On Sunday morn I made a thermos of English Brekkie, threw some cheese, crackers and leftover soup in the Esky, and set off with Dad on a day trip to Rainbow Valley, 90 ks south. It was one of those magic Alice winter days which are many residents’ main reason for living here: not a cloud, light breeze, about 22 degrees. Perfect.
Dad and I had been to Rainbow Valley though not since I was very young. I had no memory of it and all he remembered was it was a sweltering summer’s day and everyone was sour, so really we were heading out unaware of what we’d find, except typical Central Australian geological grandeur.
Rainbow Valley is spectacular.
Heading out bush with Dad is always educational. He’s long been interested in geology, particularly since receiving a piece of the Henbury Meteorite from a patient in the late ‘80s (in ’84 NT legislation declared all meteorites belong to the Territory, so Dad’s bit was safe). Rainbow Valley is like nothing I’ve seen in Central Australia, however, because of the clay pan at its base; a unique occurrence in my experience which instils it with a somewhat Martian mood. (I must admit my first thought when looking at the flat expanse at the base of those breathtaking sandstone cliffs was what a great place for a doof!).
Dad and I spent a good while contemplating that wondrous question, how? How those razored points, those sheer vertical faces, those rich reds, that white limestone (which, Dad informed me, is calcium from the skeletons of ancient sea creatures). He never reads the information panels before pondering, for that would be cheating before his geology test!
Instead of heading back the way we came we decided to take an alternative route along a 50km 4WD track across Owen Springs Reserve, which runs along and through the Hugh River and connects with Larapinta Drive 45ks west of Alice. Dad said he’d done the track once before and there were only a few stretches that required some serious four-wheel driving. What this should have translated to was: there were only a few stretches that required high clearance. We did not have high clearance in his Suzuki Vitara, the car he bought in August last year which I mentioned in my post The ghostly lights of Black Snake Crossing. But that wasn’t gonna stop us.
After ten ks of corrugated red dirt road stretching across plains dotted with sheoaks (a beautiful and fragrant member of the casuarina family named for the sound they make as the wind whips through their needled leaves: shee, shee), Dad stopped. ‘I just have to take a photo of these flowers,’ he grinned. The plains were carpeted with little yellow flowers; against the red dirt beneath the cloudless cerulean sky, the primary palette was enchanting. ‘There’s a skeleton over here Pet.’ The ‘eyes’ of the cow’s pelvis stared back at me. ‘Flowers on my grave,’ sang Dad. Our day trip was turning into a photography expedition. We snapped away merrily.
We spotted the Hugh soon after getting back on the road – the long line of river gums were welcome relief for my hungry tum. We turned right off the track and ambled over river rocks searching for a flat stretch of shaded sand. After wolfing down some carrot and ginger soup I raced up the range. The view, as ever, made my heart sing and I reckon I got at least five echoes on my cooee.
When we set off we didn’t go back the way we’d entered the river but followed some tracks in the sand. When you’re out bush – or in any natural environment – there’s always the uncontrollable urge to explore just a little bit further; to see what’s around the bend, or over the hill, or down the white sand riverbed. And when you’re four-wheel driving, clearance is crucial for exploring.
We jumped out, bent down to look. There was a hefty rock flush up against the chassis near the rear right wheel. Dad got back in and accelerated but the wheels just spun and sank. The same thing happened in reverse. After accelerating and reversing resulted in further sinking, Dad stopped. ‘Reckon we could dig the rock out?’ I asked hopefully.
‘I reckon that rock’s been there forever,’ he replied.
Bogged: every camping enthusiast’s most reviled word. More correctly, we were speared by a hidden river rock and then bogged. ‘We’ll be right Dad,’ I said with a smile, which widened when I spotted a rocky outcrop about 15 metres away. ‘You’ve even got a red bucket in the car!’ I grabbed it and raced off to fill the first of what would be about ten 15 litre buckets of smooth grey river rocks to be poured under the wheels. As I squatted and filled the bucket I thought of those who cart rocks for a living. When it was full I concentrated on lifting correctly and relished the pull in my calves and quads.
