Some photos by Marla Nightingale(MN)
( Click on thumbnail photos to enlarge them )
Please Note: The Department of Aboriginal Affairs is no longer issuing permits for access to Oombulgurri Lands. This includes all of the eastern section of the Carson River Track. Permits are still being issued for access to the Carson River Escarpment and King George Falls. Tag-a-long Tours are run by the Traditional Owners of the Oombulgurri Lands out of Wyndham for the whole of the Carson River Track. Contact: www.wundargoodie.com.au
Having had this exploration curse my whole life, I have been extremely lucky to visit many remote places on the Australian mainland over my time here. Not that I have made any critical discoveries or cut virgin ground, but that I have seen some fantastic places where few others have been and have enjoyed the ambience of the wilds. As per usual I have initiated the course, gathered willing participants, set the route and experienced the outcome.
Now in my 73rd year, the Carson River Track is the last wild track to drive that looms big on my Bucket List. My health is starting to fail and I have decided that while I am still physically capable, even in a handicapped way, I should attempt this last bastion of utter remoteness.
The Carson River Track runs from Carson River Station in the Kimberley Region of Australia in a south westerly direction, culminating at Home Valley Station near the Gibb River Road. The distance is a mere 421 kilometres but it could take a minimum of 8 days to drive it. An owner of Carson River Station used to drive his cattle to the Wyndham Sale Yards via this track which he initiated himself. At first it was just a cattle and horse run but over time he made a rough track fit for a vehicle to negotiate. A bulldozer was used to push this track through to the Pentecost River. Carson River Station and the Oombulgurri land area passed back into hands of the Balanggarra Traditional Owners in 2013 under Native Title Settlement.
Internet research on Oombulgurri brought this reference
The Anglican Forrest River Mission for Aborigines was founded in 1896–97 by Harold Hale but was abandoned after a few months. A permanent mission, known as the Forrest River Mission, was established on the site in 1913 by the bishop of the north west, the Rt. Rev. Gerard Trower. In December 1913, Anglican priest Ernest Gribble took charge, three years after he was forced to resign as superintendent at Yarrabah. Gribble remained as superintendent until the early 1930s.
In 1926 the mission was plagued by an influenza epidemic and impacted by the Forrest River massacre where police killed a number of Aboriginal people. This event remains controversial.
The mission was closed in 1969, after the 1967 Aboriginal referendum.
In 1973, fifty Aboriginal people decided to resettle their abandoned tribal land and rename it Oombulgurri. Within a year, the population had grown to 200. Infrastructure and welfare programs were set up in the 1970s and 1980s to provide the residents with basic amenities and to allow the town to become self-sufficient.
In October 2010, the government of Western Australia announced plans to close the community of Oombulgurri, as its population had decreased from 150 to less than 50. In February 2011, the government was reportedly considering a number of proposals about the community’s future once all the residents had moved out, including converting it into a tourism retreat or a juvenile justice facility. On 1 March 2011, the community’s only store was dismantled and removed by boat. As of 2 March 2011, only seven residents still remained in Oombulgurri. Shortly before Christmas of 2011, the remaining residents were relocated to Wyndham. In 2014 the state government’s plan to demolish most of the buildings at the site was opposed by former residents
Only recently, and to promote tourism to the area, have permits to traverse this remote track been given out. I had heard of this track in the 1970’s whilst chatting to other adventurers who told me that it was doable but that they had heard of travellers driving the track and having to spend many hours winching their way up the escarpments. Now, having driven the track at last, I wonder if they were talking about another track out there. This track had been bulldozed once in the 1950’s and by all accounts very little maintenance had been done over the years.
This time around my old mate, George, from Darwin, accompanied me on the trek. And I had friends, Marla and Neil, from Queensland, along for another adventure with me, driving their well-stocked and almost overloaded Toyota Landcruiser 6 cylinder Turbocharged Ute.
Our recent purchase of a Toyota Landcruiser 70 series wagon has proved problematical. We purchased the 4×4, added some accessories, hooked our van up and left for the north. At Coober Pedy, on the Stuart Highway, an engine warning light came on and various mechanics in the town diagnosed that the Turbocharger was low on boost pressure.
