A trip to Ballara, Hightville and Wee McGregor tramway tunnel

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With not many scheduled events on the end September long weekend, I had a bit of time to do some exploring. I had been down the Fountain Springs track half way between Mount Isa and Cloncurry a couple of times. I had checked out the old mining town sites at Bulonga and Ballara but I had never been up to Hightville. I’ve been fascinated by the region’s ghost mining towns ever since I went to Kuridala, especially by how brief their moments of glory were, around the short-lived copper boom of the First World War. Hightville had a similar story to Ballara and Kuridala, and was linked to both by rail. So I was keen to head there and also check out the Wee McGregor mining tunnel (photo above taken outside the tunnel sometime during the First World War).

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But I needed two goes to find it. My first attempt was Saturday afternoon where in a mad moment of energy, I decided I would park the car at the Ballara turn-off and walk the three kms I thought would take to get me to my destination. Ballara possessed copper ore but the more valuable lode was at Wee McGregor further up in the hills. The Hampden Co bought the McGregor mines in 1912 and carted the ore to Kuridala for smelting. The photo above is of the passenger platform at Ballara looking west towards the mine.

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The company lobbied the government to build a railway though the state was wary about supporting a venture that did not seem to have longer term prospects. In the end they compromised with the Wee McGregor Tramway Agreement Bill of 1912. This would be a no frills, lower standard line from Malbon to Ballara and then a two foot gauge tramway up to the mine. Ballara was surveyed in 1913 and had a store, hotel, baker, butcher, police station and post office.The photo above is taken a few hundred metres west of Ballara and shows the ore transfer ramp with the main line on the surface and ore tramway on the top tier.

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Above is the graffiti-strewn remains of one of the many bridges on the tramway. The broken and stony nature of the terrain gave tramway builders adequate rubble to construct embankments and bridge approaches.

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It was a beautiful walk through magnificent scenery with not another soul about and after a couple of kms I came to the Hightville cemetery. Six miners and labourers are buried there between 1912 and 1918. I was fascinated by the cause of deaths “asphyxia by powder fumes”, “bucket fell down shaft” and “accident (sic) drank ant poison”. Another died of heat exhaustion and I hoped that wasn’t an omen as I checked my rapidly depleting water bottle on a hot afternoon.

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I made it to Hightville a couple of kms later but there was little evidence left of the old town. The first ores at Wee McGregor were found in 1904 and the McGregor Hotel was erected in 1909. With Hampden interested in the area’s ores Hightville was surveyed in 1913 and named for its location on the high ridges. Like Ballara, Hightville also had a post office, school and hotel. The company decided Hightville was not suitable for a rail terminus and after the McGregor Hotel burned down in 1914 there was an exodus to the new settlement at Ballara.

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The tunnel was a further 0.9km along but I took a wrong turn and had to turn back for my hour long walk back to the car having got closer to the Wee McGregor mine (mine loading bins pictured) than its tunnel. The excavations into the slopes are from modern mining. In 1975 Eastern Copper Mines used an acid leaching process to clean out the last of the reserves.

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I returned on Monday, this time stopping first at Bulonga, also on the Fountain Springs trail, further north just 5km from the bitumen. Bulonga had its own mine, and township. Copper was discovered in the Corella River in 1905 and after a few changes of ownership the new Corella Copper Company built a smelter in 1913 which took ores by traction engine from the Ballara area for treatment.  The Rosebud Weir on the Corella was built in 1914 to supply water to the township but smelting was stopped due to a lack of water in 1916. Then a heavy 1917 wet season inundated the mine and Corella Copper closed its doors putting an end to Bulonga and its hotel, store and bakehouse. The town was also home to the Afghans who carted ore from Ballara on their camels.

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I kept driving this time all the way to to Hightville where I re-examined the sign there and read important information I missed the first time – “follow red star pickets to the tunnel entrance”. Finally noticing the pickets (see sample photo above) it was an easy walk to find the tunnel.

