Carnegie Expedition 2013 - Day 9 The mysteries of Mount Hughes

Thursday, Aug 01, 2013 at 00:00


On the 24th (April) 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.

A four-mile stage brought us to a nice little oasis—a small area of grass, surrounded by ti-trees, enclosed by two sand-ridges. In the centre of the grass three good soaks, in black, sandy soil, yielded sufficient for all our needs at the expenditure of but little labour.

David Carnegie; Spinifex & Sand Ch.IV

1st August, 2013 Mount Hughes (Mt Elphinstone) and the surrounding ranges.

I awoke around 4.00 a.m. and lay quietly, the silence broken only by the faint calls of a night predator. I crawled out of the tent at 5:15 am with a nice cool breeze blowing and got the fire going.Equinox and I took an early morning stroll clambering up the steep rocky face to the top of the range. The camp below us was in deep shadow. Jaydub paralleled us walking along the base of the range to where the large sand ridges met the range from the west. From the summit the range slopes down to the east allowing the dunes to run right across its rocky back. At one point the sands almost blew over the cliff face. Where the sand dune met the range from the west, it proceeded up the rocky face of the range, this phenomena is known as a "perched dune". We climbed down just past this point to meet Jaydub in the little valley that was formed behind the sand dune.

A large gorge had formed behind the original cliff face. Its entrance was actually blocked by the large sand dune meaning it was not visible from the west. It looked as if it would be a good place for water to pool but alas, the sandy bottom meant that any such runoff soon soaked away. There were numerous small dishes and flat sandstone rocks with slight rims. These would obviously hold water for a period of time after rain and given the cracked nature of the sandstone cliffs, the amount of animal tracks heading into many of these small crevices, it made us wonder just how much water had pooled in unseen grottos deep within the sandstone rocks.

On the walk back, we were examining the white trunked eucalypts growing at the base of the range when we got the shock of our lives. One of the things I enjoy most about remote travel is quite simply the isolation. There’s a certain element of satisfaction that comes with being one of the few European eyes to gaze upon the landscape and to walk around its features. This was predominantly the feeling we had as we wandered along our lonely cliff face. Imagine the shock when Al, pointing towards the trunk of a large tree exclaims loudly,

“Bugger me….look here!”

There nailed to the trunk some 2 metres off the ground was a rectangular shaped piece of metal, a bloody plaque! While originally nailed in each corner, the passage of time and tree growth meant that three nails had pulled free. The plaque was rectangular, aluminium and declared for all to see that the “Thunderbirds 4x4 Club had passed this way in June, 1998!” Bugger me all right! Immediately it left me wanting to know more. Who were they, what were they doing here, where did they go and what did they find during their expedition? Enquiries were going to have to be made. It was a little bit deflating but we took heart from the fact that there were other like minded individuals out there who either enjoyed travelling the paths less travelled or…were in serious need of a psychological assessment, like ourselves, ha ha.

Heading back to camp we had breakfast by the fire, squared away the camp, swapped out the shagged rear shocker on my quad and took care of a half a dozen punctures across the three quads; one job Carnegie didn’t need to worry about.

On the 24th of April, 1897, Carnegie had been camped at a small group of soaks some 7 miles south-west of the range. He named the highest point Mount Elphinstone, not realising that the range had already been named Mount Hughes by Col. Peter Warburton on his 1873 Expedition. On the 16th August, 1873, Warburton had used Mt Hughes as a “standing camp” or base for several days exploration of the country to the north while trying to locate Sturt Creek (and possible salvation). Carnegie and Breaden rode from their camp at the soaks to investigate the area on the 25th April, 1897.

The next day Breaden and I rode up to Mount Elphinstone, which we found to be formed of three great rocky shoulders of sandstone capped with quartzite, almost bare, and stony on the top, with sheer faces one hundred feet high on the West side and a gradual slope to the East, where high sand-ridges run right up to the foot. From the summit a high tableland (probably Musgrave Range (Warburton)) and range can be seen to the North, to the East a bluff-ended tableland, (probably Philipson Range (Warburton)) but the horizon from South-East to South-West was a dead level.

