Gary Junction Rd (West to East)

Friday, Dec 30, 2022 at 06:01

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

We were using the Gary Junction Rd as an arterial link to reach the West McDonnell Ranges but also just to familiarise ourselves with it as we had actually never followed this track.

We started from the west, at Kunawarritji where we had a 2 night stop at Well 33 (early August 2022). Whilst I've already posted the Track Log for the whole section from 80 Mile Beach to Mt Zeil via the Kidson and Gary, this Track Log just shows the Gary Junction Road section. At the end of the blog I've also included the Track Log we recorded on our successful summit hike of Mt Zeil.

Our trip across the Gary Junction Rd to Mt Zeil Wilderness Park took 5 days.
One day 1, we only travelled 178km in total from Well 33 to our first camp due to a long stop at Gary Junction for a chat with a lovely couple (Alison & Murray) heading west. Hey guys if you're reading this did that photo turn out ok? We'd love to get a copy of it please.

The long stop together with so much work for us to do along the way meant we didn't make Jupiter Well (230km), which would be the logical, ideal camp but we honestly don't mind where we end up. This trip is not about destinations so we take it all as it comes. Alison & Murray had also mentioned that there was a group of about 5 vehicles already camped at Jupiter Well that weren't likely to be moving on yet. Apparently, they were searching for an elusive Princess Parrot. Like us, Alison & Murray were travelling with their mountain bikes and seemed serious enough to use them and as we started chatting we realised they were definately adventurous and so we were very interested when they told us about their hike to the summit of Mt Zeil. This piked my curiosity as I had already noted this as a possible destination to investigate but didn't know much about the summit hike. They showed us photos and their tracking log and explained how the terrain is extremely challenging with face high spinifex that means your legs needs more protection than just long pants and gaiters. They also went to lengths to explain the complex navigation required for the route - over 10 hours of hiking with no trail markers and no gpx log file to download and follow. Obviously, that was setting the bar for a challenge that we could not refuse so we were committed, although it was at the far end of our drive along the Gary Junction and wouldn't be for a few days yet.

From Gary Junction, Alison & Murray were contemplating heading south down the Gary Highway to check out Veevers Crater but according to our last notes it was no longer permitted due to native title land ownership restrictions. We had been there in 2010 when doing a big trip through the Gibson Desert (see old Blog Wiluna to Telfer via Gibson Desert) but I never knew if they did or didn't go there. I'd love to hear from others about their experiences with access here this year? Is there any signage in place to confirm if access continues to be closed or has it reopened?

If we'd realised that the Terry Range was so spectacular we probably would have camped there on our first night but we stopped a little bit west in a big area of bushland set back from the road and sheltered by trees (Bushland Camp). It was such a contrast to our previous night at Well 33 which had been freezing - here it was warm! There were a few little spots along the way that are marked as camps in Wikicamps but were really just grader bays or quarries and not up to rating as a "camp" however this one is definately a decent camp. It actually has 2 entrance/exit points. It's referred in Wiki camps as Blue Drum camp but we have called it Bushland Camp (the drum might go, but the bushland won't and you can't miss the change of terrain which gently rises up from the plains and is an unusual pocket of vegetation. This point is not far east of the boundary into the Kiwirrkurra IPA.

As it turned out, by the time we arrived at Jupiter Well the next morning, the birdwatchers had lifted camp and we had it to ourselves so we spent a few hours just enjoying this very beautiful area. This whole section of about 30km either side of Jupiter Well is equally beautiful with desert oaks, camels, and generally just an attractive desert area. Jupiter Well itself is setup quite well.

The main campsite is on the northern side of the track and there is a handpump clearly visible in a turning circle with significant signage erected by the Kiwirrkurra IPA peoples explaining their lands and activities. Just beyond this is a delightful grove of desert oak trees where you can camp and just a short walk through the bush there is the first of quite a few well designed bush loos. The vehicular track continues back for another hundred metres more to a second camping grove.

The actual original Jupiter Well, which was the point that was dug by the national mapping team in 1961 is back over the southern side of the Gary Junction Rd and is best reached on foot. It took us a bit of time to locate it - we had to open the Traveller app on our phones and by tapping on the Place marker on the map let it guide us (like a compass) to the site. It is not that obvious if you don't know what to look for as its just a hole in the scrub and no signage around but finding anything that is marked as a Place in the Traveller app is super easy - just tap the icon on the map as you walk, you'll see an orange arrow point in the direction you should head and how many metres to go to reach it. We used this method so many times to pin-point locations very easily and accurately.

