Thursday, 7 May 2015

Melbourne to Alice Springs via the Hay River Track

Our trip started well with the Carmarthen to Swansea train being cancelled, however 36 hours later we were on the bus in to the Melbourne CBD and the welcome comforts of a small hotel - the Alto on Bourke St.
After some much needed sleep we walked through the centre to the Queen Elizabeth market which had an amazing display of stalls selling excellent food and crafts from around the locality. Sunday saw a stroll along the river passing Melbourne's social and entertainment centres before checking out our onward travel arrangements to Geelong. 

Thus on Monday the train delivered us to Phillip and Klara's home town where at their house a smart 4.5l V8 Toyota Landcruiser sat hooked up to a substantial aluminium camper trailer. This remarkable piece of kit was hand built by Phil and looked very much up to the job being fitted with water tanks, gas bottles and stoves, 240v and 12v power and lighting systems, a fridge, plenty of storage and a clever drawer arrangement to keep dry and tinned food in plus our rucksacks, folding chairs and a tent for our use. A second large drawer contained their sleeping arrangements - namely a double swag that pulled out to give comfy sleeping well clear of the ground.

Thus on the Tuesday we headed north on tarmac with plenty of supplies - both solid and liquid stopping off at various heritage sites en route. We soon felt at home as it is less than four years since our last visit and enjoyed various relics that related to the development of this enormous country over the last 200 years. The Big Lizzie traction engine was a monstrous beast that pulled trees and stumps out of the ground to clear land, consumed a hundred tons of wood a week and proceeded at a stately 1mph.

Ice creams at Wycheproof were enjoyed as we inspected the intriguing creations from scrap of a local artist before our first night at Green Lake - an abandoned livestock farm with good basic facilities. We soon had the tent erected and were introduced to the Ecobilly and the various functions of the trailer that would provide us with the essentials of life over the next few weeks. A good meal round the camp fire set the scene for many similar evenings and a smooth routine soon developed that at the start of each day usually began with a dawn chorus that to us was unfamiliar.

Kinchega National Park on the banks of the Darling River gave us a two night stay with a quick trip in to the nearby small town of Menindee and then a visit to explore the old Kinchega homestead whose enormous shearing shed saw 80,000 head hand shorn each year in its heyday. At a nearby weir dozens of pelicans fished lazily whilst eying us warily - a comical sight for both I suspect.


 Silverton north of the large mining town of Broken Hill was reached after a couple of days and provided our first night in a proper campsite. The former silver mining town was full of character and has been the setting for a number of films - most notably the Mad Max series - but is nowadays largely abandoned with artists moving in and out and creating all sorts of colourful and quirky displays. We ate well at the surviving pub that was packed with memorabilia and enjoyed hot showers at the slightly run down site.

Saturday in Broken Hill saw the town celebrating ANZAC day - the mining conglomerate BHP (Broken Hill Proprietary) was established here and valuable mineral resources are still extracted here on a substantial scale. For us it was a chance to stock up before our first foray in to the real outback as seventy miles west of the town we headed on to the first gravel tracks of the trip. Cardboard protectors were taped to the rear windows to stop stones causing damage and tyre pressure were lowered to smooth the ride as we headed to a lunch stop at the remains of the old copper workings at Waukaringa.

