Outback 3 Day of Plenty
In Australia's remotest regions, you can't necessarily rely on locals for up-to-date information about road conditions. Where lives and roads are hard going, people take things as they come, deal with them, and quickly move on. And urban wusses, even if equipped with spare wheels and car parts and multiple tools and provisions, are prone to over-consult.
Months before, I had spoken to John in the Northern Territory roads department. He was quite clear: if we wanted to reach the Queensland border in a day, it would be quicker to drive back from Ross River to Alice on bitumen, then shoot 70 kilometres up the Stuart Highway to the Plenty Highway, the first 80-odd kilometres of which are sealed. Further, but quicker. The Plenty is graded every month or so, he told me, and has traffic on it. (I think in this context that means a few vehicles a day.) So, it should be OK, apart from occasional bulldust hole (see here), he concluded. The tourist information office in Alice gave me a useful information sheet about diesel and other supplies available at stations along the 400-500 kilometres of Plenty Highway in the Territory.
The alternative, Arltunga Tourist Drive, roughly and more directly north across country from Ross River to the Plenty, was a whole heap of unknown as far as conditions and hence travel time were concerned. Don't be fooled by the 'Tourist' bit: we saw one crazy caravan-puller in 100 kilometres. Yes, we chose this route. My friend hadn't come all this way to zip along sealed roads. Where was my sense of adventure?
What clinched the debate was talking to a couple of blokes in the bar at Ross River Homestead. 'Oh, yous'll be right', they said, or something similar, when asked about the Arltunga route. They asked, as people always do, if we had a 4WD. As if we'd have been contemplating such lunacy in an ordinary car. One of them had just come down that way. My friend was confident.
We left Ross River Homestead at first light. I was excited and apprehensive. It was going to be a long, rough day, with a camping challenge at the end of it. Beyond the turning on to the Binns Track – a name not on any of our maps – we could just about make out the tortured twisted limestone of the Bitter Springs Formation. Trees silhouetted against a lightening sky sat atop jagged-edged ridges of the hardest limestone. The name Goat Camp Dam was appealing, but we didn't go there.
My friend was at the wheel, the rising shining sun directly in his eyes once the Binns Track turned northeast. Progress was extremely slow. And bumpy. The website for Arltunga Historical Reserve claims the site can be easily reached in a 2WD. I disagree: you would risk all kinds of damage and it would take a long time to cover the 30+ kilometres beyond the bitumen.
The fact sheet (see here), includes information about the history of the place and the visitor centre. There are self-guided walks around the site. We were passing too early, but neither did we have time to explore.
There was supposed to be a short-cut from Arltunga to Ambalindum, but it had been disappeared, and instead we had to travel three sides of a rectangle, via Claraville homestead. There hadn't been many roos on our trip so far, but this morning we came across four within an hour. The landscape was more vegetated than I'd imagined. I didn't take many photographs at all during the first few hours, which is a sure indication of the stress of either time pressure or road conditions or both.
Just before Old Ambalindum Homestead there used to be an old goat track heading north towards the Plenty, which would have saved time and bone rattling. I know Cattlewater Pass Track was still passable in 2010, although overgrown and rutted, but I don't know when it was officially closed. I wonder how much of the track remains today. So we had to travel further west, back towards the Stuart Highway, before taking Pinnacle Road up to the Plenty east of Gemtree. At the start we spotted two Major Mitchells Cockatoos. The 'road' crosses land belonging to the Alatyeye Aboriginal Corporation, but doesn't require a permit. This stretch of a narrow, poorly maintained track was gated. Chaining the gates was a challenge, as always, since the method is always different. My notes describe the landscape as a mixture of 'dingly dells and flat plain' in the approach to the Plenty, which we reached with great relief at 10:05.
The Plenty in the Territory was upgraded from cattle track to 'highway' in the 1960s. Queensland followed suit a little while later with the continuation of the Plenty from the border east to Boulia, known as the Donohue Highway. Alice Springs to Boulia is about 800 kilometres.
