Monday, 28 May 2018

Mowing the Spackman

April 8 - 14

Well it had been 12 months since my last desert trip and I was longing for a dose of blackfella feet. So, with some time off, I arranged with Warren to get out there and get my desert fix. A mix of some places I had been prior intermixed with some new country I hadn't explored.

The plan was to knock over about 3000 Km's in 7 days with major transport stages on the first and last days getting to and from country.

Some hours later we hit Kalgoorlie for fuel and continued on North, stopping at Menzies for a short break:

It was quite hot, around 39degree's, something I wasn't expecting in early April. But push on we did and we made our first camp just outside of Leonora at a place called Malcolm Dam. A place I have meant to visit a few times prior, but time constraints had stopped me in the past.

What a magnificent place this was, and best of all we had it to our self. Although still very warm at 1730 in the afternoon, after an 850km day it was an amazing sight sitting down with a beer watching the sun go over the horizon on the far side of the lake:

After cooking dinner in the dark, we hung around for a bit and retired to bed. We noted there were a few feral cats around and wondered how that would go through the night. In the end, they posed no issue, but the temperature sure did - we didn't get a lot of sleep that night. Too hot and no breeze.

Up reasonably early, we scored a pretty good sunrise:

We were on the road on day two by 0830. First stop on the agenda was a cache just outside of Malcolm Dam. With a quick find under the belt, we motored onto Laverton for fuel. I have to recommend the pies here at the servo, they are mint. I am told they are made by Miss Maud in Perth, shipped to Laverton in raw form and they are then cooked on site. The pepper steak was to die for. Now on the edge of the Great Victoria Desert, I was hanging to get on out there.

Onto the Great Central Road, we headed East, the plan to knock off a few caches on the way. The first one, just outside of town, an easy find. The next one was at a site known as Giles Breakaway and the scenery here was simply stunning to say the least. Photo's just don't do it justice. To add to that, it would also be a remarkable campsite, even with it's close proximity to Laverton.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the cache here. I should have taken my paperwork, because once we gave up and returned to the car, the clues on the paper would have led me to the right spot. But With a long way to travel, I had to can it in favour of getting to camp at a reasonable hour.

About to leave Giles Breakaway, we hear a truck thundering down the road and this was to be a major inconvenience. Unfortunately a major gold project is now underway out here - The Gruyere Gold project

 - And they are using the GCR as their supply route. Let me assure you, being stuck behind a truck travelling around 85Km/h in extremely dusty conditions, with no chance to overtake for over 100Km's has knobs on it. We were almost at the point of just pulling up for a bit when he turned off on their new private haul road. Thank goodness for that.

What concerns me most is the potential safety issue of a major operation supply route on a well used public piece of gravel road. That can not end well and after being stuck behind this truck for over 100Km's I wont be the only grizzler I'm sure.

Time was now getting away from us. A quick stop at White Cross to show Warren and we hit the GCR again for the David Carnegie Rd. The car was showing it was 43 degrees outside. At the  Carnegie Rd junction, we headed North for the 40 odd Km's to the Breaden Bluff turn off.

Now well into spinifex country, the occasional small dune appearing, I was in my element. Blackfella feet country! The track up was how I remember it when last here back in 2013. Good sandy track, some small sections of corrugation, a washout or two, but overall, very good for an unmaintained desert track.

Turning in for the Bluff, the track at times just lines in the spinifex, rocky and with a fair bit of vegetation. We arrived at the campsite about an hour before sundown, and it was hot. We got to work setting up camp and a well deserved beer. It had been another long day:

Another very hot night ensued, trying to sleep in a swag with no breeze wasn't much fun at all.

Morning came around. A couple of coffee's and I spilled the beans to Warren. Today was my birthday. I couldn't have picked a better place to spend it I reckon. Breaden Bluff, named by Carnegie on his journey up to Halls Creek, after his second in command, Joe Breaden.

After breakfast we ventured over to the breakaways we could see, some 300 odd meters away. Navigating your way over the rocks, and through the vegetation, full of golden orb spiders posed a challenge. Down the incline and down into the valley, we couldn't see the caves we had expected to see. Warren suggested it was over the next rise. I said surely not. Warren climbed the rise to tell me, yep, its over 'ere.

So up and over we went, through the spinny in the valley in my best desert boots, having to stop occasionally to pull the spinifex spines from the webbing between my toes.

Climbing the bluff, we investigated the labyrinth of holes in the breakaway. Impressive.

Filming in one of the lower, deeper holes, I disturbed two bats from their hide. No doubt they were impressed!

