Sunday 12th September, Copley to Italowie Gap.
Having managed to delay our flight from Maree across Lake Eyre to Thursday, we decided to go up towards Arkaroola through the Gammon Ranges. We packed up and left Copley and then trundled along to Leigh Creek for a quick shufti. Not a shop open anywhere, nor even a post box tho the town itself was very neat and tidy and had a village square with shops and cafes obviously open on weekdays only. It is a mining town and the Leigh Creek area has been producing coal for Port Augusta for about 100 years. The coal trains are 2.5 kilometres long and seem to go on and on for hours as they pass. We then drove on up to Iga Warta, an aboriginal tourist centre about 55/60 kilometres up the road. It was fairly slow going as there quite a few creek crossings to negotiate but we managed well, even with the van in tow. Iga Warta was wonderful when we stopped there. There were some most unusual gum trees in flower and the singing honeyeater was singing its heart out. A woman was working on a painting, which Jenny very sensitively questioned her about. (e.g. Is it alright if I point to it? Can you tell me or is it private business? and the artist explained the significance of the shapes and lines and figures. It was a strongly coloured painting with a wonderful feel for pattern and there was a completed one in the little shop for sale at $400. I don't know who the artist is but she is well known apparently and has her art in various centres in Adelaide. We looked at the campsite there but it was pretty scrubby and open and we felt we might do better in the National Park. Werner definitely didn't want to stop there, wanting to push on further and further. So we drove on quite a way until we came to the first campsite in the National Park at Italowie Gap. And here we have found a glorious corner where we have set up camp. There are hills all round tho not high ones, and river red gums and a creek bed just over the way and the most amazing mix of flowers. It feels VERY remote tho there are cars that go past and even stop at the information sign now and then. Jenny, Werner and Brian went for a walk up the valley while I sat and drew for a while. It was chilly mind you, with rain threatening tho it held off for us to eat outside and have a lovely evening. The National Parks information station here also has a rainwater tank so there is plenty of drinking water. The main difficulty is the prickly nature of the plants underfoot but if we're careful, we manage well tho going to the loo can be a little hazardous!
Monday 13th September, Italowie (Itala Awi)Gap.
After a night of intermittent rain we woke to a gorgeous sunny morning. The light on the red hillside with the grey-blue-green scrub was just beautiful and the wet trunk of the big gum just near us shone green and grey and brown in the sun. Jenny was out early with her binoculars and bird book while Werner organised boiling tea water on his little stove very efficient! We decided amongst us that they would go on to the National Park Centre and do a walk from there while we would stay and puddle about here. It was a lovely lazy day. After catching up with the diary and finishing off some drawings Brian and I went for a walk down through the gap and looked at all the amazing flowers and flowering shrubs. I collected twenty-five different samples in just that short stretch. One of the cliff faces in the gap is dotted not only with the lovely blue-grey bush but clumps of a pinky green fleshy flower in spikes about 1/3 feet high and looks stunning. (I found out later that it was Ruby Dock, a hop bush.) After a bit of a wash (no shower here) in the warmer middle of the day we prepared to have lunch outside and then the rain came and we were forced inside. So most of the afternoon I drew flowers (and painted) and we went for another explore of the area behind us and over the road that obviously used to be a stockyard. We were accompanied by zebra finches and a rufous whistler and some thornbills and I spotted one funny grey-brown bird that ran along the ground, maybe a Gibberbird; not sure. And there were plenty of other grey-brown chaps that are too hard to identify. There is generally about one car an hour down or up this road , all campers or work utes, it really is an isolated spot. We heard a rumble on the road of someone coming and there were Jenny and Werner back from their walk having had hot showers and proper loos at the Centre, lucky things! The weather seemed to clear as we made our supper. Jenny and Werner provided the pasta and sauce and tinned spinach. The spinach tasted OK but looked utterly revolting; definitely have you or are you going to?! We've decided to move back down to Copley tomorrow so we can do a wash and fill the gas and water and arrange the flight for Thursday. I've got a rotten headache tonight so we are all going to bed early.
Tuesday 14th September, Italowie Gap to Copley.
