Darwin via the Dirt (part 9 Gorges, Lizards, Dinosaurs and Rocks)

Friday, Feb 18, 2011 at 07:18

Member - Michael John T (VIC)

Our plan had been to camp at Leichardt Falls 60 klms east of Burketown but we didn't quite make it and stayed the night at Burketown instead. It was a pity really because as we later found out water was still running over the falls and it is one of those good little camping spots. Next morning we fueled up and whilst the others were buying last minute essentials in the small shop, I found myself talking to a local 'old-timer', when two relatively young policeman walked out of the store and got into their 4 wheel drive. The old timer almost freaked at the hardware that they wore around their waists - his reaction to me was " J........ C....... look at them I've got to get out of here" and he left without so much as a goodbye. They did look rather threatening for babies.

An easy run down to the Gregory River (we were going to call into Escot Camp but the sign at the turnoff indicated that it was closed - I wondered if this was permanent) where as usual it was crowded, largely with caravans. We managed to find a pleasant spot under the bridge and right on the river bank, coincidentally this was right beside Rob and June from WA whom we had met Nhulunbuy and several times since. This was a happy reunion for us all but unfortunately the last time we met on this trip. Camping here is tolerated by the local shire despite the provision of a campground closer to the pub, their ranger visits daily encouraging campers to use the facilities provided at the campground, they are worried about pollution through dumping of personal waste in and close to the river, which has occurred in the past. It would be a pity to see this area closed to camping. For the time being it remains open.
The shallow river was running quite fast and several of us older fraternity (most were) took advantage to revisit our childhood and body surf down the rapids. We had a 'wow' of a time being swept along over the shallows, one chap even produced a small surfboard.

Boodjamulla NP (Lawn Hill) is an easy drive just 94klms west, but you share the dust of more than the occasional Century Mine road-train. You have the option of staying at Adels Grove private campground (most do) and then daily drive the short distance to the park or book ahead for a campsite (limited) at the park itself. We obtained a site here but I was disappointed at the redevelopment (back to nature) from the green grass and treed camping area that we remembered from our last visit. It was hot and dry with little to no shade but I did get over it. Nevertheless the area is magnificent with plenty of walks and the opportunity to canoe ($60.00 for 3 hours hire) the middle and upper gorges. The first evening we walked to the art site along the lower gorge finishing with a refreshing swim in the Cascades just on dark. As you wander through the heavily timbered creek bed in the failing light the calcified tree stumps and rocks make for a weird sensation. The morning canoe up the gorges was relaxing and rewarding, the high red colored cliffs, tropical vegetation and birds (no "freshies" seen) is definitely worth doing. Hauling the canoes over the portal into the upper gorge and then swimming at the top end of this gorge with the Archer fish was a highlight before our return trip down the gorges.

The afternoon was very hot, we spent it in the shade by the river watching the turtles feeding on the fruit as it plopped into the water. We set off in the late afternoon for a walk to the Indarri Falls Lookout. This gave us a different perspective of the Falls and the gorge that we paddled in this morning, as we followed the escarpment above the gorge around to Duwadarri Lookout. The colors at sunset were just magic, the flora and fauna - grevillia, spinnifex, small eucalypts, lizards and geckos - combined with the great views and setting sun made it one of the prettiest and memorable walks we have done. As we climbed up to Duwadarri Lookout we were greeted by a local aboriginal elder and friends with a song of greeting and welcome in their own language. It just finished the walk nicely, we chatted with them watching the sun set over the distant ranges, before we made the steep (very) descent to the campground.
It was also here that we camped beside and met a young family with the two boys both suffering from the rare and little known condition of Battens Disease. They are an extremely brave family traveling Australia and the parents are doing their utmost to give the boys an adventure of a lifetime. It was both heartrending and uplifting to meet and talk with this family. Here is a website to a foundation (set up to provide quality care as their condition progresses). You can follow their adventures on www.thecartyboys.com.

