Into the New Year

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January 2, 2013

Hello reconnectors!

This update will explain why you may not have heard from me in a while.

It has been nearly 4 months since my colleagues and I finished the walk across the Simpson Desert, and as you all know it was a relatively straightforward journey, with all going according to plan. The total distance was a boot length under 700kms in 35 days, and one of the undoubted highlights was witnessing the boom cycle of the budgerigar population – sitting on a dune watching the liquid multitude of hundreds of thousands of tweeting green & yellow fluttering feathers was pure magnificence.

The day after arriving in Birdsville I began the 2200 km drive back to my home town in NSW, making a detour for one day to Adelaide to meet the production team for the movie ‘Tracks’ – the film adaptation of Robyn Davidson’s book of the same name about her journey (with camels) from Alice Springs to the West coast in 1976 – as I had been appointed Head Cameleer for the film. Then after staying at home for almost two days and unpacking gear and swapping camels and equipment, I headed back to South Australia from where I went straight into preproduction/filming/post production for a total of nearly 13 weeks. Two of the camels on reconnXpedition, Morgan and Istan, played lead roles in the film.

When I embarked on reconnXpedition2012 I knew that I would have commitments with the film immediately after finishing my journey but was under the impression that I would also have some time to reflect on my walk and work on categorizing and viewing the images/video and writing more blogs.

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Unfortunately that ‘time’ never materialized. Actually, the whole concept of ‘time’ has weighed heavily on me since my return and I am in the process of writing a blog regarding the concept of time between the desert and this other world that I have returned to. I will post that essay (and some others) once I get things sorted.

 

So I have returned home to Deniliquin and have immediately began the process of unpacking, sorting, cleaning, washing, collating all the stuff, storing equipment, images, and thoughts that had accumulated since I left home in June. I was actually away from home for a total of 162 days straight in fact, and for those of you who are not aware, I operate two businesses, and so have had to attend to a huge amount of administration that has built up in my absence.

May 2013 bring a good season to you, thank you for following my travels, and I look forward to posting more words soon.

 

Andrew and the humped team.

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Birdsville

Friday 7th

The day arrived with a strong southerly wind. It was extremely difficult to load the camels as the saddle blankets would blow off them before I could get the saddles on. So it was a a slow start to the day.

My arrival in Birdsville was fairly low key. My partner Jo had flown from Sydney the previous day and she walked out along the road to meet me. Friends Peter & Lydia from Sydney also met me on the outskirts of town.

All of my camels had been to Birdsville before, but nevertheless this was the first time that they had walked through a town in three years, since their last visit here.

We stopped outside the pub and so the expedition was officially over. A couple of photos, and we moved on down the street and stopped outside the school so that the kids could come out and see the camels.

The flags on the pub roof indicate how strong the wind was.

Then continuing through town and out along the Boulia road to the final basecamp on a small creek. I gave the camels another drink (they had about 40-60 litres each) then tied them to some very good feed trees for the remainder of the afternoon.

So that’s it. 35 days in a wobbly line across the world’s largest parallel sand-ridge desert. A few numbers for you.

  • Total days – 35
  • Total camp-to-camp distance – 463 kms
  • Total actual distance walked – 605 kms
  • Total actual distance walked including around camp in the morning and afternoon – 697 kms

Saturday 8th

My nephew Will Landale arrived with the truck last night and we spent the day packing gear, visiting friends in town and looking after the camels.

Thankyou to all my supporters for making reconnXpedition2012 possible. I could not have done this trip without the help of the 55 Pozible supporters, and friends who have contributed in some way to this journey.

There are many thoughts for me to digest and I am trying to adjust to the ‘lights of civilisation’ and all the noise around me. So much noise and distraction. I need time to process this and understand what has happened over the last month. I’ll post a few more thoughts and photos during the week once I have time, as right now I have to drive back to NSW with the camels.

. . . all aboard . . .

The humps have plenty of room in the truck and whilst travelling, they sit down (on carpet) and just watch the landscape pass by. . .

Eyre Creek

Monday 3rd

Since crossing the old rabbit proof fence and leaving the National Park, I am now walking on a cattle station, Adria Downs. The tone of my trip has hence changed, as even though it is still the Simpson Desert, I am no longer in ‘remote’ desert – I am now in someone’s backyard, indeed their western paddock.

I am camped near to one of the main channels of Eyre Creek (named by Charles Sturt) and there is good feed here for the camels. The creek is dry, which is just as well, as otherwise my journey would come to a halt. If I had attempted this trip in 2009/10 or 11, I would have been blocked by the (up to) 25km wide flooded Eyre Creek.

 

View of the Coolabah lined main channel.

Walking through the lignum to get to the main channel.

In the main channel.

Tuesday 4th

Since leaving the creek channels, the country has changed yet again. The swales are wide and flat with occasional patches of timber. The dunes are a washed out light red and are gaining in height, the highest today being 39 metres. The camels are going well and are negotiating the dunes with no problems. The ascent is slow and methodical, with a quick stop and look around once reaching the top, then a careful descent. They stood in the shade this afternoon after unloading. It was interesting, as only two of them were actually getting any shade from the small corkwood. It is their habit to face the sun so as to reduce the amount of body surface area that is exposed to direct heat

Big wide land.

I had a visitor to camp this afternoon. A nearly 2 metre long Brown snake. So the warmer temperatures are stirring the reptiles. He was close to camp and disappeared down a rat hole, but I reckon that as long as we stay out of each others way, all will be fine. But I have put up my mozzie dome rather than sleep exposed out on the flat.

As it is only about 35kms to Birdsville as the crow flies, I actually consider myself to now be in the suburbs, and tomorrow as I cross the main 4WD track to the desert, I will undoubtedly see vehicles. That will change the ambiance of the journey completely. . .

