Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Mawson's Hut, from the Australian Antarctic Division website.

Arkaroola, and particularly the connection with Sir Douglas Mawson, got me thinking again about the trip to Antarctica. I hadn't been able to get any further than our arrival - at the South Shetland Islands. All I could manage would have been more and more pictures of penguins and icebergs. It was too big and I was too small. Nothing has changed.

Last night there was a just-past-full moon, and the air was still and cold. In a warm bedroom, doona and dogs, I read a chapter from Mawson's The Home of the Blizzard.

He was trying to get back to the hut with a cut down sled and sail, blistered feet held together by string, and frost bitten toes, hands and nose. He was alone. Belgrave Ninnis had dissappeared to his death down a crevice and Xavier Mertz, whom he had been pulling behind on the sled, was now dead. This was Mawson's second fall down a crevice.

"There, exhausted, weak and chilled, hanging freely in space and slowly turning round as the rope twisted one way and the other, I felt that I had done my utmost and failed, that I had no more strength to try again and that all was over except the passing. Below was a black chasm; it would be but the work of a moment to slip from the harness, then all the pain and toil would be over. It was a rare situation - a chance to quit small things for great - to pass from the petty exploration of a planet to the contemplation of vaster worlds beyond. But there was all eternity for the last and, at its longest, the present would be but short. I felt better for the thought."

He extracted himself, struggling up the rope, and emerged feet first then collapsed into unconsciousness. When he awoke he spent three hours erecting the tent, where

"Between each movement, almost, I had to rest. Then reclining in luxury in the sleeping-bag I ate a little food and thought matters over. It was a time when the mood of the Persian philosopher appealed to me:

Unborn To-morrow and dead Yesterday
Why fret about them if To-day be sweet? "

Thursday, June 24, 2010


"We should not be afraid of the future"

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


After the mostly high road the day before, next morning there was time for a short drive and some stops for the smaller pleasures - the creek beds, red gums, and the flowering desert -before heading back to Wilpena.

Sturts Desert Pea (Swainsona formosus) is a sturdy spreading soil binding perennial with brilliant bright red flowers with a jet black centre.

The black and red are those of the soil and its shadows, and a flag I'd welcome as our own.

Pink and Silver Mulla Mulla ( Ptilotus exaltatus var. and var. obovatus) are everywhere, brushing the desert with purply pinks and silver whites.

The creek beds flare stripes of reds, ochres, browns, and purples, waiting for the afternoon sun to spot light them into even more brilliance.

There wasn't time to get to the great waterholes, so there has to be a next time.

The plane was waiting

and back to Wilpena was a short flight south.

(clicking should enlarge)


Coming into Arkaroola, with its observatory, tucked into the hills, the creek circling the settlement.

Leaving Lake Eyre, the plane swung south toward Arkaroola, a remote wilderness sancturary (600Km north of Adelaide) in the North Flinders Ranges, just north of the Gammon Ranges and west of Lake Frome, another of the great inland salt lakes (Frome, Callabonna, Blanche, Gregory, Eyre, Torrens) which together form an almost horseshoe shape, with the legendary 'tracks' - Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Strezleki - fanning out from its centre. The dreamtime story of the local Adnyamathanha people is that the Rainbow Serpent drank from the Arkaroola Creek and drained Lake Frome dry, the serpent's urine then creating the water holes of this spectacular country.

The centre of this inverted U of salt lakes is really the little outpost of Maree, once a critical rail and stock transport stop on the original Ghan railway (now moved further west), the rail line dividing the town into Europenas on one side and Aboriginals and Afghans on the other. The Afghans and their camels were brought to Australia for the otherwise impossibly difficult desert. And in Maree they built Australia's first mosque. More recently, Marree Man has drawn much interest and speculation, although he is now fading fast, and flights don't bother to fly over any more.

The Arkaroola story is one as fascinating as the landscape, a story of the initially incongruous meeting of geology and conservation, as exemplified in the man responsible for its current circumstance, Reg Sprigg, whose biography is the one link you should be reading. This is a story extending back to Sir Douglas Mawson, yes, that Mawson, with whom Sprigg had studied. It was because of Mawson's South Australian experiences, where he had discovered uranium and where he had come "face-to-face with a great accumulation of glacial sediments of Precambian age, the greatest thing of the kind recorded anywhere in the world", that Mawson, through Shackleton, began his historic association with Antarctica.

Arkaroola is now in the guiding hands of Reg Sprigg's children and it is first and foremost a sanctuary, and one surrounded by circling mineralogists. We were there the day the news of a new discovery came in.

A roller coaster ride through the hills took us up to the spectacular Sillers Point (for afternoon tea with lamingtons, good ones too, and a thermos),

with Lake Frome in the distance, and the Beverly uranium mine in between. We could see a plane land on the mine strip. Nearby, and nearing completion, is a geothermal emergy project anticpated to supply 20% of South Australia's energy needs, and the first customer will be Beverly. Ying Yang.

Around and above, this place was wild and beautiful.

And, remember Don Dunstan?

Too many highlights, too little space. We were lucky enough to see two gorgeous Yellow Footed Rock Wallabies. I was hypnotised and tested the patience of the driver. Click click click, and still the focus defied me.

Now, that's a tail. One of their major predators is the Wedge Tail Eagle, and as we headed home, there he was, the sun lowering, the temperature dropping, the hills blueing.

(as usual, clicking on pics should enlarge them)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The dog fence crossing creek beds

Mosaics greened from recent rains

(click on pics to enlarge)

Monday, June 14, 2010


There's big water in Lake Eyre, normally a vast below sea level salt pan, 144 x 77 Km. It's already being fed by the Georgina and Diamantina though the northern inflows. Cooper Creek is in flood and on its way and the punt's been kick-started where the creek has broken the Birdsville track.