From Lawn Hill we drove the 50 kms to Site D of the Riversleigh fossil fields. Here a self guided interesting walk allows you to see first hand a number of fossillised remains still embedded in the calcified rock. We had pre booked a site at the NP campground just a couple of kms further on but then had been told of a pleasant spot beside the O'Shannesey River so we opted for this and were well rewarded. We were getting close to Mt Isa now and the rest of the party were to put up with my indulgence for fossicking around old mining sites for the next week. (they did this with not too many "not another mine site" but were obviously relieved when we visited the last of them). However to get to these we were back on the bitumen for a short while. Mt Isa is an interesting area and plenty of places to bush camp if you look for them. In the past we have found the caravan parks crowded due to the demand for mining accommodation. Cloncurry is more relaxed with two well set up parks. We did stay there one night but for the other three found pleasant spots on branches of the Leichardt River and one night at Warrigal (Painted Rocks) Water Hole after a decent 4wd track into it. The Painted Rocks refers to some aboriginal rock art at the site, unfortunately some of it had been damaged. The site is only a few kms from the Isa.

Over the next couple of days we visited old mining sites including the Hardway and Sunset mines, finding some very good samples of copper related minerals. A visit to Mary Kathleen has long been on my agenda and it didn't disappoint. The remains of the old township site are still there, well the tarmac and street outline are, all the buildings and fixture were auctioned off and removed long since. ( There is a Sunday History post on Mary Kathleen from late last year - always worth a read). The mine site itself was a magnificent surprise, a large tiered hole in the ground, but as you approached it suddenly you realised it was partially filled with the most cobalt of blue water. It was just stunning to see - minerals still leech into it and I have been led to believe that on its decommission a large quantity of low grade uranium and copper ore were dumped back into the hole. Environmentally unfriendly and definitely not for swimming in -yes, but very picturesque and definitely worth the trip into view it.

The area around Mt Isa and Cloncurry is certainly a very rugged and beautiful countryside to drive through, get off the main road and travel through it and its even better. We chose to spend another couple of days looking for the Wee McGregor mine and rail site deep in the hills south of Mary Kathleen. The track in was fine for most of the way but as we got closer to the mine site and especially after it, it became especially challenging. In hindsight not really made for dragging a TVan or a slide-on fully loaded (many rock samples by this stage). We managed to pick our way over the sharp rocks, ledges, dips, very narrow track with steep drop offs and at the same time navigate the many old tracks from the very basic mud map. It was impossible to turn around so onwards was the go, gradually the terrain relented until we reached the recently graded road into Fountain Springs.

The remains of the rail system built in 1915 to take the copper ore from the mine to the Kuridala smelters is an example of the engineering ingenuity of the time. Beautifully constructed rock embankments to support the track and even an extensive tunnel cut through the rugged hill (now full of bats). More recent attempts at mining at the Wee McGregor has left the site in a mess. A large area of sulphur spill along with the remains of drainage piping and water tanks etc.. litter the site. All up it was an interesting excursion and a brilliant scenic detour. Camping along the way brought that feeling of solace and away from the rest of the world especially as the dying rays of the sun sent the long shadows up the distant valleys -- fantastic.

That evening the pleasant grassed area beside the old Rosebud Township dam on the Corella River served as our campsite. We shared it with a herd of cattle, the local camel and one quite disturbed bull that at one point stared us down, pawing the ground with his front hoof. We sat quite still until he settled down, but I had my eye on a large rock in the river that I was heading for if he changed his mind. This spot was a welcome site after the 4 1/2 hours (not including fossicking time) taken to cover just 32 kms , the last 12 kms on a good graded road.
Next morning we explored the remains of the Rosebud mine and smelter site before heading down the Dutchess road and turning off towards the small hamlet of Malbo (only two houses and a dilapidated rail siding remain). Stopped at the wide causeway over the Cloncurry River for lunch and marvelled at several beautiful Cloncurry parrots (Ring-necks). We were looking for the old Kuridala smelter sites. First up we found the cemetery which reflected the hard and dangerous work in the mines and smelters as well as the ever present threat from disease. So many of the inhabitants died in their 20s and 30s.

