Central australia, Travel

Central Australia Road trip 10 Palm Valley

Imagine a primeval landscape, a forest all around you, but the trees are not the eucalypts and flowering plants of today but instead you are painfully brushing away the stiff fronds of brilliant green cycads, while ramrod straight palms tower over you and then suddenly there is the roar of a T REX. If you can picture this, you can pretty well visualise the scenery of Palm Valley. 
Mark of Sandrifter Safaris collected us at 6:45 this morning from outside our townhouse. The new moon was low in the pre dawn sky. It was chilly as we waited just off the road. Our first stop was on Larapinta drive, just as the sun rose over the gap, and the range before us immediately lit up into brilliant orange. While watching, we all enjoyed munching a fried egg and bacon rolls with some Australia Afternoon tea steaming away in our metal mugs. Yummy. Then we were on our way to Palm Valley. It’s about 120km from Alice and most of the trip is on bitumen but the last bit is a challenging 4WD including climbing over boulders, sand and river beds. There is precious little water around now but the Finke River is still very impressive. Firstly it’s wide, wider than the Sandover. Mmmm perhaps that doesn’t help. At least a 100 meters wide with immense red river gums scattered in the river bed. We cross confidently if not easily tailing briefly in sand before climbing up and out. The Land driver is a terrific car, comfortable, good take off angles, and air suspension which produces a prolonged fart when the car is stopped after a bumpy section.
We turn off from the road adjacent to the Finke , now along the road beside Palm Creek. There are some wonderful views to be had and we frequently pulled over to take photographs of the hills and river below us. The creek has carved out the granite, sandstone of this area into weird formations of abrupt stone, they stand stark and orange in the morning light. 

Mark dropped us of to walk along the beautiful Cycad Gorge. It is a space, silent and still, the cycads visible on the rock face. Pillars and immense blocks of rock, had split out from the cliff and lay shattered on the valley floor. 

We arrived at the parking area situated at Palm Creek.. There are four walks we could choose from. We opted for a five kilometre walk that went up onto the escarpment, along the cliff with views into Palm Creek , then turning southwards across the plateau, then dropping down along a narrow rocky track back down to the creek bed. We followed this circuit track with Mark, chatting as we do about all sorts of things. By now it was warmer so we had tucked away our jumpers as we walked along. It is a very beautiful walk but with slight squinting and a liberal dose of imagination, you can almost hear the dinosaurs that walked this same area, between the same species of palms and cycads we are seeing right now. The creek bed is rocky not sandy or of loose stone, it’s granite and then sandstone, the fine beds are twisted or more accurately tortured into swirls and folds by the geological forces that have made this place. Yet despite all this geological tom foolery, the Finke River and Palm Creek have had unaltered courses for 190 million years, simply eroding the rocks and even mountains that had the cheek to appear. 
After our walk we had a splendid lunch, sitting on the rock, smoothed by eons of water and tumbling stones, we each had a wrap of corn beef and salad, followed by carrot cake and monster strawberries. Above us, the palm trees, livistonias, shimmered in the sunlight. Magic.
After lunch, we drove back to the main highway, turning off to Owen Springs. This is a fascinating relic of early NT history and business enterprise. First built in 1869, it was the first homestead built in Central Australia. Early explorers had fired up the imagination of some men to become pastoralists. Gilbert built a timber structure on the Hugh River, just north of Laurence Gorge, and grew wheat on the rangelands hereabouts. He had three wonderful years, glowing reports from explorers such as Giles, seemed confirmed by the rain and resulting crops. Then ten years of drought. This was not a successful venture so the property was sold  to Thomas Elder. Yep, Elder of Real Estate fame. But is wasn’t real estate Elder was primarily interested in, it was transport. The Ghan train connected Port Augusta to Oodnadatta by 1891 but would not be extended to Alice Springs until 1929. So for nearly thirty years, here was  a situation when transport was up for grabs between Oodnadatta and virtually everywhere in the centre. The government was encouraging entrepreneurs to enter the field. South Australia still had a lot of camels left over from the ones used to explore the centre. Elder put it together, and bought a vast number of camels and used his properties to service transport needs. The camel trains went from Oodnadatta to Curtin Springs to Owen Springs, then on to Stuart ( Stuart was the name of nowadays Alice Springs until 1939)’ then everywhere else including Hermannsburg and Arltunga. There was absolutely no connection between Darwin and Alice till 1942 when American military Engineers constructed the modern extension of the Stuart Highway northwards for the relief of Darwin. 

