STAGE 3 - The Long Bit
Durba Hills to the Sandy Blight Junction Road - Western Australia/Northern Territory
At one stage today as we climbed a dune, which were averaging about 10 metres, I had a commanding view of the region. To the south-west I could see the Durba Hills, to the south-east the Calvert Ranges (Ngundrayo Hills), to the north the haze from Lake Disappointment and to the north-east, a section of the Runton Ranges.
For the most part the spinifex is thin on the ground due to major fires through the inter-dune corridors, however when it wasn't burnt-out it was very thick, which makes walking difficult and progress slow as the camels walk around the clumps, seldom through or over them. Nevertheless, we still covered 21km in 7 hours which is good going as the camels are well & truly loaded up for this stage - 210 litres of water, enough food for 45 days ( which can be stretched to over 55 days if required), plus some extra meaty-bites for
Mac. It is approximately 640km across the Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts to the next re-supply point in the Northern Territory, so I am being very careful to ration the water supplies although I make sure that Mac is never thirsty.
Camped in a small claypan last night and when I went to untie the camels this morning at about 6.15, found that there was a ring-in in the camp. A young wild bull was also camping with my camels, who were basically ignoring him and after we had loaded up, he too lost interest and went his own way. Spent nearly all day traversing dunes and arrived on the 'shores' of Lake Disappointment about 3.30. Here the lake is about 600m wide with a couple of small dunes scattered in the centre. There is a channel about 50m from shore with pools of very salty water. Undrinkable but perfect for a wash!
A herd of 13 camels came for a visit as we were about to load and after a bit of a look about, they continued walking along the lake. I sometimes wonder what they make of my camels and why they don't get up to say hello. It must be confusing for them. We crossed the channel without drama, as although the surface was soft, the camels didn't hesitate to cross. I noticed that the water was actually flowing slowly north. It was good to be across the lake as if it had been too soft, we would have to detour at least 35km to the south. Saw another 11camels during the day and at lunchtime came across a large claypan full of water where we all drank and then continued on 35 degrees towards the Tropic Of Cap where we should camp tomorrow night.
Camped 166km east of Lake Disappointment.
Facts & Figures
In the last 10 days I have walked a 'camp to camp' distance of 229km at an average of 22.9km/day. The actual kms travelled according to my pedometer is 266.8km at an average of 26.68km/day. The average noon temperature has been 22 degrees. The average 6 AM temp has been 10 degrees with 3 frosts. Each day has been clear & sunny with no cloud and for the last 6 days a strong north-easterly wind has blown during the morning.
We have seen 108 wild camels, ranging from lone bulls to a herd of 34. The dunes have slowly been getting smaller beginning with an average height of 15 metres and now averaging less than 5 metres. Actually for most of today there were no dunes at all and this marks the 'boundary' between the Little Sandy and Gibson Desert's and in this section of the Gibson there are few defined dunes. The country is undulating spinifex plains with belts of Mulga.
Approximately 15% of the country we have travelled across has been burnt by bushfires in the last 12 months and I would estimate a further 25% burnt during the last decade. Where the country hasn't been burnt, the inter-dune corridors are heavy with spinifex which is very dense and makes for difficult and slow walking for both myself and the camels. The amount of good quality camel feed is slowly diminishing.
The only fresh water we have seen was a large claypan about 5km east of Lake Disappointment. We have crossed 3 sets of old vehicle tracks (probably more than a decade old) and 2 seismic/oil exploration lines.
A Typical Day is waking up at 5.45 and untying the camels from their night tree, as each camel is hobbled and tied at night. Breakfast is pretty quick - a cup of muesli and vita brits, 200ml of uht milk. I bring the camels in about 7.30 and we are loaded and ready to go at about 8.30. We walk for 4 hours stopping every hour for 5 minutes. Lunch stop is for 30min and is usually dry biscuits, cheese, muesli bars, an apple, water and perhaps a piece of fruitcake if there is any. Another 3 hours walking in the afternoon and we make camp at about 4. The camels wander about feeding until dark and sometimes I only tie 2 up and put a bell on the third and let him graze all night. Dinner is cooked on the fire and usually consists of a rice or pasta or tinned tuna & tinned fruit combination plus soup, tea or coffee.
The selection of a camp site is made on the availability of camel feed and an area of cleared land for unloading. In the last few days I have had several 'spinifex camps'
where there is only just enough space to unload the camels and put down my swag.
After checking my maps, I have revised the schedule and added another 5 days to this stage. I am still covering more kms/day than expected but the most difficult part
of the stage is yet to come and unless the feed improves we will have to walk less hours/day so that the camels get enough to eat.
