2001 Troopy’s First Trip to the Red Centre – Part 3 Beltana to Ross River via Old Andado

Wednesday, Sep 05, 2001 at 15:17


We followed a gravel road that ran north from Beltana beside the old Ghan line, heading for Leigh Creek. It took us through narrow dry valleys and between steep red hills, a taste of scenery to come.

Back on the bitumen we had a flat tyre when only about 5km out of Leigh Creek. We changed it, and about one kilometre later the replacement tyre was also flat – great! That made five flat tyres so far, all on the rear driver's side. So it was into Leigh Creek where the garage could have some work. While we waited we did some stocking up on food and made some phone calls. By the time the tyres were ready it was time to find a camp for the night so we back-tracked to Aroona Dam where there were basic amenities. We had the place to ourselves.

While we were having dinner wind came up and light rain started falling, developing into a wet stormy night. Next morning we set off early ahead of more rain. The road out of the dam was now slippery red mud, something new to us. It was a chance to practice our 4WD skills.

We continued north, through Farina where we had a look at the extensive ruins of what had been optimistically planned as the centre of a thriving wheat growing area. The bakery was reasonably intact, built half underground as protection from the summer heat.

On to Maree driving into a very strong headwind all day, then we turned NW onto the Oodnadatta Track following the old railway line. We stopped at the curious sculptures
made with old planes, an old railway water tank made to look like a dog, a windmill that became a sunflower....great bush humour, and quite a surprise to see. A decade later we were to learn that this site is known, very appropriately, as PLANEHENGE.

Approaching Coward Springs we stopped off in the howling winds to see some mound springs. These are a few metres high, built as dust and minerals from artesian water slowly builds up into a big mound with the water still bubbling out the top. The water spills down the side of the mound into salty wetlands at the base. There are also some “extinct” mounds that are now dry. The wind, white salt, bubbling springs and patches of greenery made another unforgettable sight.

At Coward Springs we found a site that was reasonably sheltered and settled in for the night. But not before having a dip in the warm artesian spa. Coward Springs is a privately run camp ground based around one of the stations on the old Ghan line. As at Farina the owners have used the old sleepers to build everything from toilet blocks, showers and even a spa! Hot water in the showers comes from a wood fired donkey boiler. Some of the old buildings have been restored and now house displays of the area's history and wildlife.

Next morning we managed to pick up a faint radio station to hear with incredulity that the World Trade Centre in New York had been attacked. Such news was almost incomprehensible and surreal in such a remote location. What did it mean, what should we do? Our first instinct was to talk to our kids, one of whom had recently been studying in America, so we set out for Coober Pedy via William Creek. This would also allow us to have a powered site at a caravan park where we could top up our auxilliary battery which was having trouble keeping the fridge running.

William creek was very small – just a shop, pub and caravan park. In a small park are gathered the remains of a 1971 Black Knight rocket, old wagons, trucks and farm machinery; pioneer and modern technology cheek by jowl, another reminder of the contrasts to be found outback. And there was a plane pulled up at the petrol pump in the “main street”! The outback truly is full of amazing and unexpected sights.

The road to Coober Pedy was very good and took us through vast swathes of wildflowers, mostly white everlastings and some purple parakeelya. Against the brilliant red sand dunes these made a magnificent display.

We checked into a caravan park at CP and found that there were queues on the phones – everyone, it seemed wanted to ring home, to touch base with their family. Finally we got through to our kids who were all shaken by the news. It had touched them closely in various ways. Some people that we spoke to hadn't yet heard the news and thought that we were making some kind of sick joke.

We were disinclined to stay long in Coober Pedy, being put off by many intoxicated people wandering around the streets. So we headed out to the Breakaways, past the dog fence and some big patches of brilliant purple peas along drainage linesThe Breakaways emerge as an almost alien landscape of multicoloured sharp peaks and flat-topped hills. The colours range from white through coffee and ochre tones. Some of the rock layers appear to contain fossilised worms. We made several stops to explore and marvel, both at the hills and the tiny flowers that cling to life in the hard stony ground.

Back out to the highway we headed north on the bitumen. The country we passed through was rather flat and featureless, but green with a few flowers here and there. We decided to spend the night at Copper Hills, a private property that has a camping area – under coolibahs, beside a billabong to make it really special. Guests are encouraged to explore the property, all 200 square kms of it. We walked out along a track and admired this new scenery and the sunset colours. Then it was time to settle in for the night beside a mulga wood fire.

From Copper Hills we headed for the Painted Desert which proved to be an impressive range of flat-topped mesas in colours ranging from near white through orange and brown to deep red-brown. They are similar to the Breakaways but more varied and imposing, surrounded as they are by plains that stretch to the horizon. In places there were big patches of colour from wildflowers growing among the gibbers, white paper daisies and yellow billy buttons.

At Oodnadatta we refuelled at the famous Pink Roadhouse and sent postcards to our kids, before setting out towards Hamilton on a good gravel road. There were plenty more flowers to be seen including Sturt's Desert Peas in abundance. At Hamilton we turned onto the 75km track to Dalhousie Springs. This is the roughest track so far as it is not maintained and consists of long stretches of gibber punctuated by water-filled boggy sections and some corrugated sandy sections.