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Construction of the tramway through hilly terrain took most of 1914. It needed nine bridges from Ballara to the mine and a tunnel under the dividing range. The tunnel is 100m long, 3m wide and 4m high and was built by a gang of nine men hired on a flat contract rate plus dynamite costs. At either end are concrete-formed entrances but the interior is undressed.

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Inside was a slightly eerie feeling with bats swirling overhead though it was cool relief from a hot day. The light from either end (especially the western end where the sun was shining) meant a torch was not required.

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From the western end, the tramway took a winding 1.4km route to reach the mine. The ore trucks were loaded from a bin and taken in two separate rakes because one haul was too much for the loco. The full train with the loco in the centre was joined for the downhill run back to Hightville. The trams also took Ballara children to Hightville School until safety concerns with this caused the school to be moved to Ballara. Around 15,000 tons a year of ore was carted to Kuridala between 1915 and 1919. Traffic plummeted when Wee McGregor closed at the end of 1920, its ores no longer needed for Kuridala’s dying smelter. The tramway line and rolling stock were removed in 1921 and the loco ended up at a sugar mill.

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A reward for my personal exertions was a final detour to the end of the Fountain Springs track and a refreshing dip at the Springs themselves. The large split in the Fountain Range makes for a picturesque entrance to the permanent waterhole which is surprisingly deep and cool in the centre.

A winter of North West Queensland festivals

Winter is by the far the best time of year in North West Queensland. The weather is glorious and there is a never-ending catalogue of great events to get to. This is my record of travelling around the region over nine weekends of the winter of 2018 in our part of the world.winter1

First up was the 2018 Birdsville Big Red Bash. Named for the Big Red sand dune where I took this photo, the festival brings 6000 people to the middle of the Simpson Desert for a three-day party with a host of musical talents all enjoying playing in a vastly different environment to normal. John Farnham topped this year’s bill but I was more interested in seeing the likes of The Angels, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Black Sorrows and Kate Ceberano.

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Among the fun to be had apart from listening to the music was this 2000-strong world record attempt on the Nutbush City Limits dance. Needing to get 90% success rate through the five-minute dance, this extraordinary dust raising phenomenon was judged by a Guinness Book of Records rep and easily beat the previous best by around 1500 people.

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A couple of days later at least 1500 of the Bash revellers joined me 200km up the road for the Bedourie Camel Races, the first of three weekends of camel racing in western Queensland.

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It being Bedourie, it wasn’t just about camels. There were all sorts of competitions: damper-making, mini golf, running, Bedourie camp oven-throwing and wood chop – where the sparks were flying and the sunglasses proved to be handy personal protective equipment.

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The following weekend the camel action moved on to Boulia, 200km north of Bedourie, 300km south of Mount Isa. This is acknowledged as the biggest of the camel weekends and while the other events satisfy themselves with 400m races, Boulia sends the camels on a 1500m trek.

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Like Bedourie, Boulia has its own fun events between races. In its case it is the camel tagging. People enter the arena, attempt to put a tag onto the camel, race back to the start line then race back to untag the camel, all against the clock. It is as chaotic and as funny as it sounds.

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While on the following weekend the festival of the camel moved to Winton, I decided it was time for another sport and went to Quamby, 50km north of Cloncurry for its annual rodeo. Quamby is an old-style traditional rodeo which makes it very popular with locals who will camp there overnight.

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Quamby has an anything-goes mentality which has a tendency to infuriate sensitive souls in the city who pontificate from 2000km away about how terrible it is to animals. The reality is that humans usually come out the worse in most Quamby confrontations, much to the delight of the crowd.

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Another weekend, another rodeo. This one in Cloncurry is much more professional – the annual Merry Muster is the third biggest rodeo in Australia after Mount Isa and Warwick. Always held the first weekend in August, it is a great lead-up to Isa’s own rodeo week.

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Isa’s rodeo is now a five-day festival starting with the street parade and markets on the Wednesday night which attracts thousands into the street. Then on the Thursday is the Mailman Express named for local legend Wally Mailman where non-thoroughbred horses race against the clock, while thousands more pack the race track.

