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 The GRAYnomad Chronicles :: #046

Editorial

For the last couple of months we've been living in the Landcruiser and it has been great. While not exactly hot, the weather has been quite nice, and we've been so comfortable that we've started to wonder why we need a motorhome at all.

That was until we got into central Western Australia and encountered freezing temperatures and howling winds. All of a sudden the Cruiser isn't so comfortable, and we pine for Wothahellizat with its lounge chairs, its indoor facilities, its deck that allows us to sit above the mud, and most of all, its heater.

 

Tue 11 Jul 2006

Shortly after leaving Rocky Pool on the Carnarvon-Mullewa road we encounter a Boot tree, we've seen plenty of Bottle trees and Can trees over the years, but never a tree adorned with footwear.


The "Boot Tree", some of the boots are actually in pretty good condition.

Just a couple of hundred yards down the road we find another footwear tree, this one is decorated with thongs (flip flops) and sandals.

We drive all day to get to Meekathara, getting slightly lost again because of a combination of incorrect maps and lack of attention. The trouble is that the turn off to the Meekathara-Mt Clere road is shown as a road entering from the left, however in reality it's more like a T intersection and we cruise right passed the turn off.

After some time I get worried that we're on the wrong road as we are heading south and we should be going more to the east. But the infrequent signs say that "M" is the next town, that's Meekathara right?

At some point I finally twig, it's actually Mullewa. So now what to do?

We consult the map and it seems that if we cut through Wooleen station we can get back on track and it will only cost us about 50 kilometers, and we get to see a different part of the country.


At first I thought I'd seen a solar powered fridge in the middle of nowhere. It turns out to be just a convenient housing for the controller and battery of the nearby electric fence.

While still about 200k from Meekathara the rain returns, at about the same time the well-graded road degrades into a goat track, and we are well relieved to hit the main track after about 30k.

It's still raining though, and the track gets wetter and more slippery by the minute.

We're also running out of fuel and have to siphon from the jerry cans in the rain. I put enough in to get us the remaining distance to Meekathara, but don't allow for the extra needed because of the difficult driving conditions.

At about the 30k mark we run out of fuel again, it's still raining and a real pain to access the large jerry cans, so I just siphon from the 10-litre can as it's much easier to get to. Ten litres should get get us to town.

Wrong, with the lights of Meekathara clearly visible just a tantalising two or three kilometres away the engine splutters and we have to siphon again, a process that requires us to half unpack the back of the car in the pouring rain to access the inner jerry cans.

Eventually we arrive in town, it's still raining and there's a freezing wind, we haven't got the energy to camp, and so drop into the pub for a meal and a bed.

The meal is great, a little expensive for our taste, but then what isn't?, we are card-carrying tight arses after all.

The room is expensive as well, $95 for a double, and it somehow seems even more expensive when we see it.

In Meekathara $95 gets you a cold fibro room with lino floors and a heater the size of a hair drier. Needless to say we immediately plug the heater in, but it has little effect. At least the showers are hot, and after a very long dowsing in steaming water we finally thaw out and feel warm.

Wed 12 Jul

While standing around the Hotel car park, freezing our bums off, I ask a local if it's always like this, "No" he replies, "just for the last couple of days".

We head off on the Goldfields highway to Wiluna. There's nothing much in Wiluna, some vandalised public dunnies and at Atco hut that seems to be the only place to buy a feed of pretty bad chips.

We don't hang around for long, heading out on the Wongawol road and at about five we pull into a mustering area 67k out of Carnegie Station. The shelter is already occupied, so we find a partly-sheltered spot in the lee of a large pile of dirt.

As we pull up one of the other campers walks over. Apparently the road to Carnegie is too difficult, three people tried today and turned back. Maybe we need to look at another route.

After a quick meal we hit the sack, it's way too cold to sit around.

For the first time in ten weeks or so we miss the motorhome, we could be sitting inside with the heater on.

We later learn that today was the coldest on record, and they've been recording the temperature around here for 48 years. Somehow I'm not surprised, the summer we spent in Tasmania was the coldest for 20 years. There must be somewhere in this country that's warm, or at least not freezing.

