2001 Troopy’s First Trip to the Red Centre – Part 1 Canberra to Tibooburra

Sunday, Aug 26, 2001 at 20:44


Our trip to north Queensland a couple of years earlier had shown up the limitations of an esky and ice in hot weather. Also we had thought long and hard about how we might have a tent that provided cover over Troopy’s rear door, something quicker to erect and pull down than the freestanding tent that we had used so far.

So we took the plunge and invested in a compressor type fridge, a 40 litre Waeco. To fit it into the back of Troopy it had to fit under the bed platform, and also had to be on a slide so that we could access whatever gear was behind it. So John set to work and designed and built a storage system. This included 2 big drawers to fit in the back of Troopy. The fridge and bulk water bottles occupied most of one slide. The other held our 2 big plastic storage tubs while the section immediately inside the rear door had shelves to hold smaller plastic dishes holding food and kitchen utensils. Boxes enclosing the wheel arches held less frequently used items and vehicle spares. Clothes, spare bedding and cameras travelled behind the passenger seats. [This whole system with a few minor modifications has performed exceptionally well over many tens of thousands of often rough kilometres, and is still in use over a decade later.]

The tent idea required a bit more ingenuity. What we came up with was a frame that slid into channels on the roof rack covered with a tent cut down from a larger one and sewn by Val on a very old Singer sewing machine bought for the job. Again, it’s an arrangement that has worked extremely well and one that we still use. For more details see our blog “Our Troopy Set-up”

Never having been far west before and not having any idea what to expect we were a bit apprehensive, but had done as much research as we reasonably could. This included picking up some tips from a young work colleague of Val’s who, with a mate, had travelled up through the centre and on to the Gulf on a trail bike.

Our departure was planned for the end of August. Then came the news, in mid July. of a young English couple apparently held up and assaulted north of Alice Springs. Our immediate panicky thought was “was it safe to travel?”. Eventually we calmed down enough to decide to go anyway, a decision that was soon vindicated when we came to realise the scale of the outback, and the infinitesimally small chance of coming across anyone with evil intent.

So on 30th August we left home on a fine sunny morning fresh after a few days of rain. Troopy’s speedo showed 252663km. Our route took us to Binalong where we picked up some of the famous sausages, then on to Temora and Griffith. Here petrol also had to be bought, already at a higher price than at home. The country here was looking good with endless paddocks of young wheat and some early canola in flower. There were oranges everywhere being harvested but the grape vines were still bare and often still unpruned, showing some vines to be very old and gnarled.

The traffic on the road to Hillston was lighter, and the country was beginning to flatten out, with mallee growing beside the road. Near Hillston we saw signs of rice and cotton grown in the area. Then on to Willandra via the Mossgeil road – and off the bitumen. We were surprised at how far out there were signs showing the school bus went there. The road quickly showed how the country responds to rain, and numerous side tracks proved better driving than the road itself. The country by now was very flat and open with just lines of trees along watercourses.

Willandra NP is 20km in from the turn-off, and the intervening distance is via a private property grazing Angus cows and calves in very good condition. Despite grazing we saw some kangaroos and wildflowers. Arriving at the homestead we found no-one about, and an honour system for registering and paying the camping fee. The campground is a little way from the homestead, beside the creek which is muddy, courtesy of carp, but with plenty of trees. Only one other lot of campers were to be seen, so we chose a spot close to the water and went to explore the homestead and surrounds. The homestead, which was open to explore is big and open, built in a U shape with lots of outside doors to let air flow through. It was built in 1918 on the site of the original homestead. Water came via two big overhead concrete tanks – how did they get them up onto 50 foot stands?

Our first evening from home was spent beside a cheery fire, listening to the frogs filling an otherwise imposing silence. We were ready to turn in early, content that Troopy was travelling well, but knowing it would take us a few days to adjust to our new travelling arrangements.