Chambers Gorge saw another two night stop giving us a chance to visit the aboriginal engravings, climb Mt. Chambers for stunning views across to Lake Frome - totally dry and now a shimmering expanse of dry salt pan. Strong winds blew which kept it comfortable for us although PnK found it cool and we enjoyed another evening around the camp fire.
We headed out via Blinman which had once seen a copper mining boom and sported an interesting mining heritage trail, assorted quaint historical buildings and a shop selling delicious quandong pie.
The undulating Paralchina Gorge took us across dry creeks, through ancient gum trees and out to the highway at the Prairie Hotel which sat alongside the rail line that sees 30,000 tonnes a day of coal head south to Adelaide's power station. Later that night as we camped in the bush we heard the 2.8km long train as it took 3 minutes to pass.
The mining town of Leigh Creek was a last chance to stock up on food and top up the 200 litres each of water and diesel that would see us across the deserts ahead - after passing the coal mining area we stopped at Farina which had been my furthest point in 2011. The abandoned town provided a fascinating history of this remote area but in fact was to be the start of our venture in to the true desert country.
Marree was a highlight for Sarah as the famous mailman Tom Kruse left here on epic journeys delivering post and supplies to remote farms that exceeded a thousand square kilometres and depended on his tenacity in battling extremes of climate and terrain for their very survival. The Birdsville track up to Mungerannie is now far easier but still only gravel all the way and subject to occasional flooding - Tom in his day would cross the 5km wide Coopers Creek in a small 'unsinkable' boat if the waters were up but we were able to drive through as we had not seen any water in days.

Just north of Marree at Copley we were denied another quandong pie as the bakery had closed but an amiable character - Talc Alf - was still entertaining a handful of visitors with his view of the world surrounded by some very creditable carvings of the local soft rock from which talc is obtained.

The Mungerannie road house was the last sign of civilisation for us - one of the many artesian bores was pumping hot fresh water in to a large pond and surrounding marsh which attracted a variety of birds - and various other travellers stopped for fuel and refreshments including some hot and dusty looking motorcyclists.

Various warning boards advised of the possible dangers ahead as we entered the Simpson Desert and began following the K1 track north. These tracks and the associated shot lines are the legacy of widespread exploration of the area in search of oil and gas, most of which led to nothing but the few tracks that remain passable are the key to crossing these inhospitable regions. However a 4x4 is essential and some of the huge red dunes were a challenge for Phil's powerful vehicle - low tyre pressures, a steady approach and front and rear diff locks proved the key to success especially as the 1.5 ton trailer provided an additional challenge.
A sublime evening atop a dune toasting the setting sun with fizz had us all counting our blessings, especially in the light of the tragedy in Nepal that has touched so many around the world. 

The next day for some 15km the track followed a dried out lake before we reached a significant land mark - Poeppel's Corner where the NT, Queensland and SA all meet seemed to be in another world with scrub, red dust and flat vistas stretching in every direction.

The Hay River track was no more than two tyre marks in the scrub as we headed north enjoying remote desert camps and seeing nobody for three days. Phil's mate Adrian had joined us at Marree as the permit required to cross aboriginal land  insisted that at least two vehicles needed to travel together and his Hi-lux followed at a safe distance as we followed the dry river bed with occasional camels, wedge tailed eagles, falcons, galahs and wild budgies appearing from nowhere : in four days we saw no sign of water and wondered how on earth they survived. 

Eventually however we met three vehicles heading south and a day later reached the Batton Hill homestead where an aboriginal family were running a small bush camp started by their chief elder who had passed away last August. Whilst their yard was a perhaps predictable mas of wrecked cars, plastic toys and run down buildings the camp was, whilst basic, clean, well laid out and sported a good shower heated by a wood fired boiler and decent loos. A huge fire trough enabled us to relax after a day of very strong winds that had blown dust all around but did at least keep the flies away - they had been a constant feature of the last few days but did not detract from what had been a truly unique experience. Several hundred kilometres of remote, merciless terrain with little room for error had been punctuated by starry skies, good company, excellent food and a surreal desert stillness the like of which we may not see again even on this trip.

After another two days we have reached Alice Springs which seems like a modern metropolis but in reality is a town facing up to the huge problems afflicting the indigenous people - namely high unemployment, substance abuse and a changing modern world that is leaving the traditional cultures further and further behind. Our relatively safe, modern and comfortable crossing of land that they managed to survive on for thousands of years has served to enhance my respect for a people that appear to have wrung an existence out of nothing.

In a day or two we head west and will be out of contact once more for some time.

However you can follow our position at this link and see the photos to date here at this link.