Carnegie Expedition 2013 - Day 12 Exploring the Erica Range in search of Dora Creek Pool

Tuesday, Aug 06, 2013 at 05:05


“In five miles we cut a small watercourse, and following it up to its head found ourselves on the top of a range of barren sandstone hills, over which were dotted white-stemmed stunted gums—a most desolate place. The travelling was very trying to the camels, who were continually missing their footing on loose boulders and stones, in the bed of the creek. Sheer steps in the rock on either hand precluded us from marching over the hills, excepting up the watercourse.

From the summit, other similar hills could be seen to the East—hills of quite a respectable height, all bare and rocky. Numerous small gorges and glens head from the East watershed; without any hesitation our guides started down one, and before long we came to a little pool in the rocky bed. Here we watered our animals and replenished our tanks and bags; and a nice job we had to make some of the camels approach the pool; on either side were steep cliffs, and to reach the water numerous cracks and gaps in the bed-rock had to be crossed, not wide or deep, but sufficiently so to scare Bluey and some of the others.”

David Carnegie Spinifex and Sand Ch. IV (Published 1899)

Sunday 4th August, 2013
An unnamed salt pan, Great Sandy Desert WA

We were away from our cur creek side camp nice and early. Our course was to follow that of Carnegie up the Dora Creek into the rocky hills of the Erica Range to locate a fine pool described and used by Carnegie on 29th April 1897. From our camp, we were funnelled south-east into the range, our wide sandy plain giving way to rock and becoming tighter as we progressed. We had only pushed into the hills a kilometre or so when we were stunned to see what appeared to be a human shaped statue silhouetted against the rising sun. It resembled an Innuksuac (Pronounced - “In-nook-shook”) figure of Canadian and Alaskan indigenous culture. Surely this had to be a man made edifice but for what purpose? Whatever, it required immediate investigation and we quickly detoured from our course to inspect it. Amazingly it was a totally natural formation formed of weathered rock, the softer substrates and sandstone having eroded under this remaining stone. Despite our initial thoughts, it appears as if we remain some of the only visitors to the area after all.

Returning to our original track, we slowly picked our way into the stony hills that Carnegie had described as rough and desolate. To me, the country has an arid beauty that I just love. The colours, reds, browns, greens and blues are so vivid, the environment pristine. Yes, it’s rough all right but I must disagree with Carnegie. Naturally his opinion may have been coloured by the fact that he’d had to walk here!

Having researched our proposed route, Alan lead us out of the main gully and up to one of the highest points in the range. From here we got spectacular views in all directions. Continuing on to the head of an easterly flowing creek where we alighted as the country had become too rough for the quads, continuing our search of the surrounding creeks on foot. It was just after 7:00 a.m.

10:00 .a.m. found me back at the head of a gorge deep in the Erica Range, on the south eastern side of the range. The creeks in this area had started running in the opposite direction to which we arrived . We spent two hours trekking around various creek systems looking for the Carnegie Rockhole. Glad to be back at the quads, I had made a few errors today, traps for young players not something that I should have done.

1. I didn’t take a GPS waypoint for the quad location and I relied on the battery indicator immediately after unplugging the GPS from the Quad power source. Had I let it settle for a few minutes it would have provided an accurate estimate of the battery strength remaining. The Waypoint is not such an issue when there’s a track to follow but when the battery warning light starts blinking an hour in, and you are in the middle of some god-awful country with a couple of kilometres of extremely rough country between you and the quads, it becomes a big issue real quick! I compounded this by not bringing a spare set of batteries (something I always do) and by being the only member of the party to be carrying a GPS!

2. I didn’t take a hat; and

3. I left my hand held UHF sitting on the quad.

Now to fill in the details. On initial investigation along the creek, we found a few small pools of brackish water and some sizeable, dry rock holes. These may have held water for a period after rain but fissures and the nature of their foundations meant water would drain away relatively quickly.

