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 The GRAYnomad Chronicles :: #041

Editorial

For some time now I've been alluding to a "big trip" to the Kimberley, probably Australia's most sort-after destination for those who want to get away from it all.

But where exactly are we going?

Well not even we know exactly, but we do have a bit of a plan, whether we follow it or not remains to be seen, but the following map should give you an idea.

Now that's a lot of miles, and in just three months, it usually takes us that long to pack up. But this is not our usual journey.

On this trip we're going with companions, namely our Canadian friend Kevin, and Bradley, another friend from Rockhampton. The reason for this is twofold; firstly, it was their idea, and secondly, you don't go to many of these places with a single vehicle, it's too remote not to have a backup.

The other reason this trip is different is that Wothahellizat won't be joining us, we'll be travelling with just the Landcruiser. Many of the places we intend to visit are not suitable for a large truck, so we'll use this trip as a recce, a quick look-see to find the places we want to spend some serious time in. Then, over the next few years, we'll return to those places we identify as being suitable for a long stay with the truck.

So that's the plan, let's see how it turns out.

 

Wed 3 May 2006

We're orff! We planned to leave at around lunch time, but, after saying goodbye to the neighbours, cleaning up, and covering the truck with tarpaulins, we don't leave until four.


The truck sporting a couple of tarpaulins just before we leave.

As we pass the truck and head down the driveway we both look back. "I'm missing it already" I say. Chris agrees.

Then we're on the main road, Chris says "We're back on the road again". I agree somewhat half-heartedly, it feels like just another trip into town so far.

Also, we're really just driving up to Rockhampton to have more work done on the car, there's no fun in that. When we leave Rocky and head west, THEN we'll be on the road.

We drive for about four hours and pull into our usual spot about 10 kilometres south of Rockhamptom.

Wow it's freezing. The other day Chris asked me if we should have the cold-weather clothes handy, or pack them away until we reach the desert.

I said I thought we will need them before long, but I wasn't thinking the first day.

The temperature is 11 degrees, and we are wearing ALL of our cold-weather gear. It gets cold inside Wothahellizat of course, but at least we have a heater in the truck. The difference now is that we're living outside, with all the radiant heat loss that entails.

Thu 4 May

It's up early and over to the spring people, We plan to spend the day in town killing time and expect to walk the several kilometres. Luckily they give us a lift into the shopping centre.

With nothing to do we decide to eat and select a reasonable-looking cafe. $21 for breakfast! Ouch.

We then walk over to the shopping mall, hang around for a while, and have a small snack for lunch, $18. Ouch again.

By early afternoon we've blown half our weekly food budget on snacks.

The car is supposed to be ready by 2, so we ring at about half past. They're having problems, now that sounds familiar.

We're really getting bored now so decide to walk back to the spring place. After a few bouts of geographical embarrassment (aka. almost lost) we arrive back at Dobinsons well after the time the car should be ready.

"Forty minutes to go" he says, "would you like to sit in our customer lounge?".

Two hours later we're still sitting in the customer lounge.

Finally everything is done and we return to our campsite just out of town.

Fri 5 May

We leave Rocky and drive to Dauringa. We'll spend a couple of days here doing some jobs, such as rotating the tyres.

Sun 7 May

For years now we've been driving past Blackdown National Park, so today we thought we would turn off and check it out.


A friendly kookaburra, looking for a feed I suspect.


Likewise with this Currawong. We didn't feed either of them which probably explains the evil look in the last photo.

It's quite nice here, we'll come back one day.

Mon 8 May

We arrive in Emerald at around lunch time, do some shopping, then drive around to our usual spot near the Botanical Gardens, intending to camp there for the night.

After a couple of hours though we decide that camping in the middle of town with the Cruiser is not the same as with the truck. We don't feel comfortable, and so we move on. We know we can camp in the showgrounds at Alpha, so we'll drive into the night to reach there.

Wrong, you used to be able to camp in the showgrounds at Alpha, now there's a no camping sign. Tough, it's late and we're in no mood to continue, so we pull in anyway.

