Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fabulous Flinders and attractive Adelaide

Roadworthy again from Port Augusta, we doubled back north into the famous Flinders Ranges for a few days. The Flinders Ranges region stretches for over 600 km from Port Pirie in the south to around Leigh Creek in the north, and is known for its rugged hilly landscape, Wilpena Pound (a large crater-like area surrounded by sharply-sloping hills including Mt Mary, the highest peak in the Flinders at about 1100 m) and wildflower displays in spring. There are 2 National parks in the area: Flinders Ranges, in the centre-north of the region, and Vulkathuna-Gammon Ranges in the north. But it also has some charming old towns (like Quorn and Hawker), very diverse geology including active earth tremors (over 200 per year are recorded), hot springs, coal deposits (chiefly at Leigh Creek), a history of mining and pastoralism (Thomas Elder founded what became the Elders agribusiness company here in the mid 1800’s), ruined towns like Beltana … the list go on.

Of course we did not see all this! But we did:

- Climb Rawnsley Bluff to get great views into Wilpena Pound, plus south and eastward across other hills such as the Elder Range. This walk was a bit of a grunter – 12 km including a 400 m steep climb to get to the ridge top. A good work-out.
- Putter along some of the twisty-turny gravel roads through lower gorges such as Brachina and Bunyeroo, with incredibly fractured and diverse rock structures, glorious old red gum trees in the creek beds, strange-coloured kangaroos (including white ones with black ears) and stunning views
- Stay at Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in the north for a couple of nights. This is a privately-operated joint, on 60,000 ha of very steep, rugged country. Originally a pastoral lease in the early 1930s, it was comprised of the cast-offs of 4 other pastoral leases that graciously gave over their most difficult country to form the new lease – talk about a hospital pass. It was farmed for a while but is now not grazed and run as a tourism venture only – however, mining companies are circling, see below for more info
- Took the Ridge Top tour at Arkaroola, a white knuckle ride over 22 km of steep track culminating at Sillers Lookout which is a handkerchief-sized patch on top of sheer drops with amazing views looking across to Lake Frome in the east. If you are going to Arkaroola, this is a must-do – it’s the sort of 4WD track you don’t get to go on very often!
- Drop by Beltana to get a sense of what it might have been like 140 years ago when the Overland Telegraph Route and the railway were big ticket items in these parts.
- Have lunch at the Prairie Hotel at Parachilna – pizza with toppings that included emu mince, camel mettwurst (sausage) and shaved kangaroo meat. Mmmm, yummy. This joint is a hoot: it specialises in feral food and is well worth a visit!

Arkaroola is interesting because it is one of the main sites of earthquake activity. The geology of the area has been studied intensively, since it has a huge diversity of rock formations, dating from about 1.8 b years ago and it’s possible to see all sorts of earth-forming processes going on (if you know what to look for). Douglas Mawson, famous mainly for his Antarctic explorations, was professor of geology at the University of Adelaide in the 1910s – 1940s (?) and pieced together the geological history of the area. This included the realisation that it was once covered by glaciers (hence his interest in Antarctica) and that the ranges could originally have been as high as the Himalayas before glacial and other erosion got to work on them.

Mawson was also the first to identify uranium-bearing rock in the area (in 1915), and the Beverley uranium mine, situated on the flat country to the east which has been formed by erosion of the ranges, is now one of Australia’s largest uranium extractions. Right now there is a battle going on at Arkaroola where a mining company is applying for a licence to dig up Mt Gee and cart it off for its uranium content. How they can hope to make money out of such an expensive exercise in such rugged and remote country is anyone’s guess. Anyway, the South Australia Government will need to decide between the merits of wilderness conservation and the mining industry because the two are not really compatible at Arkaroola.

