West, Centre & Flinders – Days 54 to 55 – Flinders Ranges and Rain Part 1

The Iron Knob mine, viewed from the Iron Knob Kingoonya Road

The Iron Knob mine, viewed from the Iron Knob Kingoonya Road

The water in the showers was little more than warm on our first morning at Mt Ive Station. On the second morning it was hard to tell the hot tap from the cold tap if judged by the water temperature. A check at the hot water donkey revealed an extinct fire and not much ash. The stoker had obviously fallen down on the job. Ruth and I made the best of it with a quick cold wash. When we drove out of the camping area we could see the stoker hard at work getting the fire going again. A grim faced lady in a pink dressing gown was marching up and down keeping him under close surveillance as she waited for hot water for her shower.

The Edward John Eyre commemorative plaque

The Edward John Eyre commemorative plaque

In returning to Port Augusta via Iron Knob we were retracing our steps, so did not expect to see anything new. But we were wrong. Not far into our journey we found a plaque advising that Edward John Ayer had camped for the sixth night in his exploration at a point near where the road now runs. He passed that way on 23rd September 1839. There was a picnic table nearby and a sign to advise that the table and plaque had been placed there by the Gawler Ranges Progress Association. Thank you GRPA.

The "donation" telephone box

The “donation” telephone box

About 60 kilometres further on, the homestead for Siam Station stands a few hundred metres off the road. Beside the road, within sight of the homestead, stands a telephone box, next to a small picnic shelter. The shelter has a single piece table top sawn from a large log, but no seats. The phone is still in the phone box but it is not connected. Instead the coin box has been converted into two donation boxes, one for the Gawler Ranges Progress Association and the other for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

The phone box is covered with bumper stickers from organisations with an interest in the area. There are also large stickers warning that the box is under closed circuit TV surveillance. We stopped in the parking area provided, for a coffee break, placed donations in each of the boxes and moved on. They are very practical folks in the Australian bush and passionate about the RFDS. There are no shortages of opportunities to donate.

The cliff top view of the northern extremity of Spencer Gulf and the lower Flinders Ranges

The cliff top view of the northern extremity of Spencer Gulf and the lower Flinders Ranges

Before entering Port Augusta on our return we deviated north a bit to a lookout from a cliff top by the very top of Spencer Gulf, on the shores of which the town is built. The arid lands botanical garden is in the same area but we did not have time to visit there. But the cliff top parking area suited the dual purpose of a place to stop for lunch and a different view of Port Augusta. It also provides excellent views of the lower Flinders Ranges that extend well south towards Adelaide.

Part of the main street of Port Pirie

Part of the main street of Port Pirie

When putting out our awning at Mt. Ive, a vital bit broke off one of the handles that are used to slide the extendable arms that hold it the awning in the extended position.  The result was that we could not fully extend the awning, not a good situation in wet or hot weather. To replace the handle was a bit of a priority. We were not able to source one in Port Augusta but did

A stately home in Port Pirie

A stately home in Port Pirie

locate one at Port Pirie, about 90 kilometres to the south. So instead of heading for Quorn, a small town in the Flinders Ranges just north east of Port Augusta, we continued on, picked up our handle and proceeded to a local caravan park to spend the night and make the necessary repairs.

 

Quorn’s main claim to fame is that of its connection with the Pichi Richi railway. The steam  and vintage diesel trains that comprise the railway operate on part of the old Ghan railway line, to the south of the town, to Port Augusta. It gets its name from its passage through the Pichi Richi Pass, the gap in the range by which both road and rail reaches Port Augusta. Some trips start at Port Augusta and return later in the day, having given passengers a couple of hours to look around Quorn and have lunch. Other services start from and return to Quorn. The train operates at weekends and more frequently during school holidays. If you are relatively wealthy, you can book a ticket and go for a train ride for a couple of hours, or the best part of a day, depending on the service that you choose. If very wealthy you can book a seat on the lunch train, known as The Coffee Pot.

There must be a few wealthy people around as when we tried to book into the caravan park for a Saturday night stop over we found it to be fully booked, because the train was operating that weekend. As the caravan park is the only such establishment in town we opted to drive a further 70 kilometres or so to Hawker. Hawker was our next destination after Quorn, so we were not inconvenienced. We had intended to spend one night in Hawker and then move on further into the ranges. Hawker is built on a plain within the ranges. Mountains are visible all around but the town is flat.

Canola in full bloom at the top of Port Germein Gorge

Canola in full bloom at the top of Port Germein Gorge

We made our way from Port Pirie through the Port Germein Gorge to Murray Town, then through Wilmington and Quorn to Hawker. The Port Germein Gorge is a very interesting drive. The road is narrow and winding and faithfully follows a stream that would be an interesting sight during heavy rain. Unfortunately there was nowhere to stop to take photos, so our passage through is unrecorded. But as we emerged on the eastern side of the range we were met by the yellow brilliance of flowering canola. This area is part of the Southern Flinders Ranges.

Floral decorations at our roadside lunch stop

Floral decorations at our roadside lunch stop

Rain was forecast and we found the start of it at Melrose, a small town with a pub beloved by bikers, that stands at the foot of the rather remarkable Mount Remarkable.  The rain was only showers but required application of the windscreen wipers from time to time. We reached Hawker at about the same time as the rain, although it did give us time to set up before it became heavy. But rain had been falling to the north of Hawker for much of the day, so all of the unsealed national park roads and most station tracks were closed.

The ruins of Kanyaka Homestead 25 Km south of Hawker. It was built in 1860 and abandoned in 1888

The ruins of Kanyaka Homestead 25 Km south of Hawker. It was built in 1860 and abandoned in 1888

The rain cleared as Sunday morning dawned, but with so many roads closed we decided to stay at Hawker for two more nights to give them a chance to dry out. But sunshine and a brisk wind dried out some local roads quickly, allowing us to get out and see some things after lunch. Ruth had been busy with washing during the morning, battling with a clothes dryer that was reluctant to do its job.

Stately River Red Gums in the bed of the creek at Willow Waters camping area

Stately River Red Gums in the bed of the creek at Willow Waters camping area

We drove east of the town in search of Willow Waters Gorge that appeared to be not far from town. But when we reached its apparent location we were only at the turn from the main road, with a further 14 kilometres to travel to the gorge. The road was solid with only a few puddles but we had to negotiate a number of cattle grids and a small flock of rams being herded along by a two stock men in utilities. We met them on the bay back and they hadn’t made much progress.

The road up Pugilist Hill

The road up Pugilist Hill. It is steeper than it looks.

After returning to town we drove up the road that leads to Wilpena Pound, turning just before the national park boundary into Martins Well Road, to find a lookout on the quaintly named Pugilist Hill. Martins Well Road leads 48 kilometres to a cattle station of that name but then, like so many station access roads in remote Australia, leads on to other destinations.

Part of the Chase Range from Pugilist Hill Lookout

Part of the Chase Range from Pugilist Hill Lookout

Pugilist Hill Lookout provides a vantage point for viewing the Chase Range, one of the major and most picturesque ranges in the Flinders Ranges. It is long, with many peaks, its red rock mass forming one side of a long valley.  Vegetation struggles to maintain a foothold on its precipitous slopes. The Chase Range is at its best in afternoon sunshine but there were still clouds lingering, which spoiled the effect to some extent. But it was still awesome. As was the drive to the summit of Pugilist Hill, and the subsequent decent!

Part of the view from Jarvis Hill of the area to the south of Hawker

Part of the view from Jarvis Hill of the area to the south of Hawker

As a last activity for the day we drove about 8 kilometres west of the town to Jarvis Hill Lookout, another sharp climb from the plain. Unfortunately, attaining the lookout point requires a scramble over rocks and rough ground, so I didn’t walk the whole distance. But the view was good, although I could not see Hawker, but I did find more wild flowers that we had not previously seen.

We returned to the van as the sun disappeared behind the range that we had just ascended, to crank up the heater in preparation for another cold night. The temperatures have been around 13 to 15 during the day and often down to 2 or 3 during the night. The heater is frequently on all night.

Oh, and did I mention flies? We have been coping with them in increasing numbers since Rockhampton.

