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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Larapinta! (with a coda at Uluru-Kata Tjuta)

It was a year in the planning, with various delays and pull-outs, but thanks largely to Paul's hard work it came off: the Sons of the Desert trip to the Larapinta Trail along the West MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory, West of Alice Springs.

We met up in the Alice the night before our pick up: the final party was Paul, Daniela, Kristie and your resident photographer (though not in many recent posts) David. Paul had arranged for a transport company to pick us up and take us back. The plan for was for 7 nights, starting at Simpson's Gap and ending at Hugh Gorge. That's not exactly what happened as will become apparent, but that was a good thing, we think!

An early morning start had us on the track just after dawn. The walk started out in some very nice country indeed. We were thrilled to be out there and in retrospect glad that it began this way, because it turned out that nice though it was, this had nothing on what was to come..

Lunchtime has us at Bond Gap where there was a little water and some bullrushes to prove it. The view seems to be that you should never drink the water in water holes. We think it very unlikely that - properly treated - there could be a problem. We've drunk much worse. Our best guess is that they don't want people to rely in any way on found water, because that could encourage folly and making plans that don't assume that the only water is to be found at the trailhead tanks.

Towards the end of this section we had our first glimpses of Arenge Bluff: here's Paul suitably buoyed by its presence:

Soon we made it into Mulga Flat (after discovering that our notes told us that the section ended at a place now known as Old Mulga flat, and that we now needed to walk  a couple of kilometres more). After we set up camp, we headed back to higher ground to get a view of Arenge Bluff in the Alpenglow:

When the sun went down we were treated to this spectacle over the ranges:

And here is an image of Paul and Daniela watching it raptly:

Morning dawned gloriously for the party the next day (yes; photo geeks may suspect this image is included because of the gloriously clean starburst of the Zeiss Loxia 21mm lens...)

The walk from there gets even better. A highlight was Spring Gap: here is Daniela resting in front of the waterhole. The photo is pretty, but it can't begin to convey the sense of awe that a bit of water can provoke in this dry, dry land.

Soon we arrive at Jay Creek. As we arrive we find, right by the creek itself, this foul smelling dead bovine:

We move as far away as possible to camp! Later that night a large group of walkers arrive, and we judge by their torches that they set up camp in a nice circle right around the festering corpse! It's only after they have set up and turned in that we hear shouts of horror and disgust. Still, it seems they were too tired to move camp. They were having a tough time of it: we read in a logbook entry later that they had twisted ankles, broken knees and other troubles.

After we set up camp we climbed a couple of hundred metres up onto the bluff that guarded the gap leading to Fish Hole. Our plan was to climb up to a position to watch the sunset but still be able to get back down before complete blackness. Here's Daniela relaxing on top, waiting for the sun to go down:

And here's that landscape in the valley behind her as the sun gets close to setting behind the trees:

And finally what we climbed for: the last ruddy effects of the sun on the bluff on the other side of the gap:

Next day we head into that gap and soon come to Fish Hole, a sacred site. Here are Paul and Kristie, looking suitably spiritual:

And here's the whole party (barring Your Photographer) relaxing by the Hole:

A little further in and the track starts to involve scrambling through the valley. As it gets narrower the vegetation starts to be dominated by an amazing cycad and cypress community. Different species, but a similar affinity group to the cypress and cycad communities in, for example, the Shoalhaven Valley in NSW.

Here's Krisite climbing up one of the tougher waterfalls, handing her trekking pole up to Daniela to give her more free hands for the climb:

Finally we get to Standley Chasm. It's an odd place: as we arrived it began to rain, and we just got our tents up in time on the offical camp site which was just a small portion of grass near the carpark. The so-called hot showers rely on power which lasts at best 15 seconds before the circuit breaker goes. But all was forgiven because we were able, having got the tents up when it was dry, to sit by the fire on a covered balcony while the rain pelted down. The only downside was a TV with a documentary about Aboriginal history narrated by Ernie Dingo on permanent loop - but even that became weirdly comfortable as some of the party became word perfect on the text.

