Our access point was an old winch and timber chute at the end of the of Winder Track. Soon after setting out from the car park it struck us that the Winder was going to be pretty snaky: sunny and overgrown with lanky weeds and long grass. Snake heaven.
Having tangled with an antsy Eastern Brown a few weeks earlier in the Bunya Mountains I came prepared with leather boots, long canvas gaiters, compression bandages and my Leki walking pole to brush aside any long grass. Ditto Brian. Long trousers would have a good after-thought.
Sure enough, only 300 metres into our walk a grand-daddy Python lay comatose in the sun, stomach bulging with recent prey. We stepped around, took a few photos and walked on. The Python barely raised an eyebrow.
By the end of our 16 kilometre recce the snake score was:
3 Red-bellied Black snakes
1 Eastern Brown snake
At least I thought it was an Eastern Brown. One of my bushwalking friends from my youth was a bit of an amateur herpetologist and he would have grabbed it by the tail for a closer look. With the wisdom of years I realize this is definitely not wise. Unsurprisingly, he came to an untimely death, aged 39. Not from snake bite but in a downed F/A18 Hornet in the Northern Territory.
Making a lot of noise and sweeping the long grass generally does the trick. That said, I came close to standing on a curled up Red-bellied Black, my right boot hovering momentarily over the reptile. But some fancy footwork and an adrenaline rush saw me safely leap over our somnambulant friend.
But that’s not all. Later that afternoon as we drove down into the picnic area, a cute little bunny came bounding across the track, hotly pursued by a huge slavering goanna…fading fast. I’ll put my money on the bunny.
Maybe this snake danger thing is a tad overblown? Definitely when put in the context of other hazards we face every day. But while writing this report, a six year old girl from Walgett died from the bite of Brown snake. The Eastern Brown is the second most venomous terrestrial snake in the world. Over the past summer the Queensland Ambulance Service has averaged two snake-bite call-outs every day. Eleven call-outs in one 24 hour period.
To climb Mt Meharry in Western Australia’s Pilbara region is easy enough. A ramble of 11 kilometres will take you to its 1253 metre summit and back. A mere day walk for local Pilbara peakbaggers. But for this party of blow-ins from the east coast, the logistics of accessing Meharry were a bit more complicated. For Don Burgher, Brian Manuel, Judy and I, there was the five and a half hour flight to Perth followed by a road trip of four days through the outback of W.A. We touched down at Meharry’s base on a glorious winter’s day in August.
After an overnight camp at Dales Gorge in Karijini National Park we left Dales at 7.45am for the final 125 kilometre drive to Meharry. Despite what we had read about the difficulty of access once you leave the sealed Northern Highway, it was all pretty straightforward. If you stay alert the unsealed Packsaddle Road-Juno Downs has adequate signage to get you close to Meharry’s base.
It wasn’t straightforward in 2002 when Nick and Ben Gough climbed Meharry as part of their ascents of the highest peaks in each state and territory of Australia. They described it thus:
… After 4200 kilometres of driving the final leg into Mt Meharry is along an old mining exploration track, overgrown with spinifex… There were a few washouts to navigate and plenty of spinifex seeds to remove from the radiator as we pushed through the undergrowth; there were also lots of spiders, angry at being removed.” Source: Wild No 87.
But times have changed. Now you can do all this in a 2WD. But if you are feeling lazy and are blessed with a high clearance 4WD having a bit of grunt, you can bump and grind your way all the way to Meharry’s summit. Cheaters. We didn’t, it wasn’t part of our deal. We parked our borrowed 4WD ( thanks Joseph Mania) at the first major jump-up, under the shade of a solitary snappy gum. Here we left Judy in charge of birds, bees and botany while Brian, Don and I headed off for the five kilometre walk to the summit, an altitude gain of only 427 metres.
What’s in a name?