Thu 13 Jul

It rained a little bit last night, but we hope not enough to make the road condition worse, so we on the Wongawol road (that at some point becomes Carnegie road and then the Gunbarrel highway) towards Carnegie station.

For some time now there's been an infrequent squeaking somewhere under the car, it sounds suspiciously like a universal joint. Several days ago I had a quick look, but things seemed OK, so I didn't do anything about it.

Today though it's getting worse, so I elect to drive in 2WD. That stops the squeak, so it's almost certainly a uni joint on the front tail shaft.

For the first 40-odd kilometres the road is just fine, but then it does get a bit slippery, with long sections under water.

We're running in 2WD for the most part as I'm trying to lighten the load on the bad uni joint, however on about five occasions we encounter long muddy under-water sections, and I engage the front axle just to be on the safe side.

It takes us a couple of hours to reach Carnegie Station, but eventually we pull up to the homestead.

Faye, the owner, comes out, "Where did you come from?" she asks, "the road's been closed". We look around to see dozens of people camped, they're waiting for the road conditions to improve.

We tell her that we've just come from Wiluna and that it was no big deal. "You'd better come in and tell this lot" she says, they've been waiting for days.

We set up camp, and, having decided that the uni joint should be fixed before we go any further, I phone several suppliers for the parts we need. After some confusion about whether a tail shaft was the same as a propeller shaft (I didn't buy from that supplier) I finally source the parts. They will be sent overnight to the grocery shop in Wiluna where Ian, the owner of Carnegie, will pick them up when he's in town on the weekend.

An hour later I ring again to ensure that the order has been processed, "Oh I haven't got onto it yet, we've been snowed under". He puts the order through while I'm on the phone.

Two hours later I ring to ensure that the parts are packaged and ready for the courier, they are.

We spend the evening talking to our fellow campers in the somewhat rowdy common room. At least with this many people it's warm in here.

We get on particularly well with Peter and Paul, two brothers from Sydney. Peter owns quite a lot of real estate in Sydney and I try to talk him into hitting the road, it seems that he could easily afford to.

I don't think he's convinced.

Sun 16 Jul

Still no uni joints, so we sit around the common room drinking coffee in a vain attempt to get warm. It's not really the coffee that we desire, it's the excuse to fire up the gas cooker and stand around the rapidly warming kettle.

Faye informs us that Ian is on his way back from Wiluna, and that there was a parcel for us. So far so good, here's hoping that the parcel contains the correct parts.

Later...the uni joints have arrived and they're actually the right ones. Bradley and I fit the new joint with the help of the station's enormous vice, then I crawl under the car and refit the tail shaft

We're back in business.

Overall a one-hour job took several days because we didn't have the spare part, that's why I purchased two joints when we only needed one, the other goes in the parts bin.

I insist in doing the job without using any borrowed tools because I need to know if indeed I have all the right gear, for this particular job at least. I almost do, I carry a vice and it was invaluable in removing the broken joint, but it wasn't large enough to press the new caps in. I will have to look into buying a larger vice, trouble is the current one fits perfectly inside the bull bar, a larger one may not fit.

It's too late to hit the road now so we'll spend another night at Carnegie.

Mon 17 Jul

Finally we're on the Gunbarrel Highway, and what a piece of work it is to. This section is about 300k long and features some of the worst corrugations I have ever encountered.

The road is strewn with broken trailers, and every one is a standard suburban type, presumably used to take rubbish to the tip on the weekends and pressed into service for the big outback trip.

This is never a good idea, most trailers are not up to the hammer they get on these roads.


One of dozens of trailers we see along the road, all destroyed by the Gunbarrel Highway.

It's the same with cars really. Technically you don't need a FWD for most of the roads and tracks in the outback, but a FWD (a real one that is, not an AWD shopping cart) is built a lot stronger and can, in general, take the abuse. Things still break, but at least a proper FWD will not self destruct.

This road, and most of the others out here, were surveyed by Len Beadell in the 50s, mostly to give access to the area so the powers that be could recover missiles being tested at the Womera rocket range.

Len Beadell is a legend in the Australian outback and holds a special place in Australian history.


The Len Beadell memorial on the Gunbarrel Highway.


