I had gathered by invitation, a group of friends and acquaintances, to join us, that is myself, my wife Judith, and Jeddah our dog, on our winter holiday and for the first month, as I had planned an adventure to very remote and isolated places over a three month period.
We set off as a group of six vehicles from Alice Springs at the beginning of June and travelled in the West Macdonnell Ranges Valley until we ran out of sealed road a short way past Glen Helen Resort. From there the road was corrugated and rough in places due to recent rains and lack of road maintenance. Our journey took us in the back way past Haasts Bluff to the Papunya Road through some scenic country, which was, as luck would have it, hidden from view, due to low cloud formations. Our first camp was along the Gary Junction Road in a clearing I had camped at before in 2008. It was a long night as I had been nursing a sore tooth and had visions of pulling it myself by the side of the road (something I had done before when in crisis).
The following day we refuelled at Kintore Community and I made a beeline to the Clinic there for some expert advice and good medicine. The care was good as within three days my tooth troubles had disappeared.
We were making for the geographical feature of Mount Webb in Western Australia where a bush track links to what is known as an Aboriginal Business Road which connects Kiwirrkurra Community with Balgo Community. I had obtained the necessary permits to traverse this aboriginal land for the duration of our transit to Balgo Wirruman Community. We camped in a clearing in a swale amongst the dunes in the late afternoon. Our oeaceful surroundings were disturbed by a large helicopter flying by and circling our camp out of curiosity. It turns out that there was some mineral exploration going on nearby on the fringes of Lake Mackay.
We drove via the shores of the vast salt expanses of what is known as Lake Mackay to modern travellers and Wilkinkarra to the Pintubi Aboriginal Group.
Our next camp saw us reach what we call Dwarf Well. The original Dwarf Well is located some distance away to the northeast. It was so named by David Carnegie in his wanderings across this land in the late 1800’s. He had ‘captured’ a diminutive aboriginal man who was then coerced to lead him to water. In a small depression they found some water and so Carnegie named the water hole Dwarf Well in honour of his captive.
Our camp was set up some time ago with a water tank and solar pump to facilitate drawing water from the well. It was part of the water bores drilled by the government along this route so that there would be life saving water supplies for those travelling in these remote areas. A back-up hand-pump was also installed and, as the solar unit was no longer working, we able to draw the necessary water. Some of the group did washing of clothes to get them dry before the rains came. The weather looked ominous and soft rain fell during the night making things damp.
The following morning we set off along a track, which, although it is supposed to be a connector track between Kiwirrkurra and Balgo Communities, it is not well used. This is quite feasible as the distance between fuel outlets is around 450km and the rough nature of the track would mean higher fuel consumption and the need to carry extra fuel supplies. The countryside varies from low scrub to quite dense grevilleas and desert gum foliage. Due to recent rains the track was very muddy in places and we struggled through some soft patches.
Our journey to Balgo Community took us over two days along tracks that were not marked on our maps. We visited three outstations, which have been abandoned totally after enormous amounts of effort, and money has been spent to set these communties up. We also made our acquaintance with a Black Headed Python, a Woma Snake a King Brown Snake and an Itchy Grub Train
We passed through Balgo Community on a Sunday and all was very quiet there. Our destination was Mulan Community within Paruku Indigenous Protected Area. We were lucky to find the Store Manager at the Community Store and he organised for us to buy fuel. Then we were given camping permits by the local ranger at no extra cost and a local bloke by the name of Marc Luther, kindly showed us the ‘short’ route to Handover Camp Site. He then collected some good wood for our fire for which we were very grateful.
Handover Camp site lies on the banks of Lake Gregory but due to a low rainfall the past wet season, Lake Gregory is in a dry state and the shoreline was close to a kilometre from our camp. The camp is surrounded by Snappy Gums and the scenery is great. Wild brumbies roam the area and we saw quite a few Brolgas and Black Swans in the vicinity of the lake.