Before leaving next morning we had a good look at the Willandra shearing shed. This is actually a “new” shed, still in use by a neighbour. The original 64 stand shed shore 92,000 sheep in 1896. This shed is much smaller with only a dozen or so stands, but still imposing, with an extensive set of yards and undercover pens. The 1936 shearers quarters are open to inspect. There are 16 rooms, a 2 bedroom cottage, a kitchen and dining room with a meathouse and cook’s quarters close by. The bathroom has hand pumped showers and a boiler for hot water. Outside there are garbage tips with lots of old bottles, tins etc.

Leaving Willandra, we went back onto the Mosgeil Road across very flat country with a few trees mainly along watercourses. Windmills and radio masts became the main landmarks. We came into Ivanhoe about midday; a very small town. We found a spot for lunch just off the road under some shade out of town a short way. Then the bitumen gave way to gravel, that was dry and good travelling, but looked as if it would be difficult if wet. There was little traffic but we passed 5 big stock trucks travelling together – we had plenty of notice as we could hear the drivers chatting on the CB as they approached. During this stage we saw feral goats as well as sheep and cattle and quite a few emus and eagles.

We crossed some quite spectacular low hills half way to Wilcannia. The big red rock outcrops were spectacular, and the gum trees, cyprus and wildflowers added colour. There was a homestead across the valley with barking dogs so we didn’t spend too long admiring the scene. We encountered a bit of rain, but on reaching Wilcannia there was just a passing shower. We crossed the Darling River and looked at some of the main street buildings that are built of local sandstone. We thought we would check out the local museum but found it being turned into a telecentre, such is progress. Wilcannia didn’t look too exciting for an overnight stop so we decided to press on to White Cliffs. Some of the road was sealed and the rest was in good condition. We passed through changing country, including some sand ridges covered with thick scrub. Finally a line of low hills revealed White Cliffs, complete with lots of tailings dumps. We checked into the camping ground under a heavily overcast sky with a strong wind blowing.

After a cold and very windy night, we left the caravan park and joined a $5 tour of a “tourist” mine. Unlike other mines (there are 6 full time miners in White Cliffs), where a 32” diameter vertical shaft is drilled and horizontal drives taken off at selected depths, this one had been dug with shafts at a 20 degree slope to cope with tourists. Saw part of a fossilised dinosaur, then taken to the 45 foot level to see (non-productive) seams. We were shown “slipstones” which were very dense smooth rocks. The tour didn’t provide much detail but was a reasonable $5 experience.

