glimpse of this elusive place. William Tietkens also mentioned it in his account of his exploratory journey through the area in 1889. My friend did get there at the beginning of summer and through a rain storm and some anxious moments while crossing over the salt encrusted surface of Lake Neale to get to his objective. He reported to me on the through track, that it was an easy run although the track at times was hard to locate.
We dropped down through the dry Hull River and soon we were on a sandy track skirting the Ilyaralona Range of hills a short distance off to our east. The country is mainly grasslands with Desert Oaks and Mulga Trees. There are some hard sections of the sandy track and some stony areas as well, but for the first 100km the track is good and scenic as the Bloods Range of small ranges loomed in the distance. We passed by the Outstation of Walu. There was a locked one room dwelling, a water tank, long drop and a hand-pump for water which was no longer operational. Inscriptions of local visitors to the place were dated to 2006. It had obviously been abandoned from that time on. After a drive through rather flat country we passed a quartz protrusion and went to have a look to see if this may house the fabled Lasseter’s Reef, but it did not look like a candidate. We had lunch in amongst a Mulga clump of trees and out of the biting wind. I managed to slice my left hand index finger with my Leatherman multi-tool and cursed myself for being so careless.
After lunch, Bill, my passenger for the past ten days, went for a drive with Jeremy, who had been driving solo for the duration of our adventure. Now I had the freedom to play my preferred music as loud as I wanted to whilst driving the picturesque track up to Carruthers Gap in the Rowley Range, passing Mount Harris and Mount Carruthers to the west of me and then passing the Pinyinna Range
I saw what looked like a very large feral cat on the track but it disappeared into the scrub very quickly. Other than a few birds no other animals were seen and only one wrecked and burnt out car. Light rain had fallen the closer I got to the lakes and the sand was firm on the track and dune crossings.
At right on 3pm I had reached the cross over point between Lake Neale and Lake Amadeus and waited for the others to catch up. The crossing was sandy with no apparent salt about. Some shell fossils could be found in the watercourse. Faint tyre tracks led up stream towards Lake Neale and I wondered if they may have been made by my friends’ vehicle some eight months prior.
The dark clouds were still gathering and it was cold and we decided to camp just past the crossing. Some fallen tree trunks were soon dragged in to place and we made a fire that lasted all night on the shallow side of a dune. The sunset with the cloud formations was quite spectacular.
We woke to misty rain and the air was cold and damp and so we did not tarry in having breakfast and packing up. I decided I had to see Lake Neale so I took a digital compass bearing in the general direction of the lake and we set off cross-country. Misty rain and wet grass made the visibility quite difficult but we got to the lake after a short drive only to find that is was not salt at that juncture but rather hard leached sand. We took our photos and then I opted to drive east down the outlet of the lake towards where the track crosses. Always worried about sudden wet patches we made our way cautiously along the run out without an incident.
Continuing along our destined track I was disappointed that I would not be able to see Lake Amadeus. Driving up near Longs Range I was tempted to go cross country for about two kilometres to the base of the range and then leave the vehicles and climb it. Rain, however, had fallen during the night and there were puddles of water on the road. I was cautious about the sandy grasslands to get to the range and did not think it was worth it just in case we got ourselves bogged. Walking it for me wasn’t an option and the others also declined the invitation. And so we decided to leave Lake Amadeus for another time.
Today the journey was slower as there were more washouts and fallen trees over the track. It is a scenic drive however, through grassed plains with stands of Desert Oaks, as the track meanders its way around dune heads and sandy patches. In the late morning Jeremy noticed a low ridge to the northeast and what looked like some overhangs and suggested that we take a closer look. The ridge lay about 1 kilometre off the track and we went to investigate. What we found was quite a rich frieze of pictographs on the walls and ceilings of the overhangs. There was a pool of water nearby and that was something unusual in this dry country.
Just twenty kilometres to the east of this point in a straight line, Ernest Giles had trouble finding water in 1872 when he discovered a meagre supply at a place he named Glen Thirsty (also known as Yatajirra) as he had to return there three times to save his party and the horses from dehydration.
Once back on the track we went to look at the western side of this ridge as it showed promise of many more overhangs but the crumbled sandstone did not lend itself to being inhabited. I would dare to say that the weathering was more severe due to it being exposed to the prevailing winds and harsh afternoon sun.
By now the clouds had dissipated and the sun was shining brightly and we found a shady tree to boil the billy and have a spot of lunch.
During the afternoon’s drive we encountered a number of sandstone ledges which we had to drive over. We surprised two old bull camels lying down close to the track. They rose with an effort and walked off away from us in disgust. At this point we were 762 metres above sea level and could see Mount Murray to the southwest from us.
As we were now getting closer to the area we had visited 10 days prior, I drove up on to a higher dune to get a look at the surrounding landscape. The Cleland Hills could be seen in the distance to the northwest.
We were now back in spinifex country and I started to look for a campsite from about 3pm onwards. The spinifex clumps however were growing well in this area and I just could not find a place to pull off the track that was free from these prickly plants. What we did find was a late model Nissan Patrol completely burnt out. It looked like a government-issue vehicle complete with twin wheel carriers on the back.
Just after 4 o’clock I found an open place amongst some Desert Oaks with plenty of firewood and we stopped for the day. It was time to crawl under the vehicles to remove any sticks and grass stalks or seeds which had accumulated in nooks and crannies and near heat surfaces, like the exhaust pipe, as vehicle fires are always a present danger. As a matter of principle I have always removed bash-plates from my vehicles when first purchased. Some say it’s a folly but I have never had an issue with damaging drive-line components under my vehicles even in the roughest cross country driving.
After dark we could see a bright illuminated sky to the north and deducted that it must be the mining camp we had passed on our way to the Tarn of Auber ten days ago.
A fantastic sunrise had us all up early taking photos. We were now only about 20 kilometres from the point where we left the Mereenie Loop road on the start of our adventures. We had to drive through the workings of the Mereenie Oil Field and we heard on the radio that someone had noticed us although we did not see anyone.
We arrived at the Mereenie Loop Road at about 9.30am and re-inflated our tyres to a higher air volume to suit dirt road driving.
And so we had come to the end of our round trip through the edge of the Gibson Desert. It had been a great journey through very isolated and remote parts of Central Australia, but, as always, a very worthwhile experience seeing country and ancient art that has inherently not changed in the past 5000 years.