Owen springs passed to various owners, including Kidman for a time, until in 1999, the property was acquired by the NT government. Though it was a ruin, it’s roof long gone, it remained of great interest to history buffs, and so by 2002, it was repaired and its walls resurfaced to protect them. And so it stands today, with the Hugh River behind it, and the range terminating briefly at Laurence Gorge. This route pioneered by McDouall Stuart, remained the main path for not only Elder and his camel trains, but motor cars beginning the journey in 1929. And in 1957, the first tourist bus to Alice Springs. This route to Alice via Owen Springs continued until the construction of the current Stuart highway.
Elders camels were instrumental in supplying the construction equipment and supplies for the original old Ghan railway. It was only in 1929 that the Ghan finally was extended to Alice Springs ( then Stuart…. Confusing isn’t it). The camels were also used for building the overland telegraph. No wonder Elder grew wealthy from his transport empire.  

After our exploration of the old homestead, we carried along the Owen Springs road all the way to Stuart Highway, then back to Alice. What a fabulous day, full of history, nature, landscapes and great company.

Central australia, Central Australia Work

Central Australia Road Trip number 9 Finke

  It’s 3:40 pm on Thursday afternoon and I’m sitting in the RFDS turboprop as it starts its propellor. We are on the way back to Alice Springs after a stint at Finke. Jennifer drove to Papunya, arguably the capital of the modern aboriginal art movement. We have kept in touch each evening by phone as there is no mobile cover or internet here at Finke. I’m looking forward to seeing her photographs of Haasts Bluff which is on the way. 

Finke was originally built to service the construction and later imagined as a base for the ongoing repairs required for the original Ghan Railway. It fulfilled its function and grew, acquiring churches, police station, post office, a hotel, and many houses for the workers and travellers. Many of these buildings are still here but used but not for their initial purpose. Darren is a white fella who runs the local store and is absolutely passionate about Finke, it’s people, history and possibilities. He accompanied Lana ( nurse manager at Finke) and I into the old Hotel. After opening the front door we walked past the old serving rooms and bars, into the large hall at the back of the building. On display are many of the local artists works. Its planned that this will be an art gallery, a dedicated space but a commercial one where tourists and art lovers can buy local creations. 

I have had the great good fortune to meet many of these artists in my short stay in Finke. Kevin makes wire sculptures, he firmly weaves and twists, wire, into horse and rider, then clothes and paints them. These are tremendously realistic sculptures. I met a lady, who makes tiny coolamon. You would know the coolamon is the food and carry all wooden bowl, aboriginal women carry when gathering bush food, filling them with witches grubs, bush tomatos, and other yummy foods. Her tiny coolamon are beautifully engraved with hot wire, she creates complex designs by burning them into the curved wooden surface. 

Many local painters are also represented, one particularly fine young female artist, who has two delightful young children, produces paintings of bold, confident design and rich, “ in your face” colours. She has he own version of the “ seven sisters story “ which I’d like to see if I have the opportunity to come back. 

Many of the paintings are full of story. Stories of movement through the land, of encounters with dreamtime and bush creatures and of the relationships between tribes. Stories of forbidden love and the consequences of going against law.The Aboriginal people who now live in Finke were not the first inhabitants of the town. However, they lived in the lands far and all around Finke but as time went by, they moved into the houses here, and now the local Aboriginal corporation owns the town. The Aboriginal corporation aims to fully realise the potential of this settlement.

The hotel will become an Art Gallery and a place where artists can actually work, making it a living breathing art space. The police station and post office will be restored and be reborn into new uses. There is a plan to create a museum about the Ghan. The building of it, its maintenance , and its many characters both black and white who worked on the line. Legends about the two floods in 1973 and 1974 that put paid to having the Ghan in its then location, and then getting the line moved eastwards. The floods washed away the railway bridge over the Finke River….. not once, but twice! Darren told us that there is a ton of memorabilia, old photographs and loads of stories that should and could be housed for tourists to look at and experience. This will provide job opportunities and a chance for white and black fellas to be together.
The Finke River is the oldest river in the world and there are plans to make one of the restored buildings into a natural history museum devoted to this awesome waterway. Jennifer has seen it in full flood while I could only imagine what it might be like as I drove over it’s now dusty river bed. It would be a hundred meters across. A few hardy tall river gums are spaced it, gnarled and twisted by loss of branches in previous floods. 