The other thing we did at the Chasm was to check out the weather forecast. This was important, as our plan was to camp the next night at Brinkley Bluff, one of the highest points in the West Macdonnel ranges, and the highest in the Chewing Range. By all accounts it would be both unpleasant and unsafe in a storm (lightning, and tent torn to shreds as there is nothing to block the winds for thousands of km). In addition, the descent is said to be tricky, and also likely unsafe in the wet. To our relief the prediction is that the next 48 hours should be OK, but after that record rains are forecast! We consider what to do: the worry is that after we have descended Brinkley Bluff and camped at Birthday Waterhole, we plan another high camp before descending to Hugh Gorge. We make an executive decision: if we can arrange transport (and luckily for us a friendly Queenlsalnd couple using the same company also decide to act on this intelligence ) we'll leave a little early from Birthday Waterhole. We'll then use the extra two days to hire a car, and make a lightning trip to Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Ayer's Rock and the Olgas) which none of us had seen. Some of us had been trying to persuade ourselves it was kind of cool to have been so close (by Australian standards - in fact 500km) to these icons without visiting, but I think when we decided to go, that we all thought it was the right decision!

Anyhow, the next day and the most magnificent part of this truly splendid walk. First thing the weather looked a little grim, but we headed out to check out Stanley Chasm itself. The next photo is not a work of art, but it does give a good sense of the scale of the Chasm. Check out the tiny Paul, Kristie and Daniela!

After that we headed out. We were all carrying 8-10 litres or so of water, as we needed water for the next day and for the camp, since none was expected on the tops. That meant pack weights in excess of 20 kg which makes for a bracing climb of 500m. As the wind and cloud got worse, Paul could be heard to mutter "North Wales. That's what this is like. I didn't emigrate to Australia so as to walk in North Wales!" But as we reached Bridle Path Lookout,  the clouds lifted and vistas were revealed:

Soon the party found itself walking narrow ridges with spectacular views

Here's Paul, about half an hour's pull from Brinkley Bluff:

And here's Kristie, with Brinkley Bluff behind her. The scale in the photo, as in reality, is very misleading. The Bluff looks like a small knoll nearby. But in fact it's around a half hour away, five or ten minutes walk across, and has widely separated places for pitching tents.

In the meantime, Daniela and Paul are taking the opportunity to look around before the final haul:

Here's Krisite, at the top

And here are Daniela and Paul celebrating at the trig point, while Kristie tries in vain to find some service so as to get a weather forecast in the background:

We set up camp, and after sunset the alpenglow on the ranges whence we have come is glorious:

The next morning we are all up  before dawn to enjoy the peak in glorious weather.  Here's the range off further than we will walk in the pre-dawn glow:

And here, still before the sun actually rises, is the trig point. The pre-dawn wind blows the prayer flags someone has thoughtfully provided, no doubt further charming our trip with blessings!

And then, the sun rises, revealing much of way we have come!

In the other direction just after sunrise one of our party is spied exploring:

And here's a selfie by Your Photographer before starting to break camp, stupidly still wearing his torch that was needed at pre-dawn:

And, as we start to descend, here's a last view of the country in the harsher light of day. Glorious: but unforgiving.

The descent is not nearly as hard as we had been told. It's soon clear why: we meet Tasmanian track workers who have rebuilt most of the track, so the descent is actually absolutely fine. It's a pleasant romp into Birthday Waterhole. When we hit the waterhole we explore a little and I take an opportunity to get a photo of the ubiquitous Ghost Gums: these eucalypts leave white powder on you if you brush past their trunks:

When we get back to the shelter a truly mighty storm hits, and we are glad we have a constructed shelter! The next morning we - and the other party from Qld - are picked up and as we drive through Alice Springs the Todd river not only has water in it, but it's flooding the road! It's said that if you have seen water flow in the Todd River three times you are a local.

Coda: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

After some remarkably efficient shopping and preparation we all get in the hire car that Paul picks up from the airport and make our way to Uluru!

We start to get faint glimpses of the rock, and with some slightly optimistic inprepretations of the scope of some of the "keep off" signs, we pull off and climb an amazing red sand dune, from which we all get our first sight of Uluru. There will be better pictures in this blog, but I don't think any of us will forget this first sighting:

We then arrive at a hotel in the resort and try to find acceptable and affordable food. The next morning we head out to the Sunrise Viewing Platform. This is perhaps the most irritating thing about this park: you are forbidden from most places, not I think on sacredness grounds (except occasionally) but on tourist management grounds. So basically you can drive on bitumen roads and stop at designated viewing places and a few walks. Still, they are great views and great walks. We manage to escape the worst of the crowds at the Sunrise Viewing Platform, and find a probably legal much quieter and more interesting vantage point from which we see this:

And as the sun rises further we get this, highlighting the ubiquitous Casuarinas in this part of the world:

We then head to the Rock itself to do the 10km stroll around its base. Here are Paul and Daniela:

And here's an image which gives a sense of the scale of the thing; those trees are huge:

This image shows the party as high on the Rock as is consistent with the wishes of its custodians:

One of the amazing features of Uluru is the great vulval caves that cut into it. We soon came to realise that when you saw one of these, there would soon be a sign announcing a sacred Women's site:

The waterholes and gorges at its base were also deeply affecting. Its easy to see why some of them count as sacred.