Fire impact

Now that I have nearly completed my journey across the desert, I am in a position to report on how I have observed the impact of fire, particularly the major bushfires that began in September 2011.

 

This swale was burnt by fire, received late summer rains and now the wild parsnip is prolific.

Fire has shaped the Australian landscape for thousands of years and is part of the desert boom/bust cycle.

In conjunction with Sydney University’s Institute of Wildlife Research and Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, I am keeping a detailed record of the actual ‘on ground’ impact of the fires. This is known as ground truthing and will give researchers more detailed information that can be used alongside satellite imagery. I have also been collecting scats from dingos, cats, foxes and larger raptors. These will be analyzed to see what these animals have been eating in recent times. As you would expect, the long haired rat figures prominently in the diet of these predators. The scat count to date is 124 samples.

Up until five days ago, I would estimate from my journal, that approximately 85% of my journey to date has been through country that has been affected, in some degree, by fire in the last 12 months. For my own ID purposes, I have made four levels to help categorize the different impact of the fires.

1 – country completely burnt with little or no established shrubs/trees remaining. All spinifex completely missing from landscape.
2 – country completely burnt in a ‘slow fire’ with some established mid-level shrubs remaining relatively unburnt. All spinifex missing from landscape.
3 – country completely burnt in a ‘slow fire’ with some established mid-level shrubs remaining relatively unburnt and some small isolated patches of spinifex remaining.
4 – gidgee forest fires that have burnt to the top canopy and the trees are now re-shooting.

Burnt country on one side of the dune…

… unburnt on the other.

Spinifex is traditionally the dominant plant in the dune fields and in all my previous walks across the desert from west to east, the memories are of the endless sea of this spiny leafed plant that provides an important habitat for reptiles and small mammals. It is extremely flammable and once ignited, a major spinifex fire can turn into an inferno and burn for weeks. That is basically what happened last summer.

A firescar line on the side of the dune.

A rare (on my trip) example of a spinifex ring.

One solitary spinfex remains in this burnt swale.

Burnt Gidgee in foreground with a reshooting survivor in background.

Regrowth.

A typical dune side that has been burnt…compared to an unburnt one (below).

In my 16 years of walking in the Simpson, I have never seen it like this – no spinifex. I actually saw some today and stopped to take a photo of it, it was so unusual to see it. Of course, in some parts of the desert, particularly the further south you travel into South Australia where the salt lakes begin, the spinifex becomes naturally thinner on the ground. But to walk from Andado to Eyre Creek and hardly see any at all, is (for me) very rare.

Munga-Thirri and beyond

Munga-Thirri – big sandhill country The Munga-Thirri National Park encompasses a great deal of the Simpson Desert that is found in Queensland.

As I progress east, the dunes are gradually becoming higher and the inter-dune corridors (swales) wider. The gidgee is present in most swales and the country largely remains unburnt and devoid of spinifex. It is also beginning to dry off. The wild parsnip and poached-egg daisies are fading with every dune, to be replaced with a dense covering of dead grey grasses. These would have thrived after the first summer rains but have now well and truly had their run.

Interestingly, the native rat population in these swales was at one stage in huge numbers. Evidence of their digging and tunneling is everywhere and makes for slow ponderous walking by man & camel as our sandals and pads sink into the the soft sand, causing mini cave-ins with each step. Unlike rabbit warrens which they keep well clear of, the camels have worked out that the rat tunnels are shallow and so they are not worried to walk over them. I would say that in another couple of week, there will be hardly any rats here at all, as their food supply has just about run out.

Thursday 29th

An overcast day and the threat of light rain tonight. The camel feed is lacking and for the first time there is no cattlebush on the nearby dune. The humps are nibbling at saltbush but they are not happy. I have blown the cobwebs off the tent fly and covered the saddle blankets, ready for the big downpour.

Friday 30th

The four drops of rain last night fell on the tent and the windy and balmy conditions basically meant a restless nights sleep. First light broke clear and still.

The country today developed a pleasant monotony except for the continuing lack of feed. Occasionally there would be cattlebush or semi-dried buckbush on the dunes but as every kilometre passed by, so did the prospect of finding a camp with good tucker. Lack of water is not a problem for the camels, as long as they have access to fresh green herbage. Their unique and complex internal workings will extract nearly all the moisture from their food source and this is what can enable the dromedary to go many weeks without water. All the camels are still peeing at the first break stop of the day, so I am not concerned yet that the feed is drying off. I have also observed amongst these camels over the years that they will not lower their ‘menu preference’ until they really have to. Sort of like thinking “well, there will be chocolate cake and fresh cream over the next dune so I’ll wait for that rather than have that tasty and healthy rice cracker.”

I have called the days travel ‘carbon copy’ day, as each swale appears to be identical to the preceding one. There is evidence of a once healthy rabbit population, but that, like the rats, is also thinning out.

TC looks ahead at carboncopyland.

Saturday 31st

Full Moon Camp

I am camped on a small claypan amongst scattered gidgee. There are dingo prints embedded into the surface from where a single dog loped past after the last rain.

I have let the camels wander as they please along the very high dune immediately to the west of camp. There is some scattered cattlebush along the flat top. I also left them unhobbled as this makes it easier for them to climb the dune. By the time I retrieved them and brought them back to camp, the full moon was breaking the eastern dune. It was actually kind of nice walking along the dune top with the 5 humps, their condomine bells clanging and tingling in a muddled camel chorus. One of the pleasures of being out here. Big sky calling.

By the time I had tied them up it was well past dinner time and I noted that I had walked 4kms since making camp.

Sunday September 1st

Full moon light meant waking even earlier. So I made a cuppa at 4.30 and just sat and watched the day appear.

