Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Plenty Highway

From Eyre Creek we travelled north on the Eyre Development Road through Bedourie, stopping for fuel but not staying for the camel and pig races. Next stop was Boulia where we took on food and fuel for the trip west via the Plenty Highway to Alice Springs.
For the first 250 km of the trip to the Qld/NT border, the road is called the Donohue Highway and then in NT the next 500 kms to the Stuart Highway is called the Plenty Highway. For the 750km crossing there are sections of sealed road but mostly it is gravel of various types and condition, ranging from good to not so good but nothing really ugly. The Plenty joins the Stuart Highway 70 kms north of Alice Springs.
The journey takes you through relatively flat cattle country most of the way with some attractive rocky ranges towards the western end, outliers of the MacDonnell Ranges. While recent summer rains had generated some grass growth, the grass by mid July was now dead and the soil, water holes and creeks were dry.
We took two and a half days for this crossing with two overnight bush camps. Fuel, basic food supplies and some camping is available at cattle stations and Aboriginal communities along the way. We elected to be self-sufficient and took all our own food and fuel. It pays to take reserves of fuel, food and water in case of unexpected delays rather than rely on fuel supplies from stations – we have found in the past that fuel is not always available as advertised.
Signage at the start of Donohue Highway near Boulia. There is a push to have a road from Cairns in Queensland through Alice Springs to Laverton in WA.
Sign with distances to cattle station between Boulia and the Qld/NT border.
Outback roads can suddenly close due to rain. It pays to keep a close watch on weather forecasts for rain to avoid being trapped on a remote road unable to go forward or back until the road dries out.
Photo of our iPad mini GPS navigation system showing a section of the Channel Country and Donohue Highway. The iPad has detailed HEMA maps loaded, which give incredible detail, linked by Bluetooth to a GPS receiver (the receiver we use is used by airplane pilots and is very fast and accurate).
Travelling west from Boulia in Channel Country, the main river crossed is the Georgina which eventually discharges via other rivers to Lake Eyre. Further west the rivers such as the Hay and Plenty drain south into the Simpson Desert, the largest sand ridge desert in the world.
Georgina River crossing.
The Plenty Highway runs east west roughly along a divide between the Barkly Tableland to the north and the Simpson Desert to the south.
Vast flat treeless plains are common at the eastern end of the Plenty Highway. The plains are punctuated by watercourses supporting acacia on the smaller drainage lines and eucalypts on the major rivers.
Beginning of the Plenty Highway at the NT/Qld border.
We encountered a number of eucalypts in flower, species unknown – it could easily be a Corymbia species, and at this location Black-faced Woodswallows were feeding on the nectar and no doubt taking any insects that they came across which were also attracted to the profuse flowers.
Some of the Black-faced Woodswallows feeding on nectar.
Birds were coming and going.
At first I thought the Woodswallows were foraging in the flowers for insects thinking they were insectivors and not also nectar feeders. This one may have an insect in its bill or just flower stamens?
On closer inspection I think there is no insect, only stamens.
The bird under observation soon departed for more flowers elsewhere. It does not pay to stay in one place for too long and risk becoming a meal for a raptor.

The road passes through mostly Mitchell grassland however there are a few sections of spinifex country with large termite mounds built by termites that specialize in consuming spinifex.
A large termite mound beside the Plenty Highway – an impressive structure given the size of an individual termite.
Here is a section of broken off mound showing galleries full of harvested spinifex stems.
Campsite near Injerrabonna Water Hole.
One of a number of Yellow-throated Miners, a very common species in outback Australia, found along the bone dry Injerrabonna Water Hole.

Our second and last camp on the Plenty was at the start of the now closed Cattlewater Pass track in a designated fossicking area. I have no idea what people were fossicking for there however the area coincided with a mature and very attractive Gidgee woodland where we found Singing, White-plumed and Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, Rufous Whistlers, Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Red-capped and Hooded Robins.
Campsite just off Plenty Highway on start of Cattlewater Pass Track in mature Gidgee woodland.
We have encountered Hooded Robins in good numbers in most places we have stopped from Sturt NP to Alice Springs. This species is now declining in Victoria where it was once more numerous and widespread. It does seem to be very well adapted to arid inland Australia.
Female Hooded Robin
Male Hooded Robin.
Hooded Robins have the same hunting technique as many other robins that take prey on the ground. From a perch they look intently this way and that until they spy a suitable food item and then dive down and capture the food. Then they fly up, usually to another nearby perch, and resume the process over again.
Same Robin as above still looking for food on the ground from the same perch.
From the Cattlewater Pass Track camp we soon found ourselves on the Stuart Highway with at first no speed limit and then a 110km/hour limit. Our maximum speed on the dirt roads was around 80 km/hr and our average below 70 km/hr, so even 100 km/hr seemed fast.  
We travelled south crossing the Tropic of Capricorn again. Arriving in bustling Alice Springs was a minor shock to the system after a couple of weeks of remote dirt roads with few vehicles and very small outback towns with very few people. We have been to Alice several times since our first visit in 1975 – there have been many changes since then, both to Alice and ourselves, including our mode of travel which was very basic back then and fairly high tech now.

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