Our next destination was Well 50 on the Canning Stock Route and Gulvida Soak. On a previous visit we had wandered in to the small Gulvida Gorge, looking for aboriginal art as described in a book by Michael Terry in the 1930’s. I took off travelling via the bush as I had done in 1994 only to find that a hard worn track had evolved over the years as far as vehicular access was possible. Oh, well, the joke was on me. In 1994 we located and photographed the art but this time the gorge was inundated with pools of water and we missed the entrance to it. One of our group had vehicle problems at Well 50 with the vehicle refusing to fire up after lunch. The owner and other mechanically minded friends in our group got working on this and after about an hour had the Humvee running smoothly again. All set to go and 50 metres later he destroyed a tyre on a protruding nodule on a dead tree log when leaving the lunch stop. So we waited for the wheel to be changed.
Our immediate destination was Well 46 as I had planned to launch a cross-country excursion to find historical places of significance to the west thereof. The track from Well 50 to Well 49 was extremely corrugated which made travelling at any speed hazardous. We camped at Well 49, drawing water from the well and topping up our water supplies. Tyre repairs followed until after dark. The following day some of the group visited Breaden Hills and Godfrey Tank while we made for Well 46 to do some re-organising of our camping gear, as we had been to the Breaden Hills before.
Our friends with the tyre problems then decided to leave the convoy to be on the safe side and to meet up again with the group on the west coast.
After Well 46 we set out across unchartered country following Waypoints I had set out on a map. We were heading west with a tailwind, a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius outside, and Spinifex grass clumps and long grass way over bonnet height. The going was hard and after 25 kilometres I called it quits as my old truck’s engine water was boiling. I had underestimated the roughness of the terrain and then I made a decision to try to reach our objective from the south, off the Kidson Track instead. This decision set off a chain reaction into being over the course of the following 48 hours. In hindsight I had prepared my vehicle and trailer for country not dissimilar to the eastern reaches of the Great Sandy Desert where I had travelled before but the country west from the Canning Stock Route had real soft sand and was far harder to negotiate. Over the next short time there were disagreements, personality clashes, unkind and unnecessary words and basic sulkiness between grown-up people which saw to that the group split up and make their own way to various points and including the historic places such as Joanna Spring which I had planned to visit. I had made a great error of judgement inviting some so called ‘friends’ along for the journey! This then became the turning point in our travels where we now travel alone once again as mixing it with other travellers seems to have too many flaws.
I had not envisaged driving the Canning Stock Route to an exit point at Well 33 and a hard trek followed for us, driving an underpowered vehicle towing an overloaded bush trailer. I had to be towed over three dune crests though I had made it over the highest dune along the route near Well 42. . In hindsight my tyre choice in the heavy duty cross-ply tyres, was unsuited for towing in soft sand, and I had some issues with small pebbles getting into the casing cavity and puncturing the tubes. I also had the misfortune of spinning the rims on the tyres when at 10psi and thus breaking the valves off the tubes. Lesson learned that 10psi is too low but that 15psi would be the lowest one could go. But these tyres are necessary when driving cross country so one can find oneself in a no-win situation. You either must be prepared to have multiple punctures and stakes to tubeless tyres every day, or strain your vehicle shod with cross-ply tyres. If I had not had the trailer in tow the cross country going would have been far easier. So my trip to the fabled places had to be put off till another time.
Our journey took us west from the Kunawarritji Community where we had paid $3.20 per litre for diesel. We spent a couple of days at Razor Blade Bore on the WAPET Road and I drove part of Len Beadell’s Callawa Track, the last track he and his work crew had constructed in 1963. We have decided that WAPET stands for Western Australia Petroleum Exploration Track.
I had made a commitment to look at some alternative ways of reaching my original objective and we set off from a point on the map to visit McTavish Claypan in the Great Sandy Desert. It soon became apparent that other vehicles had recently traversed this very overgrown track and after some kilometres I came to a recent camp site which gave the tell-tale signs that some of our erstwhile group had forged on ahead to my plotted destination.