The dunes continue to rise, the highest being 36 metres. Great views all round as I traverse east on a bearing that keeps me just north of the South Australia border. Today’s objective was to find one of the border posts that were put in by Augustus Poeppel in 1880. The timber posts were placed every mile on the 26th parallel and I had read that many were still standing.

Just after lunch I crossed the remains of the rabbit proof fence that was built in the late 19th Century in the forlorn hope of containing the rabbit population to the north east of the country. Much of the galvanized netting is in surprisingly reasonable condition but the posts and main wires are well rotted and rusted.

I came across border post #144 on the edge of a swale. Many of the border posts had been cut from waddy trees (acacia peuce) and this particular post was in very good condition. ‘144’ refers to 144 miles west of Haddon Corner which is where the ‘corner’ of Queensland is before it turns south.

The actual 26th parallel as determined by GPS lies less than 300 metres to the south of this post.

As far as I am aware, the last people to follow the border posts with camels were Ted Colson and Peter Ains in 1936. Colson is acknowledged as being the first whitefella to cross the desert, and like me, they also traveled with 5 camels.

As I sit here at my camp that I have called ‘white ridge claypan’, I reflect that 76 years ago, Colson & Ains walked almost exactly through where I now camp. I have long admired Colson & Ains for their trip across to Birdsville (and return), and now as I enter the last week of my own journey I can appreciate the fine bush skills and stockmanship of those two men.

Camp tonight is in the first swale of Eyre Creek and a thick string of mid size coolabahs hugs the eastern edge of the corridor. There is cattlebush and acacia victoriae here – the humps are content.

Acacia victoriae walk-through snackbar. Note the rat holes in the foreground.

Tonight’s camp.

The daily commute

I could say that I wake up at work but my day doesn’t seem like work – it’s just the day.

Nevertheless, I wake instinctively about an hour before sunrise when constellation Orion is about a third of the way across the sky (as of this morning) and the first glimmer of light is murmuring over the eastern dune. I place my swag next to TC’s saddle on most nights and because I have my feet to the prevailing wind which is usually south, when I wake in the morning, east is always on my left. Orion is the signal to get up. The Willy Wagtails usually have already started singing.

I light the fire and put the billy on then let the camels off from their night trees. Colour arrives to the desert about 45 minutes before sunrise. Breakfast consists, of porridge, Chia seeds, sultanas, pepitas, sunflower seeds and a cup of tea.

I bring the camels in about 30 mins after sunrise and begin loading which takes about 50mins to 1 hour. The actual loading process from when I hoosh (sit) the first camel (TC) ,to finish loading is about 40 to 45mins with about another 10 minutes to allow the camels to stand when I re-tighten girths and get my own gear together. I have estimated that the total weight of all the gear and equipment including saddles is approximately 970kg. So if I felt cold in the winter temperatures, this early morning weight-lifting class soon gets me going. Of course, that 970kg gets a little less every day as I eat & drink my way through the stores…

And off we go, walking for up to 4 hours with a few breaks to stop and look at whatever the day is offering. Lunch is between 40mins and 1 hour, depending on if I am hungry or not, as for probably 3 days out of 7 I don’t really have much appetite, so will just stop and give the camels a break. That is the routine they are used to, and routine is extremely important for a working camel.

 

Typical swale that I walked across today – all unburnt.

 

Today’s typical dune.

Then another 2 or so hours walking in the afternoon and we make camp about 3.30pm. I don’t actually look at my watch and declare “Camp time camels”, rather I just wait until there is good feed and then stop. Camp location is selected entirely on feed availability for the humps. I guess that over the years I have developed a good appreciation of ‘time’, and I do tend to make camp at more or less the same ‘time’ every day.

Then the afternoon weight-lifting session begins of unloading, which takes about 25 to 30 minutes. I then set up camp, which is fairly straightforward, as amongst other things this involves collecting firewood, airing my swag and getting the dinner ingredients.

The camels are tied up at sunset or just after and then I cook dinner. If I am posting a blog, then that happens straight after dinner and usually takes an hour. The desert digital connection is rather different to what I am used to at home. Naturally, everything is done by satellite, and it does take a while to load pages.

I am usually in my swag by 8pm and asleep one minute after my head hits the pillow. Some nights I will wait until I count at least two shooting stars before allowing myself to drift off. There has been only one cloudy night on the trip, so I have a commanding view of the southern stars. Scorpio is directly above me and of course the Southern Cross sits assuredly to my lower right. So after at least 9 hours sleep, Orion tells me it’s time to get up again.

Istan, Char and The Black Prince in camp, Aug 29. Char is having a little snooze…

Distance each day.

This varies of course, as I am traveling cross-country and though I may be on a compass bearing, I have to navigate the camels through the landscape, walking them past feed trees/shrubs, picking the best way around trees and hummocks and ascending the dunes at the most accessible place. So it is a wobbly line of camel padprints that we leave during the day. I have also often wondered how much distance I cover before I actually depart in the mornings and once I make camp in the afternoon, so I have been keeping a detailed record with my GPS of the days total. For example;

In a straight line, yesterday’s camp is exactly 15kms from the nights before. However to make that distance I actually walked 19.4ms. Add to that the 984 metres collecting the camels in the morning and the 415 metres loading the camels (that really surprised me), and the 683 metres around camp in the afternoon, tying up camels etc, that makes a total of over 21 kms for the day, just to get 15kms closer to Birdsville. On some days, the days total has been over 25kms.

 

Tonights sunset. Big sky desert.

So that is my day. It is built around the routine of working with the camels, and you can see that it is about far more than just walking across a desert. And even though I have referred to ‘time’, there is no sense of ‘being late’ or ‘running out of time’ or ‘there is no time’. It’s just the day, and it is entirely what I make of it.

