Kidson Track (80 Mile to Well 33)

Friday, Dec 16, 2022 at 18:33

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

If you've been following our previous trip blogs you'll know that heading out on the Kidson Track was almost a spur of the moment change in our trip plan. Literally the day before we had been heading to Broome and up into the Kimberley but its just too chaotic for us and it seemed like a good shortcut to get to the West Macs which was on the trip plan. In just 600km we figured we could be at the junction of the Canning Stock Route (Kunawarritji Community & Well 33) and then we could pick up the easy Gary Junction Rd heading almost due east until reaching Kintore where we can pick up the Kintore - Namatjira Link to pop out into the middle of the West MacDonnell National Park near Glen Helen Gorge. Since we'd never done either route it seemed a good option.

Here's our Track Log of this journey and the following photos and stories.
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Whilst we knew we had an ExplorOz Trek Note published for the Kidson Track, we hadn't read it in preparation for this trip so at 80 Mile Beach we read through the trip planning & permit details that were documented followed the links to buy a permit online for $55 which came with some strict rules about what we could and couldn't do along the section that is now called "Nyangumarta Highway".

The Nyangumarta People, the Kulyakartu People and the Martu People have Native Title grant and claim to the whole of the Kidson Track. The Traditional Owners of these lands have agreements with several exploration companies for the reinstatement and use of this track, with strict protocols in place for exclusive use by the exploration companies.

For full tourist permit information, see here: http://www.anfwdc.asn.au/kidson_track.php

We paid, downloaded the PDF guidebook and made a phone call and had a chat with Greg the permit administrator in South Australia who told us we were only the 4th travel party to have contacted him to apply for a 2022 permit since the track was announced re-open a few weeks prior (end June 2022) but we explained that he had no reports to share about conditions because none of the other parties had travelled yet. We knew that track had been closed to tourists over the long COVID shut down affecting all Aboriginal lands and communities but this is also one of the least known tracks in the Great Sandy desert and prior to COVID was notoriously overgrown in sections so we knew it had the potential to be slow going. We were told however that the Martu Rangers had done a recent trip.



To be brutally honest here, the regulations listed on the permit are very discouraging if you're an adventurer. There are many areas listed as restricted areas that you cannot enter and once you start the trip you find it's heavily in use by mining machinery, trucks and their infrastructure. The two allotted camp sites are very unappealing. Both are exposed along the sides of the gravel highway. But the permit section of the trip (Nyangumarta Hwy) only covers half of the track and you could easily get past the Eastern boundary on day 1 if you got an early start.

Unfortunately, we didn't start down the Kidson Track until after 11am due to some long phone calls that had to be made before we lost phone service for who knew how long! We had seen the location of both camps on the map and they were in easy reach but didn't expect to them to be unsavoury. So heads up - don't bother camping in this section of the track.




The track itself is very easy going here beginning at Wallal Downs Station at the coast it's even scenic. The first 18km from the Great Northern Hwy is via a graded track (no stopping permitted). As you cross over the station boundary cattle grid and enter the Nyangumarta Hwy section the track isn't far off outback "highway" status but gradually becomes sandier and slightly narrower but is capable of taking mining trucks and equipment. In fact the main users of this track are drillers. Camp 1 is reached in a total of just 86km with very little of interest along the way other than track scenery and easy travelling. At camp 1 we found a drill crew stopping in to use the Track Care toilet (as did we). We had a quick chat, and discovered their site they have to travel over 9km from their site to this toilet (it's a very good toilet) so we watched them turn off down this marked private track to the drill area and we continued along the Nyangumarta Hwy feeling it was too early to stop and desperately hopeful that camp 2 would be more pleasant.



No far from here the permit states a site were there is no stopping or photos permitted within 1km either side of the point. You can be darn sure we tried hard to find what we were not meant to see - but there was nothing... at... all. So you're not missing anything.

Another 50km along and we busied ourselves with a bit of mapping survey work as some tracks didn't exist that were on our maps and we did find Djimakarra Soak - just a native soak in a depression between two tress adjacant to an old airstrip. The Camp Two (such boring names) was just 4.5km further to the east.



We were so disappointed when we came to Camp Two. It was completely full and being utilised by a noisy drill crew as their base. Industrial sized generators running a couple of dongas housing the kitchen mess crew and a dump of random equipment and parts and a heli pad - it was the last place on earth any camper would want to stay but given the permit we had little choice but clearly we could not stay in the middle of their camp. There was no where to get off the road in any direction either so we managed just to pull over on the opposite side of the track and attempt to ignore them and they us. It was very uncomfortable emotionally but little did we know that this camp operated all night as a drop off point for crews and equipment working shifts around the clock. Between 4pm when we arrived and 8am the next day we endured the sounds of a couple of shift changes and trucks rumbling along the corrugations in both directions for miles. This camp is 152km east of the Great Northern Hwy so you can easily keep moving east if you get an earlier start to your day than we did. We had also travelled slowly to ensure we gathered all we needed to update the track details and Places for our survey to accurately reflect the current permit access restrictions and accessible sights.



