Outback 3 The real thing
Travelling northwest from Kings Canyon Resort, on another fine morning, we left the George Gill Range behind us as the bitumen ran out. Most place names were unfamiliar. This was the Outback proper, which may seem an odd thing to say, having been deep into the Northern Territory for days. But foreign tourists vastly outnumbering Australians; 'resorts', not motel or pub accommodation; and coaches in car parks had a lot to do with it.
Soon there were tiny yellow melons by the bitumen. I say bush melons; you say paddy melons, not to be confused with cute little marsupials (pademelons). We wondered why these hadn't been eaten. It is said they taste bitter and are poisonous. We've seen Major Mitchell's Cockatoos tucking into them, but they're probably best avoided unless desperate. They're another invasive species, having been brought to Australia by the Afghans as food for their camels. Further on, roadside melons were bigger, green and mottled.
Shortly afterwards, we reached what we believed to be the furthest point west we'd been since living in Brisbane. Larapinta Drive suddenly makes a right-angled bend, heading northeast rather than northwest. We turned down an unsigned track just before the bend so we would get a little further west – just because we could. In fact, this was a pointless exercise: much later, when we looked at the bigger picture on a good old paper map, we realised we'd been much further west at Kata Tjuta!
Just round the bend is a lookout with no name where we stopped for breakfast. Today for breakfast we were joined by a Hooded Robin, fluffed up in the cold. We looked back to the ranges whence we'd come. While the sun is still relatively low, areas of different vegetation are easier to pick out.
The track was badly corrugated in places and we tended to keep to the sandy verge, which eventually widens the track, of course. The map indicated numerous oil and gas wells to either side of the road, part of the Mereenie Oil and Gas Field, but I didn't even spot the private access roads, such was our concentration on steering the smoothest course.
The vegetation evolved, as it does, as well as the lie of the land. Desert Oaks returned; the colour of Mulga varied. We gazed out over Missionary Plain; and couldn't agree which landscape feature was Haasts Bluff. From Kings Canyon to Gosse Bluff is described as the Singleton Land System, 100,000 square kilometres of Central Australia consisting of gently undulating sand plains with dotted low trees and shrubs and occasional larger trees. (A land system is defined as an area through which there is a recurring pattern of topography, soils and vegetation. I wish I had a land system guide* to everywhere I travel.)
Our coffee stop was silent but for the wind, the flies and Zebra Finches busying in the bushes. I have decided that their call resembles Squeaky Squirrel, one of my first-born's squeezy baby toys. It was warm: 23 degrees. At Katapata Gap we had hoped to divert off Larapinta Drive to the northeast to link up with a circular track around Gosse Bluff. There was no evidence of a track; another example of those minor routes that appear on maps but are absented from reality without warning or explanation, thwarting plans and deflating one's sense of adventure.
There weren't any camels to be seen but we did spot a group of skittish Brumbies. It has been estimated that there are 400,000 feral horses across Australia, most of them in Northern Territory and Queensland. Horses arrived with the First Fleet and were later imported for racing. They often escaped through poorly maintained fences, or were left to fend for themselves when pastoralists moved on. These would not come out into the open so I could photograph them better.
At the junction with Namatjira Drive we parted company with Larapinta Drive and headed north to Tnorala Conservation Reserve, where there is a more-than-impressive impact crater.
Inside the crater it felt like I'd always imagined Conan Doyle's [The] Lost World to be. I read the book as a teen, transfixed by the tale of an expedition to a remote plateau in the Amazon Basin. Gosse was beautiful and intriguing and set apart from the rest of the region's geomorphological history by its spectacular creation. Scientists struggled at first to explain the feature, but they now believe that, 142.5 million years ago, a comet with a diameter of 600 metres crashed to earth right here. It blasted a crater about 20 kilometres across, and shock waves from the impact shattered rock strata up to thousands of metres below ground and turned them on end. Since the event, the land surface has been lowered considerably by erosion. The remnant crater is 5 km in diameter.
I wondered why the scientists think it was a comet and not a meteorite that hit the ground. Apparently, no small meteoritic remnants have been found on site. The comet's gas and ice constituents would have evaporated on impact, and dust and small rock particles would have been obliterated.