One mile due West of the highest point we found a native well in a sandy gutter, and about 150 yards from it, to the East, a high wall of bare rock as regular as if it had been built. This wall, seen edge-on from the North-West, from which point Breaden sighted it when after the camels, appears like a chimney-stack.

David Carnegie; Spinifex & Sand Ch.IV

They made a few notes and located several native wells in the area giving rough locations in his journal entries. Our mission for the day was; to explore the ranges to our north, attempt to locate the remains of several native wells and to scout for any sign Carnegie or later unknown explorers may have left, like a cairn.

The range occupies an interesting location being on the border of two major desert systems. To points north are the expansive plains of the Tanami Desert and to the south, the lineal, listless and, soul destroying dunes of the Great Sandy Desert.Mount Hughes is itself an imposing tiered range that rises out of the surrounding desert. Warburton had endured months of hardship leading to this point and was dispirited by the surrounding country. What terms he used to describe the location are largely unflattering and symptomatic of the harsh conditions and deprivation he had endured. Carnegie’s description we reckoned to be a lot more accurate.

The range under which we had struck our camp a century later is the smallest of the three, it is linear about two kilometres long and runs in a nor-nor-east direction at 25°. It forms a rocky bluff at its northern end that overlooks a sandy plain that stretches about 1.5 kilometres across to the base of the two jagged angular bluffs forming Mount Hughes and its smaller sister hill. From altitude, these two resemble jagged triangular points like sharks teeth, both pointing nor-nor-west (210°) Both are tiered or “stepped” as Carnegie describes them with Mount Hughes being the highest of the three hills.

In identifying the location of the native well Carnegie described its position as being some 500 yards north of the Red Ridge Bluff, was our first mission. Heading out onto the plain, we formed a linear search pattern sweeping across the area. With no custodians of the land frequenting the area these days, wells have reverted to their original state. This is particularly true of sandy areas where subsidence and normal environmental factors have filled in the excavations that formed the well. Tell tale signs can comprise of depressions in the ground, mounds of earth ringing an area, or changes in the type of vegetation in a specific area, that may indicate that water is close to the surface. Another and most solid tell tale is the discovery of man made artifacts such as grinding stones, fire pits, middens or tool working areas. While there were no obvious signs of a well remaining, I did locate a sizable piece of a grinding stone in the area matching the location described by Carnegie.

We continued across the open country to the bluff to the west of Mount Hughes, passing underneath its rugged ramparts, and then headed north along the eastern side through the wide open valley between the two hills. As we began to climb, we stopped to examine the surroundings and I noticed a mob of camels atop Mount Hughes to our east. They ran up along the sloped western edge of the mount, remaining silhouetted for a good while as they climbed before heading off to the east and disappearing from view. Working our way around to the northern edge of the hill, we began the climb up the slope of its northern flank. This area, while not an overly steep climb, was predominantly sandstone schist covered with low, thick scrub. Here and there the area had been cleared by fire making it easier to detect obstacles as we picked our way up, dodging creeks and rocky outcrops. Once on the summit, we had an imposing view along the southern range under which we’d camped and of the country to the west and south. To the northwest, the wide plains of the Tanami gave way to the impressive rises of the Lewis Range, blue on the horizon at some 40 kilometres distant.

Working our way down along the steep sides of the western flank, we found a strange rock. A slab of the local granite had been picked up and left standing vertical. Due to the rocks size and weight, there is no way this could have happened naturally. It had all the hallmarks of a “Warrida” stone used to mark the location of a nearby water source. Despite a search of the area in the directions normally associated with these types of markers, we found no sign of a rockhole or water source. A mystery indeed.

Reaching the base of the hill at the north western tip (well, near enough), we stuck close to the base of the range where the rocky talus slope touches the surrounding sand. Rough going at times with rocks of all sizes and creeks and washaways to be negotiated. We stopped to investigate several patches of quartz as the white stone itself was shot through with mica, glittering like gold. The surrounding sand in the rivulets and creeks glittered with the stuff. I could see gold fever taking hold of Equinox so we shuffled him back on the quad and got him moving before he tried to peg out a claim.

