Esperance to Cocklebiddy via the Telegraph Track

Monday, Feb 17, 2014 at 18:25

Peter Beard (WA)

In early January 2014 Pete and Ali had a family gathering to attend in Hobart to celebrate the 160th anniversary of Pete's great-great grandmother's arrival in Australia from Ireland. To celebrate the celebration they decided to take the 80 Series and do a bit of exploring. One of the off-road sections they chose to do was Esperance to Balladonia via Mt Ragged, Israelite Bay, the old Telegraph Track to Twilight Cove then up to the Eyre Highway at Cocklebiddy.

Thursday 19 December 2013
Grey weather for the first day of our trip to Esperance – we hit the road with the obligatory coffee around 8am for the long haul to Esperance. It seemed to take ages to clear the city and suburbs but finally we got onto the Brookton Highway heading to Hyden.

It was a hive of activity throughout the wheatbelt; farmers harvesting their wheat, lots of grain trucks and farm equipment on the road. The cloud cover made the trip very comfortable – not too hot and easy on the eyes. However, it is a bit of a worry. Looking at the radar there is a lot of rain heading for the south coast and a forecast of heavy falls and thunderstorms in western parts of the Eucla. Right where we are heading.

The run from Ravensthorpe to Esperance was quite spectacular, both sides of the road were covered in bright orange/yellow flowering Christmas trees – literally hundreds of them following the road for more than 100 kms.

Esperance is very windy, wet and grey. We are staying in a motel on the beachfront and it is a struggle to walk down the wind tunnel between our room and the car park. Fingers crossed it won't be too bad out east tomorrow.

Friday 20 December 2013
It rained steadily overnight and the wind was still howling as we breakfasted at Esperance, a full load of bacon and eggs followed by a take away coffee to set us up for the track ahead. Pete filled up the car and we headed east along the road to Cape Arid.Bright yellow Christmas trees, purple/pink Geraldton Wax and yellow/brown Banksias bloomed in abundance either side of the road, brightening up the rather grey morning. We topped up with fuel again at Condingup, we are confident we can make it all the way to Cocklebiddy on our two tanks but we are not carrying any spare fuel so we topped up just in case. We will be able to head up to Caiguna if we run low, but would prefer to do the whole track to Cocklebiddy via Twilight Cove without going up to the highway.

Not far out of Condingup we came across some road works where the road was covered in loose blue metal. A wheat truck coming towards us was spewing out a hail of stones, covering the car and chipping and cracking the windscreen in numerous places. The truck drver obviously didn't see the 40km/h signs. Four of the chips are extremely large, looks like another replacement windscreen when we get home. Fortunately we get one free windsceen a year on insurance.

The rain had settled into a permanent drizzle as we turned north along Balladonia Road track towards Mount Ragged. Big signs warned “4WD only” and “Track impassable if wet”. We hoped the rain over the last two days hadn’t made it so. As we were letting down our tyres where the gravel turns to sand a 60 Series Landcruiser went past driven by a young woman, her equally young passenger waving to us.

The track north to Mount Ragged is rough but clear with diversion tracks around the numerous muddy sections. Not far in we came across the girls in the Landcruiser parked precariously on the right bank of the track next to a boggy section. We were on the diversion track to the left and stopped to see if they were okay. They are both French, and explained they were travelling towards Balladonia. Yesterday they had nearly got stuck in a mud hole and had a struggle to get the car out. Pete gave them directions to get out of their current predicament and suggested they follow us. They were very happy to do this; we were not sure if they saw all the diversion tracks or just didn't know what they were there for.

We had been looking for Mount Ragged to loom into view – it is a very big hill – but the low cloud and drizzle obscured everything. By the time we got there all we could see was the steep sides of the base disappearing into greyness. We parted company with the French girls at this point – they continued north the Balladonia, we turned east to Israelite Bay. They were running low on fuel; they only had quarter of a tank to do the 130km trip up to the highway. We hope they made it without running out of petrol, it is a very remote part of the world and could have to wait some time for someone to come down this section of the track. Our Landcruiser is a diesel so even if we had fuel to spare it would have been of no use to them. At least it is not hot and they are well equipped to camp. They should make it most of the way and at worst should only have a short walk to the Balladonia roadhouse if they run out of fuel. In any case, Balladonia Road joins up with Parmango Road not far north of Mt Ragged and that road is more widely used by travellers as a short cut between Esperance and the Eyre Highway so they won't have to wait long for help if they need it. But we thought the French girls were very adventurous indeed out there on their own. A far cry from the many overseas tourists that get shuttled around in buses!