This area is a wealth of history. Mining commenced in 1897 and finished in the early 1920s with the depressed price for copper. In between time 2 large smelters were attached to the mines, the Hamden Console and the Hamdon Cloncurry. The mines were to a depth of 180 and 140 meters respectively and produced some 50800 tons of copper. At the hieght of production in 1916 there were in excess of 2000 people in the township. There is plenty of evidence lying around, old buildings, two large chimney stacks, smeltering pods still full of unprocessed ore, machinery and a huge slag heap. This area is a treasure trove of history and really needs to be organised and preserved, it is however a long way off the beaten track.
Our objective for the nights camp was an amethyst field close by. After a fair bit of confusion as to which track to take, a well placed small sign solved the puzzle. Ten kms later we found a well used camp area and settled in only to be driven to bed early by large locusts swarming past us, even after dark. Being clunked in the face by the occasional insect is not so bad but when it is one every few seconds it gets a bit hard to take. We spent a couple of hours after we found a part of the amethyst field finding some low quality colour and quartz crystal clusters before heading back to the main N - S road the next morning. (We should have spent more time looking for the main field in hind sight). Heading south the next objective was the old township of Selwyn and then the Mt Cobalt mine. It soon became evident however that the rest of this area would be closed off and under mining leasehold. Indeed the was extensive preparative work going on in a number of places including the provision of their own private road running parallel to the public road. The leases seem to belong to Ivanhoe Cloncurry Mines.

The locusts persisted as we reached Toolebuc Station where we turned off the main road heading in a South Easterly direction. The road is marked as such on the map but was realy a lightly used station track that followed the dingo fence line. Often it was a two wheeled track formed on the hard dry brown soils (would be a disaster in the wet) making an interesting contrast against the dry and yellow mitchell grass. The ladies loved (!!!) the numerous station gates that had to be opened and the shut as we leap frogged through them. A stubborn lizard stopped us for quite a while, refusing to move from the track, actually we were fascinated by him, a subject of many photographs. As the Finucane Ranges exposed themselves the drive just got prettier and prettier. About 4.30 and still over 30 kms to reach the Min Min Hwy it was easy enough to pull off in a picturesque setting for the night. Under foot it was quite stony but what a piece of top real estate we were in. That night and early next morning we had the pleasure of finding two Spotted Night Jars (owlets that perch on the ground), a family of Halls Babblers and a couple of melodious Crested Bell Birds. The clouds had been building up the last couple of days and that morning a few spits of rain signaled it was time to get off the brown soils. The Hwy came a couple of kms after passing through MacKundra Downs Station with one final gate to close.

Now 15 kms to the historic pub which is Middleton and then 180 kms to Winton. Just 3 kms out of town I stopped for a young couple who couldn't coach their small camper van any further, out of petrol. Being diesel I couldn't help them but did return with 5 liters for them, by which time the chap had obtained a ride into town and was driven back (as we found out later) by the local cop. We booked into the caravan park and then shouted our selves a late lunch at the Waltzing Matilda Center, all very 'touristy' but what the heck. It was terrific and in fact we hadn't finished by closing time so went back for another hour (and another lunch) next morning. That night it commenced to rain as we were entertained by a couple of female bush poets, they were very funny. By 10 am next morning the caravan park was ankle deep in water and heavy rain falling we were quite wet as we packed up. Heading out towards Longreach still in light rain disaster struck. I had turned on the heater and lights as you do on the hwy, in the rain when all of a sudden the cabin filled with black pungent smoke, we bailed out and that was the end of our trip, the wiring harness had disintegrated. Just 15 kms out of Winton. Thank goodness for RACV and Total Care, so it was back to Winton under tow. Al and Den made their way to Longreach where if we could get mobile again we would meet up for the 2000+ kms trip home. Butch the RACQ man and his wife were just fabulous but the job of repairing the vehicle was too big for him (it took an auto electrician at home a few weeks to re wire the vehicle), we flew home 2 days later.

Al and Den took about 5 days to reach Victoria getting caught up in local flooding and road closures along the way. They have a great photo of several pelicans actually swimming on the roadway, when you experience that its time to turn back.
It wasn't the best way to finish the 85 day trip but we look back on it now as just another one of those experiences, and for once I have to concede to Dennis that this time his Nissan did out perform my Toyoto -- damn it.
PS. The dinosaurs, well Winton has some great displays of these but after looking at them for two days while hoping for a repaired vehicle that was enough.

We retired to travell
It's time to go again...
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