In his journals, DWC left a very good description of the rockhole on Dora Creek but for all our traipsing about, my mind kept returning to one simple fact, Carnegie had managed to walk his camels to the water. There was no way he would have been able to squeeze a dromedary through the steep creeks we were exploring. It’s very rough country, dare I say Pilbara-esque in its nature and composition. The weathered sandstone and schist made walking difficult, the creeks were narrow and steep sided, often chocked with tumbled boulders and thick, clawing scrub. For my money, if I was leading a group of belligerent pack animals like camels, I’d have stuck to the path of least resistance to climb through the main gorge into the hills.

Eventually we reached the highest point of the Erica Range, a point almost directly above the creek system where we had left the quads. We got a magnificent view across the surrounding country and in particular, the country back along our route. The dunes spearing off to the west were straight and uniform, it appeared as if they had been made to a specific pattern by some giant hand, an amazing sight indeed.

After hiking roughly 1.5 km east, we followed a main creek away to the north east, checking smaller creeks as they branched off. It was hard work. We were spoilt for choice as far as dry rock holes were concerned but again, none were identifiable as “The Carnegie rockhole”. They weren’t on the Dora Creek either. We found a few more pools of scummy water, certainly enough to save your life but not enough to sustain your camels.

Two hours of walking found us at the apex of a rough triangle, around about 1.2 kilometres north east of the quads. There were quite a few high rocky ridges between man and machine, each divided by a stony steep sided creek. Jaydub and I headed down a creek bed checking for water as we went. This tributary finally met the creek on which the quads were parked about 800 metres west of them so it was a simple matter of trekking uphill to the machines. I was much relieved (revisit three grievous errors above). We both took a break, let the breeze dry us off, had a muesli bar and a few slugs of water. We needed it believe me!

What a difference half an hour can make in the annals of exploration! A few minutes after arriving back from our fruitless search, I decided to head roughly southwest, steering my quad cautiously to the top of the hill. This gave me a clear view to the south, a broad stretch of the Dora creek valley below me. I couldn’t help but think that had I been in Carnegies shoes, tired, leading cantankerous beasts and in need of water, I’d have taken the path of least resistance. This would have been to head up the valley I was now looking across to it’s highest point, a broad saddle and then begin my trek out to the south east. To my eyes, this route looked to provide the best egress options out onto the plains to the south east.

With John still down in the gorge awaiting the return of Equinox (who I picked up visually making his way down a rise to our west), I decided to pick my way down the southern slope and into the main gorge again. It was fairly steep and when I was almost at the bottom, I spied a group of finches rocketing past me from the west. Now that was an interesting coincidence as little zebra finches are never far from water. I arrived in the valley just a hundred metres east of the saddle. The valley was quite wide and had only a small amount of runoff. Crossing the dry creek bed I started heading east along its course. After about 100 metres I saw the creek began to flow between two rocky walls. Heading that direction, you can imagine my sheer joy in spying first a smallish pool of water and then almost directly behind it, sheltered by the rocky walls, a much larger pool of crystal clear water. I could hardly contain my excitement and despite having made only a visual assessment, I knew this is the pool that we had been searching for. It simply made sense. Everything in DWC’s description aligned, its location, the ease of access, the views and marks looking east & west from the saddle, even the cracked granite of the approaches described by Carnegie fit perfectly.

Over the UHF I couched my discovery in terms of a question to Equinox;

“Hey Al, are you still carting round that location plaque you made?”
“Yeah,” came the dispirited reply.

“That’s good”, says I….”You’re going to need it!”

There was an explosive but scratchy response along the lines of “Where….how?”, before the all too familiar thump of the diesels could be heard coming over the hill. A bit of direction over the radio and it wasn’t long before the boys were standing at the edge of the pool, the look of excitement on Al’s face a clear indication that he too realised that this was exactly what we had been searching for. Massie wasted no time in taking a sample and in almost reverential form, Al squatted down and with cupped hands, took a long drink.