Less than 20km east from here is the turn off to a Len Beadell marker that is not on the main track. The side track is marked and leads 450m back into the scrub to a tree. The significance of this tree is that it is as far as Len got in 1960 on his way to push the Gary Junction Rd to the site he was aiming for (Jupiter Well) and he never got there due to a catastrophic failure in the gearbox of his grader. He did eventually visit the area again in 1962, a year after the national mapping survey had dug the well at the site Len was aiming for and they named it Jupiter Well.

Just past here we came across a track on the north side that led into a water filled road builders quarry. It was midday and getting warm and we decided to swim there. We did make a safety assessment first obviously it would be stupid to swim if there was any contamination or danger. In fact the area was teeming with wildlife and we think we spotted the Princess Parrot here - later confirmed in our copy of Simpson & Day Birds of Australia guidebook. But no photos. We hope the other birdwatchers came here and found them too.

From here we travelled just another 1.5km and came across a number of small modern houses in what appeared to be a small community but was completely empty of people. Nothing was broken but it appeared totally abandoned yet ready to use if people returned, with gas bottle connections to each "house" and other infrastructure.

Our maps confirmed the community is named Nyinmy and I later did some research and discovered it is one of many registered aboriginal "Homelands". These homelands are sometimes not occupied full time but are outstations where Aboriginal people can maintain connection to their traditional lands. They are often used for specific cultural training sessions. If you come across any Homelands on your travels they may or may not be occupied and may or may not be signed but in either case your transit permit does not grant access to these localities (despite any Welcome sign you might see). So keep out. Those welcome signs are there for the convenience of helping invited visitors and contractors locate the entrance track. There is far more local traffic in these areas than tourists and the signs are for their purposes not ours. We were horrified to note that this one (plus others we later found) are listed as free camps in Wikicamps and there were recent comments by people stating they had stayed there. Don't!! This is not only illegal but highly inappropriate and disrespectful.

From our previous night's camp, we had 133km to travel to reach Kiwirrkurra but about half way, and just before the Pollock Hills we found a bush camp that features another bush loo just like the one at Jupiter Well. It has been modified/upgraded since the last person had updated the Place listing in ExplorOz so we photographed and documented the changes which include a new hand pump instead of a tank (although the water quality was not great). See Kiwirrkurra Rangers Upgraded Camp & Bore.

Kiwirrkurra is open for travellers to drop in for fuel, visit the store for supplies, and see the partially restored ration truck that was used by Len Beadell's road building party. I would love to find out more about the 4wd tracks to the north to Lake MacKay but that is on the list for a future expedition! The Kiwirrkurra community is reached by following a track for 6.3km north off the main Gary Junction Rd but you can go in one way and come out another. We wanted to investigate the fuel situation and take a look around for research purposes.

Kiwirrkurra has a 24/7 card operated fuel bowser which is self-serve. You simply swipe your card and make a pre-payment and the bowser switches off once the value is reached. We didn't find the store offered the same high quality of foods or supplies for tourists such as what was available at Kunawarrittji and that would be due to the different staff working in the community. However the community members constantly purchase hot take away foods so it is well supported for their needs and it was a hive of local activity with people milling about both outside and inside. A sign on the door advised there was a funeral happening tomorrow and historically when that happens a whole region can change and become quite unsuitable for tourists. Usually, all tourism services will be closed too but this practise seems to have stopped now that external staff run the shops and the fuel is self-serve. We were warmly greeted on arrival and many people were wearing their face masks so we wore ours too.

Once we were back outside however, we were approached by a lady who wanted to know where we were going and she then pressured repeatedly for us to give her a lift to Alice Springs. I felt so bad saying no. She looked so forlorn. I can't imagine what she was going through to ask such a question. When we explained we had no room she thought for a moment quietly then came back and suggested she would be happy to travel in the camper trailer! She really didn't seem to understand that this was impossible and eventually I had to walk away from her to reinforce that no meant no.

Away from the store, you will find a tourism precinct with the relocated and partially restored Ration Truck used to carry supplies for Len Beadell's party for several years before it caught fire in 1960. There is also an interesting community art project built in 1985 called the Water Dreaming Fountain. There are a a few signs to tell the stories but there are no camp locations within the community.

