Back in the 1970’s I was talking to a bloke about exploration by European explorers and the name of Michael Terry came up and that of a place called O’Grady’s Well and its unique construction. Over the ensuing years I have read most of Michael Terry’s books on his exploits throughout Australia and have attempted to visit these remote places. Michael Terry was the leader of fourteen inland Australia expeditions between 1923 and 1935, mainly working for Adelaide mining companies seeking minerals. Stan O’Grady was a member of Michael Terry’s 1932 Mineral Exploration Expedition into Central Australia.
Everything takes time, and eventually, after careful negotiations with the relevant Indigenous Landholders and management authority I was granted a permit to visit the area with strict conditions attached.
O’Grady’s Well, lies east from the top of Lake Mackay, in Central Australia and at the eastern tip of the Sandford Cliffs. The Northern Territory Western Australia Border passes through the middle of Lake Mackay and is about 35kilometres from Sandford Cliffs directly to the west.
We set off from Alice Springs in the Northern Territory on 25th of August 2014 with me leading in the convoy of 5 vehicles bound for O’Grady’s Well.
Although the Well is well known by its Walpiri name of Lylalya, or that being the best understanding of the pronunciation I could get, from one of the Traditional Owners at the Nyirripi Community. The name O’Grady’s was unknown to him.
My interest in the well is that Michael Terry had published his opinion that he thought that it was doubtful that the indigenous people could have constructed the well due their lack of suitable tools or expertise
Excerpt from Michael Terry’s book ‘Sand and Sun’
A Forced March
Close on sundown we camped at the eastern end of the Sandford Cliffs where firewood was scarce and only stunted bushes grew around. Chou-chou took no interest in our affairs but trotted ahead, tail cocked high, towards the hills. We watched him.
“That dog is after something. Watch him” said Stan, “look at him now. He is nosing around that big dark anthill. He knows this place -bet anyone a cigar. Bet another water is there.”
“I’ll take you,” said Ben, “I’m a sport”
“We’ll have a look first thing in the morning,” I said
Sure enough, Chou-chou was a water finder alright. We called it O’Grady’s Well, having no means in this instance, as in some others, of ascertaining the aboriginal name. It was the largest most outstanding native well any member of the party has ever found. Hewed circularly out of sandstone, ten feet in diameter to a depth of thirty feet, this enormous excavation, enormous because no tools are known to the blacks, must have taken years to create. Personally, ill-founded as such an opinion may seem, I have strong doubts whether the locals could have done the work. It intrigues one to speculate on the probability of a once higher civilisation having been in this part, a people more highly developed than the present occupants, a folk lost in history who dwelt in a pre-arid age, but succumbed or departed as the slow resistless wheel of change found them not able to adapt themselves.
The erstwhile largeness of the shaft had been ruined by floods, rare but violent in the desert, which down a gutter from the hills had poured a detritus, sand, dirt of every kind. A large hole, delved corkscrew fashion curled down to the obscure bottom of the well. Down this, holding on to ropes linked together, I climbed till it became too dark to see. Peeping ahead with a lighted candle I espied a little pool of water where the lubras had left off work.
“Water alright.” I sang out, “Send me a billy. I will send some up.”
On top Ben tried a mouthful and spat it out
“Ugh. Horrible stuff, wouldn’t mind betting the camels won’t touch it. It’s as stale as the deuce,” he shouted at me.
“Never mind, get buckets and a shovel, cut any odd bits of timber you can find. We will build a staging for hauling and see if we can’t improve the supply and quality when she is cleaned out.”
We took the road to Newhaven Bird Sanctuary off the Tanami Road and beyond to reach the small community if Nyirripi, an Outstation of the Yuendumu Community.
Our first night out we camped just off the access road near The Gap in the Siddeley Range and also not far from Wartapunya Waterhole, which we all went to have a look at. The waterfall would be spectacular when it rains.
The next day we diverted into Lake Bennett (salt) for morning tea time after passing the Newhaven Homestead in the distance. Nyirripi Community lies in the foreground of Kartu/Mount Stanley. It is a small, tidy community, which is embarking amongst other things to entice camping visitors to the community. Since the establishment of the Southern Tanami Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in the Tanami Region in 2012 moves are afoot to slowly develop the area to protect it and to bring in controlled visitation for recreational purposes.
Our visitation caused some movement outside the Community Store, which is very well stocked and some of our crew started chatting to locals. It soon transpired, that, as we were driving through an area through which the Ethel Creek Track passes, that we needed special permission from ‘Alice’, the traditional owner of the area. In due course Alice appeared and gave me as trip leader the necessary permission to do just that. I could not quite understand what she was saying but just nodded approval and smiled. In the mean time I had left the windows open on my 4×4 and as I returned to it, two scrawny camp dogs alighted from the vehicle through the open window. They were obviously scrounging for food. Indigenous people love their dogs but some are not fed regularly judging by the skinny look of these dogs.