Rimmed by rocky red walls, the pool was about 15 metres long and some 4 wide. The slab or rock provided a seamless basin and appeared to be over a metre deep. In the middle, the rock formed other worn shapes that would become more obvious as the water level dropped. The smallest of these appeared to be a bath tub shape with a large boulder in its centre. This area of the pool was nearly two metres deep at current water levels. We estimated the pool would hold in the vicinity of 20,000 litres and even at this lowest, bathtub level, would still have held well over 5000 litres. At the eastern end of the pool, the creek dropped over tumbled boulders into a narrow gorge. A small fig tree overhung the pool. The southern side was hemmed by a steep wall with a narrow horizontal crevasse forming an overhang. Not big enough for human habitation but a good spot for wildlife to take refuge. The opposing side was a series of red rocky steps with shady eucalypt. Bird life of all description flew about and roosted nearby awaiting the interlopers to leave their waterhole. At the head of the gorge the finches, being bolder than most, flew in skittishly to drink, heedless of our presence.

We spent the next hour exploring the surrounds of the pool, searching for remnants of past visitors and enjoying the serenity of this amazing place. It was a perfect location for lunch which we did reclined against the rocks along the pool. Al did a video piece which provided a bit of light entertainment, as did Massie chasing wasps along the waters edge. By god we’d have laughed if she managed to catch one! The wind across the water, the trees and obvious attraction of so much water in such an arid place made it very hard to leave. I don’t mind telling you that I was very reluctant to climb back onto the quad. Unfortunately we knew we had an appointment with some harsh country, country that wasn’t going to cross itself! We had to be on our way.

Like Carnegie before us, with our water supplies replenished and both man and dog thoroughly hydrated, we mounted up and headed out to the south east. We had a bit of an advantage over DWC as 116 years ago he described the country we were heading into as “The worst dune country he’d ever experienced”. Now that description coming from a bloke who’d traversed some god-awful and fearsome country over the past year could drive an icy fear into your guts. It was going to be bad! Extracting ourselves from the Erica Range didn’t prove too difficult but we were not in a position to head down the Dora Creek as Carnegie did. Rather we moved across to the south and paralleled the creeks course as best we could, dropping onto a wide sandy floor of a vale hemmed by the hills on each side. Following the creek we found a magnificent grinding stone perched by one of the creeks. The sand upon which it sat had been blown from around it leaving it perched atop a pedestal some five centimetres higher than the surrounding surface. Photographed and marked, for the information of the traditional owners, we were soon on the way again.

The difference in temperature was remarkable. Up in the heights, there was plenty of breeze whipping across the water of the pool - it was lovely and cool. Down on the flats again, the wind was fleeting and a welcome guest. The temperature rose quickly exacerbated by the relentless sun. With all the activity and excitement of the morning, we’d forgotten just how quickly conditions became uncomfortable.

Heading south, the turpentine was so thick that at times John had to barge down a complete corridor of the stuff. I was certainly glad that Alan had the new tyres up front. It was so bad that we couldn’t even detect the rise of upcoming sandhills. The solution, if you could call it that, was to veer slightly south and drop into the narrow sandy gully of the Dora Creek as it snaked east across the plains. It was interesting going and even a bit of fun, certainly more so than pushing our way through dense scrub. There were plenty of hold ups and someone even got bogged (Don’t worry Al, I won’t tell anyone) in the soft sand of the creek bed. After several kilometres of twisting, turning and dodging obstructions, we emerged from the creek and commenced our assaults on the dune field.

After our initial push through the thick scrub, we were surprised to find the dunes a mixed bag of conditions. The thick scrub of our early path gave way to old spinifex and then to wide swathes of land, regenerating after fire. The dune corridors became narrower in width making our route one of continuous ups and downs. In seven kilometres we crossed 82 dunes, that’s a rate of seven dunes per kilometre. At times there was only 70 metres between the tops of the dunes, with the average height being 10 to 15 metres. While the tops of the dunes were soft, being so tightly packed, sailing down the southern face gave you all the momentum you needed to climb up the opposite face. It was very enjoyable going and Carnegie’s prophecy of doom was soon forgotten as we pushed further south through corridors of grass and inviting glades of snappy gum and bloodwood. We were simply spoilt for choice as far as camp spots went but alas it was still too early in the day for us to contemplate setting camp. We ploughed on……..