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The highlight is the three-day rodeo at Buchanan Park with action starting on Friday morning and going through until Sunday afternoon in front of packed crowds at every session. The open bull ride is the classic event where riders try to last eight seconds aboard a thousand kilograms of mean beast. The 60th anniversary rodeo finished up Sunday night with a concert in the main arena.

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Another weekend later, another rodeo and another concert. This was the Gulf Frontier Days festival at Gregory, 350km north-west of Mount Isa. The weekend features Australia’s only Indigenous rodeo and then some of the country’s best Aboriginal acts and artists feature in concert such as Yothu Yindi, Shellie Morris and the incomparable Archie Roach (pictured).

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By now we are up to the last weekend in August and it is the border town of Camooweal’s turn to have a festival, the Drover’s Festival. The festival celebrates the dying art of droving cattle across the land by horse, a skill mostly lost to the trucking industry. The first night of the festival features a parade on the main street as well as the chaotic Mailman race (pictured) where teams of four race around town carrying out tasks including carrying the mail and drinking a beer at the pub. On Saturday the action moves to the Drovers Camp for bronco branding and a concert and the day also features Camooweal’s annual race meet.

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In September and the action moves back to Birdsville for the annual two-day Birdsville Races with 6000 people in attendance in the middle of the Simpson Desert. The running of the Cup on Saturday is worth $40,000, the richest race in rural Queensland, attracting the best regional jockeys from across the state. I wrote about my experience there last year here.

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The ninth and final weekend of events is in Cloncurry. Called Beat the Heat it is a new festival designed to take place in the off-year of Winton’s biennial Outback Festival. It takes advantage of existing events such as the Cloncurry Spring Races and adds a few new touches to bring in the crowd. Friday night held a street party with a free concert headlined by Kasey Chambers. A highlight was the mine cart race, a bit like Camooweal’s Mailman with teams dragging a cart around a course taking on challenges along the way such as eating plates of hot curry. Curry beat the heat indeed, and a lot of laughs to end a fun weekend in a fun winter in the North West.

 

A closer look at Alice Springs

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Over the last few posts I’ve been documenting my trip to the Territory in June. It was deeply enjoyable especially getting to the Top End where I’d never been before. I had been to Alice Springs before – as far back as 2002 so I was keen to renew acquaintance and stay with a good friend, who was shocked when I reminded him had just moved there when I came calling 16 years ago. It was good to be back in the middle of Australia and experience Alice’s unique aura once more.

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Alice Springs has an impressive geography slap back in the middle of the Macdonnell Ranges. The place even has its own geological event named for it, the Alice Springs Orogeny, 150 million years of tectonic mountain building that created not only the Ranges but also the Uluru/Kata Tjuta formation 450km south-west. Seen here is Mount Gillen to the south of town as seen from Billy Goat Hill in the centre of town.

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Above is the view north from Billy Goat Hill over the town centre and Anzac Hill beyond. Billy Goat Hill as the name would suggest is where goats were herded in the past.  Known as Akeyulerre in Arrernte language, it was also a special place for local Indigenous people though it is now mostly derelict.

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This is the view from Anzac Hill looking south over the town and Heavitree Gap, the southern entrance to town. The outsized glass building on the left is the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. The four-storey $18 million courthouse opened in 2016 and has divided local opinion especially over the public/private agreement between the government and Sitzler Construction.

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Like most memorial places in Australia Anzac Hill is strong in remembrance of Australian action in overseas wars, especially the First World War. There is, however, a glaring omission when it comes to local conflict. The first European expeditions in the 1860s and 1870s came across groups of Aborigines , but these meetings were generally fleeting. The first cattle reached Alice Springs in 1872 and Europeans established pastoral stations.  Once settlers moved into the area, increased contact with the original inhabitants was inevitable. The consequences were monumental and devastating for the Aborigines, and the effect are still felt.

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Situated an easy 4km walk north along the river from the centre of town is the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the birthplace of the township. The Overland Telegraph route followed in the footsteps of John McDouall Stuart’s 1862 trek across Australia south to north. The station was established in 1871 along with 11 others to relay messages between Darwin and Adelaide and link with an underwater cable network to London. More modern facilities were then established in the new township of Stuart in 1932 (Corner of Railway Tce and Parson Street) and the Station ceased operation. The town was later renamed Alice Springs after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, Sir Charles Todd.