There are serious moves afoot to build a a camping and accomodation area outside the town because as the town itself is “dry” alcohol cannot be served or consumed here. There will be a lot to do for any future visitor. One activity mooted is to walk out in the bush with the old ladies, as they gather bush tucker. I met a wonderful young woman who has turned her health around big time. She decided to live and play and eat, Aboriginal style. She spends her weekends walking in the bush with her mums, hunting for bush foods and meats, camping out in the desert with them, sharing stories and time together. There are enough older ones doing this sort of thing here that the prospects for strong transmission of culture to younger one will occur. I was impressed with the health of many people I saw, slim and strong and exuding warmth and confidence. 

I have thoroughly enjoyed my week at Finke. I have met some terrific Aboriginal people who are also artists and strongly cultural. A truly cheeky sense of humour. I renewed a friendship with Lana and Ross with whom I’d previously worked at Laramba. It’s always a pleasure to work with them. Nicole is an agency nurse who is moving north to work long term with her partner a German man called Nikko. He loves the bush and the desert as much as she does. There are some very competent and friendly Aboriginal guys working at Finke Clinic, including Stanley and Rodney. A great team!
My only concern with realising tourism here is the threat to everyone’s ( including locals) safety from unrestrained dogs. They can move freely around and even a long stick won’t discourage them. I had real problems walking even a tiny distance from the clinic but felt very safe walking kilometres in the early predawn along the roads directly out of town. Tourism will require some changes be made to the freedoms the locals now have. Look, Finke is a great place to visit in a car but the danger from dogs mean I could never live there long term. Walking around is the way to meet and talk to people and it would be a shame if it cannot happen with confidence about ones personal safety.

Central australia, Travel

Central Australia Road Trip number 8 Larapinta Highlights with World Expeditions

I am sitting in a camp chair beside the campfire, the immense octagonal tent that provides shelter and a place for lounging about and meals is behind me. This camp is the second one used on this Larapinta walk, it’s called Charlie’s camp after one of the first guides. But I should begin at the beginning.
On Wednesday morning we were collected at our overnight accommodation, Doubletree in Alice Springs bright and early at 7:30 am. There are sixteen walkers, and all of us have elected for the highlights version of the famous Larapinta trail. The full walk takes anything from twelve to sixteen days, and walkers have to be very well organised with food drops and equipment. We met two walkers, young men who had been walking for eight days or seven, they weren’t sure. Our little packs looked very diminutive beside their solar panel laden multi day packs, the road trains of the Larapinta trail. 

We grouped at Telegraph station on the outskirts of Alice Springs, made introductions. The walkers are from age fifty to sixty and all of them have done many interesting adventures both here and overseas. We were dressed in warm gear because of the cold. Little did we know, that it was going to get a lot colder. We skirted the old station, and commenced the first section of the trail. Cloudy, cool, mild fresh breeze and perfect weather for walking. A frizzle threatened, and over the day it grew into a drizzle, and finally rain overnight. Today, we aimed to complete the walk to Wallaby Gap. We travelled past Charles River, under the Stuart highway, then up along ridges of the ranges. The fall to the left is precipitate, a three hundred meter drop, with wonderful views of the Pattuca range to the south beyond the spinifex and mulga plains. There are many opportunities to see the orange cliffs. 

Lunches are under trees on the trail, a large black tarp is laid out, and a selection of ham, salami, salads, dips and garnishes are available for us. One does eat well on these walks. You need the energy, as the track undulates over ankle twisting rocks and gravel. I needed to stay alert despite my Scarpa boots and sticks, occasionally slipping but no harm done. I’d been bitten by a camp dog two weeks ago, and thankfully it’s well on the way to being healed, so it did not give me any problems on the walk. 
The World expeditions bus was waiting for us at Wallaby Gap, a bumpy ride to the highway, then a drive to Charlie’s camp. The tent sites are very organised and very discrete, invisible from the highway, but the orange roof of the main tent makes them very visible from higher altitudes. There are semi-permanently set up tents for sleeping, a large tent as I said before for meals and lounging. The showers are hot water, one fills a bucket with hot water from a “donkey” into a bucket in the shower cubicle , hoisted aloft then the handle is turned, allowing water to rain down. The cool breezes wafting up from the gap between floor and cubicle, means the two and half minutes shower time is ample. The soaps and shampoos used are biodegradable, to protect the environment. The lady before me, fished out a dead bird from the shower bucket, so I was pleased to be second for once.