West, Centre & Flinders – Days 51 to 53 – Mt Ive Station & The Gawler Ranges

Sheep grazing country in the Gawler Ranges

Sheep grazing country in the Gawler Ranges

The fine weather did eventuate and with a forecast that suggested a few days of fine weather the decision was made to visit the Gawler Ranges. So we phoned Mt Ive Station to ensure that a powered site was available. Having received a satisfactory answer, we set off into a stiff head wind that stayed with us for the entire 200 kilometre journey.

A "retired" excavator against the background of mine overburden at Iron Knob

A “retired” excavator against the background of mine overburden at Iron Knob

The turn to Mt Ive Station is at Iron Knob, a distance of a little over 70 kilometres. We last visited Iron Knob over 50 years ago. At that time it was a thriving mining town. Now it is little more than a ghost town. The mine still appears to be in operation so it must have changed to a fly in fly out basis of staffing. A pity, but that’s progress, I suppose. We stopped for morning coffee and to air down the tyres in preparation for 125 kilometres of dirt and gravel.

We passed several flocks of sheep

We passed several flocks of sheep. Stations in the Gawler Ranges area are mostly involved in wool production.

The road was in quite good condition. Much of it has been recently graded and a grader was working on a section of road as we came through.  Although we were entering a range of mountains the road was mostly without hills, just a series of low ridges and shallow gullies. We were travelling through a long narrow gap in the range. Creek beds had all been stabilised so were not a hindrance to maintaining a reasonable speed. As always on these types of roads the cattle grids required careful negotiation.

Yellow daisies decorated the hillside

Yellow daisies decorated the hillside

There were wild flowers along the way but in unique areas. In between and interspersed with the flowers was thousands of hectares of a small silvery green leafed plant with small white flowers. It proliferated in the valleys and lower slopes of the ranges put did not reach the hill tops, at least not in quantity.

 

Some of the historic stone buildings

Some of the historic stone buildings

We reached the homestead in the early afternoon. Mt. Ive homestead is itself set in a valley between two prominent mountains, one of which is Mt. Ive. The station has been in continuous operation since 1864. Many of the buildings are original and are built of local stone. Much of the local stone naturally breaks into blocks, suitable to use as building material. Later structures are of more modern materials.

View towards the shearers quarters and part of the caravan park area. Mount Ive is in the background.

View towards the shearers quarters and part of the caravan park area. Mount Ive is in the background.

We have arrived here at a quiet time of the year and some potential visitors have probably been deterred by forecast rain. There was only one van and a camper trailer when we arrived but a couple of car loads arrived later to stay in some of the stone cottages. The area is popular as a long weekend destination from Adelaide and is busy during school holidays in the cooler months.

The clouds have dispersed to reveal a clear starry sky but the wind had continued so it was quite chilly. Thumbs up for the power supply and the heater!

The hot water system was not very efficient

The hot water system was not very efficient

Mt. Ive Station is popular for its many four wheel drive tracks. As we were only there for two nights we were limited in what we could do so we chose the premier drive, that to Lake Gairdner, which is reached via Mt. Ive station tracks but is enclosed within Lake Gairdner National Park. Lake Gairdner is a huge salt lake with a dry lake bed in the warmer months. It has been the site of several land speed attempts and annually is the location for salt lake car races. A club house for this event stands by the lake.

A clump of Sturts Desert Pea growing in a roadside drainage chanel

A clump of Sturts Desert Pea growing in a roadside drainage channel

The track is really a road and although corrugated was in quite good condition for a road of its type and location. Not so vehicle friendly was two side roads that lead to other points of interest. They were real four wheel drive tracks and required driver attention to negotiate them safely.

The organ pipes are at the top of a ravine

The organ pipes are at the top of a ravine

The first side road leads to an area known as The Organ Pipes. The Gawler Ranges contains areas of a stone named rhyolite, the main characteristic of which is to separate into columns. There are several other areas in Australia with similar formations with similar names. One of the best known is in the Mt. Kaputar National Park in New South Wales between Narrabri and Bingara.

A flowering bush beside the path to the organ pipes

A flowering bush beside the path to the organ pipes

After negotiating about three kilometres of loose stones and a steep gulley we arrived at the parking area. The rock formation was at the top of a second ravine. Younger legs than mine would have made short work of the stony climb. I satisfied myself with walking until I had a clear view and snapping some pictures. But I did find and photograph two new flowering trees that I had not previously seen.

This water storage was built in the 1880s

This water storage was built in the 1880s

The second side road leads to the site of a stone dam that was built of local stone in the 1860s. It still retains water and is an excellent illustration of rock wall construction. It spans the head of a charming ravine, the rocky sides of which are decorated with wild flowers that appear almost as a planted garden. Views down the valley to the hills opposite would have made this an excellent site for a dwelling, at least during a relatively wet winter. Summer would be quite different.

Nature's rock garden

Nature’s rock garden

Chunks of salt at the edge of the lake.

Chunks of salt at the edge of the lake.

A further ten kilometres from the second road brought us to the lake. Lake Gairdner is huge, with sweeping bays formed by hills that protrude into the lake in the form of promontories. About 200 mm of water currently covers the salt floor but lumps of salt rock are visible along the shoreline. The corrugated iron club house overlooks this magnificent view. Motor racing would be the last

The Wattle was in bloom by the lake

The Wattle was in bloom by the lake

thing that you would expect to see here. Aquatic sports seem more likely but such are the contradictions of remote Australia.

The loo against a view

The loo against a view

 

 

 

I am sure that the club house contains toilet facilities, but when not in use it is securely locked. So a single toilet has been provided for casual visitors. It sits on a point with its back to a magnificent view. It has a small glass panel in the door in lieu of a lock. Two stout ropes, secured on either side by steel pegs, go over the roof to ensure that it does not float away in a flood.

The Challenger parked next to the motor racing club

The Challenger parked next to the motor racing club

We enjoyed morning coffee at a picnic table at the front of the club house, drinking in, in addition to the coffee, all this natural wonder and beauty. The 400 kilometre return journey, 250 kilometre of which is unsealed, was very worthwhile.  Mt, Ive Station and Lake Gairdner are now ticked off the bucket list.

 

The light of the setting sun colours a bank of clouds in the eastern sky

The light of the setting sun colours a bank of clouds in the eastern sky

We had intended to spend a couple of nights in the Gawler Ranges National Park but it is far too cold at night at the moment to be 100 kilometres away from a power point.

West, Centre & Flinders – Days 45 to 50 – South to Port Augusta

This post is being written in Port Augusta, as we take another lay day to let more rain pass through. But the day is not wasted as we had planned to have the car serviced. That is happening as I work on this blog post.

We drove through a lot of country that looked like this

We drove through a lot of country that looked like this

The distance between Ayers Rock and Port Augusta is almost 1,300 kilometres, with few towns or even roadhouses in between. We are forced to stay on the Stuart Highway. Our stalling strategy didn’t achieve a thing. The dirt roads in our plans were still rain affected. On those roads now partially open towing was still not permitted. So we had to bypass the Painted Desert.

We returned to Erldunda at the Stuart Highway intersection the first day and then stopped at Marla Roadhouse, Coober Pedy for two nights, Kingoonya, in a small detour onto gravel, and then Port Augusta for two nights.

Massed blooms by the highway

Massed blooms by the highway

The continuing interest is wild flowers. The roadside is lined with what appear to be a small wattle, with bright yellow blooms, interspersed with a variety of plants of varying sizes, shapes and colours. Beyond the roadside vegetation there are intermittent expanses of yellow and white daises and blue and purple ground cover in huge masses, all against a background of green grass and

The individual flowers that make up the mass display

The individual flowers that make up the mass display

the foliage of the other trees. Then there are larger trees with red flowers and patches of plants with dark pink to red blooms that we now know are Wild Hops.

 

 

 

Underground hotels in the main street of Coober Pedy

Underground hotels in the main street of Coober Pedy

The most popular tourist place on this stretch of highway, and the only real town, is Coober Pedy, South Australia’s, and possibly Australia’s, Opal capital. Locals claim that the town has more Opal shops per square kilometre that any other place on earth. I believe them!