"Lake Eyre is an extensive 'salt sink' which derives its mineralisation from the evaporation of floodwaters over countless years. During the last forty years or so the lake has seen many floods of varying sizes. Water from its three state catchment area covers the lake about once every eight years (on average), while the lake has only filled to capacity three times in the last 150 years.

Seasonal rainfalls attract waterbirds such as Australian Pelicans, Silver Gulls, Red-necked Avocets, Banded Stilts and Gull-billed Terns. There are a number of theories being put forward on what triggers the instinct for the birds to migrate to Lake Eyre, however no definitive answers are known. When the lake floods it becomes a breeding site for enormous numbers of waterbirds, especially species that appear to be tolerant of salinity"

Flying from Coober Pedy, then over William Creek (av population 12), the major base for flights to the Lake, we weren't the only ones on the pilgrimage east.

Here's the good map:

The route was over the lower end of Lake Eyre North, across Belt Bay, at 15 metres below sea level the lowest point in Australia, over Jackboot Bay and Madigan Gulf.

(Click on pics to enlarge)


It's not far by four-wheel drive from Coober Pedy out to the 'Dog Fence'. Iconic comes to mind and I'm surprised it didn't make it into the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony - dingoes and desert on one side, settlers and sheep on the other. I mean, it's nearly as Strayan as Dancing Queens.

Terms like dog fence, dingo fence, vermin fence and rabbit-proof fence get tossed around a lot, and they're not always interchangeable.

A. B. Facey, in his classic A Fortunate Life (I'm reading it again, can't put it down) talks about the rabbit-proof fence in the early 1900s in Western Australia, built to protect the burgeoning wheat belt in the south west from the increasing rabbit plagues to the north east. The rabbit came with the white man, something they did manage to get into that Opening Ceremony in a particularly inspired moment. And there's Doris Pilkington Garimara's (Jigalong) story, "Follow The Rabbit Proof Fence", and Noyce's film adaptation "Rabbit Proof Fence" (with Peter Gabriel soundtrack), to break your heart.

On the other side of the country, the dog fence, dingo fence, runs north east to south west through southern Queensland, the far north west corner of New South Wales, and across South Australia down to the Great Australian Bite.

It evolved over a few decades and across three states to keep the dingo north in cattle country and out of the susceptible sheep grazing farms of the south east and is constantly maintained by boundary riders, fixing damage from time, weather, pigs, roos, emus, and floods.

There's a spot for tourists marked by a shot-out sign, declaring it the longest fence in the world (5,300 Kms) if not the longest man made structure. All it needs is lights and to be seen from space.

You stand there, looking left and right, east and west, as it goes forever.

(Clicking should enlarge pics)

And from the air, the same spot takes on a staggering new perspective as the land formation is seen in context, the service road close to the fence, the road we took next to the two white signs.

The next day we would track the fence from the air, many miles (Kms just don't sound right) later seeing it cross the Birdsville track, where dogs in the know can jump the grid.

You can see the fence from 7 o'clock , crossing a creek bed, then across the Birdsville track, and on up to 2 o'clock.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Coober Pedy (kupa piti - white man in a hole) is an ambiguous place, neither welcoming nor forbidding. In the middle of the South Australian desert, on the Stuart Highway roughly halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, this frontier town is well named. It is certainly a place of white men and their holes. Holes to seek fortune and holes to disappear in.

Since surface opal was discovered by gold prospectors in the early 20th century, it has been a magnet for fortune seekers, a remote outpost where pasts are forgotten and lives restart, and more recently the entry to alien landscapes for film makers. This was my second visit and with the exception of those trading and dealing with tourists, the chemist, the supermarket, the petrol station, the hotels and motels, I don't think I've seen a local white man. But then I didn't go out drinking at night. This time I did see aboriginals, in sad clusters under wispy gum trees, a woman in a blue dress sitting cross legged, alone, tapping the earth with a stick, a tall awkward man walking along a footpath keen to keep out of my way, a group of teenage girls in garish clothing, one in Lolita sunglasses, striding along purposefully to nowhere.

There is no leasing. Claims are staked and claims are small, several hundred square metres maximum. This is no place for corporate enterprise, but for everyman, and everyman for himself. Accents and names are European, German, French, Croatian. Some faces are Asian and Subcontinental. In this melting pot, questions aren't asked, not by blow-ins anyway. Tins sheds house opal traders and dealers in aboriginal art and artifacts. Traps for the unwary on all counts I thought. There is little room for provenence around here, personal or otherwise.

The fabled underground hotel is scooped out into the side of a hill. Coober Pedy sits among a small cluster of small hills where summer temperatures are rarely less than 40 degrees C, and often higher. The corrugated bare walls and ceilings inside are mottled brown, tan and cream, and anything but claustraphobic. The feeling is cave, cave dweller, constant, temperature perfect, safe, secure, embryonic. It is just that there's opening glass doors instead of a rock to roll away. And a perfectly good en-suite.

The mine fields are an endless terrain of mounds of earth, giant ant's nests where the layers of gravel, sandstone and clay have been sucked from the earth into piles, as the drillers bore down into the silica layers where the opals are waiting. Perhaps. Our driver was a garrulous German who came thirty years ago for a few months, who had wild stories of big finds and dazzling stones, and who I could never imagine being anywhere else.

(Click on pics to enlarge)

One mound, one hole, repeated, repeated, repeated.

A short drive out of town takes you deep into ancient sea beds (the Breakaways)

and into desert of disarming minimalism (Moon Plain).

Night came quickly, the temperature dropping and the sky bleeding through brooding clouds. We hurried into our cave.