THE CON­CEALED & COVERTED CLELANDS

The Cle­land Hills lie deep within Abo­rig­i­nal land west of Alice Springs. Ron and Viv Moon were lucky enough to get per­mis­sion to go to this mys­te­ri­ous des­ti­na­tion.

4 x 4 Australia - - Explore - WORDS AND PHO­TOS RON & VIV MOON

OUR small twove­hi­cle con­voy ground to a halt on top of a soft, red and raw dune as the faint shot line we had been fol­low­ing com­pletely van­ished. Despite be­ing marked clearly on maps, the route had var­ied all day from barely vis­i­ble to ab­so­lutely non-ex­is­tent and now we were faced with the prospect of an­other sec­tion of cross­coun­try travel. This time, though, there seemed to be even more thick scrub and veg­e­ta­tion be­tween the dunes and the de­pres­sions as well as around the salt­pans and short-lived creeks.

Off in the dis­tance there was what looked like a cor­ri­dor of thin­ner veg­e­ta­tion. Prob­lem was it was to the east – the com­plete op­po­site of the di­rec­tion we wanted to go. Keep­ing in mind that, sooner or later, we’d have to swing west, we de­cided to head that way and see what the next in­ter-dunal val­ley would hold.

Just as we were about to head off, the sound of barely au­di­ble wheez­ing of air from a slowly de­flat­ing tyre on my mate’s Nis­san Pa­trol caught our at­ten­tion. Out came the spray wash­ing fluid and the tyre plug kit and within five min­utes we had man­aged to plug the of­fend­ing leak.

My Pa­trol was wear­ing its nor­mal at­tire of Cooper ST Maxx rub­ber – not ex­actly the set-up for cross coun­try and track­less travel – and while I hadn’t got a punc­ture yet, it was more good for­tune than any­thing else. In such con­di­tions I pre­fer to run older but tougher cross plies; I even have a set of solid MRF M77 tyres at home which have proven to be darn near punc­ture-proof in scrubby and stakey con­di­tions. I was the lucky one though – my mate Bren­ton un­for­tu­nately ended our lat­est out­back foray with a cou­ple of punc­tures.

Our ad­ven­ture had started a few days ear­lier when we had trav­elled from the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity of Pa­punya down to the much smaller com­mu­nity of

Despite be­ing clearly marked on maps, the route had var­ied all day from barely vis­i­ble to ab­so­lutely non-ex­is­tent

Haasts Bluff. This route can be an al­ter­na­tive to or from Alice Springs to the Tanami Road, or the route west via the Gary Junc­tion Road as it passes the great dis­tinc­tive peak of Haasts Bluff, which is worth the drive just for that.

Bren­ton had been in touch with Dou­glas Multa, the chair­man of the Haasts Bluff com­mu­nity and the Tra­di­tional Owner of all the coun­try in and around the Cle­land Hills. Our trip was to be a recce to see if a guided tour could be ar­ranged to the enig­matic hills as a com­mer­cial ven­ture for the com­mu­nity and their newly formed in­dige­nous rangers to en­gage in.

We dropped in, saw Dou­glas and, af­ter our in­tro­duc­tions, got the lat­est in­for­ma­tion on the track and the ac­cess to the hills. His words “You’ll have trou­ble head­ing much fur­ther west to Kin­tore, but you can try” were to come back to us quite a few times as we pushed west from the ranges.

With full tanks of fuel – both Bren­ton’s and my Pa­trol carry more than 250 litres of fuel when fully loaded, along with a 100 litres of water plus two spare tyres and all the as­sorted gear you need for a re­mote desert trip – we cruised west­wards on the red, sandy and graded road, away from the small com­mu­nity. This track al­most sits on top of that imag­i­nary line of Lon­gi­tude that marks the Tropic of Capricorn.

To the north, Mt Craw­ford, a big sheer-sided mas­sif, stood high above the sandy plain. Mt Craw­ford is the most dom­i­nant point of this range, with Blanche Tower (Win­parku in na­tive tongue) vis­i­ble be­hind it. Sadly we didn’t have per­mis­sion to go there, so with my cu­rios­ity held in check we pushed on to Lime­stone Bore. With the track strik­ing south-west we headed for the more re­mote Tarawara Bore. Both bores showed signs of the pas­toral oc­cu­pa­tion of this coun­try be­fore it was handed back to

the Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple.

Af­ter tak­ing the wrong track at Brown’s Bore we be­came slightly mis­placed geo­graph­i­cally but, af­ter a few hun­dred me­tres, we re­alised we were head­ing the wrong way. We re­traced our steps back to the bore, with tum­bled-down fenc­ing and troughs mark­ing the spot, and picked up a track that first headed north be­fore strik­ing west once more.