 

A digging area near to town

A digging area near to town

The approach to the town from any direction is like entering a moonscape. The cone shaped piles of mulloch that result from mining methods is like endless rows of tents. Most are massed in the areas of richest pickings but others stand alone, like shunned neighbors, where test shafts have been drilled with no commercial result. These mining mounds start to appear 25 kilometres north of the town and the last worked area to the south is about 25 kilometres out of town.

The entrance to an underground building

The entrance to an underground building

Coober Pedy always looks a bit down at heel,with a higgledy piggledy main street and shopping area and many empty and derelict buildings. But the town is progressively going underground.  People have lived in what they term dugouts for a long time. But more hotel and motel accommodation is now below the surface, including one of the leading hotels and Opal sales establishments. We overheard an assistant at the information centre advise that there are only three accommodation establishments that don’t offer a below ground option. There is even an underground caravan park.

The Old Timers Mine entrance

The Old Timers Mine entrance

We conducted our own tour, instead of joining an organised tour, as we did last visit. We visited the Old Timer Opal Mine, one of the most awarded establishments in town. It was an operating mine but has now been set up to tell the story of Opal mining. Mannequins have been placed throughout to assist in demonstrating aspects of Opal mining. Another part has been set up as a mining museum with passages attaching it to a dugout residence, the rooms of which are furnished and contain more mannequins to demonstrate living conditions when the mine was in production.

A bedroom in the display dugout

A bedroom in the display dugout

We also visited the lookout above the town to get a broader perspective. The view includes many underground houses, mostly set into hillsides. We saw the underground Catholic Church from the outside and toured the Anglican Catacomb underground church, where we received an explanation of its construction and history.

Part of The Breakaways so named as they appear to have broken away from the main body of the Stuart Range

Part of The Breakaways, so named as they appear to have broken away from the main body of the Stuart Range

Later in the day we drove out to the area known as The Breakaways. These are jump ups or mesas where chemical action has painted the sides in most attractive colours, similar to colours we would have seen, but on a much greater scale, in the Painted Desert.

 

 

Kingoonya's wide main street

Kingoonya’s wide main street

We moved on south next day, Sunday, with one more night to spend before reaching Port Augusta. The original plan had been to leave the Stuart Highway about 200 kilometres south of Coober Pedy and travel via Kingoonya, Mount Ive Station and the Gawler Ranges to Port Augusta. As we were running behind time, we had decided to follow the highway directly to Port Augusta.

Another floral display

Another floral display

But why not take the short diversion and spend a night at Kingoonya anyway? The road in was 35 kilometres of recently graded sandy dirt and the 55 kilometres back to the highway was in similar condition.

Kingoonya is the first town on the Transcontinental Railway after it turns west, to pursue its long and substantially straight passage over the Nullarbor Plain. It used to be a railway town but now the only operating businesses are the pub and the very run down caravan park. But the caravan park has new owners who have already started to improve the facilities. Their plans include reopening the general store. Currently the only shopping facility within reasonable distance is the Roadhouse at Glendambo, on the highway, 55 kilometres to the east.

Kingoonya pub

Kingoonya pub

The hotel is doing its bit as well. They host a camp oven cook out and a cricket tournament for country teams, each held annually. The cricket match is held on the very wide main street and no doubt is interrupted in the event of a vehicle passing through. But that would not disrupt the game very often.

We dined at the pub and arrived a bit early for a pre dinner drink. We joined the other patrons around a large steel box with a fire burning in it. That was a nice touch, as the weather had turned chilly. Much of the town’s social life happens here. It seems that the patrons only retire to the bar if air conditioning is needed. Otherwise they sit under shelter around the fire and watch very long trains rumble by.

The other guests around the fire were the other couple from the caravan park, a girl there on a government assignment, three stock men and the boss’s daughter from the neighboring cattle station and a couple of locals. We four from the caravan park dined royally on curried king prawns with rice.

Sturts Desert Pea

Sturts Desert Pea

We had been on the lookout for Sturts Desert Peas that grow wild in South Australia and are the State’s official flower. A few kilometres along the road back to the highway we found some, growing in substantial numbers along both sides of the road. They were fresh and new. The brilliance of their colour could not be missed against the dull red of the sand.

Lake Heart

Lake Heart

Once back on the highway we travelled again through vast tracts of open grassland and then trough scrubby county, mostly flat but with the occasional hill in the distance. Near the turn to Woomera the road passes between salt lakes, large and small, that are surrounded by hills, which provide both relief from the previous flat terrain and vantage points to view the lakes. The two most significant are Lake Heart that is part of the Woomera restricted entry area and Island Lagoon, that does indeed have a prominent island in its waters.

Shortly after passing the lakes the first spots of rain appeared on our windscreen. We then had intermittent light showers until we reached Port Augusta. Fortunately a break in the rain allowed us to set the van up without getting wet. But the rain set in overnight and has continued into Tuesday. The forecast is for fine weather tomorrow. We hope that it is accurate.

West, Centre & Flinders – Days 36 to 44 – Filling in Time, Ayres Rock & The Olgers

Monday produced a reasonable morning, but cloud moved in during the afternoon and rain arrived by early evening. The rain was fairly constant until the early evening on Tuesday when it reduced to a slow drizzle that went on and on. You become very aware of it under a caravan roof. Wednesday was a good day with long periods of sunshine.

Hills by the road side south of Alice Springs

Hills by the road side south of Alice Springs

The rain promised for Thursday did not eventuate although it was cloudy for most of the day, with a few brief periods of sprinkles. We discovered later that the rain all fell to the south, around Coober Pedy. About two seasons worth of it!

So what does one do to fill in time in Alice Springs while waiting for the weather? Well, I decided to be sick. After a walk along the sandy floor of Trephina Gorge in the midday sun on Sunday I felt a bit more knocked up that I would have expected, but put it down to the warm day. Not as young as I used to be, you know! But by evening I had back aches and headaches and general lethargy. Seems I had picked up a local gastric bug that has been doing the rounds. Ruth had a touch of it as well.

So the diet changed to dry biscuits, toast and Vegemite drinks, with lots of rest. We spent the four days restfully, with only one outing, to buy supplies for the next leg of the journey.

We left town with the exhaust noises of rebuilt classic and hot rod cars ringing in our ears. A gathering of exponents was being hosted by Alice Springs. Some had already arrived in our caravan park and were disturbing the peace.

A Waxy Wattle at Erldunda

A Waxy Wattle at Erldunda

Erldunda is a bit less than 200 kilometres south of Alice, at the intersection of the Lassiter Highway with the Stuart. Lassiter Highway leads to Uluru. The only establishment at the intersection is The Desert Oaks Resort. The Resort is a roadhouse, hotel, motel, tour bus camping area and a caravan park. Quite a good caravan park and it is where we spent Friday night.

The drive to Erldunda was through more kilometres of green desert, mostly flat but with occasional jump up ranges to give some relief. We were pushing into a cold stiff south-westerly wind, but arrived mid afternoon to a grassy drive through sight. Our neighbors were almost all travelling to the same destination as we are. The caravan park has a platform for viewing sunsets but the cloud was packed solid with not a single glimpse of the sun.

Daisies to the horizon

Daisies to the horizon

We drove through similar terrain on Saturday but the hills are sand dunes rather than jump ups. Yulara is a further 250 kilometres west from Erldunda and more desert like, but still green. We had been passing wild flowers for a number of weeks and frequency had been increasing, but as we turned west the frequency increased further. Fields of yellow daisies stretched to the horizon, often interspersed with smaller areas of white ones and other wild flowers.

Unknown flower. Who knows what it is?

Unknown flower. Who knows what it is?

I am no expert in wild flowers so many sightings remain unidentified. Today I realised that bushes of small yellow blooms were Waxy Wattles. We thought that hectares of shrubs with small mauvish white flowers is Heath, but now find that it is Desert thryptomene. Perhaps readers can help by responding to photographs. I will include “Unknown” in the picture title. Watching for the flowers sure brightens the journey.

Mount Conner near Curtain Springs is often mistaken for Uluru

Mount Conner near Curtain Springs is often mistaken for Uluru

Saturday afternoon brought us to Yulara and the Ayers Rock Caravan Park. It is a large park with a high turnover of visitors, as people only seem to stay for a couple of days to see Uluru (Ayres Rock)and its sister range, Kata Tjuta (The Olgas).

