Destination Kimberley

Thursday, Dec 04, 2008 at 22:11


Destination Kimberley

The first of three reports of a 3 month trip June-August 2008. Originally appeared in Southern Trails, magazine of the Southern Tablelands 4WD Club.

This was not a Club trip, rather a few friends travelling independently but loosely together to ensure support when required – we didn’t at the outset realise just how valuable that support would prove to be.

Val and I lifted off in our Troopy from the Barton Highway layby near Hall in company with Jim and Jane in their 100 series with camping trailer and Vivian and Allan with traytop camper. First night’s destination Willandra NP, but as the shakedown day developed, we decided on a shorter challenge, and went into a known good bush camping site in a State Forest just west of Rankin Springs.

A delightful camp in a Cyprus forest – and a first chance to identify deficiencies in the packing lists, and enjoy good company around a campfire – a social shakedown. Next day west to (almost) Broken Hill, with another known good camp at the Menindee Lakes, [Image not found]actually containing water for the first time in years.

Then west through Broken Hill with an essential stockup and fuelup. Having fitted new tyres before leaving home, each fuel stop was a reminder that tyres are a consumable item – they each cost much less than a fill of fuel!

The plan was to travel to the Kimberly through interesting and varied country, with strong emphasis on enjoying the travel rather than on achieving destinations. Daily destinations were to be flexible, with regular contact with VKS737 to log progress and receive any messages. We turned north at Yunta and travelled back roads up the eastern side of the Flinders. By now we were well behind our notional travel plan and stopped for the night on vast flood plain. Before we had set up camp the property owner arrived to check that we were OK. We were welcome, after all the land belonged to the Queen and she was a most gracious lady. In any case, he had another 600 square miles of country. Our first night without a campfire, and the stars were incredibly bright. Flooding was unlikely since the last rain (which had covered the plain to a depth of 2 metres) was 11 years ago as the many dead gums testified.

On to Chambers Gorge, an outstanding Aboriginal art site, and a chance to explore on foot some savage country before heading west through the Flinders and onto the Oodnadatta Track. A leisurely day through Hans Heysen scenery, with frequent photo stops, ending at Farina, our first paying camp ground, but at $3.30 per head we didn’t grumble.

To Lake Eyre South for lunch, keeping a watchful eye on the GPS altitude reading as it went negative when we dropped below sea level. Then continued northwards, stopping to view mound springs (created where artesian water comes to the surface, trapping dust and slowly building a mound, in some cases many metres across and several metres high). The road here follows the old abandoned Ghan railway line, and as is customary we picked up a couple of old sleepers for that night’s campfire. Troopy is accustomed to carrying firewood on the bulbar, but for the first time ever began overheating. At the time we didn’t think much of it, but far worse was coming. We headed north through William Creek, stopping briefly to examine the bits retrieved from the desert when it functioned as a rocket test range. Overnighted at one of our old campsites by a dry creekbed. (Dry creekbeds are often good campsites, usually offering soft digging for personal waste disposal, and have trees which provide shelter and privacy.)(See Fred's comment below regarding the possible hazards of camping in creekbeds.)

Next day, over rough tracks to Dalhousie Springs - big mound springs where one, perhaps 50metres across and hundreds of metres long, offers the bliss of swimming and lazing in water at about 38 degrees. This oasis, in incredibly dry country, has been one of the (many) highlights of travel so far.