At the top of the first jump-up we had our first clear views of Meharry. The story on how WA’s highest peak was determined is worth recounting. Such is the isolation of the Pilbara region that as late as the 1960s it was thought that nearby Mt Bruce (Bunurrunna) at 1,236 metres was WA’s highest peak. Then, in 1967, an unnamed whaleback prominence 50 kilometres to the south east was checked out by surveyor Trevor Merky and found to be 17 metres higher than Mt Bruce. Meharry was named after William Thomas (Tom) Meharry, Chief Surveyor for WA from 1959 to 1967. After a bit of ferretting around in Native Title documents I found its aboriginal name to be Wirlbiwirlbi. On Tom Meharry’s death in 1967, the Minister for Lands approved the name ‘Mt Meharry’ on 28 July, 1967. That should have been the end of the matter. The plaque on the summit is dedicated to Tom Meharry and WA’s surveyors and it reads:
Mount Meharry, at 1250 metres, is the highest point in Western Australia. It is named after William Thomas (Tom) Meharry (1912-1967), the states State’s Geodetic Surveyor from 1959 to 1967.
This survey cairn was constructed in September 2013 as a tribute to all surveyors who have explored and mapped the magnificent Western Australian outback.
Geoscience Australia gives the height of Meharry as 1253 metres, not 1250 metres as per the plaque or the 1248 metres on the summit signpost. Confused?
Enter Gina Rinehart, daughter of iron ore baron Lang Hancock. In 1999 she applied to the Geographical Names Committee to re-name Meharry to Mt Hancock after her prospector father. They declined but Australia’s wealthiest woman wasn’t so easily put off. In 2002 she went to the top and lobbied then Premier Geoff Gallop for the change. Fortunately, he too rejected the proposal.
A Spinifex Steppe
From the first jump-up it is an easy two kilometres before the track does any serious climbing. At this point the track winds up an open spinifex (Triodia spp.) covered ridgeline. The spinifex was everywhere, easily the dominant ground cover: it grows in either doughnut shapes or hummocks Some species have long spiny leaves that dig into bare skin so it is a matter of self preservation to wear thick canvas gaiters when going off track. On warm days one of the common hummock species of spinifex (T. pungens) releases volatile oils, producing a very distinctive resinous scent. The resin from T. pungens (in the photo) was used by aboriginals as a glue to bind spear heads to their shafts. The resin is pliable when heated but sets rock hard.
It was mid morning so the temperature was creeping up to its predicted 30°C, but tempered by a light west sou’wester. We pulled in for a water stop under the only shade, a stunted snappy gum (Eucalyptus leucophloia) located fortuitously at one of Brian’s infamous ‘uphill flat bits’. This attractive and robust little gum is a familiar sight on the rocky hills and plateaus of the Pilbara, typically growing to three or four metres. A defining characteristic is its white powdery bark, sometimes pocked with black dimples. Hence the species name leucophloia, meaning white bark.
Brian standing in the shade of a solitary snappy gum on the flanks of Mt Meharry
The only other tree we found on Meharry was the desert bloodwood (Corymbia deserticola). With its multi-stemmed mallee growth form and rough tessellated bark it is another very striking tree of the Pilbara and easily distinguishable from the snappy gum.
Another two kilometres of plodding over loose scree took us to the crest of the ridge, a false summit. Meharry trig station was a further 800 metres on. But there is no mistaking the real summit as it is marked by an elaborate rock cairn. We had left Judy and the 4WD some one hour forty five minutes earlier. Not too shabby a performance by three elderly bushwalking codgers.
Geology and Landscape
The view from the summit revealed a spectacular landscape of red whale-back mountains, razor-back ridges and steep-sided gorges that make up the Hamersley Range, one of the oldest geologic surfaces on the earth. Karijini is the aboriginal name for the Hamersley Range. About 2,690 million years ago the Hamersley Basin began to fill with sediments forming the extensive deposits of banded ironstone formations (BIFs), cherts and metapelites collectively known to geologists as the Brockman Iron Formation.
Mt Meharry is predominately an outcrop of this ancient Proterozoic banded ironstone. Typically it appears as a very hard brown rock composed of iron oxide and fine grained quartz. Similar iron rich rocks occur in South Africa and Brazil but the best exposures occur in Australia’s Pilbara.
After the obligatory photos, a quick bite to eat and a good guzzle of water we turned tail and headed downhill, back to the 4WD and Judy who was busy dealing with the unwanted attentions of ‘sweat bees’.