A three day National Park pass costs $25 for each of us and the caravan park offers a “pay three and stay four night” special, so we increased our stay by two days. But there is a second reason. Things that we want to see as we go south are not accessible because of rain affected roads. A couple of additional days will give more time for roads to dry out.

Ayres Rock (Uluru) from the camp lookout

Ayres Rock (Uluru) from the camp lookout

We wasted no time in starting the tourist ritual. The first priority is always to gain an uninterrupted view of “The Rock”. Sightings are rare as you approach Yulara, due to a succession of sand hills that obscure the view. Resort designers thoughtfully provided a lookout on a sand dune on the Uluru side of the camp ground, with expanded mesh pathways to the top. So we walked up to see the sun seting on The Rock.

Sunset cloud patterns from the camp lookout

Sunset cloud patterns from the camp lookout

From this distance and direction the result was unspectacular, but the sunset was nice and illuminated some intricate skeins of cloud, remnants of the day’s heavier cloud cover. The accompanying photo demonstrates how attractive they were.

 

A climbers view of Ayres Rock

A climbers view of Ayres Rock

On Sunday morning we set off for the national park, parting with $50 at the gate. We drove directly to the area where most visitors start their walk around the base of Uluru and where people climb the rock. There was no one climbing. The climb was closed due to high winds at the summit. It was quite breezy at the base so that made sense. The most prominent signage is that encouraging visitors not to climb.

The start of the walking track around the base of Uluru

The start of the walking track around the base of Uluru

We then commenced a clockwise drive around the encircling road. We had completed the walk around the base on our last visit in 2010. At a distance of 10.5 km, to do it would be a bit of a stretch. Photo opportunities from the road are limited due to yellow “no standing” lines on both edges of the tar where the road runs adjacent to areas of cultural sacred significance.

Another unknown flower

Another unknown flower

The circumnavigation complete, we visited the cultural centre where photography is totally forbidden. It is an extensive building taken up by cultural displays, a gift shop, an art shop and a working Aboriginal art studio. There is also a Holy of Holies. A coffee shop!

 

On Monday morning we put on our tourist boots again to do the Kuniya Walk into Mutiijulu Waterhole. We had seen this area on our walk last visit and wanted to see it again. On the southern face of Uluru there is a huge “scooped out” valley that acts as a funnel for water

Tourists standing by the pool

Tourists standing by the pool

off the Rock, which it drains into the waterhole. From there a stream passes along the foot of the Rock and then drains away to marsh land. It is easy to understand the importance of such a water source to locals before water started running out of a tap.

 

The rock forms a natural funnel

The rock forms a natural funnel

The stream runs along the foot of the rock

The stream runs along the foot of the rock

The Olgas from the sunrise viewing area

The Olgas from the sunrise viewing area

Having completed Uluru, with the exception of a sunset visit still to come, we drove the 45 kilometres to The Olgas, now re-badged as Kata Tjuta, stopping on the way to view this group of domes from the sunrise viewing facility on a sand dune to the east of the range.

Valley of the Winds Walk

Valley of the Winds Walk

 

 

I completed two walks, but the terrain was a bit rough for Ruth, so she sat them out. Both walks had been done on our last visit but were worth repeating. I prefer The Olgas to Ayers Rock in many ways. Uluru is huge and awesome but The Olgas have variety, as each dome is different to its neighbor.

The Valley of the Winds walk is sometimes closed as wind velocity can be dangerous. It was open today and I did it first.

More flowers by the math

More flowers by the math

The track leads at first along the bed of a stream that carries water down a slope, before crossing extensive beds of conglomerate, the rock from which the domes are formed. The path then climbs in a series of steps, over more conglomerate and loose rock, to a saddle between two domes. The view is over more domes in another part of the range. A second walk starts from the saddle. It is a loop into a ravine and around other domes, but it is more demanding and adds another hour or so to the walk.

The domes that form Walpa Gorge

The domes that form Walpa Gorge

The second walk was into Walpa Gorge. This walk is between the southernmost dome and its counterpart, immediately to the north. Most of this walk is over exposed conglomerate and is a bit like a moon walk. The path follows the lower northern slopes of the southern dome.  The rock is intersected periodically by small vegetated streams that drain the upper slope and run to a stream that divides the domes. Foot bridges have been built over the streams for safety and convenience. The Walpa Gorge path leads almost through between the two domes to a rock fall that blocks what would otherwise be a complete passage to the eastern side.

Walking over conglomerate rock in Walpa Gorge

Walking over conglomerate rock in Walpa Gorge

The final part of the Walpa Gorge walk

The final part of the Walpa Gorge walk

The walks in Kata Tjuta allow you to get up close and personal with the domes. The Valley of the Winds walk provides elevation for a different perspective to that available from the surrounding plain. Walpa Gorge allows close inspection of the lower reaches of the domes. The stunning addition to what we saw on our last visit is the wild flowers. Wherever there is some soil to give vegetation a toe hold, there are blooms. The sides of the road between Uluru and Kata Tjuta are similarly decorated.

The Olgas from the start of The Great Central Road

The Olgas from the start of The Great Central Road

Just before Kata Tjuta is reached from Uluru or Yulara, Tjukaruru Road turns to the west. It is part of the Great Central Road that leads across the western part of the Continent to the West Australia gold fields. It is also part of the Outback Way that stretches from Cairns in the east to Perth in the west. The Outback Way is also known as The Longest Short Cut.

I can never stand at the start of such a road without getting itchy feet. So as a minor indulgence we drove the first few hundred meters of the rutted dirt and took a photo of the road, disappearing into the West. And a final shot of The Olgas from the road.

The final Tuesday evening activity was to go out to watch the changing colours as the setting sun reflects off Uluru. We took soup in a thermos and fresh rolls from the local bakery. The sun doesn’t set until almost 6.30 pm (7.00 pm EST) so that looked after the first course of dinner.

The setting sun touches the top of Ayers Rock

The setting sun touches the top of Ayers Rock. Desert thryptomene and Honey grevillea in the foreground

The signs were not hopeful. There was a heavy bank of cloud obscuring the sun in the west as we drove out to the viewing area. Initially the rock was in the shadow of the cloud but then the sun began to break through and to illuminate different parts of the rock as the sun sank and the clouds moved. There were some great effects, quite different to what we saw last visit when we had a cloud free view.

The final sunset at Uluru

The final sunset at Uluru

We almost missed the final act. We were so focused on Ayers Rock that we were not watching the setting sun behind us. As we started to drive home the road turned us to the west. We were faced with a breath taking sight. Clouds near the horizon and .higher in the sky almost appeared to be on fire. By the time we had parked and got the camera out the very best had gone, but what remained was well worth photographing.

So it was back to camp for the remainder of our evening meal.

West, Centre & Flinders – Days 33 to 35 – Alice Springs & Rain

Our intention has been to spend just one night at Alice Springs. Now it seems that we are to be here for a week. The main issue has been the uncertainty of weather predictions. We abandoned plans to take the van into the ranges to the east and west of the town in favour of setting up in a central location and doing day trips. Saturday was to have been very windy and it was to start raining on Sunday, continuing into Monday. The strong winds did not eventuate and the rain has been deferred until Tuesday and Thursday. Patience is called for!

And to demonstrate meteorological variability we had a minimum of 3 C on Saturday and a maximum of about 32 C yesterday.

The original telegraph and post office in Alice Springs

The original telegraph station and post office in Alice Springs

Having passed two historic telegraph stations on the way south, we thought we should take a closer look at the restored station at Alice. The buildings were initially well built and have been carefully restored. A restoration of the original office environment, in the original office, has been well done, including sound effects of messages being transmitted by Morse code. Residential buildings have been fitted with furniture of the period and a school room is functional. School children are able to stay overnight, playing the roles of original characters.

Samples of original and replacement telegraph poles

Samples of original and replacement telegraph poles

The tour guide’s spiel covered the explorations of John McDowell Stuart, who made no less than six trips into the area. The telegraph line was built along the route of his final exploration, under the supervision of Charles Todd. The line was built with poles cut locally as they progressed, but termites proved the folly of that option, so the timber posts were soon replaced with telescopic tubular steel posts.

