Central Australia

My journey through Central Australia began at Pelican Campground on Parnka Point, Coorong National Park, beside the Southern Ocean. The Coorong, as it is known, includes the lagoon itself and Younghusband Peninsula, a sand spit that separates the Coorong from the Southern Ocean. The narrow lagoon runs parallel with the coastal sand dunes for around 140 km. This has been the home of the Ngarrindjeri people, the traditional custodians, for over  6,000 years.

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The Coorong, as it is known, includes the lagoon itself and Younghusband Peninsula, a sand spit that separates the Coorong from the Southern Ocean.
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Camped at Pelican Campground on Parnka Point, Coorong National Park.

Coorong National Park is well worth a visit. It’s a very large and internationally significant wetland with particularly large numbers of waders/shorebirds that migrate here annually from as far away as Siberia and Alaska. I got to practice my bird IDs in preparation for the Kimberley, so as not to let the team down (let’s see how I go). The larger birds were easy enough – Australian Pelicans and Little Black Cormorants – but the pesky little waders were another story. As it turned out, I was too early to catch the northern hemisphere migrants.

I’m travelling alone at this point, have been for most of the last month, and haven’t felt particularly lonely before now but it’s early April, the Easter crowds are gone, and the Coorong feels isolated. There’s no-one to talk to other than myself, which I begin to do frequently. The kayak has come in handy here by providing convenient transport around the lagoon and over to the Younghusband Peninsula and its ocean views. The waders were skittish nevertheless and binoculars and a good telephoto lens are essential, needless to say I lacked the latter.

Kayaking, birdwatching and walking the foreshores took up my days, as did trying to keep warm. The nights were a little miserable notwithstanding the marvellous night skies. No fires are permitted here and although the camper is pretty comfortable, I’m a Maggie Islander and was ill prepared for southern climes.

The weather turned windy while I was there, as it is prone to do on the edge of the Southern Ocean, when cold fronts move across the Great Australian Bight. I was worried I might get blown away but survived the bluster in spite of my exposure. Not a good night’s sleep though. Contemplating the warmth of northern Australia already, so will be heading away from the coast the following day. My only disappointment has been the junk vehicles I observed amongst the peninsula sand dunes. The South Australian government would do well to remove the old rusted vehicles from this internationally significant Ramsar wetland, which is also a National Park.

Next stop, after the Coorong, was the Flinders Ranges – south (Mt. Remarkable NP), central (Flinders Ranges NP) and north (Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges NP). What comes mostly to mind as I think back is the landscape (old, weathered, tormented, majestic – you time travel from the south (youngest) to the north (oldest)), the River Red Gums and (a surprise to me) native (northern) Cyprus pines (they looked out of place to me initially), and the Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby (so pretty). 13041476_10153718427389102_8591191851310806649_oI can’t fathom what the first Europeans saw that made them think this environment could have been good for cropping, sheep and cattle! The abandoned homesteads are testimony to the futility of agriculture in the ranges. In 1865 George Goyder identified the boundary between areas that received good rainfall and those experiencing regular drought. Farmers were discouraged from planting crops north of his line, which included the Flinders Ranges, declaring this land suitable only for light grazing. Many took no heed of his warning.

Mambray Creek campground in Mt Remarkables NP provided good facilities and base for exploring. The tracks the early explorers opened up make for great walking trails, although it may well be that the Europeans were themselves just following routes established by the indigenous inhabitants. There is evidence of indigenous occupation of the Flinders Ranges dating back approximately 49,000 years. The wildlife trails are also numerous, testimony to an abundance of large macropods. I’ve said goodbye to the rain, and the days are warmer now but the nights remain cold in early April.

