Surveyors General Corner Part 7 'Up The Sandover'

Sunday, Jun 30, 2013 at 18:40

Member - Michael John T (VIC)

We had made it into ‘The Alice’ and should have known from past experience that the temperatures at this time of the year would be low, but at 0 degrees and top of only 17 degrees, this was definitely not what we leave Victoria for. The discussion ended with a decree from the ladies “we are heading North for the next two weeks – to warmer weather and the chance for a swim”.
Decision made we headed up the Sandover Highway planning to at least reach Lawn Hill. Before leaving the area though we had taken the opportunity after leaving Kings Canyon to visit Henbury Meteorite Craters and then one of our favourite places, Rainbow Valley. Here we virtually had the place to ourselves (surprise) and so were able to range far and wide through those wonderful sandstone statures and structures. They are engrossing shapes and the oxidised colouring is really fantastic. That night the sunset from the viewing hill had splendor written all over it. This place remains an essential visiting spot for us each time we pass through the center. Noticeable was the new and enlarged camping area about to be opened, and catering for the increased popularity of Rainbow Valley.

A friend of ours, now working in Alice, took us through Owen Springs Reserve, entering it from the 66 km mark South of Alice Springs. Just 2 kms in we stopped at the delightful Redbank Waterhole on the Hugh River. Now only substantial waterholes it was a haven for bird life and provided ample opportunities for camping on both sides of the river. A further 17.8 kms to the edge of the Waterhouse Range and then following beside and along (at times) the Hugh River we came to Lawrence Gorge. Again many camping areas available among a setting of river red gums with complementing white gums stark against the dark red of the rocks atop the steep sides. It’s a great drive through here and would be a pleasant place to camp. Further on the partly restored ruins of the first station homestead built in this area by pastoralist William Gilbert (1870s) appear as did a huge flock of black cockatoos. The Hayes family who ran the station for decades only surrendered the lease to the NT Government in 1999. The track finally emerges on Larapinta Drive for an easy drive back into town.

So it was with full tanks and plenty of supplies we left for the Sandover Highway about 3pm. Some 68 kms North to the Plenty Hwy turnoff and the 27 kms before turning onto the Sandover. After 5 kms we found a good camp area and settled in for the night. For the next 100kms the road remained in good condition, just a few corrugations that generally intensified as we approach a Community. We passed an interesting granite rock formation just prior to entering Urapunta/Angarapa Land and a few kms on the small and extremely impoverished Community of Arlpara – if ever the government money needed to be spent it was here with these people. The only sign of any modernization was the stretch of bitumen that passed by. The country became very rocky and people we met at the granites indicated a good camp site just after the Tele tower, Ok for a caravan they were in but nothing suitable for us. We moved on and eventually came to station cross roads where we found an excellent area for the night, it even had its own termite mound. It had proved an interesting day with only 250 kms under our belt. It’s amazing how quickly the temperature warmed just 350 km north of Alice Springs.

The stage today was to take us to the Qld border, the road remained quite good, a few rough patches and an extensive very sandy (4wd stuff) section but otherwise nothing too serious. There are several bores marked on the map along here, we managed to find three of them.Bore No 14 now capped with an overgrown concrete tank, TW bore and the third an open dam with cattle around it. About 70kms along this stretch we came upon an old 4wd vehicle with four backpackers heading for Cairns. Unfortunately they had a serious leak in the petrol tank and were quite concerned. We managed to plug the leak and repair the flat spare tyre before following them for a few kms, stopping a couple of times to check on the tank, all was good. We moved on expecting them to pass us as we lunched, it didn’t happen and it was well after dark that they passed our camp. Not a good idea driving in the dark out here, and apart from this it is extremely desolate, they were the only the second vehicle we had seen in two days. We can only assume they made it to Cairns without another mishap.

As we approached the Qld border the dense scrub which engulfed either side of the road began to give way to large areas of open grassland. We passed close to Lake Nash Station set on the banks of the Georgina River. There is a lovely waterhole but closed to passers-by and definitely no camping, what a pity but probably with good reason. Shortly after, we camped right on the Qld/NT border in an open space, save for the two or three small gidgee trees. About 9 pm three large road trains loaded with cattle trundled past our camp in the dark all lights ablaze. Officially this is where the Sandover ends and despite my earlier trepidation (expecting the worst) as to what the road would be like I would rate it a 7 – 8 out of 10 for a dirt outback Hwy. Now in Qld the road commenced quickly into a station track and then back to a gravel road. Certainly it was easy traveling for most of the way.

We were now in wide open and vast golden savannah grassland. Several large bores with associated dams were gathering points for herds of brahman cattle and their gorgeous calves, peering at us as we intruded on their turf, before galloping a few paces away to the safety of the herd. We stopped at one dam and its windmill where a lone pelican seemed to be struggling for life. The area around the bore was bare and dusty, all the grass long eaten by the cattle. A lonely sign post “To Cairns” indicated a desolate track to the East, tyre marks indicated that our backpackers turned off here. How different this must be to their home countries. We crossed the now dry Mingera River that in the wet feeds into the Georgina, past Barkley Downs Station in the distance and through the numerous Buckley Channels. A mustering team were working the cattle, several horsewomen, a motor bike or two and a small chopper from Cloncury, we stopped and chatted with the pilot before passing on. Some 20kms on we were in low scrubby country as we turned off into The Caves NP a few kms short of Camooweal. This was a real change to the wide and expansive grasslands where all you could see on the horizon was the occasional windmill.

