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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Friday, 24 January 2014

The Plenty Highway; plenty of it, not much highway...

'Highway' in Australia doesn't always mean what you might expect. Certainly in the more populated and near-coastal areas a nice (albeit perhaps boring) strip of bitumen can be anticipated, but in the dry inland it may simply refer to any track with some level of maintenance, built to link different regions. We're perfectly aware of this, and for some time I'd had an urge to cross from western Queensland to central Australia via the Donohue and Plenty Highways, across the northern fringes of the somewhat forbidding Simpson Desert. The last time we planned it there were big rains across the centre, and while the country would have looked magnificent, all the roads were closed for many weeks. Last year we finally made it, but ironically by then the region was in the grip of severe drought, and not at its best from our perspective at least. 

Moreover, we had the good fortune to come along soon after a young chap had come off his motorbike early on the second day; he was in pain, albeit stoical, but not seriously injured, so we re-organised our load and were able to take him on - several hundred kilometres as it happened - to a clinic from where he was air-lifted to Alice Springs. We were of course delighted to be able to help, but it did mean we pushed on through the central part of the journey faster than we would otherwise have done.

Nonetheless it was a great experience which we are very glad to have in our portfolio of memories, to be unpacked and relived over and again.
The Donohue and Plenty highways are indicated by the broad red line just north of the Tropic of Capricorn.
The Donohue Highway begins just out of Boulia in western Queensland, and heads west for 250km to the
Northern Territory border, from where it continues for another 500km as the Plenty Highway,
terminating at the Stuart Highway (a 'real' highway linking Adelaide with Darwin) 50k north of Alice Springs.
The start of the Donohue Highway, just 8k north of Boulia near where we'd camped on the riverbank
the previous night.
It's country that you need to get used to I think, and if you were seeing it for the first time in drought you may be underwhelmed or even intimidated. I love it.
Rolling gibber plains, Donohue Highway.
There is a real grandeur to the vastness of the land, and in years when the cyclonic rains wander
this far inland, the plains are green, covered in flowers and exploding with life.

Desert Bloodwood Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) terminalis and
Spinifex Triodia spp. hummock grassland.
The road surface is unsealed for all but the last 100km before the Stuart Highway. It can be corrugated and there are loose rocks on the surface. It gets maintained more regularly on the Northern Territory side than in Queensland. All of which means that a four-wheel drive is preferable, but if your vehicle is solidly built with reasonable clearance, you'll be fine in a 2WD as long as conditions are dry. At western end is a camping area with facilities and a shop called Gemtree, but as that's still on the bitumen it's hardly part of the highways adventure. That aside a couple of cattle stations - particularly Jervois and Tobermorey - sometimes do and sometimes don't provide basic camping and fuel, varying with current management policy. In other words, don't rely on it, and do be self-sufficient with regard to fuel, food and water. Basically all you'll get there is a bit of grass (or not) to camp on, a toilet block - and neighbours. And you don't go all the way out there to have neighbours at night!
Camp in the Gidgee Acacia georginae Plenty Highway.
The last light of the sun is catching the tops of the trees, my hat has been retired for the day,
dinner is about to be cooked on the trailer, and we're looking forward to another excellent night's sleep,
knowing that the stars will be blazing above our swag whenever we open our eyes.
In the Queensland section, away from the stream lines - especially the winding channels of the Georgina - trees are fairly stunted and birds seeking to nest in them must make do with what they've got.
Wedge-tailed Eagle Aquila audax nest, Donohue Highway.
This magnificent bird would rather be a lot higher off the ground than this, but needs must...

Once on the Plenty Highway in the Northern Territory, the landforms become more varied and the road passes near ranges including the Tarlton, Jervois, Elua and Harts, as well as the eastern end of the MacDonnells and the northern fringes of the Simpson Desert. 
Outliers of the Tarlton Range, Plenty Highway.
More tree species are evident to the west too, in addition to the widespread Desert Bloodwood and the ubiquitous Mulga Acacia aneura.
Ghost Gum Eucalyptus apparerinja, Plenty Highway.
Blue-leafed Mallee, or Warilu Eucalyptus gamophylla, Plenty Highway, above and below.
This lovely little mallee is found right across the central arid lands.

With the very dry conditions not much was flowering, though we did find a few things in a recently burnt area of mulga towards the western end of the highway.
Ipomoea polymorpha
Solanum ellipticum, one of the 'bush tomatoes', and a close relative of 'real' tomatoes,
potatoes, capsicums etc.
Among the most ubiquitous animals anywhere in Australia are ants; we have an unusually high diversity it seems, and Mulga Ant nests are a feature of any landscape.
Nest of Mulga Ants, Polyrhachis sp. They are inevitably surrounded by these rings of painstakingly gathered
fallen Mulga phyllodes ('leaves'), apparently to form levees to protect the nest from flooding
when storms cause water to rush across the non-absorbent soil surface.
The animals themselves are far less obvious, being nocturnal foragers.
Perhaps the major highlight of the Plenty however is an area of huge termite mounds near to the Simpson Desert, more typical of tropical savannahs to the north. The Australian desert lands are truly termite-land; it has been suggested that termites here are the equivalent of the herds of big grazing mammals in African grasslands. The construction of mounds of this scale by an animal that tiny is an extraordinary thing to consider.
Termite mounds, Plenty Highway.
The Desert Bloodwood (above) and Mulga (below) are both full-sized small trees.
It's a very big country and there's so much more to see; I don't know if I'll travel this highway again, though I'd love to see it after the rains. Bear it in mind though; with a bit of thought and preparation it's a great option for a trip between Queensland and the Alice. There's always Plenty to see.


1 comment:

Flabmeister said...

Some friends went across there in a 4x4 a couple of years ago (a wet year). It was quite an interesting trip as the NT side was being worked on and the rain had turned it into a swamp. So the NT roads mob closed the road coming from the Stuart Highway. Unfortunately they didn't tell anyone in Boulia so our friends became quite acquainted with the use of a shovel!

For your international readers, it is only quite recently that the Stuart Highway was bitumenised (making it a conventional highway) between Port Augusta and Alice Springs.