After many months of camping in luxury it was time to see if I still had it in me to do a tough overnight backpack trip. Mt Giles in the Western MacDonnell Ranges seemed like a good opportunity. This 30km round trip takes you into an interesting remote valley then up the 3rd highest peak in the range.
Night time shots from the summit. Clockwise from main: Orion and the crescent moon in the fading light; the lights of Hermannsburg about 30km to the south; Scorpius, Jupiter and the Milky Way taken at about 2am.
After leaving the summit at about 8am, I retraced my steps back to the start. A bit of a slog without the novelty that came with the walk up. However with a much lighter pack, downhill grade and better experience of how to negotiate spinifex country, I got back to the start of the walk after just 7 hours and with about half a litre of water to spare. I was a bit surprised that I went through almost 10 litres, even with reasonably cool weather.
Unfortunately the car suddenly gave out an abrupt beep and displayed the rather undiagnosable message below. On the plus side, we were only about 300km from a dealer in Alice Springs when this happened and we were heading that way anyway – so things could have been worse. However it was at the start of a long weekend, so I could only get the car checked after 4 days. I was reluctant to drive too much during this time, but Alice Springs is actually quite a nice town and there are quite a few things to do in the nearby area.
With visiting the Alice Springs Desert Park, doing a 22km circuit walk in the Simpsons Gap area, climbing up Mt Gillen and doing a bit of general maintenance and tinkering, three interesting days have gone by quite quickly. Now I am sitting in the Olive Pink Botanical Garden while the car is being serviced and hopefully will be on my way again shortly.
Feathered visitors to my blogging spot
We had visited the Desert Park in 2010, and were quite impressed so it was worth another visit. The highlight of the Park is probably the nocturnal house where you can see some of the deserts normally unseen critters. As they are watering some of the outside areas, several plants are flowering (unlike elsewhere, where the drought and recent heatwave has left most plants withering or dead), so I also hoped to spot a few birds. While there were certainly quite a few there, I never saw any new species. They do have some aviaries too, but of course I can’t count those!
The following day I did a nice full day circuit walk. Starting at Simpsons Gap about 15km west of Alice Springs, I left the car and jogged back along the road for 4km to where I had hidden my pack in the bush. From there I followed the 7.5km Woodlands track to the junction with the famous Larapinta Trial, followed this west for 2km to the waterhole at Bond Gap, then retraced my steps back to the junction. Finally I followed the Larapinta Trail back to Simpsons Gap.
The Woodland trail passes through several habitat types including river red gum flats, various acacia woodlands and mulga country. I was hoping to see some birds but in the middle of the day, there was not much to be seen. Fortunately I decided to follow a 1km detour up the dry Reedy Creek the stop to have some tea under a red gum. After a few minutes I heard a few birds calling and on investigation found a small rock depression about the size of a suburban birdbath with water in it from the recent rain. I sat for about 15 minutes watching from a distance and saw quite a few visitors including the new painted finches below (not the greatest photos, but it was a new species for me).
The entrance to Bond Gap
Driving back from Simpson’s gap in the dark I noticed the torch lights of some people making their way down Mt Gillen which gave me the idea of doing a sunset walk there the following day. It was a short but really spectacular walk of about 2 hours return. I just wish I had brought more warm clothes and my stove to make tea to keep me warm so I could have stayed up there to watch the stars come out with the lights of Alice Springs below. However it was rather windy on top so I had to leave about 20 minutes after sundown and enjoy the stars on my decent.
From Redbank Gorge we drove around to Kings Canyon via the Mereenie Loop. We had missed Kings Canyon on our 2010 trip so we decided it would be good to go this time even though it would require quite long drives with 150 km of corrugated dirt on the Mereenie loop then about 450 km back to Alice Springs the next day to be back in time for our appointment to have our hot water system fixed – it was rather shocking to be on a tight schedule again.
In addition to the warning signs there are 5 first aid stations with emergency phones, defibrillators and helipads. Also this rather interesting chart suggesting that you check the colour of you urine to make sure you are drinking enough
We spent the night at the King’s Canyon Resort. Definitely a place to avoid. It was the most expensive caravan park we have encountered: $40 for a patch of dust with no water or power and the bathrooms were filthy. I guess they take their guidance from the resort at Uluru, which also has a monopoly and has the dubious reputation of providing the worst value for money accommodation in Australia.
