One Thousand Nine Hundred and Twenty Seven Kilometres. Four States. Two Deserts. Seven Geocaches. It's been a big week!
On a crisp Monday morning, we tried to wind our body clocks back to 'rise before the flies to eat breakfast in peace' time. It took a few more days to get the rhythm right. Loading up on groceries at TJ's Roadhouse, and a full 120ish litres of diesel, we turned west and pointed Gary at the desert.
We wound our way on gravel, corrugations, the occasional sandy dune through the red scrubland that marks the transition into the Strzelecki Desert. The dry air of the Sturt National Park. The pleasantly mild high twenty-something air temperature and thousands and thousands and thousands of flies. At least they were the little annoying ones and not the big bitey ones.
We did a little hook turn through South Australia and found ourselves at Cameron Corner (Queensland). Adam was last here with his Nana and Grandad when he was nine years old. The corner plinth is the same. The red dirt is the same. The pub looks the same. Maybe the dog fence is in better condition. Two bucks a litre for diesel. What a spot. We decided to stay the night.
The pub is festooned with the caps of a thousand visitors, rank slides and unit patches, and signs everywhere 'Do not throw for the dog, no matter how soppy his eyes get. $20 donation to RFDS penalty.' The dog will bring a scrap of bark, or even a rock and plonk it expectantly at your feet. Hard to resist.
We wandered around the desert for a half an hour and got a three state multi-cache geocache (number 22), before returning to the pub to drink beers as the sun set. We ended up hanging out with a group of motorcyclists from Geelong who were on an off-road outback adventure on their dirt bikes. They began as eight, but were down to seven after one of their number hit a kangaroo the day before and needed to be air lifted to Adelaide Hospital. They were also bound for the Strzelecki Track the next day, continuing on in solidarity despite their injured companion.
We almost beat the flies the next dawn. The desert sky gets more beautiful every morning. It is a very different kind of light to the coast. Tuesday was a long day on the road. Crossing cattle stations, dodging cows, cresting dunes, dodging bulldust holes, gliding across corrugations, juddering across corrugations. Trying to find that perfect balance of tyre pressures that allows smooth travel over the corrugations while protecting sidewalls from sharp shredding rock. Gary likes 20/25 (psi front/rear) sometimes and 25/30 at others.
Across the Strzelecki Desert we drove. Then eventually we hit the Track. More of a wide, well maintained, very occasionally sealed road than a track nowadays. The development of oil and gas resources out near Innamincka means we passed a couple of sections with a water truck, grader, roller trio improving the road. Still vast, empty, arid, sparse and beautiful though. We stopped off by the Strzelecki Creek Crossing for Geocache 23 and continued out southwards run.
A desert is, by its very nature and definition, desolate. That makes stumbling upon the intensity of life that surrounds an oasis of life giving water all the more remarkable. In the middle of the desert is an artesian bore - Montecollina Bore. Sunk in 1903 (unconfirmed, couldn't find much info on it), the bore spills warm (46 degrees!) fresh water into a series of cooling ponds that have evolved into a wetland home to a variety of plant and bird species utterly absent from the rest of our desert crossing. There was even a solitary duck swimming in the first lagoon when we were there. Standing in the cool air downwind of the water, seeing the white ancient ocean-bed sand and scraggly dune shrubs, it is easy to feel like the beach must be just over the next sand ridge, instead of hundreds of kilometres away.
After lunch at Montecollina Bore (and finding geocache number 24), we continued along the Strzelecki Track to turn southwards at Mount Hopeless and follow the eastern flank of the Flinders Ranges. This drive along Mount Hopeless Road (apart from the 20 km north of Balcanoona which was really, really (Balladonia Road bad) corrugated) was one of the greatest drives we have done to date. Out of the sprawling desolate red earth and gentle hills of cattle stations, you see the northernmost end of the Flinders Ranges slowly rise above the horizon. The road turns away to the east, then back again, each time offering a different reveal of the sometimes rounded, sometimes jagged, striated red and yellow and purple and brown mountains rising into the sky. Desert gives way to increasingly wider creek lines. Sometimes there is a friendly cow. The Ranges grow and grow and consume the western horizon in stark contrast to the flat nothingness of the Lake Frome salt pan to the east. What a gorgeous drive.
We wound our way along the edge of the Vulkathunha-Gammon Ranges National Park to the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary, a privately held conservation reserve in the northern section of the mountains (and another awesome place to visit recommendation by Grandma Davies). As dusk approached we got to see a couple of Yellow Footed Rock Wallabies (one made Gary test his stopping skills, and escaped with all his tail fur intact) around the place before pulling up, weary but safe after out desert crossing at Arkaroola village. Sunset amidst the ranges was a real treat - golden light on every hue of brown and red in the rock around us. We made our camp on dry rocky ground and slept a well earned sleep.
This part of the Flinders Ranges is still basically desert. Dry dry (dry) desert. Stony ground, empty creeklines and surprise at every animal bigger than an insect that has found a way to survive, or even thrive out here. Rising early to watch dawn creep its way slowly down the sides of the surrounding mountains was very special. We got shuttled to a trailhead and hiked about six difficult rocky, slippery and dry kilometres up and over a ridgeline back to the village. The view from the top was worth it. Not the highest peak around by any means, but high enough to give a full panorama of the surrounding rolling hills and slopes that make up these mountains. Trees cling to ridgelines. Dappled sunlight from the occasional cloud turned the undulating hillsides into blankets of red brown and drab green. To the east, beyond a few ridges, the flat salty expanse of Lake Frome. South, and far below, the winding gravel road we drove in on, and more peaks. North in the distance the desert we had crossed the day before. West the village nestled amongst the surrounding mountains. A dry and slippery hike down and a well earned cold beverage at the bar before an afternoon relaxing and hoping for the sky to clear.
That night we were treated to a stargazing observatory experience. Clear and crisp, the moon below the horizon, the stars were out in all their glory. Away from the light pollution of civilisation, we were treated to a grand view of the heavens. Greek alphabet constellation stars. Globular clusters and binary stars that seemed like single lights to the naked eye were revealed in their glory through the 2 400 x magnifying power of a telescope. We saw the Mexican Hat galaxy, fluorescing hydrogen gas clouds, stars of red (cool), yellow (warm) and blue (hot) and finished off with a view of Jupiter and her moons. The night sky out here is glorious, captivating and entrancing. Dreams that night were of distant worlds, alien life, and a little bit of Star Trek.
Rising early and finishing breakfast before the flies, we set out westwards for Leigh Creek to resupply. We drove a winding road through Italowie Gorge. Large white eucalypt trunks contrast with the red rock to create a sense of wonder that trees so big can grow out here. More cattle stations, the Aboriginal Community of Nepabunna and more cattle stations passed us by. This is the real outback. Communities holding onto culture amidst a land that has been ravaged by decades of pastoralism. The contrast between nature reserve and station is stark and heart sickening. The cattle industry continues to exploit the land to satisfy our societal craving for beef and leather. It isn't just the Amazon Rainforest (def