20 December, 1300
It’s hot. I’m sweaty. There’s a renowned pool of water 1.2 km up a dry Finke River. Upstream of this pool of water there are further pools that one can swim in and through, with walls of polished stone towering above them. The water is described as “icy cold” by the forever cautious information board. Potential swimmers are warned to take potential hypothermia seriously.
I could do with a dose of potential hypothermia.
After three hot sweaty days of peddling I and the clothes I wear are in dire need of de-sweating, de-dusting, rinsing and generally chilling down.
I park Dreamer and Zyflex under the shelter in the Redbank Gorge day parking area to keep it out of the sun, throw a water bottle in my little Osprey ryggsäck, the camera, something to wipe the water off me, swap my Shimano cycling shoes for Keen sandals and begin the 1200 m to the gorge.
I step off the path and onto the coarse grained sandy river base. It’s hot on my feet but feels delicious in that almost-but-not-quite-tickly way coarse-grained sand feels on bare feet.
The gorge begins to rise in front of me and shortly before it the sand turns to a heterogeneous mix of rock, stone, sand, pebble, tree and assorted debris.
A scrabble over a low polished outcrop and I face that renowned pool, sort of green brown, surrounded on three sides by sheer cliff or sloping rock. A small sandy beach forms the fourth side.
It looks beautiful and wonderful and I wonder if I’ll be alone here, and can therefore swim naked. Or should I be more modest and swim in shorts? I choose for shorts, coz you never know, and they need a damned good wash.
I take my socks, the stained Icebreaker T-shirt, UV arm-protectors and rinse them whilst kneeling among curious fish who come really close to check out what’s going on.
Draped my washing over warm rocks I return to the water and contemplate my next move. For the overly-cautious info board tells me I should not swim alone and should preferably use a flotation device to mitigate any hypothermia or any other risk. The chasm into which the Finke disappears can’t be more than a meter wide and the chasm’s walls are really high and impressive. It does ooze a dose of foreboding.
I am an excellent swimmer. I’m not prone to panic. I’ve a rather caviller appreciation of my (im)mortality.
Fuck it! I think in a usual conclusion to assessment of risk, slide into the cool and deep water and start swimming.
It is amazing. Lovely. I can’t take the camera and so rejoice instead in soaking up the sensation and experience “just for me”. I recommend you give it a go should you be in the neighbourhood.
Redbank is a series of pools cascading into another. Heading upstream each pool leads to another involving a bit of a very careful scramble over polished rock.
As I squeeze through yet another narrow gap which swells into a large dark pool of water the movements of a bearded dragon attract my eye. Doomed, the lizard is slow and sluggish and unable to find purchase on the vertical polished walls. She makes no objection when I pick her up and even less when I place her on my head for I have no other way to transport her. She and I continue up the pools. She learns the rules of the head pretty darned fast, shifting to higher head as it moves and rolls with that peculiarity typical of near-naked bipedal apes. Or is that bi-pedal apes (he he, that’s a joke).
Eventually we can go no further and so return downstream to the renowned pool.
Voices greet me. Mark and DJ, a young couple from Alice Springs. They take a few photos of me with a lizard on my head.
Once placed on the sand Ms Bearded Dragon lies for a moment before running off. Cute.
I plan a leisurely arvo at Redbank, chilling, washing (really rinsing) and re-hydrating. The sky becomes very dark. Ominous. Pregnant with nefarious intent. They strangle the light from the sun. Wind starts and rapidly gains in intensity. Not good.
It starts light. Gentle even. I retreat to a small grotto a couple of metres up the gorge wall, protected from the wind I may not even get wet and will wait it out. I, and a couple of women who turn up are expecting the usual short, light dusting. DJ, a local from Alice, is not so sure. “The sky is really black back there” she says.
It’s getting harder. That nefarious intent beginning to kick in.
It gets even harder. Water pours down the gorge walls and my sanctuary is no longer dry. The two women also give up and we make our way back to the car park. My clothes and myself get a second rinsing and I have no dry part of me when I reach the carpark’s shelter for which I am very grateful I placed Dreamer under it. I achieved my goal. I am chilled, rinsed and are not thirsty.
