Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Larapinta Track, Section 12: Mount Sonder

Section 12 of the long distance Larapinta Track that runs from Redbank Gorge east to Alice Springs is a day walk up Mount Sonder near the western end of the West MacDonnell National Park. The well maintained track does not actually go to the top of Mount Sonder but to a slightly lower (perhaps 10 or 15 metres) sub-summit about half a kilometre to the southwest. Back in my Canadian peak bagging days, I would have felt compelled to walk the extra kilometre and 200 metres (elevation gain) to tag the summit, but, the scratchy, stinging spinifex that blankets the ground around the red centre made the prospect unappealing. 

Mount Giles, Ormiston Pound, Bowmans Gap from Mount Sonder

We started out along the track about 8.15 am in a brisk wind and under cloudy skies. Initially, the track descends a short distance and crosses dry Redbank Creek. Section 11 of the Larapinta Track (Redbank Gorge to Glen Helen) branches off and starts heading east below the south ridge of Mount Sonder, while the Mount Sonder track climbs easily up to the west ridge and tops out after 2.5 km on a saddle at about 900 metres. The next 5.5 kilometres is easy and scenic walking along the west ridge climbing gradually with only a couple of short descents in between. We had breakfast on the "summit" at about 10.30 am as the clouds were clearing and were treated to wonderful views east to Ormiston Pound, Mount Giles and Glen Helen and west to Mount Razorback (a very dull razor) and Mt Zeil (the highest peak in the Northern Territory). 

On the way up, we passed a long straggling line of walkers with "Larapinta Treks" who had apparently been roused from warm beds at 2.00 am to walk to the top to watch the sun rise. As it was quite a cloudy day, the sunrise may have been less spectacular than advertised. However, although some walkers looked a bit tired, they all seemed happy. 

 Doug on the very scenic west ridge of Mount Sonder

Once back down at Redbank Creek we wandered up the short track that leads to Redbank Gorge. This is pretty country, a sandy river bed with big ghost gums lining both banks, and red rock walls on either side that gradually grow in size and narrow in distance until you are standing beside a deep pool looking up into a narrow red defile. 

 Glowing red walls of Redbank Gorge

Walking with a day pack was so much more enjoyable than lumbering along under an overnight pack and the trails in this part of the Northern Territory so much better than those at the "top end" that we immediately planned to walk Section 11 of the Larapinta Track as a one day walk instead of an overnight walk.

Larapinta Track, Section 11: Redbank Gorge to Glen Helen

Section 11 of the Larapinta Track runs from Redbank Gorge to the Finke River. The total distance is roughly 28 km if you walk out to the highway at the Mount Sonder Lookout/Glen Helen, so easily accomplished by reasonably fit hikers with a day pack. On a decidedly Canadian morning, dark and cold (3 degrees Celsius) we got up early, made a coffee and headed off the walk this section with day packs. 

Doug dropped me at Mount Sonder lookout and went on to Redbank Gorge. He would walk east, I west, and we would cross paths somewhere around Rocky Bar Gap. The section out to the main Larapinta Track was familiar to me from the day before, and soon enough I had reached the main Larapinta Track on the west side of the Finke River. For the first 1.5 hours I strolled across the flat lands with Mount Sonder tinted red by the rising sun to the west. A waterhole on Davenport Creek required the removal of shoes and socks to cross, and then some pleasant walking through light trees followed. 

 Red cliff from hilltop lookout

Soon after crossing Davenport Creek the track trends north towards a long ridge east of Rocky Bar Gap and a very well constructed track with decorative rock work switchbacks gradually up to the top of the ridge. Looking to the north, there is a prominent red cliff that is detached from the main ridge line and beyond the rolling terrain of West MacDonnell National Park. Another half kilometre of easy walking on the ridge top and a campsite and hill-top look-out (one of the many) is reached. I had breakfast here sitting on some stones and gazing at Mount Sonder. It was still cool enough at 10.30 am for long pants, a toque (woolly hat) and a puff jacket. 

 Rockwork on the track

The track descends steadily on the north side of the ridgeline and, near the bottom, I saw a familiar figure below me. I was about 2 or 3 km from Rocky Bar Gap when I met Doug. We exchanged pleasantries and I carried on. Walking through the small trees to Rocky Bar Gap I saw beautiful green and bright blue birds. 

Rocky Bar Gap is a pretty location with a dry creek bed, big ghost gums and small broken cliffs on either side. From Rocky Bar Gap, the track ambles along on the north side of the Mereenie Valley close to the base of the west ridge of Mount Sonder. This is easy and pleasant walking. An hour or so west of Rocky Bar Gap I had a bite of lunch, and soon after met the only other hiker I was to see all day. Just over 7 hours after setting out, I wandered up the final hill to the parking lot, picked up the car, and drove down to collect Doug from Mount Sonder Lookout. 