Some of these little gorges right in the base of the rock are really lush:

We then made our way to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and began with as much of the Valley of the Winds walk as was consistent with being at the Designated Dusk Viewing Place. As we walked up into it this amazing view presented itself:

And as we left, the light was starting to do amazing things on the dome:

We made it to the designated spot. The following photo resulted, but I fear it's rather like any decent postcard you can get taken from the Designated Spot!

A wonderful, wonderful trip. One of the very best. Thanks to all involved! And, dear readers, do go to the larapinta. It's absolutely wonderful. And if you are there, the coda is worth it as well.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Packrafting Colo Gorge

SUBW 15-17 January 2015

Our plan was to camp Friday night for an early start and do two full days in the river, covering about 50km. For reasons to be explained we ended up exiting after 28km at Bob Turner’s Track. We had standard problems with people being delayed, but in the end three of us ended up camping at the top of Canoe Creek Track, while Chris arrived next morning. About the same time Dean appeared up the track, having arrived first the evening before and spent the night in the excellent camping cave at the bottom with another party. Finally united, we set off down the steep but straightforward track at 8.00.

The flood gauge at Upper Colo had been reading a miserable 1.18m when we left Sydney, but as we came out above the river it was obvious it had come up substantially and the river looked be at an almost ideal height. Checking the gauge on our return we saw it was 1.67 when we started paddling, peaked at 1.85 on Sunday morning and was still 1.79 when we left the river. 

It took about one and a half hours to walk down the Canoe Creek track to our first view of the river. 

The walk would be  a struggle with canoes, but is an easy stroll with packrafts. Paul's pack in the picture below weighed  19kg including the boat and that was one of the heavier ones.

At the river we unpacked and inflated the rafts. This is an MRS Microraft rolled up:

And this is her inflated and ready to go. This is the extended version of the MRS, which can used as a 2-person canoe without the spraydeck. So it is heavy for a packraft: 3.6Kg including spraydeck. Paddle is about 1kg and lifejacket 400g, so the whole package is 5kg. Lots of information about them here.

The SUBW fleet consisted of three proper packrafts, a pair of MRS Extended Microrafts and an Alpacka Scout, and two cheap inflatables, the Mighty Seahawk (usually $69, but bought on special for $57) and the Mightbe Zambesi ($37). 

The contrast between these two cheapies was instructive. The Intex Seahawk was robust, did not get a a single puncture, and handled the rapids as well as the proper packrafts. This was in large part due to it’s captain, Glenn, who was the most experienced paddler in the group. Nevertheless, it looked as if it would be OK in a class II rapid with anyone confident on board. The Zambesi, on the other hand, was little more than a pool toy. All credit to Dean for the performance he got out of it, but it was totally incapable of carrying a person and pack down a rapid intact and it was more like a lilo trip for Dean! It also punctured whenever it saw a branch and by Sunday afternoon was richly decorated with Tyvek tape. 

By 10.00 the mighty Suboir fleet had set sail, dominating the quiet waters of the Colo as thoroughly as the imperial fleet of the eunuch Zheng He once dominated the Pacific!

We soon encountered our first rapid, one of the larger ones we would see that day and more like a III than a II. 

After some scouting from the bank Tim set off in his MRS and got through without a problem. Here is a nice series of shots taken in sports mode:

Paul followed, also in an MRS, got stuck on a rock on the last drop and capsized, fortunately at the very bottom of the rapid. Glenn and Chris came through OK and Dean portaged. The difference between the MRS rafts with spraydecks and the open Seahawk and Alpacka was immediately apparent. However well handled, the open rafts ended up full to the brim and had to be brought ashore and emptied after each rapid. You can see these later efforts in this film, taken by Tim:


The day then settled into very satisfying pattern, a kilometre or so of glassy paddling with sandstone cliffs towering hundreds of metres above us on either side, punctuated by occasional waterfalls, then the distant noise of the next rapid and a line of boulders appearing across the river. At each rapid a bit of scouting, then a couple of minutes of excitement for each of us, and then some cleaning up before resuming our travels. We lost count of the number of rapids, but there were something like fifteen before we reached the junction of the Wollongambe that evening.