Our permit stated that we were to use the Ethel Creek Tracks to a certain point where we were to turn off heading west at given co-ordinates and that we were not allowed to visit certain hills seemingly along the way and were to follow a path there and back along the same corridor of two kilometres in width. I was also told to follow the track made by the Traditional Owners on their visit to the area of this year.
There are now two tracks to Alice’s camp on Ethel Creek. The old track runs due north to where it meets Ethel Creek and then turns west to Alice’s camp and beyond and a new graded track runs directly to Alice’s Camp put in by a mineral exploration company working in the area at present. I chose to drive the old track first.
The countryside was grassland and spinifex with Mulga, Grevillea and Eucalypts interspersed in patches of growth. Eventually the range rose slightly and we found ourselves in an area of sandstone domes where we had a break and did some exploring finding a gnamma hole in our wanderings. I had also seen a waterhole marked on our maps called Lucky Strike Waterhole and decided that we should look at it if possible. After we had crossed Ethel Creek my main aim was to find a clear camping area in the sea of Spinifex.
Not long after I saw an area of about one acre in size made up of grass polls with no prickly Spinifex in sight and there we made camp for the night. Firewood was soon collected and chopped into sizes and we settled down making camp and doing mechanical repairs. One of our party went for a walk to see if he could locate Lucky Strike Waterhole but his GPS co-ordinates and the actual mapping did not correspond on the ground. So the waterhole remained hidden from us. We sat around the fire swapping yarns till 10pm-ish when tiredness overtook us and we decamped to our beds. We had covered the fire with sand before going to bed and it smouldered through the night. A wind sprang up at around 3am and at 3.45am the fire ignited again and we were drawn from our comfy beds to douse it once more.
At the given GPS location as stated on my Permit Approval we turned west on to a faint track with an array of small hills immediately to the south and behind us to the east. Initially the track, which was made in June, went in a westerly direction but then it swung north and after a while I decided to cut my own track on a direct bearing to O’Grady’s Well to comply with my permit conditions. The cross country section of our journey was 165 kilometres for the return journey to the Ethel Creek Tracks and which included a short distance of scouting around the Sanford Cliffs.
Driving cross-country has its normal hazards of the inevitable punctures one experiences. Then there is always a danger of hidden obstacles such as washouts and rocks and termite mounds. The latter could be knocked over as they are made of hardened mud but underbody damage to the vehicle is always a worry.
My experience over the years is to use Cross-ply Tubed tyres on split rims when attempting anything cross country as their build is far more robust than tubeless tyres. I advised the participants on this journey that if they insisted on going with me with tubeless tyres that they make sure that the sidewalls had at least a 3 ply rating. One participant arrived with 2 ply rating tyres and actually got less punctures than the vehicle in front. But that was in the line of probabilities.
The countryside was just beginning to take on its spring colours and although it had seemingly not rained for a while there were many plants in flower getting the water from underground caverns or morning dew, no doubt. Honey Grevillea flowers were starting bud and we were able to get a taste of the sweetness of the flowers. Spinifex moguls, 3 metre high Mulga shrub, Grevillea, Wattle and Eucalypts stood in our way and of course the never ending termite mounds were there to test our driving skills.
Driving into the late afternoon sun at around 10kmh I hit an unseen hidden object in the grass with a thump and a bang and scraped across whatever lay beneath to clear the obstacle. It turned out to be what looked like fossilised termite mounds. Luckily my vehicle did not sustain any damage apart from a few underbody scratches. Later research revealed that these little mounds were remnants of ancient mound springs.
I found an open area with no Spinifex and we made camp for the night. We soon collected enough dead wood for enough heat to cook our tucker and to sit by the fire swapping yarns.
It was a hard drive the next day with one vehicle getting three punctures and many vehicles collecting flora debris in the engine bay or collected up against the windscreen. I picked up a stake but it only stuck in the top layer of the tyre and no puncture resulted. We drove a way south of the Mc Ewin Hills and stayed away from the area as per our permit conditions, although we could see the hills in the distance. We saw some camels and the flora was diverse with large patches of Holly Grevillea. Majestic Desert Oaks towered in the dune swales.
The day was not quite as hot as the day before but we stopped driving by lunch time. It was hard driving for me but we got through it all by 1pm and I drove to within one hundred metres of O’Grady’s Well. We camped in a clearing amongst the Tea Trees nearby.