The following morning we dropped into Kathleen Springs, which is a beautiful spring fed waterhole about 20km east of Kings Canyon, then continued on the long drive back to Alice Springs.
Our camp for the next two nights was on a ridgetop near Redbank Gorge. This lies near the western edge of the MacDonnell Ranges at the foot of Mt Sonder and Redbank Gorge which are both well worth the effort to explore.
Redbank Gorge cuts through the mountain range as a narrow chasm of similar dimensions to the slot canyons in the blue mountains, but without any greenery and with quartzite walls instead of sandstone. The gorge has several pools with very cold water and although there were some hardy folk swimming up the gorge we opted for the comfort of wetsuits and an air mattress
There were a few floating toys left lying around by previous visitors and Maddy initially tried to use these but it turned out later that it was easier for the two of us to share our air mattress.
From left to right: looking back out from the end of the second pool; exiting the third pool.
Continuing up the long narrow 4th pool.
After exploring the gorge we returned to our campsite about 2km from the gorge where we realised that we had selected exactly the same spot that we had chosen on our visit here 9 years ago. Only this time we had a bit more comfort. On the last trip we used a bug dome tent and slept on air mattresses on top of the table on the left and our shower was a simple bag hanging from the tree that can be seen behind the caravan.
Camping rugged in 2010. Note the solar shower hanging from the same tree
The following morning we set out early to climb Mt Sonder which is a 16km round trip walk with a height gain of about 600m. Mt Sonder is the 4th highest mountain in the MacDonnell Ranges, but is the highest that can be reached as an easy day trip. The 3 highest peaks, while not needing any crampons of ice axes, require either 2 to 3 day walks or in the case of the highest peak – Mt Zeil, special permission to go there.
After many months, finally a proper termite mound that caught Maddy’s attention. It had interesting brown spikes on the red base.
It’s definitely taking more effort to spot new birds these days. Unfortunately the drought in central Australia isn’t helping. Many waterholes that are often described as being a birdwatcher’s heaven have been reduced to a dusty hollow. However I am still making slow progress and today reached a new milestone with this grey headed honeyeater spotted at the Ormiston Gorge campsite. Hopefully when we head north to areas that have received a bit of rain from Cyclone Trevor and then beyond to the tropical top end of Australia we will see a bit more. For our complete bird list with photo’s click here: Bird List
After a lonesome night at Foggarty’s Claypan we pushed north to Dalhousie Springs in Witjira National Park. These are the largest complex of natural springs on the great artesian basin and it is estimated that 43% of the naturally flowing waters of the whole basin emerge here. Today there are also many artificial bores mining the waters of the great artesian basin. As this happens faster than it recharges, flow rates are dropping and several natural springs have dried up however, however there are steps being taken to reduce the wastage and the flow from man made has reduced about 25% since it’s peak of 2000 megalitres per day (ref Wikipedia)
After many dusty kilometers, arriving at Dalhousie Springs is truly remarkable – with trees, reeds and general greenery emerging from the bright white desert sands. To cap it off, it is possible to swim in one of the spring fed lakes in water that varies between 34 and 39 degrees C. For the first 2 days we were there, the air temperature reached the low 30s and with the sun baking the surface of the already hot pool, it was probably near the top of its range. So while it was very welcome to wash off the dust and get away from the flies, which don’t seem to like venturing out over water, it was not at all refreshing and one soon overheated and had to get out. However for night time dips and on our third day there, which was significantly cooler, the pool was lovely.
On the road into Dalhousie Springs we stopped off at the old Dalhousie Station homestead ruins. These were established near some of the southern most springs of the Dalhousie complex in the late 1800s and operated as a cattle and sheep station, but eventually abandoned – first by the European settlers, then later by the aboriginal workers who remained behind for several years and continued to run it as a cattle farm. The date palms that were planted around the springs have become a bit of a problem, crowding out other species and altering the nature of the banks of the springs and propagating themselves to other springs in the area. Eradication programs are underway, but a couple of male trees have been left at the homestead ruins for historical reasons.
On our first full day at Dalhousie Springs we went for a walk to another set of springs about 3km away called kingfisher springs. These did not have good swimming access and if it were not for some feral cows which had trampled down an access route to the biggest pool it may not have even been possible to see it because of the dense surrounding vegetation. However, apart from this benefit, it’s sad to see cows in National Parks as they damage the ground and vegetation and foul up waterholes. We seem to be seeing cows in National Parks all over the country, it’s surprising that one does not hear about this issue more.