Moving on to the central Flinders Ranges, the northern rim of Wilpena Pound is seen below towering in the background along the well graded road. Wilpena Pound is a rock basin with a  hard rim comprised of an orange-hued sandstone that resists weathering and erosion, known as Rawnsley Quartzite. Beneath lies successive sedimentary deposits; a reddish-hued Bonney Sandstone and a greyish-hued interval of limestone and siltstone called the Wonoka Formation. The siltstone in the foreground is called the Brachina Formation. These Precambrian rocks are believed to have been deposited during cycles of marine transgression. Fossils from these formations date them to the late Precambrian period around 550 – 800 million years ago. To put this in perspective, it was during this late Precambrian that the first multicellular organisms were evolving. A mass extinction marked the end of the Precambrian and ushered in the Cambrian period about 540 million years ago. The extinction paved the way for a burst of new life, called the Cambrian explosion, during the Paleozoic Era that followed.

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Main road winds through the Flinders Ranges NP with the northern rim of Wilpena Pound in the background.

The campground at Wilpena Pound provides all facilities. It is very large and was sparsely populated when I visited although I hear it fills up during the peak school holiday periods, and it’s a good base for exploring the Pound. There are, however, many other additional camping spots that are more remote and basic for anyone who wants to get away from the crowds. One thing for sure though, I wasn’t going to get an opportunity to paddle my kayak around here!

Gammon Ranges
Gammon Ranges near Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary.

Further north and into the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges NP the land gets dryer and rockier, and the roads more isolated. Euros, red kangaroos, emus, and wedge-tailed eagles were sighted on the drive to the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. Arkaroola provided pleasant, secluded camping amongst river red gums, walking trails and an amazing opportunity to star-gaze through the optical telescope located nearby.

From the Flinders Ranges I headed west to Copley and then north along the Outback Highway to Marree. It is at Marree that the Outback Highway meets the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks. I was tempted to drop in on the Lake Eyre Yacht Club headquarters but there seemed to be little else worth slowing down for in Marree. The road was hot, dry and dusty so I just pushed on, now in a westerly direction, along the Oodnadatta Track.

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Lake Eyre, the lowest part of Australia, surrounded by saltbush and sand.

I passed the south basin of Lake Eyre where I had dreamed of paddling the kayak but found too much salt flat between me and the water. Dream abandoned, I fell in love with the landscape instead – an ever-changing landscape (salt flats, rivers and creeks, sand dune and stony deserts, flat plains covered in saltbush). There had been widespread rainfall quite recently so the region was looking its best! There were even a couple of water crossings along the Oodnadatta track and water lying in pools along many creeks. The birdlife was prolific, but dispersed, for such an arid region. It was here, along the Oodnadatta Track, that I first became aware of the mound springs and their incredible significance. There is an arc of mound springs from Lake Callabonna, north of The Flinders Ranges, through to Dalhousie in the Witjira National Park. The Oodnadatta Track itself follows this arc of mound springs from Marree to Oodnadatta. I decided to follow the arc too.

Water, under pressure, from the Great Artesian Basin follows cracks in the earth’s surface and breaks through as springs. Over time, wind-blown dust accumulates around the mineral and salt laden springs and mounds are formed. The early European explorers and settlers followed these springs which allowed them to live and travel through this harsh, hot and dry landscape. They were followed by the Overland Telegraph and later still the Great Northern Railway, known as the Old Ghan. The pastoralists and railway led to the sinking of a great many artificial bores along the way which, in turn, led to decreasing pressure in the basin and springs. The main source of water to the Great Artesian Basin comes from rain falling along the Great Dividing Range in Queensland. Sinking through porous soils and rocks it may take two million years to find its way to the mound springs of South Australia.

Wabma Kadarbu Mound Springs, located near the South Basin of Lake Eyre and close to the Oodnadatta Track was an oasis of life in an otherwise arid landscape. Thousands of years of isolation have led to the evolution of unique plant and animal communities. Sedges, reeds, bullrushes and algae support small crustaceans, snails, wolf spiders and the Desert Goby. The birdlife was less prolific than I expected, but this was probably due to a wetter than average year to date and a relative abundance of water in surrounding creeks and lagoons, including Lake Eyre.

Creek crossing, OT
A wetter than average year meant an abundance of water in surrounding creeks and lagoons along the Oodnadatta Track.

