Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Desert Discovery Walk, Little Desert National Park - April 2016

Last weekend I decided to head up to Little Desert National Park an revisit the Desert Discovery Walk (DDW), I'd done this walk around 5 years ago but had managed to start the walk with a flat battery on my camera, greaaate! This time around I made sure all gadgets were charged before I would head off into the desert for a few days. Little Desert National park stretches from the Wimmera River to the South Australian border just to the south of the Western Highway, the park was gazetted in 1968 largely to preserve habitat for the endangered Malleefowl. The Malleefowl making their nests in the sandy soil amongst the scrubby Mallee Trees. The park comprises of hundreds of low dunes interspersed with sandy heathlands, clay pans and the odd salt lake. So anyway, as I've mentioned before I'm not partial to crowds so I decided to head up to Kiata on the Thursday night and start the walk on Friday morning, the theory being that I'd miss any long weekend crowds that may turn up. So after having dinner with Sam I jumped into the ute and headed off in the direction of Adelaide arriving at the large, almost deserted Kiata Campground just before 1am I soon had the tent up and drifted off to sleep.
Early morning at Kiata Camp.
The Mallee is looking a little dry at the moment.
Day 1.     Yellowgum Camp              21.9 km total.             203 m total ascent.
Waking up I emerged out of the tent blinking into sharp light of a stunning morning. Now before I could actually start walking this morning through I had to take some water out and stash it at Yellowgum Camp, the tank out there is out of action at the moment due to an infestation of bees becoming trapped inside and polluting the water. Now I suppose I could of carried water for two days and 45 kilometres but you know, I'm old and broken so I figured that the better option would be to head out in the ute and drop some water. Yeah what could go wrong with that plan, well after driving along Dahlenburghs Mill Track until Mt Arapilis was starting to tower above me I reluctantly admitted to myself that I may have missed the point where the DDW crossed the track, hmmm. A fifteen point turn later I headed back the way I'd come, keeping a close eye out for my intersecting walk, arriving at Centre Track I'd overshot in the other direction, bugger me! Another fifteen point turn later and I'm heading back in my original direction, the good news was that as the rutted sandy track was now familiar to me so it left me more time to scan the scrub looking for the elusive DDW. I managed to locate my walking track near the top of a small dune and headed into Yellowgum Camp with my water and tent. The end result of all this faffing about though was that I didn't actually get back to Kiata Campground and start walking until 1 in the afternoon.
It took my awhile to find this intersection. Parked on the side of Dahlenburghs Mill Track doing my water drop.
It was around 1pm by the time I actually started walking.
So my cruisey first day was now not so cruisey, over 20 kilometres in 5 hours is a solid walk even in the flat desert landscape. The DDW heads out of Kiata Campground on a soft sandy track and basically stays on it for the duration of the walk, the route soon forks to the right (the left hand track would be my return route in a couple of days) and heads towards a long low ridge that heads south. The walking along here alternates between red clay and the ubiquitous sand and the low vegetation allows for some nice views out over the surrounding country, arriving at Trig Point it was time for a late lunch while I took in what is arguably the most expansive view on the DDW.
The right fork was todays route, hopefully I'd emerge from the track on the left in 3 days time.
The walking starts off pretty easy as it climbs up along a gentle ridge towards Trig Point.
That'd be the trig.
Mt Arapiles from the lookout at Trig Point.

