Mount Liebig stood tall and proud above the horizon, acting like a beacon — or a magnet — as we were inexorably drawn towards it. Known as Watiyawanu to the local Luritja Aboriginal people, who make up the small community located near the mountain’s base, the mount’s name comes from the dreamtime and the willie wagtail bird. Important in a host of legends and stories, this delightful and cheeky little bird is sometimes portrayed as a chatterbox, to be shooed away and out of hearing. In other stories, the willie wagtail would bring spirit children to their mothers, while in others it was the bearer of bad news and death.
Such are the Aboriginal legends around the bird and the peak. Our European names for peaks and places that caught the early explorers’ eyes are much more prosaic, even though in this situation, the name Liebig was dumped on the peak by the explorer Ernest Giles who seemed to have had a fond habit of naming places he ‘discovered’ with interesting and sometimes obscure names. In this case, ol’ Ernest named it after the German scientist, Justus von Liebig, considered by most to be the founder of organic chemistry and the father of agricultural fertiliser. I doubt ol’ von Liebig would have even been aware of ‘his’ peak in the remote heart of Australia.
HUNTING FOR ROCK HOLES
Still, in this vastness of Central Australia, you can hardly pass a peak or even a pile of rocks without it having an Aboriginal name, story or legend about it. Some of them, however, are lost in the dust and haze of time. Like the native gnamma hole I ‘discovered’ a little further along the road.
I had seen the low mound of rocks just to the south of the road and thought I’d have a bit of a sticky beak. I pulled the Cruiser to a halt and wandered the 200 metres or so over to them. As soon as I started to scramble over this small inselberg rising above the flat red plain, I started to notice the tell-tale signs of ancient Aboriginal rock engravings along with some engraved circles which often indicate a water source of some sort; I knew I was close.
I found the rock hole close to the crest of the dome of granite. Nearby was a rock lid, or cap stone, that could be dragged across the cavity to stop the precious liquid from evaporating so quickly in the dry desert climate. These isolated treasures were the life blood for the wandering bands of local Aboriginal people, their name and location told in stories that were handed down over generations. Later, explorers and pioneer graziers relied on them for their journeys of discovery, and today nearly all are unused and almost forgotten about.
Back in our vehicle a short time later, the Hema navigator indicated another rock hole a few kilometres south. We turned off the road onto what was not much more than a couple of wheel marks across the near bare sand. As we got closer to our planned destination, I scanned ahead, keenly looking for the object of our desires. A red dune blocked our way. The two wheel marks headed straight over it, but the Hema navigator indicated that the spot we were searching for was before the dune crossing. So where was it?
I was anticipating a pile or small hill of natural rock like before, where a gnamma hole would be found somewhere on its surface. But, as it turns out, Willie Rockhole was different to that — the flat rock surface was almost completely buried under a veneer of red sand which, on closer inspection, proved to cover quite an area and form quite a large catchment for the gnamma holes that collected the precious water. Though, only one of the three rock holes here had water in it and that was the smallest of the group. The largest one, nearly filled entirely with sand, did have wet sand once you dug down a little. More effort and water could have been obtained, I'm sure, while in days gone by it would have been kept clear and clean by the efforts of our original inhabitants.
I was pretty chuffed to have found these two isolated spots on our most recent travels through the desert heart of Australia. A week before, we had left Marble Bar on the eastern edge of WA’s famed Pilbara and headed east on the blacktop of Ripon Hills Road.
COMMUNITIES IN THE DESERT
Intrigued by the sign of the Meentheena Veterans Retreat, about 80km east of the Bar and before you cross the Nullagine River, we turned south to check the area out. Now part of the Meentheena Conservation Park which covers 290,000ha, the Retreat is a well-established camp, set up for veterans but open to all. There are any number of places to enjoy in the reserve including some pleasant stretches of water spread along the Nullagine River, which makes it well worth a visit.
Not much further east, the bitumen swings south to Woodie Woodie (and Carawine Gorge) while the route we wanted to take — the Telfer Mine road — keeps heading east, winding first through the Gregory Range, the road being wide but of very dusty dirt. Once through the rugged range, we were into low red dunes and the western margin of the Great Sandy Desert.
The track to the highlights of the Rudall River NP branches off to the south further eastward while the main road east swings a little north to skirt around the great open cut, portions of which are visible for the observant traveller. It’s one of the biggest and most productive gold mines in Australia, with the surrounding area also producing copper and more gold from other, albeit, smaller workings.
That evening, we pulled up on the northern edge of the large saltpan of Lake Dora, which lies within the national park and occasionally gets water from the rarely flowing Rudall River. A family of dingoes were nearby — as I discovered later, their den was tucked under a patch of thick green bushes and surrounded by a dense curl of spinifex.
The next day, we rolled into the small hamlet of Punmu, which is an important but small Martu Aboriginal community, their country taking in much of the Great Sandy Desert region we were travelling across. Established in 1981, the community sits on the eastern edge of Lake Dora, in the heart of the Karlamilyi (Rudall River) NP, which happens to be WA’s biggest national park.
The Nature Conservancy, working in conjunction with the Martu people and BHP, have formed the Martu Living Deserts Project which is helping to manage the land with local Aboriginal rangers, undertake cool season burns, and protect rare and endangered species such as the black-flanked rock wallaby and the delightful bilby.
