This Adventurous Age

Adventures travelling and working around Australia.

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1999 Travels July 16


We got up at 6am, with help from the alarm, and left at 6.45 for Alice Springs. The dark night was just beginning to lighten, pre-dawn, as we left. It was bloody cold in the van as we couldn’t run the heater because the generator hadn’t started yet.

The sun rose behind us as we drove west to the Stuart Highway – really pretty. The sky in front went through various stages of dark blue, pink. purple. We rarely see a sunrise these days!

Reached Alice at 8.15 and went straight to Land Rover to put Truck in for its hose fitting.

Walked to the town centre, browsing in some shops as we went.

Bought another gem sieve – a more coarse one this time – at the Disposals, which was much cheaper than the hardware shop. Cost $28.

Went to the Library and changed books. Collected our mail from the Post Office and found that it contained two unexpected cheques: a $5 Keno win and $500 loan repayment/dividend from the bowls club, return of money my father had lent them. John’s Group Certificate for tax was there, along with a letter from his sister, the third in a short period.

John took a half hour on the Internet at the library and emailed S again. While he was doing that, I went and did banking and bought some cards.

We had a fish and chip lunch – well, it IS Friday! They were nice too.

We walked back to collect Truck. Then did a grocery shop. Bought newspapers – I have missed having those. It is one of the few down sides of being out at Gemtree.

By phone and radio, prior to today, we had arranged to visit KM, who runs the Alice Springs base of the 737 Radio Network. He is in poor health. We were welcomed by a very friendly little puggy type of dog. K has a big old dingo, which came out when urged, was patted, and went back to bed. K used to live out on Mt Riddoch Station. He said some aboriginals brought the pup to him, there. Its eyes were still closed, it was so young. He reared it – said it was an excellent dog. He also showed us big garnets that the natives brought in, out there.

K has a whole room for his Network gear – several radios and dials, fax machines and the like. We donated $10 to the cause. Asked him if he could keep alert for anyone who might want to pair up with us to do a Simpson Desert crossing.

It had turned into a hot day.

We refuelled and also refilled the jerry can – 82cpl. Much cheaper than Gemtree.

I drove some of the way back to Gemtree and we got back about 4.30. Drove 308kms today.

Found we have some new neighbours – for the first time since we have been here. They are from WA, with a fold out camper trailer and ordinary car.

Our tea was tinned soup and crumpets.

After tea, we sat round the fire, talking with our neighbours, until quite late, mostly about travels. New campers, over beyond us, had built up an absolutely huge fire. Old Bill, the garnet guide came over and roared at them for wasting wood. Fair enough, especially since he helps replenish the wood heap.

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The Gemtree wood heap – for use by campers – within reason!

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1999 Travels July 15


With a full tank of fuel, we set out to drive the Pinnacles Bore track to the Arltunga road and then back along the Cattlewater Pass track – a circuit.

We had to drive out to the Mud Tank fields first, then kept going – south west for a while, then south, then south east. It was interesting country, always with hills and ranges somewhere, and a fairly good track. South of Mud Tank there were rather dramatic outcroppings of quartz in the hills.

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Where we are going – looking south from Mud Tank

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A quartz outcrop by the Pinnacles Bore Track

We stopped a lot to look at birds. Saw the Australian Buzzard in the wild.

Another stop was at the Pinnacles Bore – by Gillen Creek. This is cattle country, though for much of the way the pickings looked fairly meagre to me. The stocking rate would be pretty low, I reckon. But the little mob of cattle we saw at the Pinnacles Bore looked in good condition.

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The Pinnacles Bore – and a Pinnacle

Further on was another stop. This time it was to pick two bucketfuls of paddy melons, for the caravan park. There was a notice up at the Office saying they needed more, for the weekly paddy melon bowls.

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Gathering paddy melons from the side of the track

We ate lunch in the dry bed of the Hale River, near The Gardens HS, watched by more cattle.

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Having lunch in the bed of the Hale River

This was arid country, very stony and quite different to the Gemtree area. Nonetheless, it had a dramatic beauty and was always interesting.

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The Narbib Range

I had the think that the name “The Gardens” was an irony!

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The Gardens property

Took a rough track, looking for the remains of the Winnecke Mine, where there were supposed to be some ruins left from gold mining days. But our map was vague. We drove 11kms – slowly. It was interesting country, but we didn’t see the ruins and I am not even sure we were on the right track.

