Heading West – part 1

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Shiny clean and ready to go

Saturday, we headed out of Townsville and up over the Hervey range, so at last Grandpa got to ride up and over the hills. We were so excited about the next part of our trip, getting onto dirt roads and finding little places and lots of open spaces. The aim was to follow the Savannah Way, a rugged tourist drive around the Gulf country to NT. It didn’t take long. A bit of a short cut to Georgetown via Einasleigh, 70km of dirt, not too bad. We started to see wedge-tail eagles and boy were they big. No way would I stop on the side of the road for a snooze, they would carry you off.

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Lunch on the dirt

Einasleigh pub was the real deal, not just your touristy outback pub. All 5 locals were there and the publican was drinking with them, so service was slow. It did however, have a fantastic display of models made by the publican’s father.

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We camped the next night at Leichardt’s Lagoon just before Normanton. A fantastic bird filled lagoon on a station. So many water birds making noise until sundown. Even though we were in winter the sun was not setting until 6.30pm, not like at home where it would have been dark for an hour.

We were starting to see termite mounds and they got bigger and more of them.

Normanton’s icon is the giant fibreglass crocodile in the main street, meant to be life size. I know they grow big but that is hard to believe anything could grow that big and scary. We got some supplies and filled up. We need to be prepared because the next place might have a shiny new supermarket fully stocked or the truck might be due in tomorrow and there is nothing on the shelves. I love these places where you just have to wait for the chat to finish before anything happens but at least you know you can ask questions about the way ahead. That is if they get out of the place. The roads going north/south are tar and the roads east/west were mostly dirt. I suppose they figure that if you leave town you just want to get back south to civilisation.

So, on our way to Burketown. The landscape is real savannah grassland and beautiful tropical rivers. They just look like they are infested with crocs.

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120 kms of dirt road to Burketown and I was feeling pretty good about it. I was learning to handle the corrugations OK and the bikes seemed to handle them too. We got to Burketown for a fantastic Barra pie and Roadkill sausages for dinner. Too bad about intending to stay the night, the caravan park was full, but there might be room at the free camp down the creek, they said, “Yeah right, like we are going to camp there!” There was a roadhouse 30km further along the road, Tirranna Roadhouse is just a fuel stop and takeaway in the middle of nowhere but it was the direction we were going in.

Lawn Hill National Park is the place to go when you are in this part of the world but we were not sure how to arrange a visit there without backtracking too much. It would be about 400km round trip or we could stay overnight. There was another track which would make a loop right around and bring us back out onto the Savannah Way further west. So we packed up and set off through Gregory Downs to Adele’s Grove and Lawn Hill Gorge. These places were huge stations now turned into National Parks. Imagine having this paradise in your backyard. It would go some way in compensating for the isolation and heat and dust and flies and hard work of living here in the old days.

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It would have been great to spend more time and paddle along to gorges but a quick walk and a look and we were off early in the afternoon to see what the rest of the track was like.

First we came to gates into another station and then another with an obscure sign KFC? Then a creek crossing…. Kevin ploughed straight through but I had seen that there was no hard bottom on the crossing and I am sure I would fall off whether it was sand or rocks or whatever. He looked back from the other side and I was just staying put shaking my head. He looked at the next crossing and it looked deeper and what about the next one and the next. There were a few crossings still to come. I would have loved to camp there as it was one of those beautiful tropical paradise creeks with crystal clear water, paperbarks and pandanus palms. So, what now? Back to Tiranna Roadhouse and spend the night. Back along the rough, corrugated road to Gregory Downs and put up the tent again. I had had a few scary moments on the way out along this road and another 70km back along the same way made me think that all this dirt road might not be fun after all.