Views from around Kingfisher Springs. There are also some date palms infesting these springs. Although some of the larger ones have been removed, there are already many smaller ones growing back.
Some interesting vegetation and dingo footprints on the walk. The night before we had heard dingos howling, and even on the walk we heard a few in the distance. The following night we caught a brief glimpse of one walking past our campsite, but by the time we got the torch out, it had disappeared.
Dalhousie Springs lies on the western edge of the Simpson Desert. As it isn’t feasible to take a caravan across the the Simpson Desert we decided to take a day trip into the western edge of the desert to Purni Bore. This was a bore drilled in the 1960’s in a search for oil, but instead it struck artesian water. Although the oil company capped the bore before leaving, after a few years, it corroded and water started flowing out freely at 18 litres per second creating a permanent lake between two dunes and an oasis for birds, animals and travellers. However in recent years, the bore has been recapped and now only a trickle has been left which still attracts some wildlife.
Purni Bore is east of Dalhousie Springs, so to avoid driving into the sun, then spending time there in the heat of the day with no wildlife active then driving back into the setting sun, we decided to set off 2 hours before sunrise to get there shortly after sunrise. After the initial shock, it was lovely driving first by moonlight, then watching the sun rise as we approached the dunes. Then after a couple of hours at the bore, we headed back with the sun overhead and returned to Dalhousie for a dust-off in the pool in the early afternoon.
Flowers on the dunes at first light before they have woken up on the left and on the right: a few hours later after they have had their morning coffee.
Purni Bore info signs (click on the images to read)
We were pretty disappointed we were not able to do the Birdsville track on this trip. The floods in northern outback QLD near Winton have flowed down and cut off/closed the road. Now we hear that cyclone Trevor has dumped more water and there is a second lot of water coming down. Never a dull moment in this country. But the good thing to come out of all this, is that Lake Eyre is filling up. Lake Eyre is Australia’s biggest lake but it is dry most of the time. It will contain some water 2 or 3 times in a decade, but only fills 4 times a century. When were there in Jan 2010, it was reasonably full, but the only way to really appreciate the lake is from the air as even getting to the water’s edge can mean walking some kilometers over the lake bed’s thin salty crust which sometimes breaks leaving you covered half way to the knee in black muddy ooze. At the time we looked all over the “town” of William Creek for the pilot Trevor to take us up to see the lake in flood as you could not see it from the shore. However he was nowhere to be found. So since we were relatively close (in Coober Pedy) we thought we would have another go at getting a scenic flight over the lake.
Things have certainly changed since 2010. The permanent population of William Creek has dropped from 4 to 1 and that one person happens to be the elusive pilot who now pretty much owns the town of William Creek (i.e. the pub and fuel station, the campground and the scenic flight business). However while the permanent population is 1, the town is certainly not quiet, as there are a whole host of pub staff, managers, admin staff and pilots, but all of them are itinerant workers. Trevor’s scenic flight business has grown and now operates well over 10 aircraft out of 3 airfields offering scenic flights over the Flinder’s Ranges and outback South Australia. Unlike last time when getting a flight meant trying to track down the pilot, now a scenic flight can be booked and paid online.
Another change since 2010 is that the lake has been renamed to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre to acknowledge the Aboriginal name. I’m not sure what it means, but in Zulu Kati Thanda means something like “love the middle” and since the lake is in the middle of Australia, it kind of works.
We selected a 2 hour flight which enabled us to see the full extent of lake Eyre. Starting from William Creek, we headed about 50km east over Anna Creek Station (the world’s largest property at over 2 million hectares) to the south western part of the lake. From there we headed north for about 80km following the main inlet channel (the Warburton Groove), then about 20 km east up the Warburton River towards Birdsville, before turning back south to the bottom of Lake Eyre north and back to William Creek. The Google maps images below show the features on the right hand side and our approximate track on the map on the left.
Looking out over William Creek shortly after take off. Close up on RHS
The SK on the left photo stands for Sidney Kidman, who owned a large cattle company that once held land covering over 1% of Australia.
Halligan bay camping area LHS and tracks from some idiot on a motorcycle that rode out onto the salt and got stuck.
Scenes over the lake
Pelicans have already started to appear even though the water reached the lake only about 4 weeks ago
The flooded Warburton River with trees lining the normally dry river bank
The green on the left is where grass and reeds have started to grow after just a couple of weeks of water.
We were not the only flight – spot the plane on the left (close up on the right)