The aboriginal people had lived around and relied upon the mound springs for many thousands of years before European settlement. Aboriginal connection to country is maintained today through Creation Stories. Wabma Kadarbu represents Arabunna Creation Story of the Kanmari serpent. Local indigenous people tell how the spring “roared, throwing twisted bubbles half a metre high … of old men whispering a special chant to the spring to make it bubble out higher and louder. Then settlers came [and] the area was trampled and rubbished. A tree next to the spring representing an ancestor in the snake Creation Story was cut down and used for firewood. The water pressure has altered, and the roars and twisted bubbles have disappeared.”

Nearby Coward Springs, once an important railway station along the Old Ghan, now provides convenient and comfortable camping facilities and a base from which to explore. Coward Springs was a standout stop along the way, highly recommended! An untapped bore has created an extensive and well developed, though artificial, wetland to explore, with an abundance of wildlife. Ah yes, and then there were the flies! It was a great meeting place and an opportunity to chat with travellers other than myself. In particular, I recall a French cyclist, on his own, who chose to spend his six months in Australia cycling across the continent. And there were others.

Nearby and within walking distance is the Coward Mound Springs, after which the old settlement is named. Some directions are required to find the mound springs in this flat landscape.

Coward Mound Springs view
Coward Mound Springs.
Afternoon light
Afternoon light, Coward Springs.
sunset
Sunset, Coward Springs.

I found it hard to leave Coward Springs, except for the flies that is, but continued north after a couple of days. Just north of Oodnadatta, I turned off the dusty but well graded Oodnadatta Track and onto the less dusty but very rocky and far worse Oodnadatta-Mount Dare 4WD track on my way to Witjira National Park and the edge of the Simpson Desert. This was probably the worst road I was to travel along.

Welcome to Witjira NP
Welcome to Witjira National Park, on the edge of the Simpson Desert.

Witjira National Park was as arid an environment as I’d ever seen. The old Dalhousie homestead stood as another testimony to the failure of agriculture (well) north of the Goyder Line. No doubt it was the access to water from the nearby Dalhousie Mound Springs that encouraged settlement here. However, while an exceptionally attractive spring in the middle of the desert, surrounded by an oasis of vegetation, the water temperature was an uncomfortable 38-43 degrees celsius and really only enjoyable in the cool early hours of the morning before the daytime temperature rose to well above the water temperature. The water seemed a little cooler away from the main spring inlet.

On the way to Witjira NP it became apparent that the car was developing a mechanical problem. The clutch was failing to engage properly when changing gear. I already had a service pre-booked in Alice Springs so decided to wing it past Mt Dare and head directly to Alice via the Finke and Titjikala indigenous communities. The road followed a very, very sandy track that I discovered to be the route of the notoriously difficult Finke Desert Race for bikes, cars and buggies. It also turned out I was back following the Old Ghan railway again.

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Alice Springs viewed from the Alice Pink Botanical Gardens (the Gap in the MacDonnell Range can be seen in the background).

After spending a night bush camping beside a dry creek bed, I limped in to Alice Springs for a service and some mechanical repairs. While there was not shortage of good 4WD mechanics, or so it seemed, it was not so easy to book the car in for the repairs. I had to spend nearly a week hanging out in Alice before I could get the clutch fixed. But there are worse places to have to hang out, that I can assure the reader. I liked Alice, it was clean, well maintained and not at all like the unruly town it is sometimes portrayed to be. I camped just beyond the Gap at the G’day Mate Tourist Park. It was well located, small and reasonably close to town, nice management and had sufficient but not too many amenities. There’s lots to see in Alice, particularly around indigenous culture and art. For anyone interested in arid lands wildlife then a visit to the Alice Springs Desert Park is a must. What an eye-opener into the small mammals that we are losing or have lost to feral animals – this is how the Australian arid lands used be. Cradled below the eastern MacDonnell range, within layers of fences to keep out ferals, small mammals including Mala, Bilby and Central rock-rat amongst others, survive.