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This is the view from the Telegraph Station to Trig Hill. As the name suggests, the hill was used by ordnance surveyors to map the region.

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The view back to the Telegraph Station from the top of Trig Hill.

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A little further past Trig Hill is this small cemetery. There are three gravestones in the cemetery  and two more are buried in a secondary enclosure.

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Ernie Bradshaw died from tuberculosis aged 27. He arrived from Melbourne six months earlier hoping this dry country would improve his health. Ernest Flint, who worked on the Overland Telegraph line, died here aged 33 and was the first person buried in the cemetery.

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The Todd River is usually dry but despite not having any permanent waterholes it supports a wide range of plants. In the rare event rain does fall and the river fills up it heads south through Heavitree Gap for up to 140km before disappearing into the Simpson Desert. River flows are quickly soaked by the parched landscape and what is not evaporated filters through the soil and rocks to recharge the groundwater basin.

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It being a Friday evening I joined my friend on one of his weekly rituals, an end of week climb up Mt Gillen. I was glad of the company. The un-formalised and un-signposted route required local knowledge and some headlights for the tricky trip back down in the dark.

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My iphone did not do justice to the twilight views from the top of Mt Gillen.

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Alice Springs is a town like no other in the outback, a cultural as well as physical oasis. The town has a thriving art and social scene and a constant influx of young creative visitors. It also means that overseas acts such as Irish singer Mary Coughlan are prepared to break her own holidays to perform here – by happy coincidence on the weekend I was there. She played with her regular guitarist and a local talented bassist at the best pub in Central Australia – Monte’s. A great night in the middle of everywhere.

On to Kata Tjuta and Uluru

The morning after my visit to Kings Canyon, it was back on the road south – three hours to Yulara. Yulara is the township associated with Uluru and the home of Ayers Rock Resort which was booked out solid when I arrived (the reason why I later ended up camping at Curtain Springs 180km away). I stocked up at the supermarket and from the town lookout saw Uluru gleaming in the distance 25km away. But a closer visit to the Rock would have to wait till later in the day.

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First I was heading 50km west still within the same national park to Kata Tjuta. I stopped at the viewing area 15km out to get my first good look at the ancient red rock formations though they looked more brownish at this distance.

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But red they were as confirmed at closer range.  Kata Tjuta is a Pitjantjatjara phrase meaning “many heads”, and that image too looked more obvious a couple of kilometres out. The largest of the domes, Mt Olga (hence the old European name for the entire range “the Olgas”) is 546m above the surrounding plain and 198m higher than Uluru.

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Mount Olga was named in 1872 by Ernest Giles, in honour of Queen Olga of Württemberg (daughter of Tsar Nicholas I).  On her 25th wedding anniversary in 1871 she and her husband, King Charles I of Württemberg, named Giles’s expedition funder  Ferdinard Mueller a baron and the now von Mueller wanted to repay the compliment.

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This part of Central Australia is in the Amadeus Basin, formed 800 million years ago. Around 550 million years ago, an event known as the Woodroffe Thrust lifted rocks northward and when they eventually eroded they created the deposit known as the Mount Currie Conglomerate. Uluru and Kata Tjuṯa are made of sediment originating in this Mount Currie Conglomerate and both have a chemical composition similar to granite.

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The Pitjantjatjara and fellow traditional owners the Yankunytjatjara people knew these rocks for thousands of years before they were renamed for obscure German royalty. They still hold the ancestral dreaming law known as Tjukurpa. Tjukurpa has many deep, complex meanings and refers to the period when ancestral beings created the world.

 

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Most of the dreaming law is not accessible to outsiders. But one legend surrounds the great snake king Wanambi, who lives on the summit of Kata Tjuṯa and only comes down during the dry season. His breath could transform a breeze into a hurricane in order to punish those who did evil deeds.

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There are two major walks in Kata Tjuta and I did both that day. The first, the Valley of the Winds walk is a full 7.4km circuit of the rocks, which guide books say takes four hours but I did in an hour and a half.

