Carnegie Expedition 2013 - Day 10 Rendezvous near Thomas Peak.

Friday, Aug 02, 2013 at 00:00


Friday 2nd August
Unnamed range and bluff
Approximately 8 km north-east of Thomas Peak WA

It was a magnificent warm night beneath the stars in our little bloodwood camp, the light of the fire silhouetting the trees against the stars above. A slight breeze blew up around 3:00 a.m., waking me. I enjoyed the stillness, dozing for a few hours and listening to Massie growling softly at something unseen in darkness.

We needed to be away in good time this morning as we expected to be crossing more than 60 dunes. As a result, we were up at 5:20 a.m. with the fire going and downing fruit and cereal, juice and a cup of tea. Pack up went smoothly and then it was time for quad chores. Our lead quad had sustained three punctures in one front tyre, one in the opposite front and one at the rear tyre for a total of five, not a bad effort really! Our day’s travel would follow Carnegie’s route south for 30 kilometres where we would head to the west to meet the support convoy. With map accuracy being suspect on some details, we expected to cross more dunes than actually shown on the NatMap sheets. The vehicles were to struggle across country from the east to meet us at the edge of the wide laterite plains, south east of Thomas Peak.

The conditions of the morning were a mixed bag with the larger dune corridors often choked with turpentine and thick, old growth Spinifex. Many a swale would have benefited from the cleansing wand of fire believe me. Other, wider corridors had been recently burnt and were now almost park like with grasses replacing spinifex and abundant groves of Bloodwood and Snappy Gum. The dunes were not huge averaging about 12 metres in height but the northern slopes were extremely steep and soft. As this was our approach side, the difficult conditions stopped the quads on several occasions. One dune took me six attempts to get over! Prior to the trip, John had spent some time improving the performance and power of his quad. As a consequence he had little difficulty in crossing. Alan, at 58 kilograms ringing wet, was stopped a few times here and there, but it seemed to be me having the most difficulty (Hmmm I wonder what that says). I’ve developed a tactic where I tackle the dunes obliquely, riding up the face on an angle, aiming for a patch of spinifex near the crest and then tacking to take the crest head on. It worked well but relied on having sufficient power and momentum near the crest of the dune and delicate balance of course.

Despite being early in the day, the sun was relentless, conditions warming up fast despite a cool breeze On the higher dunes the view of Mt (Elphinstone) Hughes to the north was impressive, its square shape easily identifiable on the horizon. Thirty kilometres (and 70 dunes) later we reached our turn point and commenced the seven kilometre run west towards Thomas bluff and the waiting ground crew. As we rode, we could hear their chatter fading in and out over the radios as they wound their way east towards us.

Our chosen rendezvous point was underneath a low, weathered laterite range. These ancient landforms are one of the dominant features of the Great Sandy Desert landscape. In the distant past the climate in northern Australia was much wetter and warmer than now. Large quantities of rainwater soaking through rock broke down and dissolved minerals, leaching them away. The deeply-weathered residue becomes extremely hard when exposed to air, forming a hard crust on the surface known as ‘duricrust’. In much of Western Australia, the iron oxides were the most difficult to leach from the soil giving much of the duricrust the deep red colour we know so well. Iron rich duricrust is also described as ‘ferricrete’.

Below the red-coloured duricrust are layers of clays with an intermediate mottled zone where the leaching has been non-uniform. This sequence of ferricrete - mottled zone - pallid zone is described as 'laterite'. The term 'laterite' is also widely used to describe the red-coloured, iron-rich, gravelly soil common across the western deserts.

Over thousands of years, as surrounding strata have eroded, the duricrust layer and clays below emerge to form the elevated, flat-top, mesa like formations we know as 'breakaways'. Along the range the wind has sculpted the softer clays to form caverns and caves. Patches of gibber and laterite peeked above the sand and creek lines flowed out of the range to spill infrequent runoff onto the sandy plains below. Much of the area had been fire affected and sported a cover of fine, bright green Spinifex. Somewhere around the 1:30 p.m. after 7 hours of travel, we rounded a ridge to sight the support vehicles in the distance and rode wearily into their little circle.