As we moved across the lower elements of the talus slope heading east across the face of Mount Hughes proper, we came across the second anomaly of the day. The talus slope was punctuated here and there with larger sandstone boulders that had dislodged from the upper reaches of the cliff face. A group of large boulders across the base of the mount had smaller round rocks of varying size and composition stacked on top. There were often a dozen or more smaller stones placed/stacked on top of these boulders, obviously the work of human hands. The immediate questions for us were, “were the hands those of the traditional owners or later European hands and what, if anything, did it signify?”

On the surrounding plains huge pieces of rock had tumbled from the ramparts to stand as lonely sentinels. One such slab was almost a perfect rectangle over 5 metres high which stood perfectly vertical. Its flat walls providing a perfect surface to carve or paint. Again my thinking obviously didn’t match those of locals past and careful examination revealed nothing of consequence. It remained an impressive pillar none the less.

We continued to move around the base of Hughes. The sand ridge was a good 20 metres in height and spread upward as it reached the mount as if trying to swallow the rocky plateau. There were a heap of dingo prints congregating on a spider web of tracks coming in from all directions. There was obviously a reason for this, so I followed the dune east until a strong stench of death pervaded the air. Climbing over the sand hill I found a long dead camel, the carcass being the site of extreme activity. The dingos had even dug a large hole to get access underneath the carcass. What killed the beast remains a mystery, but so far from any road, track or outpost of civilization, I’d suggest something in the local environment or natural causes. Perhaps the poison bush that plagued Warburton’s camels was to blame. Who knows, what was obvious was that it had supported the local dingo population for a considerable amount of time.

Working my way west along the dune top to meet the boys, I found them on the high point where the sand ridge met the rocky ridge at the north eastern edge of the mount. It was extremely rough country and the lads had found a magnificent grindstone, indicating that someone had been making a living out of the countryside. The back slopes of Mount Hughes are riddled with creeks and rills draining the rocky faces into two main creeks. It was too tough going even for the quads so we retreated and wound our way around the northern edge of the hill and began our climb close to the western edge where we had seen the camels climbing earlier. We picked our way upwards across layers of schist and exposed rock pushing through thick gorse like scrub. It was hot, dry work and we were all feeling the heat of the sun as it bored into us. Near the summit we decided to break for lunch. Shade was at a premium, the spindly acacia offering little in the way of shelter. I found a solution by hanging my tarp from the trees and sheltering in the shadow it threw.

I made our noon check-in via satphone and following a tin of tuna and a few gulps of water, we set off again, moving a couple of hundred metres further west to reach the highest point of Mount Hughes. With no cairns visible along the path, we drank in the spectacular views across the dune country to the south east. Then, mounting our steeds we retraced our route downwards.

Once on the sandy floor again, we completed our circumnavigation of Mount Hughes and crossed towards the southern range, again sweeping for any remnants of the long forgotten well. On reaching the northern bluff, we entered a little valley on its eastern side and followed its length climbing into the sand hills at its end. It was a very pleasant little spot with eucalypts growing across the valley floor. On this ridge, the slope rises gradually from the east, meaning that the sand ridges are able to extend much further along the rise eventually spilling over the cliffs on the eastern face. It made navigation a little more difficult with a lot more of the local flora gaining a foothold in the upper reaches of the range. At one point Alan was negotiating a particularly large piece of rock. Giving the quad a squirt of power to begin the wheels climbing, He over judged it and found his quad straddling the rock with all four wheels off the ground and incapable of movement in any direction. Trying to stifle a laugh as I watched all 65 kilos of Alan trying to move the stuck beast by rocking it, I dismounted and went to give a hand in the form of a push. Imagine my surprise when I went to shove the front of the quad and found the whole thing turning sideways. It appears Al had parked beautifully on top of a half sphere of rock that was now freely turning as if on a hydraulic lift. Strewth! Time for a winch job to extract Alan from his predicament.

