31 March 2010

ANDADO Australian desert July 1994 (My original Australian Cyclist article) ^

Thoughts of an alternative cycling route through Central Australia, following remote back tracks and passing through the Western Simpson Desert had tantalised me and a friend for several months. Our dream of tranquil wilderness, few cars and bush camping would only be achieved by avoiding the bitumen of the Stuart Highway and travelling the Andado Track (Andado, an Aranda word, means “rock knife”).

Our trip was a 1600 km, 20 day passage from Marree in South Australia to Ormiston Gorge in the Western MacDonnell Ranges of the Northern Territory. We passed through country described by adventurer Warren Bonython as: “A landscape always changing, with many views of scenic beauty unexpectantly appearing...”

     Our decision was to travel northward, as the prevailing winter winds are south easterly and the longitudinal dune system runs north-northwest.
     We had already cycled the southern part of the stony Oodnadatta Track (having bussed to Maree from Adelaide at a cost of $80). We departed Oodnadatta with good wishes from our new Aboriginal friend “Bully”: “Take care of yourselves Bros...” Whilst shaking his head!
     The bikes were heavily laden, each with 15 litres of rainwater (a precious commodity not usually shared with travellers), and eights days’ supply of freeze-dried food in case of breakdown or stranding. The “Mongoose” was so heavily laden that I could barely lift it; my comfort came from knowing that its load would lessen over the days.
     We literally bounced our way across the corrugations following part of the Old Ghan rail line, our first significant landmark being the six square kilometre Fogarty’s clay pan, fringed by low lying red dunes.
It was absolutely  flat and featureless but very humbling and magnificent, I felt, upon reaching its midpoint. These clay pans and clay top roads become impassable in the wet. August is usually dry, although arid regions have unpredictable times of rainfall. Maximum temperatures averaged 21 degrees during our journey, pleasantly warmer than an Adelaide winter.
     Our 1:250,000 maps indicated a region of numerous "confused" sand hills. These were barely rideable and involved using our lowest gear (24 inches), pedalling at high cadence and following sand gutters for 100 metre intervals. Our travel diary records “a dispiriting and exhausting day passing through closed in sand country with a significant low treescape..." Michael described himself as riding just to stay awake!
     At Hamiltion Homestead met an old Aboriginal man (possibly one of the Aranda people) who described bygone days when his people burned off the land to hunt animals and indirectly assisted grassy regrowth. He was about eighty years old and may have been one of the last peoples to leave the Simpson Desert. Our conversation in basic English; his second language; was punctuated by a great deal of comical gesticulation. He laughed knowingly when we spoke of our journey to Dalhousie. It was strange meeting this man and his family on the edge of the Pedirka Desert, their settlement being simple and very isolated.
     Our thoughts of this interesting man spurred us onwards as a convoy of perhaps ten 4WD's passed by without stopping. The high technology of the expensive vehicles contrasted greatly with the desert man's lifestyle. Perhaps he had some vague affinity with our simpler method of travel.
     After leaving the dune fields we crossed a barren gibber plain with its fascinating orange, polished rocks. Gibber is formed from erosion of flat topped sandstone hills. The polished and rounded appearance is due to oxidation and blasting by sand grains - thankfully it doesnt cut or puncture semi-knobbly tyres. Pedirka Siding bore lay upon this intriguing landscape and provided us with drinkable but highly mineralised water. Due to fatigue, partly as a result of the shuddering ride, I found myself almost continually falling off my bike. In the heat, I had failed to  realise the need for lowered tyre pressure. Our average speed this day was only seven kilometres per hour; the lizards travelling faster! We pitched our tent quite early amongst the red mulgas, with their curious curls of orange bark. a sunset walk to a nearby elevation showed distant creeklines - we were in fact viewing a mulga forest and not the "dead heart" of Central Australia. This change of perspective certainly excited me and erased memories of a frustrating day.
Early the next day we entered Witjira National Park, seemingly greeted by a small group of red kangaroos. Dalhousie Springs lay northward in a basin with the stony Goodiar Tableland to the east and the Simpson beyond. A flock of galahs signalled the presence of water - at Dalhousie ruins the small spring had quite refreshing water; the sound of frogs reassuring us of its quality. This was but a mere trickle with the best yet to come. After a few minor sand drifts in desolate saltpan country, we arrived at the main spring. To swim in a deep spring at the edge of the Simpson Desert and be able to drink at whim, while cormorants rest in the trees above us, is mind boggling, I thought at the time. Dalhousie is fed by potable artesian waters and is a hot 38 degrees at its source, where the water can be seen bubbling upward. The surrounds are well greened by melaleuca, various acacias and gums up to 15m  tall. Date palms are prominent on the other mound springs which are divided by small saltpans and soft crystals of gypsum. Samphire (an arid succulent) abounds and tall water reeds up to two metres ring the pools. For the naturist there are many diverse ecosystems in a small area.
