Sunday, October 19, 2008

To Birdsville and beyond ...

We’ve been without phone reception (and therefore internet) since we left our first camp in Sturt National Park (endearingly named ‘Dead Horse Gully’) last Thursday morning. That was a few kms outside of Tibooburra, population only around 150 but being in civilized NSW they’d thought to put up a mobile phone tower. It’s now Thursday again and still nothing in the 2000kms and counting of South Australia and SW Queensland which we’ve made our way across since.

Upshot is I’m woefully behind updating the blog and I am therefore resorting to typing something in Word for upload later on. They must have reception somewhere in South Australia so will hopefully get this up on the weekend. By which time we will have returned to the desert proper and more than likely come a cropper. Having bottled ‘Big Red’ near Birdsville it looks like we’ll take on the sand dunes of the western Simpson desert to reach Purni bore about 70kms past Dalhousie Springs and Mount Dare (somewhere Ness promised our 4WD teacher we wouldn’t go but of course we’ve got a week’s more experience now).

Five days is by far the longest I’ve been disconnected from the world wide web for quite some time. We even had a reliable connection while we were in remote parts of Indonesia in March. That meant I could enjoy watching the value of my Challenger shares halve in the space of two weeks (having already halved once already in the prior 3 months). Anyhow, I could tell I was missing a broader problem this time when we were in the Birdsville Hotel for a bit of a session on Sunday arvo and David Koch had a primetime crisis special on some weird channel 7 franchise that was showing ‘local’ adverts from as far apart as Adelaide, Darwin and Townsville. They’d turned the volume down at the conclusion of the Bathurst 500 and I didn’t want to ask them to turn it back up for city folk stuff but Kevin Rudd looked like he was actually shitting himself and they’ve apparently guaranteed bank savings for three years so things must be pretty bad.

Anyhow, it’s been quite an adventure since we left Trilby Station. After another two-day camp by the Darling River at Kinchega NP and a day at Silverton (including an exciting underground tour of the disused Daydream silver mine and the best scones I’ve ever tasted), 4WD school in Broken Hill was great fun and we put the Troopie through her paces and picked up some useful training. The only obvious damage was losing the back right mudguard which isn’t all bad as there is now red dirt on the back side of the truck making it look a lot more authentic. Probably the most useful (and used) thing we learnt was how to shut the wheel carrier and jerry can holder locks with our feet. It was good though to try out our recovery gear and learn how to fix a puncture. At our instructor Mick’s recommendation we also picked up a trolley jack.

After Broken Hill we turned North to the delightful Mutawinji NP and then further up the Silver City ‘Highway’ to Sturt and into the desert proper. After two hot, dry and fly infested windy days we headed across the border through Cameron Corner (NSW, SA and Qld border) and started the roller coaster ride over the dunes to the start of the Strzelecki Track.

Just as I was thinking about complaining about the state of the road we passed an older guy climbing the sand dune towards us pulling a loaded cart. Turned out he was walking across Australia and was by no means taking the easy route. He looked hot and was obviously crazy so after asking if he wanted some money we quickly wound up the windows and headed off without looking back.

Innamincka had been one of the places I’d been really looking forward to. It looked pretty big on the map (bold writing) but when we got there it turned out to be population 30 and had no phone reception. On the upside the beer at the pub was cold and the diesel was under $2 a litre.

Ness had done her research and sorted us out with an amazing site alongside the Cooper Creek about 20kms out of town and we were able to take in some classic Australian history visiting Burke’s grave and the following day we visited the ‘Dig Tree’. The Burke & Wills story is certainly an interesting one but is already starting to wear a little thin. It’s the most milked tourist story I’ve ever come across - we’ve been seeing references almost everywhere we’ve been over the last 2500 kms.

We stopped at the Cadelga Ruins for another awesome bush camp by some mosquito infested brown water before reaching Birdsville for a powered site and a well needed shower at the central caravan site. It was hot hot hot and the flies were really terrible but the pub was sensational. People from South Australia are definitely a bit odd but apart from Europeans they seem to be the only people we get to talk to. Conrad and Chris (Patrol owners with Landcruiser envy issues) were particularly south australian but did give us some good tips on places to camp elsewhere on our trip which we duly noted (and have since found to be bang on the money so fair play to them).
We made the trip out to look at ‘Big Red’, the biggest sand dune in the Simpson desert, but didn’t risk the big dune crossing to get there in the Troopie and clambered up on foot instead.
We then turned south and took the ‘inside’ Birdsville track (unmaintained and pretty exciting stuff following an unmarked track which for most of the way was just two tyre tracks) and then joined the main Birdsville track and continued on down stopping at Mungerannie Hotel and then camping at Cooper Creek. The Birdsville track was a bit of a shocker. After 400kms of badly corrugated road our eggs were literally scrambled.