For the last 2 days we have been moseying around Adelaide, which is a very attractive city and unfairly maligned by Melburnians and Sydney-siders for being boring and old fashioned. OK, it’s not as big at Sydney or Melbourne (about 1.2 m people), but it has everything you’d want and much less congestion. Mind you, it has been a bit of a shock re-adjusting to city driving after so many days when we saw only a dozen or so other vehicles in a whole days driving. (Indicators?? Where are they again??) It’s been great to lay-up here for a while but tomorrow we head off again, probably to Wentworth or thereabouts to launch an assault on the Darling River run in southern NSW.

Hope all is well for you.


The Chappies

16,700 km in 76 days. Touched the west, north and south coasts - only the east to go (Sydney)

Bunyeroo Gorge road, Flinders Ranges

Flinders Ranges scenery. Average annual rainfall = 130 mm (5 inches)

Rawnsley Bluff walk - finishing the tough stretch

Sillers lookout, Arkaroola

Mt Gee, Arkaroola. Marathon Mining wants to cart this away and take the uranium out of it

Old workers cottages at Beltana (the cottages are old, not the workers!)

Prairie Hotel Parachilna. Check out the blackboard menu

Feral white camel, near Orroroo. Similar to the ones on the menu at Parachilna, perhaps?

Torrens Lakes, Adelaide

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Real desert country: Oodnadatta, Coober Pedy and Lake Eyre (plus rain!)

South Australia is the driest State in Australia, which in turn is the driest continent (excluding Antarctica). And a little town called Oodnadatta happens to be the driest town in SA. It also now holds the record for Australia’s highest ever recorded daytime maximum temp, 52 degrees (in the shade, that is), earlier this year. This was the same heatwave that delivered Coober Pedy nine straight days of 49 degrees C or higher. Little wonder they favour living underground in these parts.

Oodnadatta was once a relatively important railway town, sitting strategically on the north-south railway line from Port Augusta to Darwin (known now as the ‘Old Ghan’). But this route was plagued by washouts, and the line was moved further west in (I think) the 1970s, where it now more-or-less follows the Stuart Highway. So Oodnadatta almost went the way of lots of other settlements on the old line and ‘died a natural’, except tourism plus the entrepreneurship of Adam and Lynnie Plate at the Pink Roadhouse has kept it alive. The Oodnadatta Track from Marla to Marree (about 620 km) is now one of the most popular ‘off the beaten track’ journeys in Australia, and the road have been positively busy as we have beetled our way south.

We spent a couple of nights in Coober Pedy, which is a place everyone should really visit. It’s so different – as you’d expect in such a harsh climate. Opal mining is the go here, has been since 1915, and people continue to work good claims today. The ‘big M’ miners are not here – this is small business mining, and there are some pretty colourful characters here (not just because they are layered in dust). Most people live underground, and many of the town businesses are underground too, occupying old mine shafts. ‘Underground’ means built into a hill side – see photo. Temps inside sit at a nice even 23 degrees year round – a safe haven from 50 degrees and wind storms outside. This place must be fearsome in the height of summer.

Prior to Coober Pedy we bush-camped at Arckaringa Station, in the Painted Desert, after walking the stunning Arckaringa Hills – a little-known but very striking attraction. From Arckaringa to Coober Pedy the road passes through Moon Plain, aptly named (see photo). Amazingly, this place is host to a lot of wildlife, including the inland taipan, the world’s most venomous snake, which hunts plains rats that find suitable habitat in some of the lower-lying parts of the plain. The road also crosses the dog fence, 5600 km long, running from Queensland to the southern Western Australia, to keep dingoes out of the south-eastern parts where sheep are farmed.