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The second walk is the Walpa Gorge Walk which takes you deep into the structure. Walpa (windy) Gorge is a desert refuge for plants and animals and the track gently rises to an ephemeral stream, passing rare plants and ending at a grove of spearwood.

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The walk gives visitors a close-up glimpse of the amazing sheer walls of granite. And no matter how warm it is in the Territory sun, it can get quite chilly in the shadows.

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This is the view looking out from Walpa Gorge.

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On completion of the second walk I drove back to Uluru. I’d last been to this part of the world in 2002 and was keen to renew acquaintance though I would do things a little differently this time. I’ve written before how I did the climb in 2002 though later admitted this was the wrong thing to do, ignoring the wishes of traditional owners. As it turned out the day I returned was too windy and park rangers closed the climb anyway. A wise decision as my memory of that climb (especially the way down) was that it was deeply treacherous and dangerous and one false move would end in certain death.

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The local Anangu, Pitjantjatjara people call the landmark Uluru which has no known meaning. On 19 July 1873, surveyor William Gosse sighted the landmark and named the Rock in honour of Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. In 1993, it was renamed “Ayers Rock / Uluru” and became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. The order of the dual names was officially reversed to “Uluru / Ayers Rock” on November 6, 2002. While the resort retains the name Ayers Rock, it is fading from common use as Uluru becomes the generally accepted name.

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Uluru is a 10km diameter inselberg which means “island mountain” in German. Inselbergs are prominent isolated hills that rise abruptly from lowlands in a hot, dry region. Uluru is also often referred to as a monolith, although this is term is avoided by geologists as ambiguous. I parked my car along the Mala Walk (named for the rufous hare-wallaby) and although I planned to do the full 10km circuit of the rock, I stopped to admire the artwork embedded in the rock along the Mala Walk illustrating the stories of the Tjukurpa. Traditionally Indigenous people made paint from natural minerals, mixed with water or sometimes animal fat. Colours most commonly used were red, yellow, orange, white, grey and black.

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Uluru rock is composed of arkose, a coarse-grained sandstone rich in the mineral feldspar. The sandy sediment, which hardened to form this arkose, was eroded from high mountains composed largely of granite. Over 500 million years ago the newly-formed Petermann Ranges were similar in size to the Himalayas but eroded quickly without plant cover. The sand that became the arkose sandstone of Uluru was dumped at the bottom of the mountain range. As geologist Dr Marita Bradshaw puts it “Uluru is almost just shedding of granite.”

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From a distance, Uluru looks smooth and featureless. But up close its face is weather-beaten – pitted with holes and gashes, ribs, valleys and caves.

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Scientists debate the formation of the caves at Uluru. Some say they can begin with water lying in dimples in the rock when the weathering process forms a hollow and gradually ‘eats’ backward and upward into the rock until it becomes a cave. Others say the ‘high’ caves on the southern side of Uluru may have begun by water soaking in when the plain surface was at a higher level and again the weathering process could again eat upward and backward to form a cave. The spaced high caves on the north-eastern and western faces may have begun by the flaking process and honeycombed out by wind and water over time.

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As I returned to the Malu Walk on completion of the 10km circuit, the evening sun poured tantalising shadows on the rocks. Uluru’s flaky surface results from the chemical decay of minerals.

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Mutitjulu Waterhole is one of Uluru’s many hidden gems.

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This was the cave where the old people sat and the cave’s ceiling is blackened by fires. Here they told stories and keep their spears and tools and cook up malu (kangaroo) the younger people would bring them.

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On completion of the walk I timed my drive out of the park to coincide with sunset. Uluru’s sunset car park was heaving with tourists but a little further along the road you could stop (legally) and quietly enjoy the magnificent rock change colour as it reflected the fading sunlight.

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A visit to Kings Canyon

A highlight of my recent trip to the Territory was my first ever visit to Kings Canyon.  Four hours out of Alice Springs, the canyon swings into view along the road to the Kings Canyon Resort where I was staying the night. I looked forward to a closer view and I was not disappointed.