With all four wheels back on the ground we picked our way down the southern slopes of the range and into the broad expanse of sand below. Keen to tackle our next challenge for the day, the location of the black soil soaks to the south west.Carnegie had been impressed with the soaks at which he was camped, so much so that he gave a very accurate description of the location in his memoirs, Spinifex and Sand;

As the soaks at which we were camped have the appearance of being more permanent than the usual native well, it may be useful to give directions for finding them from Mount Elphinstone. Leave hill on bearing 230°, cross one sand-ridge close to hills, then spinifex plain, then another sand-ridge running East and West, from the crest of which can be seen three gaps in the next one—steer for most Westerly gap, and seven miles from the hill the soaks will be found.
David Carnegie; Spinifex & Sand Ch.IV

This makes it easy for us, particularly with some modern day tools for explorers, like Google Earth. Equinox had identified an area with a high degree of probability as being the location we sought. Things had changed on the ground in the 116 years since Carnegie’s traverse of the plain though. Despite being only 3.5 kilometres across, the plain was choked with thick turpentine scrub which necessitated a winding route to negotiate. It was impossible to keep a truly straight bearing as you were forced to take advantage of what ever gaps in the scrub were available to you. The going was as slow and hard as the day was hot! We eventually broke free of the scrub at the base of the next sand dune. It didn’t leave much room for a run-up but we negotiated it quickly and dropped down into a much narrower dune corridor. We were a little east of our intended crossing place so were unable to detect the breaks in the dune Carnegie had described. Heading due west we followed the dune for four kilometres when the first break appeared as expected. Pretty soon, we passed the second and entered the area of the third break in the dunes. Here the dune ended and the soil changed to dark grey clay. The surrounding vegetation also changed from the standard spinifex to long, dry grass and an occasional lignum like plant. Characteristically, the size, composition and nature of the local anthills changed to the broad based clay built offerings, so characteristic of soak areas and lake edges.

The grassy bowl extended for about 150 metres. On the western side it was met by the interrupted dune again, the sand appearing to have formed a slight tail whipping away to the south east. Walking through the grass, Alan all but fell into the remnants of the soak. This consisted of an area of holes several metres across and a metre deep. Here and there the earth had subsided, in others, animals had burrowed into the base of the hole in search of water.Carnegie indicated water at a depth of 6 feet and while the area appeared quite dry, we had no doubt that with a bit of elbow grease and some shoveling, we’d hit water within a metre or so. We satisfied ourselves with the knowledge that we had found exactly what we were looking for. Alan made a bit of a video presentation on the area and all too soon we were on our way south into the dune country again.

With an hour of useable daylight left, we’d hoped to get at least 12 kilometres under our belt. The initial dunes were easily crossed with wide, scrubby swales between one and two kilometres width. About six kilometres south of the soak, the nature of the country began to change and we found ourselves crossing tightly packed dunes. The dune corridors now being punctuated by glades of shady eucalypt where grass replaced the ubiquitous spinifex. Every swale seemed to have glorious locations to camp and finally, at around nine kilometres, Al hauled to a stop atop a dune and simply pointed slightly eastwards.

“What do you reckon?” he said.

We didn’t even need to nod assent as we steered the quads down the hill and into the afternoon shade of a few large eucalypts. The area was on a slight rise but provided plenty of flat, clear ground for our tents and the campfire. It gave a great view along the dune corridor. Immediately next to us, a dead tree had fallen earthwards meaning we hardly had to leave our chairs to secure an additional piece of firewood. It was indeed a perfect little camp site.

With camp set up and the fire going, it was time to wash the dust off with a carefully measured ration of water and relax with our gourmet meal consisting of what ever tinned offering came out of the hamper first! It was a magnificent balmy evening. After a couple of big days, the value of carrying the full size camp chairs was evident allowing us to relax and unknot in a bit of comfort. In the early evening darkness Massie, sitting by Al’s side got her heckles up, her low growling an obvious indication that something unsavoury was lurking at the extreme edge of the fire light. We secured her quickly, knowing the speed with which a pack of dingos can lure and kill an unsuspecting city dog. We were able to accurately track the interlopers progress by watching the turn of Massie’s head and ears, her senses alone being able to detect our visitor. All returned to calm after five minutes or so.

It was a moonless night and the stars were absolutely ablaze. I tried to count the fiery streaks of the many small rocks ending their long journeys through space in the sky above our camp but was asleep in no time.

Authors Note;

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

Photos; Mick O and Alan Mc.
''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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