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Member Article: Touring Central Australia with Larry

Each winter Ian and partner Graeme leave the cold of Castlemaine’s winter for a camping trip “up north, avoiding bitumen roads” in a threesome with Larry – aka Lawrence of Australia – a 90 series Toyota Landcruiser cab-chassis with a ‘Tailgate’ slide-on camper (https://www.tailgatecampers.com.au/).

The threesome becomes an inseparable trio through the Australian outback, camping at National Parks (NP) or free camping, and avoiding caravan parks like the plague. For those who may be about to ask, the ensuite bathroom is the ‘open air’ type, very, very large, lit by the sky, and fitted with a ‘shovel for a sh1t’ and ‘bucket for a wash’.

By not towing a camper trailer or caravan travelling is much easier, especially in poor road conditions, and the tailgate can be set up or packed up in 5 minutes. For the technically minded, Larry has had a Lovells suspension upgrade from a 300kg GVM of 3.3t to 3.9t. We carry two spare tyres & rims on remote trips, an EPIRB and the standard dual range, 5-speed, manual transmission and 4.5l V8 diesel typically drinks 12-13l per 100km at a comfortable ~80km/hr, over a full trip. With 2 x 90-litre standard fuel tanks on slow trips like the Anne Beadell we can cover 1,000km or more between fuel stops if needed (but it’s a heavy load). The camper has 70l drinking water on board, a pull-out kitchen including a fridge at ground level and a ‘tailgate’ tented area to access the bed on top of the ‘pod’ – queen-sized of course.

In previous trips we have visited much of far north Queensland, Cape, Gulf Country and coastal Queensland, western NSW including Darling River & Broken Hill (and the Broken Heel festival – recommended!) and the remote ‘Anne Beadell Highway’ to WA Goldfields via Maralinga and Laverton north of Kalgoorlie – on remote trips we often travel with Nomads (gay bushwalking club) friends.

For 2023 the winter trip was to Central Australia following the Old Ghan railway line wherever possible into Alice Springs, a bit more sedate than some trips, but still avoiding bitumen where possible.

We left in early August, later than usual, delayed as we waited for the re-opening of flood-damaged roads around the Simpson Desert and Mt Dare. From Castlemaine, the first night was at Pink Lakes National Park (NP) near Ouyen, after unexpectedly needing to replace a fuel filter en route (fortunately we had one) then via SA Riverland, Peterborough and a free camp near Orroroo (one that we have used before). Travelling south and then west we went around the southern tip of the Flinders Ranges, and north beside the Old Ghan line, through Leigh Creek to Maree where we joined the Oodnadatta Track (OT) in excellent condition this year. The OT follows the old Ghan line here; we had a glimpse of Lake Eyre, and then camped the night at Coward Springs – a small unexpected remote private campground with a hot shower(!), set in near tropical-like ‘gardens’ sited beside the old Ghan line. Next was on to a great camp at Algebuckina Creek looking out onto the massive rail bridge of the same name. At Oodnadatta, we topped up fuel, checked road conditions, and left the OT heading north-west into more remote areas, and on to Hamilton, Pedrika Siding and the winding road to Dalhousie Springs NP, a place we were keen to visit and go for a swim.

Dalhousie Springs is a thermal spring, a National park and in the middle of nowhere and on the edge of the Simpson Desert. Next on to the hotel and fuel stop at Mt Dare and a hamburger lunch, and a little later crossing into the Northern Territory. We found another very scenic campsite south of Finke, with delightful views as the sun set. Driving through Finke township was very depressing, sadly, as there are many Indigenous communities – all too complex to discuss here. From Finke driving on top of the old Ghan railway line to Alice Springs …. the rail and sleepers are gone, and the road is formed, but littered with old rail spikes which are best avoided as they can catastrophically damage tyres! With sharp eyes and good luck, we avoided them and brought back some samples to reduce the risk for future travellers.

Photos: Graeme and Lake Eyre; Maurice our Meercat mascot; Algebickina bridge; Oodnadatta (our camper at right).