The track skirting Mount Ragged was fairly straightforward, dropping slowly over rocky outcrops through thick groves of Banksia. We entered undulating ground and the track followed a contour line east for a while. The ground looked like reddish grey sand, harmless and easy to drive on but it was very deceptive, the flat sections had turned into a slimy, very slippery mud that made the car slide as if on ice. See the video here. Stopping at one spot to check out how deep the mud was we noticed ant mounds brimming with massive ants nearly the size of your little finger with great big white nippers. Glad we had boots on!

The mud made us a bit worried about the descent down to Israelite Bay; we were hoping it wouldn’t be too treacherous and slick. Fortunately the track goes down a fairly rocky section as it drops to the beach and we emerged next to Lake Daringdella, a long salt lake running parallel to the coast. At the head of the lake we found the amazing ruins of the old telegraph station. Three cars heading west passed us on our way in. We are hoping they are not just on a day trip across from Esperance and have come from the east, it would mean the track is passable.

The old telegraph station at Israelite Bay operated from 1877-1917 and the main building is still in very good condition given its age. The original building was constructed of timber, and in 1896 was replaced by a stone building. The walls are still standing strong with fireplaces in the main rooms topped with massive chimneys, although the roof, floors, windows and doors have all gone. We wandered through the ruins, it had a nice feel to it – no bad vibes or ghosts out here. The ruins of the jetty are also amazing. The pylons still stretch out over the water but the deck has disappeared. It is now a handy roost for seagulls, terns and pelicans. Huge drifts of seaweed cover the beach here. We had read about this, a place to avoid in a car. It is smelly and spongy soft, you could easily sink in to it up to your waist just walking across it. A heavy car would sink in minutes and be stuck, prey to the tide.

Heading east once again we found the track good going for quite a few kilometres with Banksia covered sand sections in between rocky stretches covered in low bushes with bright pink flowers. Then we hit the salt lakes… See the video here. It comes with a language warning though, Ali gets a bit potty-mouthed when she's excited.

The first few weren’t too bad – very slippery and wet and a bit scary but okay to get through. The track, being slightly lower and chewed up compared to the flat salt pans, collected water so seemed to be a wet causeway across the lakes. The third one we came to looked very deep, the water a darker colour in the centre. Tyre marks either side of the main track slewed all over the place, it was obviously very boggy off the main path. Pete took off his boots, put on his raincoat and walked the length of the track until it reached the other bank. It was very slippery but only calf deep in the middle so he trudged back, got back in the car and gunned it straight across. We slipped and slithered through the mud but emerged safely on the other side.

The next one was more challenging, much longer with an island half way across to get around. Tracks went either side of the island, the deeper one to the right. Once again it was out with the raincoat and a walk across. This time it was knee deep but we decided on the right hand track, it was slightly shorter and had been used more so the bottom (once you got through the layer of mud) was compacted. It was a crazy, sliding, wild ride across the lake – the back end fishtailing so badly we thought we were going to spin around. We were starting to bog down so Pete did quick down shift from third to second, the back wheels hit a wheel rut and we shot out of the skid and slithered around the island.

The final one looked impassable. It was not too long but the water in the middle looked very deep. Pete was nearly up to his thighs before too far as he walked the track. Ali followed the edge of the lake south and found it reasonably okay apart from a short muddy section at the beginning to get to the edge. We couldn’t go back, it was already 6pm and getting dark so we decided on the route around the edge. Hugging the bank we weaved around the water hazard, sliding and slipping all the way. Finally we made it through.

The final section down to the last salt lake and beach access was on sandy ground. We went down to Wattle Camp but it was underwater so came back to the sandy track section, found a flat bit and just stopped on the track. We are pretty confident there will be no passing traffic tonight – you’d have to be crazy to be out here in this weather. Hang on, we’re out here in this weather…

Curry and rice heated on the trusty gas stove washed down with a couple of beers restored some calm. It has been a challenging day.

Saturday 21 December 2013
A very early start today. The alarm went off at 4:30 in our roof top tent. We snoozed for half an hour, listening to the rain on the roof. Not a good feeling – after yesterday’s slides through the long salt lakes we were a bit apprehensive of what the day had in store for us.