Rocky Bar Gap

Larapinta Track, Section 10: Glen Helen to Ormiston Gorge

While I enjoy the idea - even the practice - of walking every day and camping out every night, I have carried enough heavy packs in my life to also enjoy walking every day with just a day pack and sleeping in the relative comfort of my caravan every night. The beauty of the long distance Larapinta Track is that you can walk it in one long 10 to 14 day push, or walk sections at a time. Some sections are really quite short and easy, and, if you are a party of two, with one vehicle, it is simple to have one person start at either end obviating the need for any extra transportation.

Finke River Waterhole

One such section (10) is the short jaunt from Ormiston Gorge to Glen Helen/Mount Sonder lookout. This section of the Larapinta Track is absolutely delightful. The first five kilometres out of Ormiston Gorge the track wanders through hilly countryside with lots to look at. There is a short hike up to "hilltop lookout" (there are many hilltop lookouts on the Larapinta Track) where you have a wonderful view up and down the length of the West MacDonnells and over to Glen Helen Gorge. After descending from the hilltop lookout the track crosses sandy Ormiston Creek, dry but lined with attractive ghost gums, and wanders west to a well appointed campsite on the Finke River (water in a tank but there is also water in the Finke River). 

 Mount Sonder

On the west side of the Finke River there is a three way junction. The track to the west leads on to Redbank Gorge via Rocky Bar Gap, while the track to the south follows the Finke River out to the highway. Along the way, the track passes through a small red rock arch and along side large pools on the Finke River. If you are not staying at Glen Helen, the best parking is at the Mount Sonder lookout and an unmarked branch of the track leads up to the carpark.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Dingo Dreaming: Walking to Bowmans Gap From Ormiston Gorge

After four (semi) solid days of driving, we arrived in Alice Springs after leaving the small climbing area at Hayes Creek. Four days of sitting too long, moving too little. In Alice Springs, a compact, clean, and attractive town, we stock-piled groceries and drove west to Ormiston Gorge in West MacDonnell National Park. That afternoon, we had time to walk the Ghost Gum Loop, a short four km track that climbs a hill-side above Ormiston Gorge, past stately ghost gums to a lookout that gives tantalising glimpses of the red cliffed splendour of Ormiston Gorge. The track descends to a sandy beach in Ormiston Gorge, more glimpses upstream, but the full grandeur of the gorge is not revealed unless you walk further upstream. Darkness was moving in, so I only had time to walk back to the campground down the creek. At the mouth of the gorge, I watched a dingo looking for food in shallow puddles. As I got closer, the dingo got spooked, and loped off up the gorge, a second dingo appearing alongside.

Dingo Reflections

On a windy morning, we walked east beside spinifex covered rolling hills, and followed a good National Parks track up a minor dry creek bed and into the hills. The track wanders up a dry valley to a narrow col on the ridge where the wind almost blasted us back down the valley. We met two other hikers with overnight packs bound for Mount Giles and Bowmans Gap. A short detour from the main track leads up onto the ridge-line and a fabulous view of the closed in valley that is Ormiston Pound. Stark red cliffs line the northern walls while the long bulk of Mount Giles marks the eastern wall. 

 Red rock reflections

The track drops down slightly to the north, then escapes into the open landscape of the pound via a narrow notch to the west. This is big sky country, open vistas, a huge desert sky overhead, raptors wheeling in thermals, and the sinuous track of the river snaking through the open country. The track crosses open spinifex covered plains and meets the Ormiston River. We turned northeast and began following the river to Bowmans Gap. The river is an enchanting mix of long sandy stretches, short waterholes, huge ghost gums, smooth granite slabs, rounded slippery boulders, short red cliffs. Green parrots dart above the waterholes, ducks, and herons fish in the shallows. The entire creek bed is criss-crossed with dingo tracks. 

 Bowmans Gap

About a kilometre from Bowmans Gap as we scrambled up on quartzite cliffs to avoid a deep water hole, a dingo slipped out of a shady resting place, and melted away up the creek bed. The last kilometre to the gap, a narrow passage between vivid red rock cliffs, the river twists and turns, past stunning red cliffs eroded with deep caves and crevices. On the north side of the gap, delicate purple flowers sprouted out of the creek bed and we scrambled up slippery quartzite bluffs to a lunch spot overlooking Bowmans Gap. 