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The area is the home of the Luritja people, who call it Watarrka. The first European here was Ernest Giles in 1872 who named the creek for his old friend Fielder King and also named the Gill Ranges for expedition funder George Gill. However with no access roads the area remained mostly unknown until 1961.

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A shallow sea once filled this land 440 million years ago. By 400 million years ago Watarrka was a windless plain covered with sand dunes. That became the Mereenie Sandstone, hard and brittle due to tough quartz grains cemented with silica.

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Huge forces pushed up the rocks 350 million years ago cracking the brittle Mereenie Sandstone. Kings Canyon was one of those cracks, gradually widening over 20 million years of erosion. Wind, rain and floodwaters seeped into the Carmichael Sandstone below further weakening the Mereenie layer.

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The George Gill Range lies at the intersection of three major landforms: MacDonnell Ranges to the north-east, Lake Amadeus to the south-west, and the Simpson Desert to the south-east.

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The beehive-like domes on the top of the range provide evidence of the sand dune past due to its cross-bedding (groups of inclined layers). The wind deposited sand in different directions over time. The sand on the windswept plain gradually subsided compacting layers below and silica-rich water cemented the grains together.

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Wind, rain and floods deepened the crack in the Mereenie getting down to the softer Carmichael below which now forms the rubbly lower slopes of the canyon. As it eroded it sent huge blocks tumbling down the cliffs. Markings on the south wall were probably formed by the release of stress as the sandstone cracked.

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Tempe Downs cattle station was established here in 1896 until a run of bad seasons forced the stockholders out to Kathleen Springs. But the cattlemen were here to stay. In 1983 the station surrendered 1000 sq m so a national park could be established. The resort opened in 1992.

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Ripple marks are evidence there were once shallow lakes here.

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Jack Cotterill pioneered tourism here. His son Jim and Aboriginal man Leslie built a bridge of timber and sandstone slabs across a deep crevice in 1962 to give people access to the North Wall of the Canyon.

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The view back out of the Canyon from the North Wall.

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The red-brown colour is formed by two processes. It is either water that has seeped in and soaked up iron oxide which deposits a crust on the outside or it is iron-rich dust blown onto the surface and chemically fixed to the sandgrains by a fungus.

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According to NT Parks the 6km loop of the Kings Canyon Rim Walk takes “3-4 hours”. As usual this is grossly inflated. Even with all the interesting features to look out for, it takes around 90 minutes.

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The Garden of Eden is a sacred place of the Luritja people, especially for male dreaming stories. They ask people do not swim here as human activity and contaminants like sunscreen can affect the hundreds of species that call the garden home.

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The beehive domes give the canyon a “lost city” feeling. They are the result of erosion of vertical cracks in the sandstone.

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The Lutitja say the domes are young kuninga men who came here during the Tjukurpa (Dreamtime). Kuninga are western quolls who still inhabit the area.

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There is a longer walk of 22 km which takes two days along the Giles Track. It crosses the top of the range from Kathleen Springs to Kings Canyon with a halfway entrance/exit point at Reedy Creek/Lilla.

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The many colours of the North Wall tell a story. The red-brown is a veneer, underneath is a pale-coloured rock, compacted white beach and dune sand, 360 million years old. The dark rusty streaks are from rainwater filtering through the rocks soaking up iron oxide. The green and black patches are algae.kings18

The Luritja named the area Watarrka, after an acacia tree found within the park.

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Watarrka’s cycads are among 17 relict species that are up to 400 million years old.

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This dry cliff becomes a spectacular waterfall called Kestrel Falls after heavy rains. It takes its name from the Nankeen kestrels that roost in the cliffs.

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After doing the cliff side walk, I did the shorter walk up the creek bed. The Luritja call King’s Creek Watarrka Karru and it is a ceremony place on the quoll dreaming track.

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The Kings Creek Walk path comes to an abrupt end 500m meters from the official end of the track. A heavy rainfall event caused a rock fall blocking access to the viewing platform. The NT Parks and Wildlife Commission are building a new platform.