Stupid headache continues making me feel quite dizzy and rotten but it's better when I'm doing something and then I need to lie down for a while. Not quite such a glorious morning as yesterday but we were visited by a little singing bird that I thought was a singing honey eater but it is a bit too squat and its beak is the wrong shape. Anyway it sings fit to bust as it flies and then does a couple of little cheeps when it lands; such a lovely sound! We packed up pretty early and left at about ten tho Jenny and Werner had gone for a walk and so followed on later. It was quite a slippy-slidy drive back because of the showers we've been having and some of the creeks that were dry on the way up are now flowing. There had also been another flowering of different wildflowers; a particular pale but bright yellow one that looks a little like a large violet in shape (a goodenia I found out later). I got out of the car and had a good look at it and it is not a pea and not spiky or spiny and it is very pretty. There were some large patches of it up in the hills near our camp but none lower down. There was also a different white spiky flower in profusion. They come so quickly and die quickly and soon they will only be seeds on the ground! When we reached Copley we found we had a flat tyre; we could just about see it through the layers of mud caked on the car and van, about 2-6 inches thick in places! Brian went straight to the garage once we had set up and got it fixed. We'd also run out of gas in the little bottle last night so he got that filled too. We went shopping in Leigh Creek; quite a well-supplied supermarket where we stocked up for the next few days. We arranged to stay over in the pub in Marree tomorrow night for our flight on Thursday. I noticed Leigh Creek has a hospital and though of getting my blood pressure checked if this headache doesn't go away soon. We ate last night in the camp kitchen and chatted with three other couples who have been travelling for three or four months and done all the tracks round about, dodging the rain as they went. They are off to Marree tomorrow too.
Wednesday 15th September, Copley to Marree.
Gorgeous starry night but clouded over early. I went for a brisk walk to help clear my head and it worked! We had to pack a night's worth of stuff and clear out the back seat of the car so Jenny and Werner could come with us and we set off at about 9.30 and made our way along the dirt road to Marree. There were a couple of rather hairy creek crossings but the Prado managed them quite easily and we made Marree in good time. It is a funny old place; it used to be the railhead for the Ghan train until the railway extended down to William Creek and then, in 1980 the new rail link west of here took over and the trains stopped coming here. Apparently the despondent locals kept unhitching the carriages of the final train to try to stop it leaving. There are two or three old engines and carriages from the Ghan left as exhibits at the station, and the town has had to turn to tourism to make a living. It is flourishing at the moment because of the rain this year and Lake Eyre having water in it. We're staying at the pub in temporary cabins obviously brought in to cater for the increased numbers wanting flights out over the lake (like us). They're pretty expensive and not very clean; we, i.e. Jenny and I, mentioned that to the management and they were most apologetic. The flights have been organised through the Oasis Cafe, which is the supplier of all needs. It is the post office, the bank, a souvenir shop, a grocery store and off-licence, a cafe and a petrol station! I bought a shirt for Nick and a wee cup for Will there when we had coffee there this morning. After our picnic lunch sitting on the station, we tried to drive out to the lake but where the road crosses the Frome Creek it was just too deep to risk, so we turned round and went to investigate the race course instead. I guess Birdsville race course must look much like this, all scrubby growth with a red soil track running past stands and the caller's box (which I climbed into). They run camel races here too I gather. We went to the pub for a drink and stayed on for their buffet dinner, meaning we really pigged out! We have to be up early tomorrow for continental breakfast before the flight.
Thursday 16th September Marree to Blanchewater.
What a day! The best yet! We started with an early breakfast in the pub and then out to the airport. A young girl met us and took our tickets and then went to go and said she'd be back in a minute. Brian muttered something about her having to find the pilot somewhere and she looked at him and said, "I am the pilot!" She took it very well and we all had a laugh. She's a lass called Katrina from Cashmere in Brisbane originally who has been working down in Freycinet flying tourists around there. So when that season ended and Wright Air (for whom she flies) realised there might be a profitable season out here this year, she was sent up to Marree. She just loves flying and wants to become a RFDS pilot. We learned most of this through headphones on the plane, a little Cessna, as we flew up to the lake. It was a magical morning with some sun and some high cloud making for amazing cloudscapes and reflections in the water of the lake. The colours were wonderful pastel blues and pinks and browns and greys, and the patterns made by the wind on the water and the salt streaks and rivulets into the lake were lovely. It was a very smooth flight with Brian in the front seat, Werner and I in the middle and Jenny in the back partially distributed by weight. We had all to step on the scales before the flight so that Katrina could distribute us evenly! We put a spanner in her works tho as she wanted me in the back seat and I wasn't sure I could cope there without throwing up, so Jenny and I changed places. We flew up to Lake Eyre North and across its southern tip and then round to Lake Eyre South where we found a colony of pelicans and Katrina flew us round it twice. Another pattern was that of the vegetation round the shoreline all in parallel lines. After we got back with cameras LOADED with photos we checked out of the pub and went and had a BIG eggy-bacon brekky at the cafe, just perfect! After that wonderful pig-out we decided we'd dash back to Copley, pick up the van and head up the Strzelecki Track as far as we could before dark. We managed a pretty speedy re-organisation of the car and striking of camp to leave by 2 pm. Our decision to make a dash for it was, in the main, governed by Werner's reading of the weather on his phone! It was forecast to be fine for the next two days and that was what we needed to be sure to get through The Strzelecki Track.
