STAGE 5 - The Last Desert

 

Amburla Station to Marion Downs - Northern Territory/Queensland

 

  • Arltunga
  • The Simpson Desert
  • Into Queensland

 

September 7th

 

Despite being so dry, it is very picturesque country east of Alice. We arrived at Arltunga yesterday and had a tour through the many ruins of the old town which was officially central Australia's first town, settled after gold was discovered in 1887. Back then, this was a very remote goldfield and transporting supplies and mining equipment here was a huge effort. Camel strings used to do the run from the Oodnadatta railhead in twenty-one days, each camel carrying about 200 kilos of cargo. (Morgan is carrying the same weight). In an epic of Australian overland haulage, a five tonne boiler was carried by fifty horses, harnessed three abreast, from Oodnadatta to Arltunga. We are now camped just east of the Arltunga Hotel and tomorrow begin walking along the track towards Ruby Gap, back onto Amballindum Station and then into the more open sandy country on the desert fringe. Thanks to Harvey and Christine of the Arltunga Bush Hotel for their generous donation to the RFDS.

 

September 8th

 

Leaving Arltunga, we followed the road towards Ruby Gap and then turned onto station tracks that led us through the hills towards the more open country in the east. We are on Amballindum Station again, and I took the opportunity to water the camels at the station bores and also to fill our jerry cans. The flies are incredibly thick today. Question - How many flies can fit onto a vita-weat biscuit? At lunch time I was spreading some cheese on a vita-weat and I put the biscuit down to slice a tomato. While that was happening, the flies took to the cheese, covering it completely. I looked at this for a minute or two trying to decide if I was still hungry, then suddenly clapped my hands over the black mass. Direct hit! Answer - 48. Mmmm. Things must be getting boring at lunch time if that is all there is to talk about. But the flies are with us from the time I poke my head out of my swag at dawn until after sunset, when they disappear for the night, so I guess they are part of the expedition as well. Except for 48 of them.

 

September 10th

 

About a dozen red-tailed Black-Cockatoo's are sitting in the gums around our camp which is about 800 metres from a bore.

They are very noisy and seem to be having a competition with two galahs perched in the same tree, to see who can annoy the silly cameleer and his dog the most. There is plenty of acacia here and the humps are quite happy.

 

September 13th

 

Position

23 26 30

135 58 51

 

As I tap away on the laptop at dusk, a dingo has come to investigate the camp. He is only about ten metres away and Mac, the incredible guard dog, is eating his dinner and hasn't noticed our guest. The dingo has now spotted me and he ambles away. No doubt he will keep watch, especially once I start cooking dinner. Tonight is one of those unusual occasions when we are actually camped right on the Tropic Of Capricorn amongst a large stand of gidgee. It is unusual because during the day we have been travelling on 82 degrees, and at 4.30pm I wandered around a large area looking for a campsite and 'accidentally' stopped on 23 26 30. In the closest tree to camp there are about 15 budgies sitting very still & quiet watching our every move.

 

An eleven day break was long enough, as any longer and it would seem that the expedition would be starting from square one again. It was good that the camels were able to rest and they spent most of the time in the horse paddock at Amburla. There seemed to be so much to do whilst I was in Alice Springs. I had arranged for a different saddle to be sent up for Sang, as I decided he would be better off with his pack saddle rather than the converted riding saddle. I only brought the riding saddle in case I needed to ride in an emergency, but that now that I am traversing far more accessible country, it is time to swap.

 

It was interesting to see the television footage of the American chap who had gone walkabout to find himself in the Great Sandy Desert. What a circus. I wonder what he did find. He probably wonders as well.

 

Spring came and went quickly - I think it was spring on Sunday - and it has been quite warm for the last couple of days. Being in cattle country, we have access to abundant water. The camels have drunk twice out of the four times I have taken them to water - and Mac has had a bath each time.

 

After leaving Amburla, we walked due east along station tracks towards the Stuart Highway and then onto the road to Arltunga Historical Reserve which is about 110 km east of Alice. The country certainly is becoming more dry as we get closer to the Simpson Desert. Most of this area of the Northern Territory has received below average rainfall for the year and the feed probably won't pick up till we get into western Queensland.

It is a nice change to be walking along a road but I have only seen about ten vehicles in four days and only two of them stopped to talk. Evidently a bloke walking along a road with three camels must be quite a common scene in these parts. There are also many dingo tracks along the road. I did meet a Japanese guy who was riding his bike form Perth to Mackay. Head down, he was riding up a hill and, as we walk so quietly, he didn't know we were there until he saw our shadow. His eyes almost popped out of his head. We had an interesting and at times confusing yarn about life on the road. It took a while to explain that I had been travelling for seven months and not for seven years. But what an effort to ride all that way.