New direction

At last nights camp I made the decision not to go to Poeppel Corner where the states of South Australia and Queensland meet the Northern Territory. I calculated that as I had to travel southeast then backtrack northwest around the two large salt lakes, it would basically mean almost two days of travel with not a lot gained. Ideally I would have just passed P-corner and gone into South Australia around the salt lakes, but I don’t have permission to go into SA (not because it wasn’t granted, but because I didn’t ask for it) so i have bypassed it completely.

So I headed past the northern section of Lake Poeppel and then the unnamed larger salt lake to the east, and am now camped a few kilometres from the Queensland border. Earlier on in the morning I could see the haze of the lakes from about 7kms distant, even though the vast salt pans were obscured by dunes, and the view from the very high dune between the lakes was terrific.

TC surveys the scene.

There is good feed in the nearest dunes to each lake and the rat presence is still steady.

Yesterday I found a partial grinding stone on a small claypan amongst the gidgee forest. It had been worked smooth on both faces.

 

During the last 10 days I also found a blaze cut into a very old gidgee. There is no doubt in my mind that these cuts were made by a small axe many, many decades ago. Discoveries like this remind me of the value of walking the country and approaching areas the same way that explorers, prospectors, surveyors and stockmen have done before me.

The country changes

Birthday claypan with the camels about to roll in the dust.

Typical country on Thursday.

Friday 24th

A return to cooler weather with a very pleasant walking temp of about 24 and an almost cool southerly breeze all day. I am now in Acacia Georginae (gidgee) country which for desert trekkers means that Queensland is close. I have seen large stands of this hardy tree for the last three days and actually saw my first gidgee a week ago before reaching the GeoCentre. It stands in huge forests in the interdune corridors, and does not grow in sand but needs a more clay based soil to survive. Gidgee is an extremely hard and durable wood and when possible was used by stockmen to build fences and yards. It also makes for good firewood.

I camped on the edge of the first large forest and looked at the substantial dune to the east that I would have to cross tomorrow. From this distance, the multitude of dunes are almost ‘layered’ like a five tier orange sponge cake and will take a prolonged effort to climb and cross.

Saturday 25th
The washed out sand sea of tranquility
Once we had climbed the eastern dunes, we found ourselves in a sea of undulating small sand hills, rather than the classic parallel dunes that we were used to. It was at times tedious progress. And the dune crests were no longer red, more a washed out pink. It felt like being in an ocean swell – walking down a few metres, around bare hummocks of dirt, up and over again, and I could imagine a small boat rolling in the seas and once cresting a wave, the occupants thinking ‘well, we have made progress’ only to find that the ocean had taken you backwards. You can imagine the string of camels twirling around this landscape like a huge elastic band, as each camel ascends and descends the natural obstacle course.

My bearing marker on the eastern dune horizon never seemed to get any closer. But on we sailed. The country had a peaceful feel about it and there was good feed here – green buckbush and flowering acacia ligulata, both high on the camel menu.

Upon reaching the top, there was a commanding view in all directions. A great gidgee forest to the west and another oncoming to the east. One lone young wild cow camel made its way towards us but didn’t show much interest in saying hello.

Eventually the ships of the desert emerged on the other side of the sea and I have made camp on a small, perfectly flat claypan about 300m from a salt lake, which is the first we have seen on the trip. As per usual in the gidgee forests, the rat holes are everywhere, and particularly around the soft soil of the saltlake. I suspect however that the population is in decline, as I count about a dozen deceased (flat rats) every day, and not all the rat highways have had heavy traffic the proceeding evening. A flock of about 20 brown falcons follows us for part of the day – their numbers are healthy as a result of the rat population. The forests have not been burnt and the gidgee look healthy as a result of the recent wet years. I saw 1 western red kangaroo today and a young bearded dragon.

The camels are tied up about 100 metres away. That is close enough so that if there is a problem during the night (visits by wild camels/ rope getting tangled), I will hear them. Istan & Char both grind their teeth at night so I don’t tie them to close, as I am a light sleeper. Morgan snores.

TC & Sultan are not tied at night but have hobbles on and are free to feed. They usually camp with the other three, then after midnight I will hear their bells as they go for a feed. By first light, they are camped back with their mates. The humps have a strong herd instinct and seldom leave their mob. On the rare occasion they do stray too far at night, the other three (particularly Istan) would moan, so waking me and I would go and retrieve them. Not because they would disappear, but rather to keep the others quiet so I can sleep!

Geographical Centre

Where’s Morgan?

 

At the Geographical Centre of the desert. By my calculations, Morgan has been across the Simpson twelve times in various routes and directions since 1996, but has never been to the Geo Centre, so that’s a first for both of us.

There is a high tower there and the various plaques from visiting 4WDrivers. I signed he visitors book and picked up an old broken bottle, that had obviously been there for quite a while. It’s disappointing that it’s left to the bloke walking with camels to pick up rubbish . . .

And on we go. The dunes are a manageable height of about 10 to 12 metres and still wearing a layer of colour. The feed is relatively abundant and the country remains burnt with no spinifex.

Big Sky Camp, Tuesday 21st

There was a dingo in camp last night. He did the rounds of the gear and got a great surprise when the canvas sack on the ground (me in my swag) growled at him and shone a torch in his face! The next morning he morphed out of the grasses and followed us for a while. I didn’t actually know he was there until he gave a small yelp as he trotted alongside the camels. I called him White-Tip.

The day felt full and the sky nearly touched the very sand beneath me as the padded team and I walked along a broad corridor, covered in wild parsnip and grasses.

A lone wild bull camel marched down the dune. I decided to ignore him. My camels looked at him, he looked at us, and then he just stood there as we kept walking. White Tip disappeared into the dunes and we left the bull behind. I actually felt sorry for him. After all, he was just looking for company.