Here we see a party of new FWDs at the base of Mt Beadell, one of them has broken down and they are effecting repairs. That's the "highway" running into the distance.

We stop briefly at the Len Beadell memorial, then continue along the track. After several hours of this I only have one request.

PLEASE GOD MAKE IT STOP.

At around 4PM we reach the Heather Highway turnoff, find a clear spot, and set up camp with an audience of camels.


Some camels watch us with almost total disinterest.

Tue 18 Jul

After 36 kilometres on the Heather Hwy which, if anything, is worse than the Gunbarrel, it's a relief to reach the access road to the Tjirrkarli community. This track is like a billiard table, and we make good time until reaching the Great Central Road and turning left towards Warburton, at which time the corrugations return.

We fuel up in Warburton and get out of town, what a dump.

After a couple of hours driving we reach the settlement of Warakurna, at the base of the Rawlinson Ranges. We don't stay, just refuel and head off, we plan to camp at Docker River and it's not far now.


A sign that we are in the outback.


Camels just outside Warakurna.


Despite the sign on the bumper this is only a semi trailer and not a road train, but check out the dust, you have to be very careful passing these trucks, you never know what's in the dust, a car, another truck, or even...


...a camel.

As we near Docker River we drive along the Petermann Ranges, the scenery is quite spectacular. Just after crossing the border into Northern Territory we reach the campground, a kilometre or so outside the Docker River community.

The camp is very pleasant, with dunnies, shade, and great views of the ranges. What a contrast to the nearby community which is the usual rubbish tip punctuated by derelict houses and a boarded-up shop. It's such a shame, as you couldn't ask for a better backdrop for a town.

The camp is very clean though, and we will certainly return, I could spend days exploring these mountains.

We won't be staying long this time though, my M&M supplies are getting seriously low, and besides, Bradley really must get a new U-bolt. He couldn't source one in Carnarvon and it's looking bad now with the spring pack tilting quite alarmingly because it's only clamped on one side.

Tomorrow he'll limp into Yulara and hope to get a replacement there. He has also broken a gas strut on the trailer. The strut was one that took the majority of the weight of the boat, so it's now a two-man job to flip the boat over so he can erect the tent.

Wed 19 Jul

Bradley heads off, his "limping" is faster than our "bolting", so we let him get ahead while we check out Lasseter's cave.

Lasseter became famous in the 30s for dying while in search of the now fabled "Lasseter's Reef", a reef of gold that he never found. You can now visit the cave in which he spent his last weeks. It's a very pleasant spot actually, and it's hard to imagine what it would have been like stranded here 70 years ago. In those days you may as well have been marooned on Jupiter.

We continue, and after some time catch a glimpse of Kata Tjuta (aka The Olgas), this is a very welcome sight, mostly because it heralds the start of bitumen roads. We've still got a lot of rough stuff to go before this trip is ended, but some nice smooth bitumen would be great, even if just for a while.


Our first view of the Olgas, we're close to bitumen roads now.

We meet up with Bradley in the Kata Tjuta car park, the broken U-bolt is useless by now, and his springs are looking pretty sad. It's still about 70k to Yulara, but the road is good so it should be OK.

On reaching Yulara we do some shopping (no M&Ms, can you believe it?) then direct Bradley to the industrial area where we hope he can get a new U-bolt.

He does find a bolt, it's not the right one but it will do, however there's no way the local mechanic can fit it this side of next week. Looking around at the broken cars and forlorn tourists we understand why. Fortunately replacing a U-bolt is a no-brainer, so we pull the cars over to the side of the road and within ten minutes Bradley's Cruiser is as good as new.

So why didn't he have a spare? Well who would have though it would be necessary with a one-year-old, $55,000 Landcruiser? It just goes to show that these roads and tracks will break just about anything given a chance.

We leave Yulara and drive to the Erldunda roadhouse on the Stuart Highway, where we camp in the caravan park. I hope this staying in caravan parks is not going to become a habit.

Thu 20 Jul

Our original plan was to drive south from Erldunda and head across to Finke from Kulgera, however none of us have seen Rainbow Valley or Chambers Pillar, so we decide to head north instead.