At Alice Springs it was decided that Judith and our dogs would stay there in a caravan park whilst I go on to Darwin to collect George and then go to the Kimberley. Once in Darwin, a good friend from long ago, Malcolm, very kindly did extensive testing on the Turbocharger to discover that certain parts of the Turbo were rusted and it appears that the 70 has had contact with salt water and has various points showing serious rust. Some of this will be attended to when we return down south as the vehicle’s warranty has been extended to cover the turbo. The engine goes well enough without the Turbo but fuel consumption is all over the place, especially when towing.
In Darwin, George added more gear than I thought was necessary and I baulked at the gas stove (it proved to be very handy at times, much to George’s glee) and then we left for our rendezvous with the others in Kununurra on Sunday 16th August. I was going to camp along the way but as things turned out we drove the 880km distance with ease and stopped in motel in Kununurra after clearing the fruit fly inspection point into Western Australia. Marla and Neil were already there and we booked into the same motel. In the motel, in the room splitting our rooms, an aboriginal elder was staying and at around 10pm he became very unruly and noisy and we complained to the hotel management and the police eventually removed him and we all got some sleep. The following day we bought fruit end veg and fuelled up and then drove around Kununurra and out to the rural area where we got lost and then bogged twice, looking for landmarks I knew long ago. We then drove out to look for some waterfalls and eventually found Black Rock Falls. Then on along the dusty road and just before dark I found a camp spot amongst the Boab trees on Parry Creek(dry), and we stopped for the night.
By accident I have discovered that sleeping on my Toyota’s driver’s seat, is very relaxing and beneficial to me, and so that is where I slept for the duration of the trip. It was warm enough at night to sleep with only a light covering and a spray of aerosol to keep the mozzies at bay.
The following day we drove to Wyndham and Five Rivers Lookout, the Old Wyndham and then we took the road to Diggers Rest Station and then on to the Old Karunjie Track (King River Road) which brought us out on the Pentecost River crossing on the Gibb River Road. Along the way we visited an Aboriginal art site and a Prison Boab Tree.
A few kilometres on past the Home Valley Station turn-off, I found a good quarry and we camped there for the night. There was no wood in sight but Marla and Neil managed to find a burnable lot and George went to help them. Neil brought out his trusty long handle axe and chopped the wood into pieces, as he did almost every other evening . He likes chopping wood.
The Gibb River Road was in very good condition with some of the jump-ups over the ranges being sealed. We stopped at the Durack River to replenish some of our water and then kept a steady 70kmh pace to Drysdale River Station, where we refuelled. Burgers and pies could be bought at a king’s ransom and so we found a shady spot and made our own sandwiches for lunch.
The road north from Drysdale River Station was graded for the first 10km and then it deteriorated into severe corrugations. Once again I found a quarry-like open space along the way and we made an early camp.
The road to Kalumburu winds its way over some low hills interspersed with a severely corrugated flat road sections at times. We made it to Kalumburu only to arrive at 10.59am and the fuel depot closed at 11am for lunch. But the lady running the store relented on closing and refuelled us at $2.47/l. We then went to the Caravan Park and replenished our water and had lunch and later went for a drive looking for the King Edward River. We eventually found it down a back track but I didn’t find the nice cool spot we had seen way back on our visit here in 1987.
At 1.30pm we went back to the store for supplies only to find that the Take Away shop had been open all of the time and that it had the necessary supplies. No one passes on information here in the tropics. Maybe tourists are only just tolerated.
The Carson River Road, as described on our Permit to Enter an Aboriginal Reserve, turns off the Kalumburu Road to the east, a very short distance after crossing the Carson River when northward bound. Carson River Station was an operational entity in 1987 when we first visited this area but now it is lying in ruins. The Manager at that time gave us permission to access King George River Falls, a spectacular geological phenomenon. It lay 117km from where we were camped on the Drysdale River and we made it there and back in a day despite multiple punctures to our tyres. But times change, and those people who populated the area back then, are gone to other pastures or endeavours.