Where I got my warm inner glow

Where I got my warm inner glow

The spiel also included a section on the “Stolen Generation” and included several highly contestable claims. One of the buildings has been used to set up a display on the subject. I guess it gives some visitors a warm inner glow. I achieved my warm inner glow from a cup of coffee and an excellent vanilla slice at the Trail Station coffee shop that also acts as the gateway to the Telegraph Station.

The telegraph line was an important step in Australia’s development as it linked to the newly laid cable under the Timor Sea and ended our communication isolation from the world, particularly from England.

The grave of Rev John Flynn outside Alice Springs. The stone came from The Devils Marbles near Tennant Creek

The grave of Rev John Flynn outside Alice Springs. The stone came from The Devils Marbles near Tennant Creek

In the afternoon we drove out to the near west McDonnell Ranges, pausing at the grave of Rev. John Flynn, and then took another look at Simpsons Gap. There was water in the gap, as usual, and a cool breeze was blowing through.

 

 

Simpsons Gap

The performer in the Gap

We could hear an pleasant vocal sound, not words but a musical tone, from a pure clear female voice, accompanied by a slow drum beat, coming from the gap. As we walked in we could see a young woman, positioned to gain the advantage of the acoustics of the gap. It was a pleasant accompaniment to viewing such spectacular scenery

 

Simpsons Gap

Simpsons Gap

We then headed further out Larapinta Drive and drove the northern section of the Owen Springs Track that leads through historical relics and geographical features to the Stuart Highway. The first cattle station in the Northern Territory was established at Owen Springs. Ruins of station buildings remain. It was getting late in the day so we turned back sooner that we had hoped, so didn’t get to see them. The consolation was that we drove back beside the long stone capped mountain ranges, displayed to advantage in the light of the afternoon sun.

The Bluff at the foot of Trephina Gorge

The Bluff at the foot of Trephina Gorge

We returned, yesterday, to one of our favourite places on the East MacDonnell ranges. Trephina Gorge is yet another gap in the range through which a stream passes, on its way to the desert. The Ross Highway runs between red stone capped mountains and passes at least three other gaps through which streams flow when there is rain. The best known of the gaps are Emily and Jessie Gaps. The other main feature of interest is Corroboree Rock, a striking rock formation where, you guessed it, corroborees were held.

The tallest Ghost gum

The tallest Ghost gum

Trephina Gorge has been cut by the passage of water through red rock that now direct its flow. At least that is the case when it is flowing, which it was not doing yesterday. After exiting the gorge the stream passes at the foot of a huge mound of red stone named The Bluff. From there it makes its way out of the mountains to join those other streams that dissipate into the desert. The gorge also contains the largest Ghost gum in Australia.

Corroboree Rock

Corroboree Rock

There was a final touch of drama as we travelled home. While driving on the gravel road out of the gorge we noticed a continuous trail of fluid. So we were not surprised, just after rejoining the Ross Highway, to see a vehicle stopped part way off the road, with a couple of other vehicles nearby. The fluid trail on the road was transmission fluid. They had damaged something important.

The beauty of the East McDonnell Ranges

The beauty of the East McDonnell Ranges

The vehicle was an aged Ford Maverick and its occupants were a couple of French back packers whose English was inadequate, to say the least. Neither we nor the other vehicles that stopped were able to agree any assistance with them as they preferred to wait for some folk who they had met in the Gorge who were travelling a distance behind them. We can only hope that it worked out for them.

We have been into town on two or three occasions. It is unchanged from last time. Out of town locals wander the streets and seem to be the taxi companies best customers. Security is everywhere, particularly where there are liquor stores. But the commercial centre seems busy and a parking space can be hard to find.

At the caravan park there is an endless procession of arrivals and departures. One night stopovers are common, as visitors restock and head for the scenic areas to the east and west. Much as we had intended. It is hard to detect the colour of some vehicles through the coating of mud that they carry. I suspect that they have come in off the Tanami Track that has had rain in recent days.

So now we wait on the weather. I will deal with that in the next post.

West, Centre & Flinders – Days 30 to 32 – Weather Impacts and Highways

The rain actually amounted to quite a lot. It started with sprinkles during the afternoon and intensified during the evening. Come Tuesday morning the sky was still black, with periods of heavy rain. So we decided to stay put at Barkly Homestead and paid for another night.

The broad plains of the Barkly Tableland

The broad plains of the Barkly Tableland

Before the rain came we were considering our options. If we are to continue to Alice Springs our arrival will be greeted by a number of mornings with lowest temperatures of 2 to 4 degrees C. To turn north to Cape Crawford and Borroloola would see us with top temperatures of about 34 to 36 degrees C. To be hot or cold became the question.

Caged birds on display at Barkly Homestead

Caged birds on display at Barkly Homestead

But the rain changed the equation completely. The Tablelands Highway, that leads north from Barkly, is a single lane sealed road that carries many road trains. When you meet a road train on such roads it is necessary to pull right off the road to leave the sealed road clear. I didn’t fancy pulling off on to rain soaked shoulders, so Alice Springs and cold mornings, here we come!

Caravan parking layout at Barkly Homestead

Caravan parking layout at Barkly Homestead

Spending a day at Barkly Homestead has been quite pleasant. A few vans had declared a lay day. We have carried out a few chores but mainly sat and read. The caravan park here is designed for one night stopovers with vans remaining hooked up to tow vehicles. The grounds are laid out in a series of parking lanes separated by a raised gravel area and with a section of artificial grass placed to be directly outside of the door of the van. This provides a refuge from the inevitable mud that occurs whenever the rains descend in torrents, as they tend to do in this part of Australia.

Wednesday dawned with some cloud to the west but it soon cleared to a cloudless warm day. I enjoy driving the Barkly Highway. It is one of the best quality country highways in Australia. The tablelands change from flat to undulating and back to flat again, with open grassland changing to low wooded scrub land. Sprinkled through the scrubby vegetation are eucalypts with white boughs (Ghost gums, I believe) that branch a couple of metres above the ground, producing trees that seem to have been designed for climbing.

The memorial to Rev. John Flynn beside the Stuart Highway at Three Ways north of Tennant Creek

The memorial to Rev. John Flynn beside the Stuart Highway at Three Ways north of Tennant Creek

We turned south at Three Ways, where the Barkly Highway intersects with the Stuart Highway, but first we made the 200 metre journey north to visit the pillar built in memory of Rev. John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. It stands prominently beside the highway.

 

Approaching the Marbles from the North

Approaching the Marbles from the North

Out destination for the day was the camping reserve at the Devils Marbles. We set up for the night, before taking a long stroll around and among these amazing boulders with their endless variety of shapes and sizes. The information displays at the day use area inform us that the boulders are slowly breaking down and become rounded as they shed their “skin”, a bit like peeling an onion. As the day ended, I found a large slab of rock like a ramp and was able to walk to an elevated level to watch the sun disappear for the day.

So we woke to the sun shining on the pile of rocks that comprised our private view, before packing and setting off to Alice Springs. The morning was cold but the day quickly warmed. Again, clear blue sky with a few scattered clouds, as we approached our destination.

Strange balancing arrangements are common

Strange balancing arrangements are common

You would think that someone would have pushed it over by now!

You would think that someone would have pushed it over by now!

You do have to wonder how it got there

You do have to wonder how it got there

The cairn marking the highest point on the Stuart Highway north of Alice Springs

The cairn marking the highest point on the Stuart Highway north of Alice Springs

Although the highest point of the road is a bit to the north of Alice Springs there is no feeling of climbing. The terrain appears quite flat most of the way but with some ranges of hills beside the road or visible in the distance. After turning south at Three Ways the Davenport Range and the national park of the same name can be seen to the east. Approaching Tennant Creek from the north a low range of hills dissects the highway while on both sides of Barrow Creek, on both sides of the road, hills with stone caps, like battlements, add a fortress quality to this tiny town. They remind of the Great Wall of China.