 On this first evening, we had a real treat. Raelene, who runs and owns, a bush food cafe in Alice Springs called Kungku foods. She is an Arrente lady who has harnessed her people’s heritage of bush foods to create a business. The older ladies in communities such as Utopia, gather the bush tucker in traditional ways and get paid for what they gather. As far as cultivating these plants plantation style, this does not work, the plants and trees die after two seasons. In the desert diseases cannot easily spread. The two main challenges are the encroachment of buffel grass choking the native vegetation, and secondly, the fracturing of Aboriginal society that makes it difficult to pass on the bush food story and skills to the next generation.
The next morning we finished section one by walking to Simpson Gap. This hike followed the hills beneath cliffs and ultimately provided fine views of the gap. It was cloudy and cold but rays of sunlight struggled through illuminating the valley. Simpsons Gap is wide, beautiful and sacred. The inviting pool is not for swimming. River gums twisted by the rigours of summer floods sit in the sand and stones of the ancient waterway, a creek course that long precedes the range it breeches. Ghost gums with their bright green foliage and shimmering white bark grip the sandstone walls. After exploring the gap we bussed to Standley Chasm. This geological feature is named for Ida Standley, an early twentieth century educator who actually taught aboriginal kids. We waited for our guide, Dee, but she had been double booked so had to catch up with her after lunch. Ryan, one of our four guides took us into the chasm. It is a gorge with sheer walls of orange quartzite. The narrow passageway echoes any conversation. The air is still and cool. It is impossible not to feel a sense of awe. This chasm was made by the erosion of a layer of white dolerite, leaving the quartzite for us to see today. Or was it two euro brothers who had an argument and one split the hill apart with the downward lash of his tail? I guess we will never know for sure. On the walk, Ryan showed us spearwood. Spearwood looks like a group of thin canes but if you hold one over a fire and stretch it straight, you can create a very good spear. It’s light, and made deadly by tying on a shard of quartzite or the poisonous wood of the mulga. It’s thrown from the rear of the spear and with little practice, can prove very accurate.

Dee met us after lunch, by now the sun had come out and we were all sitting on the grass. Dee runs a business called Cultural Connection NT. This enterprise is about educating people like us about aboriginal culture and history, about things that might otherwise cause misunderstanding. Dee explained that there are hundreds of tribes, and most of these have unique languages as different as Japanese and French to us. They have different beliefs and different attitudes by which they live. So it is not surprising that it is going to be difficult to achieve a unified voice. Europe has twenty nations and they cannot work together. Skin names are separate from your family names. Different tribes have different numbers of skin names, four, eight or as many as sixteen. Only certain skin name pairs can marry. This system was invented to reduce inbreeding. A child’s skin name, and his siblings which include his first cousins, have the same skin name. This skin name is different to the parents. It sounds complex and only looks marginally more straightforward on a chart with lines going clockwise and anticlockwise depending on the mother’s and fathers skin name respectively.
Education is different from the western style we are used too. It’s a life long learning, beginning in childhood singing, chanting, dancing, and listening to stories, observing the elders, and seeing the land, skies and weather over many years. Aural traditions everywhere in the world cannot write information down so it is necessary to learn using all the senses and by repetition, and then apply it.
Most of the social problems including drug abuse, health issues, and violence, are new ones. For forty thousand plus years plus, tribal lore and community, relations between people and other tribes, were sorted out and codified. In the last two hundred years, all that has been thrown into disarray. This uncertainty about culture creates unease, it means many Aboriginal people struggle to understand who and what they are. There are no rules about drugs in Aboriginal culture because they drugs did not exist. Learning from television, books and writing is completely alien from the experiential style of Aboriginal learning. Understanding new concepts is difficult when English is your third or second language. In some schools in Alice Springs there are now textbooks in many subjects, with the majority of teaching and examinations done using Arrente language.
Many of the attitudes which are so useful living in semi-arid Australia prove problematic when interfacing with white society. White people are so obsessed with punctuality and time while Aboriginal people live in the now. If the passing of time is anything, it’s morning, noon, and afternoon based on the suns position. 