The two women dry themselves off and leave. DJ and Mark remain at the gorge. Last I saw of them they were trying to go up the pools without having to swim. I hope they are all right. Eventually they turn up, wave and drive off.
I’m alone until another couple turn up heading towards Mount Sonder, which is a 16 km round trip that takes at least six hours. It’s nearly 1600. Maybe they intend to go to the Mount Sonder lookout which is only 2500 m one way.
The parking lot has a shelter but it’s not a comfortable camping area. I don’t know if the Woodland Camping area 1800 m back has shelters which are invaluable when rain sets and doesn’t leave. Glen Helen Resort is 31 km away. I’d arrive late but it’s imminently doable.
I ponder what to do, having not expected rain. If it lasts a long time the 5 km to the asphalt will be soft spongy and difficult but it is only 5 km.
The rain stops.
I make my way 1800 m back to the Woodland Camping needing only to stop once on the 14 % incline.
There are shelters in the coaches’ camping section with two 1.8 m2 platforms in each.
The rain starts again with increased vigour. The track is now a muddy river. Tomorrow’s 3200 m will be difficult.
21 December, in a shelter in the coaches’ section, 0600
Getting stuck in a desert seems to be an occupational hazard. Quorn >45 C. Oodnadatta >48.
I did not expect nor plan for rain. Lots of rain. Rain a la South West Australia winter rain.
Sheets of water lie everywhere.
The track out of here will also have sheets of water. Gonna be a long and muddy haul.
I know it is not winter a la south West Australia coz:
- there are flies
- I’m in a T-shirt
- the ground is red
- it’s 21 C.
I dump five litres of hard carried water leaving eight for the 23 km to Glen Helen along asphalt. I should make it. However to get to the asphalt I’ve still to negotiate 3200 m of soggy gravel track and a number of floodways. I may have to basically pull Dreamer and Ziflex, therefore the less weight the better.
My shelter is getting flooded and I’ve retreated to one of the platforms. It’s pissing down and has been for at least an hour. There’s little point in venturing forth. I’ve food, there’s no shortage of water. The tarpaulin is strung up as a windbreak stopping the fine spray off the rain from drifting in and covering everything in a damp layer.
A tray-back Landcruiser would be very handy now. Preferably empty.
In the meantime I practice harmonica. The Blues, obviously, given circumstances.
It is undeniably a unique experience one that’s not in my risk assessment. Somewhere down a floodway a flash-flood will be coming. I expect all the floodways crossing my 3200 m to be flowing. It remains to be seen by how much.
Hours later, it’s still raining.
This would be a nightmare if I were not in a shelter. It would be far beyond a nightmare if I were on the Mereenie Loop and it rained thus.
There’s nowhere to place my Soulo. If there isn’t moving water, the standing water is centimetres deep. In place of a tent I’d have a swimming pool.
My world has receded to a 180 cm2 platform under a corrugated steel roof. The tarpaulin keeps me and the platform dry. Water flows underneath to some floodway and a flash-flood somewhere.
So I continue to play blues on a harmonica.
Just when it seems to lighten up it rains harder, showing me who’s boss.
21 December, 0930
Still raining hard.
Legend tells of moments like these, when more rain falls in 24 hours than in the preceding ten years. Of floods tens of metres high, walls of water sweeping all before them. I may well be in such a moment.
I have a river right in front of me. Where only yesterday was it dry red dust is now a river. It comes from the north-west. Several broad tributaries coalescing right in front of me forming a stream replete with rapids and cascades, turbulent eddies along which debris is borne, heading for that flash-flood someplace.
Frogs have emerged. I see one hopping and swimming in the river. He/she is not bothered by the rain, nor the river. In fact I get the distinct impression he/she revels in it.
Even the flies have called it a day. Only a few hardy ones remain to harass me.
It is, in a word, tremendous. And that’s here in the campsite. Lord knows what it’s like at the Finke and the floodway.
Another frog. My curiosity and desire to see one up close is eclipsed by my desire to remain dry.