We didn’t have a sturdy base on which to place the jack, so I improvised with the Esky lid. I’d bought the Esky the day before for my old friend Morgan. He’d departed early on Sunday morn to the NPY Lands for some school holiday program work. I’d filled it with food for the ten hour drive but there was no room for it in the Troupie heaving with sports gear, so its contents was consolidated with a bigger one’s and luckily it was left with me. Thanks Morgs, I thought, as Dad cranked the jack.
Dad hadn’t used the little scissor jack that came with the Suzuki and it soon became apparent it might not be up to the job. The rock was well and truly wedged in the undercarriage, so what we figured we needed was a tow to get us up and over. In The ghostly lights of Black Snake Crossing I wrote with a laugh about Dad being a gadgets man who brings all manner of electronics camping. This time around amusement turned to appreciation as he called my brother on his satellite phone – no mobile reception out here. ‘We’re stuck on a rock and we need a tow. We are in the Hugh River, parallel to the Owen Springs Reserve track. We are 19 kilometres south of Larapinta Drive.’ Dad knew how far we’d come because he hardly goes anywhere without his GPS and always sets a trip metre. My brother Hugh, named after the river in which we were bogged, would come straight out in his Land Rover, the car Dad owned before the little Suzuki. The car that would’ve sailed right over this rock.
With Hughie on the way we realised we’d need to identify where he needed to leave the track and enter the river. Gadget Dad had the perfect thing: a spool of fluorescent yellow tape, which Hugh would recognise as Dad frequently ties it to the tip of his various radio antennae. We walked the k or so back to the track and tied the tape, Hansel and Gretel style, to a series of rivergums that would lead him to us. But if the light was fading by the time Hugh arrived there’d be a chance he’d miss it, so I thought it safest to meet him on the track. Just as I was about to set off Dad exclaimed, ‘Ah! I’ve got just the thing!’ Walkie talkies. ‘Testing testing one two three do you read me, over.’
‘Testing testing one two three, loud and clear, over and out.’
Dad advised leaving them off when not in use to conserve battery, and that if we needed to use them cooee was the signal to switch on. I put my water bottle in a back pocket, my walkie talkie in a front, tied my cardi tight ‘round my hips, slung my camera across my chest and strode off through the river bristling with excitement. Instead of waiting at the point where we’d left the track I’d walk along it to meet my brother; a spontaneous walk in the beautiful bush on a golden afternoon. Swoon! When I heard the rattle and roar of the Landie I’d stop and stand with my thumb out. I sang The Beatles’ Day Tripper loudly as I strode along, loving every second.
I’d been walking for 20 minutes or so when I heard a faint cooee. I switched on the walkie talkie. ‘You there Julz? Do you read me, over?’
‘Loud and clear, over.’
‘I just spotted a dingo, a very fine one. He had a good look at me but remained wary. He’s on the move again, heading north your way, over.’
‘Thanks Dad, I’ll keep an eye out. Over and out.’ I hoped I’d see it. My brother has a pet dingo and if he knew there was one roaming out here he’d be wrapt.
The track wended its way beneath glowing orange ranges then through the river, where a fire had recently blackened a sizeable section. Some logs were still smoking, their embers glowing. The smoke refracted the setting sun filling the river with golden mist, and this desert girl clutched her chest, breathed in deep the heady, sweet scent and sighed, deliriously happy.
The track left the river and rose up onto a red plane. Giant dingo tracks padded out before me. The light was fading fast. I was well out of cooee range but thought I’d give the walkie talkie a go anyway. Dad answered immediately; he’d set up his CB radio and was using it to receive me. There was disappointment in his voice. ‘I thought you were checking in to tell me you were with Hugh. It shouldn’t have taken this long.’
‘Nope. Just letting you know I’m heading back.’
‘Love you Dad, over and out.’
By the time I’d made it back the pink dusk light was dwindling and the cold was setting in quick. I was in a t-shirt, shorts and cardi, and was very grateful for my woollen beanie as I pulled it over my ears. It may have been the perfect temp during the day but at night the desert can get very chilly. It had been three hours since we’d called Hugh. It should only have taken him two. I began to worry he’d gotten bogged, but quashed that thought pretty quick. My bro is resilient, and he knows how to handle the Landie.