Although a bit slower than normal packing up (it is our first night in the tent since the Canning Stock Route in July - see our blog for that trip here - and it takes a few goes to get it smooth - plus it's raining), we were on the track to the beach by 6:45. This was important. Low tide was at 7:20 and we wanted to make sure we were well clear of the beach before the tide came in and cut off our route north east towards the Billbunya Dunes and (eventually) Cocklebiddy.

The track down to the beach had surprisingly dried out from our foray last night, when we went down to Wattle Camp only to find it more like Wattle Swamp. It was an easy trek down to the beach – the ocean was wild and a steady south-westerly was blowing but the beach looked reasonably wide and firm. We were soon blasting along the hard packed sand, a pair of small seabirds (terns?) keeping up with our 60km/h pace. Seagulls, terns and an albatross are all happy living in this remote part of the world. Flotsam was dotted along the beach, including a keg (oh the beermanity!), lots of plastic milk crates, craypots, a drum and a single flipper (not sure where the other one is, or the diver for that matter).

The Bilbunya Dunes soon loomed on the horizon. Amazing, pure white, jagged mounds looking like snow capped peaks stacked from the coast to the escarpment.

Turning inland just after the dunes we started the trek up to the escarpment that forms the beginning of the massive cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. It was instantly challenging. The steep sandy track had become a watercourse over winter and there were huge sink holes carved out of the track in a couple of very steep sections. Ali got out to spot Pete through, the first one a tricky double that required Pete to skim around the first hole, gun it to the gap in between the two (just in time, the left back wheel was being pushed into the hole by the right side wheel hard up against the bank) then skirt around the second hole doing an almost impossible 90 degree turn at a 45 degree angle uphill. The second was a single hole, deeper but with a wider piece of sand to the right to allow Pete to navigate around. The last drop onto the escarpment track saw the car flex over a bank, the right front and left rear wheels momentarily in space as Pete took it down.

The climb up to the top of Wylie Scarp was relatively easy. In recent years DEC has laid old conveyer belt rubber over the track to stop people making their own tracks and adding to wind erosion of the escarpment. Water erosion's a different matter however, the climb was made a bit tricky in places by water from the heavy rains over the last few days running down the track and undermining the rubber leaving invisible holes.

The next section to Toollinna Cove was slow and technically challenging. Short rocky sections were interspersed with long, muddy bogs that covered the car in thick brown mud and caused much consternation to passenger and driver as the car seemed to swim slowly through the goop, only occasionally responding to the steering wheel. Most of the time it seemed that the only way we got out of the mud was a bump or push from a submerged rock or nearby tree.

Strung across the track between trees were thick, shining cobwebs. They wrapped around the HF radio aerial and glimmered in the fitful sun. Small white flowering plants were happy in the centre of the track. The terrain changed from small trees and scrub in the rocky sections to low, spiky spinifex-like plants around the mud holes.

About an hour in we went through a tight section where the banks of the track were close to the wheels. A loud bang was followed by a glimpse of metal from the passenger side. We stopped to discover the left hand side running board had buried itself into a sandbank on the way past and parted company with the car with a loud wrench. We pulled it out (it was buried a third of the way into the bank) and left it as a standing sentinel to other travellers. Next casualty was the radio aerial, snapped off at the base by a close bush.

It took us five and a half hours to get to the top of the cliffs just west of Toollinna Cove where we stopped for a lunch of cold sausage and tomato sandwiches. Here we had our third casualty of the day – the guard protecting the LP gas tank under the passenger seat (having been held on by a web strap since our Anne Beadell Highway trip in 2011 - see our blog for that trip here) finally broke free and was hanging on by a thin piece of metal. Pete broke it off by swinging it backwards and forwards, getting a face and eyes full of mud for his efforts.

Toollinna Cove itself was also spectacular, we didn’t climb down but the view from the top was amazing.Bright blue ocean hurled itself against the cliffs way below us, the cliffs either side of us seriously undercut and making us feel very insecure as we took photos close to the edge.

The track up to the Caiguna turnoff was very similar to the previous section with rocky sections interspersed with mud. This time the mud wasn’t quite so slimy – the ground is a bit sandier so it doesn’t get quite so slick. Still, it was a long afternoon. We avoided the temptation of an easy trip up to Caiguna and a motel room and embarked on the 60 odd km track across to Twilight Cove, following the old telegraph line. We lost the main track near John Baxter’s memorial but we found the wire and just followed that. For tonight are camped about 5km along the very little used track. We know we are still on the telegraph track, the single length of rusting wire that has weaved its way along the track with us since coming up on the escarpment is right outside the car.