There are impact craters dotted all over Australia, and several around Alice Springs, including at Henbury, Harts Range and Arltunga, all of them from meteorites apart from Gosse (which, incidentally, was named by explorer Ernest Giles – of Kata Tjuta fame – in honour of Harry Gosse, explorer William Gosse's brother, who had travelled in these parts while working on the overland telegraph line from the Alice). Small crater-forming meteorites frequently hit earth, every 20 years or so. It is calculated that there might be a life-threatening one every 5000 years, but something on the scale of the Gosse Bluff comet only once in 15 million years.
The Traditional Owners have a completely different explanation for the crater's creation, but it is no less extraordinary and also has its origins in the heavens. A Dreaming story tells that 'a group of sky-women danced as stars in the Milky Way'. One of them placed her baby in a wooden carrier to the side of where the women danced. As the dancing became more frenetic, the carrier shifted and fell to earth. The force of the wooden basket hitting the rocks shaped them into the circular feature Tnorala, a sacred site to the Western Arrernte people.
The 4WD track into the crater needs care as it is rutted and stony in places. On our map, the track extended further into the crater than it did in reality. At the end of it there's something called a rockhole, which is blue, suggesting a waterhole. There's also an oil well marked. These were the parts we couldn't reach. In 1988 the crater's centre was drilled for oil and gas exploration purposes: fortunately, there were insufficient resources for commercial development.
I learned this from a management plan for Gosse Bluff produced by the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory in 1997, then amended eight years ago. I got a lot of answers from this document. Tourist access to parts of the crater has been restricted out of respect for Aboriginal sanctity and to protect native flora and fauna. Old tracks within the crater have been rehabilitated to prevent erosion, and the track around the outside of the crater is retained for service access only. I am all in favour of such restrictions: I just wish I'd known about them before less noble reasons popped into my head.
There are at least five rare plants found in the crater, including the Desert Grass Tree. These occur beyond the tourist access. There are some outside the crater, but only to the south. Despite being a big fan of Grass Trees, I didn't manage to get a photograph. And so the Desert Grass Tree is added to an ever-growing list of failed photographic opportunities.
We climbed a small rocky hillock on the floor of the crater, from the top of which there was a 360-degree view of the walls. This little hill isn't a central core: I think it's an outlier from the walls, although I can't confirm this.
Not much further up Namatjira Drive was Tylers Pass Lookout, from where we could look at the remarkable Gosse Bluff from a new angle. Round yet another big bend in the road was another different world – the West MacDonnell Ranges.
This is the Sonder Land System, and that's Mt Sonder behind the National Park sign. Sandstone and quartzite ranges boldly cut through this part of Central Australia. River Red Gums guard sandy valleys. I instantly liked this landscape.
We were staying the night at Glen Helen Resort. Once again I am inclined to put inverted commas around the word resort. It was a friendly place, and in a beautiful setting, a stone's throw from the Finke River at the foot of a dramatic sandstone cliff. But the cabin was basic and not cheap. Dinner in the restaurant, on the other hand, was unexpectedly good, although pricey. Glen Helen Gorge has been eroded by the Finke and a deep hole scoured where the water forced its way through a narrow gap. The waterhole is permanent, and the Gorge can only be reached by boat. Unfortunately, you can view it from above during a helicopter ride, which of course disturbs many more people than justifies this relatively new tourist 'activity'… as well as intruding on a large colony of Black-footed Rock-wallabies, a species in decline elsewhere in arid regions but partial to the Gorge's rocky slopes.
We walked to the Gorge entrance in late afternoon sunshine. Black Kites swooped from dizzying heights; Coots and Grebes resurfaced with beaks full of fish every time. There were rock reflections and backlit grasses. We wandered back for a beer on the terrace overlooking the Finke.
The Resort owner kept birds in cages, which never seems right to me, but they were happy enough, the Cockatiels and Budgies and Gouldian Finches. He had a pet Galah who was free but didn't leave. He'd just been away for two weeks and she was pleased to see him, sitting on his shoulder like a pirate's parrot. Her name was G and she didn't like women. Later that evening, after we'd eaten and were listening to a good guitarist from Byron Bay, G came into the bar. She sat on various men's shoulders, including my friend's. She liked having the back of her neck rubbed: if you stopped, she tapped her beak on your shoulder to continue. Such treatment made her look sleepy, but she was still in the bar when we left for the night.
* On this part of the trip we used A Field Guide to Central Australia: A Natural History Companion for the Traveller by Penny van Oostserzee (Gecko Books)
This post was last edited on 29 November 2015