After another soak in the spring, another day northward, through Mount Dare, now a shiny pub/motel (we missed the rough and friendly hospitality that we experienced there years ago.) North from Mt Dare and on to Old Andado. The Fink River which passes this way not far from Mt Dare, is underground, resulting in subsidences and supporting an extensive eucalypt forest in the desert. Users of the track following rain some time back had created long stretches of hub-deep wheel tracks now filled with the finest bulldust. Fortunately our little convoy met no oncoming traffic. (We later learned that the condition of a track can be determined by finding out if it is used by road trains – if the 50+ metre long road trains aren’t using it, it’s no place for 4WDs.)
This leg took us through the western edge of the Simpson Desert, providing some new experiences for those who hadn’t tackled desert dunes previously. Overnight at Old Andado homestead,
home of Molly Clark, an iconic figure now retired to Alice Springs, and fondly known to some of our members.
We had booked into an Alice Springs caravan park, dictating the time of our arrival in Alice, so one more night on the road first, again at a camp we’d used previously, a few km south of Santa Teresa. By now we’d settled into a good routine – up with the sun, and a (reasonably) efficient packup. It was sobering to pass through Santa Teresa (a dry Aboriginal community), with more windblown rubbish littering the little town than we’d find at Canberra’s garbage tips. Just outside the town boundary a group of men were starting on their liquid breakfast, with ample supplies for the day. The roadside for the 80 km run into Alice was festooned with discarded cans, VB a clear favourite. The need for some kind of action is undeniable, though the liquor laws in Alice clearly aren’t sufficient. (So far as we could tell, there were no sales of alcohol before 3pm, no casked fortified wines (eg port) at all, only one unfortified cask per customer (identified by drivers licence) and only after 6pm – a nuisance for the traveller and clearly not having much effect on local consumption). Apparently a case of “We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it.”

We’d planned on two nights in Alice, allowing a day for shopping, servicing vehicles, clothes washing and dealing with any dramas that had developed. Rain set in and prudence dictated that we abandon the plan to travel the Tanami Track, about 1000 km, mostly corrugated sand and bad gravel. We later learned that much of it had been closed due to the boggy conditions. We elected to follow the bitumen north, overnighting at the Devils Marbles after a day of driving in cold and rain. The following day north again and we opted to stop early at a known excellent campsite on the shores of Lake Woods , near Elliot.

North again, refuelling at Dunmarra before heading west towards the Gregory NP. Overnight in the bed of the Victoria River, not far from Victoria River Downs homestead. Braved a welcome swim in the river though we realised that we were very close to croc country.

The following morning to Victoria River Downs for approval to travel through to the Gregory NP – stopping at what proved to be the maintenance depot for a major helicopter charter company serving the Kimberley. They checked that access was OK and wished us well. The park was a disappointment – awful tracks, little interesting scenery and at the end of the day, more excitement than we wanted. We elected to travel to a remote camping area, which required a 100+ metre river crossing, poorly marked and consisting of a series of rock ledges covered by up to half a metre of water which we later saw was croc infested. Having crossed, we faced such an awful track that we turned back after a few km and again braved the water crossing. It was here that we saw crocs, and realised that we’d dislodged a critical track marker on our outward voyage. It was a great relief to have all three vehicles successfully negotiate the crossing a second time. Overnight at the Bullita homestead camping ground, surrounded by enigmatic boabs.

The plan then called for a visit to the Keep River NP, a known gem. At morning tea time though Troopy was seen to be leaking coolant (green blood) which could only be due to a leaking radiator. Accordingly plans changed and we headed directly for Kunanurra, which, among other things, took us earlier than planned into Western Australia through the plant quarantine inspection station where we surrendered all the fruit and veg we hadn’t been able to give away to east-bound travellers. The leaking radiator was expected to be a major problem, although Kunanurra is well endowed with engineering services. A serious concern was the availability of a replacement one for a 20 year old petrol vehicle. Although Troopies are very common throughout northern Australia, very few are petrol powered and fewer still are of mature age. We hit town and asked at the first service station where to find a radiator person; this was the first of many helpful people we met. We were directed from person to person, finally reaching one who offered to see us on the road by tomorrow. We booked into a caravan park, removed the radiator and delivered it to the repairer – but it was too badly corroded to be reliably repaired. His mate had one but it wasn’t quite right. We could have one in by road within a week, or for an extortionate amount, could fly one in. A few phone calls though and one was located in town – it was new, but had some minor dings – we could have it for 30% off – done! An hour spent straightening fins and it was near perfect. We fitted it and were ready for the road again. At this time, the significance of the earlier overheating problem wasn’t recognised. We were soon to be abruptly reminded.