All this was done by Dee in her own style. She commented that Aboriginal people will not criticise, push eye contact or even ask questions because of their concern that by doing so, it would mean the other person lose face. This is the basis of the shyness and their reticence to ask questions.
At the conclusion of our talk with Dee, I think all of us had gained insights into Aboriginal culture and how it relates to us.
Afterwards we climbed back into the bus and were transported back to our new campsite, Charlie’s campsite. We skipped showers this evening. I played my guitar, sitting on my camp bed until it got too dark and too cold to play. The dinner was wonderful. Early to bed. I had my beanie on, thermal top and snuggled into my sleeping bag with only my nose sticking out. 
Up again in the morning, day three, up at six am for breakfast of muesli, yoghurt and tea. Today’s walk to Count point is spectacular. It’s an arduous hike along loose rocky tracks, and onward and upward to Counts junction, then after dropping packs, a short walk to the point. The walk commenced with a short walk to Serpentine Gorge which in my opinion is the most tranquil and inspiring of the many gorges on the Larapinta trail. This provides amazing views, Gosse Bluff ( old impact crater) in the distance, two long ranges below us with an almost glacial looking valley between them. The Chewing Range and the Heavitree Range. Then a three hundred meter drop to the camp site. Today’s walk was seventeen kilometres.

On day four, it had been again a very cold night, the ice in any outside bucket ample testimony of that. There are composting toilets with heavy plastic/nylon curtains and solar powered lights for necessary illumination. The washing up area, is nearby, a bucket full of fresh water, a steel cup with several holes is filled by dunking in the bucket, then suspended above the basin. 
Our walk this morning, commenced in the most magical of early morning light. You know on some special mornings, the crispness and toning of the light give a beautiful glow to the natural world. One of the guides said to look out for some unique natural rock formations on the walk. Some of us were a bit non plussed about where the artificial geological formations were. While our bags were being carried to our next campsite, we walked to serpentine chalets dam. This dam was built below a narrow Gorge and provided water for the shirt lived Serpentine Chalet. Only the ruins remain, it was constructed in the 1950s before the road was improved and the speed of travel meant stopping for a night was unnecessary. The walk to the dam involves some rock clambering. The Gorge here is very beautiful. Our guide took us on a vertical side trip, to see these formations. The layers of rock are curved, in near swirls of sandstone over a hundred meters. The forces would have been truly immense to create this amazing appearance. We walked to Inarlunga pass. The trees here can be heard, pressing my ears against the white trunk of a ghost gum, I can hear the glug glug of water moving upwards from the roots on the way to the leaves above.
We returned to collect our packs, then shed some thermal gear with the increasing warmth of the day, then carried on, meeting the Arrente track. This track connects the Inarlunga Pass (Echidna Pass) with the Ochre pits. It is only a nine kilometre walk but it’s not easy, the rolling rocks which make the track, discourage mindless walking. I needed to stop before taking photographs, repack the camera, survey where to put my next step before carrying on. The track provides wonderful views of the ranges on either side of the track. It weaves over and between the crests of a series of hills. There are occasional information stands. These describe the plants and how they were used in Arrente life. 
The Ochre pits have been mined for thousands of years, and the different colour Ochres gave been traded along song lines throughout central Australia. The ochre consists of kaolin with varying amounts of iron oxide and other minerals. Today, it is still mined by local Arrente men and used in ceremony and art. We drifted along admiring the colours and play of light on the carved-out ochre. Then a short drive to Glen Helen. This old station is now fully geared up for tourism. There is both camping sites and cabins for rent. Cheap beer but expensive diesel. Behind the lounge are comfortable seats and tables where you can relax sipping beer or eating ice creams and study the orange glow of the ranges rocks. We walked to the gorge. There is a large rock pool that spans the gorge. Some of the guides braved the cold water to freshen up for a swim. It is yet another wonderful sight to enjoy. While we were walking and exploring, two of our number enjoyed the helicopter trip to see the sights from above.
Then we drove to camp Fearless. It’s named after Sue Fear , a tribute to a legendary climber who died in Nepal. This morning, as I’m writing this, most of our number have elected to do the sunrise walk up to the south summit of Mt Sonder. Jen and I slept through the wake up call at 2:15 am and decided to spend the day in meditation and tea/coffee appreciation. 
Right now, I’m sitting on a camp chair and finally getting warm. It was minus two overnight. ( This does not encourage frivolity on mountains). The camp fire is sending smoke away from me. Lunch is cooking in a camp cooker sitting on the hot coals. Mt Sonder is looking majestic in the morning sun beyond the camp tents. A few ring necked parrots are fluttering around. 
( Dinners so far . Loin shanks. Barramundi. Chicken curry. Beef stew. Roast lamb and poached pear with chocolate and cream)