But time was of the essence. We had a bit to achieve today and I was worried about the time verses distance of today's leg. So we only spent about 1/2 hour checking out the holes before I needed some more spines in my toe webbing on the journey back to the vehicles.

Back at camp, we did our final pack and hit the scrubby track back to the Carnegie Rd. There we headed North for a very special place, on my own very special day.

Empress Springs, about 20Km's up the Carnegie Rd. Why, I do not know, but both Carnegie and Empress hold a very special place in my heart. Carnegie didn't really do anything more special than a lot of other explorers (not to say that his journey from Coolgardie to Halls Creek and return wasn't an epic worthy of an entry into the history books), but others have done arguably greater and faded into history without the accolades so well deserved afforded to them.

We arrived about 1000 and it was only about 32 degrees by now 😓. However, I suggest you read "Spinifex and Sand", Carnegie's account of this venture into the unknown. Empress Spring was his life saver. I fear, without finding this place that his journey, his camels and his men would have met an unsavoury demise.

These days, with a nice steel and chain ladder to descend the 30Ft to the bottom of the main chamber, I can not help but think of those men being lowered down by rope, seeking the life saving water they desperately needed. One of these days, with more time on hands, I will have to crawl on my guts to reach the spring and gain an even deeper appreciation of their efforts.

Carnegie writes:

Hugging the ridge on our left, we followed along this belt for another one and a half miles; when, close to the foot of a sandhill, our guide, secured to my belt by a rope round his waist, stopped and excitedly pointed out what seemed on first sight to be three rock-holes, in a small, bare patch of limestone not more than thirty feet across. Twenty yards to the right or left and we would never have seen it; and to this spot King Billy had brought us full speed, only stopping once to examine some rocks at the foot of one ridge, as if to make sure that we were in the right valley.

On further investigation the three holes turned out to be entrances, of which two were large enough for a man to pass through, leading perpendicularly to a cave beneath. With the help of a rope Charlie and I descended twenty-five feet to the floor of the chamber, which we found to be covered with sand to a depth of two feet. In the sand we dug holes but did not succeed in getting even moisture. Plunged as we were so suddenly into darkness, our eyes could distinguish no passage leading from the chamber, and it seemed as if we had been tricked again. Further exploration by the light of candles revealed two passages, one leading west and upwards, the other east and downwards. Charlie chose the latter; before long I came to the end of mine, having failed to find anything but bats, bones of birds and dingoes, and old native camp-fires. Following Charlie, I found him crawling on hands and knees down a steep slope—progress was slow, as the floor was rough and the ceiling jagged; presently the passage dropped again, and at the end, below us, we could see our candles reflected, and knew that at last we had water! Who, except those who have had similar experiences, can picture one's feelings of relief! “Thank God! thank God!” is all one can reiterate in one's mind over and over again.

The visible supply of water was small, and we had grave doubts as to any soakage existing! Not wasting valuable time in discussion, we crawled back with all speed to the cave, shouted up the joyful news, and called for buckets and billies to bale with. The King was now allowed to descend, but not unguarded, as we must first ascertain the value of our supply. We could understand now why he had insisted on carrying with him from our last camp a burning branch (a “fire-stick”); for he proceeded to make a fire on the floor of the cave from some dead leaves and branches, and others along the passage, to light him; after some hesitation he took a candle instead, and bolted down the passage like a rat. He must have been very dry, judging from the time he stayed below and from his distended appearance on re-ascending. He drank a great deal more than any of us and yet had been a comparatively short time without water, whilst we had been walking and working on starvation rations for a good number of days.

So, a quick exploration of the main cave, Warren and myself ascended the "ladder" and by 1100 were heading South once again, 60Km's to the intersection of Carnegie and Great Central Roads.

On arrival to the intersection, we headed east for Tjukayirla (pronounced chook a yer la) roadhouse. - Chooka for short - Gotta love an indigenous language hey! A 30Km round trip detour for much needed diesel for our remaining journey. Warren having some 50L less fuel capacity than myself, meant I had planned the trip around his fuel usage. Mind you, he constantly achieves 1-2L/100 better economy than me.....

So there is a few things I can recommend at Tjuka. 1 - dont expect service any time soon when a tourist bus arrives 10 minutes before you do and the line for service is out the door. 2 - the burgers here are legendary, particularly the chooka burger. I first heard of this was over a decade ago, and the legend, even with the passing of roadhouse owners over the years, still remains.

But at $18 for a burger, I settled on just a standard one with cheese @ $14 for my special treat - my birthday lunch. And let me say, this was bloody awesome too. Warren, being the self funded retiree he was, stuck with his pre made wraps but had an icecream to help the local economy along.

