​Lajamanu for lunch – Across the Wiso Track

Well the permits were in place and all that remained was to go. We had decided that on our Kimberley trip we should take a new way west rather than our normal Buntine Highway from the Stuart on our way from Brisbane to Kunanurra. Just south of the Three Ways is Tennant Creek and from Tennant Creek running due west to the small community of Lajamanu is the Wiso Track used for oil and mineral exploration some 30 years ago. As far as we could tell, it had not been traversed over its full length for five years or more. A quick check on Google Earth showed a reasonably well defined track and good agreement with the topographic map – what could possibly go wrong?

The suggested Wiso traverse was greeted with enthusiasm by our fellow travelers. When told it was 442 kms from Tennant Creek, their reply was, ‘we will be there for lunch’. Fortunately, they did not say which day!  The topography seemed like typical Tanami Desert, open spinifex plains interspersed with areas of low lying scrub and no significant sand hills.  Nearer to Lajamanu we would run into some low lying hills before joining the Tanami-Lajamanu road.  The ‘track’ is still labeled Lajamanu-WarregoRd on Google and other maps - (how did we manage before Google Earth?). So that was the way to go, seven adults, two kids, four vehicles.

We departed Tennant Creek mid morning after filling with fuel, about 220 litres for the sole petrol vehicle (mine) and 180 litres each for the three diesels. Our experiences cross country in the Simpson and Great Sandy deserts suggested that consumption could easily go as high as 50 litres/100km if we were reduced to a lot of low range work.  As it transpired, we had almost no low range work except for crossing the odd wash out and used something like 120 litres for the petrol and 80 litres for the diesels.  Still unseasonal rains were about and a fall of 25 mm in that country would have made life extremely interesting, so our very conservative approach to fuel was probably justified.  As usual we packed food and water for 10 days notwithstanding the fact that we were going to be in Lajamanu for lunch! A few photos of us and vehicles -  Barry in his Rangie, Yvette in her ‘Cruiser, Steve in the Defender and me in my Rangie  – and then we were off.

The first 50 kms out to the old Warrego gold mine is on very good road and took little over 30 minutes, so that lunch at Lajamanu seemed quite possible. The mine is closed and you need to detour around it through a gate on the left and then back onto the Lajamanu-Warrego proper. The road is still quite good up to the Mulgalawurru turnoff then starts to deteriorate. It is a little tricky to find the right track amongst the station tracks and old mine tracks, the major road leads to functioning cattle troughs and a fence – if you get this far you have gone too far. Further back with some searching you will find the LW road but you may prefer to follow the fence line (a better track) as it rejoins the LW road at the old Wiso bore.  Remember to stay on the northern side of the fence. At old Wiso bore there is an old fence line with a relatively good track running off to the north away from the fence, this is not the LW road. If you look around at the bore you will find a faint track heading a bit north of west, this is the LW road.

We camped that night some 100 km from Tennant Creek and it was great to see a sky blazoned with stars that did not twinkle and hear the sounds of silence. The desert has its pleasures that the town folk will never know (apologies to Banjo). Lunch no longer features in our discussions around the fire.

The challenge has started and, though navigation from here on is relatively easy, the track is anything but easy!  The country is very flat with sections of dense low scrub but the real hazard is the wattle. The ‘road’ was cut with a dozer/grader many years before and like many bush tracks it ended up slightly below the surrounding countryside and thus became a natural water collection area. The result is that the wattle has grown prolifically on the road and often only on the road with both sides completely clear.  In many sections the wattle was 2 to 3 metres high and we had to battle through it. On occasions in desperation we would leave the road and drive along side where it was quite clear – usually not for long because this invariably meant a puncture!