In the late afternoon I decided to call it quits as the going was hard especially with the trailer in tow. We made camp in the only clearing in the Spinifex we could find, just on sunset!
We made good exit from the McTavish Track the following morning and later in the day inspected some rock overhangs to find very ancient and interesting rock paintings. It took a long drive in the late afternoon to find a clearing free of spinifex to camp at. A camel walked by making awful gutteral noises and peering at us. I threw some rocks in his direction and he sauntered off.
At the Telstra Tower, the following day, 12 kilometres from the Great Northern Highway, we parted company with our friends and they sped off north towards their home in Darwin
We turned south and had some munchies at Pardoo Roadhouse. We were able to top up our water containers there as well after asking permission from the roadhouse owners. There we found out that Cape Keraurden camping area still did not take dogs and we drove further south along the highway. Then the sign at Pardoo Station said Dogs on Leash welcome and we went that way. We spent an enjoyable three nights relaxing at Pardoo Station which is really set up for the fishing fraternity but we enjoyed the drives to sites on the property and to the beach which we had to ourselves each time we went there.
The day at Port Hedland was uncomfortably humid and every time we tried to do something there was a problem. I wasn’t able to pay Telstra bills because of some new payment method they have in place and we did not get different bits we were looking for. By late afternoon we had replenished our food stocks and had refuelled and made for the Marble Bar Road just to get the hell out of that place. We later learnt that the nickname for Port Hedland was ‘Sorry Town’. “Sorry we don’t have that or Sorry we casnnot help you”!
Sunset found us on Strelley Creek about 5km off the Marble Bar Road after turning down an old mining track. We decided that it was going to rain and so we all slept in the truck. What a humid and uncomfortable night. And Jeddah kept panting at a rate of knots!
We booked into the Marble Bar Caravan Park for a week to have some rest and relaxation and to have a look around. The park was somewhat run down but the caretaker was very friendly and helpful. The amenities blocks were run down as well and only one of four washing machines was working.
But the water was hot and dogs were allowed. We met a number of travellers whilst there, and swapped info and also met up with people from the WA Museum who were going out to Rudall National Park area to look for desert snails! We drove a number of mining tracks and I swung the detector around but only found rubbish. We visited the Comet Mine, Corunna Downs WW2 Airbase, and Judith painted at Marble Bar itself while Jeddah and I explored the Jasper rocks and I took heaps of photos.
One day we met up with other friends who were with us initially and had a cuppa and a yarn. On another day we went hunting for the old tin mine in the area and eventually found it using my digital mapping. I paid a visit to the local Telecentre and was able to access my email there via Satellite Broadband at a nominal cost. The Marble Cup Races were scheduled for Saturday 4 July and so we pulled out two days earlier and took a run up to Goldsworthy, now abandoned, and along the Goldsworthy Shay Gap road to Shay Gap, and eventually south again and camped at the De Grey River at Muccanoo Pool. Swung the detector again but no luck!
After leaving the De Grey River we made south for Coppin and Kittys Gaps. Now, my digital mapping, the latest 2008 Natmap Raster mapping, shows a track going through Coppin Gap and nothing through Kittys Gap! In fact it is just the reverse thereof. Took some fancy driving to reverse the trailer out of Coppin Gap as I had driven in too far and again at our intended smoko spot. The drive through Kittys Gap was good past some mining exploration mob who post signs everywhere trying to keep the public out. The trouble is that these are Public Roads and even signposted. Mining companies are being a tad cheeky. After lunch we made for Nullagine and once again it is a spectacular drive with many landforms to view. Nullagine was disappointing. The Caravan Park is right next to the diesel powered Power House and they wanted $6.50 for a Chicko roll and $7 for a Sandwich at the Pub. Diesel though was relatively cheap at $1.45 and after refueling, we pushed on to find a camp, tucked away behind a hill next to 20 Mile Sandy Creek on the Skull Springs Road.