The camping area in the NP is set alongside a pleasant tree lined waterhole a haven for water birds and a great place to set up camp for 2 – 3 days. It is obviously well known as numerous campers came and went in the time we were there. Some caravans actually negotiated the fairly rough, stony 14 km track into the park and several day trippers from Camooweal arrived as we set up camp. The feature of the park is the many subterrainian caves scattered through the area. Over 90 have been found and aerial surveys indicate the presence of another possible 67. The two available to see are Little and Large Nowrame Caves. Interesting they appear as sink holes surrounded by rough Dolomite (calcium magnesium carbonate) and Chert rocks and some to a depth of 70 meters. Apparently they flood in the wet and are mostly linked to each other underground. If you are in the area this is definitely a pleasant and interesting stopover option.
Camooweal itself is always worth a stop, the large waterhole west of the town provides good camping, many water birds and fossicking for the colourful ‘ribbon rock'. There are helpful people in the store/post office but even their charm couldn’t get us access to a camp at Lawn Hill, they provided internet access for us, free of charge. There is a pub and camp ground but the very interesting feature is the Drovers Camp. Situated on the towns Eastern boundary it is a museum with a guided tour of the life and means of earlier drovers. When we were there an elderly but spritely Jeff Simpson, a drover in the 40s and 50s, took us through the exhibits and then into the wonderful hall of local drover portraits, great stuff and just a gold coin donation, a ‘beaut’ couple of hours.

Camooweal done we headed towards Lawn Hill via the Bourketown road, through barren and arid country side and then onto the Gregory Downs road where the scenery began to improve. We took the left hand fork onto the Lawn Hill road for a very pretty drive, passing the large waterhole on the Thompson River where last time through, in 2010, there were several brolgas in residence, this time the waters were empty. The O’Shannassy River had fast flowing water across the causeway, but the Northern bank provides a great camping spot high above the dry season water level on a large area of well washed river stones. It is a lovely spot to stop, even if just passing through, but so many simply drive straight by. We took advantage of the now warm weather and took our first swim for the trip – the ladies were pleased. There is great bird life here brown honey eaters, several different finches, blue winged kookaburras with their raucous calls, paperbark flycatchers and even channel billed cuckoos. With an early morning cuppa sitting by the causeway I was able to observe the birds, often at quite close quarters and many of them plying the water for insects. Up steam a little, a small wallaby, unaware of my presence lingered at the waters edge – just magic – “well that’s life on the road”.

We debated staying another night here but in the end pushed on to Adel’s Grove where we based ourselves for a couple of days visits to fabulous Lawn Hill. (see my blog ‘Darwin via the Dirt part 9 Gorges, Lizards Dinosaurs and Rocks’). This was our third visit here and will always remain high on our list to return to. Our next destination was King Fisher Camp (KFC) accessed via Lawn Hill station and the cross country ‘Savannah Way” route. You follow the track across station country crossing several rivers, first Lawn Hill Creek with its drive up the creek bed, then Musselbrook River at about 62 kms, followed shortly by the Elizabeth River. The very pretty drive through open country side with the Constance Range disappearing in the back ground as you continue North. Approaching Bowthorne Station a large plume of smoke was certainly taking our attention and keeping us wary. We seemed to be heading in its general direction for some time before veering towards the West. There were to be no worries with it on this day though.

About 55 kms from KFC, having just passed the Doomagee turnoff, we came across the first of two large waterholes, bristling with birdlife including Jabirus, the second waterhole made for a very good camping area and indeed an off road caravan was set up in there. Having passed through station country we had already opened and closed about a dozen gates and now one more as we entered King Fisher Camp. It is a paradise on the banks of a permanent waterhole of the Nicholson River and again we were looking forward to returning to it. The facilities are basic but the setting under shade on green grass is very pleasant and represents a delightful spot for a few days rest over. There are walks, fishing and you can take the 50 km return drive to Hedley Gorge, ($25 per vehicle gate charge) well worth the effort. Up there the lower and upper waterholes are separated with a large ‘rock shute’ containing nine rounded rock holes worn with tumbling stone action and set amongst the rugged country side. The first time Brenda and I did this drive to the gorge there was a large patch of bull dust and we took time to video our vehicle going through it, now we would avoid it at all costs, perceptions and actions change over time, or is it that we are just older?
On returning to KFC camp we were told that the fire had crossed the Lawn Hill track and a second fire now threatened Bowthorn Station with the fire front approaching within 20 kms of the camp. Several campers had left and we were told that we may have to evacuate and that we could expect heavy smoke. As far as we were concerned this site was far better than blindly driving out into goodness knows what, especially with our lack of local knowledge. Late that afternoon the strong wind died down but apparently picked up again in the early hours of next morning. It was then that the camp manager informed us that the police had ordered our evacuation as the fire threatened to break containment lines. We packed and left immediately heading for the Savannah Way and Doomagee (incidentally where the fire originated). Nevertheless the highlight of our stay at KFC was the sighting of a family of purple crowned fairy wrens with the males in full colour, as we watched the smoke over the waterhole.

That afternoon we crossed the Gregory River causeway some 36 kms short of Bourketown and camped the night at a very pleasant river camp. Next morning Bourketown for a brief stopover before making our way out to Leichardt Falls. Plenty of vehicles there as we arrived but after lunch most continued their journey and we were able to locate a great camp site overlooking the river and well sheltered. It’s a lovely spot with still a trickle of water flowing and plenty of features to explore. Some of the upper pools were swimmable or more likely ‘dippable’ (which we did), but the two nights we stayed were to be our last as we were due home for the birth of another grandchild. Children always time the event badly, we have repeatedly told them May to October is definitely out, but it doesn’t seem to work. Over the next few days we wandered South into the chilly weather, but what a fantastic reason to be home in time for – a beautiful little girl.

Note: I’ve just finished this report 3 days before we head of for another 3 month trip. See you when we return in October, no babies this year. !!!.
We retired to travell
It's time to go again...
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