It has been suggested that the initials CSR should also stand for Corrugations, Sand and Rocks. This was certainly a fitting description of the track between Wiluna and Gunowaggi and, according to Don, that wasn’t going to change. I just wished there were a greater percentage of rocks. A more accurate initial would be CSr! Don warned that I could expect worse conditions on the northern section of the stock route; the sand ridges there would be even more arduous and the maximum temperatures would remain above the 40-degree mark.
The ‘S’ could also stand for spinifex. This most hardy and versatile of plants exists in the most desolate of places and in the poorest of sand, an essential part of the desert ecosystem, stabilising shifting sands and providing shelter for wildlife. The nature of the spiky grass symbolises the ‘pole to pole spectrum’ of personalities of the desert. In the earliest of morning light and the last of the afternoon’s rays, open plains of spinifex appear as charming as golden acres of oats. Wispy seed heads shimmer in the gentle breezes, enticing the traveller with idyllic images of prosperity and calmness. Up close and personal, however, it reveals its unsavoury side. The needles, which are really just tightly rolled leaves adapted to minimise moisture loss, scratch and puncture anything that leaks – tyres and skin, for example. Even camels avoid walking through spinifex if there is a spine-free option, such as a track or samphire flat. The trouble with spinifex is that the spines are barbed with micro-filaments that snap off under the skin; the fine splinters cause pain and often result in infection. Riding through the Gibson, Little and Great Sandy deserts, being pierced and scratched daily was par for the course. Like spinifex, the extreme aspects of the desert were working their way under my skin and the scars would remain long after the scratches healed.
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Day 17, Saturday 9 October
Gunowaggi (Well 33) to near Bungabinni Native Well
Distance – 60 km
Distance from Wiluna – 1031 km
Total distance – 13 065 km
I adjusted my routine to make the most of the cooler mornings, setting my alarm for 4am and preparing for the day in the dark. The plan was to start pedalling at around 5.30 and keep going with only small breaks until midday. Then we would set up camp and rest through the afternoon. That would still give me six or seven hours of cycling.
I felt much stronger and refreshed after my pit-stop, and full of anticipation for the adventure ahead. The track continued to bisect the flat spinifex plain as straight as the Gunbarrel. In the early morning light, the golden country was showing its enchanting side. The track was not. Don was adamant that this section was interspersed by many firm, stony segments and I kept scanning wishfully ahead for some good gravel. But there was absolutely no respite from the soft corrugations, apart from two 100-metre sections just before Minjoo (Well 35), 40 km and four-and-a-half hours from our camp.
Well 35 had been constructed on a tea-tree covered claypan. During the previous few Wet seasons, it had been totally flooded but the water had subsided, leaving a coating of salt and other mineral crystals on the muddy ground and low vegetation. The site looked a mess, with rusted and decaying fragments of the old well scattered through the bush. The stagnant pools were attractive to wildlife and desert finches sounded the amber alert; ever-busy flocks darting through the tea-trees in formation. There is always safety in numbers, and our presence certainly stimulated their nervous reaction.
Minjoo was the limit of Williams Snell’s expedition. With all the iron work used up and the Wet season upon them, Snell decided to return south with his eight-strong party still physically and mentally fit. They had reconditioned thirty-three wells and built five new ones. The plan was to recommence the job after the Wet with a full complement of supplies and fresh men. Heading south, they buried food and equipment in tanks at various well sites along the way for easy accessibility for the return journey. It was a sad homecoming for Snell – in his absence, his only son, William, had died of a burst appendix in the Wiluna Hospital, aged twenty-four. Canning returned to finish the job the following year.
By 10am, the heat was particularly ferocious. I wasn’t looking forward to venturing away from the shade of Minjoo’s tea-trees and desert oaks. Over the previous few weeks when temperatures had been extreme, my drinking water had heated, becoming a less effective coolant. A technique I decided to trial was to wet a pair of socks and fit them over my drinking bottles on the theory that the evaporating moisture would have a cooling effect on the water, making it a more palatable temperature to drink.
The first ten kilometres north of Minjoo was less used and overgrown with spinifex. Spindly strands taller than I was and top-heavy with seed heads drooped over the path so that I struggled to see what lay ahead. I moved faster on the undisturbed track, continually brushed by the grasses. Grass seeds lodged in my clothes and particularly in the socks which covered water bottles. The faster I travelled the cooler my water – the new technique was extremely effective. It didn’t take long for the socks to dry as the middle of the day approached and I developed a technique of dribbling a few squirts of the remaining hot water from an uninsulated bottle into the wool socks without wasting too much.