We were told that people would be coming from Kintore (188km to the east) for tomorrow's funeral so we wanted to get some miles under our wheels before making camp however we knew we couldn't do that distance before dark. We expected some traffic might be on the road during the next 2 nights so the aim was to find a sheltered or secluded camp if possible. But we only got as far as Mount Webb before sunset - a distance of 44km and as beautiful as the scene was it was very close to the road but we had little choice. We started to poke our way down a track that on our maps appeared to lead to a water tank but before reaching it we spotted a vehicle and turned back thinking it was a local out for the night camping. So we setup in our spot nearer to the road and surprisingly there was only 1 vehicle that came through and was a contract worker.

The next morning we realised we hadn't seen or heard anything from the vehicle down the track so before packing up camp we set off on our bikes to take a look and found it was just an abandoned vehicle. We went onwards and reached the tank but it was very hard going on our bikes - far too soft and sandy to be enjoyable and despite being only 3km we struggled to stay on but we got there. We found the tank is now disconnected but a hand pump has been installed. Water is clear and tastes ok but not perfect.

The rest of the day was spent investigating the many tracks and features for our mapping project but eventually we made it to the WA/NT border which felt rather exciting! We eventually reached the Kintore community, which has a 9km access road running south off the Gary Junction Rd. It was then that we noticed spectacular white sweeping clouds across the brightest blue sky which was stunning against the Kintore Ranges in the background. It set the tone for great appreciation of this community and its spectacular location.

To our great delight we found full strength Telstra service here but I could not get any PennyTel service (wholesale Telstra). This meant I couldn't access the voice mail box for the diverted work calls so I ended up on a long call with the telco to find out why and discovered that Pennytel does not have the same coverage as Telstra. The last time I'd been able to pick up messages was at Port Hedland/80 Mile Beach. Today I was getting a flood of notifications for customer voice mails but was unable to playback the messages so I was starting to get a bit panicky about the extended time on not returning calls but couldn't figure out a solution. We spent a fair bit of time parked in the main street opposite the store doing exactly the same thing as the residents - sitting on our phones but eventually we went into the store which was amazing and people were coming and going with boxes of foodstuffs and socialising outside. No one spoke to us. We asked someone in town about getting to the rock site on the Sandy Blight Junction Road that Alison & Murray had mentioned and was eagerly told to take the back track. Sure enough we arrived at Ngutjul Rocks and marvelled at this incredible spot. It looked spectacular with the sky still doing its thing and we found tracks leading to many different rock sites and took all these photos!

Once we completed our touring circuit we stopped to explore more of the main feature rock just as a car load of people arrived. Whilst we were a little unsure if we should even be here (the permit indicates you cannot camp anywhere other than at communities but there are no camps in the communities), we opened conversation with small talk about the beauty of the site and discovered it was their first time here despite working in the community aged health service. They told us things they knew about the site, and showed us a rock with a painting that they said represented "women's business". They encouraged us to climb the rocks and to setup our camp and stay overnight but asked for our permission to stay a while so they could climb the rocks and take their own photos too. It work out well. And then it started to rain!

Views of Mount Leisler and Mount Strickland are nearby and complete the excellent scenery in this location.

The overnight rain was only light and we packed up dry but the weather had taken a massive change and it was a cold day of only 18 degrees. The time zone felt strange and it made our pack up/departure very late. We drove back to Kintore to get internet again as we had picked up an email from the Apple app store that an update we thought we'd successfully published back at Well 33 had been rejected and we needed to respond and lodge an appeal. So it was midday by the time we hit the road and got moving east.

It was slow going because as soon as we headed off, we began to hear some strange sounds coming from the Landcruiser rear wheels and we stopped numerous times to diagnose the cause. Eventually we found one of the rear shocks was broken but he didn't want to remove it or try to fix it until we got to our next camp so since the road wasn't very complicated and the Ultimate camper trailer is very light and travels well David was happy to keep going with a few minor modifications. He reduced the air bag suspension in the Landcruiser to reduce the length of suspension travel to compensate for the broken shock and we seemed to travel ok. We managed only 162km and stopped at a bush camp near an old bore. We stopped early enough so that David could jack up the car and remove the broken shock to see if it could be repaired but without a welder there was nothing that could be done. When he removed the shock he could see a broken weld join above the thread causing the top bushes to be inoperable.