Sweat bees is a generic term for a range of these inconspicuous little fellows (eg.Family:Halicitdae) who are attracted to perspiration, specifically the salts in sweat and as Judy discovered, can be quite a nuisance, just like Australia’s notorious bush flies.
And what of Judy’s birding and botanizing? Well, the avians weren’t co-operating. Hardly surprising. We were, after all, in a desert, with no nearby surface water and the ocean five hundred kilometres to the west. The semi-arid tropical climate has a highly variable rainfall of only 250mm to 300mm per annum; the evaporation rate is twelve times greater, hence the minimal surface water. The presence of surface water is very much dependent on incursions of the summer cyclonic rains sweeping in from the Indian Ocean to the west. Back in bird land the meager offerings were a Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, a Yellow-throated Miner and the seemingly ubiquitous Galah.
However the abundance and showiness of plant life in the Australian outback is often exceptional, especially after rain. Pink Royal mulla-mulla (Ptilotus rotundifolius) covered the rocky Meharry landscape, occupying the interstices between clumps of spinifex. Royal mulla-mulla is a low perennial shrub growing to about one metre tall. The flower spikes are unmistakable: long, cylindrical and a bright pink. More than 35 species of mulla-mulla grow in the Pilbara and make for spectacular displays after good summer rains.
Other ground covers included the purple-flowering Flannel Bush (Solanum lasiophyllum), and the delicate blue pincushion flowers of the Native Cornflower (Brunonia australis). Brunonia australis is the sole species in the genus Brunonia which is the only genus in the endemic family Brunoniaceae. It is named after Robert Brown, naturalist on Matthew Flinders’ Investigator.
Wattles and sennas dominated the Meharry shrub layer and included the golden-flowering Gregory’s Wattle (Acacia gregorii). This dense spreading shrub grows to only half a metre and has golden ball-like flower heads. The name commemorates Francis Thomas Gregory whose 1861 expedition passed through the Pilbara.
Another wattle found here was Acacia hamersleyensis, the Hamersley Range Wattle. This multi-stemmed wattle grows to about four metres and features bright golden dense cylindrical spikes.
Thomas Francis Gregory: The North-West Australian Exploring Expedition. 1861.
Thomas Gregory was the brother of the outstanding Australian explorer and bushman, Augustus Gregory. Their 1858 expedition to the Gascoyne River had attracted the attention of English capitalists interested in cotton ventures. The Home Office and Royal Geographical Society proposed a new colony on WA’s north-west coast with the special objective of cultivating cotton.
Thus F.T. Gregory was contracted by Captain Rowe, Surveyor General of WA to head a scaled back expedition prior to setting up a full colony. On the 23rd of April,1861 Gregory departed on the barque Dolphin with a party of nine, ten horses and supplies of flour, salted pork, dried beef preserved meat, bacon, sugar etc. Enough grub for eight months. If the desert , horses or aborigines didn’t do you in then it was a fair bet that the diet would.
On the 22nd May Gregory had transferred men, supplies and horses ashore at the head of Nickol Bay. By the 25th June he had reached the western edge of what is now Karijini National Park. On the 3rd of July he climbed Mt Samson and saw a high peak which he named Mt Bruce…
“I named Mt Bruce after the gallant commander of troops who had warmly supported me in carrying out explorations.”
And so, for well over a century, Mt Bruce was thought to be WA’s highest mountain. His journal also mentions Mt Augustus which he had named on his 1858 expedition into the Gascoyne River District after his brother Augustus Gregory. It was from Mt Augustus that he first saw Mt Bruce. But that is a story which I will keep for another time.
Such is the isolation of this area, modern day maps of the Pilbara still retain a plethora of the original names proposed by F.T. Gregory:
Mt Turner: J. Turner was second in command of the expedition.
Mt Brockman: E. Brockman was a member of the expedition.
Hamersley Range: Hamersley was one of the expedition’s backers.
Fortescue River: Fortescue was the British Under-secretary for colonies.
Dolphin Island: from their supply vessel Dolphin.