July 9th - TWO EXPEDITIONS MEET IN THE DESERT
When I was in Newman I had heard a story about some Europeans who were pulling a cart across the Gibson but I couldn't find out much more than that. As I was approaching the 'intersection' of the Garry Highway & the Tropic of Capricorn, I quite suddenly walked into the base camp of Origin Xpeditions who were very surprised to see me but they knew I was about somewhere, as they had visited my website before they arrived in Australia. The expedition consists of 2 Dutch guys, 1 Polish chap and 1 Canadian girl, all of whom have had vast experience leading arctic & antarctic expeditions.
The Australian desert was a new challenge for them and their plan is to cross the Little Sandy & Gibson Desert's along the Tropic from Lake Disappointment to 'Kintore' just over the Northern Territory border. Each team member pulls a two-wheeled buggy which holds their equipment, food and water and they have a support crew which has left cache's of supplies along the route approximately every 5 days travel. These people are having a far tougher experience than I, as all I have to do is walk and lead the camels over the dunes which is much easier than pulling a buggy through the spinifex.
Edmond, Marc, Denise & Marek all said that it was easy to roll the buggys, particularly when they were lightly loaded, and as they are attached by a harness, when the buggy rolls it takes the person with it into the sharp spinifex. Not much fun really & I offered to sell them a camel quite cheaply - only $10,000 US dollars.
I spent the day at their camp comparing notes and checking the maps for the next section which we all agreed was going to be the toughest.
We departed together this morning from the Origin Basecamp, heading back into the spinifex together. It struck all of us how co-incidental it was that two expeditions should be following the Tropic Of Capricorn on the same day heading in the same direction at roughly the same speed but with totally different modes of transport. But one adventure was a team effort, the other a solo expedition. Over the next 3 weeks we will be quite close to each other, although you only have to be 1 or 2 dunes away and you wouldn't know the other party was there at all. I have their re-supply cache co-ordinates and we exchanged satphone numbers in case of an emergency.There is still a very good supply of parakeelya which is keeping the camels happy and their purple flowers are a burst of colour amongst the spinifex so perhaps the feed will hold out for a while longer.
Position 23 25 31
126 54 21
207km from the Northern Territory border.
Back into the dunes.
After the rather nice break of the rolling spinifex plains, it is now back into the dunes which are averaging about 10 metres in height. Because these dunefields are running roughly west-east, it is possible to follow the inter-dune corridors which is easier for the camels and we have been walking in the same corridor for the last 80km.
Two days ago a group of seven bull camels came into camp during the night and made themselves at home with my three bullocks who basically ignored them. The group consisted of two older bulls and five youngsters all a deep black. The next day I wasn't too concerned at the bulls' presence at let them follow us all day. In fact they were so quiet that at one stage I looked behind me to see all seven camels casually walking in single file behind Morgan, who is third in line in my string. One big happy group, although I had my doubts as too how long that would last. When we made camp the largest bull, and leader of the group, was keen to be a nuisance. My camels wouldn't venture too far from camp and it was quite interesting to watch their behaviour as when the bull was a menace, they would come back to camp towards me. It was the first time in my five years of working with camels, that I had seen them treat the camp & its humans as a 'secure' place. At one stage, Morgan, who was hobbled by the front legs, came 'skipping' at full speed towards camp, went over & luckily missed all the equipment and stopped right next to me as the bull circled. I thought it was just a matter of time before trouble began and I tied the camels close to camp that night. Sure enough, as soon as it became dark, there was a hell of a commotion and the big bull had Morgan tangled up in his rope and was biting his front leg. I walked over with the rifle at the ready but it was very difficult to get a clean line of sight to the bull, so I fired one shot as a warning to try and get his attention which, incredibly, didn't work. The next obvious thing to do was to grab the nearest large stick and whack him over the head with it. That did get his attention and while he moved away from Morgan I had time to load the rifle. As he came in to resume the fight I shot him - one of those things that I don't like doing but Morgan was going to be injured unless action was taken.
Once into the Gibson Desert the country has changed from sand dunes to undulating spinifex plains interspersed with belts of mulga and therefore is much easier for walking with only the occasional areas of dense spinifex.
Earlier in the week we crossed the Tallawanna track and as it was late in the afternoon we followed it for the last hour of the day before camping. It wasn't long before some vehicles came along who turned out to be a group from the Four Wheel Drive Club of WA. We all had a yarn about each others trips and they gave me some water and fresh fruit plus a generous donation to the RFDS.
The next morning I met 3 vehicles heading west who said there was good water further along the track, so after checking my maps I made the decision to stay on the track for 2 days until the water then head back to the Tropic. There was now a very good covering of parakeelya on the ground which is an excellent source of water for stock and when we did reach the water ( a result of the rains from a few months ago) the camels didn't even bother to drink, so after filling 2 jerry cans we headed north.
It's always a nice surprise to stumble across a geographical feature that is not marked on the map and therefore I wasn't expecting. Situated in the middle of the dune corridor was a small rocky hill about 15 metres high by 40 metres across. There were a number of small 'caves' or overhangs where there was evidence that the Common Wallaroo had been sheltering and the view from the top was clear to all points of the compass. I could see over all the surrounding dunes and noticed that the stands of desert oak continued in all directions.
