Friday, 24 October 2014

Strzelecki in rock-sharp

Strzelecki in rock-sharp

It's fair to say that Anita had her reservations about doing the Strzelecki - it would be hot and there'd be nothing to see.  She softened, courtesy of a reasonable forecast and the lure of checking out the Gammon Ranges (far-north Flinders), which are up that way anyway.  We filled up with supplies and fuel and reversed the 5 hr drive Neil and I had done the day before, pulling into the same campsite Neil and I had called home for a week.  

The following day was forecast to be the stinker of the lot, but the morning was cool and breezy.  We did a short walk where Anita got great views of southern scrub robin (above), before taking in swanky coffees at the Wilpena resort, entertained by yellow-throated miners hoovering up cafe scraps.  The plan for the rest of the day was to push forward towards digs in the Gammon Ranges, but not before firstly having the traditional peak at Stokes Hill for short-tailed grass wren.  By the time we got there the wind had picked up considerably to near gale force. Clothes did a good job of even hanging on.  In sitting down to avoid being blown down, Anita spied something budgie sized pressed against the hillside amongst the spinifex.  It wasn't a grass wren but something just as special.  An elegant parrot had stapled itself to the hillside and was foraging.  It dared not take flight or it'd get blown off the mountain.  It seemed relatively unperturbed by me getting within a handful of meters and getting some great shots.  Only the second time we've seen this species.

We pushed north to Blinman, where enjoyment of the local pies and quandong scones was tempered by a realisation that the town had no fuel, which we desired for the next long push, not quite knowing what would be available further north.  We eventually filled up, but this required a 14 km out then back detour on a very-rough track.  After the detour we were finally under way for the next 150 km dirt leg as the temperature climbed well into the 30s and the wind drove a dust storm that pretty much obscured sun and scenery.  The next 4 hours were some of the most harrowing driving I,ve done.  The road was rough and corrugated, and only 25 km in we suffered our first puncture.  The car immediately filled with dust as contents were unloaded to source jack and star wrench.  The hole in the tire was so big I could have rammed two fingers into it. No amount of sealant and bung was going to repair this.  We were down to the Clayton's spare and on the cusp of about-facing, but given how far we've driven on dirt before and how few punctures we've actually had, I thought it worth the risk to push on.

I'm sure we would have seem some amazing scenery that leg, but the heat, wind, dust, poor visibility and nervousness of puncturing again in sharp terrain, prevented me from appreciating it.  If felt like we were heading into the apocalypse.  The only saving grace was that if we had broken down, satellites and a pre-downloaded map would have told us exactly where - not that we had any form of mobile coverage.  We had seen a few other vehicles, but all mega 4wds in a single convoy, heading south at the end of the long weekend.  Conditions were so wild that the emergency tarp, which used to be strapped under the shovel on the roof, was lost somewhere en route.   So somewhere out in the nothing, like a discarded lolly wrapper, wafts a silver and blue object, big enough to gift-wrap a car, probably visible from space, now at the relentless mercy of the elements.  My most flamboyant achievement with regards littering Australia.

With satellite guidance we stayed the course.  The mood improved when out of the dust appeared a tourist bus making even slower progress.  At least now if we did puncture again we could send a message.  We finally gained the entrance to the park and the few buildings, which constituted the rangers station.  For 5 dollars a generous shower was most welcome even though the corrugated roof threatened to blow off.  But things were looking up with the knowledge that we'd survived the worst, and that a cool change was on the way, with 22 C max predicted for the following day.  We camped near the bed of an ancient river populated by mangled old red gums.  The wind dropped and the change arrived.  All was well.

In contrast to the relatively lushly vegetated Wilpena area, the northern Flinders feel older and even tireder.  The next mornings drive was intercepted by squadrons of budgies as we drove the 35 km dirt track to the tourist outpost of Arkaroola, managed in a similar vein to Wipena Pound.  The local mechanic kept us entertained as he changed our spare, and provided some local knowledge about road conditions further north towards Mt Hopeless and the Strzelecki.  He also clued us in on the eclipse of the moon, due in two evenings time.  We did a lovely circuit walk, ticking red-throat, crested bellbird on call, chestnut crowned babbler and hooded robin, and after a few beers checked out a hole that actually contained water, complete with painted wallabies.  We filled up with fuel and ice before heading back to camp.

The following day proved to be probably the most magical of the trip.  We headed north into the nothing with the ever dwindling expanse of the northern tips of the Flinders over our LH shoulder, before leaving them behind as the mesa flat tops came and passed.  All through this stretch fantastic flowering wattles kept us company, eventually replaced by saltbush, then gibber plains.  It was in the gibber that the first rarity appeared.  First a pair of Pratincole, then another. Then another dozen.  The bird we were really after, gibber bird, didn't show.  However, whilst searching an obvious sector, the only other car travelling in our direction pulled up,and out popped a couple from QLD, complete with binoculars, on a similar quest - to tick some of the mega inland rarities; specifically grey falcon and letter wing kite.  Turns out they were at Stokes Hill for 3 hrs the same day as we were, eventually ticking the grass wren.  But unlike us they'd dipped on a Pratincoles thus far.  They gave us some good info on the paths to come.  Shortly after we finally turned right onto the Strzelecki Track proper,  meeting it Half way on its run north to Innaminka.  