Ashburton River: President of the British Royal Geographical Society.
Capricorn Range: presumably because it straddles the Tropic of Capricorn.
Readers interested in the expedition journals of the Gregory brothers should acquaint themselves with an excellent facsimile edition published in 2002 by Western Australia’s Hesperian Press.
Photo Gallery: Plants of the Pilbara.
Holly Grevillea.G. wickhamii.Named after John Wickham. Captain of the Beagle who collected this plant with Charles Darwin during surveys of the north-west coast1837-1838.
Australian Desert Rose: Gossypium australe.
Sturt’s Desert Pea: Swainsona formosa.Its name honours the explorer Charles Sturt but was first collected by Willim Dampier in 1699 on an island on the Dampier Archipelago.
Common Rock Fig: Ficus brachypoda. Found growing in cooler moist gorges of the Pilbara. Often clings precariously to ledges and cliff faces.
Sticky Cassia:Senna glutinosa subsp. pruinosa
Grey Whorled Wattle: Acacia adoxa.
After reading this account you will have realised that Mt Meharry is no great challenge. For me, its interest lies in the opportunity to traverse an arid zone mountain landscape, a walk of outstanding scenic beauty as well as exceptional geologic and botanical interest. And as a bonus you can bag Western Australia’s highest mountain, a remote peak in outback Australia. Mission accomplished. Then it was back to the comfort of our camp site at Dales Gorge, under the welcome shade of a grove of Mulga trees.
Bush Books series published by WA’s Dept of Conservation and Land management. These are pocket sized field books: Common Plants of the Pilbara, Wattles of the Pilbara, Geology and Landforms of the Pilbara.
P. Moore Plants of Inland Australia (Reed New Holland 2005)
P. Lane Geology of WA’s National Parks (Peter Lane 2007)
A.C. and F.T. Gregory Journals of Australian Explorations 1846-1861 ( Hesperian Press 2002). First published by J.C. Beal Government Printer, Brisbane 1884.
S. Mitchell Exploring WA’s Natural Wonders ( Dept of Environment & Conservation).
Hema Western Australia Road and 4WD Atlas
Aust. Geog. Western Australia State Map 1: 4 000 000
This pleasant little ramble is just the thing for walkers in Queensland’s hot and humid summers. Artists Cascades are a small set of falls and cascades on Booloumba Creek in the Conondale National Park, part of the Sunshine Coast’s forested hinterland. Although you could make this a short rock hopping trip, the numerous crystal clear pools are an ever present temptation for walkers to linger as they make their way upstream.
My five walking friends Alf and Samantha(leaders) and hangers-on Brian, Leanda, Joe as well as yours truly, left the Booloumba Creek Day Use Area soon after 8.30am, a bit of a late start for an overcast, humid but decidedly warmish November day. The walk is only four and a half kilometres to the cascades with an easier but slightly longer return leg on the Conondale Great Walk Track.
A pretty relaxed day, all in all. In days of yore, before the advent of formed tracks, the Booloumba Creek walk was a different proposition. Hairy-chested bushwalkers generally entered a kilometre upstream of Artists Cascades at Booloomba Creek Falls near a feature called The Breadknife, an impressive blade-like slab of foliated phyllite, a flaky metamorphic rock. Below it, in a leap of faith, walkers would drop into Booloumba Creek for the start of the swim down through Booloumba Gorge. As my 1980’s bushwalking bible “Bushwalking in South-East Queensland” noted: “… the descent route in Booloumba Gorge… should only be tackled by competent scramblers.” Over nearly a full day walkers swam, floated and rock hopped down past Kingfisher Falls, Frog Falls, Artists Cascades to exit at the day use area, occasionally bruised and battered. Altogether a very satisfying little adventure.
Our walk was a modest affair by comparison. Initially, it starts as an easy amble on a flat gravelly creek bank, but as the walk closes in on Artists Cascades, the walking changes to rock hopping. On the way up we passed a number of beautiful clear deep pools, ripe for swims and more swims. Booloumba Creek is set in sub-tropical rainforest. Some of the emergent species which I recognised included hoop pine Araucaria cunninghamii, piccabeen palm Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, bunya pine Araucaria bidwillii, flooded gum Eucalyptus grandis, black bean Castanospermum australe, and the strangler fig Ficus watkinsiana.
