Having read books and diaries by the explorers, Ernest Giles and Michael Terry and archaeological accounts by Dr. Josephine Flood, my interest has always been to try to get to some of the places mentioned in these transcripts. I have been interested in particular, in the ‘faces’ rock carvings of the area, as depicted in a variety of publications.
An old friend of mine, who has spent many years leading camel safaris in Central Australia, mooted the idea of getting to see these places, and with this in mind, I set about planning such a trip. As with many events the planning takes some time. I needed at least two vehicles on this expedition and with contacts and acquaintances in real life and via the Internet, managed, in the end, to gather together seven participants in four vehicles. Some of us were to meet personally for the first time and it would be a test of personalities to see how we got on together in the bush.
Puritjarra is the name of a site of human occupation now being mooted to date back 30,000 years. It is situated along the eastern escarpment of Mt Winter, which again, is at the end of the Cleland Hills. Puritjarra was not a permanent encampment, but rather a resting place for the many nomadic tribes who foraged for food throughout the desert regions. Within the area, and encompassing the Puritjarra shelters lies a permanent rock pool, now known as Muranji Waterhole. The explorer, Ernest Giles passed by this area in 1872, Michael Terry exploring on behalf of mining companies visited Thomas Reservoir to the north on his expedition of 1932 and Archaeologist Michael Smith, on behalf of museums, has conducted excavations in this area for a period spanning from 1980. Others have joined Michael Smith for various reasons and have written about the significance of this place. In earlier times the Pintubi clan visited this area but it is claimed to be the ancestral home of the Ikuntji clan who now reside permanently at the Haasts Bluff Community.
I applied, on behalf of myself, and the others, for a permit to access these traditional aboriginal lands. After a lengthy period, the permit was granted with strict conditions.
Our group gathered in Alice Springs during the last week of April 2006, and we set off for our destination. The first part of our journey took us through the McDonnell Ranges and out on to Missionary Plain. Last fuel supplies and snacks to munch were bought at Hermannsburg and we aired down the tyre pressures near the display house of the famous aboriginal artist, the late Albert Namatjira. Then we were off the black top and on to the Mereenie Loop Road. This road, in April 2006, is in bad repair due to the volume of tourist traffic it experiences. Along the way we helped some backpackers to retrieve their van from a bogged position on the side of the road, and also stopped to offer assistance to travellers who had rolled their hired Landcruiser. Many overseas visitors have no idea of outback road conditions in Central Australia and invariably become unstuck.
We reached our turn off point by mid-afternoon, dropped the tyre pressures to 20psi and set along the sandy track heading north at first and then eventually meandering in a Southwesterly direction. We passed by some disused and storm damaged water tanks and around four o’clock I started looking for a campsite. I like driving with my window open when on bush tracks. This time however, a stick came in through the open window and gave me a blood nose. A small clearing in the Spinifex grass, which was most likely a scrape made by the track construction party, presented itself soon afterwards as a camp site. Camels had used it the night before and the aroma of dung and urine still hung about. Covered with some sand it soon disappeared. The country is truly spectacular with mountains in the distance and open plain grassed areas with lots of Desert Oaks. The group led by my friend, was keen on finding camel tracks. He took them for a walk in the desert and spent the rest of the evening telling yarns of his life experiences. I refuelled the Nissan from my jerry cans.
We still had around 100km to travel along this track to a specified point, which lay adjacent to Mt Winter, which in turn, lies at the easternmost perimeter of the Cleland Hills. The track was washed out in places, and sometimes overgrown. Progress was slow. We eventually got to our destined point but saw no track leading off to the west as was shown on the map.
We backtracked to the disused airstrip and found a shot line heading north from the airstrip. It was not too badly overgrown and after about ten kilometres it veered off towards the escarpment and led us right to Muranji Rockhole
The tumbling waters have carved this natural hole in the escarpment over the millennia, and a rock base has formed to a water catchment area, which is never dry. Crystal clear waters with some waterweed growing along the waters edge looked inviting but we stayed out. Some initial scouting around came up with some stone chips and some rubbing stones, which lay, on the plain surrounding the escarpment.
Nearby was a disused camp with a lean to and some rubbish lying about. Drums had been used to put the rubbish in but not removed, and the crows had done their bit to spread it about. While the rest of our party went for a walk I went looking for a suitable place to camp and drove south along the escarpment. I came to a place where a rather deep dry creek had to be negotiated and decided to turn back. When I met up with the others again they had followed in my tracks and we found a place to set up with some Desert Oaks for shade. One must never camp under a Desert Oak tree, as they are liable to drop their lower branches without warning. We set up camp for the next four nights.
As my old friend was interested in finding some petroglyphs in the area we concentrated on the southern edge of the escarpment looking for a rocky ledge, which may have contained some very interesting petroglyphs. Unfortunately he did not have the co-ordinates for the place. The first day out we drove as far as Gill Creek, which has lush growth for a desert waterway.