It is now five pm and I’m sitting under the big tent at Camp Fearless. Jennifer and I have had a quiet day, relaxing, talking. When the rest of the group returned from the 16 kilometre hike up and down Mt Sonder, they looked a bit battered and worn out by the adventure but were equally full of praise for the beauty of the mountain and the splendid views it delivered. Maybe next time for us, I need to be a lot fitter to have the strength you need to cope with the relentless climb and then descent. Jennifer and most of the group took the bus to revisit Glen Helen while I stayed here in camp to practice. I also went for a brief walk with two of my fellow travellers along the dry creek beside the campsite. No two river gums are the same are they? There are some great views of Mt Sonder to be had as well, its massif silhouetted by the giant gums and cork trees on and near the bank. 

We are altogether on the bus returning to Alice Springs. Today we packed up our stuff, tidied our bivies, had breakfast and sat around the campfire in the morning light. We have spent a wonderful day walking at Ormiston Pound. A pound is a plain ringed all around by ranges. Ormiston pound has three entrances. We entered the pound after skirting the range climbing and then descending via the first pass. In the distance I could see the further most band of ranges. The nearer hills bright orange and in the distance the haze fading those same colours to blue. We all walked steadily, winding our way across the pound, crossing two dry river beds. Two meters above the rivers bed and wrapped around trunks and branches was grass and foliage washed there by the last flood. 

Water still remained from those long ago floods, cool and inviting pools, reflecting the red gums and ghost gums; a all peaceful symmetry of form and colour.

Finally we entered the gorge itself. This place is beautiful, I cannot find words to express it meaningfully. Here are rich colours of the orange quartzite cliffs, soft cool shadows lying over jumbled stone and water, and the many hues from purple to grey streaking the very substance of the boulders we all scramble across. Herons careen in the air calling as they fly in the narrow airspace of the gorge. Their voices loud and clear, but almost alien in this ancient landscape. The rock pools are large and plentiful, providing too ample an opportunity for photography. The vivid clarity of the reflections, then tones blending in any subtle movement of the water. A very special place. 
We crossed the largest pool, my fellow travellers helping me across the biggest jumps. It is amazing how sure my footing is when I’m helped. Then more boulder hoping and scrambling, to reach the car park and a yummy lunch under one of the picnic shelters.
After ice creams and a photo stop, we got back in the bus and here we are.
Before I wrap up this blog, I need to record the tremendous guides who helped, fed, encouraged and well, guided all of us in this superb region of central Australia. They are Ryan, Jen, Kia and Maddie. All top blokes and Sheilas. 
The final thank you has to be to all our fellow adventurers, all of them interesting, all of them terrific people and all of them great company.

I hope to meet many of them this evening at Hanuman restaurant.