Overlooking Ormiston Pound

After lunch, we followed dingo tracks all the way back to the Parks track, crossed the creek again, and walked west towards Ormiston Gorge. The ground gradually drops, and steep red cliffs rise on either side. In the bright desert sun, they seem to glow burning red suffusing the surrounding area in a rosy hue. A half hour from the mouth of the gorge, we waded chest deep through the icy water to the north side of the gorge and followed a beaten path out to the plains and the end of the walk. Looking back upstream, past the red rock cliffs, I thought of dingoes dreaming, of open grasslands, many coloured birds, a huge overarching desert sky, brilliant white ghost gums, and vivid desert flowers. At night, the dingoes howled. 

Wading Ormiston Creek

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Like Climbing In Hell Only Hotter: A Wimps Guide To Top End Rock Climbing

The Northern Territory is not known for amazing climbing. A bigger population, cooler weather, better access, and climbing being just generally better accepted and more popular and there could be a lot of climbing in the Territory as there is plenty of rock about. But, as it stands, it is hot, even in the dry season, the population is relatively small and dispersed, and land management agencies Australia wide seem to frown on rock climbing. 

In the Darwin area, the only place we found to "climb" was the Dripstone Cliffs at Cassuarina Coastal Park. These are way too short for anything but bouldering, and, were the rock more solid than children's crayons you could have some good bouldering sessions here as the rock is steep, alternately pocketed and juggy with great landings on a sandy beach. But, and it is a big but, the rock is incredibly soft and friable. A standard bouldering session results in dozens of broken holds. 

About 120 kilometres south of Darwin down the Dorat Road is a little area called Robin Falls. There are some free campsites along the river side and a short track leads along the creek to a small two drop waterfall (Robin Falls). The tourists stagger up the semi-rough track to the falls, and, on either side of the valley there are a few sport climbs. We only did one climb here (School Teacher/Quartz Flake) so can't really comment on any other climbs. Anything on the left side of the valley (looking upstream) is baking in the sun, but the right side is shady. There are only nine climbs in total so I don't think the area is that popular. 

A further 60 km south is Hayes Creek. There is a roadhouse and nice low-key caravan park ($15 night for an unpowered site) and you can walk to the climbing areas from the caravan park in under half an hour. The climbing is surprisingly good. Up the main valley, it is reminiscent of sandstone climbing in the Blue Mountains of NSW with sandstone pillars, cracks, and corners. Most climbs are gear climbs (no anchors) with walk-offs, although there are a few scattered routes with a couple of widely spaced fixed hangars. We only climbed on the right hand side of the gully, the on-line guidebook directions to "wade like drunken dinosaurs directly across the swamp to the crag" had something to do with us skipping the left hand side where there are only four established climbs.

There is a reasonably well beaten in trail if you walk to the swimming hole from the caravan park, cross the creek, head upstream for about 30 seconds and then walk directly up a small slope to a pile of rotting cans, bottles, and metal sheeting. The track then wanders up the valley and turns upslope just after a large boulder and brings you out right below The Nursery crag. The track is reasonable to The Nursery, The Sanctuary, and Sports Plus/Vodka Buttress, but beyond these crags, there is no track, and the grass is very scratchy and itchy (long pants and even long sleeved shirt required to prevent the "Hayes Creek itch"). We marked the access to The Apartments (reached before The Nursery) with a small cairn but, if anyone actually reads this and goes climbing there, the cairn may well be gone. You can actually see the orange wall of The Apartments from the valley bottom trail but there is no trail up to the base. 

We climbed a variety of routes in the main four areas listed above and most were very good routes with reasonable to excellent protection. However, we did back off a couple of routes with rotten rock and/or poor to non-existent protection and there are numerous large and scary loose blocks laying randomly about on the top of many routes so, as with any climbing area in Australia, you can have a fun day out or a major epic. The problem with the climbing at Hayes Creek, which is strangely not mentioned in the guidebook at all, is that it is in the sun, almost all day. Even in mid-July, the acme of the dry season it was baking hot and almost impossible to climb in the middle of the day. The best strategy we found was to leave the campground around 1.00 pm to walk into the climbs. By the time we arrived, there were a few climbs in the shade and as the afternoon progressed more climbs got shady. It is dark by 7.00 pm so you really need to leave to walk back by about 6.30 pm. The track, such as it is, is a bit rough to walk out in the dark. 

Downstream from the main valley is a small rocky valley which the owners of the caravan park call Butterfly Gap - there are hundreds and hundreds of butterflies - but climbers know as Spider Gully. Apparently this area was developed around 2006 by a couple of local climbers, one of whom was killed in a fall while doing route development at Robin Falls. Access is easy, follow the old road downstream, cross the river near a big sign (pointing to Butterfly Gap), walk a further five minutes downstream and look for a foot track heading up into the narrow rocky valley on your left. A couple of road markers have been stacked here. 