Getting there was something else, as we had to drive across some rugged country. Along the plain there are a few watercourses to negotiate but most of all dead Mulga and what is known as Turpentine stakes, Grevillea trees and scrub and Blue Mallee. As I was always leading the convoy I had to make sure that I put the wheels in such places as to avoid brushing up against broken wood stumps. It took three hours to negotiate about twenty kilometres and I staked 2 tyres in the process. Others in the convoy also had punctures.
We walked up Gill Creek to a lovely shaded area where there were pools of crystal clear water. I was feeling the heat and my legs were aching from the exercise. I reminded myself that next time I must take my walking stick with me. I had a big drink of water and a wash down to cool off as we were now in the heat of the day. The pools had tadpoles and small frogs living in them, as well as some quite large water beetles.
On our return to camp I came across an unmarked shot line on our maps. It was very overgrown but went in the general direction, which we were travelling in. So we followed it until we met the airstrip track again. We then also saw where the other track headed off to in a southeasterly direction from our position. It too, is boldly marked on the map, but very overgrown and has had no traffic for many years. We found a marker that stated that the track was made in 1981. This would have happened when the Mereenie Oil Field was being explored and seismic operations were being conducted.
Once back at camp we rang my mate’s friend in Melbourne on the Satellite phone, to enquire as to exactly where these petroglyphs were to be found. He came back with an answer which, translated into plain language, sounded like this: “If you go about ten to twelve kilometres due South West from Muranji Waterhole, as the crow flies, then you should come into a valley. There is a very large white gum we camped under. Now walk two hundred metres south from there and you will see a ridge about thirty metres in height. The waterhole is up there and the petroglyphs are next to them”. (six years later I was to discover that the direction was North East and not South West…a big difference!)
Now it sounded that they accessed the area by helicopter. We found out subsequently that they had to get a helicopter in as some of the film crew had become disorientated and had got lost out there. They also damaged their vehicles and had numerous punctures.
The next day we made a second attempt to find the fabled place. This time we were better prepared as far as tracks go as we could follow our tracks from the day before along the shot line. At the end of the shot line I took a compass bearing to the west of where had put a waypoint on our digital maps and started the off-track run. It was slow going. Every valley looked the same as we crossed a number of overgrown sand dunes. These dunes later changed to rough rocky ridges as we were getting close to our first marked waypoint. While waiting for the others to catch up to me I found that my trucks ignition system had failed. There were no ignition electrics to be found. At the same time two vehicles reported punctures. We tested all contact and eventually found that if we applied pressure to the fusible link on the positive main battery terminal all lights were restored. So I cable tied it and had no problems afterwards.
Our party then started walking in all directions looking for a possible location but to no avail. We found nothing like the description and later I had a thought that we were in the wrong area all the time.
The return journey was as slow as even finding ones own newly made tracks was quite difficult. We arrived back in camp at around 4pm vowing to one day, get better details, and visit the area again.
Our last day at our camp and half the group wanted to take a walk to the north along the escarpment. I decided to drive to the northeast to follow a track we had come across. Another convoy member decided that he would take his vehicle and accompany me as well.
We set off scouting the track and found that it was another approach to Muranji Water Hole. We then drove up a shot line to the north as well, but it too soon became difficult to negotiate. It was still mid morning when we returned to camp, and so I decided that we might as well try to follow the escarpment to the south to see what we could find. There was quite a deep creek that we had to cross but eventually we found a place over to the other side. The escarpment is quite spectacular with lots of small overhangs, hidden valleys and the brick-like exterior of the sandstone walls.
And then we came across what would have inevitably been, Puritjarra, a massive rock shelter, twenty metres high and 45 metres in length. This site had been the place for excavation over a period of twenty years as mentioned before and the oldest artefact found here has been dated at being around 30,000 years old. The general consensus seems to be that Puritjarra was a place of seasonal use when nomads and hunting parties came this way from either the east or the west.
The escarpment with numerous shelters
Rock holes in the escarpment attributed to many small water sources as well as the main permanent water catchment at Muranji Waterhole. I could imagine what it must have been like for our early ancestors but could not see myself as a modern human in that role. Their main aim was to survive and they did this with great success. They also had time to leave their marks of art behind on the walls of these shelters and in this started to create a social structure, which is the basis for the way Homo Sapiens or Modern Man, behaves. Their experiences of those times were very much alike to the humans of Europe, Asia and the Americas.
We had a good look at the shelter and then we climbed around the escarpment looking for other signs of ancient habitation. Later we drove down a valley and then had to do some rock hopping to get out of the escarpment valley.
We returned to camp via the dune corridors and our shot line. In the afternoon we led the others back to Puritjarra where we spent more time discussing the rock art and the site.
After five perfect days out in this eastern edge of the Gibson Desert where the weather was warm during the day and mild at night, we were loath to leave. But we had other commitments elsewhere. I had not found what I had come to look for but subsequently read about exactly where the elusive rock art is. So I have vowed to return some day in the not too distant future to find the rock art.
We made for Alice Springs the next morning and reached it by nightfall. Here we took leave of two vehicles as the drivers and passengers were on their way to somewhere on the north-west coast of Western Australia.