TRAVEL DESTINATIONS

BALGO TO KIWIRRKURRA TRACK

Extremely remote trip through the Great Sandy and Gibson Deserts

This unnamed track connects two of the most remote Aboriginal communities in Central Australia. Outback Travel Australia drove it in 2019, in the company of Alice Springs Expeditions, who organised permits. 

This is one of the most geographically remote tracks in Australia and gets very little traffic: much less than the Canning Stock Route, for example. Permits aren’t easy to come by, because the track passes by significant Aboriginal sites and used to connect two small, now abandoned, communities to Balgo and Kiwirrkurra.

Historically, Aboriginal people have traversed this country for thousands of years, but the track we drove is sandwiched between the great Sandy and Gibson Deserts, so there’s no surface water to be had. A couple of emergency water pumps have been sunk into sub-surface wells that once sustained travelling Aboriginal people.

Explorers Warburton and Giles crossed our route in the 1870s and the lower section parallels Carnegie’s 1896 north-south tracks. By that time, hope for the discovery of an inland sea was fading and Wells’ Great Sandy Calvert Expedition in 1896 finally dispelled the myth.

Even today, self-sufficiency is the name of the game in this country, because it’s unlikely that insurance bush recovery will pull your busted 4WD out of here. The ‘track’ isn’t gazetted and doesn’t appear on most maps, because it’s a collection of ‘shot’ lines and connecting bulldozed tracks. The bottom end’s graded gravel road is there only because it services a small mining operation.

Our venerable LandCruiser 75 Series tucked in behind John Stafford’s Land Rover Discovery 4, in which he escorts people who want comfort, catering and swag accommodation when they visit remote locations. John had paying customers on board and we hosted a tag-along couple of OTA Supporters in their Ford Ranger. The convoy was rounded out by OTA Team members, the Whites, in their LandCruiser 79.

We spent a couple of days getting to Balgo, via the Tanami Road that wasn’t too bad this year. The ‘broke’ NT Government has little choice but to keep the road reasonably graded, because it services The Granites gold mine mid-way along.

Balgo is one of the neatest Aboriginal communities we’ve visited and it has 24-hour card-activated fuel pumps. We found a fresh water tap, behind the art gallery and were able to replenish our tanks. Nice art in the gallery, as well.

Our permit covered a side trip to Lake Gregory, at the top end of the Canning Stock Route, via the tiny community of Mulan. At the salt lake we found a beautifully set-up camp ground, with clean drop toilets, fire places and shade shelters. However, despite ample bins, rubbish was blowing around. How hard can it be?

Balgo is situated on a spectacular escarpment that overlooks an ancient, eroded sea floor, studded with hard-capped ‘mesa’ formations. At the lookout we discovered a strategically-positioned ladder that led down into a large cave. Apparently, nuns from the local mission used to climb down there for a form of retreat from the heat and as an escape when trouble flared in the community.

The corrugated gravel road led down from the escarpment gradually became a smoother, less-travelled, sandy track, with small-gibber plains and clay pans. Further south we encountered low dunes, but the tracks and shot lines passed through bulldozed sections of some quite tall dunes, so progress was easy.

About two-thirds of the way to the now-abandoned community of Yagga Yagga the track crossed Warburton’s 1876 route. He’d been turned back from exploring north from Emily Springs by lack of water, but the route he took to the west proved to be even more demanding.

Yagga Yagga is a depressing site, because of the deserted houses, store and power station. All that infrastructure has gone to waste. The reason for this town’s position would seem to be a traditional cave burial site to the east. We camped that evening a few kilometres south of Yagga Yagga.

Next morning we crossed a low rocky range and found an Aboriginal grass seed grindstone lying just beside the track. There was evidence of water flows in this area, so we suspect the grindstone was left there many years ago, pending future visits after good rainfall.

A few klicks further on we came across a small outstation, near a dry creek bed that hosted stunted gum trees - a sure sign of sub-surface water. There was evidence of seed grinding and spear sharpening on the rock slabs.

The Lamanbundah outstation consisted of four two-room sheet-metal huts, two toilets, a bore with hand-pump and a tank on a stand. Like Yagga Yagga, this tiny place had been deserted.

After a long stretch of flat country we then entered a low dune field and camped that night at the base of a large dune.

Next day was a full driving day, because progress was quite slow and the terrain varied from open flats to eucalypt and casuarina forests. A highlight was a vast clay pan that the track traversed.

En route to Lake Mackay we came across Dwarf Well, which has had incorrect co-ordinates published in the past. It’s right beside the track on the eastern side and clearly visible, thanks to a tank stand and a bath at the bore outlet. We enjoyed a hair-washing session, but the weather was decidedly cool and windy, so no-one opted for a tub!

The casuarina-lined dune-valley track from the well to a lakeside camp on the edge of Lake Mackay was very corrugated and it was a blessed relief to arrive on the lakeside’s firm clay soil road. We camped on the track and walked onto the Lake for a sunset drink or two.

Next day saw us scooting along a well-aligned and maintained mine service road through dunes and low, rocky ranges, en route to the intersection with the Great Central Road, east of Kiwirrkurra, where we fuelled up and enjoyed an ice cream.

The Balgo to Kiwirrkurra Track was a most enjoyable drive between two communities, studded with scenery changes and Aboriginal cultural background. Alice Springs Expeditions plans more escorted journeys through this country, so give ‘em a call.

The below video should provide a clear idea of what to expect.


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