The following day, the next 100km is more of the same uneventful opportunities to explore, more restricted zones and finally you reach the junction of the Nabaru Roses Track. We thought long and hard about whether we wanted to head up this track - 51km each way. There was no information on the permit map other than stating it lead to an emergency airstrip. And we had no other information. With such an interesting name we were somewhat intrigued but the area around here was very unpleasant with old oil and fuel drums dumped in the bush, random industrial mess/rubbish and a lot of the vegetation was all burnt out. All we could imagine was that the Nyangumarta people used the airstrip to bring in visitors or that it was in use predominantly to bring in the mine/drill site workers so without any good reason to spend 100km round trip on nothing we move on to the east with only another 74km to go to get out of the Nyangumarta Hwy boundary and onto the original unmaintained section of the Kidson/WAPET track. It wasn't without some trepidation however due to the knowledge that no one had been out here for years.




From here however, the topographic map (EOTopo 2021) details showed more promising terrain coming up with a swing in the track heading south and then south-east into an area of 15m sand dunes and 300m low hills. The map shows the average height of sand dunes in the area, and their lineage, plus contours and elevation it was clear that there were only a few dunes to cross and the track weaved through the swales to enable crossing at their lowest points. So at this point we started to feel a little more hopeful that our enjoyment of the trip would return.



We had read in the Trek Notes that the dune crossings here had originally been capped on their approach and descent back in the 1960s to ensure the heavy trucks hauling the drilling equipment for the Kidson oil project could be transported through the desert sands but these days it is the erosion of this surface that has caused the most problem for travellers with some rather big washouts. One was just too deep and rutted for us to pass through and we took a bit of time to assess it - then opened our eyes at the top and found an alternative track through the sand and no problem for us.




We stopped to take photos from the dune vantage points as the countryside was very beautiful here with the track the only break in the spinifex.




From here onwards however, the track traverses some areas of very significant overgrowth which we found very slow going. We had already lost our UHF antenna aerial twice and it finally snapped at the thread, and the vehicle and camper were very scratched from the harsh vegetation that we had to push through. Regrowth along the track from recent fires was worse right along the track line. The shrubs were lush and green and in many places grew above the height of the vehicle and met from both sides at the top forming a tunnel which meant we had to drive carefully to avoid the handlebars of our mountain bikes on the roof of the camper being snagged in the canopy. There were some long sections of this followed by long open stretches so it was an interesting drive. It was impossible to photograph in the worst sections as we couldn't get out, but here are some where it wasn't too bad but was still tight to avoid the strong branches lining the track from scraping the car doors. These sections were also corrugated.




At one point, we were forced to stop as a small herd of camels were stopped in the middle of the track but we got them moving quickly and enjoyed spotting how they protected a calf by encircling it as the mob disappeared into the bush. It was only because we had stopped that we noticed a tree with a small sign nailed to it with the name Mick Latham and date 20-12-13 but no information. Still, we gave a moment of pause as surely this could only indicate it was a memorial to someone who had lost their life here.



The late afternoon light was the highlight again today and we spotted a white post clearly visible from the track and got out to take a look. This was the spot where Len Beadell's Gunbarrell Road Construction party had built the Callawa Track in July 1963 to intersect the Kidson Track in an east-west direction. It was now overgrown and impassable but the Beadell Family project in 2004 to mark the spot and include an information sign post was standing proud. We had stopped at the other junction that is near the start of the Nyganumarta Hwy but marked access denied.



And then not much further past this we unexpectedly came across a fascinating and beautiful memorial to someone who was obviously very special to his family and community. Sgt Tony (Squire) Moriarty. Tony was a member of the Active Reserve (Australian Army) who worked as a patrolman and Local Observer Element with Regional Force Surveillance (Pilbara). Sadly, he was killed in a motor vehicle accident whilst on patrol in this area in 1994. The memorial was erected on the 10th anniversary of his death (in 2004). Full details of the incident and his service history is at the memorial but I think its fitting here to show a photo of him for those that can't get to visit his memorial.



We noticed from the visitors book that to build this memorial the family and friends had come in from the southern end of the Kidson Track via Telfer and that would be the recommended way to visit here.

Only 3.6km from this memorial we arrived at Razor Blade Bore - the only documented campsite along this section of track and from our observations the only place you could possibly camp due to the overgrowth. In fact the final 1km approach to the camp was the densest of all we had encountered and we had very grave hopes that we would find a clearing at the camp but upon arrival we were very impressed with the site, the atmosphere and the makeshift campfire windbreak built with stacked metal casings of some sort.



However, our mattress was wet! Caused by packing up the camper with heavy dew the night before without using the magic blue plastic protector. Lesson learned. However, we got a great fire going and dried the mattress in the warm rather quickly and then decided to sleep out under one of the best night skies we'd seen during the trip (due to a later rise of the moon).



Another 40km on and we came to another junction of the Callawa Track with a Len Beadell marker. The Callawa was Len's last road so it was great to be seeing this track as we've either travelled the full length of/been to the main junctions of almost all of his roads now. This was is near the Percival Lakes areas and I had a nagging vague recollection there was some significance with this area that we should have explore here but I couldn't recall details and couldn't find anything so couldn't justify pushing through this unused section of the Callawa Track on our own. It sure was a lonely place.