I am converting all my daily-use water into rain-water collected in my fry-pan and cooking pot into each drip approximately three corrugations of water. I’m doing well. Soon I’ll have five litres. I’m aiming for ten.
I’ve cleaned the platform and the soles of my shoes to prevent it becoming a muddy nightmare. I’m going to be on this platform for quite a while I suspect so may as well do some housekeeping. It’s actually dried in places. The temperature is 21 C.
21 December 1100
Something’s happening. A change. Mozzies have arrived and the flies are back in numbers. Something’s going on.
My mastery of the harmonica jumps in leaps and bounds.
The other platform, not protected by the tarpaulin is completely wet. Whilst the wind is not strong it’s strong enough to carry the fine mist among the more robust raindrops and carries it through the shelter. Dreamer and Ziflex are similarly bedecked.
Thank God/EMQ for this shelter. And all the other random coincidences and choices which precipitated my arrival in Redbank just before a major rain front comes through. The ‘what-ifs’ that may otherwise have transpired don’t bear thinking about.
Now, please, I’d like to make tracks.
It’s nearing midday. I’ve not stepped off this platform since like 0700. I just piss straight into the flood.
Today started out great. When I went to bed last night the sun had come out lighting the mulga and red-river gums against a dark cobalt sky and I was sure everything would be dry by morning. Stars the whole night. A lie in, 0600 instead of 0500.
By seven the rain had started. It has yet to finish and it’s now 1200.
Who would have thought 26 km to Glen Helen would take so long.
21 December 1300
The rain’s abated, more or less.
I put on my Arc’teryx jacket and start down the 3200 m towards the asphalt. On foot. The track is not simply soft underfoot the track is a river in its own right. In places the force of the water has washed all sand and dust away leaving only a rocky hard pan. In others vast amounts of stone have been washed onto the track completely transforming its contours. Flat sections are pools into the muddy base of which my feet sink deep.
One thing is unmistakably clear: all the rivulets, the run-offs, gullies and small-streams are all heading towards my first floodway.
What was yesterday, just 18 hours ago a bumpy, sandy, gravelly dry-floodway is now a 100 m wide muddy torrent comprised of no less than three parallel and joined channels.
I practice a wade and manage to get halfway, crossing two of the channels. The third is definitely beyond me. Death by drowning is also not in my risk assessment and I’m loath to imagine the obituary if I try to wade across it and, err, fail.
I am officially trapped, marooned by floodwaters.
Retracing my steps to the Hilltop Camping area which looks out over the day parking area and the Finke River, I find no one and see no car at the day parking area.
I can hear a dull pervasive roar. The Finke must be in full flow.
Sure enough where yesterday, 18 hours ago, there was a dry coarse-sandy river bed hot to my feet is now perhaps 300 m of muddy torrent.
Guess I’m not going to make the Mount Sonder hike this trip.
I wonder if my lizard made it.
The view from the carpark lookout over the Finke is quite different from 24 hours earlier.
Back to camp.
I am alone here.
I’ve captured seven litres of pristine rainwater. Didn’t take particularly long either.
I catch one of the desert frogs (Spencer’s Burrowing Frog). Until today I’d not even seen one. Now I’ve seen plenty. They are everywhere. Cute as.
21 December, 1700
I contemplate my floodway. It’s rising. Not a good sign.
The frogs sound like forlorn sheep.
Supported by a stout stave I wade in again. Definitely stronger and deeper.
I return to contemplate the waters rushing past.
I wonder when/if someone will begin to wonder about me, perhaps conclude that they haven’t heard from me in quite a while. After all, since Yulara I’ve only talked to Ramona and that was three days ago. Stuart, most likely. He’s the one who’s got the sense of context to think that he should have heard from me by … when? Which is the problem: when would he start to think I should have been in touch and then start to make some enquiries.
He’ll call Yulara and eventually find out from the Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge that I left on the 15th for Watarrka. He’ll call Watarrka and find out that I left there on the 17th, according to their records. Perhaps he contacts Ramona and find out I actually left on the 18th.
He’ll call Glen Helen Resort.
“Is there a cyclist staying there?”
“Have you seen one or heard of one?”
“No. Where would he have come from?
“When did he leave Watarrka?”