A big highlight was flying over Lake Eyre, from William Creek. L Eyre is the 6th largest lake in the world (nearly 10,000 square km, or 1 million hectares), but has been full on only 3 occasions since the mid 1800’s, and usually sees water only one year in every 8. It gets drainage water from about 1/3rd of the Australian continent, from the Barkly Tablelands in the northwest, to the western edge of the Great Dividing Range in far north Queensland. Some of these areas took a hammering from rain earlier this year, and much of this water is now filling L. Eyre. Currently, Cooper Creek is brining water from Queensland that fell as rain in February/March, and is expected to keep flowing for at least another three months. Yep, that’s right, it takes 6 months or so for the water to ooze > 1000 km into the Lake – because the terrain is so flat, and the distances are so huge. We got a great view of the Cooper Creek flowing into L Eyre north – a rare sight, so we feel pretty good about that. L Eyre North is about 10% full – that is, about 1000 square kilometres has a good depth of water over it, and birds are flocking to breed as the fish populations bloom.

William Creek township (population roughly 30 in the ‘peak’ season and roughly 4 in the height of summer) is on Anna Creek Station, which is 27,000 square kilometres in area (2.7 million hectares - about the size of Belgium). That sounds BIG – but the country is so dry it supports only one cattle beast per 1500 hectares (and sometimes zero cattle at all in droughts such as 2000 – 2007). Compare this to the West Kimberley at one beast per 60 hectares and you start to get a sense of how little feed there is for livestock around here.

To complete this little blog, and to show that not all goes swimmingly for the would-be intrepid traveller, consider this saga:
- Drove 140 km up the Birdsville track to the site where a ferry is taking vehicles across Cooper Creek, because the road is now under floodplain. All well and good, a special thing to do, but …
- Another flat tyre (number 4 on the journey – and this one brand new at Coober Pedy) – Birdsville Track is rocky-as
- Shattered windscreen – yep, rocks break glass as well as tyres
- Our camera died, sigh …
- Our camp site at Farina, where we met up with Geoff and Sue Saul and Tom and Kim Bege, heading north, was inundated by rain overnight, all campers wet, and …
- … the rain means the road in either direction has turned to muddy, porridge-like brown mess. We made a run for it, south, onto bitumen, asap this morning. Ned is now brown (not white) and the roads in the area are all now closed.

We are holed up in Port Augusta, re-grouping, and hoping to head back into Finders Ranges tomorrow or the day after.

Hope all is well for you.


The Chappies

Satellite image of Lake Eyre, Saturday 1oth. Dark blue areas have water, light blue is wet sand. Cooper Creek enters near top right - its the dark blue patch, and is being fed by the floodplains to the east (toward bottom right corner of image). Birdsville Track route runs through those floodplains, ferry is operating further east.

Name says it all

Arckaringa Hills, in the Painted Desert

Moon plain

Coober Pedy - mini dust storm

Coober Pedy undergroud house. Note vents and satellite dish on the 'roof'

William Creek - miles from elsewhere

Lake Eyre

A rare sight: Cooper Creek flowing into Lake Eyre

Strangways ruins - one of several towns and outposts on the early overland telegraph route, and the first 'Ghan' railway route which subsequently died away

Monday, July 5, 2010

Through the red centre

Our last week or so has been a mixture of ‘off the beaten track’ and ‘on the beaten track’. We’ve basically been driving through desert country, first on the Plenty Highway skirting the northern edge of the Simpson Desert (one of Australia’s harshest), then popping up in Alice Springs and moving on to Uluru through the Central Desert. Funny that, we’ve had more rain in the past 4-5 days than anywhere else on our trip! About 20 mm in Alice Springs on Thursday and early Friday (average July rainfall in the Alice is 10 mm), and more rain now at Uluru. Deserts get rain of course, and Australia’s deserts have a highly variable and unpredictable climate – they can go for years without any rain at all, then get deluged in a few days. There is vegetation and wildlife in these deserts, and a few sand dunes, but where we have been driving is not through the real desolate stuff.