Capped hills near Barrow Creek

Capped hills near Barrow Creek

Barrow Creek Telegraph Repeater Station

Barrow Creek Telegraph Repeater Station

There is a great deal of history along this road. Not only does the Stuart Highway generally follow the route of the Overland Telegraph Line but telegraph repeater stations have been preserved at Barrow Creek and Tennant Creek. Road side monuments honour explorers like Stuart and Warburton. We again crossed the Tropic of Capricorn.

The Stuart Highway was not as busy as the Barkly. For substantial periods we had the highway to our selves, sometimes in the centre of a straight section of highway that extended to the horizon in both directions. Parts of the highway that we drove today had sections with no speed restrictions at all. The rest mainly had a limit of 130 KPH but at no time did we see fellow road users doing excessive speed.

So here we are at the Wintersun Caravan Park, for three days, during which we will wash cloths, shop, have haircuts and look at some things that we have missed in previous visits.

West, Centre & Flinders – Days 24 to 29 – Mt Isa and Other Things

This is the sign that welcomes you to Birdsville. We photographed it on the way out

This is the sign that welcomes you to Birdsville. We photographed it on the way out. The +/- 7000 relates to visitors at major events

The next two days were spent travelling back to Boulia, so there is not much to be said, as we were covering ground already covered in this trip. But we did take some photographs, of things that we had missed on the way down.

 

People hang the strangest things beside the road

People hang the strangest things beside the road

Have you ever seen such a descriptive name?

Have you ever seen such a descriptive name?

But Boulia to Mount Isa represented new fields as we had not travelled this road before.

The ranges near Dajarra

The ranges near Dajarra

This part of the Diamantina Developmental Road can be best described as a single lane ribbon of tar punctuated periodically by wider stretches of pavement, officially named Passing Opportunities –  and Dajarra. Dajarra is a predominantly Aboriginal town about 140 kilometres north of Boulia. It is situated near the only decent range of hills that is encountered on the entire journey, until nearing Mount Isa.

The Museum in Dajarra

The Museum in Dajarra

Much of the country is treeless plains of varying quality but a good portion carried good grass. Other parts are not so lush and have the appearance of not having received as much rain as pastures further south.

I mentioned in a previous post the lack of cattle grazing on the fresh grass. It appears that cattle are being trucked into the area from

Grazing lands south of Mt Isa

Grazing lands south of Mt Isa

further north. Someone to whom I spoke suggested that the cattle were sourced from the area around Catherine in Northern Territory. We camped at a rest area about 60 kilometres north of Boulia and during late afternoon and early evening saw around 10 double deck three trailer road trains, fully loaded and heading south. Just before we reached the rest area we had seen a herd of several hundred beasts that looked to have been recently unloaded.

Sun sett at our Peek Creek Bore camp sight north of Boulia

Sun sett at our Peek Creek Bore camp sight north of Boulia

This stop, at Peek Creek Bore afforded us the opportunity for a second camp fire for this trip. But the fire did not produce enough quality coals to try using the camp oven.

Mount Isa is a shopping and washing stop for us. We have been here at least five times so there is not much new to see. This time we approached from the south so passed not one but two power stations that we had not seen before. Mount Isa is a substantial centre dominated by the huge mine operated by Mount Isa Mines.

One of the power stations at Mt Isa

One of the power stations at Mt Isa

The stage at the Drovers Museum. Anne Kirkpatrick, daughter of Slim Dusty, will perform here during the festival

The stage at the Drovers Museum. Anne Kirkpatrick, daughter of Slim Dusty, will perform here during the festival

This stop over was for Friday and Saturday nights, so on Sunday morning we continued north west to the border town of Camooweal. You may recall that two of our fellow dinner guests at the remote Middleton Hotel were on their way to Camooweal to assist with preparation for the annual drovers’ festival. Camooweal has a drovers’ museum which is the base for the festival. This is where we found the folk that we met at Middleton. I had told them that we would call but they were still surprised to see us.

Ruth talking to our new acquaintance at the museum

Ruth talking to our new acquaintance at the museum

The museum has the normal memorabilia but also a great deal of cattle droving related artifices, dozens of artists portraits of droving identities and several displays that tell the history of cattle droving in northern Australia. All this is supplemented by a video made of a conducted tour of the museum. We had no trouble in spending 90 minutes there before taking our leave of our new friends.

Model stock yards are used to demonstrate cattle handling techniques

Model stock yards are used to demonstrate cattle handling techniques

Cattle grazing against the background of a grey sky

Cattle grazing against the background of a grey sky

Mount Isa is in a mountainous area but is surrounded to the south, west and north by the flat sweeping plains.  The pastures through which we drove are not as green as to the south as they have not had the same amount of rain. The border between Queensland and Northern Territory is a line drawn across a featureless plain that stretches to the horizon in every direction.

This is the Barkly Tableland, that covers a large part of Northern Territory and encroaches well into North West Queensland. It is prime grazing land and produces a substantial proportion of Australia’s beef.

Some of our fellow campers at Avon Downs

Some of our fellow campers at Avon Downs

Our journeys on this Sunday has brought is to Avon Downs Rest Area, about 60 kilometres inside the NT border. Avon Downs cattle station surrounds us and the Avon Downs police station, the first in NT, is across the road. We are sharing the space with about twenty other vans, motor yard. Occasionally another road train thunders by, but less frequently as the night passes, we hope.

Some wild flowers along the way

Some wild flowers along the way

We had set an easy task for Monday (22nd August) with only 190 kilometres to get us to Barkly Homestead Roadhouse. Cloud started to build yesterday and there were some blustery winds during the night. Lots of blue sky this morning but it did not last. Grey skies soon set in. As we pulled in to the fuel pumps at Barkly Homestead rain spots appeared on the windscreen. Rain has been forecast throughout the area for about this time. We thought we might be far enough to the north to miss it, but no such luck.

Flowers road side at Mt Isa

Flowers road side at Mt Isa

About the most exciting things to happen to us on the drive this morning was to be passed by two road trains. As an interest, as we have crossed this part of the Barkly Tableland, Ruth has been keeping an inventory of the traffic we met. That is, east bound traffic. I will include the details in a future post. But one comment can be made. If you remove the caravans and motor homes there is not much traffic left.

The Nine Pillars of Cobb & Co

The Nine Pillars plaque at Middleton. Under the sign on the right.

The Nine Pillars plaque at Middleton. Under the sign on the right.

To back track a bit, during our stay at the Middleton Hotel our host pointed out to us a plaque declaring his establishment to be the Fourth Pillar of Cobb & Co. When a mail contract was awarded to Cobb & Co in 1892 the Middleton Hotel was already operating, having opened in 1876. It was soon joined by others that also became horse change stations and providers of food and overnight accommodation for coach passengers. All other hotels are gone with the only relic being the chimney of the Hamilton Hotel. That hotel, well known to locals was sighted on the Hamilton River nearer to Boulia.

Makunda Hotel was where the coaches from Winton and Boulia met. No sign of the hotel remains.

Makunda Hotel was where the coaches from Winton and Boulia met. No sign of the hotel remains.

We found some of the plaques as we drove the rest of the way to Boulia. Number 1 is in Winton and Number 9 is outside the Min Min Experience at Boulia. A brochure that gives details of the old mail run, presented as a tour, is available at information centres. It includes a return route that includes the Diamantina Lakes National Park and points of interest along the Diamantina River.

West, Centre & Flinders – Days 22 to 23 – Enjoying Birdsville

The Information Centre in Birdsville

The Information Centre in Birdsville

We had problems in finding a place to park out van in the small caravan park in Bedourie. Enthusiastic watering to produce grass had turned most of it into a quagmire. It doesn’t take much water to create a bog hole in this country.

 

Set up in Birdsville Caravan Park

Set up in Birdsville Caravan Park

But there was no such pretense at Birdsville Caravan Park. It is an orderly, well kept park but there is not a blade of grass in sight. Fence to fence it is compacted fine gravel. The events that draw large crowds here, particularly the Birdsville race meeting and the Big Red Bash, have made it necessary that the park be able to handle crowds. The amenity block is sized accordingly. The races are less than three weeks away, so preparations for the crowds are under way.

