Journey to Ground Zero
Just as in the rest of the world, finding adventure in Australia is becoming increasingly difficult. The Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks are now so well graded they are highways, except when it rains. Even the Canning Stock Route and Simpson Desert are over used, however, if you know where to look, it is still possible to find adventure. One remote track had been at the back of my mind for years. It was a challenge, but I was now 71 and running out of time. I had to make the trip while I was still fit and able.
I set the trip meter to zero as I headed west from Coober Pedy. My destination was the Anne Beadell Highway and Ground Zero, the site of the 1953 British atomic tests in South Australia. The test site must be unique. Except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is probably the only place in the world where the public can visit the site of an atomic explosion. For months I'd been arranging the necessary permits, and preparing my vehicle for a long desert trek. At last I was on my way.
More remote than the Canning, and far longer than a Simpson crossing, the little known Anne Beadell Highway is the last great adventure in Australia. It traverses the Great Victoria Desert through two conservation parks, the Woomera Prohibited Area and Aboriginal Lands in both South Australia and Western Australia. The section of track through the conservation parks and the Prohibited Area, all in South Australia, is not maintained and rangers rarely visit the parks. Anyone travelling the Anne Beadell must be well prepared and self-sufficient
The only difficulty I encountered was with the permit to travel through the Cosmos Newberry Aboriginal lands in Western Australia. Getting the permit was easy enough, but it would only be granted for one day. The lady in Perth, who was responsible for their issue, insisted that the permit would only cover a single day and insisted that I specified the exact date. She refused to be swayed by my protestations that I was crossing about 1,500 kilometres (950 miles) of desert with many imponderables, and so had no idea when I'd reach the Aboriginal lands. I took a guess, but was told if I failed to arrive on the date of the permit I would have to apply for another. Just how I could do that without entering the Community I had no idea.
All the other permit authorities were more understanding. The basic information states that a South Australian Desert Parks' Pass is required for the two SA national parks, which costs well over one hundred dollars, but that information is wrong. A short term permit is available from the Parks and Wildlife Office in Port Augusta for a few dollars.
Route planning is simple. Go north from Adelaide along the Stuart Highway and turn left a few kilometres north of Coober Pedy. Keep heading west and 1,500 kilometres (950 miles) later, or perhaps a tad more, the track reaches the next town, Laverton in Western Australia.
The Anne Beadell Highway was surveyed by Len Beadell, and formed by his Gunbarrel Road Construction Party. It is one of the network of roads established throughout the Great Victorian Desert as part of the Woomera Rocket Range. Len named the highway after his wife Anne, but highway is a legacy of Len's sense of humour. In fairness thought, as previously there was no path of any description, any graded track would seem like a highway.
The route is well signposted, as is the boundary of the Woomera Prohibited Area which begins a few kilometres west of Mabel Creek Cattle Station. I reached the eastern boundary of the Tallaringa Conservation Park at 121 kilometres (75 miles). This boundary is also the Dog Fence, which continues without a break across the track. To enter the park I had to detour five kilometres south, to the nearest gate, then drive north again to return to the Anne Beadell. Surely the two government authorities responsible could work together to install a gate at the track. Once in the park the corrugations became vicious, and remained so for most of the South Australian section.
Tallaringa Well, 177 kilometres (110 miles), about two thirds of the way through the park, has a great camping area, although I didn't use it. The well itself is in a clump of bushes 25 paces directly south from a replica Len Beadell sign which points the way to Emu. I did not check to see if it had water.
Twenty-five kilometres (16 miles) later the track left the Tallaringa Park and entered the Maralinga Tjarutja Lands, still in the Woomera Prohibited Area, and headed towards the Unnamed Conservation Park.
That night I tripped, crashed into my small table and broke three ribs. I wasn't passing blood or coughing it up, so I didn't worry. I'd broken ribs before this and knew the medics did nothing other than let the ribs heal naturally, provided there was no blood. Sleeping was difficult for about a week, but during the day the ribs caused no serious discomfort and I was able to enjoy the journey.
A side track to the atomic test sites, Totem One and Totem Two, was reached at 287 kilometres (180 miles). These two blast sites have now been cleaned up and rehabilitated, but are so devoid of contours that members of the Flat Earth Society would be convinced they were correct in their beliefs. The vegetation is just low salt bush, but that is the aftermath of the clean-up. However, the clean-up was not comprehensive and junk still litters the area. Dozens of cylindrical concrete blocks line the track to Totem One, and a small heap of scrap metal, too heavy to be part of a vehicle, remains at the test site.
At each explosion centre two sides of a concrete pyramid bear the information that the tests were carried out in October, 1953, on the 15th and 27th respectively. On the other two sides another notice warns of a health hazard and advises that radiation levels may be too high for permanent habitation. Living so far from any supply centres would have other drawbacks besides the danger of radiation.