It's only about 120k to the Rainbow Valley turnoff, an hour and a half in our car, and about 20 minutes for Bradley. We get there first however as Bradley has decided to drive up to the the Alice to buy the correct U-bolts, and then return the 70k to Rainbow Valley.


Firewood collecting on the track into Rainbow Valley.


The weather is not kind to me I'm afraid, at sunset these cliffs are usually brilliant orange and red.


Ants may be small, but they're pretty strong.

We don't plan to return to the Alice because we can take a shortcut to the Finke community via the Hugh River Stock Route near Stuart's Well. However the FWD gods have different ideas.

We set up camp, and sit down to relax. Then we notice our rear shackle bushes. They are totally buggered, and the springs are riding directly on the shackle pins. Given that we have 1000 kilometres of dirt and desert tracks yet to go, this really has to be fixed.

Bradley arrives from Alice Springs and we tell him of the problem. We unhook his trailer, I hop in the car, and we drive back to the Alice.

For reasons that I'm still unsure of we drive right past the Toyota dealer on reaching town and proceed to a FWD shop. I think we decided that Toyota would not have the parts because our vehicle is too old, and in fact this is usually the case.

Anyway, we buy the bushes (and some M&Ms, thank the Gods), and drive all the way back to Rainbow Valley, getting there fairly late, and deciding to do the repairs tomorrow.

Fri 21 Jul

It only takes a few seconds to realise that the bushes are the wrong size. It looks like we're driving back into the Alice.

This time we take both vehicles and go to the Toyota dealer, and guess what, they have the correct parts. They're not original Toyota, as I thought they no longer make parts for the old Cruisers, but there are so many of them still around that there's plenty of third-party manufacturers willing to make equivalents.

I don't care what party makes them, if they fit I'm happy.

We drive out to the car park at the old Telegraph Station, find a pile of blue metal to run wheels up onto, and change the bushes.


Bradley stands next to our Cruiser as we fit the new spring bushes.

We leave town and head south. It's 106k to the Maryvale station, then another 45 along a station track, over a very steep hill and several sand dunes, into Chambers Pillar.

We arrive just in time to catch the sunset.


Castle Rock, next to the campground.


Chambers Pillar, used as a navigation aid by early explorers.

Sat 22 Jul

Another great spot, and yet again we have to leave. Bradley has to be back at work at the end of the month, and, at least until Birdsville, we want to travel with two vehicles in case of breakdown, especially when we cross the Simpson Desert.

Still, what could possibly break?

We stop into the Maryvale station again to fuel up. While checking the vehicle I notice that the front right hand shock absorber mount has snapped clean off.

Time to pull out the 24v MIG welder again.


Fixing the broken shockie mount.

The bottom shockie rubber has had it, and in fact that's probably what caused the mount to break, with a knackered rubber bush we've had metal on metal, and the resultant bashing has snapped the mount.

I always carry a square of insertion rubber for use in such circumstances, so after welding the mount I bodge up a bush with some of that, and while on a roll I check the other side. It's also worn out, so I make another temporary bush.

Having fixed everything we continue down the Old Ghan line. The Old Ghan was a train that ran to the Alice who knows how many years ago. It's long gone now, the tracks and sleepers have all been removed, but you can still drive along where they used to be. The only thing to watch out for are the millions of steel spikes that litter the track.

Running next to the old line is the track used for the Finke race, a Dakar-style rally held between Alice Springs and the community of Finke. For the most part the two tracks run within metres of each other, and initially we chop and change between them, looking for the easiest path.

Eventually though we just stay on the railway line, mostly because the race track is very undulating and Bradley's trailer hitch keeps bottoming out.


An old water tank on the Ghan line.

We reach the community of Finke which is surprisingly clean, then motor on.

As we cross the border into South Australia we see a sign stating that collection of firewood is not allowed. There's hardly a blade of grass or a tree in sight, so I'm not sure why the sign is required.


Crossing the border into South Australia.

Just on sunset we pull into the Mt Dare station. While still a working station, Mt Dare's income is mostly derived from tourism these days, and I suspect most of that tourism is people like us going to or from the Simpson Desert, as the station is the last opportunity to get fuel.

We'll spend the night at Mt Dare. Tomorrow we finally reach the Simpson Desert.

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