We headed 8 km back west to Gemtree, where you can fossick for zircon and garnet. The shop had more interesting bottles than jewellery, retrieved by fossickers I presume. My friend bought some stones and we were on our way by 10:40. I put my foot down on the last 20 km of bitumen for two days.
A sign said 430 kilometres to the Queensland border: our destination, Tobermorey Station, is a couple of kilometres shy of the line. Right there and then, it seemed a long way off. But the Plenty Highway turned out to have a much more consistent surface than we'd dared hope, and we were able to maintain speeds of at least 80 km/hr much of the way.
This anthill – or is it a termite mound? – was twice as tall as my friend.
Six kilometres from Jervois Station we discovered why the Highway is so-called, as we crossed the wide and dry Plenty River.
I had already noticed several damaged tyres discarded by the side of the track. Some people go to great lengths not to take their rubbish home with them.
Not much further down the road we crossed the Marshall River, which looked much the same as the Plenty. We pulled off at Jervois to fill up with diesel. I liked their novel way of asking drivers not to raise dust. Despite being much further from civilisation, their fuel was cheaper than at Gemtree. They reported about 20 cars a day stopping by to refuel.
The next impressive anthill was three times taller than my friend.
We had lunch by Arthur Creek, fed by Martha Creek, and even farther creeks I hoped might also rhyme but didn't. There were more flies than ever, so there was no lingering. Here, low trees looked grey-green and wizened, rather like olive. Landforms and vegetation evolved as ever.
Soon we were in a different bioregion – Mitchell Grass Downland. This landscape has never been cleared, and resembles the prairies of North America, the pampas of South America, the steppes of Eastern Europe and Asia, and the savanna of Africa. Which plant species flourish here is determined by seasonal rainfall patterns, drought and deeply cracking clay soils. Mitchell Grass is equipped with two types of root: a shallow network, and long vertical roots that penetrate much deeper below the surface. Some plants can live as long as 30 years.
Other plants have developed different mechanisms to help them survive long periods of drought. Some, such as acacia, grow in more sheltered spots that retain moisture for longer. Others shut down during drought but exhibit a short burst of life following rain. The four species of Mitchell Grass are eaten by Kangaroos, Emus, cattle and sheep, and offer refuge to birds, reptiles and small marsupials.
Small animals live in cracks in the soil. Many of the birds are seed- or insect-eaters and forage around the grass tussocks, where they also nest. The hills are part of the Tarlton Range.
From then on the country was flatter and scrubbier. Names tell stories: Dead Horse Soak; Heartbreak Bore; Last Hope Bore; Cockroach Waterhole; Battle Creek. We were quietly confident by now of arriving at Tobermorey in time to get the tent up before sundown, which was an enormous relief.
We arrived at 16:45 and paid our dues – $25 (no electricity). There was ample time for umming and ahhing about where to pitch the tent – there was no escaping the sound of the generator – and then struggling to do the deed. Several other campers were already established. Once it was done, we sat like pros, supping beer and watching the sun go down. I prepared supper: chorizo, spring onion, tomato, lettuce, carrot and chickpea salad, followed by cheese and biscuits, and chocolate to celebrate the success of a challenging day. There was soon no sign of life from our fellow campers. We settled down in our bags and read for a bit by torchlight. The day had started at 05:15 and eyelids were heavy. Lights-out was at about 21:00, if not before.
I slept with my women's club alongside me. Bound in multiple layers, including hoodie and penguin blanket, I barely stirred. It was 06:05 when the sounds of cattle mustering brought me back to reality: helicopter, quad bike, and 4-truck cattle road train manoeuvring in the homestead yard. There was a lot of dust, and my friend was keen to pack up quickly and breakfast on the border. Which is more or less what we did, except photographs were needed of yet another new experience plus a few old favourites.