Fuelled up, both vehicle and stomach, we headed West once again. Travelling the same route as yesterday for 115 Km's, we eventually turned South off the Great Central for the short journey to meet the Anne Beadell Highway:

A leisurely 40 odd km's of desert track ensued with no real issues with road surface encountered. The weather however was changing. A wind was starting to blow, clouds were building and the temperature dropping. We might just get some sleep tonight. Interestingly, we passed vast swathes of previously burnt out country which gave unusual long distance visibility into the surrounding landscape. The red sands contrasting remarkably with the black sticks of what was once mulga trees, and the vivid green of new vegetation springing up, which in time will blot out the surrounding landscape once again, once the leaves and grasses take hold.

A quick stop at the ABH intersection at Point Sunday, and we veered East for Yeo Homestead. It was almost 12 months to the day I was here last and I couldn't believe the change. There had been a couple of massive rainfall events out here a few months before hand. This water impacted the track quite a bit. Now, large, soft sand drifts had to be driven through, and the areas where the sand had come from, were now hard and rutted sections of track.

Ex tropical cyclone Kelvin had the largest impact on the area. To give you some idea of the water dumped by this one tropical low, below is a picture of the Great Central Road, just East of Tjuka:

This had a reasonable impact on the ABH as well, but all was well. Some 80 odd Km's from the Great Central, we actually arrived early to Yeo homestead, about 1400. Time for a shower, a couple of beers and a relaxing birthday dinner.

I also found my last visit in the visitors book:

By now, the wind had whipped up a fair bit and it was just too dangerous for a fire in this country tonight. As the sun went down, we watched the lightning and heard the distant thunder in the far South  East, hoping it wouldn't come our way. I spotted a huge bolt hit the ground. The thickness of said bolt, unlike anything I had ever seen, it was massive. That got me thinking, something I had never though of before:

With the evidence of large swathes of desert already burnt, if you were out here and a fire took hold, you could well be in strife. With only a West or East exit, I wouldn't like to see smoke out here.

So with the risk of rain ever present, we set the swags under the awning of Yeo Homestead. In hindsight, it wasn't needed as only a few drops were heard throughout the night.

With a surprise desert I sprung on Warren last night for my birthday (he supplied apple pie on his), we woke in the morning to some very cool and overcast conditions. Today was going to be an adventure: lots of desert track I had not travelled before and some parts I could find scant information on.

We headed east along the ABH for our first port of call: Bishop Riley's Pulpit:

As you can see, the weather looking dodgy as. However, further on and the clouds started to part, the water damage disappeared, and we were back into the ABH territory I remember:

Some 100 odd Km's East from Yeo, we veered South down the Spackman track. I have no idea where its name originates from, nor why its here. It passes an old airfield (Neales) and we suspect both are the remnants of early war years:

I had warned Warren, this track may prove difficult but there was only one way to find out: we had to drive it. If we weren't remote before, I reckon the chance of seeing people here would be non existent. The start of the track was fine, just some cabbage weed and good going. Further in, we ploughed a spinifex tuft or too. Nothing too extravagant. A few dunes were sighted, but the track always turns at the last minute and you cross where the end of the sand drift has formed, so no dunes to ascend.

Making the airfield, we planned to have a bit of a look around. However, no obvious track was noticeable in the plains of spinifex and mulga, so we pushed on. then we came into some substantial burnt out areas. The same vivid green met the red sand and it was a sight to behold. Unfortunately, the burnt areas also had an effect on the old vegetation, which in quite a few places had now fallen over the track. Lots of stops to clear these trees slowed us down considerably. I noted our average speed over ground was now down to about 30Km/h. It was going to be a long day.

The wildlife presented itself on occasion:

Ever vigilant of the distance to traverse before dark, Murphy slapped my tyre god on the back of the head once again. Something didn't feel right and I relayed this to Warren. One big tree we didn't move out the way, led me to go cross country. And a burnt stump of mulga, some 10mm in diameter decided to make its home on the inner wall of my tyre. With time getting away from us, I decided an emergency plug with the wheel on the car was called for. We can sort the proper repair in the morning. I had mentioned to Warren before we left that a spinifex blind may be required out here. Whilst at times I had spinifex rain bear down on my windscreen, I didn't think it was too bad. the unscheduled tyre stop told a different story. We were well choked. Whilst with me in the lead I mainly collected seed head, Warren had some nasty straw collect underneath his. So whilst I tried in vain to repair a tyre, Warren de-strawed his paj. If we were to make the 7 miller's hut by dark, the spinifex would have to wait, so on went the blinds (too late to be of any use). We could sort our maintenance issues in the morning.