We were quite surprised when another traveller pulled into the camp having travelled in the other direction. After some introductions we found common ground and John advised that he loves our maps and has EOTopo on 3 devices and has been using EOTopo raster 2019 maps in OziExplorer but he wanted to see us demonstrate EOTopo vector (2021) with a view to downloading ExplorOz Traveller tomorrow when he next got internet service in Kintore. So David and John chatted for ages about maps and the broken shock whilst I chatted with Cynthia. They were very lively and experienced outback travellers and at 80 years old were still doing very well for themselves travelling solo, no caravan in tow, just a converted camper on a ute body. We chatted until dark when it began to rain. It rained heavily all night and we had a wet pack up in rain that was just relentless.

Without the rear shock, the drive on the deteriorating roads was slightly more bouncy but David just drove to conditions and we reached Papunya without incident although it rained the whole way. We continued our drive east but the whole atmosphere had changed with the rain clouds which was a shame as we could just make out that we were driving past beautiful mountain ranges but we had no distance vision so didn't even bother taking photos.

At Papunya the rain stopped briefly whilst we stopped in at the art gallery that looked very welcoming and spent a few hours there. We bought a few paintings and was then invited into the back room and sat with people painting.

We really didn't need anything from the store but needed to dispose of rubbish and "catch up" using the internet, phone, and browsing in the the store. Two men were eating outside the store right where we'd parked and they started small talk with me that eventually led to deep and meaningful talk - turns out one of them was a resident that was being "trained/supported" for 3 months by a visiting Indigenous Justice Advisory staff member from Sydney. You can be sure that was a fascinating conversation!

We then continued on driving through more rain and reached Mt Zeil Wilderness Park at 3.30pm and finally the rain stopped and it looked like we were in for good weather again. We were greeted by Skye a delightful young caretaker who was working here with her beautiful young family enroute travelling around Australia.

Mt Zeil is the tallest mountain in the Northern Territory at 1531m and is also the highest peak west of the Great Dividing Range. This puts it in the State 8 - top 8 peaks in Australia (one for each State/Territory) so it is a bucket list hike for serious mountain peak climbers. We were a little bit daunted by this knowledge as we weren't actually prepared for this type of hike but we had faith in our ability to do it so we figured we'd give it our best shot.

We spent the first day washing mud off the car/camper, washing and hanging out our clothes, and trying to plan our hike.

We walked some of the shorter hikes in the area to get our bearings and test our boots against the rocks, and spinifex and to get a feel for the challenge ahead and gave ourselves time to contemplate if we really wanted to do this.

Despite getting a little phone service around the office/store, the internet was very patchy but we got enough information, together with input from Skye, to realise that no one has ever published a GPX file for this hike. There is a ranger based in Alice Springs that has shared a Relive file but its impossible to use it as it only plays when online. So David spent most of the next day reviewing the contours and seeing if we could devise a suitable path. From previous travellers reviews/comments we'd learned not to go up the gorge (it becomes too steep sided and impassable), and to stick to the long way round by going up to the right and traversing the top of the ridges the whole way until making a big left hand turn where one ridge joins another. In fact from the campsites and office its almost impossible to make out which ridge leads to the summit - it isn't very distinctive.

The last thing we wanted was a failed attempt but Skye had warned us that 90% don't make it. Our packs only had 3L water bladders not 4L but we each carried a 600ml water bottle in our hands for the first flat 2km section of the hike from the carpark into the base of the gorge where we tucked them under a rock so that we would have extra water available to pick up for the last section of the return hike.

Starting early also meant we had to deal with the extremes of temperature range typical of winter in the West McDonnell Ranges so rather than take bulky jackets, we wore multiple layers of light weight technical fabrics. In our packs we carried various snacks in zip lock bags and a lunch wrap. We had waterproof matches, 2x handheld UHF radios, first aid, and our phones. With the Traveller app on our phone we had offline maps and the app shows your current position so we would always know where we were, could take photos, and could pick up phone service on the mountain due to the repeater station position half way up in case of emergency.

We checked the weather, the sun and moon rise and set times and realised that if we started very early we would have the advantage of walking with the light of a full moon setting just before sunrise.

The first section is an easy flat walk from the carpark into the gorge itself but then it instantly becomes challenging. Whilst the summit is to the left of the gorge, there is enough information about failed routes to know that you don't start up the left embankment. Instead you start climbing the peak immediately to the right of the gorge. On maps and in the cold face, it doesn't look logical and the temptation to take short cuts nags at you.

