West of Centre

Glenn Marshall — 25 March 2021
Rich natural history meets picturesque scenery in Australia's hot, red centre

It’s a camp I always enjoy. Tucked amongst the low sparse scrub with the impressive bulk of Mount Leisler rearing up from the flat plain, seemingly within touching distance to the north — it’s a view I love. No matter what we, or the ambient light was doing, our eyes were constantly drawn to the rearing bulk of the mountain. You just can’t help glancing up to see the play of light and shadow across the face of this impressive peak. 

We were close to the northern end of the Sandy Blight Road and, sadly, not far from the end of our circumnavigation of some of the finest desert country you can find in Australia. Our party had left Alice Springs a couple of weeks previously, spending the first night under the shadow of the precipitous cliff face of Mount Conner (also known as Atila or Artilla), the third great tor of Central Australia and often mistaken by first time travellers to Uluru as the Rock itself. It’s an impressive peak, located on Curtain Springs station and one well worth visiting if you ever get the chance. Completely different to both Uluru and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) this large flat-topped mesa dominates the surrounding country and while it is bigger than ‘The Rock’, it is not a monolith, which is the Rock's major claim to fame. 




DELVING INTO HISTORY

William Gosse ‘discovered’ Uluru and Mt Conner in July 1873 before striking west and then south. Our track was much the same, first to Uluru, where we stopped at the resort of Yulara to top up with fuel and buy ice cream. We’d been here a number of times and have always enjoyed our stays and exploration, preferring the intricacies and less crowded domain of nearby Kata Tjuta rather than the Rock itself.

Kata Tjuta was given the name The Olgas by Ernest Giles — who, on his second major expedition in 1872, had first seen them from his vantage point north of a vast salt lake he called Lake Amadeus. It was to be another year on his third expedition, however, before he got to the rocky peaks he had named after the Queen of the Kingdom of Wurttemberg, a German state that ceased to exist in 1918. It has since reverted to its Traditional name, Kata Tjuta, and you can easily spend a day or more exploring its delightful peaks and valleys, which are made even more memorable by trickling water and the wildlife it attracts. 

This trip however, without even a second look at the great dome of Uluru itself, we turned off the bitumen, drove past the ‘No Entry’ sign and headed south into Indigenous land we had been given permission to enter. 

From a rocky hill about 60km south we looked back and, protruding above the rolling low dunes of the scrub covered sandplain, was not only the great bulk of Uluru but also, just a little to the west, the multi-domed peaks of Kata Tjuta — it’s a view not easily replicated.

HEADING FURTHER INLAND

Next day our track south took a swing around a long line of sheer-sided but low rocky hills, and our eyes attracted by what turned out to be a large water tank atop a tall stand. Located at the mouth of a nearly fully enclosed ‘pound’ or valley, we took time out to explore the relatively lush area of this rock enclosed basin. Sure enough, in one area we found some sandy floored caves, their roofs tinged with the signs of ancient habitation, while in another overhang we found painted artwork that included emu tracks, hand prints and, the most impressive of all, a long serpent-like figure from the Dreamtime.

Just north of this pound we found, oozing from the side of a steep hill, a natural spring, its position easily discernible from a few kilometres away, as a large native fig tree was making use of the bounty of trickling water. Once again we went exploring, disturbing a huge number of zebra finch resting in the shade above the trickling water. Again we found some small caves, this time directly above the spring, adorned with ancient art.

Our route then passed to the west of Mount Woodward (at 1194m, the highest peak in South Australia). A few hours later after meeting with the main road, which is the original Gunbarrel Highway, we turned west along the southern flank of the Mann Ranges (named by Gosse) and came to the small Indigenous community of Nyapari. Here local artists paint images from their Dreaming for sale in Alice Springs, Melbourne, or around the world, and we joined them for a time to watch, wonder, and to buy some of the vivid art they were producing. 

Next day our travels west along the original Gunbarrel Highway passed small Indigenous communities, or at least the tracks to them, with the Tomkinson Ranges to the south signifying the presence of the WA/SA border. 

Surveying and construction of this iconic road began in 1955 when Len Beadell led his Gunbarrel Road Construction Party (GRCP) west of Victory Downs near the Stuart Highway and just north of the SA/NT border. In early 1956 the party was pushing the road west as it passed the Mann and Tomkinson Ranges and the road reached the present sites of Giles soon afterwards, the spot having been selected and named by Len the previous December. 

We followed in their footsteps, the road wider than the single blade cut of the original route and we soon arrived at the relatively large community of Wingellina, or, to the locals, Irrunytju. 

The Irrunytju Community is one of three gazetted broadcasting services in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, and it has a well-equipped radio, TV studio, and editing suites to provide media training for other local Aboriginal communities. We were offered a tour of the facility before a brief (and rather expensive) visit to Surveyor-General Corner before heading on to our destination for the night at Giles and the nearby roadhouse and camping ground at Warakurna. 

With special permission, we took to some remote tracks and headed for Ernest Giles’ Vladimar Pass, Sladen Waters and the Pass of the Abencerrages. All of these are within the spectacular desert mountain country (the best in Australia, I think) that Giles called the Schwerin Mural Crescent — which links Rawlinson Ranges with the Petermann Ranges. While Giles seemingly had no trouble putting fancy names to the many places he discovered, today’s travellers along the Great Central Road have this stunning sweep of mountain country just to their north as they travel the road between Warakurna and Docker River.

