We wander in and wonder at the beauty of our "Land Down Under".

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Just Deserts - the main course: Chambers Pillar

There was movement at The Pillar
For the word had passed around
That Big Red and Max and Prue had got away
Off to the wild bush places
That are still there to be found
And all the Ultis gathered for the fray

All the tried and noted Ultimateers
From regions near and far
Had mustered at The Pillar overnight
For the Four-bies love hard driving
Where the Desert Oaks abound
And the Ultis snuff the battle with delight


And down by Chambers Pillar
Where the remnant ramparts raise
Their worn and rounded battlements on high
Where the air is clear as crystal
And where the white stars fairly blaze
At midnight in a cold and frosty sky
And where around the campfire
The faces glowed with light
And the laughter spilled
And echoed roundabout
Our memories linger with a sigh
And far off we tell our stories of the night.

(apologies to A.B. " Banjo" Paterson, Di's favourite bush poet)

Rainbow Valley to Chambers Pillar

Graham had done a lot of homework before coming away on the big trip that he and Liz were doing across to the Kimberley and other faraway exotic destinations. Part of this was getting in touch with a friend in Alice Springs to check out a direct route from Rainbow Valley through to Chambers Pillar which showed up on some of his GPS maps. He’d been told that the route was regularly traveled and no problem. While we were at Rainbow Valley some rangers came by and we had a chat with them. Initially they ran the line past us that there was no through road, but more close questioning revealed that they used it themselves and had been on it recently so we decided to give it a shot.

It proved to be a great little drive. Here’s what it looks like on Google Earth:

Sidling through the desert
Before we set out though, I took this early morning farewell photo of our campsite:

Rainbow Valley campsite
 From a camping point of view there are two things for me that are most notable about this photo, so I’ll draw your attention to them in case you haven’t noticed. In the foreground on the left you can see what is a gas barbecue, but it’s not your standard variety with just a hot plate. In fact it has gas rings as well so you can cook outdoors using your own pots and pans. To its right and slightly behind is a steel firepit set into the ground. It is a brilliant thing, used at all the National Park campsites in the NT that we were to subsequently visit.
This was our first camping experience in the Northern Territory and we thought the infrastructure provided for campers was fantastic, and for only $3.30 per night per person.

The next photo is just a shot through the windscreen, showing the sandy dirt track that took us east towards the new Ghan Railway ...

Typical sandy desert track

... but before we got there we passed a spot with a sign that we couldn’t read from a distance. Not exactly sure where we were or where we were going, I got out and jogged across to take a look at what it said. The sign marked a native garden where cultivation and research of bush tomatoes and native raisins was being conducted. While I was finding that out Di took this photo of flowers on a poisonous potato plant with fruits she thought might be the tomatoes ... but no they are actually the bush potato: steer clear! …

Bush potato: poisonous - do not eat!

We were delighted when the track we were following did, as expected, cross the Ghan. You might notice the flag flying from Graham and Liz’s vehicle in the next photo ...

Crossing the "new" Ghan Railway

This is a precaution that off-roaders generally employ when traveling in sand dune country on the very narrow dirt roads that tend to be the norm out back. Another something new for Di and I, and part of the learning curve for our off-road explorations.

As we crossed the Ghan I paused briefly to mark the occasion ...

The "new" Ghan stretches southward
... much to Di’s consternation, who quite rightly reminded me that one should never stop over a railway line … but then I was always a naughty boy at school …

We came to a spot amongst thinly spread trees where a small flock of budgies were swooping from one tree to the next. Although we were unable to get a photo of them, Di did take this shot of what seemed to be some kind of nest, rather reminiscent of the green ant nests that abound in tropical FNQ ...

A well-hung nest, nest-ce past?

We really had no idea what it was - and Liz (who was a science teacher in a previous life) - didn’t either.  There were smaller versions scattered throughout the trees in this part of our journey, but that was by far the largest. (If there’s anyone out there who reads this and can identify that object I’d greatly appreciate a comment at the bottom of the post.)

Next is a little movie Di shot through the windscreen of us following Graham and Liz through a dry watercourse. It’s not going to feature in any short film festival, but it will give you an idea of the bumpy terrain and you should enjoy Di’s sound effects ...

Bumpier than it looks!

After more fun wending our way through interesting terrain featuring a range of low rocky hills, we found ourselves on the old Hugh River stock route and then the junction with South Road leading to Maryvale, where we paused for some morning tea and had the pleasure of hearing some familiar voices come through on the radio. Before long, our friends Max and Prue came round the corner ...

Here comes Sheriff Max with Deputy Prue riding shotgun
Their mate Neville followed them into our impromptu roadside stop. We had been hearing a bit about Nev off and on and were delighted to make his acquaintance as he proved to be our chief entertainer over the next couple of days and again later when we were reunited by chance at Watarrka National Park.

Okay, time for the customary aside. Here’s a photo of Max, Prue and our new mate “Captain Neville” ...

The Three Amigos

You’ll note the French Foreign Legion-like hat that Nevy is wearing. Now, I haven’t heard any stories about Nev having been in the FFL (you'll want the volume turned up full if you click on this link), but I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s done a lot of things including, I believe, participating in the Finke Desert Race. (Aside from this aside: if you're a real rev-head, this year's race will be held from the 7th to the 9th of June and you could probably find a live stream somewhere. Our wonderful, unparalleled anywhere in the universe and national treasure, the ABC did a live stream of last year's race.)  

