1976 Army Adventurers Trek to Sandy Blight and Neil Junctions

Lang Kidby

Towards the end of 1976 we decided that our trip through Central Australia at the peak of the summer heat would be of great value to soldiers who have spent the last 30 years operating in wet tropical climates. As the trip was to provide the most interest for a fairly small group an application was made to have it approved as an “Adventure Training” exercise. This term is used to cover a multitude of activities in which all armies encourage their soldiers to participate to develop teamwork, self-reliance and to learn new skills.

Contact was made with Len Beadall, of Gunbarrel Highway fame, and he recommended a route which was to prove both challenging and full of interest. 

A careful selection from many keen applicants to participate resulted in a good cross section of soldiers in the team. An army pilot, being the only member of the team with much bush experience, was to lead the group.  A  medic, gunner, driver, mechanic, and clerk filled the remaining places in the three long wheelbase Landrovers we were to take.

 After much preparation and vehicle servicing (but no modifications to the standard Army Rover) The three vehicles with two trailers set forth the day after Boxing Day 1976 and headed west from Sydney . Arriving in Coober Pedy on New Years Eve.

A memorable evening was had under the hospitable wing of the local police, in this most colourful of Australian towns. The rumble of gelignite saw the New Year in (“everyone had a few sticks of geli in his car around here”) And we departed the Opal mining Centre a little later than normal in the morning, for Alice Springs. 

 After checking with the Flying Doctor Service to make ourselves known and check on radio frequencies we made sure our portable HF radio was going.  It is compulsory to carry a radio in some of the native reserves between November and March owing to the severe climatic conditions. The weather is also the reason why it is extremely difficult to get permits to enter reserves at this time of the year.

 A trip was made to the Native Affairs Office to pick up permits (ordered a couple of months in advance) then a quick refuel of the vehicles. Thirty jerry cans and two 44-gallon drums carried in the trailers saw us on our way to the Papunya  turn off 17 miles north of Alice Springs.

The road into Papunya is a good graded 150 mile stretch and we camped that night on the only bit of green grass west of Alice Springs, in front of the Police Station. The police were most helpful, but we later learnt the lesson of taking the advice of someone who has not been over the route.  There would be fewer than 50 people living around the Alice Springs area who have ever been along the Sandy Blight Junction road, but you will find 1000 people who know all about it.

 The three Rovers set out after topping up with fuel for the last time for 600 miles and headed west towards Mount Leibig, an outstanding Rocky peak matching Hoasts Bluff at the opposite end of the same range. Good time was until we arrived at Leibig bore which was the jumping off point for Sandy Blight Junction and if you were that keen, Marble Bar 1000 miles due west.

At the bore the road appeared to veer slightly south-west but, as it was still going in the general direction and reinforced by the police instructions of “There is only one track, you can’t miss it!” we pressed on . As Alice said it became curiouser and curiouser, until a halt was called. A careful study of the surrounding hills soo proved that the map bore no resemblance to the ground it claimed to represent, so a 50 mile backtrack to Leibig bore was undertaken. As the boys set up camp I took Len Beadell’s latest book “Beating About The Bush” and found the mud map inside the cover was perfectly correct, and from that time on navigation was carried out from the flyleaf of a book.

A bit of scouting around the bore in the morning produced the correct track which had been obliterated for about a quarter of a mile. We packed up our gear and filled our plastic jerry cans with the last water for 250 miles and after erecting a signpost from a 44-gallon drum and an old windmill blade to save future travelers repeating our mistake, set off for Sandy Blight Junction.

A good fast trip was made through sandhill country along the dead straight track. The only life we saw for the whole day, were two large mobs of camels who decided to inspect the cursing crowd changing their seventh flat tyre.

 We arrived at the Sandy Blight Junction towards evening and replaced the broken bottle containing travellers notes with a more substantial container from an army rations pack. From the notes left behind we appeared to be the first over the route for 3 months and only two or three groups a year ventured along the road. We turned  south off the good track onto a set of wheel marks heading off towards Mt Leisler in the distance.

Near the foot of Mt Leisler, a magnificent, lone, flat-topped mountain, the track had disappeared due to heavy water runoff. A lot of bouncing and back tracking eventually took us to the spot where the explorer Tietkins had waited months for Giles and Gibson to return, from the desert, 90 years ago. He had carved his initials and a date on a tree and this was still clearly visible after all those years that had passed since those courageous men first set foot here. 