By the time I left the Trig Point it was close to 3 pm, with around 14 kilometres to go I kicked it up a gear as I made my way down to Salt Lake. All was going good until crossing Dahlenburghs Mill Track where progress suddenly got a lot harder, the walking track from here has been used by motorbikes for a bit of fun and they had cut the soft sandy surface up until it was like walking along a  soft beach. With the Yellowgums on the dune on the eastern side of Salt Lake standing out like a beacon in the flat featureless terrain it was easy to measure progress along here, as well as helping with navigation they also looked beautiful in the late afternoon sun and I dropped the pack for awhile to have a bit of a rest and explore.
Striking out across the plains towards Salt Lake.
Salt Lake.
The dunes that form the catchment for the Salt Lake are home to some nice Yellowgums.
There's no shortage of grass trees in Little Desert.
Leaving the Salt Lake the DDW heads south before curving around and basically heading due east, the walking along here in the late afternoon was probably as good as it would get. The DDW passes through heathland and dunes covered with Tea Tree, Broom and Mallee Trees, the odd damper spot sometimes home to small copses of Yellow Gums. The motorbike churned up sand wasn't the only thing slowing me down now, with sun slowly setting I was now stopping quite a lot to take another awesome (I thought) photo. With the sun slipping below the western horizon I crossed Dahlenburghs Mill Track again at the point that I did my water drop at earlier in the day, at least I now knew exactly how far Yellowgum Camp was. Arriving at the beautiful Yellowgums Camp in the twilight I was glad that I'd spent a bit of time putting the tent up when I dropped off my water, all that was left now was to settle down on the bench under the verandah of the hut and watch the bush change colour as twilight slipped into night and the full moon rose through the spindly trees like a spotlight. After my Thai Green Chicken and Apple Pie (relax its freeze dried) I was into the sleeping bag by 8:30 pm on what was feeling as though it was going to be a cold night.
The low afternoon sun painted the Mallee scrub in a favourable light.
I'm finally back at Dahlenburghs Mill Track, see my third photo.
Yellowgum Camp.
Day 2.     Mallee Camp       35.2 km, 57.1 km total.       221 m ascent, 424 m ascent total.
Yeah today was a solid day for an old bloke, most people spend the night at Horseshoe Bend and complete the walk over 4 days but I wanted a day at home with Sam before going back to work so was doing the walk in 3 days again, now I knew it was doable for me as I'd done it like this last time, only thing is last time I was a few years younger and I went light weight with just a bivvy. Anyway with all that in mind it was important that I got an early start so setting off at from Yellowgum Camp at 9 am wasn't ideal, but hey it was early for me! To be fair (or make a piss poor excuse) I'd had to walk my water container back out towards Dahlenburghs Track, the couple of kilometres at least loosening up my stiff leg muscles, yeah I maybe clutching for anything positive there. After returning  from my mornings warm up I shouldered the pack and set off towards the Wimmera River, only to stop again to get some photos of the beautiful Yellowgums in the morning light.
I'd walked for around thirty seconds before stopping to take this photo of the Yellowgums.
This section was a little cut up by motorbikes.
Setting off again the DDW heads east towards my next notable landmark Eagle Swamp. Maybe I was grumpy or maybe it was because I knew I had a thirty plus kilometre day in front of me but the motorbike damage really did my head in this morning, I found myself constantly changing sides on the track as I searched for some firmer ground that hadn't been churned up by my bogan brothers. Eventually Mt Arapiles comes into view to the south and at around the same point open cleared farmland is less than a kilometre south of the DDW, I'd now crossed the park from the north to the south. After trudging over some slightly higher dunes which gave me a bit more of a view of the surrounding country I crossed McCabes Hut Track and arrived at Eagle Swamp, the good news is that my motorbiking mates seemed to have exited the walking track here, the bad news was that my responsible 4wd mates had obviously mistaken Eagle Swamp for a speedway track having cut the salt lake up doing circle work, the scars will probably disappear in 40 or 50 years, f*#k me!
The open farmland is in view. I've crossed from the north to the south of the park.
Yellowgums near Eagle Swamp.
Leaving Eagle Swamp the DDW crosses more dunes and starts to close on in some distant larger trees that signalled the flood plain of the Wimmera River. The other notable thing along this section is the amount of Banksia Trees that are sprouting up, most of the trees were around head height and not mature which gave the appearance of walking through an orchard. With no churned up sand the walking along here was easy and pleasant but the midday sun was heating up a bit and I was looking forward to reaching the river and its larger trees that promised some more shade. I wasn't sure how much water would be in the river as the area has been in a severe drought for awhile now but on arriving on its bank I was happy to see lots of slow moving brown water, good enough in fact for me to strip off, jump in and wash away the grime of  the last couple of days.
After a nice swim I wasn't feeling quite so feral.
Easy walking up along the Wimmera River floodplain.