Forty kilometres (25 miles) later I found an unexpected facility at Emu Junction. A modern aluminium alloy picnic table and two benches have been set up under a shelter, but they didn't seem to be much used. Of the Emu base camp, the centre for the monitoring of the atomic tests, nothing remains. I decided to make use of the facilities and camped early. I was enjoying the journey, even with the solitude, but I would have enjoyed the trip more with someone to share it.
At 404 kilometres (250 miles) I saw my first spinifex and 43 kilometres (27 miles) later I reached the eastern border of the Unnamed Conservation Park. The park is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, one of the largest arid area parks in the world. But why is it called the Unnamed Park?
Folklore relates that when the park was established, officers of the Parks and Wildlife Department asked various Aboriginal communities what they called the land. Their response was that they had no history in that country, so were unable to suggest a name. Faced with this unexpected dilemma, the bureaucrats responsible for taking such monumental decisions as naming a park were at a loss. They procrastinated. Eventually the words Unnamed Conservation Park were found on so many official documents and maps, that they became the de facto name.
How much truth lies behind the folklore is not known, however, true or not it is believable, and is a lasting tribute to the inability of bureaucrats to reach a decision. But few things are forever. After years without a name the park is now called the Mamungari Conservation Park, but many maps still do not reflect the change. To my delight the Parks and Wildlife sign at both entrances to the park still showed the old name, so I recorded the sign for posterity.
Thirty kilometres (19 miles) into the park, at Vokes Hill Corner, the junction of another Len Beadell road leads 270 kilometres (170 miles) south to Cook and the Eyre Highway (permits are required), which provides an alternative exit.
The sunsets in the Unnamed Conservation Park are glorious. The colours are so concentrated it seems they are condensed for the conservation wilderness, too good to dilute across the rest of Australia.
Like other Central Australian Deserts, the Great Victoria Desert is infested with camels. As with other feral animals, camels find conditions in Australia suit them well and their numbers have burgeoned since they were released. Now they rank alongside rabbits, foxes, cats and cane toads as a threat to the Outback environment. Unless steps are taken to limit the camel numbers, the deserts of Central Australia will end up like the sand wastes of the Sahara and Middle East.
Much of the Sahara is totally devoid of vegetation, partly as a result of the depredations of camels. I recall a camel train, about 60 or 70 animals, stopping for a night close to the camp of my seismic party in Libya. The area was sparsely vegetated with scrubby bushes when they arrived. By the morning it was denuded. Even the roots had been devoured. Unlike other feral pests, total eradication of camels is still possible, but the authorities need to act soon.
To the west of Vokes Hill the track passes through open country for a while, before the verges become overgrown with dense scrub. My vehicle is larger than the average 4WD and for long stretches in this sector the vegetation was so thick I was unable to open the doors of my cab. Even a bull camel trotting ahead couldn't force its way through. I followed him for kilometres, hoping to capture a photograph, but every time I stopped he hurried ahead before I had my camera out of its bag. It was not a great disappointment. The back end of a camel is not very photogenic. This one wasn't very clean either.
Full grown camels are big beasts, three metres or more high and their gait looks most awkward, both legs on the same side moving forward together so the animal rolls like a ship in cross swells. During the mating season the bulls can be dangerous, and are best viewed from a distance.
Serpentine Lakes mark the border between South Australia and Western Australia, some 650 kilometres (400 miles) from Coober Pedy. The border is also the western boundary of the Unnamed Conservation Park.
The Anne Beadell continues into Western Australia and is well graded west of the border. To my surprise, eight kilometres (5 miles) after entering Western Australia I found a modern roadside rest area with water tank and toilets. That night my diary records; Again seen no one all day, and very little wildlife, not even a camel, just a few birds.
At 877 kilometres (550 miles) a side track leads to the wreck of a light plane. The wreckage is nine kilometres (5 miles) north of the Anne Beadell. The painted direction sign on an old car bonnet was unclear about the number of sand dunes. When I counted I could see why. I think the total was 20, none of them were very large, but some had a double crest. Others just levelled out at the top so appeared to be a dune from one approach, but not from the other direction.
The Cessna, VH-FYZ, belonged to Goldfields Air Service and at first sight appeared to be in good condition. A closer inspection revealed a different picture. It lies in beautiful country, but it is unlikely the passengers and crew appreciated the scenery.
At Neale Junction,935 kilometres (585 miles), the Anne Beadell Highway crosses the Connie Sue Highway which leads north from Rawlinna Siding to Warburton. That road is another of Len Beadell's survey and was named for his daughter. A plate lists the members of the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party who built the roads;
Len Beadell surveyor
Scotty Boord bulldozer & grader
Frank Quinn supply driver
Paul Christensen cook
Anne and Connie Sue Beadell
Bonnie and Lassie the dogs
August 16 1962
Such a small team, just four men with Len Beadell's wife and baby daughter and their dogs. What an adventure. These days Occupation, Health and Safety Regulations would prohibit such an enterprise.
