The Bor­der Track in the Ngarkat Con­ser­va­tion Park pro­vides a timely out­back re­treat for South Aus­tralians and Vic­to­ri­ans alike.

4 x 4 Australia - - Contents - WORDS AND PHO­TOS ROBERT NOR­MAN

ANY­ONE with a yearn for 4x4 ad­ven­ture could do worse than check out the Bor­der Track in South Aus­tralia’s Ngarkat Con­ser­va­tion Park, a re­mote and sur­pris­ingly beau­ti­ful part of that state’s Mallee Coun­try.

As its name sug­gests, the Bor­der Track fol­lows more than 50km of the fence line mark­ing the bound­ary be­tween Vic­to­ria and South Aus­tralia. Sur­veyed in 1850 the bor­der was in­tended to fol­low the line of 141 east lon­gi­tude. The pri­va­tions suf­fered by the sur­vey­ors who cut this line through what is largely wa­ter­less coun­try ri­valled the ex­ploits of Burke and Wills, and the party al­most lost their lives on three oc­ca­sions. One hor­rific en­counter with a bush­fire saw one of the sur­vey­ors climb down a well to avoid the flames, only to be al­most burnt to death by boil­ing fat drip­ping down from his dead horse ly­ing in the flames above.

The sur­vey­ors started from a marker on a beach near the Gawler River in the south, but on reach­ing the Mur­ray River in the north they found, to their hor­ror, that their line was 3.6km to the west of the bor­der with New South Wales. One of the sur­vey­ors must have been named Mur­phy be­cause they marked the bor­der with tim­ber stakes in mounds of soil, and shortly af­ter the sur­vey was com­pleted a huge bush­fire swept through the

Mallee, de­stroy­ing 200km of mark­ers. With the coun­try dry and de­nuded, the mounds (which were prin­ci­pally sand) sim­ply blew away leav­ing no trace of the sur­vey­ors’ her­culean ef­forts. The sur­vey notes were also lost and 64 years of le­gal ar­gu­ment en­sued be­tween Vic­to­ria and South Aus­tralia over this rib­bon of dis­puted no man’s land. The ar­gu­ment was fi­nally set­tled in Vic­to­ria’s favour in 1914 by Lon­don’s Privy Coun­cil. With many tracts of land ad­join­ing the in­cor­rectly marked bor­der hav­ing been bought and sold over the in­ter­ven­ing years, mov­ing the bor­der was sim­ply too prob­lem­atic. While the true rea­son for the sur­vey er­ror was never made pub­lic, it seems the most likely cause was the in­cor­rect lo­ca­tion of the start­ing point on the Gawler River.

To­day, much of the Ngarkat Con­ser­va­tion Park prob­a­bly still looks as it did in the 1850s despite failed at­tempts at farm­ing the land in years gone by. Driv­ing into the park from Border­town by way of the sealed Ngarkat High­way, it’s dif­fi­cult not to be un­der­whelmed. The flat, sandy coun­try is cov­ered by a uni­form cloak of olive green scrub just a few me­tres high, punc­tu­ated here and there by the oc­ca­sional taller eu­ca­lypt. How­ever, some­one once said “never judge a book by its cover” and Ngarkat is no ex­cep­tion as the scrub com­prises a wide range of flora.

Af­ter sig­nif­i­cant rain, quite im­pres­sive stands of wild­flow­ers

Much of the Ngarkat Con­ser­va­tion Park prob­a­bly still looks as it did in the 1850s

can spring up to paint the oth­er­wise drab na­tive bush with splashes of vi­brant colour. Apart from the oc­ca­sional kan­ga­roo or emu graz­ing on the road­side, or del­i­cate tracks in the sand, there is lit­tle to be seen in the way of an­i­mal life, prob­a­bly due to the arid cli­mate and lack of sur­face water. Birds are an­other mat­ter al­to­gether and campers can ex­pect to be wo­ken at first light by a ca­coph­ony of bird calls as the avian res­i­dents pro­claim their ter­ri­to­rial own­er­ship to all and sundry.

A good place to start ex­plo­ration of the Park is Per­tendi Hut just off the Ngarkat High­way. This re­stored shep­herd’s hut, be­ing lit­tle more than four con­crete walls, cer­tainly won’t win any ar­chi­tec­tural prizes; how­ever, it would of­fer wel­come pro­tec­tion in in­clement weather. One thing SA Parks seems to gen­er­ally do bet­ter than its in­ter­state coun­ter­parts is the pro­vi­sion and main­te­nance of camp­ground fa­cil­i­ties. While prob­a­bly not to be taken lit­er­ally, the Per­tendi Hut fa­cil­i­ties could be said to be “clean enough to eat your lunch off”. Near the hut a small grove of (in­tro­duced) pines pro­vides campers with pro­tec­tion from the el­e­ments, while a more ex­pan­sive cleared area is avail­able for larger groups. Fire rings are pro­vided, but the park is sub­ject to a blan­ket fire ban be­tween Novem­ber and April. From 2017 SA Parks are plan­ning to adopt the ab­surd sys­tem of vis­i­tors hav­ing to pre-pur­chase en­try and camp­ing per­mits on­line. No doubt they will be in­stalling satel­lite Wi-fi at all park en­try points to en­able vis­i­tors to com­ply!

