Karlu Karlu: To Tennant Creek and the Devils Marbles

The last time I went to the Devils Marbles was in 2002 on a driving trip from Brisbane to Alice Springs. We didn’t stay long but the amazing shapes and formations of the rocks remained in my memory. Living in Mount Isa they are “just” seven hours away so feel like they are in my back yard. In January I finally had a spare weekend to revisit the place. I left late on Friday so only made it two hours to Camooweal near the border, but still in Queensland. As this mural on a Camooweal wall makes clear, Camooweal was founded as a droving outpost between the Territory and southern states. Though trucks have long since replaced walking cattle through “the long paddock”, Camooweal still boasts an important Drovers Museum open each winter and a drover’s festival in August.

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I stayed in a donga at the back of the roadhouse, had a quick beer at the Camooweal Post Office Hotel (I would be back there the following weekend for the famous Australia Day lawnmower races) and watched the sun set in the direction I would be heading in the morning – west towards the Territory.

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I was up early and quickly drove the 12km to the border. The Welcome to the Territory signpost is a must-do selfie stop for anyone visiting Camooweal but this was the first time I was driving past it in two years in North West Queensland.

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Followed quickly by the pleasing sight of the NT 130kph speed limit (up from 110kph in western Queensland). With Tennant Creek 470km away and nothing much in between, it shaves valuable time off the journey, doable in under four hours.

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About 50km on is Avon Downs. Avon Downs is home to a large pastoral station owned by AA Co and a police station which does important work along the lonely border especially against the sly grog trade from Isa into the Territory Aboriginal communities.

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After a lot of nothingness along the Barkly Tableland, I arrive at the Barkly Roadhouse, 260km from Queensland. Two hours into the journey is a perfect time for a fuel refill, toilet break and most importantly a decent cup of coffee. The place is a perfect oasis. We stayed the night here on the return leg of the 2002 trip and I recall the largest steak I’ve ever consumed in my life. Today, it’s just the cup of joe and onwards to Tennant.

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I detoured a few kilometres north of Tennant Creek to check out the Telegraph Station. The creek here was a reliable source of water for Aboriginal people for 40,000 years and nine Aboriginal groups call the area home, including the Warumungu, Warlpiri, Kaytetye and Alyawarra people. In 1860 explorer John McDouall Stuart passed this way on his unsuccessful first attempt to cross the continent from south to north. He named a creek to the north of town after expedition financier John Tennant. Work on the overland telegraph line began in 1870 and Tennant Creek was one of 11 repeater stations between Port Augusta and Darwin as Australia opened up instantaneous communication with the world. Completed in 1872 the station hosted a post office and became an important staging point for travellers and rations depot for dispossessed Aboriginal people.

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The town of Tennant Creek was not established until well into the 20th century.  The township was located 12km south of the creek because the Telegraph station had an 11km reserve. Gold was discovered in the 1930s starting Australia’s last great Gold Rush. The town quickly grew to 600. Today it remains an important gold mining town with a population of 3000 – about half Indigenous.

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Battery Hill goldmine overlooks the town and hosts of one of the last two operating ten-head stamp batteries and a government-owned ore crushing machine. These days it’s all for tourism purposes with underground tours and museums which were closed on the Saturday morning I visited though the great views over town were still open.

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Having found a motel for the night, I drove the remaining 110km south down the Stuart Highway to Karlu Karlu, the Devils Marbles (the apostrophe is omitted). The rocks are now in a conservation park spread over a wide area. I parked in the northern car park and set off on a 5km trek.

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Karlu Karlu is a living cultural landscape, a sacred site, and traditional country for Warumungu, Kaytetye, Alyawarra and Warlpiri peoples. Since 2009 it has been jointly managed by the traditional owners and NT Parks and Wildlife. Among the many walks is the Nurrku Walk named for the small mallee eucalypt called the snappy gum. This brittle tree often grows on gravelly rises among the spinifex. Aboriginal people used the Nurrku for firewoods, medicine and bush foods including the “sugarbag” honey left by native bees.

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The distinctive shape of the boulders are the result of erosion of remnants of a solid mass of granite which still lies below. In John Lewis’s 1872 account of the building of the telegraph line, they passed through “extraordinary shaped stones” in the Davenport Ranges. “The country was of granite formation and many stones were round like marbles,” Lewis wrote. “In fact they were called Devils Marbles”.

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The process of creating these rocks began many years before 1872 and was the earth’s work not the devil’s. Around 1700 million years ago, molten magma squeezed through sandstone rocks and cooled into granite. They shrunk as they cooled and earth pressures caused right-angled patterns of cracks called joints to form. As the rocks above eroded, the granite emerged to the surface. Groundwater filtered along the joints and reacted with minerals in the humid climate to form clays. This weathering was most noticeable at the corner of the blocks which had more exposed surfaces.

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Eventually the overlying rocks withered exposing the granite. When the weathered bits washed away, it left boulders perched in precarious positions across the landscape.

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Though the boulders appear solid, many are fractured by their joints. Rainwater penetrates into the stone reacting with minerals decomposing them to clay. Critical cracks form and the weight of the two halves causes the boulder to fall apart.

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The area is a sacred site with many parts (not shown) forbidden to photography. Karlu Karlu is an important dreaming site, and most of the dreaming stories can only be known by appropriate Aboriginal people. There is a practical reason for husbanding this information. During rains water collects in rockholes providing an important water source in a difficult environment.

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Karlu Karlu is the Aboriginal term for both the rock features and the surrounding area. It translates as round boulders and refers to the large boulders found mainly in the western side of the reserve. The rust colour from the iron oxides makes the rocks seem like giant sweet potatoes.

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After a delightful couple of hours among the boulders, I was thirsty and headed five minutes drive south to Wauchope. There’s not much at Wauchope except for the fine building that hosts the Devils Marbles Hotel.

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Wauchope was established in 1917 to service local wolfram (tungsten) mining operations. Wolfram was used in munitions manufacture and mining continued to 1941 when the tungsten price plummeted. Miners extracted 1000 tonnes of concentrate from 10,000 tonnes of quartz. The pub opened in 1938.

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That evening I returned to Tennant Creek and went for a run along the 5km bicycle path north of town to Tingkkarli/Lake Mary Ann. This human-made lake provides a water supply for the town and is a cool oasis, even for perspiring runners.

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On Sunday it was the long and lonely Barkly Hwy drive back to Mount Isa. The need for a good road between Northern Territory and Queensland was long recognised but it took the danger of impending world war to make it happen. Authorities proposed a supply link between the Mount Isa railhead and the Alice Springs-Darwin North-South Road in October 1940 during the formation of the North-South Road. Initially a road was planned from Newcastle Waters to Camooweal but the project was shelved until March 1941 when the Army gained approval for construction of a road by the most direct route from Camooweal to Tennant Creek. This road was named the Barkly Highway in 1944 for a Victorian governor. The North-South Road was named the Stuart Highway for the explorer.

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