Anyway, back to Nev: as you can tell by his grizzled appearance, he’s been around the traps a fair bit, which you can tell by his patched-up walking boots. When we were waiting on Friday night at Chambers Pillar for our talk from Ricky the Ranger, Nev kept us in stitches with a series of old fart jokes, which was appropriate as we were, largely, a collection of Old Farts. Here's an example:

Mabel and Beryl, a couple of residents of the Nearly Done Retirement Village, decided to have an outing to town. They got in the car and were rolling along nicely when Beryl suddenly noticed that they'd gone straight through a red light. Slightly perturbed, she thought that Mabel must have just missed that one so she didn't say anything. Shortly thereafter, the same thing happened again. Slightly more perturbed she thought to herself, "I wonder if Mabel is having a bad day"?  She still didn't say anything as she didn't want to upset her dear friend. But when it happened yet again she just couldn't help herself and burst out: "Mabel!!! Do you realise that you've just gone through three red lights????"  
Somewhat startled, Mabel replied, "Oh! Am I driving?!?"

So, here’s to you, Nevy; we look forward to our next rendezvous with your good self.

Okay, back to the main game, and time for a bit of background into why we were going to Chambers Pillar in the first place. Max was the inspiration and chief organiser for our visit to “The Pillar”. He first floated the idea almost a year ago by mentioning on the Ultimate forum that he and Prue were going to drop in at the pillar as part of a longer journey they were taking across to the northern part of West Australia. The Pillar was a fitting destination for an outback get-together as it was used as a significant "marker post" by early explorers. 

Max suggested that other folks might like to join them, and things snowballed from there. All up there were going to be about 30 people attending this instance of one of “Max’s Weekends Away”, so it seemed only fitting that he lead this last leg of our journey into the pillar. We drove on past Maryvale and through mostly flat, open terrain south towards the pillar ...

The road is long with many a winding turn (see Cher: He ain't heavy, he's my brother)

... before arriving at our last significant obstacle in the form of a mesa referred to as “the jump-up”, which involved a bit of careful steering on the way up and engaging second gear in low range on the way down the other side. On the top we were excited to catch our first glimpse of the pillar about 10 kilometres in the distance ...

First sighting of Chambers Pillar

There being no firewood collection allowed in the Chambers Pillar Historical Reserve we stopped to gather a bit alongside the road on the way in ...

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

Here again was another example of the excellent work done by the Northern Territory parks people, as they’d placed signs identifying a zone before reaching the park where firewood collection was permitted.

After settling into camp Di and I decided to stretch our legs; we were eager to get a closer look at the pillar after such a long period of anticipation.

 While the pillar and the other two significant rock formations are the main focus for visitors to the park, the vegetation is also a great attraction. The Desert Oak transforms itself from a rather spindly sapling which looks something like a hairy pencil into  a powerful, stately tree  which casts quite a bit of shade ...

Icon of central Australia: the mighty Desert Oak

We were fortunate to be visiting the desert after some very good and unseasonable late summer rains, which had brought various flowering plants to life. I’ll let the following pictures speak for themselves, although you might like to click on the third and fifth image for even more detail ...

The walk around to the pillar from the bush camping area provided great views of Window Rock ...

Window Rock

... and Castle Rock ...

Castle Rock's better profile ...

... and her more decrepit profile

... before the magnificent Chambers Pillar itself comes into view, framed by some magnificent Desert Oaks ...

Chambers Pillar framed by Desert Oaks

Incidentally, you can camp right where this photo was taken. How's that for an Ultimate Campsite?

Returning to our camping area in the evening light, we detoured to a small hill to enjoy the view over our camp ...

Part of Chambers Pillar Ultimate Muster 2014

The clouds visible on the horizon presaged thunderstorm activity, and we enjoyed a lovely evening light show. Overnight and into the early part of the morning the landscape enjoyed another few millimetres of rain so we had a slow start to the day. Once it seemed like the additional blessing from on high had pretty much finished Di and I set out for an explore on the bikes ...

Di cycling beneath Chambers Pillar

... but unfortunately couldn’t go very far as both the roads we hoped would lead us somewhere very quickly petered out into nothing.

With the rain clearing the day just got better and better so after lunch we set off again on foot towards the pillar, this time with Max and Prue (Graham was having his grandpa nap and Liz was keeping him company, so they weren’t with us). Up on the viewing platform, Di took this photo of Max and me ...

Yep. This is the life ...

... and I managed to get a self-timed shot of the four of us together ...

Di, Prue, Max and Doug at Chambers Pillar

... and here is a glimpse of the main attraction, taken from the evening viewing spot (if you're on a desktop you might like to click on the image for its full effect) ...

Chambers Pillar in a sea of green

Not a bad looking thing, eh!

That night, darkness brought on a spectacular moonless star show and Nev identified planets and circling satellites for us.  All the Ultimateers mustered at the campfire for a  talk with the local rangers, Ricky and Jeremy.  Although we had arrived at Chambers Pillar before the season for the regular ranger campfire talks started, Max had been able to organise this evening especially for us when coordinating with the rangers about the numbers of campers that would be arriving in the bush camping area.  Ricky’s talk amused and informed and gave us a much better understanding of life in this ‘hard’ waterless region.  What amazing luck to be there during a bountiful period with rain to see how the desert blooms!

We planned to leave early the next morning as we had a lot to do in Alice Springs, so we bade the gathering goodnight and headed for bed. 

On a final note, thanks again Max for putting this all together. We had a great time travelling with Graham and Liz to the muster, catching up with you and Prue and meeting some other folks along the way and at Chambers Pillar. This trip will stay with us well into the future - or not, depending how soon Old Timers Disease sets in. Furthermore, your enthusiasm for this excursion led us to tack on a side trip out to the Beating Heart, aka as the Red Centre, which will feature in a future post.

until next time, all the best
Doug and Di

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