Tue 9 May

We're really just killing time now, waiting for Kevin & Bradley to catch up, so we amble through Barcaldine, Ilfracombe etc until we get to Longreach.


Railway line and signal next to the main street of Ilfracombe.

Last time we were in Longreach you could camp all along the river, however most of it has been closed off now and it's only legal to camp in the main dust bowl near the old bridge.

We set up camp and wait.

Long after dark Kevin & Bradley arrive, they've driven non-stop from Rocky. It's good to see Kevin again, and we sit around for some time catching up.

Wed 10 May

The lads want to go and do the tourist thing in town, specifically the QANTAS museum and the Stockman's Hall of Fame. We're happy to sit around and vege out for the day.

I do wander around the scrub though, camera in hand.


On the ground I find a nice wildflower and a weevil.


While in the trees are plenty of birds.

Thu 11 May

We drive to Winton where we plan to fill up with Autogas, however the pump isn't working, so that's the end of that idea.

After collecting some brochures at the information centre we leave town, heading to Lark Quarry.


On the road from Winton to Lark Quarry (Photo by Kevin Keldson).

Lark Quarry is world-renowned for it's collection of dinosaur footprints. They apparently depict a predator chasing several hundred herbivores some tens of millions of years ago. Well before my time.

Frankly I don't find the display all that interesting, but the building is quite unique.


The information centre covers the fossils and protects them from the elements.

We continue to Old Cork station, the same one mentioned in John Williamson's "Diamantina Drover" song, now a ruin on the banks of the Diamantina River.

On the way there we pass the current Cork station. To the casual observer the new homestead is in a much less interesting place with no water, but maybe the old building got flooded too often and they moved away from the river.


The old windmill at night.


There's a lot of bird life here.

Fri 12 May

It's quite nice here at the Old Cork ruins, and I would like to stay a while, but that's not what this trip is about I'm afraid, we have to keep moving.

I'm up before dawn to at least try to get a few photos before we leave.


At the rear of the homestead are two sheds, one was obviously an ablution block, the other seems to be a meat-preparing area.


The front of the homestead, look at the workmanship in the brickwork.


I climb the windmill to get a close up of the fan in motion.

So move we do, into the Diamantina National Park.

This is a very barren place, and the flies are unbelievable, prompting me to christen the area "Flymantina".


This area is known as the "channel country", and this is one of the Diamantina River's "channels".


No petrol stations out here, we siphon (or "jiggle") fuel from one of our eight jerry cans.


Here we see the old drink cellar, because there was no refrigeration the booze was kept underground in an attempt to keep it cool.


There's not much left of the old pub now, what a desolate place.

We don't stay, preferring to head on towards the town of Boulia so we can hit the Plenty Highway tomorrow.

Sat 13 May


The moon sets just as I get out of bed.

The Plenty Highway is a no-go for a few days, it seems that the Georgina River is flooded and there's no way across.

This is a real bummer as we specifically wanted to see what this road was like.

NOTE: For those who haven't driven in Australia, the fact that a road is called a highway means nothing. Out here a "highway" can be anything from six-lane billiard-table smooth tarmac, to a washed-out goat track.

The Plenty is a gravel road and a pretty good one I believe, we just wanted to see for ourselves.

This throws a spanner in the works, we can either drive to the river and camp on the banks for 4-5 days waiting for it to drop, or go around through Mt Isa and Camooweal.

We decide to go around, and so drive towards Mt Isa.

The lads go ahead as Bradley's new Landcruiser can travel much faster than our 1983 model.

We haven't siphoned any petrol from our jerry cans because we figured we would just make it to Mt Isa on the fuel in the tank.

As we enter the outskirts of Mt Isa the petrol gauge has been on empty for some time. We only have a couple of kilometres to go now, it should be right. Fortunately we know the town and the location of the nearest service station, so there's no wasting time searching.