The Diamantina River at Birdsville. Water levels are rising as the recent rains to the north slowly move towards Lake Eyre

The Diamantina River at Birdsville. Water levels are rising as the recent rains to the north slowly move towards Lake Eyre

Our Monday activity was to have been a trip to the Big Red sand dune on the edge of the Simpson Desert, but no sooner had we left town than out navigation system stopped showing us the way. This necessitated a return to camp to fix the problem. While I puzzled over the problem Ruth started some washing. By the time that we were ready to go it was a bit late, so we had lunch and set off to see closer sights.

The Bourke & Wills tree at Birdsville

The Bourke & Wills tree at Birdsville

Just over the Diamantina River there still stands a tree into which explorers Bourke and Wills cut a blaze and chiseled some markings. Look carefully and you can see parts of some of the characters that they cut, still visible after more than 150 years.

 

 

The Birdsville Racecourse from the highway into town

The Birdsville Racecourse from the highway into town

Right next door are the facilities for horse trainers, probably built here for proximity to the river. A little further from town the race course itself is located beside the highway, which is the northern end of the Birdsville Track. Preparation is also under way there.

 

 

Ruth stands beside the information booth at the Queensland/SA border

Ruth stands beside the information booth at the Queensland/SA border

There is still a temptation to change our plans and go down the Track, so we drove the first 30 kilometres to gauge its condition. It is a full width gravel road and is in quite good nick at this end. Just some more grist for the decision mill.

 

 

A holding yard built from local timber

A holding yard built from local timber

The drive took us over the South Australia border, which is only 15 kilometres south of Birdsville. By the time that we turned around we were well into the long sand dunes that cross the country side. The border is well sign posted by both states and an

The Birdsville Hotel. It has stood for over a century

The Birdsville Hotel. It has stood for over a century

Birdsville Bakery, home of the curried camel pie

Birdsville Bakery, home of the curried camel pie

Tuesday dawned, another cloudless day with a cool easterly breeze and flies. We made a fairly early start on the 35 kilometre drive into the edge of the Simpson Desert, arriving at the boundary of the National Park at about 10.00 am. Since the authorities had provided a picnic shelter there, the last one until the other side of the desert probably, we shared it with a family of Swallows that had built their nest in the roof frame.

The road from town leas to the foot of Little Red. The Simpson Desert starts at the sign.

The road from town leas to the foot of Little Red. The Simpson Desert starts at the sign.

The sand dune known as Big Red is the tallest sand dune in the Simpson Desert. In reality it is the highest spot on a sand dune that disappears into infinity in both directions. The dune could be over one hundred kilometres long. A couple of kilometres to the south, part of the same dune, is Little Red. The road leads directly to Little Red which you can cross and continue on into the desert. Or you can turn right and follow the foot of the dune until you come to Big Red.

To drive over Little Red is a bit of an anticlimax. To drive to the summit of Big Red is one of the most iconic things that a four wheel drive enthusiast can do.

Just loo at all that lovely sand!

Just loo at all that lovely sand!

We parked at the foot of Little Red and I climbed to the summit along with two or three other people. We then drove to the foot of Big Red. Again I climbed to the summit and discussed matters with another driver who had taken the walk just before I did. We decided to reduce tyre air pressure, as recommended, and give it a try. I offered to video his ascent and did. He then took my camera as I returned to the car, reduced air pressure and made the climb. We ascended without problem. Another item ticked off the bucket list!

Parked at the summit of Big Red

Parked at the summit of Big Red

The track down the western face of Big Red and into the Simpson Desert

The track down the western face of Big Red and into the Simpson Desert

A sign outside of the Birdsville Bakery

A sign outside of the Birdsville Bakery

We agreed that the drive up the dune had been easy and wondered what all the fuss was about. Then we looked over the western edge and understood. Because of prevailing easterly winds most of the loose sand has been blown from the eastern side to the western side of the dune. Those travelling in an easterly direction face piles of soft sand, fluffed up by the wind.  We watched as two drivers struggled with the conditions. They were still struggling when we drove back down the dune, re inflated our tyres and returned to town.

It was now lunch time. Another iconic activity in Birdsville is to eat a curried camel pie at the Birdsville Bakery. Ruth chickened and had ordinary beef. We washed them down with cappuccinos. The curried camel was not bad. It tasted a bit like beef but with a distinct difference. The accompanying picture will explain.

 

 

The main bar at the Birdsville Hotel

The main bar at the Birdsville Hotel

That left us with one last traditional activity before leaving Birdsville. A drink at the very historic and dare I say it, iconic Birdsville Hotel. We arrived at the same time as two of our fellow adventurers from this morning’s activity at Big Red. So we joined them and chatted about the kind of things that folk chat about under such circumstances.

The Birdsville Track reaches south into South Australia

The Birdsville Track reaches south into South Australia

For William Shakespeare the big question was to be or not to be. For us it was to go or not to go. Here we are at the northern end of the Birdsville Track and one of my ambitions has always been to drive its length. But if we do that we will arrive in the Flinders Ranges to a succession of 4 degree mornings and several following that will, in all probability, won’t be much warmer . That makes it a no brainer. Tomorrow we will retrace our course back to Boulia and from there to Mount Isa and points west. And ultimately south, but only after minimum daily temperatures increase a bit, hopefully.

West, Centre & Flinders – Days 20 to 21 – To Bedourie and Birdsville

The sign at Boulia for the turn South

The sign at Boulia for the turn South

It is just less than 400 kilometres from Boulia to Birdsville, neatly dissected by Bedourie, which is about 200 kilometres from both. As there are no other towns on the road we made Bedourie our destination on Saturday and finished the journey on Sunday. On both days we arrived for a late lunch. That allowed us time to look around on our day of arrival.

The Royal Hotel Bedourie

The Royal Hotel Bedourie

Our last visit to Bedourie was by air, during our air tour of the area around Lake Eyre in 2011. The first night of the tour was spent at the historic Royal Hotel at Bedourie. Licensee Jim Smith had provided hospitality beyond the call of duty, so we called to see him. Sadly he was away in Mt. Isa. But we, as the only customers, got talking to the young lady behind the bar. Clearly she was a northern European back packer.

The part of main street at Bedourie

The part of main street at Bedourie

We mentioned that while here, we had visited nearby Cluny Station. That led her to tell us that she had been at a party at Cluny the previous night. Soon other party participants arrived. I could see another party starting, so we said our farewells and departed but with a bit more knowledge of life in this remote town.

A bridge over one of the channels of the Georgina River

A bridge over one of the channels of the Georgina River

The terrain between Boulia and Birdsville is flat, with few hills. It is the quintessential land of rolling plains. A little less than half way to Bedourie we crossed the Georgina River, which with the Diamantina, drains the north west area of Queensland, ultimately running into Lake Eyre. For most of the way to Bedourie the river and its flood plains were to our left, a never ending swathe of green, mostly treeless plain but with the normal growth of trees along the river.

The marker for the Tropic of Capricorn sits by the road where it crosses a treeless plain

The marker for the Tropic of Capricorn sits by the road where it crosses a treeless plain

I mentioned a post or two ago about explorer Major Sir Thomas Mitchell and his exploration of the area. One of his discoveries was vast areas of treeless plains covered with natural grasses. The most prominent of the grasses was named in his honour, Mitchell grass. The plains over which we were driving are Mitchell grass plains. This type of treeless country accounts for about 14% of Queensland’s land area.

The official marker for the Vaughan Johnson Lookout overlooks Diaimantina flood plains

The official marker for the Vaughan Johnson Lookout overlooks Diaimantina flood plains

On the border between Boulia and Diamantina Shires (Diamantina Shire is based on Bedourie), right by the road, is the most prominent hill of the trip. At the summit the councils have built a rest and information area. It is named after and was opened by Hon. Vaughan Johnson, now retired, but a long time member for the Queensland state seat of Gregory and a former government minister.

The steep climb to the lookout

The steep climb to the lookout

I don’t want to over work the word but the view is magnificent. Through an arc of about 270 degrees the view is over flood plains, now green from recent rain. From this vantage point it is easy to believe that this area was once an inland sea. Equally interesting are the six double sided information boards that provide historical and environmental information. In a protective cage a piece of road building equipment used on the original road is now on display.