From here the track became easy going as it swung to the south - no more overgrowth but single wheel tracks. Some camels, a few corrugations but the vegetation had changed and we saw no more dunes. However we heard a rattling sound from the trailer chains that didn't make sense and when we stopped to investigate found we'd lost a shackle so one chain was dragging. I admitted it was probably my fault for not tightening the shackle pin as tight as possible and David refused to drive off with one chain, impressing upon me why. He had something that would get us to Kunawarritji but he was hopeful the store would have a proper shackle. We then discussed how trailers can flip over the top of vehicles if they don't have the support of the crossed chain support in the event of a breakaway - it was very sobering but I was intrigued why so many horse floats I'd hired in the past only had 1 chain and we could only put it down to ignorance and negligence.

Our next stop was the Rocky Knoll which we climbed to enjoy the views from the top over the plains and tracks below and saw one vehicle driving west towards Telfer. At this point we started to feel like the Kidson was done, despite being another 98km left to reach Kunawarritji Roadhouse we knew we could now look forward to the next stage of the trip.

It was still only early afternoon when we reached the store and was warmly greeted by the store manager (I can't for the life of me recall her name, is it Julie?) - she is super organised, very friendly and after we'd topped up our fuel and purchased a few things from the shop we got chatting. We commented on the changes since our last visit back in 2010 and in particular noted the modern fridges with a things like rockmelon, lettuce, avocadoes, bananas and even a few tell-tale brands of "vegan" foods. She mentioned there were a few vegan staff members living in the community.

We then took off to setup camp at Well 33 - but the layout had changed! The road is now on the opposite side to the Well than when we last saw it in 2002 and there's now a good toilet. The site has improved and was very pleasant. We weren't the only campers though so we setup away from them as they seemed to be together and we later caught up for a chat which was very interesting as they were dentists from Sydney and one had a 300 Series Landcruiser and had quite a few good stories to tell. They had come across the Gary Junction Rd from the east the same way we were headed so we noted their recommendations. As we walked back to our camper, another vehicle arrived (presumably a staff member from the community noted due to the lack of camping equipment). I then noticed she was fussing over her banana and that she was holding a jar of Mavyers Peanut Butter - ahaha! She was the vegan staff member. So we got talking and it turned out she had dropped her banana full of peanut butter onto the dirt and couldn't wash it off as she had no water. I invited her over to our camp and we got talking. A while later another community staff member arrived as this was their favourite after work sunset spot to unwind. This lady was the school teacher. We discussed the local issues and the two ladies shared so much information and patiently explained the local issues and where the reality lies in what can be done. It was so interesting and the more questions we asked and the bigger the issues we probed the longer Gina stayed. The school teacher left but Gina camped out in her swag. We kept talking the next day until she had to go to work but insisted she needed us to come and see the work the rangers were doing. She said she would text us once she could get approval for us to enter the community in the next few days if we didn't mind staying put for a while.



We had a lot of work to catch up on and were happy to stay still for a few days. It was a peaceful spot and we had a bit of internet service so we were able to be productive. In fact, having used the new iPhone 14 across the Kidson there were some anomalies David found that he wanted to resolve in the app so his plan was to write and publish an app update whilst we were camped there. I had tons of photos and videos to edit and I just wanted to relax and read and sit outside for a few days rather than sit in the vehicle.



Over the course of the next 3 days that we were there we saw no tourists at all. The only time any vehicles came past Well 33 from either direction was when the RFDS plane landed (the camp is close to the air strip so it flew low right above us and was a bit exciting but sorry no photos!). A small convoy of vehicles came from the community to meet it, stayed and hour then returned after the plane took off again.

We got the call a few days later and met the Martu rangers with Gina and all went well and there seemed agreement that ExplorOz Traveller would finally be the solution they were looking for. Mostly due to its ease of syncing the waypoints (Places) they created in the field to appear on their other devices used by the ranger team and admin staff. Once we explained how that could easily be done by all using the one ExplorOz account it all fell into place. The data syncing across devices was something they couldn't achieve with OziExplorer. They have internet and Gina is the IT expert and it was great to see how our application could be useful to this community and their needs (they are gathering elders stories about locations and then they go out on country to locate them and confirm once found by creating waypoints). When that device comes back to the office they don't have to do a thing expect connect to their community Wifi and the data syncing saves days of work for Gina in admin to review the data and apply other notes - our system allows them to add private notes, photos and other collection details they want to capture and share with the community. It was a good feeling to see this application being used in this way and most of the places of interest to them were rockholes which they were surprised to see many of which were already in our database and Places system. Even they didn't know all the names or had different names to the database so the content that existed together with the content they could create and edit was a huge leap forward in documenting their past and present.

But eventually, it was time for us to move on. The next stage of our trip was to cross the Gary Junction Rd and the track south into the West MacDonnell National Park via the Kintore Link Road. More details coming in our next blog.

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David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
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Always working not enough travelling!
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