We cross the old bridge and turn left, so far so good, only about one kay to go. As we reach the last intersection the motor falters a little, we should still make it I reckon, just through these lights and into the service station forecourt.

As we cross the intersection the motor dies, still I have a lot of momentum up, I can probably coast the remaining few yards.

Oh no! there's someone coming out and they've blocked the entrance. We come to a grinding halt about 20 yards from the pump. 20, 200, 2000, it's all the same, we still have to siphon petrol, only now we have to do it in the middle of the main street.

We rearrange all our belongings in the back of the cruiser, jiggle (siphon using a jiggler, no-one actually sucks on a hose full of petrol any more) a few litres, then drive onto the forecourt to fill up.

So technically we did make it to Mt Isa, just not into a service station that's all.

On previous visits to Mt Isa we've camped outside the show grounds, it's right on the road though which is OK with the truck, but not so great when you're living outside, so we decide to head out of town and look for a campsite.

We don't have too go far though, when crossing Spring Creek, just out of town, we look to the left and see that there appears to be a good spot along the creek.

We pull in, drive a few hundred yards along a track, and find a fantastic campsite on the river pebbles right near the water.

As I drive up a small sand bank to get the car level we notice petrol spewing from the back of the car. Not good. It seems that I forgot to close the jerry can when I siphoned earlier.

We have petrol all over the mattresses, fortunately they are water proof, so the petrol hasn't got into the foam, but it still takes some time to clean up the mess.

Yesterday we found that our main water tank was leaking and it turned out that there are two plastic bungs in the top that are not sealed. I guess we didn't notice before because we never traveled for so long with a full tank.

To fix the leaks I have to remove the tank and fill the bung holes with Sikaflex. I have to drain the tank, but we'll be in Camooweal tomorrow and I know we can fill up there.

All-in-all it's been a very stressful day.

Sun 14 May

After filling both water and petrol at Camooweal we have lunch on the banks of the Georgina River, the same river that has caused us to make this detour.

It certainly is much higher than we've seen before, but crossable here because of the high-level bridge.

We continue to Barkly Roadhouse to fill up again, then backup about 10k to an unsigned dirt track heading south. This should take us down to the Sandover Highway and from there onto the Plenty where we can continue on our planned route.

The track is very narrow and winding, but in good condition and the driving is way more interesting than on the bitumen.

We camp in the scrub.


Here's our camp in the scrub near Austral Downs station.


Detail of the Cruiser.

Mon 15 May

Since we're on this detour it makes sense to check out some of the features, and one such feature is the proposed Davenport Ranges National Park.

At around midday we reach the Old Police Station Waterhole in the national park, a great spot with campsites all along the banks of the river.


Kevin's tent on the banks of the waterhole.


And the Cruiser, parked as close as we could get to the water (no crocks here).


A frilled-necked lizard. Before you read on, look at the photo and see if anything's a bit sus.

"Quick, quick, there's a big lizard" Chris yells.

I run back to the camp and look in the direction she's pointing. Sure enough there is a large frill-necked lizard on the ground, and it's got it's frill extended. What a great shot.

I grab my camera and crawl towards the reptile.

As per the nature photographer's handbook (the one I haven't written yet) I take "insurance" photos as I get closer. I do this because, at some point the animal will probably flee, so it's important to at least have something in the bag.

As I get closer things don't seem right, the eyes are lifeless, the mouth seems strange, and the texture of the frills is weird.

I get closer and closer, until I can't believe I'm this close. Then I twig.

I reach over and pick up the lizard by the tail, it doesn't move at all, mostly because it's made of plastic.


Some more local wildlife, this time a flock of Corellas, and they are real, not plastic

Tue 16 May

Some time in the early afternoon a 4x4 drives past and drops a huge trailer load of fire wood just a few metres from our camp. Not a good sign, especially as it was obvious they would have preferred to have dropped it right where we are camping.

Some time later there's more activity including more fire wood, this time a truck load.

There's obviously a big event planned, and we seem to be in the middle of it.