The old causeway over King Creek south of Bedourie

The old causeway over King Creek south of Bedourie

Bedourie is partially surrounded by Eyre Creek, a waterway that follows the road that we were on, now the Eyre Developmental Road, for some distance. A variety of water birds can be sighted at Cuttaburra Waterhole beside the road. The stream finally crosses the road for the last time, a little further south at Cuttaburra Crossing, before heading through a couple of lakes and into the desert, to then run south again to its final destination at Lake Eyre.

The main channel of Eyre Creek near Glengyle Station

The main channel of Eyre at Cutta Burra crossing

Diamantina Shire describes its municipality as “Where the Desert Meets the Channel Country”. This is an apt description. The further south the less frequent the lush green of newly growing grass and the more frequent becomes the expenses of red gravel, sand and clay patches and the scrubby salt bush type vegetation that dominates in these regions. And then, of course, there is the increased frequency of sand dunes, partially covered with vegetation, that stretch from one horizon to the other.

The sealed road crosses a sand dune south of Bedourie

The sealed road crosses a sand dune south of Bedourie

The road was good. There is now only eight kilometres of unsealed road north of Bedourie and a bit less than 80 kilometres between Bedourie and Birdsville. The unsealed sections were in good condition. Our lower than normal average speed was the result of frequent stops to take photos rather than the condition of the road.

The road over Eyre Creek at Glengyle Crossing

The road over Eyre Creek at Glengyle Crossing

Lush vegetation on the flood plains of the Diamantina

Lush vegetation on the flood plains of the Diamantina

Birdsville, on our arrival, seemed to be full of motor bikes. They were roaring around the streets and the caravan park most of the afternoon. It seems that some groups of bikers are crossing the Simpson Desert and have all arrived in town at once.

This morning, at Bedourie, in our caravan park, I spoke to one motor cyclist involved with a group raising funds for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS for Kids). They have two groups crossing the continent from Cape Byron in NSW to Steep Point in WA. Some will cross the Simpson Desert but others will get to Alice Springs via the Donohue and Plenty Highways. They will join up to proceed to Uluru and then cross the Great Central Road and ultimately reach Steep Point, the most westerly point in WA. Challenging stuff! They had already raised about $65,000 as they reached Birdsville

West, Centre & Flinders – Days 18 to 19 – Further West

It is not easy to predict the movements of the travelling public. On our first night at the Longreach Tourist Park the place was near to full. After we arrived, about mid-afternoon, the vans flooded in and flooded out again next morning. But on the second night

Sweeping plains near Winton

Sweeping plains near Winton

occupancy would have been no more than 40%. Perhaps folk had been in to complete the census. Forms were available at the office. We opted to complete it on line and couldn’t even log in. Perhaps we will try again at Alice Springs.

We left Longreach at the start of Day 18 driving towards Winton, about 180 kilometres to the North West.

North Gregory Hotel where legend has it Waltzing Matilda was first performed

North Gregory Hotel where legend has it Waltzing Matilda was first performed

Winton has always been a prosperous place but the drought has taken its toll. There are several empty shops in the main street. But the pubs continue to thrive. The Tattersals’  hotel that occupies a corner had about 20 tables set up for lunch on the pavement and more inside. Many caravans and their towing vehicles were parked in the street. Winton must be a favored lunch stop among grey nomads.

The vacant space was once occupied by The Waltzing Matilda Centre

The vacant space was once occupied by The Waltzing Matilda Centre

As some of you will know, Winton lost its famous Waltzing Matilda Centre to fire a year or so ago. That was a serious blow to the town. But they have bounced back with a new museum called the Qantilda Museum. It is much smaller, as a great deal of history was lost in the fire, but deals with Winton’s two main claims to fame. Winton  is the birth place of Qantas Airways and Waltzing Matilda was written by Banjo Patterson at Dagworth Station to the north of Winton and was first performed in public at Winton’s North Gregory Hotel.

Self explanatory!

Self explanatory!

The “sweeping plains” continue to Winton and beyond. Green as far as the eye can see.  But in most of the pasture there are no cattle eating the lush grass. Drought plays havoc with stocking density and it takes a long time to rebuild a production herd.

 

 

The first real jump up on the way to Middleton

The first real jump up on the way to Middleton

When we came this way last year on our way to The Centre, I said that the road from Winton to Boulia was one of the most attractive outback drives in Queensland and having done it a second time I have not changed my mind. Along the first section, until just past the multiple channels of the Diamantina River, the terrain is fairly flat. Some areas are so green with lush growth that they look like a planted crop. Then  Mount  Booka Booka appears to the left of the road. From there, for the next hundred kilometres or so, the road passes through the Sword Range which is mostly a series of jump ups, or mesas, with their defining crowns of red rock and slopes clad with small bushy vegetation of brilliant green.

A main channel of the Diamantina River almost full of water

A main channel of the Diamantina River almost full of water

Last time through we did Winton to Boulia, a distance of 360 kilometres, in a day. This time, having started the day at Longreach we have broken our journey at the lonely road side pub at Middleton. There was a town of Middleton but it is long gone and only the 130 year old hotel remains. Free camping is available over the road. Most who use the area express their appreciation by patronising the hotel.

Middleton Hotel

Middleton Hotel

We went over for a drink after setting up and then later, went back for dinner. Dinner guests included a couple from Taroom in Queensland on their way to Camooweal to help run the annual drovers festival. An other couple have just travelled the Birdsville Track and were able to give us some good information on road conditions.

An old Cobb & Co coach stands outside the Middleton Hotel

An old Cobb & Co coach stands outside the Middleton Hotel

The Middleton Pub is over 130 years old. The area was first explored by John McKinley who was leading a group searching for lost explorers Bourke and Wills. W Middleton was second in command. The area when opened shortly afterwards was named Middleton in his honour.

The publican and his wife are elderly but are assisted by younger family members. They were most welcoming. The menu was surprisingly extensive but we chose the “house” meal of corned beef with potato, cabbage and white sauce. The serving was generous. The facilities were basic with outside toilets and showers constructed of corrugated iron. The plumbing for the shower looked like a plumber’s nightmare but the rusty shower head was large and hot water cascaded out.

We went to sleep to the gentle lowing of cattle in a yard behind the hotel, probably waiting for a truck to take them to market.

Approaching Cawnapore Lookout

Approaching Cawnapore Lookout

The overnight stay at Middleton produced an unexpected bonus. Soon after leaving Middleton, jump ups start to appear on the horizon. The road turned towards them and as we drew closer the morning sun illuminated the red stone caps and eroded upper reaches turning them to shades of deep red. The green vegetation that clings to the slopes takes on a brilliancy that makes it look painted on.

A path for the fitter leads to the summit if the Cawnpore jumpup

A path for the fitter leads to the summit if the Cawnpore jump up

A picnic shelter marks Cawnpore Lookout, a vantage point that stands above a cutting through the hills. To reach it you must scramble up a steep gravel path but the effort is well worth while. The views through 360 degrees are stunning. Those fitter than I can follow a path that leads to the very top of the jump up for even better views, I imagine.  Accompanying photos illustrate.

A view from the lookout

A view from the lookout

From here the dramatic hills reduce in frequency. The final 80 kilometres or so into Boulia returns to endless green planes with scattered trees. The only dense vegetation lines the many water ways, most of which retain some of the recent rain.

 

Car and van from the lookout and hills to the west

Car and van from the lookout and hills to the west

The Min Min Centre in Boulia

The Min Min Centre in Boulia

We have reached Boulia and are in the caravan park, with the Bourke River only a few metres from the back of our van. Boulia is a small service town at the junction of Kennedy and Diamantina Developmental Roads. The Donohue Highway that leads to Alice Springs via the Plenty Highway branches off just out of town. The town has museum displays of dinosaur fossils and other items relating to the past when where Boulia stands was part of an inland sea. It also has the Min Min Experience, an animated show that tells of the mysterious Min Min Lights.

A full Bourke River at Boulia.

A full Bourke River at Boulia.

Weather has been brilliant. Morning temperatures have been around 10 C with day temperatures in the mid twenties. We experienced some cloud and a few spots of rain on the windscreen as we approached Middleton, but by evening the stars shone from a cloudless sky. But we have had some chilly breezes from east to south west, but they are easy to avoid or you put on something warmer.

Tomorrow we head south for Bedourie and Birdsville.