I ventured out of Alice a couple of times while waiting to get the clutch fixed but didn’t dare venture too far. I made a short visit to the West MacDonnell National Park to find an extraordinary landscape with so much more to see. I managed some good walks and a few swims in the very cold water of some spectacular gorges. But I was now running out of time and had to get to Kununurra and rendezvous with friends at the beginning of May. So I headed off with a lighter wallet (the new clutch cost a packet) north along the Stuart Highway towards Mataranka after close to a week in Alice.

The Stuart Highway was pretty uneventful. I had difficulty finding a good spot to camp along the way but thought the wayside satellite mobile phone posts interesting – haven’t seen them anywhere else since, wish I’d taken a photo. Also interesting were the ‘unlimited speed’ zones, followed by the slow down ‘120 km/hr’, then ‘100 km/h’ and, finally, ’80 km/hr’ zones. They would have made more sense if I’d been driving a Ferrari at 300 km/hr to begin with!

Mataranka provided a pleasant stopover. I decided on Mataranka Homestead with its access to the Elsey National Park, Waterhouse River and the Roper River further downstream. The hot water springs did not turn out to be as pleasant as Bitter Springs but the hike down along the Waterhouse and Roper Rivers was well worth it. In previous years swimming in the Waterhouse River had been permitted once National Parks officers had determined that it was free of large crocodiles, but in the age of OH&S they decided to keep it closed. Further downstream along the riverside track at Stevie’s Hole however, I enjoyed a tranquil swim in the absence of any signage about the dangers. It didn’t make sense to me at the time and it turned out that the signage had been washed away during the previous wet season and not yet replaced. I survived anyway. I did enjoy the pub at the Mataranka Homestead, particularly the entertainment which was a (family, all members contributing) band all the way from Yamba, northern NSW.

Leliyn or Edith Falls, in Nitmiluk National Park, was my next stop and what a great find it was. Just up the road and a little north of Katherine it is, on the road to Darwin. This spot lies at the end of the 62 km Jatbula Trail, which starts at Katherine Gorge. There’s a great walk that leads from the camping ground, which is a wonderfully relaxing spot in its own right, up along the Jatbula Trail to Sweetwater Pool. I recommend allowing a full day and stopping at the various pools and waterfalls along the way for swims. It can be hot, so don’t forget the drinking water. There were also bushfires nearby at the time, which added another threat. The campground is quite small and can fill up quickly. Sites can’t be booked so it’s best to arrive early.

From Edith Falls I travelled back to Katherine and then westwards to the Keep River National Park along the Victoria Highway. Technically, outside Central Australia and in East Kimberley, but still in the Northern Territory, this was to be my last stop before Kununurra where I was to meet up with a bunch of dubious characters. Keep River NP is well known for it indigenous rock paintings and stunning rock formations. It is shameful that many of the rock painting sites are now closed to the public as a result wilful damage to the sites by some disrespectful visitors. It is also known for its striped sandstone features, likened to the Bungle Bungles in Western Australia (WA) and often referred to as a mini-Bungle Bungles.

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Keep River NP sandstone rock formations, often referred to as a mini-Bungle Bungles.

The 7 km Jarnem Walk is a must do. The walk takes in beautiful views of the sandstone beehive formations and takes you through beautiful country, full of flowering plants during my visit at the end of April. Along the way there’s a Bush Tucker Dreaming site at Nigli Gap at the base of the beehive domes. The site lies along the edge a a creek that retains water all year round, water derived from seepage out of the porous sandstone rock formation. The Aboriginal people from the area have used this spot for resting and hunting for tens of thousands of years. Aptly named, as I sat contemplating the history of this spot a large Olive Python approached me stealthily from behind doing a bit of bush tucker dreaming of its own!

From Keep River NP it was only a short drive over the border and into Western Australia and the destination for the start of my next adventure – Kununurra. I arrived there right on time, 1 May 2016, all hyped up and ready to hit the Kimberley. This marked the end of a 3,500 km journey and the start of another around the Kimberley.

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