When the portable freezer rooms and generators arrive we investigate, and find that the area has been roped off and a sign erected. The sign reads "SBAC meeting", I have no idea what SBAC stands for, but given that all the new arrivals are of an indigenous persuasion I figure the A stands for "aboriginal".

We ask, and sure enough there's an annual aboriginal communities meeting here over the next couple of days, and the generators will be running all night.

Bloody typical, just when we thought we'd found a lovely quiet spot.

Fortunately it's a very long campground, so we pack up and move to the other end.

Wed 17 May

After a good night's sleep (the neighbours weren't as noisy as we thought they would be) and some early-morning photography we set off.


Some early-morning views over the waterhole.


Somewhere on the track (Photo by Kevin Keldson).

Before long we encounter the abandoned Hatches Creek wolfram mine. We nearly drive past as it's a short distance off the track, but change our minds and turn in.


The mine poppet head.


Winding gear and the poppet head.

It's a fascinating ruin to explore, and not that long abandoned going by the relative moderninity (is that a word?) of the equipment.

After leaving the mine the road gets very rough, and Bradley has the first flat tyre of the trip.

The lads fix it and we continue, driving west for a short distance on the Sandover Highway before turning south again onto another track.

Somehow we miss a turnoff and find ourselves in an aboriginal community.

What an eye-opener, it's a scene right out of a documentary about a poverty-stricken third-world country. And it's right here in Australia. Nobody seems to speak English, so we continue on a likely-looking track.

After a few minutes one of the locals catches up in a battered Landcruiser, with sign language he makes it clear that we are going the wrong way, and that he will lead us out to the main track.

Eventually we reach a spot where he decides that even stupid white fellas can't go wrong, he draws a mud map (not that there's any mud around here, "dust map" may be a more appropriate term) of the next few kilometres, then waves us goodbye. Nice old fellow.

Just before sunset we encounter the Bundey River, no water of course, but a long stretch of soft sand. Bradley and Kevin are way ahead and have already crossed when we get to the river bank.

I have yet to engage four-wheel-drive, mostly because I'm too lazy to get out and lock the hubs, so I drive onto the river bed with just two powered wheels. And I nearly make it too.

Nearly, but not quite.

I radio the lads and inform them that we're stuck, get out and lock the hubs, back up a few feet, and drive straight out.

As we climb the far bank we encounter them running back with their cameras, hoping to get a shot of us bogged. Sorry guys.

We camp a short distance from the river.

Thu 18 May

After an hour or so driving we reach the Plenty River, presumably named after the quantity of sand, not water.


In the middle of the Plenty River, well there is plenty of sand.


The Cruiser emerges from the Plenty River (Photo by Kevin Keldson).

The road continues and before long we reach the Plenty Highway, the road we would have been on in the first place if it hadn't been for the swollen Georgina River.

Once again we drive west for a short distance, then turn south, this time onto the Cattle Water pass track.

From here it's only about 70k to Arltunga in the East MacDonnell ranges. The scenery is really nice but the track quite rough with deep wash aways. It takes us about six hours to do the 70k.


Lunch break on the Cattle Water pass track.

We get to Arltunga but don't hang around as we want to camp in Ruby Gap tonight, and it's still about 40k away.


On the track into Ruby Gap.

To get into the gap you must drive along the bed of the Hale River. This is pretty easy because a lot of people come here, so if you stay in the existing wheel tracks there's no problems.


Much of the drive into the Ruby Gap campgrounds is firm river sand, just stay on the existing tyre tracks.

It does get harder the further up the river you go though, and at various points we see people camping who had obviously reached their personal "this is too bloody hard" threshold.

We continue and eventually get to the end, or at least the sign that reads "Vehicles not recommended past this point".

Well is does say "not recommended", not "not allowed". We drive pass the sign and onto the rocks.

It's only another two or three kilometres to the real "end", but it takes nearly an hour to get there.


(Photo by Kevin Keldson)


Things do get a little rougher if you want to get right up into the gorge (photos by Chris).

