You can see Mount Zeil quite clearly from Mount Sonder, and, perhaps that is where we got the idea that hiking to the summit would be a good idea. Mount Zeil, at 1531 metres, is the highest peak in the Northern Territory (NT), and, as we had already easily (except for that knee-knackering day on Mount Bartle Frere) knocked off the high points of the three other Australian states we had visited on our travels, strolling to the top seemed like a good idea. At the time, we had no idea that there exists some kind of ethereal tribe of "State 8" people who are also busily (more or less) tackling the highest points in each state/territory. There is even a website that details everything (again, more or less) you need to know about hiking to the top of each state/territory highpoint.
We got a sketch map and small topographic map section from the West MacDonnell National Park rangers. This was all very efficient and arrived via email within minutes of talking with one of the rangers on the telephone who also gave us the telephone number of the owners of Glen Helen Station. While Mount Zeil is in the West MacDonnell National Park, the quickest access is from the north via Glen Helen Station. The station owner, a jocular fellow, was quick to give us permission to drive through his property (which is probably round about the size of a small European country), camp on his land, and hike across to Mount Zeil as long was we didn't start any bushfires, refrained from molesting the cattle, and left any gates as we found them. This all seemed quite reasonable as, we hate campfires, are unattracted by cattle unless rendered into steaks, and with a couple of advanced degrees among us, should be able to close shut gates and leave open ajar gates - plus, our mothers brought us up well.
It is a three hour drive from Alice Springs to even get close to Mount Zeil so we left the day before and allowed ourselves enough time to drive to some kind of campsite location while it was still light. Cattle at large (whatever that means) and kangaroos have a nasty habit of running in front of moving vehicles, particularly after sunset, and we wanted to be camped before the night creatures began running amok. For some unfathomable reason, the Tanami Road, which as far as I can tell takes you straight out into the Tanami Desert had more traffic than downtown Alice Springs. It is one of those one lane black-top Australian roads where you have to pull off into the dirt when another vehicle approaches, something which we seemed to be doing every few minutes. Then it's onto the dirt Gary Junction Road, typical bulldust and corrugations, and finally, a driven in track to Dashwood Bore on the dry Dashwood Creek. The bore road gets less and less driven in as you approach the bore until finally it disappears altogether.
There was a great quantity of irate bovine characters at the bore all of whom were trumpeting noisily. A quick glance at the summit register the next day would indicate that most people drive across the dry sandy river bed of Dashwood Creek, pick up a driven in track on the other side of the creek and get much closer to the mountain than we did. Our only, and indelibly burned into our memories, experience sand driving was when we bogged our rental 4WD many years ago in sandy ground on small backroads near Shark Bay when we were putting in fresh water caches for a long sea kayak trip. Vaguely, we knew there was something you were supposed to do about tire pressure, and, I'm almost sure you are supposed to let your tires down, but, as we had nothing to reinflate our tires afterwards, this didn't seem like a great idea. Nor did we have shovel, winch, or any of those other things that intrepid Australian drivers cart about.
We deliberated for some time as the cows bellowed in the background, and then decided we would do what has always worked in the past, simply walk. Camping where we were, however, was not an option as we would surely be either trampled or crapped on during the night by rogue cattle, and, we didn't want to fuss about driving to and fro the following morning, so we simply drove back along the road until we thought we were about as close to Mount Zeil as the road got and camped in the dry river bed for the night - the only spot free of nasty thorns and prickles on the ground.
Doug moving so fast in the early morning he is a blur
We were up in the dark the next morning, chowing down on some homemade paleo granola and fueling up with a large mug of instant coffee (we aren't coffee snobs), and, near dawn, we began the long walk south to Mount Zeil. The evening before we had decided to follow a series of draws (not the thing in a bedside table, rather the Canadian draw, which is a shallow gully) to the northwest ridge which is the normal ascent route. We hoped to minimise any unnecessary losses and gains of elevation on the ridge and our exposure to spinifex.
Now I can hear you thinking to yourself, "what sort of sheila worries about a bit of spinifex, it's only grass?" Well, thinking of spinifex as only grass is akin to thinking of Stephen Harper as just another neo-Con. Spinifex has an incredible ability to pierce anything not made of 10 cm thick lead, and after even the most oblique contact. The sharp spines pierce the skin, break off, cause nasty infections requiring even nastier antibiotics, and, it hurts! We wore long pants and gaitors and, for good measure (it was highly effective if a bit sweaty) wrapped our legs from ankles to thighs in duct tape. Red Green would be proud (Canadians will understand this reference).
Stylish duct tape gaitors
It took us 1:45 to walk south to the big valley tucked behind a glob of ridge that protrudes from the north of Mount Zeil through mulga scrub with the occasional larger tree. Near the end of the approach walk we did pick up a cow track that was heading in the right direction and followed it for a while, but most cow tracks were running perpendicular to us towards Dashwood Bore. As we got further up the valley, the ground got stonier and stonier and the cow tracks fewer and fewer. It's too bad really that cows aren't interesting in joining the State 8 tribe as they make a pretty good track.
Turns out that approaching and egressing from the mountain via a draw was probably not one of our best ideas. It wasn't too bad on the way up, and I found the intermittent slabs much better for walking than through the rocky spinifex covered ground nearby, but there did seem to a fair quantity of bushy vegetation in the draw, and, coming down at the end of the day was really pretty painful.
Nevertheless, up we plodded, thinking eternally of that classic dialogue from the Eiger Sanction: "I think we'll make it." "I don't think so," in strong Swiss accent, "but we will continue with style." Eventually, we came out on the NW ridge but still about three kilometres from the summit, which was not even in view yet. Finally, after one last short descent, I could see the tower on the top, and, 15 minutes more, and I was there. Doug arrived a couple of minutes later and we sat down for our first rest, and my first drink of water (I was paranoid I would drain my water bladder, not realise until the last drops had been drunk and then suffer from unrelieved thirst for the rest of the trip, so I had nothing at all to drink in the first five hours of the trip).
Looking down our ascent draw
We had something to eat, drink, snapped a couple of photos, perused the summit register (discovering to our chagrin that most people drive across the river bed and shorten their day by about 10 kilometres compared to ours), and reinforced our duct tape gaitors. I admit there was some desperate perusal of the topographic map in case we could find a "short-cut down" but nothing immediately (or even later) presented itself so we resolved to simply go back down the way we had come up. Actually, the first half wasn't bad, the last half, however, did begin to feel gruelling with the somewhat treacherous footing of loose rocks hidden by spinifex. My left knee, which every so often (particularly on long downhills) locks in position since I tore the meniscus a few years ago while skiing (and refused to have surgery for) locked up part way down which made the last half of the descent a bit more troublesome.
Doug on the last climb to the top
Once on the flats, it was simply a matter of trudging back. We even managed to get along at a pretty reasonable speed using a couple of small hills to the west as handrails to help us find where we had parked the car. Doug had very cleverly, at least he thought so at the time, made a mark on the map using the GPS in our mobile telephone and we got a compass bearing off this for the last 2.5 kilometres, which, should have been very effective except, it turned out the mark was somewhere other than where our car was parked. Luckily, our superb innate navigational ability enabled us to find the car. Doug's footprints on a cow track parallel with the river from his stroll the previous evening may have helped.
After sitting three hours in the car on the drive back to Alice Springs, we both just about fell flat on our faces when we tried to get out of the car and into the caravan. The hot shower felt great, and, the day after, now that my knee has half-unfrozen, my feet are only slightly tender, and I've had as much hot tea as I can drink, it all feels worthwhile, kind of.
Doug reaches the top of the NT