Early into our walk we could hear voices and at the top of our first peak we spotted a small group of 3 other walkers coming up behind us. When they took a slightly different route to us, we didn't let it deter us from our own chosen path. At times they seemed to get closer and at others they seemed to fall behind. We know we are very fast hikers so as they started to catch us we became curious and noticed they were finding ridges that we didn't seem to find. So they were making time on us whilst we were expending much more effort on complicated ascents and descents. It was genuine rock scrambling not hiking for the most part and often we had to back track to try another approach when one way became too overgrown or impassable.

But we made our checkpoints within our allocated time yet David had planned for us to cut across the gorge at a particular point to cut off a longer section along the ridge but it was very difficult to gain a true perspective of the terrain on the other side. When we made the decision to cross, the other walkers kept going. Our decision slowed us down immensely and we took 1 hour to travel 1km, meanwhile the other walkers stayed higher and seemed to find the elusive ridge line that skirts all the way around the top. They were able to walk more easily but travelled a greater distance. Our path was meant to take off about 2km but the others overtook us as we struggled through the dense overgrowth of bushes and rocks and trying to make forward progress on the side of a mountain. There was a lot of time spent trying to place each foot safely but we eventually made it across and into a clearer area and realised we hadn't put on our specially made spinifex gaiters (cut up supermarket shopping bags and duct tape!).

Once we put them on we realised how much easier it was to push through the overgrowth. Both of us had fallen over numerous times and landed in spiky spinifex and we had spinifex cuts all over. As I write this blog it is now Christmas (4 months since the hike and we are still picking spinifex out of our skin). The enjoyment was starting to wear thin and it was around this point that I started to struggle and slowed down. I was tired mentally and physically and I found the final section to the summit exhausting. The other walkers had got ahead of us and were chatting away constantly sounding happy! Who were these people?

We reached the summit a few minutes behind the other walkers. At the top there is very little space so we all had to sit together. They were lovely and we enjoyed our chat and took photos of one another and then respected one another's time to contemplate our achievements and admire the view in peace. There's a visitor book and some antennas and we all wondered how the infrastructure got there as it would be impossible to land a helicopter and impossible to hike it in. We agreed it must have been air dropped.

The other hikers were very young, possibly in their early 20's and they lived in Alice Springs and were hiking friends. This was not their first hike to Mt Zeil but this was their first successful mission. They had tried to come up the gorge the previous time but didn't make it.

Usually a return walk feels quicker and easier but not this one. It started to become very uncomfortable about 2 hours from the end and every time I placed my foot down I seemed to crumple and assumed my hip muscles had given up (hours later back at camp when I took off my boots I realised it was blisters!). I struggled so much in the final few kilometres that I actually gave up walking and slid down the rocks on my butt and there may have even been a few tears! Once at the bottom, we got our water bottles and I thought my body told me I had the energy to jog the final 2km back to the car but my feet wouldn't let me so it was a slow foot dragging limp instead and I took one final look back at the mountain and swore at it. Definitely the hardest hike I've ever done. You can see all the details in the Track Log below recorded on a Garmin Fenix 6 sports watch then uploaded the TCX file into the Traveller app. We both recorded the walk using the Hike mode on our Fenix's but one (the Fenix 5s) seemed to have a GPS failure of some kind and recorded very unusual data and had to be ignored. We also recorded the walk on an iPhone 13 via ExplorOz Tracker so this didn't pick up heartrate data so have chosen the Fenix 6 file to display here. Total distance 15.7km. Total elapsed time 10 hours 20m. Moving time 8 hours 52m. Start 7am, finish 5.20pm

After completing the hike, we took a rest day and did our online bookings on the NT national parks website and then left the following day making a 4 night stay at Mt Zeil Wilderness Park. It costs $22 per person per night but its well worth it for such a unique camping and hiking experience.

Leaving Mt Zeil Wilderness Park we turned back to the west and drove back towards Papunya and turned south down the Namatijira - Kintore Link Road, which is a spectacular drive past Haast Bluff and we eventually drove past the back end of Mt Zeil so could see it from the other side. We ended this section of our trip at Redbank Gorge where we started the next part of our adventure which we will cover in the next blog.
David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
Travelling fulltime in 2024
BlogID: 7806
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