     Our skin, apparently red and sunburnt after four days of riding, was actually covered with a combination of red dust and body oil. Washing ourselves restored normal skin colour and soothed sore aching muscles. The abundance of water seemed to be a paradox. We used only three litres per day which we carried in seven extra bidon cages. These often drew curious stares of other off-roaders. Little did they know that each pannier also contained screw top bottles and six litre fold up water sacks! We used fine cloth to filter muddy water from the infrequent dams, aquarium hose to siphon water from inaccessible water holes and Puritabs to sterilise it. Water quality varied from extremely salty and undrinkable to ponds containing cattle excrement. Bore water had no effect on us though we had been warned of its potential to cause diarrhoea. Perhaps our evening meals with chilli and garlic protected us?
    We left Dalhousie after a sunrise walk when we heard a bird with a loud gutteral warble which sounded like a didgeridoo! Aboriginal musicians seem to be masters at mimicking nature. The gentle rise from Dalhousie was via dry creek beds and past small mesa structures whose bright red sandstones contrasted dramatically with the verdant greens of the hardy eucalypts. After crossing another gibber plain we arrived at Mt.Dare Homestead to be met by bewildered locals who couldnt quite believe we were travelling the Andado.
     Mount Dare has basic camping facilities and a hot water shower heated by a wood fire, which surprisingly gives almost instant heat. It is privately run by enthusiastic and helpful people.
     A Frenchmnan with a rifle, dried fruit, cheeese and only 16 litres of water intended to walk to Birdsville from here in 1976 and was never seen again! We felt slightly daunted by this, but with our 30 litres of water and spare parts, including wheel building tools and freewheel body, we felt well prepared. Our greatest cause for concern would be heavy unseasonal rain that could strand us for a week - hence the extra food from Mt. Dare store.
     We had previously lodged our itinery with the Oodnadatta police and we carried a $200 satellite beacon for use in extreme emergency. Any cyclist comtemplateing riding isolated outback tracks should be encouraged to have one.
     As we crossed the Northern Territory border, the land was thick with tall, slender coolibahs, which provided pleasant shade. Since the Andado track follows the dune swale, the sand drifts were shallow but up to 5 km long. the underlay of hard clay corrugations gave our wheels much needed grip, making riding possible.
     Every bore, including the misnamed "Highway Bore", were dry and broken. The declining cattle industry has left deep sandy dustbowls and not a blade of grass! Few bores can be relied upon.
     Camping in the dune swale (the area between dune crests) amongst the bright red colours and the vivid blue sky was the highlight of our days in the Simpson. Dingoes would howl at night, and each sunset, we would walk the dunes following intriguing animal tracks and savour bushfoods such as hakea seed and tomatosa berries. From one dune, the view of a featureless and boundless stony plain mesmerised us. Truly a place "without a postcard".
      We crossed the "dustbowl" to old Andado homestead, noting the tall grasses and climbed two 15m sand dunes. These are truly remarkable features which seemed to vibrate  in the setting sun. They were in fact the only steep "hills" of the whole tour. Molly Clarke runs the homestead as a stopover for travellers. It is perhaps the most isolated settlement in Australia. An evening meal can be obtained, but supplies are not available. A stony campground, hot showers and good water await the thirsty cyclist. Telephoning ahead is a courtesy, as Molly runs the 1920's homestead alone.
     Ahead of us lay 320km of waterless track, more sand drifts and much wildlife. Wedgetailed eagles and Kites frequently soared above, and the occasional Euro (a small kangaroo) was to be seen among the spinifex and canegrasses. Wattles and needle bush grow well on the dunes, the vivid redness of which continued to fascinate us. The nights were certainly tranquil. We fell asleep to the familiar sounds of crickets, which seemed foreign in this setting. We would awake at times to a total silence that almost made our ears hurt. Each morning at exactly sunrise, the wind would mysteriously howl for minutes, then the cool air would suddenly be still.                                                                                                                                                          As we reached the first ranges we could see, 225 km away, the breakaway country near the gibber plain, north of Dalhousie. From atop Arookara range, dunes appeared to run forever, resembling a very green forest. These ranges marked the last of the Andado. The bluish tints of the distant McDonnel looked different to the "flat top" ranges we had seen. In a sense this marked the end of our adventure. We were yet to explore the scenic water hole country of Palm Valley with its ancient cabbage palms, Ormiston Gorge with its dramatic canyon walls and the waterbird country of Glen Helen. It was the simple elements of the dunescape with the vivid ferric colours and the blue sky of a "desert alive" that inspired me.

     A traveller I met years ago said that once you had experienced the colours of the desert, no matter how much you hated it at times, it was like a disease and one would always return. We have pondered crossing the Simpson to Birdsville - the logistics are yet to be ascertained, but the notion will tantalise us until our return.

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