So it was a huge relief to reach Dalhousie Springs. There we were unexpectedly welcomed with a big wave by Ian, Leslie and Elizabeth whom we had first met at Coward Springs and then again at Coober Pedy. Together we had a lovely evening swapping travel notes (they are much more experienced remote area travellers than we are) and discussing the many flowers that we had seen.

Dalhousie Springs is a big area of mound springs, and one or more springs feeds into a big waterhole maybe 200m long and about 50m across and said to be up to 14m deep. The water comes out very hot but at the main swimming area it is about 35 degrees, making for delightful swimming, despite the little fish that nibble your skin. There are other mounds nearby, some surrounded by tall rushes, some almost over-run with introduced date palms. But only a couple of metres from the edge of the water the desert re-asserts itself.

Leaving Dalhousie we headed to Mt. Dare where we arrived 65km later almost shaken senseless by gibbers and corrugations. The scenery along this track is different again, very open in places. We stopped a few times to admire red mulga with its distinctive curly red bark.

At Mt. Dare we were welcomed by a very friendly couple. We enjoyed a coffee with them and some other travellers, who advised us to spend some time in the gorges east of Alice. The “bar” (closed as it was Sunday) walls were covered in messages left by visitors. One we really liked: “There are no strangers here, only friends you haven't met”. Said it all really.

After refuelling – the most expensive fuel yet at $1.39c/l – we set off up the Old Andado Track heading for Alice Springs. After about 14km we crossed into the NT through a rough, badly hung rusty gate. It had to be opened by hand – despite carrying an advertisement for a manufacturer of automatic gate openers. Another bit of bush humour. Heading north on fairly rough track we passed several areas where the track had subsided maybe a metre. We were told at Mt. Dare that in this area the Finke River finishes only to continue underground all the way to Lake Eyre. Also in this area we had another first encounter, this time with camels, a big group, well fed with fat humps.

We spent that night camped beside the track, and feeling very much alone in this vast landscape. The only people that we saw all day were a party of aboriginals near Old Andado who asked us for directions. We thought that it should have been the other way around! We had passed no vehicles at all, another new experience.

The country around Old Andado, on the edge of the Simpson Desert was surprisingly green and the cattle we saw were fat. We went out to the Mac Clarke Acacia peuce Reserve to wonder how largish trees could survive in such a low rainfall area – and acknowledge the foresight of Mac Clarke in fencing them off so that young trees could establish. And what amazing trees they are – prickly juvenile foliage, huge seed pods, hard black bark and the long “leaves” endlessly sighing in the wind.

The track north passed through some beautiful country, spectacular blue hills interspersed with brilliant red dunes, yellow wattle in bloom and bright green shrubs. There were quite a few gates to go through, and all of them were shut. The only blight on the scenery was a litter of beer bottles and wine casks around Santa Theresa.

Despite some fairly severe corrugations where the track ran between the dunes we made Alice in good time to do some shopping before checking into a caravan park and revelling in a long hot shower. We topped up our water supplies – we have been topping up at every opportunity – and are coming to realise that obtaining water is not difficult, and that water quality is generally acceptable.

We have no set plan of what to do around Alice so decided to explore the East MacDonnell Ranges first. Travelling the 70km or so east on bitumen was a strange sensation, and rather unexpected. The country is rugged and sensationally spectacular. There are the sharply defined layers of bright red rocks, brilliant white ghost gums, stately river red gums with yellow and purple flowers thrown in for contrast. What an absolute riot of colour under a bright blue sky.

Our first stop was at Jessie Gap where a dry creekbed cuts through the rocks, then on to Corroboree Rock, a narrow pinnacle of rock said to be 800 million years old. Then on to John Hayes Rockhole [Image not found]where there was permanent water in the gorge and some welcome shade out of the growing heat and glare.

We had lunch at Trephina Bluff then walked down the riverbed through the gorge, marvelling at the massive red rock faces, some of them so cracked they look as though they could fall at any moment, but they have probably looked like that for hundreds of years.

Next came N’Dhala Gorge, down a 4WD track that has several creek crossings, some with pools of water. There are no facilities here but the gorge in the afternoon light is stunning with its massive and jumbled deep red rocks and ghost gums clinging in cracks providing a brilliant green and white contrast. This gorge has many aboriginal petroglyphs, some are punched into the rock, others are pounded. They are thought to be between 2,000 and 10,000 years old. May represent the caterpillar dreaming, but there are animal tracks and plenty of the concentric rings representing water. At first they were a bit hard to see but as we learned what to look for we saw more and more, so it was fun to keep looking to see how many we could find.

After a night at the Ross River campground and a welcome bore-water shower, we continued our way east intending to make our way eventually to Ruby Gap. As it turned out the heat was sufficient to turn us around at Arltunga and we didn’t attempt the more difficult 4WD track to Ruby Gap. We were also a little daunted by the operation of a voluntary reporting service to provide a search if those attempting the trek don’t return at the appointed time.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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