There has been a steady southerly breeze all day and at lunch we were joined by 4 zebra finches who sat in the small needlewood to watch proceedings. This has been the 5th straight day when finches have joined us for lunch, which by the way was 5 rice crackers and a small tin of tuna. I usually have a cuppa tea but not today. The wind was constant until sunset.

Winter? August 22

The weather today was very testing. It was 18.3 degrees at 6AM so a warm day was in store. It wasn’t a breeze that came at sunrise – it was strong wind from the northwest which thankfully was on our backs as we headed off across the dunes. The desert had changed colour with this weather. The dunes were now a washed out pink and raised dust filled the lower sky. By noon I decided to forego lunch and make for a claypan that was marked on the map. We were travelling at a steady pace but I thought we may as well have an early day. We arrived here at 1.40, unloaded and I took shade behind one of the dozen or so corkwoods. The camels sat for about an hour and a half before feeding on the thick crop of cattlebush on the dune to the west.

For obvious reasons, I have called this place Birthday Claypan. I’s about the size of a football oval with a thin layering of grasses. And a healthy rat population. I have set up my mozzie dome, not for insects, but to keep the rats out of my swag and off my head during the night. These are native long haired rats, but cuteness aside, it’s rather disruptive to one’s sleep patterns to have a critter nibbling your earlobe. My thermometer recorded a high of 38.1 degrees in the shade and the wind stayed constant and strong until sunset.

I hope this sort of weather doesn’t hang about for too long.

Along the corridor

A different day today. As I am now following the swales (inter-dune corridors), and only seldom crossing dunes, it feels like literally walking down a long corridor in a rather long building.

 

Typical country.

This afternoon I had one towering red neighbour to my west and after a while I just decided to follow it to see where/how it would eventually slide into the sands.

Following the swales gives a totally different perspective to the desert as I don’t feel that I am crossing ‘the desert’, just walking with it. Going with the grain and not rising to the challenge of ascending another dune.

The country has changed since yesterday. It’s still burnt, but it has been a slow burn which has left many of the established shrubs untouched. Scattered stands of needlewood (the first I have seen) were found on small clearings, whilst the dunes I did cross were a mass of growth and colour – umbrella bush (acacia ligulata), ptilotus, poached-egg daisy, Cunninghams Bird Flower (Crotalaria), Waxy Wattle, the ubiquitous cattle bush, and the delicate silken purple flower of the parakeelya. This is a good sign, as this small succulent plant is basically a ‘sponge’ and provides water for the humps. The corridors are covered in grasses including woollybutt and windmill grass, although this may also be called spear grass.

But dune hopping tomorrow towards the Geographical Centre of the desert.

Here are some photos from the last 10 days.

I am not sure of the origin of these shells which i found in a swale, though I suspect that they were used as trading items by aborigines.

A wild bull and his family. The bull is frothing at the mouth as a sign to my camels that he is boss.

One morning this youngster decided to watch me packing up camp.

A Bearded Dragon.

The best photo I could get of a budgie swarm.

 

Geosurvey Hill

Geosurvey Hill
Reg Sprigg visited here as part of his 1962 survey and again in 1964 as part of the first south to north vehicle crossing of the desert. On the 1964 trip he erected a plaque and ‘marker’.

Since the 4WD recreation boom of the late 1980’s, many people have made the difficult vehicle journey to the hill, usually as part of a detour from following Cecil Madigan’s 1939 route.

I arrived here at 1040 and walked to the top of this sandy/rocky hill. I am unable to find the name that the aboriginal people gave to this place, but during good seasons it was evidently well visited. The surrounding claypans have extensive evidence of tool factories and as I approached the general area, there was an increase in kangaroo tracks and general mammal/reptile tracks on the dunes. It would have been a sustainable food source in wet years and the view from the hill meant that you could see who/what was approaching.

 

A ‘tool factory’ – where someone once sat and shaped stone fragments.

There are numerous plaques at the top, all from various 4WD clubs and even a visitors book. It’s first entry was in 1993, and it would be a quarter full, so I guess that a few dozen people come here every year.

Apart from Rex Ellis’ commercial camel tours visiting here in the early 1990’s, I suspect that I am the first person in quite a while to actually walk here and not drive. There is something intrinsically comfortable about seeing a geographical landmark on the horizon and feeling it get closer by every step. It seems to make more sense within the landscape when you finally do reach it.

It felt good to leave the vehicle tracks behind as I continued on. I am now more or less ‘running with the country’, following the dune corridors southeast and taking the opportunity to dune hop when the country dictates. This makes for happy camels! The country is still burnt, apart from some very isolated and small areas on some dune crests. The feed is holding out well and the weather is perfect for walking – 24 degrees during the day. And the budgies are back. Not in big numbers, but a few flocks of a dozen or so. I’ve also observed more ant activity and an increase in quail. I flushed out 4 today, and saw evidence where many more had roosted.

I am now on a bearing for the Geographical Centre of the desert, and should reach there on Monday.

In my previous blogs I have mentioned that ‘we’ do this or that, rather than ‘I’. In saying ‘we’ I am of course referring to the camels. There are six in this team, but to avoid confusion and for the sake of accuracy, I’ll now just say I.


Typical view of the dunes looking west.