I suggested we call Roy, an old friend of Dad’s. When I was a kid our families went camping together a few times; we once spent a week at Quandong Beach, 50 ks north of Broome. It was a quick call on the sat phone. He knew the track and would come right away. Roy is a good bloke all round. Dad called Hugh’s wife Kelly to say Roy was coming and Hugh shouldn’t worry. Kelly told him Hugh had found a bar of reception at the Owen Springs Reserve Ranger Station and texted to say he couldn’t find us and was heading home. I was warmed with relief to hear he was ok. Dad also called his practice manager to say he wouldn’t be at work in the morning. ‘I’m bogged in the Hugh River!’ Pretty good excuse.
In the fading pink light I set off for firewood, and had dragged a heavy log about 20 metres when Dad said with a tremble, ‘Pet, I don’t have any matches.’ I didn’t have a lighter. We had a sat phone, walkie talkies, CB radio, fluorescent tape, Dad had set up a yellow strobe in the off-chance it could be seen from the road, but nothing to start a fire. ‘I’ve got plenty of petrol. I could cut some wire and make a spark with something, but that’s likely to go voomph.’ It was now dark and with Roy on the way I didn’t think it was worth it, however it was worth waiting for Roy on the track. With a small torch we picked our way across the river rocks. ‘Lucky I had that carrot soup for lunch!’ I said gleefully. Dad chuckled.
When we found the track we were in complete darkness, and looked up at the same time. ‘I have never seen a sky like that,’ I said softly. When we camp we always have a fire, but this time we were engulfed in black. The stars were extremely dense and intensely bright; cloud-like. More stars than sky. The black bush silhouettes flickered in the twinkling light, the rivergums shimmered with silver. It was time for an astronomy lesson; something I always look forward to when camping with Dad. We searched first for the planets and found them within seconds. ‘What are those mini-Milky Way type clusters?’ I asked.
‘The Magellanic Clouds,’ he replied. ‘They’re small galaxies.’
‘So they’re separate galaxies from the Milky Way?’
My mind spun and I smiled in awe; I’d never seen them before. I was getting quite cold, so in-between star gazing I did star jumps while singing Moby’s We Are All Made of Stars in my head. Sitting down hugging my knees next to Dad I was overwhelmed by a renewed appreciation for how Aboriginal people survived in this environment for so long.
It had been an hour and 45 since we’d called Roy. After contemplating how long it would take to travel 19 ks along a bush track in the dark (about an hour), Dad and I agreed he should be here any minute. We were both silent by this stage, our ears straining for the low growl of an engine. We were teased a few times by two helicopters and a plane. I heard a distant rumble quite different to the whirr of the flying machines but ignored it – I didn’t want to get my hopes up. But when I stood I knew I’d see headlights. I did. Our spirits soared! We cheered. We were filled with warmth. Roy to the rescue!
Roy’s big red Land Cruiser, the same one he had when we’d camped at Quandong, was so full of BushWok stuff he didn’t have room for passengers. Previously a nutritionist at NT Health, Roy now travels to communities, his Toyota loaded with meat, veggies, trestle tables and kitchen gear, to run healthy cooking competitions called BushWok Cooking Parties. The BushWok, Roy’s invention, is an old flour drum with a window cut in it to insert wood and vents up top and bottom for air circulation. A traditional wok is placed on top. His cooking comps are a massive hit on communities and everyone gets involved. ‘Fancy seeing you here!’ he said smiling as he climbed out of that big beautiful tomato red Toyota. Dad and I lead the way back, our torch searching for each rivergum adorned with yellow ribbon. Tie a yellow ribbon ‘round the old gumtree… Once Roy spotted the yellow strobe he drove on ahead.
While Dad and Roy sussed out the sitch I raced around collecting kindling and dragged logs with the torch in my mouth. Roy did, of course, have matches. In between building the fire (‘What a bushie,’ he remarked as I squatted close to my little pile of leaves and twigs and gently arranged small sticks on top), I also filled a couple buckets with river rocks, again with the torch in my mouth. Lucky we were bogged so close to an outcrop and thank goodness for that bucket; it made being rock wallah a hell of a lot easier!