More discussion and talk about the road ahead. It will be OK, we told ourselves, we just need to take our time. We had supplies for 3 days and hopefully enough fuel to keep us going to Borroloola. We packed up again the next morning and set off along the tar for about 80km till it turned to dirt after Doomadgee. The corrugations started straight away and were constant. I had been having increasing problems with my right hand (the throttle hand) going numb and tingling and burning and cramping so that having to hold on to maintain control of the handlebars was getting painful. Everyone has heard the tales of bulldust up north, fine powdery dust which can be really thick. We came across this pretty soon and picking the easiest way along the road became harder and harder. We had probably gone about 10km and I had to stop. I asked Kevin, “Do you want to keep doing this for 300Km??” At least he is not the kind of bloke who has to be tough. He replied “I was wondering when you were going to stop”. Someone coming in the opposite direction stopped and they reckoned the road got worse. SO that was that decision made. We turned around and decided to go back and follow the tar to get to Northern Territory, much safer that way. It would add quite a few more miles but that was OK, we didn’t have a strict schedule to stick to. The bulldust got me though and I made a soft landing and only a broken hook on the pannier.

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We stopped back at Tirranna Roadhouse one last time for lunch and then set off south back through Gregory Downs and east to Burkes and Wills Roadhouse for the night. This is the main road heading north up to Normanton so there were tourists and road trains aplenty. The next day we continued on our circuit heading south to Cloncurry and then west to Mt Isa and Camooweal for the night. We headed further west into Northern Territory along the Barkly tableland. The country was flat as flat and no wildlife anymore. No kangaroos, no birds of prey. Not sure why that was, probably no water. There were cattle and the only fences were on the boundaries from one station to another, so with the speed limit 130k/h you need to keep your eyes open. The most amazing thing was the ‘virtual’ cattle grids painted on the roads. Either the cattle are really smart or really stupid to take notice of some lines painted on the road.

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Mt Giles walk

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It was a bit of a spur of the moment decision signing myself up for a five day, full pack trek to Mt Giles in the West Macdonnell Ranges National Park, just west of Alice Springs. Challenging, off track trek and climb up Mt Giles just for fun. No worries. All I had to do was buy some new boots and gaiters and start some training and I was off.

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We were picked up from the motel and headed to the Ochre pits where stuff got sorted and we got our share of food supplies. That, plus 4 litres of water certainly loaded down the pack, but not feeling too bad. The Ochre pits is an important site for Indigenous people and was used for ceremonies and trade. We headed up through Inarlanga Pass, a narrow rocky gorge with those fantastic, glowing red rocks overhanging. It was one of those places protected through time where ancient plants survived through all the changes, cycads and ferns and ghost gums growing.

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The first treat of the day was lunch laid out on a tablecloth, on a rock, sushi! How spoilt am I? From the other side of the gap, we can see Mt Giles across the Alice Valley. It looks really high. Then I find out that the guides didn’t find any map to use. How are we going to spend 5 days in the wilderness without a map? But there it is laid out in front of us. Down along the Larapinta track for a while and then over to a rise where we would spend the first night.

I thought I was doing OK, the day was starting to heat up and we didn’t have far to go. But I quickly faded and found it really hard going. My hips were feeling very weary even though it was not rough going and I started to feel that maybe I couldn’t do this. Oh no! What would happen if I couldn’t keep going. This is stupid, I haven’t come this far to stop here. I felt really awful when we reached our campsite and knew I would have a headache and feel sick. I didn’t want the guides to be worried but of course they could see I wasn’t doing well. I took my dinner to bed so I could eat when I felt better.

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Whispering Pines

Of course I felt so much better in the morning. It must have just been a shock to the system with the heat and all. What a relief.  After porridge and coffee, we left camp really early in the morning to walk in the cool. Further along the rise we could see the days walk laid out in front of us again. We were going to walk across the Alice Valley.

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The guides pointed to the creekline outlined with the trees that we would follow and the small hill we would walk around and then over to the base of a spur leading down from Mt Giles. The scenery was magic, Mt Sonder and Ormiston Pound were in the background and everywhere the colours and rocks were amazing in the early light.

Following the creek was nice and cool in the shade and there were finches in the bushes so we knew there must be waterholes nearby. There had been quite a bit of rain about a month ago and most of the creeks had got some water in them.  We were following dingo tracks and then came upon camel tracks. Not a lot of other animal life until we came upon frogs! There must have been enough water for long enough for the frogs to hatch and grow. Surprising.