 

September 16th

 

The weather today was amazing. As with the previous two days, it was in the high 30's but by nine o'clock there was a very strong north-westerly which wasblowing sand and dust and at times we could see no further than about 150 to 200 metres. Luckily we had the wind behind us otherwise it would have been an effort to walk into that all day. Even the flies took shelter by camping on the southern side of anything, including my left arm, that was speckled black with their presence. We ended up walking 28 km today and camped in the bed of the Atula Creek (on Atula Station) so that we were out of the wind.

By sunset the storm clouds had moved in and there was lightening & thunder off to the west. The camels are tied up to gum trees and there is very little feed about tonight.

 

Some Facts & Figures about the Simpson Desert

 

The Simpson Desert is the largest parallel sand-ridge desert in the world and, broadly speaking, the stable dunes run north-west to south-east. Here in the north of the desert the sand-ridges have an average height of about five metres and are spaced approximately from one hundred to three hundred metres apart.The inter-dune corridors (and dunes) are covered in spinifex but this is not growing as dense as it was in parts of the Little Sandy Desert - here it is far easier to walk around. The corridors have a mixture of eucalypt, eremophilla, corkwood and acacia growing with some corridors being home to large stands of bloodwoods and ghost gums.

 

  • Approximate Area - 170,000sq kilometres
  • Approximate age - 18,000 years
  • Average annual rainfall - 130mm
  • Temperature range - 50 to -6
  • Area of desert comprised of dunefields - 73%
  • Number of dunes - 1100 (approx)
  • Dune height - between 10 & 40 metres
  • Longest dune - 200 kms
  • Plant species - 789
  • Dominant plant species - sandhill canegrass & lobed spinifex
  • Bird species - 180 (approx)
  • Aboriginal communities of the region - Wangkamadla, Aranda, Wangkangurru, Karangura, Ngamini, Jeljendi
  • First European exploration - Charles Sturt, 1844
  • First complete crossing (west to east) - Ted Colson, 1936
  • First major scientific expedition - Dr. Cecil Madigan, 1939

 

September 17th

 

Despite all the noise and light, there was only a few drops of rain last night. Today was a 'half day', as I had satphone calls to make to two radio shows and by the time that was completed, we didn't leave camp until 12.30.The day is very pleasant with a drop in temp to about 24, so I decided to head due east to a station bore and let the camels drink and fill all the jerry cans. If the scenery of the last few days is any indication of the dry season further east, the camels need to be 'topped up' as much as possible.

 

September 19th

 

We left the reasonably flat country of Atula Stn yesterday and are now back into the dunes. Acacia Victoriae or prickly wattle is a favourite camel feed and we stop to have a munch whenever we come across one. Well, at least they munch while Mac & I wait. At noon we reached the Hay River and had an early lunch on the western bank. The Hay is a typical inland river - wide & sandy with gums growing both in the river bed as well as in a narrow strip on each bank. Mac & I sat there on the bank with our feet dangling in the cool clear water - no, not really. It has been a while since the river flowed. But sitting there, I imagined how confounding it must have been to the early explorers who, stumbling across such a river, wondered "Where did all the water go? The great inland sea?".

 

September 20th

 

Position

23 26 30

137 26 25

 

Another fine day - clear with a light breeze. For most of the day I could see Mount Barrington about 25km to the north. The humps are doing well and we are travelling at about 3.5 km / hour which is a good speed in this sort of country. I have noticed that the ant-eaters have been very active about the place. Quite often we have seen their circular diggings around an ant mound. Over the course of the day we saw a dozen or so very large and presumably very old anthills which tend to spook the camels if we walk too closely to them. I stopped near one and all three just looked at it - not really sure about things. I think Morgan was sure that Frank, the giant bunyip, was hiding behind it. We have another day walking in the dunes tomorrow before reaching the channels of the Field River.

 

September 21st - Day 150

 

Position

23 26 36

137 40 00

 

It is beginning to warm up again - I'd guess it was about 35 today. We are back on a cattle station again but there is no stock due to the dry season. We

crossed the Field River and continued plodding along in the dunefields. There continues to be little feed for the humps.

 

September 23rd

 

Another very warm day with a strong north easterly blowing in the morning. The country has changed slightly and there are now occasional rocky rises in amongst the dunes. Most of the inter-dune corridors have stands of Gidgee (Acacia georginae) which provide welcome shade when we stop on the hour for a five minute break. The camels are feeling the heat. When we made camp this afternoon, they remained sitting for almost an hour. There is some feed scattered about our camp in the gidgee. Morgan, who is carrying the heaviest load, is free to wander about during the night looking for food. He has his stock bell around his neck. Tink, tink, tink. This is the only sound there is. The desert remains quiet.