Some 5 hours after we turned onto the Spackman, we made Naries Pt, a distance of only 130Km's. The weather once again had warmed up, but the choked radiator made the car run a lot hotter than normal and the choked A/C condensor also had a marked effect on the in cab cooling efficiency. getting out the car for a small break, I noticed the smell of diesel. I asked Warren if his jerry on the roof was leaking, but no, it was me.

Horror thoughts of well 5 on the CSR came back to haunt me. I walked behind the vehicle and noted my aux tank wasn't square once again. The mounting bracket had failed again. Another hour of ratchet strapping the tank insitu to get home, and pumping its fuel across to reduce weight and we were away again. I stated, we wouldn't be getting to camp in daylight tonight. I also mentioned if the camp is good, maybe we need a maintenance day tomorrow.

Once the track joined the lake Rason rd, we again made good speed. 60-80Km/h in some stretches, with the occasional slowdown point in water damaged sections. With a setting sun, and then into darkness, we finally made the shack about 2030. It was cold now but too late and dark to go searching for timber. Dinner and setting swags under the shack awning with a drink to finish off with ended our day. We were spent. tomorrow is another day.

A good night's sleep and we checked out the hut over breakfast. Called 7 miller's, in honour of the 7mm Remmington cartridge, a favourite of big game hunters. the shack, built by a collective few from Laverton as a base for the removal of feral camels in the area. We thank the owners for allowing us to refuge here.

Dino, with his solar powered red eyes was a sight to see:

But today was maintenance day. For me it included spinifex removal, tyre repair and to see what I could further do with this bloody aux tank. Best we get cracking hey!

Pulling half the front end apart, I was stunned at the amount of seed head I had collected:

The spinifex removal took me hours. And Warren too. In the midst, an A380 flies South over us and I wonder to myself who's got the better deal. Stuck in the desert, having to repair my car, I reckon i'm better off:

A full day done on maintenance and it was finally beer o'clock. Just in time for sunset:

And before we knew it, it was dinner time again:

2 big days under the belt now, we both retired pretty early to start the long journey home in the morning. Another cold morning presented itself, but I got up just in time to catch the sun rise over Lake Rason:

The hut is bloody fantastic. What a refuge in a fairly inhospitable part of the world, on the Western edge of the Great Victoria Desert.

Whilst we didn't really make use of the hut apart from the verandah as we were self supporting, I would like to formally thank the shack owners for providing us with something other than plains of spinifex and mulga to allow us to get our maintenance sorted. Doing this in the field would be a chore indeed. I have to say, if you venture out here, treat the place like its your own asset, and respect it. take your rubbish home, leave the place as you found it and enjoy the surroundings. Many thanks fella's.

Now packed and ready for the trip back to laverton, the hits keep on coming. The starter battery on my car has exited, stage left even. unpack the car again to gain access to the aux battery buried low in the rear, I put my 7m home made jumper leads to the ultimate first test. Nothing......

leaving both batteries connected for 5 minutes or so, I try again. This time I at least get dash lights, and try again. certainly a bit sluggish to crank, but she fires up. I guess with a starter sitting at 10 odd volts, that's to be expected. Winning:

The lake Rason track was a very good affair, much like the part after the Spackman. the occasional slow part, but very good overall.

And not long after, we see why the shack exists:

Camel prints and high powered rifles mark the country out here:

Passing some amazing country on the way out, I need to come back and explore some of the remarkable, isolated ranges out here. I pass one that I believe has Frank Hann's blaze atop. More research needed for that little gem.

Once back onto gazetted roads, its a shortish journey to laverton for fuel, and 400 odd K's later, another top up at kalgorlie. leaving Kal at sunset, we come across a nasty accident on the way out, no doubt only moments prior. Whilst the driver is shaken and only lightly injured, the picture of a baby capsule, jettisoned from the inside of the vehicle is a sickening sight. Thank goodness the driver is both solo and uninjured.

We push on, again into the dark, and reach a roasdide rest area at Borrabin. We get a nice little fire going, in fact the only one of the trip. It was bloody lovely.

Come the morning, we knock the remaining 600 odd km's for home over. Pretty exhausted, elated and disappointed all at the same time. That's what a hell of a trip does to you. I cant wait to get back again.

Trip Stats:

6 nights under canvas
3164km travelled
385L of fuel used
cost of fuel $611
for an average of 12.17L/100

camp fees $0 - No fee's out here 👍.

The running tally of nights under canvas now stands at 10

Trip vids:


  1. Nice report as usual Shane. Get ya finger out for the next report ok ;)

    1. Settle down old man....the next one is almost here....and then I'm up to date. Just in time for my next trip away