As an afficionado of the Booloumba Creek run I had come prepared, decked out in board shorts, quick dry shirt, track shoes in place of my Rossi heavy duty boots, nylon day pack with other hiking paraphernalia sequestered away in a dry bag. A pair of spiffy goggles found at a nearby a swimming hole enhanced my aquatic ensemble. No need to change into togs…sorry… bathers for you non-Queenslanders. Just flop or dive in.
Not unexpectedly, we crossed paths with a lethargic snake, a rather large carpet python curled up and in no mood to move. As with all snakes, the golden rule applied: leave well alone, even though pythons are fairly harmless. Snakes are always a consideration in the Conondales so some of us were sporting knee length, heavy duty, canvas gaiters.
Fortunately, heavy flooding over the past two summers had cleared the dense mist weed (Ageratina riparia) from the creek bed, making it much easier to hop from rock to rock and to spot the odd sunbaking reptile or three.
Around lunchtime we made our way onto the rocky benches surrounding the Artists Cascades. These smallish cascades drop into a deep inviting rock pool. But we needed no invitation and were soon frolicking around in the refreshing cool, clear water.
Revived, we tucked into lunch, allowing us time to start drying before squelching off on the five kilometre return leg along The Conondale Great Walk Track. If you have time I recommend you sidetrack to the old Gold Mine site and also find the short track to the “Egg”. The track was unmarked for a long time at the request of its creator but common sense prevailed and now it is well sign-posted. The construction of The Egg morphed into a political hot potato. The Egg is a $700,000 wilderness sculpture commissioned by the Queensland Government in 2010, and designed and built by Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy. But more on that contentious issue another time.
Much of the conservation battle to save this relatively pristine area of South-East Queensland from further logging and mining was undertaken by the local Conondale Range Committee for which the bushwalking and camping fraternity can be thankful. If you are wondering about the origin of the name Booloumba as I did, my friends in the Conondale Range Committee provided the following information. Booloumba is aboriginal, from the dialect of the Dullumbara clan who were part of the Gubi Gubi language group. It is pronounced and spelt Balumbear or Balumbir and means butterfly; sometimes extended to mean place of the white butterfly. The national park name, Conondale, derives from Conondale Station, named by pastoralist D. T. MacKenzie in 1851 after Strath Conon in Scotland.
The Mt Borumba circuit. A golden oldie. Just like some of the nine of us who lined up for this enjoyable ramble through the Imbil State Forest in South East Queensland to the fire tower on Mt Borumba. The 11 kilometre circuit, mainly on forestry tracks in the Yabba and Borumba logging areas, starts with a steepish climb. Then it wends its way gently uphill for another three and a half kilometres, first through park-like open Eucalypt forest and as it climbs towards the summit, it enters the cool shade of mature rainforest. The summit is topped by a decidedly rickety wooden structure known as the No.8 Fire Tower, now ringed with security fencing. The return trip, mostly downhill, features a gravelly descent and then a soggy track out to cattle yards.
Meanwhile back at the start of the walk our little band had formed up, my good bushwalking mate Brian Manuel in the lead. A quick vault over the locked gate and then up the dozer line that climbs vertically for The Beacon at 423 metres, an altitude gain of nearly 300 metres in one and a half kilometres. This must have been one intrepid dozer driver, no pussy footing around with zigzags, contouring or switch backs. Just straight up. And as I tottered my way up, one of those pesky elderly hares bounded by, calling out: “A good heart starter, hey”. No doubt about that. Fortunately for me, Brian called time, a welcome smoko break on the summit of The Beacon. A grassy glade shaded by gnarly old bloodwoods, a cooling breeze, fantastic views and a good feed.