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Mt Laughlen

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Georgina Gap

By the time we retraced the way back to The Gardens track, it was too late to continue around the circuit we’d planned – since the 4WD Cattlewater Pass track was supposed to be slow going. John was not happy about it, but I persuaded him to go back the way we had come, past The Pinnacles bore. As it was, we got back to Gemtree at 4.30pm. Earlier, he’d said that was the time he wanted to be back. Had we continued on, as planned it would have been after dark when we got back. Not the time to be out on these tracks! So I thought we’d made the right decision.

The managers were very pleased with the paddy melons.

We drove a total of 177kms.

Tea was soup, rissoles, snow peas, cauliflower with cheese sauce. That is the last of the pea and ham soup.

I loved today’s drive and the country we traversed – elemental, mysterious in parts, beautiful. After Mud Tank, we saw no other people – exploring this country without others about adds to the experience.

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1999 Travels July 14


We took a packed lunch and drove back out to the garnet fields. As our supplies drop, and because we don’t want to be making bread too often, we have had to start in on the Cruskit biscuits, eaten with Kraft cheddar cheese and sliced tomatoes. That makes an adequate lunch.

Before lunch, we dug in the same creek area as before, and seemed to find some pieces.

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The creek where we were fossicking for garnets

After lunch, John wanted to try up the hill, along a rough track. This digging area looked less worked over, but we did not do as well. I was not sure whether we were reworking gravels already sieved!

It was pleasant working out there, but the bush flies were bad again.

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Interesting Harts Ranges scenery at the FA9 fossicking area

We drove 87kms today.

When we left this morning, the mechanic was working on the pump. The diesel was back working by the time we got back this afternoon, so we filled up. 97cpl.

Tea was soup, omelette, French fries and leftover fried rice.

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1999 Travels July 13


A camp based day. I read and sewed. John played on his computer.

John emptied our spare 25 litre diesel jerry can into the fuel tank.

We did the Nature Walk again, at a leisurely pace, and looked at some of the golf course they have here, for guests. There has been quite an effort made with that.

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Part of the Gemtree golf course

Saw more of the interesting mulga ant nests. They use the fallen debris from mulga trees to make the outer lining of the levee bank around the nest entrance, so the ground around the nest has been fairly effectively cleared by their scavenging. We have not seen any actual ants but assume they are a fair size, like about bull ant size.

07-13-1999 some mulga ant nests Gemtree.jpg

Mulga ant nests – they are sizeable mounds

Tea was soup and fried rice.

The fuel pump was still broken. The managers said they would give us 20 litres from their generator’s tank if we need it to get to Alice on Friday – so that frees us to do something further afield tomorrow. Yet again, staying longer than the norm, and being genuinely interested in exploring the place, has paid dividends.

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1999 Travels July 12


We had a lazy morning just sitting outside in the shade of the awning, reading.

After lunch, drove back to the Mud Tank zircon fields.

We tried further along on the flats, from where we were the other day, but found we didn’t have enough washing gear or water. There seemed to be a lot of clay sticking to the wash here, which made getting it clean enough difficult.  We did not find anything exciting, but John did get some tips from people working nearby.

I used the green rubber gloves we carry “in case”, today, to try to protect my fingernails a bit. Scrabbling around in stones is not kind to them. Found they turned my hands bright green – and it did not all wash off later! Lucky that we are not too “upmarket”, here.

We drove around and explored the Zircon Hill area, near the vermiculite mine. Drove 41kms today.

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The Strangways Range, seen from Gemtree

Tea was soup, oven baked frozen fish and French fries.

The fuel bowser is still out of action. We will need to conserve fuel, since we have to go to Alice on Friday, and they don’t know when it will be fixed. This is a vindication of John’s policy of always carrying 25 litres of fuel, in the plastic jerrycan in Truck. One cannot always rely on fuel being available, and where there is only one outlet for some distance this can create problems. Bowsers break down. The fuel delivery truck is held up. An unexpectedly large number of travellers require fuel. These things happen.

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1999 Travels July 11


I did washing this morning, after breakfast, while John made potato bread – six small rolls and a loaf. We had the rolls for lunch.

After that, went for a drive to do a bit more exploring of the area around the garnet fields.

We followed the same route as yesterday, but instead of turning off the track into the little creek bed, continued on south, towards the back of the fields, then looped around. We saw some more areas of diggings and saw some people working there. In some places there  were little flakes of garnet on the ground.

We found a hill area with some great views; I took some photos there.

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Beautiful country out in the FA9 area

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Mt Riddock. The FA9 area is on Mt Riddock Station

We did not do any fossicking today – just went for the drive! Covered 96kms. As we came back in past the Office area and fuel pumps, noticed that there was a sign attached to the diesel pump – that it was out of order. That is bad luck for passers-by, who might be relying on Gemtree to get fuel to continue on to Alice Springs!

