Trip to Maralinga, August 2013 – 5. Exploring mining roads in the Great Victoria Desert

Sunday, Jul 06, 2014 at 16:27


Shortly after leaving Annes Corner we turned SW onto the BMR road. Although the first section was not the anticipated highway there was no stopping the hares who shot ahead, seemingly intent on reaching Cook today. We fell behind and by lunchtime were disappointed by the haste with which we were crossing this seldom-travelled part of the desert, an area that we are unlikely to be able to return to. After a while we did come onto a wide constructed road where we could make good time. This road eventually came to an end and we turned off heading north on a minor track. After some backtracking we found ourselves on another west running track that crossed big dunes that were well vegetated. There we saw occasional marble gums. Clouds of dust kicked up by the lead vehicles made visibility quite difficult driving into the sun. We finally stopped about 5oclock in a big burnt-out area well clear of any spinifex. There was a brilliant sunset, some compensation for a less than satisfactory day where the balance between experiencing the desert and just driving through the desert fell decidedly in favour of the latter!

We transferred fuel and calculated that we now had enough left for between 500 and 650 km depending on terrain and other driving conditions. We were concerned that we may not have enough to get back to Maralinga, a problem, since we were the only petrol fuelled vehicle. We learned though that some of the diesels had similar concerns. Fuel issues aside, Troopy – one of only 2 leaf-sprung vehicles in the group - went well, handling the dunes and tight turns quite easily. He does need to go gently over any corrugations though.

Next day we continued due west, travelling through more burnt out country, seeing a few camels in the swales where there was a bit of feed from regrowth. There were some lovely views from the tops of high dunes, though not enough stopping time to really savour them. Once away from the burnt areas we passed through well vegetated country with marble gums, Cyprus pine, mallee and casuarinas.

Abruptly the road turned at a right angle and we were heading south on a well constructed clay topped mining road. We came to a big capped bore surrounded by a huge levelled off area, and lined pits to hold water. From there the road south continued in good condition somewhat relieving the worries about fuel. A few of us had lunch beside a widened section of the road that served as a RFD airstrip. This was close to the location of a patch of Eucalyptus wyolensis found only in this area close to Wyola Lake. After some scouting around on foot we came across a lone specimen that could have been one. Then excited voices over the radio told us that the main patch had been found, either side of the road a few kilometres ahead. So we caught up with the main group and were able to confirm the identification of this quite rare gum tree, with its distinctive square stems and silver grey leaves. Unfortunately there were no flowers to be seen. Leah found a camel skeleton, parts of which her dad was persuaded to squeeze into their vehicle. To round out the days nature study we tasted some lerps, sweet bush tucker living on the leaves of the gum trees.

Continuing south we eventually turned off onto some shot lines, making for a nice drive despite not having time to really look at anything. We made camp just off one such track. There was not much open space so we wriggled in where we could among the thick cover of trees and shrubs. That night we spent some time with David and Michelle discussing how a wildflowers section on EO might work, an exciting prospect.

The next morning found us driving through jumbled sandhills thickly covered with Black Casuarinas and mallee, though what species remains unknown as there was scant chance to take any photos. Suffice to say that the trees were surprisingly big given that we were still in a desert. Gradually the country became flatter as we joined the track that leads south from Voakes Hill to Cook. Once out of the shelter of the trees we encountered a stiff wind that strengthened throughout the day. We stopped for a cuppa among a patch of flowers and also to look at a water catchment structure consisting of a big roof and water tanks. From there south we travelled across very open country until we reached Cook where we spent time looking around and farewelling those members of the party who were going their own way from there.

From Cook we headed back to Maralinga via the Caravan Track. We stopped for a while at the old caravans and sheds that once formed a base camp for rabbit trappers. There were still plenty of rabbit warrens and signs of live rabbits. We left there mid afternoon driving through open but interesting country. We were still driving as the light began to fade. We put our last drum of fuel into Troopy’s tanks and hoped that it would be enough to get us back to Maralinga. We weren’t the only ones with their fingers crossed.

The rest of that days trip was memorable for all the wrong reasons – driving into the dark, uncertain at times that we were on the right track. OziExplorer crashed and we somehow managed to not shut the rear doors properly allowing a lot of dust ingress. But the call of Maralinga and a hot shower was strong and we did eventually get there by about 8.30, tired and out of sorts. We had a thick layer of dust to remove from our bed, then it was a quick meal, a shower and some sleep to restore our equinamity.

Overnight we had a few spots of rain, and the wind became even stronger. Our first priority in the morning was to get as much dust out of Troopy as we could. Then it was on to cleaning the dongas, bathrooms and kitchens, which the women did while the men cleaned at the airport and in the museum area. There was washing to be done too, though getting it attached to the clothesline in the almost gale force wind was tricky. Stephen devised a new sign for the gate and after lunch we went down there to put up the sign and take photos. We finished the day by refuelling and repacking and prepared for a final dinner in the donga, out of the wind as it was much too windy for a fire in the BBQ area.

Our tour around Maralinga and parts of the Great Victoria Desert was now over. Thanks are due to Stephen for the time and effort he put into organising the trip. It had been interesting to see that special part of the country that was central to much of Len Beadell’s exploration and road building work, and to reflect on the scientific and technical efforts and follies that the site had borne witness to – and to wonder how much of the story is still untold. Fate had intervened to require some ad hoc, on-the-run reorganisation of parts of our trip, and given the varied (and indeed unknown) expectations of our disparate group of travellers, it was perhaps not surprising that, towards the end of the trip the outcome had been something of a “curate’s egg”. Nevertheless we’d had a rare opportunity to see a little of a historically important area, which until very recently has been shrouded in secrecy. We’d also been privileged to travel through an area that remains firmly under aboriginal control. This is a part of our country and our history that deserves to be visited and to be known about, and we were fortunate to have had an opportunity to lift the curtain a little on that.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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