 

Welcome To Sunny Queensland!

 

Two states down - one to go. When we crossed the border, Mac reminded me that he is probably the first Kelpie to walk across the Northern Territory.

 

September 24th

 

Another day heading east on a bearing of eighty-five degrees. As I have enough water for myself and Mac, I thought I would give some to the camels tonight which would give them a bit of a kick along. But as soon as I had worked out how much I could spare,( about 12 litres for each) we walked over another dune to be confronted by a herd of cattle. There were cows and calves in the mob which was a sure sign there was water very close. Sure enough, over the next dune on the edge of Abudda Lakes, was a bore & a set of cattle yards.We were now on Carlo Station - the western boundary being 'fenced' by the desert. It was good water at this bore and the camels would have drunk about forty litres each. We made camp a bit further on & it was interesting to watch them as they sat making gurgling & burping noises for a while, then up & into any feed they could find which meant gidgee, as that was all there was.

 

September 26th

 

Couldn't sleep last night and was still awake at 2.15. Being a full moon, I untied the camels at 5 am and we were loaded & on our way by 7am. We are now walking for five hours before lunch. By a strange coincidence (for my travelling), the bores on Carlo Station are aligned almost along the Tropic, so we again ran into another bore today, but the camels are 'full' and only wet their lips.

 

Today was our last day in the desert. The sand-ridges began to get smaller and we crossed some wide open stoney country. I could see the roof of the homestead in the distance so there was no longer any need for a compass. We stopped on the last dune and looked back at the Simpson Desert - there would be no more cross-country navigation on this journey, no more sand-ridges to climb, no more incredible views from the crests of the red dunes, no more water or food rationing, no more wild camels, and no camping where no-one has ever camped before. No more " I'll just climb another dune to see what's on the other side".

 

For the rest of the expedition we will be following station tracks, minor roads and then alongside the major highways of eastern Queensland. We have walked approximately one thousand kilometres across open, uninhabited desert in three states through country that few others had seen and even-though we would be passing through some very large cattle stations in the next few weeks, the 'remote' part of this journey is now over. I met Howard and Shirley, the owners of Carlo, and we had a cuppa while watching the Rugby Grand Final on satellite TV. I camped close to the house and Shirley gave the camels a barrow full of 'past it' cauliflowers from the vegie garden. They thought that was pretty good.

 

September 27th

 

Warm again today. Had a cuppa at the homestead then was on the track by nine. Howard showed me the way out and we walked till 4.15 when we got to a bore on the next station - Marion Downs.

 

The camels have good feed nearby in a small creek.

 

September 29th

 

Not as warm as the last few days but a very strong wind in the morning that made it difficult to put the saddle blankets on - it was really frustrating and took about 15 mins to get the saddles on - normally it takes about six or seven minutes. Met the manager of Marion Downs when we were walking along the track and had a yarn for a while. Still stoney country with the only feed in the creeks. Mac rode all day, as one pad is tender from walking on the stones. This is the first time he has ridden since way back in WA. Camped in a creek after a good day - we covered about 28kms. There are storms in the west that don't look too serious but who knows what can happen during the night.

 

September 30th

 

Walking along track all day through rocky & stoney country where there is some feed spread amongst the stones and in the small creeks.

 

Very windy again tonight - put the tent up as there were storms in the west but they didn't amount to much.

 

October 1st

 

We arrived at the homestead in the late morning just as the mail plane flew in on it's weekly round trip from Mount Isa.We camped on the other side of the Georgina River where there is enough feed to keep the humps happy.Marion Downs is a 12 000 square kilometre cattle station, owned by the North Australian Pastoral Company.Running a cattle station like this is quite a job. Mustering is done by plane & motorbike and during the mustering season (winter months) the mustering camp stays out for weeks at a time. There is a full-time staff of twelve which includes the manager, head stockman, six ringers, grader driver, boreman, cook and mechanic. The extensive station area includes the homestead, men's quarters, cookhouse, store, guest quarters, workshops and powerhouse. The diesel engine/generator runs 24hrs a day providing power. The property carries 14 000 head of cattle (average). There are 40 bores at a depth of 850 to 60 feet.The average annual rainfall is 200mls and the Georgina River floods about 1 in 4 years when the water can extend 16km across the floodplain.

 

Boulia / Bedourie Road - Queensland - End Of Stage 5 - 2634km from The Indian Ocean.

 

According to the pedometer I have walked 3207km or to put it another way - 4,927,879 steps.

 

Go to the photos for this stage