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After my walks I retired to the Kings Canyon Resort, 10km away, where I watched the Canyon change colours as the evening progressed.

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A drive through the Territory

After a visit to Nitmiluk National Park it was time to head south from the Top End deep into the Red Centre. Here are a few highlights of a couple of drives to and from Alice Springs.nt1

The first day was a long 1200km slog from Katherine to Alice as I wanted to get there before dark. There weren’t too many stops to enjoy the scenery but I did check out the Telegraph Station at Barrow Creek 200km south of Tennant Creek.  Barrow Creek was named in 1860 by John McDouall Stuart after South Australian MP J H Barrow. One of the 15 telegraph stations of the Overland Telegraph exploring party was set up here in September 1871 by John Ross as it assessed Stuart’s route through Central Australia. The site was chosen due to surface water and for a well site. It was completed by 1880 with an elaborate stone fence, wagon shed, blacksmith’s hut, cemetery and a verandah. A century later the microwave telecommunications link replaced the telephone carrier wave system making the station redundant.

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I landed in Alice late that evening and the following morning I headed further south. My destination was King’s Canyon and then on to Uluru, but my travels there deserve a blog post of their own so I won’t talk about them here. But when I was looking at the ways to get to King’s Canyon I thought there were two ways, a shortish way via the Mereenie Loop but which involved getting permits to go through Aboriginal land and also had long stretches of dirt. Then there was an all bitumen-route via the Stuart and Lasseter Hwys but considerably longer in distance. Then a mate told me about the Giles Road, a dirt road of 100km named for explorer Ernest Giles but a short cut to the Canyon and some beautiful desert views along the way.

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On my way from Kings Canyon to Uluru, I passed another monolith. Mt Conner is visible from the Lasseter Hwy and so resembles Uluru many people are fooled into thinking it is Uluru. Indeed I made that mistake when I first took this route 16 years ago and was surprised to see Uluru when I thought it was at least 150km away.  Fool-uru strikes again. Mt Conner is an impressive rock in its own right, a 650m-tall flat-topped, horseshoe-shaped mesa, part of the same substrate beneath Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  Known as Artila in Dreamtime stories it was the home of the feared Ninya, or Ice Men, the creators of cold weather. Explorer William Gosse gave it a European name in 1873 after South Australian politician M. L. Conner.

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Mt Conner is now on a private property called Curtain Springs, a pastoral lease on 416,400 hectares that is a combined cattle station, roadhouse and tourist resort. With no room at the Ayers Rock Resort I stayed the night here at its free camping and checked out its pub for a beer and a meal. I didn’t have time but the property runs walks to Mt Conner and the equally impressive nearby salt lakes.

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I caught the red desert dawn the following morning on my way back to Alice Springs.

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But I did a quick detour back 10km on the Giles Road to check something I missed on my way out – the Henbury Meteorite Craters. Around 4000 years ago, a large meteorite travelling at 40,000 kilometres an hour broke up before impact and hit the ground at Henbury. Several tonnes of nickel-iron alloy were scattered around a wide area and a 44kg piece is now in the Alice Museum of Central Australia. At the site there are 12 impact craters from seven to 180m wide and up to 15m deep. Over time the sharp outlines were worn down by wind and rain to become board undulating mounds.

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My time in Alice is also worthy of a separate post so I’ll fast forward a couple of days to my drive north again to Tennant Creek and back to Mount Isa. First stop is Aileron 150km which has a hotel and roadhouse and also one of Australia’s curious “big things”. In Aileron’s case it is two big things “the Anmatjere Man” and ” the Anmatjere Woman And Child”. The larger statue of the man on the hill is 17 meters tall and weighs eight tonnes. The 2005 sculpture by local artist Mark Egan is made from steel frame, mesh wire and ferris cement.  The same artists added the woman and child monument three years later.