The Skull Springs Road valley is another scenic drive. I took the ‘old’ road in error but still arrived at the right place. The road however got narrower and narrower and eventually became a washed out track until 20 Mile Sandy Creek. There a sign stated 105km of winding road! I waved the wand in 20 Mile Sandy Creek but found only old rubbish from miners gone by. Then we drove a short way up the Mosquito Mine road. Here I struck a noise with the wand. I got very excited but it turned out to be magnatite ore.
But it is my first find of anything other than rubbish! Later we saw some other unusual rock formations and later still we drove down into Running Waters Pool on the Oakover River and I had to execute a 9 point turn in the water and over rocks to get the rig turned around. This place is stunning with mosses growing and the pool being heated by artesian waters. We neglected to take a swim this time, however.
We made for Carawine Gorge and found a very nice campsite there on couch grass and only two other campers tucked away and out of site from us. One was a bus parked on the airstrip. About a thousand Longbilled Corellas occupy the gum trees which flank the gorge and they fly around screeching and doing Corella things. There were a host of other water birds including Black Swans and Pelicans. We set up camp with the intention to stay a week. What an idyllic spot!
Some things, however are not meant to be, as on our second night there the owners of Warrawagine Station, on which Carawine Gorge lies, arrived to announce that they were setting up their annual mustering camp and promptly started a 10kva diesel generator up to freeze the food for the mustering crew. Our hearts sank. I did wander over after dark and had a chat with Robin and Lyle Mills and they gave me permission to visit the Glacier Slide site and also to visit Upper Carawine Gorge. The generator went quiet soon afterwards. So the following morning we packed up and left this lovely site which was soon to be invaded trucks, utes, six motorbikes and a helicopter!
The generator started up in the early morning and we were on the road at a good time and then duly visited the glacier slide site, which was truly magnificent. I also discovered a mud site and a petrified tree and opalised tree stump. Later we caught up with the station owners again and I relayed the new information to them as they were unaware of the mud formations. Then we set off for Upper Carawine Gorge. We turned off the Woodie Woodie Road near Twin Sisters Hills and after a short distance we were bogged in the soft sand of the track. I had forgotten to engage 4×4.
We were on our way again soon and made our way along an overgrown and very washed out track through some very scenic mesa topped valleys, until we reached Upper Carawine Gorge Crossing. I walked the river first to gauge the depth and then decided that it was not dangerous to cross. I fitted a partial blind to the front of the GQ for the crossing. But first we had smoko. Then Judith gingerly walked across the river so that she could film the water crossing. The crossing was easy and no water ingested into the vehicle.
Then we drove off towards Skull Springs Road. Soon afterwards I saw a track making towards Upper Carawine Gorge Pool. At the end of the track we stopped and Jeddah and I walked through the eucalypt forest of the Oakover River in search of the Pool. But after around 800 metres I gave up and we set a course back to the vehicle and Judith. The latter had become worried and started sounding the horn, which neither of us heard. Then Judith cooee-ed a number of times as we got closer and we heard her then and responded by cooee-ing back. We got told off for being so careless with our time…something that I had not even noticed. The rest of our journey was uneventful apart from meeting another traveller on the track who was surprised to meet us in such a remote place. Back on Skull Springs Road we made for 20 Mile Sandy Creek camp again and spent the night there.
The journey to Newman was also uneventful apart from seeing a number of mining activities happening. We booked into the Newman Caravan Park just after lunch and then went about doing our various jobs. Later we chased up our forwarded mail but it had not arrived. The caravan park was quite noisy catering to accommodate the staff for many mining activities.
We set off for the Hillside Marble Bar road the following morning. It was a long uphill climb out of Newman with road trains licking at our heels as we tried to make speed. The road is very busy between Newman and Port Hedland. Soon after we saw a sign stating Eagle Rock Falls and decided to investigate.