Central australia, Central Australia Work

Central Australia Road trip 6 The Barkly Run

I’m onboard a RFDS turboprop as the door is being closed, and we are about to fly out of Alexandria Station. We will be flying an hour, about 300km back to Elliott. It’s a cool, clear day with a beautiful yellow light bathing and illuminating the station sheds and grassland. A flock of galahs is munching seed about twenty meters from the plane, with only the occasional look up to check how the rest of the world proceeds.
Alexandrina is the third cattle station we have visited on this tour. Every month, Tony ( a nurse usually based at Elliott) goes with the available doctor to three or more cattle stations to see the staff who live there. They are mostly young people who work as jackaroos, jillaroos, bore runners, mechanics, managers. There are some older folk as well. There are are a few children as well, who will be growing up on the station. When they are old enough they will be participating in School of the air. Until then it’s all fun.
The stations are vast affairs. The first one we visited is called Anthony’s Lagoon. It is about forty minutes flight time from Elliott, in the heart of the Barkly. We saw two people from that station but a nearby station called Walhollow sent across about eight people; so it turned out to be a busy afternoon. I have to record my notes on a word file as our normal software system we use at the clinic, is not available due to software and internet issues. It means I will spend the afternoon of my return transcribing it and copying it into PICUS. 
The stations are trim, neat affairs with grassy lawns sporting cane toads desultorily hopping and the occasional King Brown snake slithering around a tree. It pays to use a torch at night as it would not be prudent to mistakenly stand on one, well either actually. Cane toads have recently arrived in the Barkly, travelling down the rivers and lagoons in the wet season. Even sea snakes have been washed here, about five hundred kilometres from the coast in gulf country such is the turbulence and abundance of water, thee can be seen swimming in the huge rivers. The buildings are steel clad, with comfortable interiors and basic but comfortable furniture and bedding. The verandas have chairs to sit and enjoy the evening chill and stretch out the legs. There is a mess hall, with a cooked breakfast at 5:30 am, lunch at noon and dinner at 7 pm. The standard of cooking varies with last nights meal of corn beef and vegetables the stand out. The station staff, sit at the tables, swapping stories about their days. They spend the day moving and managing the cattle, usually on horseback. Horsemanship is a very valued aspect of Barkly Culture.
Tomorrow the Brunett Races and Campdraft will be held about twenty-five kilometres from Brunett Station. Many of the local station staff and locals, will go to see the events and many will participate. Racing is a keen affair, it’s only local horses that can be entered in the events. The festival goes on for three days. There is bush poetry, music but the highlight is the Campdraft competition. Jodie, the receptionist explained what she will be doing when she competes. A fence encloses an area of two hundred square meters. In the square are a dozen steer. The competitor is on a horse, and the aim is to cut out one selected cow, move it into the centre, get it to turn two or three times. Now all this is done using the horse to manoeuvre the bigger animal. Then lead it out through a gate and then back in. The “gate” are two white hats in the enclosure. In real life, on a station, the skills and speed of this sort of activity means the safer movement of stock. The competitor who does it with the most style and speed wins. There is a womens and mens competition but again in the real world of station work, teams of station hands all work together. Some teams of a dozen or more, can be all female. The staff of whichever gender are expected to do the same work. In the evening, the girls are just as dirty and dishevelled from working as the fellows. Frequently, the staff are on camp. These camps can last weeks, working cattle over long distances to fresh bores and feed, while each night is spent sleeping under the stars. 

Some of the young people are locals who were born here, some are long term visitors from Europe or the UK. From the dinner table, you can hear German, upper crust English accents and the drawl of NSW rural Strine. Its definitely an eclectic mix. There are some Aborigines but really, very few, and usually born on the station and as they have never left, never having experienced tribal life in a remote community.

The medicine is typical white fella medicine, contraception, smoking, and trauma mostly. There is none of the diabetes and kidney disease rampant in any Aboriginal community. 

You may recall the photos I sent of Marlinja. Marlinja consists of a pleasant Aboriginal community, on land that was returned from the vast Newcastle Waters Station in the seventies: the station itself and between the two the ghost town of the original Marlinja. Here we parked the car, and walked through the old buildings. There is the abandoned Jones Hotel, the general store, and the petrol station with its old fashioned bowser. Marlinja was a thriving community, and the shops operating in the the locals lifetime. When there were poorer roads and few vehicles, it took a whole day to get to Elliott which is thirty kilometres away, it made sense to have amenities close by. Now food and supplies are flown in directly to the station. The famous Marrinjah ( Way stock route that enable stock to be moved from WA to Queensland brought huge mobs of drovers into the Jones Hotel for beer, shower and a comfortable bed. This stock route was also called the Death Way, as it went through desert, jungle, crossed lagoons and often flooded rovers, with snakes, crocodiles, all together a challenging journey for men and beasts. There is a very good book written about this which I will try to obtain if not in Tennant Creek, then on Booktopia.

When I look up from my writing, I can look across the wing and see down onto the Barkly, vast mottled and hazy regions of green in the now desiccated lagoons and desperately hugging the few waterholes still remaining. The rest is a brown flat land scarred by the sinuous paths of now dead rivers and the long, straight dirt roads connect bores and stations. 
By the way, a bore runner is a person who drives from bore to bore checking they are working. Some times they are diesel mechanics but generally, they are people who love isolation and quiet. 