I took the wrong track to the Drysdale River and we had to back-track a number of kilometres before making it to the ‘Ford’ at Drysdale River as shown on the map. This time of the year the river levels are very low and the crossing was visible. A steady, small stream, flowed through a crack in the rock-formation, and we all bounced across this on our way to the other side. With the sun low in the sky, and fading in the late afternoon ozone, I found an open space in the spear grass and we camped for the night
Not having any idea of the condition of the track or what we might expect we set off in anticipation of tough hard conditions. As my digital mapping system would now not fit the new vehicle, Marla lent me her Hema 7 Digital Mapping unit and it became an invaluable tool for finding our way through a maze of tracks which have been made by others during the dry season. The Hema however kept on turning the map upside down so that the writing was unreadable. There was obviously a way to reset this but both of us were too challenged to find it.
We had a pleasant drive the next day with some good surface and some bad washouts. Various vehicles lay abandoned along the track including a large truck, a backhoe and a forklift.
We crossed the King George River twice and climbed a steep washed out jump up. Here I had a nervous moment when I was negotiating the washout halfway up the slope, when my vehicle lent over at an acute angle and I feared that I might tip over. I steered to the right as the lean was going that way and the heart rate went up a few notches! Some manoeuvering with the steering-wheel brought the vehicle back on the level again and I was able to drive out of trouble
At the apex of this jump-up we found a huge quarried area. The mapping declares it the Beta Creek Mine. Various mullock heaps of different aggregate have been deposited by an equally large crusher (now non-existent). As to why this mine was ever started is a moot question. An internet search of this mine, with the correct spelling, shows that it was an exploration site for diamonds. Judging by the equipment left behind they may come back!
Wild cattle now roam and breed freely in the East Kimberley and there must be thousands of these cattle out there. Mustering in this hard country though would need a special kind of operation.
I found a good campsite after the third King George River crossing.
After we had eaten, George and Marla got stuck into the Port and covered a range of subjects, some of which I had heard before so I busied myself in other pursuits.
The following day was a long and hot day and we covered 61km for the seven hours of driving, crossing ruts and gullies, swamps, serious washouts and sharp rocks. At mid morning smoko my self-put-together roof-rack was dangerously loose and I had the idea to abandon it. Then I decided to fix some Tek screws where the movement of the parts were. Everyone pitched in with ideas. It seemed to work and the roof-rack is now as strong as ever. We stopped for lunch in the shade of some Ti-trees and a group of five vehicles sped past with nary a wave. Later in the day we could not see the tracks of the vehicles we had seen and wondered if we hadn’t stumbled upon an anomaly in the fifth dimension.
The countryside around the Berkeley River opens up as we dropped down towards the river with conical hills and flat top mesas to be seen in the near distance.
The track down to where the crossing is, is strewn with loose rocks and we gingerly picked our way down.
Early morning Blue-wing Kookaburras greeted us with their raucous calls every day at around 5am. They were elusive though and camera shy
No shade was to be had on the Berkeley but we were able to extend and unfold more or Marla and Neil’s roof top tent, and had enough shade for the four of us to shelter under for the day. Neil walked upstream to some billabongs to throw a lure but came back empty handed.
Monday morning and we tackled the Berkeley River crossing. Low range first gear all the way. Neil had laid out tree branches to show us the easiest way across the rock slabs to the other side.
Today we did hard four wheel driving with lots of gullies and creeks and washouts to contend with. At Adamson Airfield on top of this range we found an abandoned Honda 4×4 quad bike and later an International tip truck which reminded us of days in the past when we worked with a similar truck.
A burnt out Boab Tree was of great interest as none of us had seen one burnt like that before.
George took the wheel after lunch and drove for a while until he scrunched the side step of the Landcruiser on an ant hill. He gave me back the wheel as he had lost his appetite for driving after that.
The next day the track started to move in the direction of some hills as we followed the Delancourt River which we crossed a number of times and it looked like we would need to get up through a saddle in the ranges. We were soon to find out just how taxing this range would be with lots of road building to make it easy for access across for the vehicles. Just getting out of camp was an exercise in swinging the steering wheel the next morning as the track took off up a series of gullies running in to the river. We stopped for smoko in a cleared area after a long hard climb up and on to the top of the range. A small gas bottle stood in the clearing by its lonely self, obviously forgotten by campers in their haste to pack up and go. It still had some gas in it and we boiled the billy.
