Alice Springs to Tennant Creek – featuring a side trip into the Davenport Ranges

Thursday, Jul 23, 2009 at 00:00

Motherhen

Leaving Alice Springs we head north on the Stuart Highway, on the route which will eventually take us to Darwin, with so much to see along the way over the next five weeks.



One kilometre past the Tanami turnoff, we reached a marker showing the highest point on the Darwin to Adelaide route at 727.2 metres above sea level. Downhill all the way to Darwin – well, in theory it is.

Once again we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, leaving the southern latitudes behind for another two months.

There are numerous plaques, markers and monuments along the Highway. One is a memorial to explorer Peter Egerton-Warburton.Warburton had already made many exploratory expeditions, and the Warburton River (South Australia), and later the Warburton Ranges and Warburton Mission (Western Australia) were named after him. His last trip was financed by Sir Thomas Elder who hoped to uncover mining resources and new pastoral lands.



Native Gap (Arulte Atwatye) formerly known as Native Well Gap. The Aboriginal name means ‘back of the shoulder’ and refers to the shape of the Range. Native Gap Conservation Area surrounds a section of the Hann Range; a small rocky ridge. The vegetation near the range is far richer than the surrounding country, including native Cypress Pines, other trees including Ficus and wildflowers. There used to be a native well here, but in 1880 workers on the Overland Telegraph Line enlarged the well by blasting, but lost the water holding rocks. There is a picnic area and a short walk trail into the Range.

Connors Well was used to supply water which was carted to Glen Maggie Station. While there is no evidence remaining of the original well, a dam with tank and trough now supplies water to the station cattle.

Ryans Well is across the road from the Glen Maggie Station Homestead ruins, with both being within the small Ryans Well Historical Reserve. Ned and his brother Jeremiah (Jerry) dug this 23 metre well by hand, in addition to a number of other wells. Water was drawn by a windlass to fill the stock trough and some of the posts still remain. Later a tank was added and the bricks from where it stood can be seen. A stone structure was paced around the well with a wooden head frame to assist water drawing. Only the stone structure remains. A plaque details the complex process of water drawing by horse drawn whip.

Glen Maggie Station Homestead Ruins. These ruins are a reminder of the early days in Central Australia when life was a lonely struggle. The Overland Telegraph Line, linking Adelaide and Port Darwin, was completed in 1872. Its chain of water supply wells provided a corridor for travellers and the new settlers of inland Australia.

In 1914 the Nicker family settled at Ryans Well after their dray collapsed on the route north. They built a home of mulga and clay, naming it Glen Maggie after their youngest child Margaret. Sam Nicker and his family established a sheep and cattle station here. Ryan Well was their main water supply. This homestead was built in 1918 to replace the family’s original mulga wood and mud dwelling.

From 1921, the homestead also served as a small store and telegraph office for the growing population of the areas. The family sold Glen Maggie Station to neighbouring station owner Norrie Claxton in 1929 and it became part of Aileron Station. However this building continued to operate as a store and telegraph office. In 1932 it was well known as the last supply point for hopeful miners heading north west during the Granite gold rush. The building was finally abandoned in 1935 and the telegraph equipment for north to Aileron.

The stone ruins remaining once constituted the bedroom and sitting room. The additional rooms including kitchen, dining room, bathroom and store were probably later additions of a less durable building material.

Seventy kilometres north of the Ryans Well Historical Reserve is the roadhouse and small community of Aileron, with large metal statues, the most obvious being of a man with a spear placed on a hill.

The Stuart Highway follows the route of the Overland Telegraph Line, constructed to link Adelaide to Darwin. The project was headed by Charles Todd and took two years to build, being completed in 1972. A subterranean line from England to Java was linked to Darwin, so with this completion, Australia could communicate with the other side of the world in hours rather than weeks.

This line opened up the previously little known interior, and as a result of transport through the regions, gold was discovered in locations such as the Tennant Creek area, and new pastoral grazing areas were discovered.