“I turned from this smooth-faced but treacherous bog, and, looking West, spied a fine bold range, a rugged-looking affair with peaks, bluffs, and pinnacles, suggesting gorges and water.”

David Carnegie Spinifex and Sand Ch. IV

Our course of 170 degrees south took us towards the vast expanse of Lake Wills, one of a series of dry salt lakes stretching away to the south-east. We were looking for a couple of innocuous hills from which Carnegie had viewed Lake Wills before observing a range of distant hills to the east that he was to name the Stansmore Range.

We continued on to the hills from where Carnegie had taken a fix on his surroundings. There was a little confusion within Carnegie's description as if his recollections had been incorrect. As we crested one of the last dunes during our southward journey, I was stunned by the view ahead of me. Across a wide corridor sat some low stony hills. Being 3:00 p.m. the sun was low and the light was spectacular. The hills were a brilliant red dotted with white trunked gums. The trees were almost incandescent in the late afternoon light, highlighted further by the deep brown red background. It looked so amazing that we deviated across to it, negotiating outcrops of limestone as we did. We knew the nature of the earth was changing to the type associated with salt lakes.

We climbed the low range for a view of the country to the south and could easily pick out the hills we were headed for. We had to cross a few more dunes to get there and then negotiated areas thick with grevillea. The dunes in their relentless march had climbed up and over these hills, the line of sand being unbroken in its east-west line. One day it will swallow the hill totally. Having negotiated our way to the top of the first and taken our bearings, we moved on to the second hill. The sand that had engulfed this hill was so soft that not even the quads could negotiate it. Seeing the difficulty the boys were having, I moved off to the east and managed to get on top of the dune following the perched sand dune up to its summit. This was no easy task and I was down to the axles on three occasions before succeeding, but it sure beat walking up this late in the day.

The views towards the salt lakes were fantastic. With the land to the west looking inhospitable at this late stage of the day, John suggested we push on south to find a camp spot. A great idea so we pushed on for a couple of kilometres till our way was blocked by salt pans. Now this mightn’t sound like a great distance but when you’re ploughing through turpentine and dunes, it takes a while. As we progressed, the country became more open and the dunes diminished in size. The eucalypts gave way to the tee-tree scrub. The termitaria also changed in nature to huge conical mounds of grey and brown earth some three metres high.

The wind howling across the salt pan had completely leveled the laterite sands inland making for some great camp sites. It was simply a matter of finding a place where the tee-tree and maleleuca provided a bit of shelter from the wind. Wood was at a premium so I had to ride inland to locate enough timber for the fire and managed to get hit on the head by a falling usual! I should have left the bloody helmet on! Some of the gathered timber was so hard that I couldn’t snap it for love or money. I had to lay the sticks full length across the rear of the quad. Given that they were about 5 metres long, it made for a cautious and interesting ride back to camp.

We spent the sunset at the edge of the salt watching the surface change from white to pink, returning to camp in the gloom of evening for our gourmet “can” meal. While sitting around the fire we went through a few of the days photos and videos and reminisced about the pool and the long march into the Erica Range. I had a good wash with the extra water and washed down a couple of pieces of fruitcake with a cup of “Carnegie tea”. Despite it being only 7:30 p.m., there was the faint sound of snoring coming from a fireside swag. Life’s good, yeah!

In Summary:

Personally I felt it was the best days riding we’d done. The whole day had been fantastic when you take into account the sense of achievement in locating Carnegies features and also the dune country that we had so feared. On a map the lines representing the dunes were drawn together, so tightly were they packed! On the 4th August we did a rough days travel of 33 km (probably a little more). While most of the morning was taken up with the search for Dora Creek Pool, the afternoon travels on leaving the Erica Range saw us cross 82 dunes in the first twelve kilometres (seven per km) and a total of 110 dunes for the day over 18 kilometres to our camp (or just over six dunes per kilometre). This did not take into account the additional 23 dunes that were cut by the Dora Creek as we travelled along the creek bed!

''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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