It soon became clear that we were travelling slower than we had hoped. The Mightbe Zambesi was more inclined to turn circles than move forward. We tried swapping paddles, shunting it along from behind, and eventually towing, but the Zambesi (and its tug) were still falling hundreds of metres behind the other rafts on each reach. Portaging was also a major delay. Compared to the five minutes or so required to scout and run a rapid, it took an about 30m to complete a portage. We had two people portaging, as the limitations of the Alpacka Scout became apparent on about the third rapid, where Chris had a really nasty spill, coming out early and bouncing off a few rocks on the way down. Alpacka are the original and best packraft makers, and the Scout is a robust little boat, but it weighs in at 1.6kg rather than the 3kg of a standard packraft, and this is reflected in its buoyancy. It’s designed for river and lake crossing and explicitly rated only for Class I rapids.

Worse still, Chris’s paddle had disappeared somewhere in the rapid and was showing no signs of emerging. This led Glenn to carry out the day’s major act of heroics. Confident that he had seen where the paddle disappeared, he worked his way out from the side of the rapid with Paul and Dean holding him against the flow on a rope, hooked the paddle out with one foot and hurled it back to the bank with an elegant javelin throw. We had intended to bring a spare paddle, but this had already been handed to the person who had left his in Sydney (unnamed here as an act of mercy). In any case, on the basis of our experiences in this trip I’d bring more than one spare for a group of five next time. 

Paddle recovered, we continued downriver, hoping to reach the Wollangambe junction, where Glenn remembered extensive sand flats to camp on. We tried various measures to speed up our progress, such as shifting Dean’s pack from the Mightbe Zambesi to Tim’s raft, and towing the two open rafts through rapids whilst Dean and Chris portaged without their boats. Late in the afternoon Paul broke his paddle in a rapid. leaving him with  very long, single-ended paddle. This actually worked surprisingly well – the length of the handle made it much more effective that a normal T-bar single-ended paddle.

It was 7.00 before we saw the Wollangambe pouring in from the right-hand side. Predictably, the area had been reshaped by floods and sandbanks were in short supply, but a little scouting around revealed a sand bench a few metres above the river where, with a little digging, we could squeeze in five people. We could see the river rising and wondered what it would be like next morning. We were all pretty tired, so we ate a quick meal and retired for the night.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny and we were soon heading off down what was now a much wider river. Overnight Glenn had cut the rowlocks of the Mighty Seahawk as they get in the way when paddling.

As well as accommodating the combined flow of the Colo and Wollangambe, the valley itself was now wider, with less towering cliffs and more forested slopes. 

The first, long reach was a delight with fast moving water and little class I rapids to speed us on our way. Nevertheless, after the first rapid we decided that we would definitely be pulling out at Bob Turner’s Track, which would mean hitching to fetch a car, so Tim and Glenn raced on ahead to get the car shuffle under way. 

Both the fast and slow parties sensibly decided to portage past the King Rapid. This is at least Class IV and probably needs higher water to make it runnable at all. It’s an impressive sight, falling perhaps 10m in about 100m through giant boulders. At the bottom the racing water performs a full circle, carving out a decent sized circular lake with a little sand island with casuarinas in the middle, before heading off at ninety degree to it’s original direction of travel. 

That morning we found the best solution to the Zambesi problem, inspired by the fact that Paul now had only half a paddle. We strapped the two rafts together with one person paddling each side, which worked so well that despite portaging the rapids we made decent time and arrived only a couple of hours after Tim and Glenn.

That's Chris portaging around the King Rapid. Portaging in this part of the river is miserable and to be avoided at all costs. It means climbing over large boulders through dense water gums, scratching both yourself and the equipment. It's at least 30m delay at each rapid.

After the King Rapid there are some long reaches, but just three more substantial rapids, II or II+, before the Bob Turner Track. The Mighty Seahawk is put to the test on one of these in this movie:


The slow party arrived at the bottom of Bob Turner's Track at 5.00, where we found a family picknicking - the first people we had seen since Canoe Creek.  Paul is hiding the fact that he only has  three sections of his four-section paddle behind that rucksack. The helpful people at Packrafting-Store have since agreed to send a replacement blade, which is a lot better than buying a whole new one.

After a feed and packing up our rafts we started slogging up the hill on the well-made track around 6.00. We met a wild dog – not very wild, as it started following us - and near the top we suddenly heard music – was this the spirit of the bush we wondered? No – it was Tim walking down the track to meet us with his bluetooth iphone speakers. He dropped us back at the our cars and after a few  farewells we were away down the Putty Road in the gathering dusk.

Packraft + Colo Gorge = classic trip. Highly recommended, but to be taken seriously. Here is some of the debris left by others that we found and took out with us.

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