We stopped at 4pm today. We need an early night and some sleep after our rough night last night. It rained as we were setting up the tent but it is only scudding clouds now at 7pm. Time for pasta and another beer before hitting the pillows.

Sunday 22 December 2013
A very good night’s sleep last night – we hit the hay around 9pm and didn’t get up until nearly 7am. It was much needed, we were both pretty tired yesterday. A hard, technical drive and with not much sleep is not a good formula. Packing up was quicker, we have settled pretty well into our standard routine. The addition of March flies probably aided our speed and attention, we both suffered several stings and a volley of cursing accompanied our packing.

There was a bit more rain as we went to bed last night but the ground has dried considerably. The slimy mud around the car last night has turned to slightly sticky earth. It bodes well for the day ahead.

The track was pretty rough for about 10km, then we hit an intersection and joined a more used track – the one we couldn’t find last night. The terrain for the first 30km was similar to yesterday, rocky sections interspersed with now dried boggy areas. A very large spider web strung across the track was picked up by the HF radio aerial, the strong threads waving in the breeze for most of our journey today. We just hoped we didn’t pick up the spider, too!

Trees had overgrown much of the track, some so big that we had to carefully squeeze the Landcruiser under largish boughs to clear the tent with Ali stretching to lift the branch up a few inches to clear. A major branch that we brushed against in a tight section snapped off and slammed into the side of the car. Fortunately no dents. By the time we had covered half way the side of the car was scraped clear of mud by the close bushes, the bonnet still muddy brown.

The wire that we have been following since coming up onto the escarpment did a double flick as we went over it and managed to hook itself onto one of the brackets hanging off the passenger side, the remnants of the running board. It made quite a zing as it followed us at 20km/h. We stopped to unhook and went on our way. Not much further on we came across a couple of steel telegraph poles that were still standing, then entered a section where there must not have been any fires since the early 1900s – two of the original wooden poles were in pristine condition, grey with age but still standing strong.

Thirty kilometres from Twilight Cove we hit a long series of dunes. Huge white sand hills covered in low scrub with rocky sections between. It was quite amazing to see such soft sand and rolling dunes – formed as a result of the break in the cliffs at Twilight Cove and spreading many kilometres inland over millennia.

Heading down off the escarpment to Twilight Cove was challenging but do-able. The track descended sharply down a sand hill. The original track was washed away but someone had carved another to the right that we were able to step down in low-range first gear. The first drop-off was the worst, the rest needed careful navigation to weave through the culverts and side walls, being careful not fall in a hole or scrape the doors against the sides.

Once down it was mostly sand all the way to the beach. The towering cliffs surrounding the cove had huge white mountains of sand piled up in places and the dunes got bigger as we neared the water. A camping ground was nestled in a bowl surrounded by trees, and a cabin made of corrugated iron and scrap timber stood sentinel to Australian shack life – there for anyone to use on a first come, first served basis with a pile of wood out the front left as payment by the last occupants.

The last section of track down to the cove itself was blocked by a 20-foot dune that had tumbled down covering access. We got out and walked across the sand to see where sand, sea and cliff met then headed back along to another track that took us down to the beach proper. Ali waded in the cold, green surf while Pete took photos, then it was back to the car and the northward track to Cocklebiddy.

Negotiating the sand dune on the uphill was achieved the same way as on the way down – low range first gear chugging gently but firmly up the slope making sure not to hit anything major on the way. The track to Cocklebiddy started as sand dunes but soon turned to rocky outcrops that we had to slowly pick our way over then into longer and longer sections of flats covered in small plants – typical Nullarbor territory. Most of the water had dissipated but there were still slippery sections where we slid along, only kept on track by the wheel ruts and odd rock to get purchase.

Finally we popped out at the back of the Cocklebiddy Motel, hitting tarmac and seeing people for the first time in two days. Cocklebiddy didn’t have mobile coverage, a lightening strike took out the tower so there was only one working EFTPOS machine but the bloke behind the counter was friendly and it was great to find a flushing toilet, hand basin and soap so we could clean our hands and wash our faces. We filled up with fuel, washed mud off windows, number plates and lights, got a sandwich and coffee and hit the Eyre Highway east.

Download the track and waypoints to view in Google Earth. Download the OziExplorer track file here.

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