In an inhospitable climate and environment and sometimes meeting hostile natives, travelling through this unknown land was not without incident. As a testament to the harsh conditions, we passed a Memorial to C. Palmer; a teamster who died along the way.

The Central Mount Stuart Historical Reserve commemorates the discovery of Central Mount Stuart, which was calculated to be mid way between Brisbane and Shark Bay, the north coast and the Great Australian Bite, thus declaring it as the centre of Australia. This is quite some distance from the Geographical Centre, known as the Lambert Centre, near Finke and the Simpson Desert, traditionally known as the centre of Australia.

Barrow Creek, nestled in scenic hills, was the site of one of fifteen a repeater stations for the Overland Telegraph Line. The Telegraph Station can be visited at the north side of the tiny town, which is now little more than a roadhouse. Lack of water limited any growth of the town.

During World War II Barrow Creek was used by the Australian Army as a staging camp for convoys of troops and supplies, which was known as No. 5 Australian Personnel Staging Camp. It was the first overnight stop on the northern trip from Alice Springs to Birdum (which was six kilometres south of the present day settlement of Larrimah). Overnight staging camps were Barrow, Banka Banka, Elliot and Larrimah (Birdum). The New Barrow Staging Camp was situated thirty kilometres to the north of the Barrow Creek Telegraph Station. It was the largest of the staging posts, housing up to 1,000 troops and their equipment. Little now remains but roads, concrete slabs and a few rusty drums over a large and flat area.

The historic site is now part of Neutral Junction Station, but can be visited by responsible travellers. The site is approximately one kilometre east of the Stuart Highway, thirty kilometres north of Barrow Creek. This was the first of many WWII historic sites we visited in the Northern Territory; a journey into Australian War history we knew so little about.

The Roadhouse and Caravan Park at Wycliffe Well is alongside a bridge, and claims to have had the most sightings of UFOs (unidentified flying objects), having the fifth most reported sightings in the world. Maybe they are just the little green men type models alongside and adorning the roof of the roadhouse.

After passing the roadhouse of Wauchope, seventeen kilometres further north the spinifex covered hills suddenly give way to piles of large boulders. This type of formation is hardly unique but here it is so different to the surrounding countryside. Ficus (fig trees) grow amongst the rock, and many rock piles are easy to climb. Friendly spinifex pigeons hop around the spinifex clump s between the rock piles. The “Devil’s Marbles” are a spot worth stopping for a while and marveling at balancing rocks and wondering how this cluster of rocks came to be here.

The large rest area at Bonney Well is near a bridge built in 1980 and at the site of an old well, built on the site of a native well. Like Ryans Well, there is a brick structure around the now disused well and here the wooden poles from the headframe at the top are still standing. Signage explains the whip process of drawing water. The windmill which stands out as a landmark is no longer functional and the tank alongside empty. There are tanks in the picnic area providing water for travellers and campers, which must to be carted in. The old road runs alongside the new, with a low level old crossing dwarfed by the new bridge. The nearby railway bridge spans a huge valley.

Just north of Bonney Well, we turned onto the Kurundi Road; a wide well maintained but stony road heading east, on our way to Old Police Station Waterhole on the Frew River, in the Davenport Ranges National Park. A track via Ali Curung settlement which leaves the Stuart Highway 19 kilometres south of Wycliffe Well is an alternative route to Old Police Station Waterhole, but one we did not take as it was not recommended for vehicles towing.

The stony hills reminded me of the hills in the former gold mining area of Arltunga, and I noticed that Kurindi Station advertise gold fossicking. We passed the turnoff to a campground at Whistleduck Waterhole, as we were heading for a bigger one. The next station was Epenarra. Here a wind generator stood still alongside diesel tanks at the plant that supplies power to the station homestead and shop, as well as to the Aboriginal community of Wutunarrgurra to the south of the station. This tidy community houses around 160 people. Further south, on a track with some loose sanding patches which were a bit unnerving to drive through when towing, we reached to turn off to the waterhole. Once again the hills had to look of gold. After all, this area used to be mined for tungsten (black gold) and gold. The orange road consisted of mainly quartz; with the white interior only showing when broken.