“The 17th or 18th, I’m not really sure”
“Three or four days ago. Maybe he’s still coming”
“How far is it?”
“About 230 km”
“He’s a strong rider, fit. I know he can ride long distances in a day, up to 100 km even on gravel. He should be there by now. Is there somewhere he may have stopped?”
“Redbank Gorge. There’s water there. Most cyclists pull in there”
“Maybe he’s there then”
“It’s been raining a lot here. All the floodways are flowing. The Finke is up”
“What are you trying to tell me”
“He may be stuck, at Redbank Gorge”
They would conclude that I’d have to pull into Glen Helen if for no other reason than supplies. But I haven’t.
Glen Helen would tell Stuart that they’ve not heard of any accident or other tale involving a cyclist on the Mereenie Loop. No police or ambulance or emergency services have been called on behalf of a cyclist.
“He’s most likely at Redbank Gorge” they would conclude. Though Stuart would probably call any other official camping areas perhaps all the way to Alice Springs, just to check. But if I were in Alice, I’d most likely have contacted him.
I doubt I’ll see a large 4WD coming across my floodway to check on me. Not for a couple of days at least. By then the flood should have abated and I’ll be able to leave. Hopefully.
22 December 0130
The rain has started again.
22 December 0630
The rain’s finally stopped. Five more hours.
22 December, 0830
Two nights planned I, originally, to stay here. Well, night two has passed. At least I am keeping to my original plan.
Unlike yesterday I can actually hear the river from here. And I hope it is THE river, the Finke, and not my floodway, what’s keeping me from travelling 3200 m.
The Finke is 1800 m over a small rise from the Woodland Campsite which as the name suggests is full of trees and therefore suppresses sound propagation. Still I can hear it.
I run the numbers.
3200 m separates me from asphalt, safety.
3200 too far.
Less than an hour’s walk.
Still too far.
Today is discovery day. How much as my floodway risen?
How much has it fallen?
If it’s still impassable I’m going to wander down to the Finke to wash and collect some more water from the water tank there. I may need it.
I’ll also do a food inventory. Already I’m out of muesli. I was meant to be in Glen Helen Resort today. At the latest.
For the first time in AGES I’ve made myself a coffee. So much time do I have.
Trapped by the Finke and a floodway, restrained by periodic rains, ground which is but soft red mud, what am I to do with my day?
I’ve a Lee Oskar harmonica to master
The rest of a book on hiking in Sarek, a wilderness area in northern Sweden.
A book on Swedish grammar, of all things.
And this diary.
I could fire up the Surface Pro 3. But that has certain sustainability issues. I’ve not seen the sun in quite a while and once the Surface’s battery runs out I would drain all of my Sherpa 100 power unit in recharging it. The same power unit I use to keep my headlamp, camplamp, cycle computer, GPS and camera operable. The Sherpa is already down to 60 % capacity.
Back to Olde Skool … blues, reading and writing.
Being Australian this remote campsite comes fully equipped with gas BBQs each with a plate and two burners. Four huge gas cylinders are housed in an asbestos housing, supply about three BBQs connected by pipes which run underground. These pipes run hundreds of metres to the farthest BBQ. In the middle of nowhere. Very sophisticated.
Upon arrival I check them out. The BBQs in the coaches’ section do not work. Upon checking the gas cylinders are all turned off. That would do it. Two cylinders act in series with a simple switch to the other two when required. They all seem a little empty, but I turn on two and return to a BBQ to see it works.
I return to the cylinders, switch across to the other two and turn on cylinder one. Then cylinder two.
A fearful noise scares the bejeebers oudda me and I shut off the cylinder immediately.
Then I get to thinking. It certainly has gas in it. Perhaps it’s just the sound of re-pressurising the pipes.
I turn it on again. The screeching does indeed die down.
However there is now a far more ominous sound … that of gas leaking under pressure. The smell of gas becomes pervasive.
Now, LPG is basically colourless and odourless. They put a ‘smell’ in it for obvious reasons.
But I can see air being distorted by the rapid release of large volumes of very cold gas at the switch between the two sets of cylinders.