As for camel feed, the succulent parakeelya has disappeared but every now and then we come across large areas of grevillea in full bloom and the camels certainly know about the abundant honey found in the flowers. The holly leaf grevillea is also flowering and the camels are experts at stripping the stems for the red fruits. Occasionally we also see gyrostemon, which is poisonous to camels and unfortunately they have no hesitation in eating it, so I have to be careful which plants I walk them past. A couple of mouthful's on a full stomach isn't a problem but if they were very hungry and really got into the plant, it could easily kill them.
Saw the most amazing meteor tonight, falling vertically below the Southern Cross and was visible for just over a second all the way to the horizon. The most I have counted is nine in about 45 minutes.
I went out to fetch the camels this morning and there was a young cow feeding with them. She was no taller than myself and as I was walking with Bindii, she came up to investigate him and was not worried by my presence at all. She stopped only about 2 metres from me and I stood very still as she stretched out her neck to sniff my face (a normal camel thing to do). After I had loaded the camels and headed off, she followed for a while but then lost interest and we never saw her again.
We are camped next to a huge dead desert oak tonight and the parakeelya has reappeared which is good news for the humps. Morgan is untied tonight and was wandering about feeding until about 10 minutes ago and has now decided to come into the camp and is sitting about five metres from my swag facing the fire. I have offered him coffee and my Saturday night chocolate ration but he seems happy to just sit and stare into the flames. For a moment then, I thought he was about to launch into some Banjo Paterson but he now has his head on the ground and is off to sleep.
The country is gradually changing as we get closer to the Northern Territory. Today marks our last day amongst the dunes and we are now on a large open flat. Over the last few days the spinifex has thinned out and there are now more stones underfoot as the layer of sand is quite thin. The number and height of the anthills is also increasing. What is not increasing is the amount of good quality camel feed. There has always been something for them to eat but over the last couple of nights the choice has basically been the occasional parakeelya growing right in the spinifex or one or two lonely acacias. For the first time, all three camels were eating desert oak last night. Mac chased a wild cat today and both of them took off over the dunes. Since I began this journey in the desert regions, I have seen cat tracks almost every day and this was the second cat we have seen. Wild cats are 'escaped' domestic cats, and live very happily in the Australian deserts. They survive on birds, lizards and rodents such as The Spinifex Hopping-mouse.
Camped 48km from the border. For most of the day we walked through large areas of mulga and eucalypt in amongst small claypans and the occasional stoney rise. As the Tropic Of Capricorn passes through Lake MacDonald, we have already begun to detour north around the lake, as to walk across it is not a wise thing to do. (Lake MacDonald is a salt lake). In the last four days we have walked ninety-four kilometres - an average of just over 3.6km per hour.
This afternoon I set up the High Frequency (HF) radio and listened in to Alice Springs RFDS Base to see if there were any messages for me.
I had originally planned for some chaps from 4X4 Australia Magazine to be part of my re-supply crew on the Docker River Road, but as I had put my schedule back by two days they were now wishing to meet me along the Tropic somewhere after obtaining the required permits from the Central Lands Council. The base operator relayed my co-ordinates to them and we agreed to meet on the state border tomorrow night.
Setting off from the salt lake this morning, I could see Mt Leisler in the distance approx 52km away. We had to walk 24km to the state border and arrived there at 2.30 where, sure enough, Anthony & Terry were camped at the precise co-ordinates I had given them. It was good of them to drive out to meet me and that night they cooked up a delicious roast lamb & veges in the camp-oven. There was a partial eclipse of the moon tonight which was clearly visible just after the moon had risen.
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129 00 00
Into the Northern Territory! Last night we were talking about snakes, as I have only seen three small snakes during the trip. I had only walked about 200 metres this morning and there was a 1.5m long, very fat Mulga snake sliding across the hard red dirt. I guess it decided that being trodden-on by a 600 kilo camel wasn't a good way to start the day and it quickly disappeared into a small clump of spinifex. Mulga snakes can give a potentially fatal bite.
The country remained fairly open today but I was concerned a couple of times when the trees disappeared, as I would need a good base camp at the re-supply point. But as we crossed the Docker River Road, the eremophilla and mulga trees returned and we made camp where there was good shade as at 3pm it was 33 degrees, whilst two days ago at 5.30am it was 5 degrees! The cool winter day temperatures have indeed been short-lived. Late this afternoon my good friends (and re-supply crew) Trevor & Sophie Shiell arrived from Alice Springs and after unpacking the ute it was time for a yarn and a couple of beers.
Docker River Road - Northern Territory - End Of Stage 3 - 1548km from the Indian Ocean
According to the pedometer I have walked 2025.86km.
23 26 33
129 21 18