The trundle from Comooweal to east of Alice was a breeze. For 300 km south of Camooweal we drove across the Barkly tablelands, home to some of Australia’s most well-known cattle stations such as Anna Downs, Barkly Downs and Headingley. It is dead flat and mostly treeless, but there was a heap of cattle farming activity and various other things to keep us entertained – including 19 car wrecks on the road side (Jen bet there would be 30, I bet 15, so I win, nah nah na nah nah), and a locust swarm on the Georgina River (one of the rivers that feeds Lake Eyre) near the interesting indigenous and way-out-back town of Urandangie. The unsealed and dusty Plenty Highway was cruisy from Tobermorey to Gem Tree. Highlights were:

- best-ever camp fire at Jervois Station
- being stopped for a random breath test at 9:30 am near Harts Range by 2 NT coppers (their opening line being “have you been drinking this morning sir?” – ah, no, bit early for me) – what, way the heck our here they still do random tests, wow
- the classic giant termite mound 50 km east of Harts Range

Incidentally, the Plenty is seen as part of a future bitumen link between Perth / Kalgoorlie in WA and Townsville in Q’ld – a diagonal route across the centre of Aus of roughly 3000 km from Laverton in the SW to Winton in the NE. This project requires co-operation among 2 States (WA, Q’ld), one territory (NT) and the Federal Govt, so needless to say it ain’t going to happen soon.

From Gem Tree (on the Plenty Highway), and en route to Alice, we dropped in to the East MacDonnell Ranges, which get less visitors that the better-known West MacDonnells. We had a fab time exploring:

- the old gold mining town of Arltunga, which bloomed from about 1895 – 1915 then withered, but the relics of mines, buildings and rock-crushing plant can still be seen
- John Hayes rock holes in the Trephina Gorge Nature Reserve, with a nice camp site reached by a bone-jarring 4WD-only track (another doozie of a camp fire)
- Trephina Gorge panorama walk, with outstanding views of the East MacDonnell Ranges
Alice was, well, wet and cold, and also packed with visitors, this being school hols time. Main attractions for us were looking for some indigenous art work to bring home with us (mission accomplished, bank balance impoverished) and the Alice Springs Desert Park – which we recommend as a must-do in Alice, we spent over 4 hours there getting the low-down on desert ecology and indigenous culture.

Cutting and running from Alice to Uluru we:

- by-passed the West MacDonnells, which are known for their gorges and chasms – which we figured we have seen enough of further north
- visited the historical Lutheran mission town of Hermannsburg, founded ca. 1885, and now basically a living museum of early attempts to change indigenous cultures and beliefs – this one a tad more successful than most, apparently
- bumped and ground our way over rock and sand into Palm Valley and did a quick walk of the gorge
- walked the rim of Kings Canyon (about 7 km, including a steepish climb to start with) on a still but overcast day – this is a ripper walk, and a MUST DO (but don’t stay at Kings Canyon Resort – far too bloody crowded, Kings Creek Station is a better option)
- watched a non-existent sunset over Uluru – described by Jen as follows: “The funniest part though was when we all debunked down to the sunset lookout 2 hours before sunset, sat ourselves down in front of our vehicles and spent 2 hours staring at a bloody rock! Not only did it not talk but it sat there and did nothing!! At least the wine was great even if the sun buggered off and hid behind the clouds. So much for memorable sunsets at Uluru!”
- walked the Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjutu (a.k.a the Olgas) – another ripper and a MUST DO, and
- walked around the base of Uluru, 10.5 km. From a distance, and in comparison with the Kata Tjutu walk, the Uluru base walk might seem a little ho-hum, but it was anything but. The rock is marked all over by water courses, caves, rock collapses, lichens and algae, bird roosting sites and so on, such that it offers constantly changing vistas.

Tomorrow we head SE, into South Australia, to get onto the Oodnadatta track and go through to the Flinders Ranges. One long day’s driving should get us most of the way. Will be in touch again in a week or so.

Hope all is well for you.


The Chappies

13,000 km in 63 days ...

On the road to Urandangie - or not, in this case

Locust swarm at Georgina River

Termite mound, Plenty Highway, plenty big

Old police station and lock-up, Arltunga

Trephina Gorge panorama

Kings Canyon

Kata Tjuta walk

Uluru - this rock is no push-over