I bend a couple of U-bolts on the rocks, and Bradley breaks the handbrake handle on his trailer.

But we do get the best seat in the house, and have it all to ourselves. Our campsite is just a hundred yards or so from the gorge entrance, overlooking the river bed, with views of the surrounding cliffs.


Chris relaxes with a book and a cask of port. Note the fly screen (or cone of silence as I call it).

We'll stay a couple of days.

Fri 19 May


Interesting cloud formation greets me first thing in the morning.

This morning we explore Ruby Gap, there's a few small pools, but it's easy to walk right through the gorge.


Some scenes from within the gorge.

At around three I decide to explore the cliffs, I climb to top of the gorge wall, walk along for a while, then head down through a gully.


This is the gully I followed to get back to the river bed


Some scenes inside the gully


Finally I catch a glimpse of the gorge bottom (extreme right of this pic). The black hole in the centre is a pool that is obviously used by the local rock wallabies who appear to live in a cave at the rear of the pool.

On several occasions I encounter dry waterfalls and it gets a bit difficult to progress. I manage to climb and jump down the obstacles however, but as I near the bottom it looks as though I have finally met my match.


About 30 metres to go now, but no obvious way down.

Standing on a ledge it looks as though there's no way to continue, I'm only about 30 metres from the river bed, 30 metres straight down that is. That's a long way for a non-climber with no ropes.

I can't see over to the left though, maybe if I climb down there a bit I can find an easier route. If it doesn't work out I have even further to climb back up.

Because I never go down an obstacle unless I'm 90% sure I can get back up, I'm certain I can return the way I came, but that will take forever, and I'm nearly home.

I clamber down another 10 metres and find that, what looked like a large drop, is actually a series of smaller drops, each only 3 metres or so in height.

A few seconds later I'm down and powering along the river bed. That was close, it's 5 o'clock and time for a beer.

Later we hear dingoes howling in the night, it's a very primeval sound, and quite special when camped in a place like this.

Kevin heads off into the gorge with a torch, hoping to spot the animals. I follow shortly after, but we see nothing.

Sat 20 May

We have many dingo tracks around our camp this morning. Obviously they waited for us to go to bed before approaching.

Yesterday I found a cave while climbing down the cliffs, I also spotted what I thought would be a good vantage point for a photo or two. So this morning I want to return and take some photos.

I return to the bottom of the cliff, on the way I notice our tracks from last night, and, in exactly the same line are dingo tracks. They obviously followed us.

I reach the bottom of the cliff and start climbing. I can quite easily climb this kind of cliff, but not with a 15-kilogram backpack full of camera equipment. So I've brought some rope. On the way up I attach one end to the pack and the other to my waste, I climb up, then haul the pack after me. When descending I lower the pack first, then climb down after it.

Chris comes with me and surprises me in being able to make it (with a little help).

I take a photo from the ledge...


Looking down into the gorge.

Then climb back up to the wallaby pool.


Several angles of the pool.

Having got some shots I decide to explore the cave. I crawl in for a few metres, but it's only a couple of feet high and I don't like the idea of meeting a startled wallaby in the dark.

They're here though, I can smell them and see the droppings and rub marks on the rocks.

Later, in the evening, we hear the dingoes howling again, this time Kevin answers quite realistically and they seem to have a conversation for a while.

Sun 21 May

We leave ruby gap this morning.


I stop for a photo op (Photo by Chris).


The locals come out to see us off.

We return to Arltunga, this time visiting the ruins and climbing down into one of the old mines. Then it's off to Ndala gorge.


Rock outcrop on the Ndala gorge road.

We don't go into the gorge, but I will next time. It's getting late so we drive to Trephina gorge. There's two campgrounds here, a FWD-only camp, and the main one. Bradley and Kevin head into the FWD one and we check out the main camp. It looks OK, but is very crowded so we radio the lads and tell them we'll come over to the FWD area.

This is much better, there's nobody here.

Tomorrow we drive into Alice Springs.


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