Not that driving on the track was puncture free, far from it, but you could be guaranteed of a puncture by driving off the track. So it was push through the wattle which was in full bloom. The wattle blossoms got into everything as well as collecting against the radiator mesh. We cleaned our mesh protection and the radiator itself every half hour or so but the resin from the wattle and the nectar from the blooms formed a glue like coating over the radiator so that overheating quickly became a problem. This “glue” could only be removed with water and detergent and lots of patience.

But I digress. As lead vehicle I had over 30 punctures with the remaining vehicles collecting about 10 between them.  Forty punctures in total! After a while it became routine - the vehicle immediately behind put the air hose on to keep the tyre inflated while the leak was found, usually pretty obvious with a broken off stake sticking out of the side of the tyre! Get the plugs ready, remove the stake and plug it; then classify the puncture – a ‘1 plugger’, a ‘2 plugger’, a ‘3 plugger’, a ‘4 plugger’ or even a ‘5 plugger’! Fortunately we all carried plenty of repair gear otherwise we would have soon run out of plugs. We all had jobs when a puncture occurred, for some their job was to watch and give advice. For Yvette, who was usually immediately behind me, this meant running out the air hose, starting the compressor and getting the plugs ready while I found the stake. After the first dozen or so repairs she became extremely proficient and thereafter was called the “Beaurepair Girl”.

We spend some time, without success, trying to locate Green Swamp well. While the area was low lying with vegetation including gums the actual well eluded us so we push on through the wattle. Our second night out and now some 180 kms out, a tough 80 kms today but our campsite sits adjacent to a lake complete with black swans and ducks. This country still has the power to amaze me. The lake is at least a kilometer wide and 5 or 6 kms long and to say we are surprised at it being there is very much an under statement. It is almost certainly ephemeral but how long it will last is anybody’s guess. Apart from the wattle in bloom there is little evidence of recent rain and my guess would be no rain in the last few months. With great originality we christened it Lake Surprise.

The next day brought mechanical problems to complement the frequent punctures. Firstly the Defender lost all coolant; a wattle tree had dislodged the return hose from its fastening and then the hose rubbed through on the fan pulley. Now was the chance for our resident mechanic Barry to strut his stuff, out with the tarp and on with the overalls. This was one hose we did not carry so repair was the only answer. The abraded section was extensive so our epoxy tape was not the answer. The solution was to cut up a camp chair and use the metal tube to replace the abraded section completely. More trouble was to follow, a camouflaged ant hill caused some damage to my steering meaning the track rod and damper had to come off and be repaired as best we could. Apart from wattle abuse to the paint work these were to be our only mechanical problems.

That day we passed close to a confluence (19S 132E) and as it was lunch time Steve decided to walk the few kilometers to the confluence and ‘claim’ it – fear of punctures and laziness kept the rest of us from joining him although I think his wife Ann expected to be a widow by days end.  He duly returned with another confluence to add to our list. Our camp that night was on a small rise amid the spinifex about 260 km from Tennant and just 80 from the Duck Ponds where we expected the road to improve. Third night out and nobody mentioned lunch although someone was heard to mutter ‘I really am over wattle’. The moon was full the night was still and our continent brooded over its vastness.

The next day saw a return to the battle against the wattle; it was not going to give up that easily!  If I stopped and looked back the second vehicle, perhaps 100 metres behind, could not be seen. All I could see was the wattle tops waving as it passed through. As soon as you passed over the wattle it sprang back to its original position leaving no trace of our passing. However, we persevered, fixed our punctures and late in the day arrived at the Duck Ponds a semi abandoned out station of Lajamanu.  This is the head waters of Winnecke Creek. We camped beside this permanent water and were treated to the squabbles of the prolific bird life that enjoyed the water in the red of the setting sun as much as we did.

We set off in the morning for our final run to Lajamanu. The road was good, a comfortable 80 km/hr, and the country changed as we ran into the Buchanan Hills around Mt Winnecke. The morning sun blazed the hills with colour and welcomed us out of the desert. Stop for a snack and final photos before we push on across Winnecke Ck and into Lajamanu –for LUNCH.