Tea was pea and ham soup, which was very nice, followed by sausages, bread and some vegetables.

I wanted to phone K to tell him to send mail so we can pick it up next Friday, in Alice. There was a queue for the phone and I had to wait for ages. We did not have a lengthy conversation, because of the cost and the people waiting behind me, so back at the van, I started a letter to him.

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1999 Travels July 10


We decided that today we would try looking for garnets – a red stone that can be cut to resemble a ruby. There is a designated fossicking area – FA9 – to the west of here. This was shown on the map that came with our fossicking licences.

07-19-1999 garnet areas

Map showing Fossicking Area 9

Garnet hunting appealed because they are found by dry sieving dirt and gravel, thus one does not have to carry water and washing tubs – or get wet and muddy!

Drove east on the Plenty Highway – unsealed after Gemtree – for about 35kms, then turned south and tried to align the map we had with the reality on the ground. As with other fossicking places we have been to, the reality is that there is a maze of tracks that are not on the maps!

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The Plenty Highway east of Gemtree, and the Harts Ranges

We found a narrow, short, dry creek valley that looked pretty dug over. There had clearly been people camped there recently. Regardless, decided to have a go and actually found garnets.

John dug and I sieved. I spent a lot of time picking out small, rough pieces that were crystallized on the outside – but eventually realized that it was the bits that looked like red glass that we actually wanted!

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The well-equipped garnet hunter!

John found a pocket in the creek bed that did not seem to have been dug before, and that was productive.

There were many annoying bush flies and we had to resort to the fly nets bought at Alice Springs. It was a challenge to eat lunch without eating flies too! Apart from the flies, it was quite pleasant, beavering away in the creek bed.

We only did about four hours’ work and got a half fruit tin full, to take back to camp for proper sorting.

We drove 87kms today, there and back to the garnet area.

07-10-1999 01 scene at FA9 garnet area

The country around the FA9 garnet fossicking area

Back at camp, after cleaning up, I made zucchini slice for tea. It was time to use up some of the ageing zucchini we had. I thought we’d have some left for lunch tomorrow, but we were hungry after all the work, and ate the lot. I also made pea and ham soup, but that was not done until late – it will be for the next few days.

John has revived his Alpha Centauri computer game and has been playing it until the power goes off and then his laptop battery gets low. It is all over by 11pm – a natural curb to his enthusiasm! He is reading too – no TV out here.

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1999 Travels July 9


It is so nice to wake up “in the bush”, as opposed to the urban-ness of the conventional caravan park. So far, I really love this place.

We had a camp-based day.

John made a shaker stand for the gem sieve – very clever – and a big sieve tray, like we saw at Rubyvale. The materials were bought in Alice Springs, before we left there. He felt a great sense of achievement. Looks like we will be getting serious about these gemstones!

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John making a shaker stand – to make life easier on the back

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A large sieving tray in the making – this will increase the amount of dirt we move

I watched his work, and read.

I made steak and kidney stew for tea, with suet dumplings (from a suet mix packet) – much to John’s delight.

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1999 Travels July 8


We had to be at the Office for our tour by 8.45, so it was up at 7.30 for us.

The fossicking tour involved a convoy drive out to the zircon field, so we drove Truck to the Office. There was a limit of eight vehicles for the tour.

We had to line up at the Office to pick up our equipment for mining – sieves and containers of water. The Gemtree operators have “permanent” digging areas reserved at the Mud Tank Zircon Fields, about a 15km drive away. We convoyed east on the Plenty Highway for about 8kms, then turned south and followed a pretty good dirt track south for about 7kms.

We gathered around and were shown what to do: dig dirt and gravel, dry sieve, then wet sieve twice, with sieves of two different coarseness. The zircons are found in gravel layers, not too far down, it seems. There is also a lot of apetite – a yellow/green coloured stone that is soft and of little use. Just a distraction. The zircon is of variable colour – mostly a pinky brown. We were told that it cuts, or facets, like diamonds.

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Learning about zircon fossicking at Mud Tank

There were several partly dug holes in the Gemtree area, with big sieves set up already. We went to work in “our” hole. We seemed to find quite a few pieces, but most looked flawed and cracked.

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Checking out a stone to see if it is worth having – sunlight helps!

After we had worked through the morning, the Gemtree people departed, but we were allowed to keep going if we wished, with the proviso that their gear be returned when we went back.

We ate a very quick lunch that we’d brought with us, then kept working until 3pm. It was quite warm out on the diggings, with no wind of any note. Maybe winter in Central Australia is over?

07-08-1999 wendy learning about zircons

A sieve full of gravel ready for washing. This is not a clean pastime!