It seemed that White Cliffs had no police presence – the only vehicles fit to be registered belonged to tourists! After the tour we took a quick drive around the town. An experimental array of solar dishes had provided power to pub, post office and general store using steam raised by the dishes. The system was said to now be photovoltaic, which seemed unlikely. Permanent residents generally live underground, where temperatures remain around 22 degrees year round in spite of being up to 50 degrees above ground.
Leaving White Cliffs we headed for Tibooburra on a good dirt/gravel road. The country became progressively more “desert”, red sand, saltbush, and some low scrub. Saw little wildlife apart from a big mob of (probably) wild goats. We joined the Silver City Highway about 130 km from White Cliffs, with 120 km to reach Tibooburra, same dirt/gravel with short stretches of bitumen. We arrived in Tibooburra (population 350) mid afternoon, refueled (at $1.17 per litre), and found we had a badly damaged tyre. This was cheerfully replaced by a helpful local with a barely legal one for $25 – a real bargain in a tiny town on a Saturday afternoon!
We drove out to the nearest camping area in the Sturt National Park, passing a whale boat memorial to Sturt, who thought he’d need one on the inland sea. The boat (a replica) was big – wooden maybe 20’ long and would have required at least 4 men to row it. It must have been very difficult to transport by horse over waterless country.
At the memorial we met a couple of blokes still shaken from a plane crash. They’d been going to the Birdsville races, but were running late due to high winds. Their pilot wasn’t authorised for night flying, so tried to put down at Tibooburra as night closed in. A blown fuse resulted in no indication that the landing gear was down so a belly landing was attempted. The wheels were in fact down so the landing was less dramatic than expected. Unfortunately the pilot had elected to land with the high wind rather than into it so the plane ran off the end of the runway and was finally stopped by a netting fence that it tore from the ground. The passengers were clearly still shocked the following day when we met them. Their transport options to leave town seemed to be to attempt t o hitch a ride on a truck going to Broken Hill.
On to the park where we found a spot reasonably sheltered from the wind and set up camp. We met up with a couple from Kiama and did a short 2km walk with them.
This part of the park is very impressive with big granite tors – massive rocks cracked and eroded over time to become great jumbled piles of boulders. The “soil” is mainly gravely sand resulting from this erosion and supports a sparse flora, some eucalypts (Euc. terminalis), some in flower with very attractive cream blossoms having delicate pink centres, several scrubby wattles and various ground cover species.
The local kangaroos are very timid Reds, big, maybe 2 metres high. Rabbits are present too. Birds – galahs and a friendly magpie, but we saw no small birds.
Next morning we woke to a clear sky and light breeze after a bit of a shower overnight. We had a leisurely morning as we planned to explore this end of the park so we walked part of the way around the walking track, absorbed by the fascinating geology.
Eventually we packed up and moved out mid morning and went into town to phone home. Telstra’s public phone didn’t work, but the Blue phone at the Family Hotel did – despite the numbers being worn off the keypad. Then headed out to do the two loop roads off the highway north of the town. The Jump Ups loop road passes a couple of earth tanks, the first having a bird watching hide, but by midday there were only a few cormorants, black ducks and some emus. The second was near the remains of what must have been a house and out buildings – concrete slabs remain, 8 in all, a few metal oddments, bits of old machinery and a massive steel water tank.
Between these earthen tanks we came into gibber areas where the saltbush, some Mitchell grass and flowers grow in shallow depressions. In the emptiness, a forlorn stretch of a hundred yards of old fence made an interesting photo. The road went through changing country and crossed tributaries of Twelve Mile Ck, which had good sized trees although no water in sight. Then on through changing country with a broken skyline – jump-ups –, close up a spectacular sight in otherwise flat country. They are flat topped hills, topped with silicrete – an excellent view from the top overlooking the open valley, creeks and floodplain.
Then on to Olive Downs camping area where we followed the walk up a jump-up and down into the sand dunes. The walk was meant to be a loop, but we missed some of the markers and returned by the same path. Walking in gibbers is hard on the feet. We saw bluebells and eremophila. Back onto the main road and down to the turn off for the Gorge Loop road, which followed Twelve Mile Ck further down its valley until it passed through a “gorge”, more a narrow gap in the hills. Lots of trees along the creek. Saw the ruin of an old 2 stand shearing shed made of local timber, fencing wire and thatch. The road was mainly gibbers so fairly rough. Saw a lot of kangaroos and emus. In the southern section, large areas of gibbers clear of vegetation and shining in the afternoon light made a weird sight – imagine it in summer.
We returned to Dead Horse campground for a second night. There we joined up with some other campers for a drink. All three couples had about 2 weeks for their trip and were envious of the time we had available. The camp ground was filling up so we put up Troopy’s tent for privacy.
Packing up is getting quicker as we find the best places for things to go. This means less time digging around to find things, and where to put them. As we left we walked around a display of gold mining in the area. Not much gold was actually mined due to the harsh conditions, especially a lack of water. Large bulky equipment was brought in by camels – and some of the equipment was very bulky indeed. A big chain pump was on the site, the first time we had seen one, also dry blowers to blow rather than wash soil etc away from the gold. The miners lived in very tough conditions – just bough shacks sometimes covered with a tarpaulin. In this display area we saw our first flowering Sturt’s Desert Pea.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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