Carnegie Expedition 2013 - Day 17 Carnegie Bluff and a sea of dunes to Dwarf Well

Friday, Aug 09, 2013 at 19:00

Mick O

9th August, 2013 - Claypan south of Bilbarrd Outstation





Tonight finds us camped on the edge of a claypan some 40 kilometres south of Bilbarrd out station and 7 kilometres west of the newly ‘re-discovered’ Dwarf Well.



I awoke at 4:20 and lay in bed until there was the glow on the horizon at 5:50. It had been a magnificent, mild night. We had been exhausted when we went to bed and even though I was in the cot before 7:00 p.m., I reckon I lasted all of 10 minutes enjoying the night sky before sleep overtook me. The others were just beginning to stir so moving to the fire, I woke Al up. He crawled deep into his cocoon, reluctant to emerge. Jaydub on the other hand simply burst from the tent, my advice to him on the previous evenings dinner of tinned chorizo pasta being totally correct; “Have the shovel handy sport, you’ll need it”! He was out of that tent like a bullet from a gun. He didn’t even bother to say good morning just bolted for the nearest sand hill which was a good distance away (unfortunately for him).



We were squared away in no time and enjoyed breakfast around the fire. I love this time of the day, dawn (and the evening of course). Al had a bit of work to do on his quad. To blow out the blocked radiator we had to remove a few struts and the protection screen which proved to be problematic as it had to be bent out of shape to remove it. Once the quad chores had been taken care of we rode the short distance south east to Carnegie Bluff. It is actually a series of bluffs, any one of which could be called Carnegie bluff and in fact probably have been over the years. Cruising along the rocky edge of the range we found a beautiful glade of gums only a short distance away that would have made an excellent camp site. Never mind, we were pretty buggered last night so more than happy to camp where we did.







We worked our way west around the range finding a miniature Pinnacle like structure, before finally negotiating a few steep gullies to reach the bottom of the bluff. Alighting the quads, we walked to the top of the bluff to search for the ‘Terry Cairn’ . This peak is the most southern of the headlands. We had brilliant radio reception on the hilltop that morning, clearly receiving Larry and Peter well over 50 km away on the little 1.5W hand held radios. Later, we also received Suzette who was 30 km west.


The high country to the north forms a horse shoe shaped valley with the small pinnacle on the plain at the entrance, forcing you to pass it as you enter the valley. Many deep gorges penetrated the ridges around the rim of the valley and at the south eastern corner of the valley, a huge sand ridge perched against the rocky walls. Exploring this, I negotiated a way to the top of the range, following the crescent around. It was good running across gibber rises, cleared of spinifex by recent fires, the termitaria remaining the only obstacles.


This northern ridge extends to the east, the flat ridge tops often joined by narrow pinches or necks. The eastern most point is the headland under which we camped. Working my way across the ridges I made it to the northern most bluff. We believed that Michael Terry would have used to mount his cairn during his 1933 expedition as his journal indicated he had a clear view of the distant Stansmore Range while building the cairn. To see the Stanmore Range, you need to be standing on that northern most ridges. All others are lower in height and provide no visibility to the north. We explored the length of the ridge but found no trace of the cairn. We gave it our best shot but after nearly 90 years, it appears that the Terry cairn and note have been lost to antiquity. The reality is that the locals in the area at that time probably dismantled the cairn to get to the glass jar within, a glass vessel or broken glass having immense value to them in their day to day lives. Carnegie too stood upon this bluff staring at the Stansmore Ranges and other isolated hills to the south. In his journal for the 5th May, 1987 he commented


“Further than these, nothing meets the eye but ridge after ridge of sand – One red top just showing another and so on look where you like. Cheerful Country”


Retracing our steps we grouped at the pinnacle before heading off on a new bearing into the dune country and into a bloody nightmare!Carnegie's irony in describing the ‘cheerful country’ was not lost on us. We had 58 kilometres (as the crow flies) to cover to our next turn to Dwarf Well and within the first 20 kilometres we crossed over 100 dunes. There were so many we lost count. They seemed never ending, the only variation being the width of the dune corridors some of which were as little as 70 metres.





