DESTINATIONS - TRAVEL DESTINATIONS
In Part Two of following Colonel Peter Warburton’s desert footsteps the team, headed by Jol Fleming, spent a great deal of time locating a native well area that has remained hidden for many decades. Originally we thought that we could retrace Warburton’s footsteps in two desert trips, but it would take three.
When we travelled along Warburton’s route in 2013 we hoped we’d get as far as the area he named ‘Waterloo Wells’, but heavy rain put paid to that idea. We abandoned the trek at Mount Farewell and that was the starting point for this year’s expedition. However, just getting to this starting point took three days from Alice Springs.
Jol’s plan was to travel north, cross-country, to approximate locations he’d researched and then strike out to the west to the WA/NT Border. However, after two days’ spinifex-clump crawling from Mount Farewell to the GPS locations we were given it became obvious that this was going to be no easy search. The country was arid and devoid of encouraging features.
On top of that, good seasons had encouraged plant growth and our path was hindered by scrub that tore at vehicle bodywork, while sharp mulga roots played havoc with tyre sidewalls. Everyone scored a puncture and most had several.
Shade cloth kept most grass seeds out of radiators, but we all needed Jol’s patented spinifex hooks to claw clumps out of underbody recesses and from around exhaust systems.
We split into driving and walking parties, but after three days of fruitless searching we found no signs of water or Aboriginal visitation. Our schedule was looking optmistic and we couldn’t press on to the west without finding the Waterloo Wells water sources that were so critically important to Warburton.
Jol Fleming played his final card, inputting alternative co-ordinates that pre-dated WGS84, after converting them to the modern system. These took us several kilometres to the south-west – another day’s lumpy-spinifex-clump driving.
When we arrived at this alternative location the signs were instantly better: broader valleys with prominent dunes and some calcrete rock outcrops. There were also sand mounds in the middle of the valley floors and our two geologists, Adrian Fleming (Jol’s older brother) and Don Pridmore, reckoned these could once have been mound springs, similar to those that are still pumping on the Oodnadatta Track.
We set to searching in the late afternoon and Kez and I came across a couple of stone tools: a small quartzite blade and a quartz chisel. Aboriginal artefacts indicated habitation at some time in the past.
Next morning we resumed searching in the area, in the company of Walpiri traditional owner, Harry Nelson. He combed the area where we’d found the stone implements and from the sand ridgetop he noticed what looked like a depression in the adjacent dune valley.
We followed him as his pace quickened and soon we were standing in a grass-and-creeper-filled saucer in the middle of a broad swale. At its shallowest point this depression looked like it hid water not far beneath the surface. Harry could harldy contain his excitement, jumping up and down, shouting: “This is it; this is it!”
It didn’t take much scouting around to discover some small portable grindstones and a number of quartz cutting tools. This was an old Aboriginal campsite, for sure.
We called the team on the radio and soon there were willing hands bearing shovels. At a depth of 1.4 metres water started flowing into the hole and, although still gritty, the water was eminently drinkable.
We’d found what we came looking for and in true movie style had made the discovery in the last hours of our allotted time in this area.
We obviously weren’t going to make it to the WA Border, but finding this native well was a critical point in retracing Warburton’s footsteps. He found it difficult to locate water when checking out westward routes from this area and was forced back to this Well region several times, to replenish his water supplies.
Harry Nelson intends to use this site as an education scene for young Aboriginal kids and, fittingly, named it ‘Jabaltjari’s Soak’ (‘Jol’s Soak’) in honour of our expedition leader.