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Further north again is Wycliffe Well, self-styled “UFO centre of Australia”. Situated 375km north of Alice it has the inevitable roadhouse which is covered in otherworldly art. According to Vice magazine which drove through here in 2017 it was originally developed by former owner Lew Farkas who tried to capitalise on Wycliffe Well’s notoriety as the spot for UFO sightings. There have been UFO sightings around Wycliffe Well for decades apparently “because of its cosmic alignment of landforms, tectonic plates, and manmade structures, which emit a type of UFO-friendly energy.” and its proximity to US military intelligence base Pine Gap. “So, you know, aliens,” Vice concluded.

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My base for the last night before heading for home was the Devils Marbles Hotel at Wauchope another 40km up the road. Here I took the time to do a couple of late evening hours walk around the Marbles, or Karlu Karlu to give them Aboriginal name. I was there most recently in January and wrote about it in more detail here.

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A visit to Nitmiluk Gorge at Katherine

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After a long day’s drive from Darwin and a refreshed night at one of Katherine’s motels it was time to drive 30km out of town to what I and countless others come to town to see – Nitmiluk Gorge. This deep gorge carved through ancient sandstone by the Katherine River draws thousands of visitors to the Nitmiluk National Park each year. The park is owned by the Jawoyn people.

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Entry to the park is surprisingly free but your feet have to pay the bill. A steep set of stairs takes you into the first part of the walk, the Baruwei Loop Walk.

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The reward for the climb comes quickly with terrific views over the Katherine River and beyond. The Katherine is part of the Daly River system and its headwaters are in the national park. Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart was the first European to see the river on 4 July 1862, and named it after Catherine Chambers, daughter of expedition sponsor James Chambers, though he changed the spelling.

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This is the view looking back to the visitor centre. The centre has a restaurant, souvenir shop and cultural displays and I enjoyed a beer there as a reward for a long walk. But that was much later in the day.  In the meantime I headed away towards the Southern walks to explore deeper the Gorge system and surrounding escarpment away from the daytrippers who just do the Baruwei Walk or who take a boat trip.

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I’m headed towards Pat’s Lookout but first a detour and a clamber down to the Southern Rockhole. Situated 4km from the entrance it is a seasonal waterhole and there was nothing flowing when I arrived in June in the middle of the dry season. But with no-one around the croc-free waterhole, there was enough water for a refreshing skinny dip before continuing on my way.

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This was the view from Pat’s Lookout, looking out on to the Second Gorge. There are nine gorges in total, though the ninth is a good 20km into the park.

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This is another view from Pat’s Lookout. At the bottom of the picture is one of the Katherine Gorge cruise boats. Nitmiluk Tours are run by the Jawoyn People and leave from a jetty near the visitors centre.

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While at Pat’s Lookout I bumped into a Danish man in his 70s named Sven who asked me to take his photo overlooking the Gorge. I did that and then kept going. I missed one of the directional signs (sometimes placed on the rocks, sometimes placed in the foliage) and was backtracking the way I came when I bumped into Sven a second time. He had been here a couple of days and said the signs got harder to follow as you got deeper into the park and he had got badly lost the day before. We agreed to accompany each other figuring we had a better chance of finding the signs together with two pairs of eyes instead of one. This proved a smart move as one more than one occasion one of us would miss a sign, but the other spotted it. At the next turn-off we decided to head to Butterfly Gorge. The cliff in the photo above is on the way to Butterfly Gorge.

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As the name suggests it is a popular spot not just for bushwalkers but for common crow butterflies which were in abundance. Though they refused to pose for any of my photos. The Gorge itself is a tranquil paradise tucked at the base of a low sandstone plateau. Sven suggested we get in for a swim. I told him that was not advisable given the number and size of crocs my colleagues in the Katherine Times keep writing about in these parts. Sven thought better of it and we just admired the view and moved on.

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But we did want to get our feet wet and from our trip down we knew there was a pleasant waterhole back on the walk just up from the river. We backtracked to the waterhole and discarded shoes and socks and talked of life in Australia, Denmark and Ireland. We were at least a couple of hours from the entrance and it was getting late so we went back to the visitors centre to enjoy that aforementioned beer. I thanked Sven for his company, he said he wouldn’t have gone down to Butterfly Gorge if we hadn’t met. But I’ll be back – There is still plenty of Nitmiluk National Park I need to explore.