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The creek bed was sand or it was rocks or boulders to climb over until we left the creek and were walking through spinifex, mulga and the occasional ghost gum. We had made really good time walking and I was feeling great and found our spot to camp for two nights right where they said we would be. The only trouble was finding a spot between the rocks to put our little shelters. The best part was that there was a spring up the gully and a small pool to have a splash in. Spring water and and a wash, what else do you need? Lots of food, that’s where Ben, the guide, got his man bun on turned into the chef extraordinaire.

I still was not game to look at where we would walk the next day, the summit of Mt Giles, the third highest peak in Northern Territory at 1389m a whole 9m higher than Mt Sonder. Just take it as it comes and I’m sure it will be fine. Another early start saw us starting up that jagged spur and before I knew it, I turned around and was astounded by the view and what we could see.

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Next breather, we could see further over Heavitree Range to the south.

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Saying to self, don’t look up, don’t look down. One foot in front of the other. This is not so bad after all, at least we didn’t have packs on. Then we were at the summit. WooHoo! And the view over the other side and all around. There was our map, we could see the whole way we had come and where we would be going tomorrow. The log book at the top showed that apart from someone checking on the motion cameras monitoring native bush rats, we were the only other people up there so far in 2016.

Then the decision was which way to go down, back the way we had come up or a more adventurous roundabout way down the next hillock which I named JoDunKriBen Hillock, ‘cause every  hill needs a name. I figured that the other way couldn’t be any scarier than going back down the way we had come up, so onward we went down JoDunKriBen. It was only really scary in one spot where you had to stretch across a space of smooth rock and nothing else under you. Easy peasy. It was a relief to get back down and have lunch and admire the view eventually from the bottom. What an achievement! Now we are more than half way through our trek.

Time for some wine. One reason the pack is so heavy is the two sachets of ‘dry red’ wine I have been carrying. Now is the time we need to treat ourselves.

Day 4 saw us up really, really early as today was going to be hot 35⁰. All of the stars were bright against a dark sky. The nearly full moon was setting later but still there was plenty of night time without a moon to see the stars, that’s one reason for coming out here. Porridge and coffee and packing up were all done in the dark. It was light enough when we started walking to follow our creek and negotiate the rocks. They were pretty spectacular in places, granite worn smooth into wavy shapes and you thought you must be by the sea.

 

The morning passed quickly and walked through Ormiston Pound and crossed over to Bowman Creek towards Bowman Gap. Literally, before I knew it, we were putting down our packs and here we are. A fabulous waterhole and sand to camp on. How wonderful to be able to have a ‘hip hole’ just where you need it. A great swimming spot to float around and look up at the sky and think ‘How lucky am I, this is just the best thing to be doing and in a place where it is not expected’ and a walk further up the creek, just because you never know what is up the creek and around the corner. Then home to a beautiful risotto and floating candles. Thanks Josh and Ben a beautiful way to nearly finish a great trip.

Confession time, it was not a totally wilderness experience, there were water drops for the first and the last nights. Plus, when it became apparent that the coffee supply would not last until the end of the trip, the satellite phone, which I assumed would only be used in emergency situations was used to tell the boss that we would need additional supplies for the last night and there it was along with two jerry cans of fresh water, ground coffee and milk powder. Thanks Holger.

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Ormiston Pound

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Dingo tracks

The last day was an easy walk back to civilisation. Such a surprise when you see your first other humans after only seeing dingo tracks. But wait, there’s still more surprises. To get across Ormiston Creek you have to wade through chest deep water. I graciously let one of the guides take my pack balance above his head while I walked carefully across. At least that way my stuff didn’t get all wet. One thing we had been anticipating and discussing for days, was an Iced Coffee at the kiosk at Ormiston Gorge where we finished. It didn’t disappoint either, then we had another swim before jumping in the troopy to head back to Alice Springs.

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Looking back to Mt Giles

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Entering Ormiston Gorge

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Ormiston Gorge

The last view I had as we drove back was of Mt Sonder, the end of the Larapinta Trail, 230km of walking track from Alice Springs. I think the guys had convinced me that I could do that as we walked along, but gee, it’s such a long way. Still it is a spectacular sight. You never know………

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