At least we got a change in the weather overnight at Cooper Creek. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees but the change was accompanied by a six hour southerly and we had absolutely no protection on the floodplain. A fitful night’s sleep with all the windows open on the tent to allow the gale to blow through. Amazing that the tent withstood so much movement – we were surprised that the top didn’t blow off. Fortunately the wind didn’t blow all the flies away and breakfast was another quick affair.

We next headed into Marree via the delightful Clayton Wetlands to fill up with more diesel and turn north west to take on the Oodnadatta track. The track is far more interesting than the Birdsville track as it follows the old Ghan (‘Afghan Express’) railway line. There are heaps of ruins of old stations and watering points and bridges along the track.

We also got our first look at Lake Eyre (South). It is absolutely MASSIVE. Water coming out at the bores here have drained through the Great Artesian Basin from rainfall in Queensland that fell two million years ago. This is almost two million years before young earth creationist crazies like Sarah Palin believe god kick things off (4500 BCE).

We camped at ‘Coward Creek’, a campsite set among various gloriously restored Ghan railway buildings. The owners in residence were brother and sister (being SA they might be sharing one of the bedrooms but we thought better than to ask). Their mother was born in the old hotel in 1923 and they have definitely injected a lot of passion into their work. They’ve done an amazing job with the restoration and the site features a wood stove heated shower and hot spa from one of the bores. We got a good night sleep in good shelter which meant we were both feeling a bit more chipper yesterday and I’m also smelling a bit better after a hot shower. I am though starting to look a bit sinister having not had a shave for about 10 days.

It was just as well we were feeling revived as we had our first tyre blow out yesterday afternoon. I was driving and was probably going too fast over the horrible gibber but according to Adam at Oodnadatta’s ‘Pink Roadhouse’ it was an accident waiting to happen. Everyone has their own theory on correct tyre pressures for the roads out here. Our experienced 4WD tutor had drilled into us 38psi on the back and 34psi on the front. The troopie has a lot of weight in the back so had been leaning back at about a 15 degree angle since we made the adjustment in Broken Hill but hey an ex highway patrol officer with 20 years on the clock has told you it’s right it gives you the confidence to push on, and top up the tyres where necessary to stay in range. Adam‘s (owner of the roadhouse and tyre repair shop) theory is that we should be 34 psi on the back and 20psi on the front. We figure he has repaired more tyres than Mick so $260 later we’re going with that. And the troopie is now level which should also make finding a flat spot (so the bed in the tent is level) much easier.

Anyhow, back to the blow out. This was my biggest fear for the whole trip. It was always going to happen but I’d never changed a wheel before. I even joined the NRMA (turned out to be for the second time as I was already a member) and called them out when I got a flat on the mid-lifer (Red Celica) a few months back on the Princes Highway in Rockdale.

This time we were about 75kms from anywhere in the middle of the afternoon with some inquisitive cattle coming over for a look. After much exertion on my part we gave up on the newly acquired trolley jack and tried the jack that had come with the troopie. (Our leaf spring suspension and trusty old man emu meant you had to squeeze under the car to operate the jack lying down which was less than ideal leverage and against the safe operating warning on the box it came in. I don’t think I properly locked the jack either so it was five pumps up and then it came almost all the way down again).

Anyhow the original jack worked perfectly by the way Mick if you’re reading this and Nessa was able to get the nuts undone pretty easily and we were soon on our way on one of our two spares. The only spare we knew until last night how to get off the car as there’s a bit of a trick to the one underneath the car (which Adam kindly talked me through last night).

Said spare was in bad condition and we limped our way to Oodnadatta around 60kph convinced it would blow at any time. Adam fixed us up with a new wheel which we had to put on ourselves. Second time round (and without the trolley jack) it took us about 25 minutes compared to the hour and a half first time round.

The puncture repair tuition was useless in this case by the way - the side wall had blown out so our $300 tyre is kaput.

I now deeply regret my overuse of the c-word while operating the trolley jack and acknowledge Nessa’s technical support and input into the whole process and can say that without her we’d still be out on the track...

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