Spider Gully is shady all day, but suffers from mosquitoes and humidity instead of sun and mosquitoes. The rock is very different to that found in the main valley. I'm not sure of the exact (even inexact) geologic origins, but, it is the kind of rock that fractures with sharp angles and is generally pretty steep. If you've ever climbed at some of the lower areas in Vantage (Washington), you'll find it very similar. Spider Gully is probably the prototypical Australian crag, which, if you had dared to develop a crag like this in North America any time in the last 20 years (certainly in 2006) you would have been vilified by the climbing community. The bolts are a mixture of carrots, occasional ring bolts, and Fixe hangars not all of which are appropriate for the type of rock. Anchors are inexplicably placed way back on loose ledges and are not amenable to lowering off. Cruxes off the ground are poorly protected, and carrot bolts are placed with no thought to having a clipping stance. Despite Spider Gully being a "sport climbing" area - usually a sure fire route to popularity - there didn't seem to be much climber traffic and the routes we climbed were pretty dirty. Make your own judgement. 

Another 100 km or so further south and 22 km west of Pine Creek, Umbrawarra Gorge has some gear climbs scattered up both sides of the valley. The left hand side (looking downstream) gets sun early in the morning and bakes for the rest of the day. Consequently, we did no climbing on that side. The right hand side, however, has shade from about 11.00 am and there are a few good traditional climbs scattered along here. Some take reasonable protection, some offer long run-outs. There are no anchors, and the top of the cliffs is quite loose in some parts making anchor building challenging. A few routes happen to have handy trees on top which can be used for anchors. There is a basic camping area and a good day long excursion can be had by following the gorge all the way downstream to the end. To get completely to the end of the gorge and out onto the savannah you need to swim a long pool between narrow rock walls. 

South of Pine Creek, we could find no references to any climbing, so, that's it until you get to the Alice Springs area.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Top Ten Tips For Trekking The Tabletop Track

We are just back from four days on the Tabletop Track in Litchfield National Park. Normally, I'd write an in-depth report on this trip, but, just now I can't be fussed plus I lost my camera on the trip so there are no photos. Instead, you get the top ten tips for walking the track which should cover everything you need to know.

  1. The loop up on the plateau is 39 km but, depending on where you access the track (Wangi, Florence, Walker or Greenant) you could be walking considerably more than that. Also add more kilometres for any side trips off the plateau you choose to do.
  2. Probably the best access for having relatively equal length hiking days is Florence Falls. The parking lot is very busy, however, and Florence Falls itself is like Pitt Street, Sydney on a busy day.
  3. The worst access, and I can say this with absolute confidence, is via Greenant Creek. This is the longest link track at 6.3 km (one way) and the worst. No-one walks in this way and consequently there is no sign of any foot track. The track markers are very widely spaced so you will spend at least half your time trying to follow the markers, the other half stumbling through dense bush and head high spear grass. Allow about 2 km/hour if you go in this way.
  4. The camps on either side of the Greenant Creek link track are really nice. The camp to the west (called Tjenya Falls as far as I can tell) has three small pools, the lowest is deep and great for swimming. There is plenty of room for a few tents here and a wire metal table (wobbly). Look for the toilet way back from the escarpment edge. The camp to the east (might be on Wangi Creek but I don't have a map so can't say for sure) is also lovely, has a wire metal table (not wobbly) but has very few sites for tents unless you want to sleep on hard rock slabs. Again, the outhouse is a long way back from the creek and unmarked apart from one orange arrow to get you started.
  5. The campsite up on the plateau and 1.8 km from the Walker Creek link track is horrible. There is water from a stagnant creek surrounded by scrub typhus and mosquito infested bush and there is very little shade. I have no idea why the campsite is located here instead of beside the beautiful creek that cascades over rock slabs and is perhaps an hours walk further on (towards Florence Creek).
  6. You can also walk down and camp near the road side at Walker Creek. These are all nice campsites, very secluded with a wood table along the creek but they do add some distance particularly if you are walking clockwise from Walker Creek right around past Florence Falls to Greenant camp (Wangi Creek). We walked from the nasty camp to Greenant Creek and it took almost 9 hours (this, however, did include a side trip to Florence Falls, and an hour spent dithering about when I discovered I lost my camera).
  7. A good way to split up the track for a four day walk allowing you to visit Walker Creek, Wangi Falls, and Florence Falls as side trips would be to start at Florence Falls and camp at Greenant Creek (Wangi), Tjenya Falls and, have an illegal camp (you didn't read it here) at the creek about an hours walk from the nasty campsite.
  8. The track markers are fairly widely spaced and the track does not seem to get that much traffic so it can be difficult to follow in parts. Allow extra time to search out the track. We found we were only averaging about 3 km/hour which is significantly slower than we normally walk. A map, which we did not have might help, but, it might not as the track wanders about an awful lot and there really are very few clear terrain features (apart from creeks) up on the plateau.
  9. Trousers, trousers, trousers, unless you want your legs cut to pieces by spear grass, Mitchell grass, sword grass, and various other scratchy bushes. Also, this is scrub typhus territory and long pants may help you avoid this nasty disease.
  10. It's hot, even in the dead of winter, so, do your best to walk in the morning and rest in the afternoon.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Darwin Days