Central australia, Central Australia Work

Central Australia trip to Elliot

It’s Monday night and I’m sitting in my camping chair at the Outback Caravan Park, in Tennant Creek. We began our drive yesterday morning, travelling from Alice Springs to Devils Marbles. It’s 398 kilometres of the Stuart Highway. I took us about five hours including a stop at Ti Tree for lunch. A fine sunny day for driving.
Devils Marbles is one of the highlights of the Stuart Highway. Jennifer and I have visited this park before but it was always a rush, this time we could explore and take photographs at the two best times with no need to scuttle back to work and before it got too dark to drive safely. We walked on the many trails amongst the rock formations. The setting sun sets the rocks red aglow, the grass is backlit as it swirls in the wind, and the gums provide dabs of green and white through the landscape. Devils Marbles are the eroded superficial remains of a much deeper granite massif that arose under an immense layer of more ancient sedimentary rock, sea floor rock, then as the softer surface rock was eroded away the tougher granite remained. But this granite had already been altered, cracked, and split and when it arose into the light of day, these cracks filled with mud and water, splitting the rocks into the weathered Marbles we see today. 
We arrived back at our campsite just as it was becoming dark and cooling down. Overnight it’s very cold so it’s great to be able to rug up in our comfortable camper trailer, under a generous doona. We awoke at seven am, and walked another trail amongst the Marbles and again, were busy taking lots of photographs. We left at 10 am and drove 100 kilometres to Tennant creek. This had very little open on a Monday holiday but the Battery Mine was open. This is a retired mine and processing facility for the gold found in Tennant creek. Beginning in 1926, Tennant creek has been a reliable producer of gold. In all by 1996, 130 tonnes of gold had been recovered. As well as 270,000 tonnes of copper. What makes this area so unique is that unlike Victoria, and most other gold rushes , the gold is in ironstone and not quartz. Quartz is relatively easy to separate from its contained gold, it’s much softer and the gold is often in chunks or nuggets. In Tennant creek, the gold is in fine fragments, too small to even in see most circumstances. Lumps of ironstone, need to be crushed into dust to gather the gold inside it. The ironstone located beneath the water table is generally richer , it’s called magnetite. And you guessed it, it’s strongly magnetic as well. The denser the ironstone, the more magnetic the ironstone then the more gold will be in it. So remote sensing can be used today to locate more gold bearing deposits. 
In the early days, mining businesses were small concerns, one or two blokes, both worked a mine in truly appalling conditions. One man would be lowered down a mine shaft in a bucket, using one leg, to push off the mine shaft wall, then at the bottom use a pick to break off fragments of ironstone. The actual shaft went down through mudstone, as no one can go directly through the ironstone deposit. You have to shimmy up to it and chip off the bit in front of you. It was hot and incredibly dusty. The town grew but it was mostly men. The isolation and lack of female company, made life pretty dangerous at times. Was it worth it? For those men who worked the mines, most did little more than pay their way, but some did do well eventually becoming truly big mining companies but overall the capital and size needed to make a go of this sort of mining, ensured it was the big players, the ones who arrived in the 1950’s which made the really big money and still do. 
We did two tours. The first tour was through a “mine” built deliberately by Normanby Mines to be used for tourism. They had the expertise to make it as realistic as possible. Along the mine, the guide, showed us examples of mining, form the very early days, to the much more mechanised mining on the 1950s and 1960’s. We were shown the drills, the explosives, the crib room where the men sheltered during blasting, the Beethoven box used by the “powder monkey” to set off the explosives. We saw the mine shaft and the ladder ready and waiting to provide an exit for flooding in the mine. Huge pumps at the base of the mine kept the water out, but as the mine was a kilometre below the water table, a failed pump lead to rapid flooding. The second tour was of the stamping battery. This facility ground up to mined ironstone into a fine dust, you could then use mercury to bind the gold. The amalgam so formed had to be heated in a retort to seperate it from the gold, then the gold had to be heated to fen higher temperatures in a crucible to remove final impurities. A whole years work for a miner in the early days, would produce one or at Most two ingots of gold. An ingot was worth 50,000 dollars, that was a for a year, of 16 hour days, in hot, dusty, noisy and dangerous conditions. 
Afterwards, we drove back to our campsite to relax before dinner. It’s getting cold now. I can hear the cars and trucks on the highway, but only faintly. And that will be us too, as we compete our trip to Elliott tomorrow.