Carnegie Expedition 2013 - Day 8 - Man verses the Desert as boldly into the Tanami we ride.

Wednesday, Jul 31, 2013 at 19:00

Mick O


31st July, 2009 - A Range near Mt Hughes - Tanami Desert WA



I had a great night’s sleep at our “long camp”. The day began with the usual routine of tyre repairs to both the quad and the tuck-truck, locating the pesky sidewall nick that had eluded me the previous evening. Given that we were to be out for a couple of nights, reprovisioning the quad with the essentials (food, water and fuel) was next on the agenda. After that I helped Al with quad tyre repairs. The quad team was finally away into the desert at 10.00 a.m.





Our course took us due east for forty kilometres towards Mt Hughes through country I could only describe as “challenging” to say the least. The plains were thick with scrub which made it difficult to maintain a straight line course. As we twisted and turned, the dreaded acacia would tear at us trying to claw rider and equipment off our machines. We had absolutely no visibility of the lay of the land around us adding a degree of complexity to navigation.




Al’s tyre problems began within three kilometres of departure. The 3 ply tyres were taking a pounding and with a normal operating pressure of 7psi, the difference between round and square was difficult to discern and usually indicated by heavier steering. Unfortunately, Al had staked his previously repaired tyre and as it ran flat, the internal patches began to peel. Being a ‘slow’ leak we stopped to pump it up on a regular basis. It was a slow and painful process and with all the twisting and turning the leak became progressively worse until we could no longer sustain it. Finding meagre shade we swapped out the tyre with John’s spare radial.


On the 24th April 1897, Carnegie reached a low rocky range which he named the Gordon Hills after his kind hosts at Flora Valley Station.

On the 24th we crossed a range of barren hills, which I named the Gordon Hills, after our friends of Flora Valley. In the neighbourhood Godfrey picked up a perfectly white egg, somewhat resembling that of an emu, which lay upon a hummock of spinifex; presumably it had been bleached by the sun. From the hills to the S.S.W., across high ridges of sand, can be seen a range apparently of some altitude, distant some twenty-five miles; this I named the Stretch Range, after our kind host of Denison Downs Station. From the Gordon Hills we continued on our course for a smoke we had sighted the day before, and before long picked up two fresh tracks, which we followed. From some stony rises a large, prominent hill came into view, as if formed of three great steps of bare rock. This I named Mount Elphinstone, after my cousin, and towards it we shaped our course, still on the tracks.

David Carnegie Spinifex and Sand Ch. IV




Carnegie remained unimpressed with the Gordon Hills and I agreed wholeheartedly with his assessment so much so that we didn’t book any time for exploring. We did look for a bluff mentioned by Carnegie with no success. Having had lunch in what shade we could find, we climbed the range for a better view of our surroundings and saw the Stretch Range to the south west and to the east, another low rise 14 kilometres away. Once more into the fray, off into the turpentine we plunged.



The temperature began to rise and the burning glare of the sun was relentless. To make matters worse, the scrub robbed us of any breeze making it exceptionally hot and dusty. The constant twisting had played hell on my neck and shoulder, old injuries a legacy of a bad motorcycle accident back in 2001. The scrub enclosed nature of the country meant there was never a clear break to stand on the quad. Without the ability to use your weight to turn to the course, all steering had to be done sitting down and reefing left or right. Power steering would have been a blessing!


Pushing south east we occasionally encountered long fingers of burnt country. Where the fire had ravaged, the scrub was gone, replaced by a forest of black sticks. These needed to be negotiated as the fire hardened timber would soon account for a soft walled quad tyre. It did provide a short respite from the clawing scrub and facilitated a slight breeze.


A low laterite rise marked the half way point of our journey east. Twenty kilometres from the Balgo Road, Twenty Kilometres to Mount Hughes. We often don’t realise just how little height is required to provide a view across largely featureless country. The views afforded us from the laterite rise were amazing despite it being no more than 15 metres above the surrounding country. The Gordon Hills looked far more impressive from this angle than we found in reality and far to our east, the sheer walls of Mt (Elphinstone) Hughes stood out as a bright red, a stark wall, clearly visible despite being nearly 20 kilometres away. John and I were both quite weary and utilised the only shade available, the shadow’s thrown by our quads, to lie down and take a short break. Both John and I were dead to the world for 10 minutes. It’s amazing how comfortable a bed of stones can be to the physically exhausted!


Our route was to follow that of Carnegie as faithfully as possible and on a bearing of 105 degrees, we were heading for an area in which Carnegie had found a source of water in some black soil soaks. Knowing the Carnegie and Breaden had visited Mount Hughes from the soaks, Al made the decision to deviate from our course and head directly to Mount Hughes. We would scout the area that had been visited by both Carnegie and Warburton before rejoining our original route tomorrow. As we had a fair bit of ground to cover and the sun was sinking fast, we didn’t dawdle.



Strewth it was tough going made worse by our physical exhaustion. More of the relentless scrub to plough through. We were amazed to find a stretch of country that was almost park like, the soft spinifex and grasses studded with ghost guns and bloodwood. We encountered a very strange phenomenon which I’ve dubbed “fairy rings”. Often anthills would be found in an almost perfect circle with a clearing between them 3-4 metres wide. Other clearings were perfectly square with anthills clustered at either end like stools. The clearings were flat and devoid of any plant life. It looked like a meeting place for leprechauns. Leading for the last fourteen kilometres, I was damn tired by the time we finally approached the rocky ramparts of the range. Having been in the process of fading for several days now, the right rear shocker on my quad had given up the ghost and was banging hard, metal on metal. Its replacement would be a job for the morning.


As we reached the range, the sun was quite low and the last rays of the day were shining directly onto the deep red rock face around us. The reflected light gave everything a surreal look, the sky, sun, and earth seemed to be viewed through a blood red filter. Even the normally incandescent white trunks of the snappy gums took on a subdued pinkish tinge in the blood soaked light. The range, one of three distinct parts of the Hughes ‘group’, rises sharply from the sandy plain. Some 50 metres high, the rugged red ramparts form a wall running north-south with Mount Hughes several kilometres to the west. The talus slope supports white trunked snappy gum and is dotted with large sandstone boulders that have fallen to earth from the walls above.


As it was so late in the afternoon, we wasted no time clearing spinifex for the tents, collecting timber and assessing the days attrition on man and machine. It was a very warm evening, so we sat well back from the fire. After dinner Alan refined his night photography skills with some great results. It was a moonless night so the stars were ablaze. We got a spectacular view of the ISS cruising stately overhead and then for me, checking the inside of my eyelids remained the only real option. I slept well.



''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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