Feeling a whole lot better after my short swim I slowly got dressed and headed up River Track towards Ackle Bend. The dry clay of the flood plain making for a lot easier walking along here and the open Red Gum and Black Box forest making it easy for me to short cut the meanderings of the river, although the now hard ground was playing havoc on my tender feet (One minute I'm crapping on about soft sand, now I'm complaining about hard clay, I'm turning into a cranky old bastard as I type this). Stopping at the camp ground at Ackle Bend I enjoyed a late lunch and refilled my water containers, the large national park camping area was almost empty on this long weekend and I couldn't help but wonder if it was because of the exorbitant fees that are now charged for camping in some of Victoria's Parks. 
The Wimmera River.
The view of the Wimmera River from my lunch stop at Ackle Bend Camp.
The DDW leaves the oasis like surrounds of the river opposite this nice beach.
Leaving the river the DDW initially runs through these Banksia's, to me it resembled an orchid.

Eventually I had to leave the oasis like surrounds of the Wimmera River and head back out into the heathlands, I was now heading west so not only was I tired after already having walked around 25 kilometres but now I was walking into the slowly setting sun as well. After passing through another orchid of Banksia Trees the DDW starts to cross some large flat heathland plains, curiously Mt Arapiles now appearing closer than it did this morning even though I was now at least 6 kilometres further away. The extensive flat plains allowed plenty of time for reflection as I trudged my way west,  the only things to break my trance like state was the occasional kangaroo and odd noteworthy occasion that I'd get to a point of interest like the Dry Well or a larger dune.
Mount Arapiles in the distance.

Passing through some native pine.
Dry Well.
My only company was a few kangaroos.
The loneliness of a solo walker.

With the sun now well and truly set I trudged on into the gathering gloom, stopping frequently to take more photos in diminishing light. After crossing one last dune that was a little higher than the rest I made my final descent to Mallee Camp, suddenly bursting out of the thick cover of Mallee Trees at the dam near Mallee Camp I had to put on my head torch to actually locate the hut inside the tree line. I didn't have the luxury of arriving at camp and having my tent already erected tonight so I didn't muck around finding a spot to camp. By the time I'd set up and had dinner (Spag Bol and Apple Pie tonight), it was starting to get a little on the chilly side, the stars and satellites twinkling in the cold clear skies. Eventually the cold drove me into my sleeping bag, my feet finally feeling some relief after a long day, it didn't take me long to drift off tonight.
I still had a couple of kilometres to go as the sun slipped below the western horizon.