I have been more frightened in my life but I can’t remember when.
Nor have I been so utterly clinical in the rapid completion of the task of turning off a gas cylinder.
Fortunately random sparks are rare during rainy days in an isolated campsite in the middle of a desert.
To use a BBQ I tramp 100 metres through the mulga to the non-coaches’ section where the BBQs operate. Safely.
22 December, 1200
The track shows clear evidence of a L O T of water passing through recently. The stave I used yesterday has been swept away from where I left it high and (not really) dry (coz it was raining).
My floodway is higher than yesterday. The small tree I use to judge the level of the water no longer stands next to the water.
It is in the water and it is lying down.
In contrast the Finke is lower than its level yesterday.
It appears the ‘river’ I could hear from the campsite was not the Finke, but my own little floodway showing off.
I bathe in the river, collect 4.5 litres from the water tank and return to camp.
I consider things.
Do They, the authorities, do a check of tourist sites during such events where random tourists can get cut-off?
Was it indeed a vehicle I thought I heard very early yesterday morning? Were they checking before the floodways became dangerous or impassable? If so they failed to check the coaches’ section and I don’t believe They checked the other section either. I don’t believe it was a ‘check-for’ vehicle. Just wondering. I’ve no idea why someone would drive to Redbank Gorge at 0630 and leave almost immediately.
Perhaps they fly over such sites. Makes sense. They would be able to cover far larger areas in much shorter time without risk to themselves from floodways or whatever.
There have been planes flying overhead. Small ones. Most waaay tooo high to effectively check wooded campsites. If they were, most would return a ‘nothing’ regarding Redbank Gorge because I am completely under a shelter and cannot be seen from above. There have been at least three flights when I was not personally under the shelter but the planes were high and made no manoeuvre to suggest they were searching for anyone or had seen me.
Things are looking up. Sort of. The suns made an appearance, the first in three days. It’s above 30 C, certainly under my steel-roof.
I am benefiting from a perpetual paranoid perspective. In other words I’ve planned for the ‘worst-case-scenario’, that of something ‘going wrong’, and included a healthy contingency concerning food and water. It’s why I made it to Redbank with 11 litres to spare.
I’ve never even come close to running out of water. Rob on the other hand likes to run lean, with just enough to cover the planned distance: “It’s 70 km to the next water source I need two litres, dump the rest” kind of approach.
I don’t dump. I carry more than I need, obviously.
The contingency also allows me to enjoy unexpected attractions or deal with unexpected circumstances, like fixing Ziflex which can take up a large chunk of a day.
Same with food. If 1 sandwich = a meal I need 3 sandwiches a day. Am not sure of the contingency but it’s likely between 0.5 and 1.0 sandwich per day. Therefore for a one day journey I’ll have 3.5 to 4.0 sandwiches. Each day added increases my contingency by 0.5 to 1.0 sandwiches. Five days between Watarrka and Glen Helen including two nights at Redbank means I’ve 15 + 2.5-5 sandwiches.
Since Stuart rescued me at Hamilton and brought a huge amount of supplies with him and at Yulara and Watarrka there were decent shops, I am not stressed regarding food and won’t be for a good week. Perhaps not the most exciting diet but more than good enough.
Marooned I may be but I shall not go hungry nor thirsty. At least for five days. After that, well, I’ve been watching them long fat locusts. Wouldn’t take many of them to make a nice meal.
My approach to ‘rationing’ involves guesstimating the maximum number of days I expect to be marooned (5) of which I’ve already done three and my energy needs, for I am not pushing 84 + 75 kg20W (20W stands for 20 litres of water) of me + Dreamer and Ziflex along some dastardly track in 40+ C temperatures for ten hours a day.
Like everyone I get hungry. I’ve learnt that should I ignore this too long I overindulge by snacking on pretty much anything whilst making more food than I need coz of a) snacking and b) simply over doing the amounts.
Should I eat something early in the cycle I find I can eat less and postpone The Meal for quite some time later. Sometimes so ‘late’ that this meal is postponed to the next scheduled one, often the following day. I try this approach now.