The Strzelecki starts at Lyndhurst between Copley and Marree and one of the trickiest bits is getting over the Frome River right near Lyndhurst. We had to go really slowly and walk the car through it but it was OK in the end. There were lots and lots of creek crossings, some more difficult than others and you could see where people had come to grief when the road was wetter just after all the rain there has been in the past month or so. We had let our tyres down quite a bit to enable them to cope with the gibber stones and the soft track and we took it very steadily averaging about 40 kilometres an hour with some at 70 and some at walking pace. A lot of the road was pretty good but some was on gibber stones and that shook everything to pieces if you went too fast. In the end we did about 156 kilometres and found a lovely campsite at Blanchewater Ruins. Blanchewater had been quite an important homestead in the 19th century and played a part in the Harry Redford rustling story we'd heard about at Barcaldine last year. It was a horse-breeding ranch and at one time had about 20,000 horses. But the rabbits came and destroyed the grazing and the homestead became an outstation. Then a major flood in the 1940s (I think it was) almost washed it away and now there are only a couple of chimneys and a few walls left. As we were setting up camp a couple of work utes turned up and we had quite a long conversation with one of the blokes. He is a geologist surveying the countryside looking for uranium, comes from Brisbane originally, has a wife and three kids in Adelaide and parents now in Deloraine Tasmania! I think he was very happy to have people to chat with. He told us where we could find firewood so Jenny and Werner, having pitched their tent, went and found some, while Brian and I completed our set up. It was pretty well dark by this time having given us a glorious red sunset, and the mozzies were out in force; thank heavens for the Rid/Off! I developed a terrific method of squashing them inside the van using one of those thin chopping sheets and squashing them against the roof five and six at a time sometimes!
It was pretty chilly but we had a great meal round the campfire and kept warm with jackets and beanies. My beanie makes my ears so hot so I tried it with my ears out much to the amusement of everyone else! It had been a terrific and exhausting day and we all slept like logs. I do look forward to proper loos and a shower tho!
Friday 17th September, Blanchewater to past the Dig Tree,
the Strzelecki Track continues.
It didn't rain overnight, much to our relief and, in fact, the stars had been magnificent. However the weather forecast was not quite so positive so we moved on fairly early; we had a lot of track to go. I drove a bit this morning and had to take it easy through a crossing or two. But it wasn't difficult driving and there were so very few cars or trucks. Our first stop was Montecollina Bore. The countryside had become more desert-like; tho it is still ridiculously green and we had passed the Cobbler sand dune, the first big dune of this sandy bit of desert. Then it changed dramatically to this white sandy hillocky area and I kept expecting to see the sea over the next hill! Montecollina Bore is a fascinating place, all saltpan and sand-hills with a bluey-green bore bubbling out in the middle. The water was not quite warm enough to tempt us into the pool, mainly because of the bitter wind blowing, but nearly. We saw some marvellous nests made by martins on the picnic shelters.
The next stretch was very simple driving and had the most lovely flowers, great banks of the native hop bush or Ruby Dock, contrasting with lots of little yellow flowers and greeny-bluey bushes. There were also increasing numbers of the poached-egg daisy plant. The Strzelecki Creek crossing was really pretty and had quite a number of birds on it including a pelican flying high over it. We'd spotted a dingo on our way there too. The road wound through dunes and was very white and glary at some points. We stopped at the Cameron Corner turn-off for lunch and went and explored the dune in front of us. Well, it was like a planned garden with pink and yellow and white and purple little and big flowers. Nearly all are prickly plants, tho some are just brave little ordinary soft leaved plants hastily flowering in the hope of forming seeds before the summer comes and burns them up. Jenny and I saw some lizard and snake tracks too.
Then it was on again, on again, Brian driving this time and we came out onto flat, flat open plain that should have been desert but was covered in plants. The dunes were smaller but ran on beside the road for miles. We eventually came to where there is mining activity and we rounded a rise only to see the enormous Moomba Complex like and evil city rising from the desert. We stopped at the lookout and read all about Santos South Australia and Northern Territory's search and the development of the oil and gas fields. We saw a red cap robin (or possibly it was a crimson chat) some zebra finches who were nesting beside the martins on the picnic shelter and the inevitable martins. The gas and oil fields are all over this bit of country. Brian had looked out a few caches for the track and one was at the Moomba lookout. The next one was actually on beyond Innamincka, but because of the twists and turns in the road we thought it must be considerably before it. And then we'd get further away rather than closer! Most of the caches are round Innamincka to do with the Burke and Wills 150 year anniversary. However, when we eventually got to Innamincka, completing the Strzelecki Track, we found most roads were closed because of the floods.