We pushed on with the route taking us around the top of Lake Auld before striking east again and arriving at the Aboriginal community of Kunawarritji. Again, this is mainly a Martu community of about 120 people, the population varying from a hardy dozen or less during the baking summer months to more than 500 if some important business is being discussed. We picked up fuel and asked to see the local art centre, but sadly the latter was closed as the two main artists were away visiting family on the coast.
Just east of the village, the Canning Stock Route is crossed, and we headed up the track a short distance to set up camp at Well 33, known to the Aboriginals as Gunowaggi. Here, water cascades from a water tank which is fed by a slowly spinning windmill. The water forms a small pool, albeit larger than it was when we last visited here 10 years back.
FOLLOWING BEADELL’S FOOTSTEPS
The next day, we stopped at Gary Junction. Here you'll find one of Len Beadell's plaques, recognising Len as being in charge of the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party (GRCP) who built many of the roads in this vast desert region during the 1950s and 60s. You can find out more about this great bloke and his roads at lenbeadell.com.au.
A couple of hundred kilometres east, we pulled up at Jupiter Well, which is probably the only marked camping spot on the entire route. While Len and the GRCP had bulldozed the Gary Junction Road in late 1960, the original water point (which is about 150m south of the road) was dug by a National Mapping survey crew in August 1961. That evening, one of the surveyors noticed a reflection of Jupiter in the waters of the new well — hence its name.
Passing a few more Len Beadell markers the next day, we wound our way through the Pollock Hills and took the short diversion into the Kiwirrkurra Aboriginal community for a sip of fuel and to check out the well-stocked store. Located in the sandhill country south-west of the vast Lake Mackay, the community was established as a Pintupi settlement around a bore in the early 1980s.
In October 1984, a family group of Aboriginal nomads, who became known as the Pintupi Nine, were discovered wandering and living their traditional lifestyle south of Lake Mackay. Once these people realised that some of their relatives were now living at Kiwirrkurra, they agreed to come into civilisation. Later, many of them became well-known artists, their paintings selling for many thousands of dollars.
On the edge of the township near the water tower, Len Beadell's old ration truck sits behind a low fence and a nearby plaque tells its sad story of being burnt out during a mammoth long-distance towing operation. Nearby is a monument to the ‘Water Dreaming’, but sadly the water is a bit too precious out here for this to cascade with the life-giving fluid.
SUMMITS IN EVERY DIRECTION
The road continued much as before with a few short sections of minor corrugations just to remind you that you were on a dirt road. When passing through the Dovers Hills, Mt Tietkens came into view among the Buck Hills. A short distance further on, we pulled up for the evening, just short of the WA/NT border, under the mount's rocky peak.
After crossing the border, the high sheer bluff of Mt Leisler came into view, jutting proudly above the flat red sands of the surrounding country. From here on as you travel east there are always some great peaks to admire — first Mt Leisler among the Kintore Range, then the blue-tinged bulk of Central Mt Wedge to the north-east, and then Mt Liebig directly in your path. Once east of Papunya and as you swing south, Haasts Bluff dominates the road. It's a great drive.
Back at the Kintore Range, we stopped in at the relatively large Kintore Aboriginal community to get some fuel and check out the store at this seemingly well-run and well-established community. Just to the south of the community is the impressive peak we know as Mt Leisler, known to the local Pintupi people as Perente.
East of the Pintupi and Luritja community of Papunya, you can either continue your travels to meet with the Tanami Road or swing south towards Glen Helen; we took the latter as it’s not only a pleasant drive, but it brings you along the southern face of the West MacDonnell Ranges and all the gorges and delights that has to offer.
We stopped near the base of Haasts Bluff, known to the local Luritja people as, ‘Ikunji’, and paid homage to old Fred Blakeley, whose ashes were scattered over this sacred Aboriginal peak, with the Aboriginal people's permission, I will add, as Fred was highly respected by them.
Pushing on, we stopped for the evening at the Finke 2-Mile camp where the ancient stream has Mt Sonder, one of the most impressive peaks of the MacDonnell Ranges, as its backdrop. It's a camp we always enjoy — the permanent water and green reeds always attract a host of different birds.
Sadly, at this point, our adventure across the Gary Junction Road through a land of legend and myth was over. It’s a drive you'll all enjoy as well.
To travel the full length of the Gary Junction Road, you need a permit from the Central Lands Council in the NT and the Dept. of Aboriginal Affairs in WA. Both are available online and can be easily applied for as well as generally quickly issued. Visit clc.org.au and wa.gov.au to contact the aforementioned departments.
FUEL AND SUPPLIES
From Marble Bar to Alice Springs is around 1400km depending on which way you go east of Papunya. The longest distance between fuel is 400km from Marble Bar to Punmu. Remember the track is sandy and you'll use more fuel than you do on the blacktop. Punmu is probably the least reliable fuel stop along the way. Costs are approximately as follows: Punmu ($3/litre); Kunawarritji ($3.40/litre); Kiwirrkurra ($2.50/litre); Kintore ($2.15/litre)
Papunya ($2.04/litre, credit card only and 24hrs).
MAPS AND NAVIGATION
Great Desert Tracks, Atlas & Guide from Hema Maps covers this route.