On May 6th, Carnegie’s party crossed 86 dunes in 8 hours at a rate of 5 dune ridges to the mile. For us on a mechanical pack animal, it wouldn’t have been so bad if there had been nice grassy corridors between each sandy peak but we just couldn’t catch a break. The corridors were choked with old growth spinifex, so old and high it had turned grey in colour. The area would have benefited from a bit of patch burning believe me. The quad was really struggling. The larger diameter tyres John and I had fitted this year really zapped the power from the machine so I was working three times harder than the others to get the damn thing over the dunes. It was very, very difficult. By midday I was well and truly buggered!


Often the dune corridors were choked with impossible thickets of turpentine scrub, so thick we could not twist or turn amongst it, leaving us no choice but to barge it down head on. Every now and then we’d encounter a clear patch where fire had worked its magic but they were rare and fleeting. I’ve come to the conclusion that I really need to look at the clutching of my machine as being able to hold a gear for a longer time period would assist in climbing the monster dunes. We encountered a few lonely mobs of camels along the way capturing a one or two on the Gopro camera.



We decided to push on in the knowledge that Carnegie's journals had indicated that the dunes would eventually run out and we would enter an area of broad grassy plains.Carnegie described leaving the cursed dunes and entering wide grassy plains, coming across a glade of desert oaks, the only such place in the immediate area. Low and behold, such was the accuracy of Alan’s extrapolation of Carnegie’s route that we emerged from the sand almost dead upon that singular patch of desert oaks. It was such a welcome relief that we broke for lunch in the shade of the mighty allocasuarina, Al digging a little fire pit to warm his tin of spaghetti and boil water for a cup of tea. I was just glad to pull the chair out and have a rest having wrestling the quad up and over so many sand ridges.


After lunch we pushed our way across a wide plain covered in old spinifex. There was plenty of acacia and mulga forcing a twisting and turning route. Regardless it was easier going than the dunes and I spent much of the afternoon standing up on the pegs to get the weight off my back. Our route took in the site of a Carnegie camp.


After a couple of hours on the plain we reached the solitary sand dune that marked our turn to the west. On May 7th, Carnegie had crossed the same grassy plain to reach a recently burnt area. Carnegie had seen the smoke rising from this area while standing on top of Carnegie Bluff and made the decision to head that way knowing the fires had been lit by natives. Arriving in the area, their party immediately picked up the tracks of Aboriginals heading west and following them for several miles and cresting the sand dune we now sat upon, they surprised a family of Aboriginals. Capturing one of the party, a male of small stature, he led their party to the site of a nearby native well.Carnegie managed to pull more than 50 gallons from this well and named it ‘Dwarf Well’ after the native they had captured. He also blazed a large mulga tree in the vicinity of the well something that Al was keen to locate and started searching for immediately.



Through careful research, Alan had realised that many of the locations previously nominated as dwarf well, don’t match or ignore Carnegie’s observations taken in the vicinity. We were now heading for a target area that Alan’s investigations had identified as a possible site of Carnegie’s Dwarf Well. Al’s location matched Carnegie’s observations perfectly. Naturally it was very exciting for him to crest the dune and find that the lie of the land, substantiated his theory, a tell tale depression in the soil indicating the most probable location of the well. Searching the vicinity we found artifacts in the way of stone chips and a grinding stone (the puck not the plate). Excavating carefully below the surface revealed layers of clay at various depths, an indication the well had been lined to assist in holding water.


Our plans catered for the support crew pushing their way into this location from the Balgo-Kiwirrkurra road some kilometres to the west. We could hear the support crew over the radios informing us that the dense scrub had stopped them some four kilometres short of our position. At 4:00 p.m. with the sun sinking fast, John and I headed west to find the support crew. So thick was the scrub it took us a good 20 minutes to find them. As the country was absolutely choked with scrub and anthills we decided against trying to push the vehicles through. Turning about we headed back out to the main track and 500 metres south to a clay pan where we set up camp. It wasn’t too far from the ridge we located and named “Dingos’ Dell” in 2009, a lovely little spot with plenty of firewood. I had chores to do, a couple of punctures and the radiator being blown out being pressing necessities. The dust clogging the radiator was amazing. Al “the Dingo” cooked dinner of chow mien and I made the dessert.... apple surprise. Tired, filthy and sore it was good to be back amongst the crew.


Photos; Mick O, J. Whithorn & A. McCall
''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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