From Per­tendi Hut a track east to the bor­der in­ter­sects with Cen­tre Track, which is an easy run to the north­ern bound­ary of the park near Pine Hut Soak camp­site and the start of the Bor­der Track. Tracks in the park are largely un­main­tained and, while not par­tic­u­larly cor­ru­gated, the un­du­la­tions worn into the sand (not sur­pris­ingly) seem to res­onate per­fectly with 4x4 sus­pen­sions at any­thing above 15 to 20km/h. Any­one who has driven the Simp­son Desert will soon see many sim­i­lar­i­ties in re­quired driv­ing tech­nique. It takes a lit­tle while to get your eye in and be able to pick which un­du­la­tions are likely to see ve­hi­cle pas­sen­gers thrown up­wards, only to crash back down just in time to meet the ve­hi­cle’s next leap into the air. In short, the park’s 4x4 tracks are long and slow with some added rock and roll – ba­si­cally a rol­lick­ing beat from start to fin­ish.

The north­ern half of the Bor­der Track is one way to avoid the pos­si­bil­ity of col­li­sion be­tween on­com­ing ve­hi­cles on the nar­row sandy track that has nu­mer­ous dunes with blind crests. With tyre pres­sures re­duced to 15psi or less the driv­ing is rel­a­tively easy, but a high-clear­ance 4x4 is a def­i­nite ad­van­tage. As are good tyres to cope with the oc­ca­sional deep, soft sand. Dur­ing long week­ends and school hol­i­days the track ex­pe­ri­ences a surge in traf­fic and the face of many dunes can be quite chopped up from pre­ced­ing driv­ers who think the only way to the top is by pedal to the metal. In hot, dry weather a de­gree of mo­men­tum may be re­quired, but the track is only open dur­ing the cooler and wet­ter months. If the sand is at all moist most 4x4s won’t ex­pe­ri­ence any dif­fi­culty climb­ing the dunes.

The Bor­der Track can be driven in sev­eral hours, but to prop­erly take in the beauty of the park this is a jour­ney best done over a cou­ple of days. That be­ing said, there are only three small camp­sites avail­able to trav­ellers, and se­vere penal­ties ex­ist for any­one caught camp­ing out­side of these des­ig­nated ar­eas. The moral of the story is sim­ple: make camp early or risk miss­ing out and hav­ing to face

The Bor­der Track can be driven in sev­eral hours, but to prop­erly take in the beauty of the park this is a jour­ney best done over a few days

sev­eral hours more driv­ing. Penal­ties can be se­vere for those who dis­obey the reg­u­la­tions. If you think you’re un­likely to be caught out in such a re­mote area, be warned that both po­lice and parks of­fi­cers can drop in at any time – as tes­ti­fied to by a 4pm visit to your cor­re­spon­dent’s camp­site at The Gums by two po­lice 4x4s.

Two of the track’s camp­sites, The Pines and The Gums, arguably of­fer more pleas­ant camp­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties than Dog­gers Hut much fur­ther to the south; how­ever, none of the three pro­vide any fa­cil­i­ties. The Gums, be­ing roughly half­way along the track and tucked away a cou­ple of hun­dred me­tres down a side track, is per­haps the pre­ferred place to overnight.

From the south­ern end of the track’s one-way sec­tion vis­i­tors have a choice of trav­el­ling west back to Per­tendi Hut and the Ngarkat High­way, or con­tinue south out of the park and turn east into Vic­to­ria to fol­low the south­ern bound­ary of the Big Desert Na­tional Park. Here sand be­gins to give way to patches of clay and, af­ter rain, the mud larks will be in sev­enth heaven as they nav­i­gate sev­eral large bog holes found along here. This track ends at the Nhill to Mur­rayville Road, and for any­one whose ap­petite for sand driv­ing has not been fully sated there is a very ex­pan­sive camp­ground at Big Billy 40km to the north, where a num­ber of large dunes can be found. Be warned that with Big Billy hav­ing 2WD ac­cess you can ex­pect it to be very busy dur­ing hol­i­day pe­ri­ods.

The Bor­der Track of­fers an in­ter­est­ing and at times tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing 4x4 driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence less than a day’s drive from ei­ther Mel­bourne or Ade­laide.

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Don’t let the dust de­ceive you, it can get very wet out here.


It’s less than a day’s drive from Mel­bourne and well worth the trip.

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