Photos: Old Dalhousie Homestead (built 1872 and abandoned 1925); Dalhousie Hot Springs; Mt Dare pub & store.

After re-stocking the pantry in Alice Springs, out to the Eastern McDonnell Ranges for a week – an area Graeme knows well, but new to me. We camped and walked around Trephina Gorge, John Hayes / Chain of Ponds walk, and via Artlinga to Ruby Gorge NP – we camped just inside Ruby Gorge as the remote track in was a very slow, rocky/sandy drive to go any further as a solo vehicle – then back to Ross River and N’dhala Gorge NP. Here we met campers with an Elon Musk mobile ‘Star Link’ system – they were happy to give us internet access, which was very fast, and we think this technology is becoming a competitor to costly satellite phones (which we don’t have – but friends travelling with us on really remote trips bring theirs).  

Back to Alice Springs, and again the terror of traffic, roundabouts and traffic lights, restocking the pantry and out to the Western McDonnell Ranges – an area I had not been to since walking the full Larapinta Trail in a trip I led in 2007 – (Alice Springs to Mt Sonder, 17 years ago! I didn’t realise it was that long). Base camping at ‘2 Mile Creek’ and visiting Ormiston Pound Walk, Glen Helen, Redbank Gorge, etc. brought back fond memories… but more crowded than in 2007.

Following Namatjira and Larapinta Drive to Hermannsburg township and fuel (better than Finke but ditto sentiments), and into Palm Valley for two nights, and 2 days of great walks, then back out along the sandy and rocky Finke River track again, to the Mereenie Loop ( a Permit is needed for the Loop, which we bought in Glen Helen) and Kings Canyon camp and Watarrka NP (all new to me, and recommended).

Then on to the disappointing Yulara (‘rort’ / rip-off) so-called ‘resort’ to camp. Here is why it’s a rip-off …. $45 / night for an ‘Overflow’ campsite in a dust bowl, besides the ‘resort generator’ – nowhere to free-camp for 100km as all possible spots now have big signs indicating ‘Aboriginal land and $1,000 fines’. A modest bottle of wine costing $10 -12 at Dan Murphy’s was on sale at Yalara’s only ‘bottle shop’ bar for $40-50! .. making a principled ‘healthy decision’ of abstinence easy!  We spent a day walking around each of Ayers Rock / Ulura and The Olgas / Kata Tjuta – places I last visited in about 1976 when in my early 20’s.  In those days we camped very near the Rock, a brick dunny 20 metres away, and a short walk to climb the Rock (now not permitted) – looking at it today I cannot understand how I overcame my fear of heights to reach the summit!  Below is a photo from this year and from 1976 from a similar spot in The Olgas / Kata Tjuta ‘Valley of the Winds’ … very little has changed!

Photos: Camping at ‘2 Mile Creek’; on way to Ruby Gorge NP; Palm Valley.

Photos: Valley of Winds: The Olgas 2023; similar 1976;  Painted Desert;
Lunch view of Ayres Rock – no-one there!

We returned via Curtin Springs – a great pub meal and camped out the back and were visited by bikies and camels during the night -bikies less scary! Then heading east to the Stuart Hwy south to Marla (refuelled) and headed east on the comfortable dirt of the Oodnadatta Track again, still a very good dirt road and with many excellent free camping spots.

We detoured to ‘The Painted Desert’, well worth a visit .. albeit a very windy day! Back to Oodnadatta and home the way we came. Our last camp was at Paruma south of Loxton, at a town that provides free camping (and shower!) and a reasonably priced pub meal big enough for 3 evening meals .. and doggy bags supplied! There is a volunteer-run returned services ‘retreat’ some km away, some of whom had dinner at the pub too. How things have changed, we overheard being referred to as the ‘lgbti couple in the corner’ and our two bottles of wine – one red, one white – and no sense of animosity, in fact, a very safe feeling. After a very cold start, lunch at Wycheproof in the sun, and then home by late afternoon.

Words and images by long-time Member Ian Gould.

Paul Hollingworth

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