After joining the support team, I scouted a camp site in nearby valley surrounded by red bluffs. It did not take long to get camp set up and lunch eaten. Our valley was split by a prominent, central creek. Immediately to our south a sharp gully displayed a prominent fig tree. Often an indicator of water, John and Al headed off to investigate it. I was more interested in a smaller gorge almost next door. It was shallow and narrow with a large green bush at the end. Wandering along a well used animal trail along the rocky side of the rill, I found a large cavern at the end. Nearby I could see stains on the rocks where water flowed across the rocks and out of the cavern. In one of those queer moments when you stare at something for a while knowing something is wrong with this situation but not being able to work out what it is, it suddenly dawned on me. I was looking at a water trail that seemed to simply start on the rock. There was no waterfall marks, no telltale staining or oxidation marks left by water flowing down the wall of the cavern from the creek above. From the angle I was standing in the cavern, that water just appeared to come from no where.

The mystery led me to climb around the end wall of the cavern and explore further. Here I found a small but deep cavern disappearing into the wall of the gorge. It appeared to be several metres long and crawling inside I found a beautiful pool of crystal clear water sitting in what I would best describe as “a font”. I was gobsmacked. While nowhere near full, this perfect basin held a good 20 litres of water. When totally full, the basin would easily hold more than 100 litres. Once fully inside the cavern, I found that there was a hole above the font allowing faint daylight to filter down. Over countless millennia, water had exploited flaws in the substrate and bored a hole through 5 metres of rock from the creek above. Crawling back around to the larger cavern, I located a painted circle and dot (like a target), a universal symbol for water. It was so ancient that the pigment had leeched into the rock making it appear like a natural feature. On a slab of rock nearby was also a grinding area, a large groove in the rock worn smooth by the movement of stone across it. Whether for seed or ochre, we’ll never know but given its proximity to a source of water, my experience suggests food. Climbing to the top of the range, it was obvious that water draining from the surrounding country flowed into this deep hole and the font before flowing out onto the plain. It was truly amazing and after many hours searching the surrounding ranges, it remained the only water we were to find in the area.

Authors Note:

Waterholes are particularly significant to the traditional owners of the land and in many cases are sacred locations. In respect for the traditional owners whose permission was granted to enter this magnificent country, we did not take images of the waterhole. The author hopes his verbal description presents a suitable picture of this amazing place.

I spent what remained of the afternoon following the range around, alighting the quad and exploring on foot whenever a feature took my interest (and that was a fairly often!). As I investigated gullies and creeks I located many ephemeral rock holes. The state of the country clearly indicated a lack of rain in recent times. I was fascinated by the weathered rock formations which often resembled abstract sculpture. In many places the classic laterite profile of the soil was easy to see. Much of the softer white substrate had eroded by wind and water to form extensive caverns, a haven for the local animals and migratory humans.

The roos here are a species I’d not seen before. Despite the harsh environment in which they eke out a living, they are huge. While easily the size of a Big Red, this variety is a deep golden colour with a short face and thick, short snout. They are simply the heaviest set roo I have ever seen. Their forearms and chests are massive and the whole animal appears to be a ball of muscle, like a weight lifter. When they bounce, the very ground shakes with each hop. When I first encountered one at Mount Hughes I thought it must have been a one off, but I have seen no variation in the dozen or so I have seen since. They are big, squat and thickset. They could do some real damage if they got a hold of you! (I now believe this variety of macropod to be the Western Euro).

By the time I’d worked my way around several valleys to the south, the shadows were getting long. I found that I was about three kilometres from camp and the magic hour (sunset) was fast approaching. I opted for the quickest, straight line route across the spinifex plains to camp. Providence was again on my side and being tired after a long day in the saddle, I was simply ambling back to camp at a slow pace. Suddenly, there was a fierce impact and the world tilted violently, the quad thrown up on two wheels to the left. Having been taken unawares, the handle bars were wrenched from my grip and I was thrown off to the left. I was almost clear of the machine when my right foot got stuck under the cargo box and carrier on the rear of the quad, halting my departure as effectively as any seatbelt. I was able to grab handle bars and steer the quad into the roll, preventing it from tipping over. Phew, I was shocked and shaken. That really hurt! My shoulder was jarred terribly. Pulling shakily to a halt, I alighted to find the culprit, a medium sized termite mound hidden by thick spinifex. Thankfully the slow speed and low tyre pressures absorbed much of the impact and prevented any damage to tyre, wheel rim and the quad itself. Had I suffered this impact while travelling at speed, the result would have been a whole lot different!

It was still quite warm when I returned to camp so before darkness fell I fueled the quad, repaired four punctures and took care of a few other chores. Come sunset we gathered on the bluff above camp to enjoy the warm breeze, magnificent views, brilliant sunset and good company. Al cooked steak for dinner while I had a shower, 4 days of dust falling away. I felt great.

Our group are indebted to the Ngururrpa People for their consideration and understanding in providing us access to their lands.

''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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