 

Expedition gear list

Expedition Gear List

5 bullock camels

5 traditional ‘Afghan’ packsaddles

5 halters

5 lead ropes

5 contoured saddle blankets

11 standard saddle blankets

5 Condomine camel bells

6 pairs of hobbles

spare 10mm & 5mm rope

10 steel utility racks

6 ‘spacecase’ heavyduty grey plastic boxes

2 steel green boxes

7 Ortleib bags of various sizes

22 X 20 litre plastic water jerrycans

1 quartpot

2 cooking pots

1 cup

1 collapsible 5 litre canvas watertub

1 long handled shovel

1 chair

.308 rifle and ammunition

12 gauge shotgun and ammunition

1 tomahawk

 

1 RFDS 1st Aid Kit configured for 1 person

1 camel first aid kit

 

Communications

1 notebook laptop

1 BGAN satellite data transmitter

2 satellite telephones – Telstra Iridium

1 EPIRB

1 spotfinder

Assorted maps

1 AM radio

1 handneld UHF radio

2 compass

1 Garmin GPS 62s

1 Garmin Etrek GPS

1 small mirror

 

1 Canon Powershot camera

1 Nikon D100 SLR

1 GoPro Hero2 camera

1 tripod

I pr binoculars

2 12volt batteries

1 Goalzero Nomad solar panels

1 Goalzero Sherpa powerpack

2 flexisolar panels

assorted AA & AAA batteries

2 AA solar battery chargers

1 voltmeter

 

1 swag

1 canvas groundsheet

1 mozzie dome & tent fly

 

Food!!

Clothes

1 pair Redback work boots

1 pair Keen sandles

…and a few other bits ‘n pieces

 

Gee, all that for one person . . .I’d like to say that I am treading lightly on the land, but that does seem an awful lot of gear. But all of it has a purpose. Everything I have is either used on a daily basis, will be eaten of drunk, or is carried in case of emergency.

Into the great dunefield

The satellite data system has been having a few hiccups, but I now seem to have sorted things out.

In my last blog I mentioned that the budgie population in the desert was thriving. But what I saw last Friday was quite astonishing. All during the morning I was watching huge flocks of birds fly south-east which meant that the recently burnt country would probably continue, as the they were feeding on the seeds of the new grasses. I made camp at about 3.30 and from about 5pm till sunset, the flocks came back, returning to the west and (presumably) the Coolabahs of the Hale River to roost.

It was an incredible sight as wave after wave flew right over camp, about 2 – 5 metres above ground.

Each flock would have had 2000 to 3000 birds, and I counted 23 ‘waves’. I sat on the dune with my cup of tea and filmed, photographed and watched this great spectacle, thinking that it couldn’t get any better. But on the horizon was an ink blot of molten feathers swirling and diving along the dune. This was THE swarm. I would say over ten thousand birds. I have never seen anything like this before in the Simpson or anywhere for that matter. During the boom wet years of 2009 to 2011 I witnessed the desert thrive with thousands of birds migrating and breeding on the replenished wetlands, countless thousands of native black rats in plague proportions, and I realize now that after the massive fires of last summer, the next boom cycle has arrived.

The camels were feeding in the dune corridor and they all stopped and looked at this magnificent display. It sounded like a motor car roaring along a road a few kilometres away, and you could often hear the flocks before you saw them.

By Sunday, I counted 4 lone budgies all day. I had now walked past their feeding grounds. I saw a few flocks today, about 50 strong, all heading north.

Since leaving the road, all of the country I have walked through has been burnt. The king plant species, of the Simpson, Spinifex, curse of many desert trekkers and explorers, is nowhere to be seen. This makes walking extremely easy, and the recent rains (May) have provided a layer of colour. The predominant plants are now wild parsnip, poached egg daisy and cattle bush, all of which the camels eat.

I have never had such easy walking conditions. The potential problem with this however, is that if I strike burnt country that hasn’t received rain, then there will be no feed for the camels.

The other downside, is that there is little good solid firewood. Enough to boil a billy and cook a meal, but nothing that provides any heat. Night temps are down to -3, whilst daytime up to the mid/high 20’s.

Tuesday 14th

As we were loading this morning, a small group of camels came to watch. One young bull, 5 cows and two very small calves. A family group like this poses no threat to my camels, and they all stood there and watched us for 30mins, before deciding that there was nothing further to be gained from the experience, and moved off.

Wednesday 15th

I expect to arrive at Geosurvey Hill late morning tomorrow. I will explore the surrounding claypans and probably camp on one, rather than take the camels to GH itself. Today was the warmest so far, and the fact that it was also the first day with no wind produced a very warm afternoon – 30 degrees in mid afternoon. There was the faintest hint of a reluctant breeze every time we crossed a dune, but otherwise the day was still and quiet. It was also our biggest walking day – just over 16kms from last camp. We had to walk over 20kms in a wobbly line though, to get the 16. Average dune height is 9 to 10 metres which the team is negotiating without difficulty.

Saw a couple of flocks of budgies, a bearded dragon, two quail and heard a dingo howling this morning as we left camp.

Thursday 16th

Geosurvey Hill

We approached the set of three claypans from the northwest and saw the first evidence of occupation – a chipping of white stone – on the third dune to the west. I also noted the first ‘rat highways’ that I have seen since Andado Station. These are the well used pads of the native black rat and are unmistakable. There were only a couple, but it indicates that the population may be contracting back to these claypans. There was also evidence of rabbits.

We are camped on the claypan nearest the hill. The feed is ok and the camels have the afternoon off to wander on the dune and eat.

I note that Dr Reg Sprigg camped near here in 1964 on the first solo south-north vehicle crossing of the Simpson.

Meeting the locals

There has been a lapse in the winter chill, as it was 31 degrees today after an overnight low of 5.4.

We are still walking along the road, which is certainly a novelty for both myself and the camels. There has been quite a lot of fourlegged traffic on this dirt track – in the last four days I have noted tracks of camels, dingo, cat, emu & 4 chicks. echidna, bush turkey, kangaroo and various beetles and birds.