Before leaving, we did a quick driving explore of the diggings. There were several lots of fossickers camping out at the diggings. But there are no facilities or water out there, so it is rough camping. We decided it was much better to be at Gemtree!

There is an active open cut mine encroaching on the zircon field, where they are mining vermiculite for building with and for potting mix. Hope it doesn’t totally take over the diggings!

Back at Gemtree, we returned the gear and took our stones in to the shop, for sorting. That service is part of the tour. We had four stones worth cutting – 3x4mm and a 4.5mm one. They seemed to think that was OK.

Then we hit the showers, to clean off the dirt. It is a very dusty and muddy pastime, fossicking here. The showers were lovely and warm and most welcome.

We had the last of the vegie soup for tea, followed by pizzas that I assembled on big rounds of Lebanese bread: one potato and garlic and one tomato, capsicum, ham, olives and cheese. Very nice they were, too.

We sat out again, after tea, by the fire, star watching for a while, then had an early night – we were tired! The silence at night, out here, is wonderful.

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1999 Travels July 7


We were up at 7.45 and away at 9.45. Not bad, as John had a lot of stuff around our camp and still to pack into Truck. Plus, we dawdled a bit over breakfast. I ended up doing quite a bit of the outside pack up, to help speed things along. It does not usually take very long to pack the inside – most loose things from surfaces go on the bed, and I now have a system for where everything goes. The electric jug and dishwashing items go in the sink, with the cutting board. Then I put the securing screw in the bottom corner of the fridge, drop the poptop and that is my work done!

We were trying unsuccessfully, to contact our real estate agent, yesterday and today, regarding the new tenant for the unit, but not long after leaving Alice Springs, we were out of mobile range.

It is good to be on the move again.

Some 30kms north of Alice Springs, we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn. Again! Is it my imagination, or does it seem hotter today, already?

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Truck with its nose at the Tropic of Capricorn

It was an interesting drive to the north on the highway – always hills and ranges somewhere to look at. Once we turned east, onto the Plenty Highway, there were ranges ahead and on our right. The road was sealed, all the way to Gemtree, although the Plenty Highway section  was mostly just a single width strip of bitumen.

Just after we crossed the shallow dip/floodway that is the usually dry Gillen Creek, was the entrance to Gemtree campground. The entrance roadway wound around, past a large dam, with water, and then on to the office and reception building. It was a more substantial place than I’d been expecting, not nearly as rustic or rundown.

Gemtree’s weekly rate is $107 for our powered site – not cheap, but it seems a pleasant place. The managers are very jovial. They told us they have allocated us one of their best sites – number 33. We booked onto their zircon fossicking trip, for tomorrow, and that cost another $40.

Found that our site was in between two clumps of mulga, so there was some sideways shade. All the campground is red earth – no water to promote grass. out here.  It is very attractive, though, with clumps of mulga about the place and quite a bit of shade, and interesting outlooks to surrounding ranges.

We have our own tap that we can connect to, for washing water and the like. Because we have the dual tap set up at our sink, we can still pump water from our van tanks for drinking. The power comes from their generator, which does not run from 10.30pm till 7am; we will still have lights from our battery then, though. There is no site on one side of us, and the one on the other side is a fair distance from us – so all very nice. We have a fire pit and BBQ plate, shared with a few other sites, in a sort of circle, on the far side of a couple of mulga trees. They supply firewood, which we can gather from a large central heap. I guess that stops campers from denuding their trees.

When I went to explore the ablutions, found them adequate, somewhat rustic and very clean. There is a wood fuelled “donkey” hot water service, which means rather variable temperature hot water. They encourage campers to keep an eye on this, in passing, and to stick in a piece of wood if the fire seems too low.

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The Donkey – hot water heater. The stack of mulga logs beside it shows the typically dark centre of this timber.

Set up camp, had late lunch, then set out to do the camp’s Nature Walk, which is a couple of kms long. It took in an area behind the campground and along Gillen Creek and was interesting. Trees were identified. Saw the holes and mounds made by the mulga ants at the entrance to their nest, which we had not seen before; they thatch them on the outside to make them more erosion proof. I picked up some blue coloured parrot feathers to add to the feather collection that seems to be happening.

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Mulga ant nest

It was almost dark by the time we got back from our walk.

John lit a fire in our pit for heating water – to save our gas and because the thought of a campfire on the chilly nights was a pleasant one.

Tea was soup, cold roast chicken and vegetables.

After tea sat round the fire, looking at the myriad of really bright stars. It was not too cold.

07-07-1999 to gemtree

The route to Gemtree, which is in the rugged Harts Ranges