Well, the map distance indicators are all wrong, as we drove an extra 10km to get there. At Eagle Rock Pool we found a way to get around the hill to park right in the creek on a pebbly beach. I helped a young couple to negotiate some of the rocks in their new 4×4 and they were very grateful for that. The young lass showed me a Pilbara 4×4 Tracks book and I read some of the stories contained therein. We also found a track to Eagle Rock Falls and a sign stating that it was 4km in and Hard 4×4! This is true to an extent but not insurmountable. There are just some rocky jump-up sections. We drove to the falls and took our photos from good vantage points. The water was only trickling over the falls but it still was worthwhile to do the drive there. Later in the afternoon we lazed around. The young couple came over after tea and shared some of their Port and Marshmallows with us.
We had decided to go back to Newman to get more information and a permit to traverse the BHPBilliton Rail Access Road so that we could visit the Punda Rock Art Site. We made it to this magnificent Art Site set all over a hill facing an open valley below. The last short distance of the track was extremely overgrown and washed out and we were wondering just how the hell we were going to get out of there if we came to a dead-end. Both of us excelled with our prosthetic knees in climbing rocks to take photographs. Coming down was something else though!
We had lunch in the shade of a tree and made it back towards the Rail Access Road. Once there I refueled the truck and then we set off again. Having this Rail Access Pass we decided to push our luck and continue north towards our point where we would leave it. The road was very good skirting by the various rail sidings. We saw no less than six ore trains empty or full of ore. We saw the workings of the rail line and also drove through Redmont Railway Camp. The road seemed to go on forever but eventually in the late afternoon we turned on to the Hillside-Marble Bar Road and at Motor Car Well I found a quarry to camp in. Someone had left some firewood and with our supplement we were able to have a good fire.
I checked out some rocks nearby the following morning and negotiated climbing over the more difficult ones. Once back on the flat though I tripped on a tree root and fell head first into a Spinifex clump. As I was returning to our camp a ute drove in and around the rig and then sped off again. Must have been the local cocky checking us out. Once again the landforms along this route were spectacular with one looking almost the size and shape of Ayers Rock.
We passed through Marble Bar again just stopping briefly at the shop for some supplies, before making for Muccanoo Pool on the De Grey River. We spent a lazy afternoon there. Jude cooked a roast that evening and we tossed and turned all night from the rich food. We woke up to a misty morning and had to let the tent and other stuff dry out first.
The Yarrie Station stockyards close-by, were a hive of activity loading cattle on to a road train. We were on our way by 8.30am. Stopped off to look at some rocks about 500 metres down the Yarrie Station Homestead access road. I had read about this in the Pilbara 4×4 book. Could not find a track in but drove cross-country for a short distance. The fence was now non existent and I hoped that we would not be noticed by passersby. This seemed to be a womens’ site with magnificent petroglyph art work on the flaking sandstone rocks.
Later we passed through Shay Gap again and followed the Boreline Road through to the Great Northern Highway.
At Sandfire Roadhouse we refuelled at $1.60 per litre. We would like to name the place Sadfire because of all the unfriendly signs around the place. We had lunch there in the shade of some trees and were pestered by a mob of tame Peacocks scrounging for food. By 3pm we had reached our destination at Port Smith after a boring 200km run from Sandfire on the black top. Port Smith has a nice leafy caravan park with good amenities and nothing else to do but fish. We needed a shower and a fridge charge up however, and stayed over. Port Smith does not actually have a port but more of a lagoon, which fills from the sea. It used to be a Pearlers Cove.
The next day we made for Barn Hill Station, so named after a hill close to the sea which looks like the shape of a barn. The 10 km in had speed bumps and gates and we had to follow a procession of hopeful campers in. Once there we were unimpressed with the set-up. No office as such, just an old aunty sitting by a table taking the bookings and cramming more people in. Non- powered sites were out in the open sun and it was still a 200-metre walk to the beach. We had to wait in a queue to sign in but left before that, deciding to give Barn Hill a miss. We drove on to Broome along one of the most boring stretches of highway in the country. Just grey bitumen breaking up the endless scrub. We shopped, refuelled, bought some clothes and booze and after a quick look around at old haunts, we were glad to hit the road to the east. Broome, although now a mecca for tourists, with some of it’s new finery in buildings and streets, was still just the same old place as it was 25 years ago when we lived there especially when you go for a drive the back streets.
