In the footsteps of Carnegie - Day 7 Exploring the Tanami for Carnegie's lost waterhole

Wednesday, Jul 31, 2013 at 05:00


30th July 2013 - The "Long Camp" on the Kiwirrkurra-Balgo Road

Watching the early sun illuminate Mount Wilson and the ranges to our west was a magnificent way to welcome the dawn. It the morning light, we noticed that one of the rocky outcrops sheltering our campsite resembled an elephant, something we hadn't noticed in the evening gloom yesterday. Having finished breakfast by the fire, we broke camp and rode down , following a headland range to the east.

“Leaving Mount Wilson we steered East and cut the creek that I had seen, and were glad to find feed near it for both horses and camels. I walked it up to its head, and found a little rocky pool of water, returning after dark. Breaden and Warri had been out too, but found nothing”.

David Carnegie Spinifex and Sand Ch. IV

Using his journal, Alan identified descriptions of the water hole Carnegie had located as he passed through this region in early April, 1897. The pool was said to hold two or three thousand gallons when full and was located beneath an overhanging ledge of sandstone with horizontal layers and a slight dip to the south. While the waterhole was only mention fleetingly and never named by Carnegie, time spent scouring maps and resources led Alan to identify a location where he believed the water hole might be found. This was the first mission of the day.

The surrounding country comprised a series of bluffs and table lands with high stone cliffs separating the highlands from the lowlands. Large gorges and valleys split the cliffs, with bluffs often standing sentinel like at their openings. It was beautiful country and a sheer pleasure to ride through.

We explored many larger gullies, riding as far as we could on the quads and then continuing on foot. We found many dry rockholes and in one shallow valley, some large caverns. Climbing to the top of the cliffs above the cavern, I found a perfect sink (namma) hole about 800 mm across and 1.4 metres deep. Having climbed down, I was standing under a large shelter of rock peering into a sink hole worn through from the highland above, when the local resident took fright and flew out in a flurry of wings and a shower of bleep . Thankfully everything missed me but the owl and I got a hell of a fright.

It was a very enjoyable and energetic way to spend the morning and after four expeditions into the labyrinth of gorges and gullies we reached a well defined creek line. Following this into the range, we wandered about 50 metres and found a magnificent pool at the end of the gorge sheltered by a rocky overhang. Large trees also provided shade and protection from the dry desert wind. At the western end, a small bank of rock led up into the country above. Following the rough creek beds we located three additional rockholes of varying size and capacity, however the first remained the most significant. Matching Carnegie’s description and being only seven kilometres from Mt Wilson, it may well have been the waterhole he described in his journals.

Feeling pretty good with the morning’s achievements, we rode onto the plateau behind the rockhole and continued across a wide plain, stopping under a stand of bloodwood for morning tea. The land here exhibited a slight rise making it hard to observe any distant landmarks and features along our path. The wide plains of spinifex were dotted with acacia thickets which we did our best to avoid.Termite mounds, while not in profusion, had a nasty habit of being disguised by the spinifex so you had to pay attention at all times.

We planned to meet the vehicles on an old cut line that intersected our south eastern route. When we reached the track, the vehicles were no where to be seen. Heading north along the line we found the vehicles struggling along the track well north of the position. The lines became very confused in the hills prior to Gunawarrawarra waterhole. Negotiating a route down from the plateau, I reached the vehicles, finding them ground to a halt in a deep gulch, the track nowhere to be found. It was obvious that rains of past years had washed away many of the tracks. In these situations, the value of the quads was clear. Having picked my way down, I soon scouted a route back and led them up across the hills to Gunawarrawarra.

Situated at the base of a sheer, ten metre drop where the waters of the high country had etched the lower substrate, Gunawarrawarra would be a huge waterhole when full. Its wide circular expanse was largely empty now. The upper stretches of the creek had a flat stone bed and supported numerous wide shallow pools. There were also several bathtub shaped holes, worn into the soft rock near the edge of the drop. There was plenty of good water available in the upper holes so I took the opportunity to fill the empty containers we had on board.

Having experienced the surrounding country it was decided the vehicles were to backtrack to the Balgo-Kiwirr Road and head south to a rendezvous point. Larry headed across country in the Mog while the quads returned to the eastward journey along Carnegie’s route. Sometime in the afternoon, the paths would converge on the Balgo-Kiwirr Road for a night together. Bidding our farewells and last minute instructions, the group shot off in three separate directions.

The plains to the south east were thick with high, thin termitaria. These did not have the solidness of their cousins’ abodes and were easily knocked down without damage to the vehicles. Just as well as they were so thick on the ground that not even the quads could travel a straight line without hitting them. We could only imagine what sort of path the big Mog was ploughing! Long burnt thickets of acacia provided fields of punji stakes that were deadly to the soft quad tyres. Alan badly tore one front tyre right on the seam line where the two halves of the tyre had been joined. It was a nasty gash which continued to leak despite numerous plugs, the soft nature of the bias-ply tyres not helping. The soft construction allowed too much flexibility where tyre patches were concerned.

We caught up with Larry on the plains and travelled with him, intersecting the Kiwirr Balgo Road late in the afternoon. Again we were first to arrive. With no vehicles in sight, we headed north for a few kilometres until we could hear their chatter on the UHF radio. It appeared that Suzette was well out in front and driving hard. I went out to collect firewood, meeting them six kilometres north and leading them back. The track was deeply etched into the surrounding sand. The steep sides did not present any opportunity to get out into the surrounding country so it was decided to set up a “Long” camp on the road with a fire at the northern end. While traffic here is rare, it was still essential to take precautions lest you have an unscheduled meeting with an oncoming car.

The evening was spent fixing tyres and prepping the quads for the next few days adventure.

Authors Note; Our recognition and thanks to the Tjurabalan People for permission to access their lands.

''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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