Today is our 102nd day since leaving Cairns and beginning our travels again, and, this is close to the 102nd version of this post that I have written. Usually, a big break in my blog posts means I am either out having a great time on some grand adventure, don't have internet access, or, most commonly, both. This time, I have none of those excuses. 

We've been in Darwin almost two weeks and very comfortably parked at my sister-in-laws house in the Darwin suburbs. It is school holidays, a desperate time in Australia, so it is nice to not be dealing with crowds, hoons, yobbos, and the ubiquitous camp-fire. Darwin is actually cooler than other places we have been in the NT (Kakadu, Katherine, etc.) no doubt due to its coastal location. Our good luck continues as, not only are we comfortably parked, but we have got loaner bicycles. True, the one I have borrowed tilts my pelvis into an anatomically inappropriate condition and is near to permanently crippling me, but, being able to ride a bicycle all around town, instead of driving, is fantastic. 

 Dripstone Cliffs

Right at the top of Australia, Darwin is currently in a resources boom with a big off-shore gas project generating good jobs and income. The city itself is spread out over a fairly large distance for the size of the population as the middle of the urban area houses the airport and some Commonwealth Defense installations. Many people in Darwin live to the north in outlying suburbs. The striking thing about the suburbs is the gating. Everyone has a big gated and locked fence around their house. It all feels vaguely reminiscent of Papua where all hell breaks loose every night and you make sure you are behind the security fence of wherever you are staying well before dark. Apart from the obnoxious cracker night, Darwin actually seems quiet and peaceful, so I'm not sure if the fences are really necessary. 

I think we have seen most of the sights to see around Darwin (I include only the sights I'm interested in seeing as, being clinically averse to shopping, I have no interest in wandering around Darwin's many popular markets, or visiting the zoos/wildlife parks). We've been to Causarina and East Point Reserves, we have kayaked off Lee Point in the Timor Sea (rather boring), we have cycled all around Cullen Bay and downtown Darwin and the waterfront. The Museum is excellent, Fannie Bay Gaol not bad, the Botanic Gardens, smaller than found in many Australian cities, but pleasant for an hour's ramble. I've hiked the short tracks in Holmes Jungle Nature Park, and scoured the city and suburbs for decent bouldering. In other words, I am ready to move on. Doug however, has a big stack of work to get through and would like to stay over the coming weekend. Which, really is fair enough as I don't have to worry about many of the things Doug does. 

 Bouldering at the Dripstone Cliffs

Finally, a note on bouldering in Darwin. It's interesting, which means, it's kind of good, kind of bad. Darwin is flat and has virtually no exposed rocks, apart from a few slimy rock reefs uncovered at low tide. The only cliffs/boulders/bluffs around are along the waterfront. There is a small section of cliff near Nightcliff and another section at Casuarina (the Dripstone Cliffs). The rock at both areas is some kind of clay/chalk/dirt mix that is incredibly friable, as in, every second or third foot or hand hold will break when you weight it. Otherwise, the bluffs (I can't really call the Dripstone Cliffs "cliffs" as they are only about 3 metres high at most) are reasonable for bouldering. They are pocketed, mostly undercut, and made slimy and sandy by twice daily immersion in sea water (Darwin has big tides). 

While you wouldn't want to climb up and top out (undoubtedly you'd come off when three or four holds broke, possibly all at once) you can traverse back and forth a foot or two from the ground (soft sand to fall on) so that when the inevitable happens and your holds break, you don't have far to fall. Downsides are the copious amount of sand that gets stuck to your shoes (a small brush helps but if the sand is wet you just have to climb with wet and sandy shoes), broken glass at the base area (yobbos) and the slimy nature of the rock. On the plus side, you don't need chalk - just brush some of the flaking chalky rock onto your hands, and, after an hour or two of bouldering, you look like an aboriginal art-work as you are daubed all over with red, orange and white ochre paint splotches. All set for a corroboree.