It quickly be­came ob­vi­ous the route was sel­dom used, with tall seed­ing spinifex dot­ting the mid­dle of the track. It wasn’t long be­fore we fitted grass blinds to the front of both Pa­trols to pro­tect the ra­di­a­tors from block­ing with junk and over­heat­ing. We passed yet an­other ‘No En­try’ sign and pushed on, dodg­ing through a gap in a low rocky range where an ephemeral creek had washed away all signs of wheel tracks and modern man. Close to the range’s low cliffs we found signs of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple who had once used this favoured area to camp and hunt.

Af­ter travers­ing an­other 50km west we swung onto a more sub­tle track and headed towards the east­ern ram­parts of the Cle­land Hills. We pulled up at a small camp­ing area used by Tra­di­tional Own­ers (TOS) and in­dige­nous rangers when they come out here for sa­cred cer­e­monies or en­vi­ron­men­tal work. This spot was close to the Mu­run­tji Rock­hole (how­ever, this is marked on most maps as Mu­ranji) but it was too late in the af­ter­noon for any fur­ther on-foot ex­plo­ration.

The next morn­ing we woke to a glo­ri­ous sun­rise which lit up the nearby cliffs in a blaze of rich colour. Un­for­tu­nately, while the omens seemed in our favour, our search for the ‘faces’ of the Cle­land Hills,

We woke to a glo­ri­ous sun­rise which lit up the nearby cliffs in a blaze of rich colour

made fa­mous by Michael Terry in the 1960s, was to no avail.

The ‘faces’ and stylised fig­ures that have made the Cle­land Hills fa­mous have pre­vi­ously been at­trib­uted to in­ter­plan­e­tary vis­i­tors, but other re­searchers aren’t quite so lib­eral with their the­o­ries (see Michael Terry’s the­o­ries about ‘se­cret vis­i­tors’ at www.austhru­time.com and search ‘Cle­land Hills faces’). Sim­i­lar pet­ro­glyphs have been found in other Aus­tralian desert en­vi­ron­ments, but the Cle­land Hills en­grav­ings re­main unique. And while a nearby oc­cu­pa­tional site has been dated to 22,000 years ago, the age of the faces has still not been de­ter­mined.

It’s im­por­tant to do your re­search be­fore em­bark­ing on a re­mote desert jaunt, and this be­came painfully and em­bar­rass­ingly clear as we re­alised we were search­ing in the wrong area. The of­fer, how­ever, to come to this re­mote place had sud­denly ap­peared and I wasn’t go­ing to miss the op­por­tu­nity, poor re­search or not. It was prob­a­bly for the best that we didn’t find the faces, as we later found out that we didn’t have per­mis­sion to visit Thomas Reser­voir (as named by Terry) where the ‘faces’ can be found with some dili­gent search­ing. Next time we’ll hope­fully have a TO or a lo­cal ranger with us to guide our ex­plo­ration of these unique hills.

We at­tempted to ex­plore around the es­carp­ment of the ranges un­til the ris­ing sun and heat drove us back to camp. In that short time we man­aged to find some

Speed in­creased from the frus­trat­ing 5-8km/h we had been av­er­ag­ing for the past day, to 40-50km/h

rock shel­ters and pools of water hid­den in the hills along with some faint Abo­rig­i­nal art and grooves where spears or tools had once been sharp­ened. Small vic­to­ries, but still well worth the trip.

With lit­tle more to gain from stay­ing at that lo­ca­tion we fired up the Pa­trols and headed south around the great arc of the Cle­land Hills to con­tinue west­ward and then north towards dis­tant Kin­tore.

While we had the lat­est maps, Google Earth satel­lite im­ages and Hema nav­i­ga­tors to guide us, the quickly erod­ing and over­grown tracks forced us to go cross-coun­try. Es­tab­lished more than 40 years ago in the 1970s, most of the shot lines have dis­ap­peared from lack of use – so as to make some maps near use­less.

Two days af­ter leav­ing our camp at the Cle­land Hills we un­ex­pect­edly came upon a modern track net­work south of John­stone Hill which wasn’t marked on any of our maps and invisible on Google Earth. Our maps showed a track to the south, so, despite it be­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion again, we headed that way. Luck­ily, our hunch paid off and we drove onto a well-used min­ing and oil ex­plo­ration road, about 70km east of the Sandy Blight Road.

Our speed in­creased from the frus­trat­ing 5-8km/h we had been av­er­ag­ing for the past day or so to a rel­a­tively quick 40-50km/h. We camped just short of the Sandy Blight Road with the im­pres­sive Mt Strick­land as a back­drop. The next day we were back on a good dirt road, our an­nual ad­ven­ture over as we headed back to Pa­punya. All that re­mained was lengthy dis­cus­sions with the Tra­di­tional Own­ers on fur­ther ac­cess for tour groups, which are still on­go­ing!

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Grass blinds pre­vented the Pa­trols from over­heat­ing on the trip. Mt Craw­ford is an im­pos­ing site, tow­er­ing above the lo­cal area.

Signs of Abo­rig­i­nal hunt­ing par­ties were found in the area.

Despite find­ing lit­tle, the sun­sets were well worth the jour­ney.

CLE­LAND HILLS, NORTH­ERN TER­RI­TORY

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