Whilst admiring a strangler vine with a firm grip of its host tree, Marla discovered that some of their bags had slipped out from beneath the skirt of the canopy of the ute and one of them being the computer bag. They turned around to go and find the lost items while George and I lazed in the shade of a tree nearby the strangler vine. Two hours elapsed before they returned having found all of the gear. They had traversed 15km in that time
The countryside now dropped down gently from the ridge and we ended up driving over a long, wide, clay-pan towards the abandoned settlement of Oombulgurri. The thought came to mind that this would be a no go area when it rained.
Our first bit of ‘civilisation’ was encountered when we stopped at the Oombulgurri Airport Shed. We drove to the outskirts of the abandoned town as our permit did not allow us to enter the town. We camped nearby and managed to find enough fire wood to rustle up some tucker. It was a warm night.
The following morning it took us a while to find our way out from where we had had camped but a faint clearing in the never-ending rocks showed a way across the Milligan Ranges. Our curiosity found us going down a track to see the old Pumping Station at Camera Pool on Warringali Creek just short of the junction with the Forrest River, where clean water was pumped for Oombulgurri Town. The infrastructure was quite something to see to keep such a small population of inhabitants in water. Now this infrastructure is all lying in ruin.
Down the range we went crossing the Warringali Creek and the baptism of fire started on the Carson River Track. We were now into the extreme stuff. Rocks, rocks and more rocks and when not rocks then stones! Today was the day for low range driving. We managed 52km for the day.
We camped in small burnt clearing on side of road 31km from Home Valley Station as per our mapping. This was to be our last camp on the track after seven days of driving. Now, being on a smooth level surface, we had the wrong sense of ease thinking that the end of the endless rocks was behind us. Not so!
As we were doing a radio check the next morning upon leaving camp someone else spoke on our channel. I thought that we may have picked up someone across the bay on the Old Karunjie Road. We were soon to find out who it was as a convoy of vehicles came up the track towards us. The lead vehicle had a large bug deflector with EVIL emblazoned on it. An aboriginal man alighted from the cabin and strode over to us in a firm but friendly manner and asked to see our permit after introducing himself as Colin Morgan, Traditional Owner of these lands. I duly produced the permit which Colin took back to his crew with him. They all pored over it with interest. The next thing a fella came towards me taking photos of our vehicles and especially my number-plate and so I took photos of them in retaliation. Colin stated that the permit did not include the track from the King George Falls area to Home Valley Station to which I countered that if that was the case why mention Oombulgurri Township in the permit at all. The Carson River Track is also the Carson River Road and the permit allows the bearer to traverse the lands under certain conditions as laid out in the paper. Colin then agreed that the permit was in order and asked if he could take a photo of it. I had no issue with that. Amongst other things Colin stated that it was his intention to manage these lands, away from the control of the Department of Indigenous Affairs, in the near future and that access to them by way of his own permit approval and fees, should be in order by next year to stop people from driving everywhere, as he put it. Subsequent research shows that Colin and his family take Tag A Long tours (Kimberley Outback Tours) on a ten day slow trip along the Carson River Track, at a cost of $3000 per vehicle.
So now it would only be a short distance to drive to Home Valley. Right? Wrong!! We had to cross the Durack River and the range beyond that. The track meandered down the headland cut by the river over the millennia. At the crossing lay thousands of boulders all the size of a football or bigger, rounded by the flow of the river over time. Even running low tyre pressures didn’t help as I crossed as I dislodge a rather large rock which wedged itself in under the Landcruiser and it took quite a bit of road work by George and Neil to extract me from my predicament. Then we had to clear another very rock-strewn jump-up and this time a scrunched the side step and put a small dent in the wheel-arch panel. The rough travel continued on for another eight kilometres before we dropped down on to the Cambridge Gulf floodplain and smooth travel to Home Valley Station. This last bit had taken eight hours to negotiate at a steady pace of around 4kmh! The Pentecost River was the last rocky riverbed to negotiate.
We were thirsty when we arrived at Home Valley Station and bought beers ignoring the price of $9 each! Nice earner there.
Driving the Carson River Track had been a worthwhile experience. We did not manage to see lush water holes or magnificent rock art as we did not have the knowledge of where these places were. The track was very rough to extremely rough in places but we took it easy and sustained no punctures over the eight days of venturing on this 421km track in the Northeast of the Kimberley Region in Western Australia. I sustained a small amount of panel damage to the Landcruiser but not much to worry about.