On a crisp autumn day like this we had extensive views over Lake Borumba and the Yabba Creek catchment to the west. To the east and south were the high rugged hills and deep valleys of state forests, a verdant patchwork of rainforest, wet and dry sclerophyll forest, and plantations of hoop and bunya pine. These hills, now little more than 400 metres elevation, are the remnants of an ancient mountain chain planed down to a dissected plateau. The hard metamorphosed sediments, the Amamoor Beds, have resisted erosion, thus forming the elevated ridgelines that we were now following. Forestry areas are always full of places with tantalising names and intriguing stories to match. Names like Breakneck Road, Derrier, Little Derrier, Tragedy, Buffalo and Gigher. One of my favourites was on a faded little sign outside Imbil which said: “The Foreign Legion.”Not as in French Foreign Legion but an encampment of 150 displaced persons from World War Two. Known generically as “The Balts”, they came mainly from Eastern Europe, few speaking English, and were allocated plantation work at one of three camps: Sterlings Crossing, Derrier and Araucaria. The Balts lived a hard life in tent camps without electricity and running water. The children had a different take on any perceptions about hardship: “It was the best years of my life. We kids were allowed to run riot through the bush…It was simply fantastic.”
After The Beacon, we briefly took to a cattle pad before dropping down onto the Beacon Road. The route now meandered along forested ridgelines at about 400 metres, winding inexorably upwards towards Mt Borumba. Through gaps in the trees we caught occasional glimpses of the Borumba tower which was number 8 in a network of more than 30 fire towers spread across South East Queensland’s forestry areas. This 20 metre, three storey tower and its neighbours No.5 Mt Allan, and No.12 Coonoon Gibber, were used to fix the location of fires by triangulation. Interestingly, a large number of these fire towers were built by a Sunshine Coast resident Arthur Leis, all in days before fancy construction gear. Some of the higher towers like Jimna (47 metres) took Arthur three years to construct. No. 8 is a four -legged tower built in 1958, but variations included a three-legged tripod and the cheapskate model with boards nailed to a tree trunk. You can read more about Queensland’s fire towers in Peter Holzworth’s:Silent Sentinels: the story of Queensland’s Fire Towers.
It was not long before we swung south onto the No 8 Tower Road, as did a battered old 4WD ute, which caused a ripple of expectation among those of us plodding along in the rear. I recalled with deep fondness bygone days when said ute would grind to a halt and its driver, fag glued to bottom lip, would beckon walkers over: “Everything OK?”. A longish chat about the weather, cattle prices or his bee hives, and then our Good Samaritan would say: “Wanna lift?” This was the signal for us to pile in. But our latter day 4WDer merely glided past, stopping occasionally to nail up ever more Horses Ahead signs in preparation for an Easter horse endurance ride.
At the intersection with Borumba Mountain Road we swung west and climbed the final kilometre to the summit. As a veteran of Brian’s many forays into peak bagging I knew not to get overly excited about the possibility of majestic views over golden plains extended. And so it was. A view obscured not by the usual wreaths of claggy mist nor by sheets of bucketing rain. Just a wall of trees. Still it was a thoroughly pleasant spot for a lunch break: plenty of shade, grass to stretch out on and time to cast a covetous eye over one of Kiwi Ross’s mouth watering lunches. Take a chunk of crusty bread, add layers of rich red sliced tomatoes and then haystack the top with several acres of fresh alfafa sprouts. Joe to Kiwi Ross who was just about to sink in the tooth:“Hey, Ross. Would you like me to run the mower over that lot before you eat it?”
The inbound trip involved some backtracking for two kilometres until Brian suddenly executed a sharp left, and then plunged down an ever steepening trail mantled with loose gravel. Marbles on tiles. Believe it or not, the best strategy is to jog down, skating over the top of the rolling gravel, just like those flocking sheep on NZ high country sheep runs. Michelle, Brian and Kiwi Ross, who are skilled exponents of this arcane ovine art, arrived first, fully intact. For the rest of us it was a matter of gingerly picking our way down, unfortunately not without mishap to a derrière or two. And then came the trudge along a sodden track before fetching up at the cattle yards. Leaving plenty time to scrape off the mud and head off for cold beer, coke or water at the Railway Hotel, Imbil. My thanks to Brian (leader), and fellow Borumbians Alf, Joe, Ross, Linda, Michelle, Robyn and Samantha.