At last I was at this magical place I had conjured up in my mind. Having no allusions as to what it may be, I was not surprised that it was just a hole in the ground. Eighty two years had passed since the well had been ‘discovered’ and much if it had fallen in. The Traditional Owners had been here three months prior and had dug the well out to a depth of about 3 metres. A partial circular staircase had been uncovered. I could see how the well had come into being. In the wetter times the Tea Tree swamp had filled with water. The run-off from the hills about two hundred metres away had pushed up a natural dam wall a few metres beyond where the well is. Over time this created a wet patch as the waters from the swamp filtered into the ground. Using rocks and sticks the ancient peoples had dug deeper for water as the Tea Tree swamp started to dry up and the waters receded. They used sandstone rocks nearby as tools and fitted rocks with mud to the stairwell to keep it stable. As the waters fell in the swamp they dug deeper and deeper eventually reaching a depth of three metres or ten feet and ten metres or 30 feet wide (In MT’s book he describes the well as being ten feet wide and thirty feet deep but I think it may have been the other way around)
The following day we went scouting along the face of Sanford Cliffs for any existence of rock art or engravings. The Traditional Owners had conducted a burn-off three months earlier in the swale between the last latitudinal dune and the cliffs. The sandstone escarpment offered a number of small caves for the ancients to shelter in. One can imagine usage of the area by the nomads with shelter and water nearby in wetter times. No doubt there was wildlife around then to keep the nomads in sustenance but we saw only one crow and nothing else.
We climbed up the low escarpment and found some faint artwork in a small cave in the form of a goanna. Further along there were petroglyphs etched out on the floor of a cave and buried in sand nearby was a very old wooden Coolamon which could have been used for carrying berries or seeds. We left everything as we found it and returned to camp.
Apart from the ancients and the current Traditional Owners of the land, I presume that not many visitors have been to this place. The Government Surveyors have been as there is a Benchmark about one hundred metres from the well. Not much has been written about O’Grady’s Well but no doubt others have been to this very isolated place
I took a direct line back to the Ethel Creek track extension by following a latitudinal dune. The inevitable punctures ensued on the way out. We actually managed to drive the eighty one kilometres in a day which is a feat in itself and camped on the north side of some hills close to the connecting track. It was the only place we had seen all day that was devoid of the prickly Spinifex. We all needed to clear the chassis rails and bash plates underneath the vehicles from accumulated seeds and grasses so as to prevent possible fires starting. I had a stick come up and dislodge my speedometer cables and this had to be repaired as well. I got some expert help from one of my fellow travellers.
Highlights of this camp were seeing a meteorite pass overhead in the early morning, a Dingo visiting the camp and a family of Camels who came close to the camp. The latter drew the attention of the young Kelpie dog which had accompanied us on this journey and they moved away from the barking menace to better pastures.
We bypassed Alice’s Camp and then took the ‘graded’ road south. This track was put in by the exploration company working in the area. Having no track shown on my digital mapping I took the left for at a road junction and this turned out to be the wrong one and we all had to return to the main track. We had smoko in the shade of some Mulga trees on the side of the track. The countryside in early spring is a garden with so many plants in bloom. We were supposed to actually see Mount Nicker along the way but all I could see was a low hill in the distance. That must have been it. At Emu Bore, also shown on the map as Nirrippi, we took the track that eventually meets the Desert Road at Sandy Blight Junction. We had asked the Traditional Owner we had met at the store at the beginning of the week, for permission to use the track and he gave that permission. The track goes dead straight for a long while and then it uses the swales to wend its way around the dunes. Obviously the dozer driver got tired of this and made some short cuts over the dunes and we had some fun getting across them. I found an open area near some hills and we settled in for lunch.
Eventually after 138km on my speedo we reached Sandy Blight Junction. This track name was given by Len Beadell, Outback Surveyor and Atomic Road Builder as at that point he had Sandy Blight. This health issue is called granular conjunctivitis and is a contagious, chronic inflammation of the mucous membranes of the eyes. It is characterized by swelling of the eyelids, sensitivity to light, and eventual scarring of the conjunctivae and corneas of the eyes.
It was late afternoon and there was nowhere suitable to camp near Sandy Blight Junction until I saw an old road-works quarry marked on my mapping about two kilometres up the road towards Kintore and that is where we camped for the night. We soon rustled up some firewood from the nearby scrub and those energetic enough for some exercise chopped the wood into shorter lengths.
The following morning one vehicle and its occupants left the group to return to Alice Springs while the rest of us drove on to Kintore for a refuel and a new adventure.