Also at Neale Junction a small bronze plaque has been erected beneath a tree to the memory of Ernie Trowbridge who died on 1 August 2001. His family scattered his ashes under that tree and the final words on the plaque explain everything; Free at last to roam the Outback he loved.
At 1,056 kilometres (660 miles) I came to a fork in the road and had to make a decision. I could go north to the Cosmos Newberry Lands, or south to Naries Point and Lake Rason. I chose to turn south with plans to visit the Plumridge Lakes Nature Reserve. This alternative route avoided travelling through the Cosmos Newberry Aboriginal Lands and any possible hassle with my permit, which was now way out of date. For the last ten kilometres to Naries Point the track, softened by recent rains, was badly cut up by something large which had left wheel ruts a metre deep in places.
When I camped at Naries Point, 1,153 kilometres (720 miles), for the night, I still hadn't seen another human for the whole trip, in fact no mammals at all except for the camels. In the morning I arrived at Lake Rason and the junction with the track to Plumridge Lakes. I turned south, and reached the nature reserve at 1,267 kilometres (790 miles), only to wonder why I'd bothered. There was no discernable difference in the scenery to that outside the reserve.
The following morning I returned to the Anne Beadell and arrived at the ruins of an abandoned mining town, Burtville, in time for lunch, 1,660 kilometres (1,040 miles). Typical of such ruins, parts of old mining equipment litter the area. Even the Hill's Hoist washing line was in tatters. From Burtville it's an easy run to Laverton and the end of the adventure.
The small town of Laverton, 1,697 kilometres (1,060 miles) was a bustling metropolis of about 400 souls. After being alone for 21 days I was overwhelmed by the number of people. For the whole trip I had only seen about ten birds, a few reptiles and no animals other than the camels. Even so I had enjoyed the journey and achieved a long held ambition. I am pleased I made time to savour the adventure whilst still able.
The necessary permits to travel and camp along the Anne Beadell Highway are available from;
Tallaringa Conservation Park;
Either a Desert Parks Pass or a camping permit from Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia.
For details of offices and interstate agencies phone 1800 816 078 (toll free in Australia)
Woomera Prohibited Area;
Defence Support Centre
PO box 157
Woomera, SA 5270
Ph; 08 8674 3370 Fax; 08 8674 3308
International Ph; 61 8 8674 3370 Fax; 61 8 8674 3308
Maralinga Tjarutja Aboriginal Lands;
Maralinga Tjarutja Inc.
PO Box 435
Ceduna, SA 5690
Ph; 08 8625 2946 International 61 8 8625 2946
http//:www. southaustralia.com/visiting aboriginallands
Unnamed Conservation Park;
Department for Environment and Heritage
Regional Conservation West Region
11 McKenzie Street
Ceduna, SA 5690
Ph; 08 8625 3144
Cosmos Newberry Aboriginal Lands; (four sections, North, South, East & West)
Department of Indigenous Affairs
PO Box 7770
Perth, WA 6850.
Ph; 08 9235 8000
Mabel Creek Station;
Travellers are requested to make a courtesy call to Mabel Creek Station, 08 8672 5204, before entering the station property, and to leave gates as they find them.
Hema, Great Desert Tracks, South West and South Central sheets.
Unleaded and diesel fuels are available at Ilkurlka roadhouse, 170 kilometres west of the Western Australian border. Check availability before setting out. 08 9037 1147
A reliable high clearance 4WD vehicle is necessary. It is a remote area and travellers need to be self-sufficient, with sufficient fuel, plus food and water for at least three weeks. Carry spares for the vehicle plus, spare wheels, a puncture repair kit and extra inner tubes, even if your vehicle is fitted with tubeless tyres. (Portable compressors do not have the capacity to seat the bead on a tyre that has been fully deflated and where the bead has separated from the rim.) Don't forget the tools you may need. Make sure any after market equipment is adequately constructed and attached, especially roof racks and fuel carriers. Avoid towing a trailer. Communication equipment is an individual decision, but there are no stations to contact, nor UHF repeaters. The minimum recommended is an EPIRB (now called a personal Location beacon, PLB). Allow adequate time for the crossing, leave an itinerary with someone reliable, and let them know once you have arrived so they don't call out emergency rescue services unnecessarily.
Dos and Don'ts:
If you don't have a toilet, bury all human waste at least 300mm deep (600mm is better), but burn all toilet paper.
Don't bury other rubbish, (animals will dig it up regardless of how deep you place it). Take it out with you.
Respect fire restrictions.
Don't feed wildlife or remove native plants.
Keep to defined vehicle tracks.
The track is not difficult. The sand dunes run predominately west to east in line with the track, so crossings are rare.
Take bird and plant identification books.
Take a camera.
Take a sense of humour and enjoy the sunsets.
© Jim Ditchfield 2009