Two days ago a young female dingo visited camp. She was quite comfortable with my presence and came within about 3 metres from me. She followed me as I went to collect the camels, howled a few times then crept away. Dingos cannot bark, only howl.

Just on sunset last night, a young wild bull camel also visited. My camels basically ignored him as he inquired who was in his territory. Char considered chasing him but found that eating the fresh cattle bush growing on the nearby dune. I chased the bull away from camp with a couple of well timed cracks of the stockwhip

 

Young Bull Camel

All of the country since I left camp has been burnt by bushfires since late 2011, with varying degrees of rejuvenation. Today was full of colour with poached-egg daisy’s, purple mulla-mulla and flowering wattles on the dunes. The huge ink blot swarms of budgies are still prevalent, swerving amongst the corkwoods and coolabahs (and camels!). The budgies are feeding on the seeds of yakirra and woollybutt grasses.

 

Budgie Tree

My humped travelling companions are going well. There has been good tucker for them and as the road ascends the dunes on a moderate slope, the dune crossings are very easy for them.

The string order is; TC, Istan, Char, Sultan & Morgan. It’s called a string of camels because all the camels are tied together with rope. I’ll give a far more detailed description of the camels and their loads as the expedition progresses.

 

The landscape at East Bore base camp.

As I sit here by the fire, the cacophony of the melodious crickets rivals for air time against the high sonic pitch of the occassional small bats.

It’s time for bed.

Saddle Up & Go

The first day of reconnxpedition2012 is a non-walking day. Like any major expedition, preparation is everything and a successful journey has its foundation in the planning. It’s taken me about 9 months to organise this trip, and the there is a lot to do on the first day when you actually get to base camp and are getting all the gear together.

There is no point setting off without being totally organised, so Saturday the 4th was spent organising equipment and fitting saddles to Istan and TC. On my commercial expeditions I use traditional packsaddles that have steel utility racks on each side, on which the water cans and food boxes are carried. These work very well but make the saddles heavy and awkward to lift. I have devised a system where the racks are now hanging on clips, so I can load the saddle first then the racks. It took some time to set these up at the correct angle on each saddle.

A smooth departure. The camels were on their best behaviour and the loads sat beautifully balanced as we set off at 10.40am. By all accounts it was a very smooth departure from base camp. As outlined in the ‘Follow Morgan’ page, the first few days of my trip I have to follow a road heading north-east into the desert, and then after about four days I can head cross country towards Geosurvey Hill.

Budgie Camp 3.
Camp #3 is called budgie camp. We are camped amongst scattered small coolabahs in country that was burnt by bushfires in late 2011. Following some light summer rain and follow up showers in May, there is a good covering of grasses and the acacia’s and coolabahs are sprouting fresh foliage.
From camp time to sunset, wave after wave of green budgies flew above camp heading east into the dunes. There were 5 waves, each flock having about 2000 birds. (A rough count!) And they are noisy! All of them are chatting as they fly by – “Fly left, go that way, dart right, turn this way!” I love it. Why these little native luminescent navigators are ever kept in cages confounds me. They obviously love to swarm in huge numbers and are social creatures.

Remember that you can see where Morgan is on Google Maps. Just go to the Follow Morgan page and follow the link to Spotfinder. At this stage I am just logging every nights camp rather than have the spotfinder turned on all day. That will happen once I hit the dune field.

desk bound

That’s the view I’ve had for the last 24 hours – a digital connection in a hotel room in Alice Springs. Am looking forward to bringing you the desert digital connection beginning in 2 days time.

All is ready for departure and the camels are in fine form. I’ve made one change to the team – the Prince of Darkness, Sultan, has replaced Banjo. Sultan is better suited to dune work than the rather large Banjo, as I think I would have difficulty keeping Banjo’s saddle on whilst negotiating the dunes.

I am delighted to announce that I have teamed up with Adventurers & Scientists For Conservation and Sydney University to conduct a documentation ‘ground truthing’ exercise across the desert. More details on this page -https://reconnxpedition2012.wordpress.com/ecology/

The desert awaits…

Andrew & the Padded Team

Connection made!

With four days remaining on my Pozible Crowdfunding page, I have been overwhelmed today with a 49% increase in pledges during the last 14 hours. It is now running at 132%. Amazing. And very humbling that another 13 people have decided to support my trip financially. This gives me a great deal of confidence to know that I can proceed to order and purchase the remaining equipment I need for the expedition.

Even though the initial goal has been reached, the Pozible goal represents about half the actual expedition budget, so all these extra pledges will really help in addressing the inevitable unforeseen costs that will be incurred during the trip. Most of those costs will be concerned with transporting the camels. Speaking of my humped colleagues, they will be leaving their summer pasture on Saturday to begin the 2000km journey to the western Simpson Desert, where the expedition will begin. It will take us about 38 hours (with stops) to get there. Once we get on the road, I’ll post some photos of the humps in the truck, so you can see how they travel.

The last few weeks have been hectic. Preparation is everything, and once I leave home tomorrow night, if I haven’t packed it then too bad! It’s been very cold at night in Central Oz this week – down to minus 4 – but by the time the expedition begins, it should be starting to warm up. I’m looking forward to getting out there and start walking!

Image

75 in 18 with 20 to go

I’m delighted to say that the reconnxpedition project on Pozible has reached the 75% target! There is still 20 days left in which to gather that last quarter.

Preparations are going well, though it is a challenge to get everything done whilst also working at my other jobs. Still, preparation IS everything and that’s the task I’ve taken on.

In the last week I’ve been gathering all the expedition equipment together and making sure that the digital gear I intend to purchase will seamlessly talk to each other. The challenge at the moment is to be sure that the old ‘expedition ready & camel proof’ laptop can receive adequate charge from the solar powered batteries. This is rather hard to do, as I’m yet to purchase the solar powered batteries! But when they are purchased, at least I will know how to set it up.