I have a good week or more supply of wraps, assuming two per day. However I don’t really have anything to put on them. No tomato, cuke, fresh salad things, no sauce or spread. How to use wraps, then, to fool my stomach into thinking it’s eaten ‘well’?
Make focaccia. Cut two wraps into quarters, liberally smear with olive oil, sprinkle some mixed-herbs, black pepper and dried-grated parmigiana, place on a BBQ hotplate (that’s hot) until crispy. Fold in two to stop the parmigiana from falling off, and enjoy.
Yummy, quite filling and does not use a lot of ingredients contributing to supply preservation.
Eaten late in the afternoon, not really lunch and not quite dinner. Since I go to bed ridiculously early perhaps I won’t get hungry again.
Tomorrow morning however I’ll be starving. Then what? I’ve run out of muesli.
22 December 1730
Time to do my evening wander to my floodway.
Well I’ve enjoyed my unrestrained dose of melodrama but all good things must come to an end.
My floodway is but a fraction of what it was at 1200.
I expect, rain tonight notwithstanding, to be able to ride forth tomorrow morning. So much for my tale of starvation and rescue.
23 December, 0700
The sign of an optimist … breaking camp without first checking the floodway.
There are perhaps five floodways over a 1000 m stretch of the track to the asphalt. Each one I pulled Dreamer and Ziflex through. Some stony, some sandy, some muddy, most a mix of all three.
Eventually I am through all of them.
The weather is beautiful, I’ve asphalt to look forward too. What can go wrong? I keep my Keen sandals on rather than change to the far more efficient Shimano cycling shoes.
I hit the asphalt without any problem, pump up the tires and head east towards Glen Helen.
E V E R Y floodway along the asphalt bears witness to flood water resulting from the rains. Debris and mud and stone and sand are strewn across the road. In some floodways it’s pilled so high I have to drag Dreamer and Ziflex over and through it all.
Still, I ride merrily, peacefully on. In a particularly handy pool by the side of the road I wash the red mud of Dreamer and Ziflex before it sets like concrete. Gleaming and clean I continue, the kilometres slowly ticking down since I am enjoying myself, the weather, the moment, the photo opportunities, the asphalt. 15 km to go. 10, 9 … 5 … 3, 2 and I pass the sign telling me Glen Helen is but 2 km further, 1 …
Three hundred meters from the Glen Helen turn-off there is a lookout on the north side I get great views of Mount Sonder and the surrounding plains and ranges. I go check it out. I don’t care about the 8 % incline. I’ve 300 m to the Glen Helen turn-off and another 500 m to the resort itself. What can go wrong? I’m here, made it! Yahoo …
The view’s amazing. I take lots of photos.
Walking to the northern tip of the lookout I get some great shots of the engorged Finke as it makes its way to Glen Helen Gorge less than 1000 m away, which I manage to get in the photos. It’s beautiful.
I ride back onto the Red Centre Way’s Namatjira Drive my journey almost over.
I peddle up the short rise immediately after joining Namatjira Drive. There’s a Hilux parked placidly in the middle of the road on the apex of the rise. 200 m in front, the road bottoms out having dropped away from the rise.
I pull up along the Hilux, rest my hand on its roof to keep upright and ask Phil, the driver, “Waddya reckon?”
For far down below is a 2WD sedan facing off against 300 m wide engorged Finke. The Mother of ALL Floodways in unabated glory.
“Na, not going to make it”
And if the 2WD driven by highly resourceful and well-experienced Aborigines cannot cross that swirling mass of water, I most certainly won’t. They’ve panned out across the torrent, wading in as far as they can, searching for a navigable path through. Huge islands of stone and sand cover the road forming formidable obstacles in addition to the water racing down.
Phil looks at me, glances down at Dreamer “Wanme ta giv yu a ride across”
Damned right I do “Yeah, that’d be great, thanks”
Phil and I throw Dreamer and Ziflex into the back of his Hilux, and when the Aborigines give up and get out of the way we cross the Finke. The last bit was a rapid surging across the road. Glad I didn’t try to push my way across.
Thus do I the last 200 m to the Glen Helen turn-off travel.
I made it. Just.
Glen Helen Resort, 23 December 2015.