Finding a place to camp for the night proved troublesome. The Roebuck Caravan Park at the road junction looked unexciting and a 24 hour stop along the way to Willare, off the highway, was jam-packed with Big Rigs (those millionaires who cannot afford to stay in a caravan park). Just on sunset we made it to Willare and found a place to camp on the Fitzroy River in the Willare Picnic Grounds. We were in a beautiful gum forest out of sight with only one other camper’s light to be seen a couple of hundred metres from us. The road noise was noticeable when vehicles crossed the bridge but that soon quietened down as the night wore on.
We spent a lazy day doing things around the camp and playing games with Jeddah. Judith and Jeddah went for a walk along the embankment of the Fitzroy River and saw a small Freshwater Croc. We cooked a Turkey Roast and later in the evening we cooked an Apple Crumble. Yummm!
Our journey now took us down along the Fitzroy River to the Camballin Township where once a sorghum project was the go. Now there is a feedlot for fattening cattle. Not much was happening at Camballin and even the public toilets were locked. After making some enquiries we drove further east along an ever deteriorating track, to the Fitzroy Weir and Noonkanbah Community, before turning north again and coming back on to the Great Northern Highway around 90km from Fitzroy Crossing.
The focus was now to drive home over the next week to be there a month earlier than expected as we had some urgent business to attend to. Fitzroy Crossing itself has improved immensely since we were there last in 1984. We stayed at the old caravan park, the same as it was back then, but much tidier.
Halls Creek was busy. We had to queue for diesel. And Judith bought the last pies at the servo. It seemed to be an uphill run all the way from Fitzroy Crossing. The road was very busy with tourists. We had a look at Old Halls Creek and caught up with and friend from a long time ago, who lives there and then we made our way south along the Tanami Road and camped at Sturt Creek on the banks of a billabong.
The Tanami Road was busy and we saw more than 50 vehicles that day. Saw a dingo close-up and a Jet plane on a runway close to the road. Had smoko and refuelled at the NT Border and then had lunch at Rabbit Flat. It too was very busy with tourists, travelling to and from the west. We camped on Chilla Well airstrip for the night, which I had found via my digital mapping. We had peaceful camp at last with no traffic noise or rowdy campers close by.
It seemed to be a long night with the time difference. In bed by 8.30 but woke up several times in the night and the sun just wouldn’t come up. Got going late after 8 and hit the road. Passed a road train on the left hand side of the road after communicating via radio with the driver. Road was good and bad…mainly bad. Drove through an Alcohol Prescribed Area (now defunct)and worried about Wot-if. Eventually we got to Tilmouth Well and put some fuel in and pumped up the tyres back to 40psi. From there it was a two-lane bitumen road to the Papunya turn-off and then strip bitumen to the Stuart Hwy. We saw some Wedge Tail Eagles along the way. Got into Alice around 2.30pm and did a few jobs before cleaning up and relaxing.
We made for home via the Stuart Highway on the Sunday morning arriving just after lunch on Monday after some shopping in Port Augusta. Had a tailwind all the way and got very good fuel consumption out of the old truck.
We drove 11,000km in 54 days. We bush-camped for 36 nights, stayed in caravan parks for 13 nights and stayed with friends for 5 nights. The overall cost for us was 40cents per kilometer.
The old Nissan ran exceptionally well sustaining only a loose exhaust bracket, which was easily repaired. The trailer has a sagged spring but made it home without any problems apart from a lost axle-end dust cap. I had a replacement in the spare-parts compartment. The main highways were clogged with travellers and so were all the popular coastal camping places. Inland it was quieter and in remote country the travellers were few and far between. We always enjoy our treks through the wilds of Western Australia, marvelling at the contrasting geology and the diverse flora and fauna. This year we have driven more new tracks and have explored new areas.