 Several minor events took place during the next few days, such as a rossing from the Northern Territory into Western Australia and passing across the Tropic of Capricorn, accompanied by worn out jokes looking for jumpers. Long sandy stretches are a feature of this track and the Rovers remained in 4WD drive high range for the whole time. This was a precaution to save us from the renowned Rover axle snap (of which we had two) as much as for  traction. The excellent little Army trailers towed well with their huge loads of fuel, and apart from twice looking back to find them with their feet in the air (no damage luckily) we have nothing but praise for their construction

Early one morning we came to the foot of the stony Sir Frederick range and, leaving the two trailer vehicles at the foot of Mt Frederick, we all piled into the remaining Rover and clawed our way to the cairn on the top of the highest peak. Here we were rewarded with magnificent views all around from the endless flat desert disappearing to the western horizon to the salt lakes and the hills to Ayers Rock below the horizon to the east.

The note bottle on the cairn, once again broken was replaced with another ration pack tin and our message was put in on the top of the last one written two years before.

 We descended the peak and set off in great expectation for the Walter James Range to the south. A dark slash in the stark hills, mentioned by Len Beadell, soon held our attention and we eventually found the wheel tracks leading off towards the gorge.  Everyone ran up the  Rocky washaways despite the 112 degree heat and soon entered a narrow channel with the rocks towering 500 feet up on both sites. On rounding a corner we saw what we had sadly missed for a couple of hundred miles since the Leibig Bore.

 There was a magnificent rock pool 50 feet in diameter and refreshingly cool and clear and deep enough to dive into from a ledge 10 feet above. We had been told about a second pool further up the gorge but as the water level had dropped in the lower pool the normal method of swimming across and climbing out was prevented by a steep rock wall . Everyone decided I climb was in order and, after about half an hour hanging from gorge walls we finally descended back into the chasm. Here we found a huge cave with a chimney throwing a shaft of light into a large pool of clear water, deeper and wider than the first. Here was a truly permanent water supply in the harshest of country, as the sun would never directly reach it and even the lightest rain would be collected by those sheer rock walls to flow down the chimney into the pool.

 We spent a day swimming and resting at the pool and put in a steel spike above the lower pool to enable anyone, in future to be able to swim across and throw a rope up to get himself to the top cave without risking his neck on the walls of the gorge.

The following morning we left the Bungabiddy Rock Holes and headed for Giles Weather Station to service the vehicles and ourselves with a magnificent BBQ turned on by the cook. We did not refuel or resupply at Giles as they only carry enough for their own needs and travellers should not plan to replenish here.

A long rough trip took us from Giles to Warburton Mission via the Blackstone Range. The road is well defined but the grader must only see it once a year and a flock of flat tyres plus one broken axle had to be repaired before bed that night at Warburton .

 Setting out from Warburton we headed down the Laverton road 32 miles to an old air strip on top of a rise. Here the Connie Sue Highway (actually an oil company road for the first 20 miles) headed due south for the Indian Pacific railway line, 450 miles away across the Great Victoria Desert.

Magnificent country was covered along this route with the road following steep-sided ridgelines and heavily timbered flats. The views caused us to stop and investigate, as even from a sandhill 50 feet higher than the others, something of interest can be seen. The track was well defined but terribly washed away and continual detours into the scrub where necessary. A couple of days travel took us to Neale Junction where we left our note with the others in the box on the post in a pleasant grove of trees. The East West Road which leads from the Stuart Highway, near Mabel Creek, over 1000 miles across the desert to Laverton was all but overgrown and appeared a great challenge for an intrepid group. 

Heading south from Neale Junction the trees started to thin out and we knew we were on the border of the Nullarbor Plain. The road went straight as a die to the horizon which had suddenly filled with black clouds. As the downpour started the red soil track became like greased glass and the leading driver didn’t need to turn his head to check on the following vehicles. It was at one of these times when the leading Landrover was turning around to save the driver looking behind that he saw the second vehicle trying to save tyre rubber by towing his trailer upside down. After much heaving and grunting the trailer was righted and reloaded, and six red mud forms, faintly resembling human-shape stood in the rain to wash.

 The rain had also brought a sight to us that very few people have encountered. The water normally soaks straight into the ground except where impacted on the wheel tracks. As far as the eye could see kangaroos had appeared from nowhere and josled for position at the puddles in front of us. The odd rabbit could be seen pushing it’s way between kangaroo feet for a share of the precious liquid. The animals were completely tame and we could idle the vehicle up to touch them before they moved away 30 feet to let us past. The shower had covered only 10 miles of the track but the fellows were past 2000 when they stopped counting kangaroos.

 A rough trip across the stony tracks into all Rawlinna on the railway line completed our desert crossing. With only 90 miles of very rough track down onto the bitumen, of the Eyre Highway, to go we camped to beside bore for the last time. We were glad we had made the effort to cover the root of the past three weeks.

                                                              * * * * * * * * 

As a post script to this trip report I was interested to read in the Central Australian 4WD Club magazine there’s some of their members had done a section of this route. In the Sir Frederick Ranges they found one of the notes left by the Army Adventurers. The Central Australian trip took place in late May, once it had cooled down a bit. Goes to show that even the remote areas are being more and more frequently traversed.

                                                    * * * * * * * *