 A few more Yellowgums in the early evening light.
Day 3.     Kiata Campground      20.0 km, 77.1 km total.         104 m ascent, 528 m total ascent.
Somewhat surprisingly I pulled up pretty good after yesterdays epic, my leg and shoulder muscles weren't feeling to bad at all, the only maintenance issue I had with my broken body was that my feet were a bit on the tender side. With only around twenty kilometres to go today I wasn't in a great hurry this morning so I laid in the tent for awhile and waited for the sun to work its magic, before eventually I pulled on some warm clothes and emerged to cook some breakfast and pack up. Mallee Camp isn't as scenically pretty as Yellowgum Camp in my opinion although it did have one thing going for it and that was it had a water tank with usable water in it, always a bonus when camping in the desert.
Mallee Camp in the new day.
Mallee Camp has its own water feature, the dam was very low on this visit though.
Heading west again this morning.
It was around 9:30 am by the time I set off this morning but I was in a good mood, the sand was reasonably firm, the scenery was still great and I was heading out for a hot shower and a cold drink, life was good. After around an hour my mood deteroriated a little though as just after I'd crossed over McCabes Hut Track I heard the sound of motorbikes approaching, initially I hoped the tools the responsible motorbike riders were on the 4wd drive track. However as the first one ripped over the dune behind me on the walking track I realised that my nice walking conditions were over for awhile, sure enough after the second one had gone past and I was able to resume my journey, now trudging along a soft rutted track.
Sharing the walking track with tools.
The end result of the 2 motorbikes carving up the track, makes for harder walking for awhile.
It took me awhile to get my mood back on track after my run in with the bikes but what do you do, you can't let a couple of tools ruin the experience and while they had tore up the track the scenery was still as good as ever. Passing the turn off to Wallaby Track (a short cut track to Yellowgum Camp that bisects the park north-south) I trudged on to Pump Jack Dam, an old bore left over from the days that this area was grazed. I had some good news here as well as it appears that my bogan mates had decided to leave the walking track here and head out along the 4wd track, maybe they didn't wan't to run into any more extra large pissed off bushwalkers.... who knows I thought that I looked friendly enough!
Pump Jack Dam.
A bit of fencing wire left over from the early days at Pump Jack Dam.
With my mood now improved I headed on my journey west, the vegetation slowly getting sparser as I progressed. After crossing Centre Track the walking track starts to cross a broad open plain, the track heading almost due west in the direction of a long ridge running north-south, the ridge is the same one that I walked up to climb to the Trig Point on day 1. I've walked here a few times before, joining the DDW after an off track walk from Salt Lake Track on one occasion, so I was starting to get into familiar territory and that always seems to make things happen quickly. Arriving at Albrechts Mill I made use of the picnic table a finished off the last of my salami and cheese. Albrechts Mill is the spot where they early European settlers sunk another bore back when they tried to graze this area, the bore and dam are now used for fire fighting purposes. There's one thing I find a little odd out here in the Little Desert and that's the amount of mosquitoes out here, at both Yellowgum and Mallee Camps the mozzies are ferocious, and here at Albrechts Mill they were pretty full on as well, so after scoffing down a couple of salami and cheese wraps I was happy to be on my way again.
The bikes have gone home, all was good in the desert again.
I was heading towards that low ridge, the same ridge that I walked along on day 1.
The Emus love eating this Flame Heath.
The last couple of kilometres back to the Kiata Campground is a fairly easy affair, the tall Red Gums at Kiata seeming to guide my back to the ute. Arriving back I was surprised to see the huge camping area empty except for two caravans on this the Sunday of a long weekend, refer back to my comments about the Ackle Bend camp to maybe understand why people don't seem to be camping in National Parks at the moment. Throwing all my gear in the back of the ute I now had the trip back down to pick up my water container down near Yellowgum Camp, at least now I knew exactly where to go. After picking up my left over water and using it for an impromptu bush shower I headed off on the long drive home, arriving home to my very understanding wife at 10:30pm after what had been another very solid day. 
Albrechts Mill.
The Dirt.
Alright what's the dirt on the Desert Discovery Walk? Well I reckon its a great walk, there's plenty of native animals and birds, and the semi arid scenery is not your typical bushwalking country. There are basic huts at both Yellowgum Camp and Mallee Camp with water tanks (although the tank at Yellowgum is out of action at the moment), you probably wouldn't want to stay in the huts but they do provide shelter in bad conditions. Most people take 4 days to walk the Desert Discovery Walk, spending a night at Ackle Bend or Horseshoe Bend on the Wimmera River, if walking the track over 4 days I would call it a medium grade walk, if using my masochists itinerary and doing it in 3 days I reckon its a hard walk. It appears the motorbikes on the walking tracks are a bit of a problem up there, at the entrance to each section of walking track there was signs banning motorbikes but the temptation is obviously to much for these budding Paris Dakar stars. With time the sandy tracks slowly return to their normal state and walking is good again, but it takes months and rain for that to happen, if you happen to be on a section that's been ridden on recently then it ups the degree of difficulty substantially. It pays to contact the extremely helpful rangers at Wail on 5389 0200 to check on conditions before walking up here, at the moment with no water to be had at Yellowgum Gums you either need to carry enough for camp and over 40 kilometres walking or organise a water drop with a 4wd. If the full walk sounds like a bit much there is an option to shorten the walk by linking Yellowgum Camp and Mallee Camp via the Wallaby Walking Track that bisects the park in a north south direction, this making an easy 3 day walk. I used the 1:50,000 Kiata and Natimuk Vicmaps on the walk, I also used an old Westprint Little Desert National Park map for my 4wd trip into the park to drop off my water, unfortunately Yellowgum Camp is marked at the wrong spot on this map, although I was using the 1993 edition! It would pay to carry a PLB if walking here although my Telstra mobile had service every time I checked it.
Stangely enough there is doesn't appear to be a shortage of mozzies at Little Desert even if there is a shortage of water.

A welcome sight, arriving back at the ute at Kiata Camp.

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