I’ve also been writing up the ETE/schools information for the expedition profile. This is taking a fair bit of work to research and collate but is just about done.
Unfortunately the satellite transmission carrier has just upped the price of data uploads to $12.50/MB, which will severely eat into the buffer zone I had created for unforeseen circumstances. Nevermind, I can always just restrict the number of photos I was going to upload thereby ‘stretching’ the budget.

I have also confirmed a gig with Australia’s Radio National to submit a segment to their Off Track program – direct from the desert. I reckon my trip qualifies as being off track, though it’s weird how I have to be outside & online to be offtrack…


TC is keeping an eye on me – Self Portrait

thirty three in 3

The response to my launch on Pozible has been terrific. The combined pledges during the first 3 days total 33% of the goal! A huge camel-sized thankyou to those people who have helped me reach this key milestone.

You have probably never considered having a bottle of Changing Simpson Desert Sands on your desk, but think ahead for Christmas – wouldn’t that make a great gift for the person who allegedly has everything? Guaranteed to really stump them!
You can visit Pozible for more info.

Thanks for spreading the word about the expedition!

It’s Pozible!

I am delighted to announce that reconnXpedition2012 is Pozible!
How would you like to receive a postcard that was written under the southern stars and carried by CamelPost across the dunes…

or securing your very own Changing Desert Sands

or even a Message In A Bottle?
 

or receive your very own personal satellite phone call whilst I’m sitting around the campfire? (I’ll even try to get one of the camels to say something)

Well, you can with Pozible.

Pozible is Australia’s global crowdfunding platform for creative individuals, groups and organisations, and it’s where you can help reconnXpedition2012 to achieve it’s goals! Click here to find out how you can be truly connected to reconnXpedition2012

What’s old is new for me

I was asked in a post comment what I hope to see on this expedition that I haven’t seen before in the Simpson, and the greatest moment of tension during preparation.

Yes, I’ve been walking in the Simpson for quite a few years, so what could possibly be new for me to see?

During the expedition I will visit two geographical landmarks, Geosurveys Hill & the Geographical Centre of the desert, and one man-made landmark, Poeppel Corner. I’ve never been to either Geosurveys Hill or the Geographical Centre, so that will be a new experience for me. As all my previous commercial camel expeditions across the Simpson from west to east to Birdsville have steered well clear of any 4WD tracks, it will also be my first trip to Poeppel Corner with camels. Poeppel Corner is where the two states of Queensland and South Australia meet the Northern Territory. It’s taken 16 years and 10 trips in the Simpson to finally try to get there.

Then there’s all the country in between those points! I am deliberately planning my route to encompass as many claypans/small saltlakes as possible. Of particular interest to me will be several groups of small claypans en route to GeoHill and also the finger of salt lakes that stream up from Poeppel Corner, as there is usually interesting things to look for in that type of country, particularly artefacts.

I will also cross the Hale and Plenty River channels. These will be dry but the massive floods of 2010 made their way deep into the desert and it will be fascinating to see how the desert ecology responded to that huge volume of water.

Also, the bushfires from last October/November that burnt out huge areas near the Queensland border. It’s impossible to know where & how much summer rain has fallen in the desert and therefore what the feed situation will be like for the humps, and although walking will be easier on burnt country, I will have to be careful to make sure that the camels get enough to eat each day.

I’ll do my best to post photos of the different types of country as I pass through it. As you will see, the Simpson ecosystems gradually change as you walk from west to east.

As far as preparation goes, I wouldn’t say there was any tension, just unending jobs. Organising an expedition is similar to establishing and operating a small business and all the myriad tasks that go with it. As long as I keep to my pre-departure plan & don’t get sidetracked by looking at WordPress forums, then everything should run smoothly…

After all the office work is done, it’s a great moment when you actually leave home and start travelling to the expedition start point. Travelling by vehicle is when plans can go seriously wrong either by mechanical problems or wet weather, which closes all the access roads to the desert. It’s a huge relief to arrive at base camp with all the camels having travelled safely in the truck. The welfare of the camels is my top priority.

Like innumerable solo desert travellers before me, I suspect the revelations of this journey will emerge from my own thoughts and letting my mind off the chain, free to wander over the dunes towards the horizon, slightly ahead of every step. I’d just better be sure that it returns by the end of the day. Otherwise I won’t be able to find my swag.

606 in 36

Almost 36 hours after launching, the blog has had 606 hits and collected 172 followers!

You’ll notice a few tweaks to the layout since yesterday and the addition of a reconnxpedition Facebook page. More pages about the desert ecology & explorers will be added shortly.
Thanks for your interest & for spreading the word! 

Andrew

walking the inside out

Welcome to reconnXpedition2012!

Well, 80 days until departure.

I started thinking about this last October – a trip in the Simpson Desert with my camels, and as the months have passed, the expedition has grown from my own quiet journey to encompass the school network and I am proud to have Education Through Expeditions come on board and follow my walk.

As adventurers & explorers around know all too well, it requires a lot of work to organise an expedition. There are permits to secure, budgets to set, money to raise, training schedules, equipment to purchase and (in this case) time set aside to get the message out to social media networks. It’s not easy, but that is the point. The success is in the planning. That’s the difficult part.

Why walking the inside out?
My every step across the desert connects me to the landscape. And the desert narrative reveals itself with every step. A desert journey clears ones mind. Everything empties. On some days you can walk across a dozen horizons and not actually think of anything . . . and on other days the thoughts and memories come as fast and furious as a sand storm. Cleaning out the mind – walking the inside out.

Follow the blog and better still – tell your friends about the bloke who will be poking about the Simpson Desert with his camels! Go on!