Great Sandy Desert - The hidden oasis of Elizabeth Soak (Dragon Tree Soak Conservation Reserve)

Monday, Jul 12, 2010 at 00:00

Mick O


Monday 12th July, 2010
Great Sandy Desert,
11 km north of APT
19°54'19.11"S 123° 8'54.75"E



A great day today that began early with a quad excursion to located the mysterious Elizabeth Soak and then depart west through some amazing and diverse countryside as we tried to find our way south down to the Anna Plains Track (APT).

Customarily I was well awake an hour before the first faint glow appeared on the horizon. Not long after me, the first bird chirped in the scrub surrounding the soak and from there it grew to a cacophony of birdsong that was so loud and great in number that it was difficult to recognise a specific call. Wrens, coots, finches bee eaters and so many others warbling and trilling madly awaiting the sun to arrive. It was a humid morning and the slight breeze that had sprung up during the night dropped away completely. This meant that even the slightest movement bought out a layer of sweat. I had the quad unloaded in good order mind you it’s taking some getting used to the "fast-back" look.



After breakfast and a pack-up, we headed the 2.2 km south east across the samphire and sand towards the location of Elizabeth Spring. We kept to the sand ridges as much as possible so as not to mark the softer samphire areas. The whole location seems to drain towards the soak and the many camel paths have become conduits for water to flow along. We passed a large, flat pan that had several inches of scummy pink water. Dotterels waded its shores eking out a living as best they could. The scrub to the east was getting pretty thick when we reached the co-ordinates to find..... nothing! Our co-ordinates were off forcing us to seek some high ground to assess the lay of the land. A nearby sanddune some distance to the south provided this facility. It didn't take us long to identify the soak from this high vantage point. A circular area of dense green scrub that we had ridden past (and that was unrecognisable as anything but impenetrable scrub from the ground) appeared back to the north. In the distance we could clearly see the McLarty Hills, the site of our previous nights camp. Mounting the quads once again, we pushed back through the scrub to a wall of tall acacia where we had to dismount and pick a path through the dense undergrowth on foot.





Well if DTS is an oasis, Elizabeth is a revelation of a different sort. Inside the protective shelter provided by the ring of dense acacia is a grassy glade with large pools of water, dragon trees and a kikuyu type grass that was like a spongy carpet and almost as high as your waist in some places. The ground underfoot was very soft and wet and the lush grass often hid patches of water as well as specific pools. The area appeared largely untouched by camels and I’m hoping the video and photos of the surrounding acacia will show why. It appeared as if the odd beast had pushed their way into the soak but the easier offerings of water at nearby the clay pans and Dragon Tree Soak have seen this area left in pristine condition. The dragon trees were unmolested by camels and had all their bark which was similar in appearance to cork. We counted eleven mature trees still showing signs of life. Some of the older stumps were sprouting and we counted several juvenile shoots between 1 and 2 metres high that we hoped would survive to adult hood. In this protected glade, their chances are better than average. The girth of some of the trees (including the few dead individuals) was impressive enough to lead us to speculate that they were very old specimens indeed. It was a magical spot and one that we were very reluctant to leave. The spongy grass was an inviting place to sit and rest a while. Alas, we had ground to cover.


Picking our way carefully back to DTS, I loaded the quad and John led us out west towards what we hoped would be an old cut line. We had to undertake a little backtracking to avoid swampy flats but negotiated them by sticking to the edge of the bordering sand ridges. Again the country east of DTS was one straight out of the box with the spinifex giving way to tall grass and magnificent white trunked gums. It was like driving through a park at times. The sand had changed in nature and colour as well being more white than red. How long could this last we asked ourselves? Certainly long enough for us to locate the cut line running 195 degrees to the south. This line to was in great nick with the dune crossings despite being hummocked and blown out, still very much compacted. By lunchtime we had covered an amazing 26 kilometres or roughly half our planned distance to the APT.


Lunch we took in the shade of the few substantial trees we could find. It was hot by now, 34C but a breeze helped keep the vehicles and the quad riders cool. After lunch, things turned to sh1t real quick! The cut line became more indistinct and finally non existent. The comforting star pickets and markers disappeared all together and we found ourselves pushing through virgin bush that had long been in need of a cleansing burn off. At times it was so thick that I found myself following the exact impression left by the guppy as Scotty ploughed through the dense thickets of scrub ahead of me. It reminded me of the Looney Toons cartoon cut out left in the wall after the villain has run through it. If it hadn’t been such hard driving, it may have even been funny! We managed most of the dune crossings but all of us were forced to have second and third goes on some dunes, the soft sand or steepness taking their toll.


Just before 4 o'clock we entered a large, flat expanse that had a few obvious soak areas and was covered more in samphire and tee tree than spinifex. We decided to call camp at this location as it was getting late there was a bit of dead timber about. The breeze was coming out of the south so camp was set accordingly. We were all very tired with 11 kilometres remaining to complete our southward tranche to the APT. An ample and simple dinner of cans with fruit and custard for desert around a wind swept fire. It was a magnificent clear night and still quite warm. Being a soak area, the insects are a problem and soon hone in on the first sight of any bright light. A breeze sprung up during the night from the south east thank goodness, a reprieve from the humidity. It was a bit cooler in the morning. From my roof top vantage point, sunrise is spectacular with a broad band of gold spreading across the eastern horizon.





''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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