The Waterhole at Old Police Station was large and birds of all types were abundant. We identified 26 different species. Weiros (Cockatiels) and budgerigars nested in the shady trees along the water’s edge. Clouds of white Corellas flew up and down the river in formation, turning simultaneously in graceful waves. At night, feral donkeys come braying around the campsite startling campers, and dingoes can sometimes be seen or heard.

Although fish can be caught, no-one had any luck when we were there which was put down to the season – fish are on the bite in summer rather than winter, although someone found a few tiny crabs when they tried a prawn net. Even a group of families from the Wutunarrgurra community had no luck at fishing using a drop net which yielded only a few very tiny ones that were put back.

In the late 1890s, drovers arrived at Frew River with mobs of cattle, and prospectors picked their way across the nearby hills. The first pastoralists on the Frew chose the flat across the river here as the site for their homestead. Due to harsh conditions and drought, the station was abandoned. With the increase in mining due to the Hatches Creek Tungsten mine, a police presence was established in the area, with the police station being built at the site of the former station homestead.

A walk trail goes right around this pool, which is one and a half kilometres long. On the other side of the pool are the ruins of the Old Police Station which gives the waterhole its name. These remnants are of wall made from local stone with no mortar used.

There are other pools along the river, and some of these can be accessed by campers from the Frew River four wheel drive track which goes to Hatches Creek former Tungsten (Wolfram) mine, where the track joins the road which forms part of the Binns Track, so a loop drive can be taken through this sometimes narrow track, and return to the waterhole via the road. The Frew River track is not suitable for towing trailers, and some of the steep dips are limiting.

Considering the distance from the Stuart Highway, many of the campers came for only one short night although some of these may have been travelling on the Binns Track. This waterhole is a lovely place to come for a few days relaxation rather than just an out of the way overnight camp.The pool is suitable for swimming, kayaking and fishing.

Returning to the Stuart Highway via the Kurundi Road again, we headed north to Tennant Creek.Tennant Creek townsite is some kilometres away from the fairly insignificant Tennant Creek from which it takes its name and the location of the Overland Telegraph Line repeater station. Gold was discovered in the area in 1901, and further discoveries in 1928 to 1930s resulted in a gold rush. A Hotel was built in its present location, now within the townsite of Tennant Creek. Reasons given vary from a law preventing a Hotel from being built within seven kilometres of a Telegraph Station to a reserve being around the Telegraph Station so the Hotel was built on adjoining land.Tennant Creek is now a modern town which services a large region.

The Visitor Centre with mining displays and underground tours is a little way along Peko Road on a hill overlooking the town. This was the site of the first Government ore crushing battery. The Tennant Creek area proved to be rich in gold, although uncommon in that here the ore is found in haematite rather than Quartz. One mine is still in operation in the area.

The buildings at the Old Telegraph Station have been partially restored. Following the move of the Overland Telegraph Line station to the town, the buildings were used as a homestead up until 1985. A small graveyard includes the graves of Overland Telegraph linesmen Archibald Cameron and Bryan (Tom) Nugent from Banka Banka Station.

Water supplies were transported to Tennant Creek twice per year from Port Augusta. Beef and vegetables were grown on site, and cattle yards still remain at the Old Telegraph Station and appear to have been upgraded in recent times for use for cattle from a nearby cattle station.

In 1897, Jerome Murif was the first man to cycle across Australia and had his bicycle repaired at the Blacksmith Shop here at the Telegraph Station.

Not far from the Old Telegraph Station is a five kilometre track heading west to Kunjarra, a site of cultural significance as a women’s place, and women only Corroborees are held here. This series of stone ridges is shown as “The Pebbles” on maps.

Coming soon: Our trip to Darwin, including touring Kakadu National Park, and many historical sites from the well prepared defence of Australia during World War II.

For this blog in more detail, with additional background and historical information, photos and text from various roadside plaques, visit our travelogues at Australia So Much to See
Motherhen

Red desert dreaming

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