Compared to what we'd been travelling, the Strzelecki was a super highway; wide with at least two possible lines for the most, and with the odd road train rattling past.  It was considerably more interesting than expected.  Whilst the Ood is predominantly gibber plain, the Strz is mostly slowly rolling sand dunes.  Not coloured the red, that tends to be standard currency out here, but often gleaming white, populated by vegetation I'd never seen before.   We stopped at the Montecollina bore for a few oranges and apples.  We were greeted with the almost Jacque Tati spectacle (we are talking Monsieur Hulot's Holiday here) of an elderly gent in stripy swimsuit bobbing on the bore in the embrace of an inner tube.

A marsh turn hovered low over the water picking off insects.  Raptors glided above. Waves of zebra finches zipped between thorn shrubs, and the ruddy variegated fairy wren made itself known.  We had initially planned on staying, but the sun was still high, it was hot, and the glare so intense we decided to push on another 50 clicks to the Strzelecki Creek crossing, where a nice spot above a diminishing salty pool was picked out for our 4th camp on the trot.  That night, in the jewelled company of desert skies  we watch the full moon gradually succumb to eclipse by the shadow of the earth.

The next morning we got our next new tick for the trip, straight out of campfire chairs while drinking coffee, as red-browed pardalote bobbed about just meters above, singing a delicate song.  We were expecting the next sector - cutting across to Cameron Corner to be a bit dull, but it turned out to be anything but.  White dunes were replaced with salmon, then deep red.  Rather than rolling along parallel to the dunes, the road increasingly hit them perpendicularly.  Our path started to resemble a sine wave.  Red sandy roller after roller, sometimes with a period of only a hundred meters, with the crests sometimes booby-trapped by hidden dusty holes,.  Repeat for 100 km!  Amazing country.  

In contrast, Cameron Corner itself was always going to be anticlimactic.  Sure enough; a run down store with a bowser next to big fence and a pole marking the junction of NSW, QLD and SA.  But the interior was interesting and the owner did a mean fried egg roll.  White breasted wood swallows played in the tree above the toilet blocks.  Onwards to Tibooburah, another 150 km slog.  The dunes slowly dissipated and the gibber plains returned, along with more and more pratincoles (but no gibber bird or grey falcon).  Quite expectantly just as we were approaching town, the gibber stones changed from red to white, the quartz coincident with the eruptions of granite tors that littered the landscape.  Tibooburah (pop 150) was the biggest settlement we'd seen since Wilpena, and turned out to be a bit of ant artsy place, commensurate with the funky landscape.  We rumbled into the National Park campsite for our 5th bush camp on the trot.  

Left her there without payin the bill
Hitch hiked back to Broken Hill
Left my wallet somewhere
Wrong directions are shown
This is not the way home.          (The Cruel Sea)

Well not exactly.  The plan from here was to bomb the 330 km south to Broken Hill, (mostly still on dirt) from whence sealed roads would takes us in an easterly direction the 1000 km back to Sydney.  We tweaked it a little by having our 6th and last bush camp at Mutawintji, hoping for owls to turn on a show as they had 2 years prior.  They didn't this time, but the next morning we did one of the gorge walks we missed out on previously.  The swim at the end was a most soothing respite from the heat, and we ticked both masked and white-browed wood swallows in the creek gums, giving me the full set for the trip (along with little (Moonarie), dusky (Gammon), and black faced (everywhere).  

The days had been progressively getting hotter and we finally rolled into Broken Hill with our last segment of dirt behind us.  Pulled into a cafe. Ate lunch.  Returned to discover one of the tyres had limped flat.  Couldn't have happened in a better place, although it was now the weekend, so the dummy spare would be the sole backup for the rest of the journey.  Having changed the wheel we cruised out past saltbush vistas to Silverton, where Mad Max and other films were shot, and had a beer in the pub.  We were joined shortly after by a bunch of mountain bikers, pre-riding a local 6 km loop for a race the following day.  Some horses also wandered like they owned the place for a drink.

The hotel shower was Terrific.  Toweling myself off my face left a red imprint like the Shroud of Turin, so engrained was the dust.  We wandered up to the corner pub, The Palace, the interior lavishly painted in vibrant landscapes, and featuring in Priscilla.  Top notch grub in a dining hall not unlike Goulburn's Paragon, although a fair bit creakier, but just as popular.

Our return to Sydney was broken by a night in Mudgee, where the local wetlands threw up plum-headed finch and red-kneed dotterel.  On the last leg we stopped at Mt Vic to say hi to Cathy and Tony, before racing the “storm of the century” back along the Bells line of road, pulling into Marsfield literally 3 min before the horizontal rain-front actually caught us.

Unfortunately that now means somehow breaking out of holiday mode and making the uncomfortable transition back to this thing called work, which we allow to consume most of our lives.  Hopefully it wont be another 2 years before getting properly outback again.

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