While he managed to tow Dad up and over the rock (which was basalt, Dad told me) the Suzuki sank straight into the sand after that and the Toyota, which was so weighed down, sank too. Bogged car wrangling is difficult enough in daylight, but in the dark it’s far worse. The fear the Toyota would suffer the same fate as the Suzuki was never far away either. Roy suggested we stop and wait till daylight. It didn’t take long for Dad and I to agree. My fire was a good one, and by now it was burning low. We sat close to it and Roy told me all about BushWok, and the joy of giving people an afterglow. I learnt a lot from him that night. I reckon his work’s inspiring. Around 11.30 I got into the Suzuki, which was actually pretty toasty as Dad had blasted the heater for a bit. It would be a different story at 4am, and though I knew it’d be a fitful, freezing night, I still got a kick out of falling asleep with my hiking boots on, still filled with red sand from Rainbow Valley.
I slept in one hour bursts as the car dash’s red LCD informed me. I’d wake up clutching my knees to my chest, rubbing my cool bare calves. I’m never normally cold when camping in Alice as years ago Dad invested in sleeping bags intended for -15 degrees. Throw one of those in a swag and you’re warm till dawn. At 6.30 I was woken by a dingo’s howl. I looked out the back window and saw it about ten metres away; a beautiful, healthy golden dog with a feathery white tail. It howled again and disappeared into the bush. Pretty cool alarm clock. Outside it wasn’t the clear bright dawn I was expecting, but shadowy and overcast. The sky was still special though.
I jumped out of the car and ran to the fire. Yep, embers still red. I placed a few handfuls of leaves on them and blew and they ignited immediately. There were two big logs leftover from the night before so all I needed was sticks. It was roaring in no time – gotta love that dry river wood. Dad and Roy were kneeling by the Suzuki discussing the best way to tackle it. Despite last night’s jump the rock was still hard up against the undercarriage, so the Suzuki would need to be jacked up high enough to allow enough small rocks to form a ‘road’ up and around the big one. ‘You need rocks? It’s rocks I got! Big red buckets o’ rocks comin’ right up!’ I bellowed, racing off to the outcrop. ‘Rock on!’ yelled Roy.
After an hour of digging and pouring rocks either side of the rear right wheel and in front of the front wheels, the moment finally came: time to test our road. It worked! The Suzuki rolled forward and up and out of the sand. Dad stopped after a couple of metres, jumped out of the car and hugged Roy. ‘Twas a magic moment indeed, but it wasn’t over yet. I covered the fire with sand, packed up the Esky and Dad’s various gadget boxes and waited with bated breath to see how the Suzuki would fare in the chopped up sand. Nope. No good. It struggled after a few metres, sinking with each acceleration. Roy’s Toyota laboured at first too, but after he let some air out of its tyres it cruised impressively through the riverbed and back onto the track. It was magnificent to watch. ‘Why does that work?’ I asked Dad. He drew a round pumped up tyre in the sand and a slightly deflated tyre. ‘This one has a bigger foot,’ he said, pointing at the second one. After letting the air out of the Suzuki’s tyres we had more luck. We were away!
When both cars had made it to the Owen Springs track we stopped to reinflate the tyres. I ran back into the river to collect the fluro tape from the Hansel and Gretel gums. Leave no trace. When I returned the last tyre was just finished. It was big hugs and smiles all round. Roy Price: what a champion. On the way back Dad and I discussed what to get him, and Dad suggested a little trophy engraved with ‘Roy, a Top Bloke All Round. July 7 – 8, 2013.’ I would make him a huge batch of spice mix to throw into a curry at a BushWok Cooking Party.
When we arrived at Dad’s it was 10.30, exactly when we left on our day trip the day before. It was raining and cold, opposite conditions to the glorious sun of Sunday. ‘Imagine if we’d been stuck in this weather!’ I exclaimed. This story could have been quite different, yet I get the feeling it would still have a happy ending.
I’m glad we hit that rock. I learnt more than I ever have about four-wheel driving and how to get out of a bog. I had a beautiful bush walk, played with walkie talkies, gazed in wonder at a blinding canopy of stars, got some damn good exercise and enjoyed enlightening conversation. I even came home with an excellent collection of specimens.
I’m glad we hit that rock (though, granted, it wasn’t my car!).
Dad and I had intended to go camping while I was home for the uni hols, but we’ve already done that. Today we’re going on a day trip to Palm Valley, and yes, the matches are packed.