Great Sandy Desert - The McLarty Hills (Day 4 of our quest for Dragon Tree Soak)

Saturday, Jul 10, 2010 at 00:00


Saturday 10th July, 2010
McLarty Hills - Great Sandy Desert
19°32'3.44"S, 123°32'39.75"E
(58.6 km for the day)

There had been a few showers during the night but nothing significant and the pools of water that surrounded our rocky knoll had been absorbed by the thirsty sands of the Great Sandy Desert. Despite another bleak and grey morning, we awoke to find that Gaby’s fire had burnt all night despite the rain, the desert walnut timber has some qualities all its own. It soon became apparent that our campsite had a lack of available cover in the way of bushes to shelter behind for the morning call. Where as I had beaten everyone out and could position their camps between the front of my car and a judiciously opened vehicle door, others who arose late could not and had to take a quad ride some distance to find cover behind another pile of rocks some distance away. A good thing probably! We do find humour in the strangest things out here!

After managing to coax a jaffle successfully out of the remaining coals, we packed and departed our little rocky island at 8:30 a.m. Jaydub was out front leading once again. Being a bit of a purist (or so I thought), John stuck pretty close to the original cut-line which meant a lot of twisting and turning. I found out later that it was costing too much in diesel to be out wide in the clear areas as having to break ground and pushing the big mud terrain tyres through soft sand continuously creates amazing drag on the vehicles. The rain worked to our advantage binding the sand which was to be of critical assistance to us later in the day. Once again the outriders scouted ahead to provide assistance and keeping the vehicle drivers appraised of upcoming conditions (all bad). On more than one occasion Scotties dulcet tones floated across the airwaves; “John, you been drinking again man?” questioning the winding path JW had chosen through the scrub. There were some incredibly thick areas of scrub and we often found ourselves wedged between tightly packed dunes with little option but to mow a path directly ahead along what little corridor there was.

Despite the heavy soaking of the previous day, it was surprising just how little water remained standing. Despite threatening skies, we had no rain fall as the morning progressed. I’d rung back to Melbourne to get our base crew to check the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) site and had been informed that we had a 200 km wide band of cloud stretching from Broome all the way down to Victoria with a big low in the Great Australian Bight pinning it in position. The forecast however was a relief with only for 10-20 mm of rain expected to fall across this whole band.

The first way-point of the days travel was the turn to Dragon Tree Soak (DTS) but after a quick conference at the intersection of the cut lines, we decided to head on a further 25 kilometres further east to the site of the ‘McLarty- 1’ oil exploration camp to check track conditions as a possible exit route. The first southward cut line down to Dragon Tree Soak (DTS) was visible beneath all the spinifex giving us faith that our 1980's vintage geosurvey map was accurate. Around 11:15 a.m., Jaydub let us know he’d staked a tyre, a big needle of wood letting the air out of his back right tyre. A couple of plugs had it repaired and back on the track in no time. We came across our intended cut line just before noon and on checking the co-ordinates against the shell geo map, found that the McLarty site was actually a further six kilometres east. The track south to the McLarty Hills looked half reasonable (now that’s comparatively speaking of course) but to better appreciate the conditions, I commandeered Gaby’s quad and rode south along the track for a couple of kilometres where from the tops of the dunes, the larger hills of the McLarty group could be seen beckoning in the distance.

Arriving back at the vehicles I rang (don’t you love sat phones) Ray Ronchi, a source of infinite local wisdom and one of the only people who has travelled this area in recent memory. His recollections of track conditions east of the McLarty site were not good so we had a bit of lunch at the intersection, discussed the situation and decided to begin our journey southinto the country where the fun really began! Our egress plans are now well and truly in a state of flux and will mature as we get further towards our goal. It’s 200 plus kilometres of desert any way we turn and all options come with a high degree of difficulty attached!

Our afternoon track had us heading south 14.5 kilometres across 25 dunes to reach the McLarty Hills. The first few dunes were crossed relatively easily, the sand having been compacted and bound by the recent rains. Our formula for travel was simple; With Jaydub leading we’d get the quads to mount the dune and assess conditions, not always accurately mind you, then relay the information back to the drivers allowing them to plan each traverse. From my position at the tail end, it was funny to watch the gyrations of the vehicles and trailers as they crested the dunes and negotiated the hummocks on the top. Our choice of direction was also fortuitous as the approaches to the dunes from the northern side were more friendly than the sharp drop offs we encountered on the southern sides. I had one “expletive” moment when cresting a dune under power and finding myself facing a split second decision ; Head butt a hummock of sand where John had hit and hit hard (there were wheel tracks absent for a distance of a metre meaning all three axles had been airborne as they crossed thehill) or duck right and ride a bowl shaped wall of sand around the obstacle, the route that Scott had taken. I’d been watching both vehicles cross and now realised why Scott’s vehicle had appeared to tip at a 45 degree angle briefly before righting and skewing haphazardly to the left. Trusting in the laws of physics I screamed my war cry of “Fire-truck” (well it sounds the same) and speared right onto the wall of death. Of course I forgot that I had the video on at the time so apologies for the language mum. Time slowed as the vehicle tipped sharply and then righted and plunged down the near vertical southern face of the dune. Gaby, perched on her quad on top of the dune, was somewhat awed by both the display of unintentional skill displayed by the driver and the loud expletive. Apparently the look on my face as I passed her said it all!

That crossing set the tone for the afternoons travel and didn’t we enjoy it. The McLarty’s run on a diagonal to the south west with numerous rocky outcrops that we had to negotiate around to continue south. A few interesting moments indeed but the magical hills kept drawing us on. A little before 3:00 p.m. we spied a long dead spook tree (Desert Walnut; Owenia Reticulata). Thinking the boys were going to load some of the timber on the ground around the tree, I was perplexed to see Scotty nudging the guppy up against the large dead, but solidly standing, desert walnut. Urged on by John, the result was never in doubt. Tree - one, Scott – nil! I then directed them to the fallen timber and we loaded up the ATV trailer with precious firewood. The walnut timber is extremely dense and has a magnificent blond colour with a deep red heart wood. It has a tight packed grain like Huon pine but is much harder. The thick bark often reminded me of the thick, dark Victorian Ironbark trees in appearance yet was almost cork like and spongy at times. The slabs of loose bark were a haven for lizards as the half dozen fleeing geckos would attest as I stripped the fallen trunk to chop a few limbs off.

At the end of the day we left the cut line and travelled a kilometre across country to a magnificent little clearing surrounded by acacia like trees and directly underneath a rocky red butte which offered shelter from the prevailing north westerly wind. A refreshing beverage for all around the trailer as we debriefed the days events and had a good chuckle before climbing the rocky prominence above for a look at the surrounding countryside. The rocks held many small pools of water, a boon for the local wildlife. Beneath us the sandy expanse stretched endlessly in every direction, the only thing changing being the height of the dunes, some of those being frighteningly impressive. We are approximately 240 kilometres due east of the Great Northern Highway and 197 kilometres due south of the Willare Roadhouse. Fitzroy Crossing is 260 kilometres to our north east. The shortest straight line distance to the WAPET (Kidson) Track is approximately 150 kilometres to the south west. We have managed 58.6 kilometres travelled for the day in 8 hours of travel. Blokes on camels did this sort of distance in a day a hundred years back!

It was steak with spuds and a little salad for dinner and then we watched Jaydub's video of our previous years trip over a bottle of red and a Baileys. I had retired to the RTT by nine with clouds again encroaching upon the stars which led me to batten down in case of rain and wind.

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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