Tucked into the eastern end of the Schwerin Mural Crescent is Gordon Spring that nestles up to the humped back of Gills Pinnacle — both named again by Giles. It’s a delightful place marred by the comings and goings of feral camels, their waste fouling the lower pools of the Spring, with only the uppermost pool, out of reach of the animals, being anywhere near natural or unspoilt. 

Further east again along the Great Central Road we took the turn-off onto the Sandy Blight Junction (SBJ) Road, which initially cuts between the Bloods Range to the east and the Anne Range to the west. Further north the road skirts the Walter James Range and hidden amongst its rugged peaks is Bungabiddy Rockhole, which can be easily accessed off the SBJ Road. The access track can be rough, and finishes about 300m from the actual waterhole. Close to the carpark an old, blazed tree can be found — its blaze originating, some say, by Frank Hann who passed this way in 1904. 

Camels often make the once pristine water undrinkable, while the surrounding scrub had been flattened by their grazing and even just by their bulk. These animals are a real problem and are doing untold damage to our desert environments. We found anywhere there was rocky hills and ranges, there were large numbers of camels in the surrounding country ­ — the country itself being better watered from the run-off from the nearby rocky prominences.

TURNING OFF

After the turn-off to the small community of Tjukurla, the SBJ Road becomes more of a sandy and badly corrugated track. But this route has to rate as one of my favourites for many kilometres it passes through forests of whispering desert oaks. 

That night we camped amongst a delightful grove of these fabulous trees just north of a track junction and hand pump (GPS 24°10'37"S 128°34'55"E) that flowed excellent water but could easily be missed, as the pump is set back off the main track north by 100m. 

Our route northwards next morning skirted the western feature of the large pan of Lake Hopkins before passing the Sir Frederick Range. This short detour took us to the top of the rocky hill for an expansive view of the surrounding country. As we continued we wandered amongst low dunes before crossing the NT/WA border, where a Len Beadell plaque can be found. After heading east for a time, the route swings north once more towards the Davenport Hills before coming to another Beadell plaque, this time marking the Tropic of Capricorn (a number of these plaques lie along this route). Not far from the Tropic’s marker is a small waterfilled depression, called, by some, Capricorn Rockhole — not a bad spot to pull up for the night. 

Pushing on, the towering bulk of Mt Leisler seemingly acted as a directional beacon for our group, much as it would have done for Len Beadell and his road construction party. Mount Leisler had previously been named by William Tietkens in May 1889, who blazed a tree nearby, and Len Beadell rediscovered it and erected another plaque here to commemorate this little-known explorer. 

Some years ago the tree died and fell over after a fire swept through the area. We had found the tough old tree — and while there was no discernible markings left apart from the large blaze, we put the tree on some bricks we had carried for the express purpose to try to protect it from white ants and future small blazes. 

Next day, after our evening and early morning marvelling at the wash of light over the mighty bluff, we took a detour into the important Kintore community and fuelled up. Our trip was nearly over as we turned east, and headed along the more heavily used and often corrugated Gary Junction Road to Papunya and Alice Springs. We’ll be back, though — such is the magnetic draw of the Sandy Blight Junction Road, west of centre! 


THE GILES' LEGACY

Ernest Giles managed to cross the continent twice, and his story is one of the most readable yarns of any of the early explorers. His book, Australia Twice Traversed, has been reprinted many times while an online version can be found at ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/giles/ernest/g47a.

Len Beadell and his Gunbarrel Road Construction Party opened up much of this region, first to facilitate the Atomic Bomb tests and ICBM launches of the 1950s and 60s, and then with the tracks being used by an ever-increasing band of adventurous travellers. His book, Beating About the Bush, (1976) covers his exploits along the Sandy Blight Road and others. 

Two other classic books that cover this region of central Australia are, The Red Centre, by HH Finlayson (1935) and, West of Centre, by Ray Erikson (1972). 


TRAVEL PLANNER

  • This is very remote country and demands a well-equipped vehicle with people experienced in remote desert travel.
  • Several permits are required to traverse Indigenous land that covers this country: one for the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara Lands in Northern SA (very hard to obtain); one for Wingellina and S-G Corner (relatively easy to obtain); one for Warakurna and the Great Central Road (easy to obtain); one for Kintore and the Sandy Blight Road (sometimes difficult to obtain); and one for the Gary Junction Rd between Kintore and Papunya (relatively easy to obtain). 
  • For camping and tours to Mt Conner check with Curtain Springs station and roadhouse on costs and permits. Ph: (08) 8956 2906.
  • To experience the best of magnificent Uluru and Kata Tjuta, stay at the Uluru Resort. W: ayersrockresort.com.au. 
  • Surveyor-General Corner can only be visited after obtaining a permit from the Traditional Owner based at Wingellina. Ph:(08) 8956 7704.
  • There is a large community-owned store at Wingellina with a wide range of supplies along with fuel.
  • Warakurna Roadhouse, on the Great Central Road, has a camp ground and general store with fuel and supplies. Ph: (08) 8956 7344.
  • At Warakurna you can visit the nearby Giles Weather Station and view the morning release of the weather observation balloon. 
  • Fuel and supplies are also available at Kintore. Ph: (08) 8956 8566.

Tags

Travel Destination Red Centre South Australia Northern Territory Road tripping