Innamincka, the town is a pub, a shop, an information block and public loos and showers! We went to the shop to buy camping permits only to be advised to move on as soon as possible as rain was forecast and we'd be stuck for a week if it came! Jenny and Werner need to be back in Brisbane by 26th so we decided to plough on and camp at the Dig Tree area 50 or so kilometres out of town. We were pretty disappointed at not seeing any of the historical sites, Brian especially, as this history has been so much part of his life; what he learned at school, what he taught at school and where all the caches are. When we got to the turn off down to the Dig Tree we found it in pretty poor condition and although we could have got through with the Prado, Jenny and Werner's Forester and our van were another matter. So we rejected the idea of camping there and moved on. In the end, as it was getting dark, we just pulled over on a broad bit of the hard shoulder of the road and stopped there. It was remarkably OK. We cooked and ate in the van and Jenny and Werner pitched their tent well off the road. Only a couple of vehicles went by in the twelve hours we were there!
Saturday 18th September, beyond the Dig Tree to the Noccundra Pub.
In the morning we were greeted by a chorus of budgies flying around in flocks and landing on the dead trees nearby! What a joy! We'd seen a couple at the Strzelecki Crossing waterhole but here were flocks of them. It was a bit of a blasted heath where we were, but the weather was fine and dry tho a chilly wind kept the temperature down. We'd had a bit of a battle with mozzies last night and again this morning they were hunting us down! We left quite early and decided to push on to the pub at Noccundra where Jenny and Werner would leave us and carry on if the conditions were good enough. Brian and I planned to set up camp there, hoping to get back to Innamincka in the next day or so to see some of the sights. The pub at Noccundra is an old one and still has old stone walls and low ceilings. It is fairly basic and the campsite is a patch behind the generator shed with demountable loos and showers, but at least it has loos and showers! We had lunch; basic toasted sandwich and pie and there and then, as the news of the road condition on to Thargomindah was good, Jenny and Werner left us and pressed on towards home. The pub owner, Donny, has a speedboat that he races on the river and he kept inspecting and revving the engine. Almost everyone who came to the pub had to go round to the back and look at and admire it! It made a dreadful noise tho.
Sunday 19th September, Noccundra to the Dig Tree and back.
After Jenny and Werner left us, we felt a bit down and despondant about what we were doing. We'd had a noisy disturbed sleep because of the generator that goes 24 hours a day and because of sprinkling rain and worry about driving. However, after breakfast we packed up the car and rang the pub at Innamincka to find out about the weather; not too much rain but more forecast, all tracks to Burke and Wills sites closed except the one to the Dig Tree. After discussion with Donny and a few other blokey blokes Brian was happy that we should at least try to make it to the Dig Tree. So off we went, fine on the bitumen for quite a few kilometres, tho it was evident that more rain had fallen and the shoulder was pretty sticky. And then we hit the dirt; well, what a slippy slidey 50ks! Brian was working the steering wheel backwards and forwards, eyes glued to the road and the car catching in other peoples' ruts and sliding half sideways through the mud. Both Brian and the car did very well actually, but it took Brian a while to get the measure of it and relax into it. We made it to the Dig Tree turn-off despite increasing showers and gloomy skies. The track down to the Dig Tree area was horrendous, the worst slippery red mud and two major waterholes to splosh through, but by taking it slowly we made it through to the most delightful sandy area with big old trees and a wonderful stretch of the Cooper Creek. What a great feeling of achievement! And Brian got to do about six virtual caches down there and then we had lunch by the creek bank watching the budgies, great white egrets and pelicans. This would be a glorious place to camp for a week or so tho I guess in better weather there would be quite a few people here. There was a different mix of flowers too; lots of Australian bluebells that look like what I call harebells, and tiny daisies and yellow billy-buttons, a truly magical place. No wonder Burke and Wills adopted it as their depot.
We didn't linger there too long as there seemed to be more rain building and we had decided to drive back to Noccundra rather than try to make it into Innamincka. The bit of dirt road into the little town is appalling. So back we drove with the road out of the Dig Tree area worse than ever as three or four cars had come over it and roughed it up even further. I drove all the bitumen and Brian the dirt road and we were both knackered by the end and went straight to the pub for a couple of Bacardis and whiskeys.