From Kunanurra we headed east, back into the Northern Territory to Keep River NP, a fabulous area, somewhat similar to the Bungle Bungles. An overnight there, then south along the Duncan Road, which winds back and forth along the WA-NT border. By stopping time, 4:30 in NT or 3pm in WA (very confusing) we were near a tributary of the Ord River and spent the night on a vast area of shingle in the riverbed near the water. The next day, further south, we passed east of the Bungles (Purnululu NP) to a fabulous camp at little known Marella Gorge. We had an enormous gorge with huge stretches of water largely to ourselves. On arrival we had morning tea with a departing group of three - a nurse and admin couple from one of the local aboriginal communities. We were greatly moved by their commitment to assisting the indigenous people in spite of intractable difficulties arising from traditional social patterns subject to the impact of ill-conceived programs invented by well meaning white fellas far away. . These people are paid a pittance to be the meat in this emotionally charged political sandwich. They work 24/7 on contracts of a few weeks duration and can be told to leave at any time by any of the conflicting community leaders.

Next day, west to Halls Creek to refuel. (Not easy since 2 of the 3 diesel suppliers had no fuel, and the remaining one, the Toyota dealer, insisted on personally serving each of the long queue of travellers to ensure that all fuel was paid for. Our own previous experience, and numerous traveller’s anecdotes regarding this establishment confirmed our relief that as petrol users, we didn’t need to rely on their goodwill.) Fuelled (at last) and victualled we headed north on the Great Northern Hwy to overnight in a grassy layby close to the Bungle Bungles turnoff. Tomorrow – into the Bungles.

The 50 km track into the Bungles is said to take 2 –3 hours. We took much less, though it was no picnic. First to the northern areas, where we explored Echidna Chasm, an awe inspiring slit mostly no more than a metre wide between 100+ metre high conglomerate cliffs. Then viewed the massif from an elevated lookout as the gold of the setting sun highlighted the intense reds and oranges of the mountain range. The following day, up early to drive to the southern part of the park and take in the southern walks before the day got too hot. This is the area where the iconic world heritage listed beehive domes prevail. The final walk to the Cathedral Gorge was absolutely awe inspiring, with towering red cliffs leading to a vaulted ceiling – a natural amphitheatre and place for silent contemplation.

The following morning, out of the park and northward towards Kununurra. A short sidetrack to a pretty river for lunch led us to find another perfect bush campsite. Then northward again, and Troopy introduced another curve ball. Power was down and after a time temperature was up. A check under the bonnet found coolant sprayed over the engine. After allowing things to cool down sufficiently to add more coolant we limped slowly into Kunanurra. Suspecting a bad thermostat, we removed it and normal operation seemed to have been restored. A replacement thermostat was fitted and off to buy more coolant. Then things went truly pear shaped when Troopy bowled the last (we hope!) ball of the over. . The starter wouldn’t turn the engine. Surely not a seizure due to low oil?

Check the oil level. The sump contained an emulsion of oil and coolant. Oh bugg..! This pointed to a head gasket or far worse, a cracked cylinder head, or far worse…….This was not good anywhere, but in a small town where old petrol Troopies were very rare and spares and support pretty limited this was a near disaster. We’d already met a helpful and capable mechanic and he outlined the options – could be just a gasket, fly it in in a couple of days; could be a head repair. Say a week by truck to Perth, say a week there, then a week back, allow another week in case we miss the truck, too heavy to fly, cost a mint…….all assuming it’s repairable. We were starting to think in terms of thousands of dollars. Are we emotionally attached to the vehicle? Second hand petrol Troopies are available cheaply here.

By removing the spark plugs and using the starter to pump coolant out of number 1 cylinder we determined that there was a major leak – far too large a leak to be a little crack, so probably a gasket. Then a weekend interrupted the smooth development of the saga. On Monday Jim towed Troopie to surgery, three hours later we had an answer – head gasket, but would we run the risk of assuming that there was no head damage too? Yes.

Gasket and other bits should arrive on the mid-day plane Wednesday. They didn’t. Probably Thursday’s plane then, so should be right by the weekend.

It’s now Thursday morning. Our patient fellow travellers have been prevailed upon to press on and, Troopie willing, we’ll catch up with them along the Gibb River Rd. They’ve had lots of time to comprehensively explore the local area!

At this time the drama isn’t fully resolved, but we’ve had time to count our blessings – the value of good supportive friends, both our fellow travellers and those good people of Kununurra who are making it all happen. We’ve even had time to write a few words for Southern Trails!

Next - The Kimberley

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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