Monday, 17 September 2018

Days 13 & 14 – Tanami Desert

The Tanami Desert Track is 1013km  long connecting Central Australia with the north western coast of West Australia.  This road isn’t as difficult as it once was.  Numerous new mines in the area have meant the traffic volumes are much higher and there isn’t the same feeling of isolation.  However much of this traffic consists of long road trains which bring their own risks.  The other major risk is the lack of refuelling stops.  There used to be a roadhouse halfway at Rabbit Flat.  That closed some years ago and it’s therefore important travellers carry sufficient fuel. 
Tanami Map
We filled the 4x4 tank (65ltrs) and two jerricans (40ltrs) at Alice where the price was cheap (that’s a relative term) and planned to top up the 4x4 tank at Tilmouth Well Roadhouse some 200km from Alice Springs. 
The Tanami Track starts some 40km north of Alice and for the first 100km it’s sealed.  Eventually this sealed portion of the road narrows to a single lane with unsealed portions either side.  That in itself can create a problem for the unwary driver who is now sharing the single sealed lane with oncoming traffic.  The risk becomes even greater when it involves a road train.  The important thing to remember about road trains is once the driver has worked his way up through the 32 odd forward gears and gained momentum he doesn’t like to stop.
From Tilmouth Wells Roadhouse we faced 800km of unsealed and corrugated road.  The trailer was still without shock absorbers and we all wanted to see how it would handle the road conditions.  Would it jump around like a rabbit on a hot plate.  Well it travelled rather well with plenty of movement in the tyres and springs, but little sign of the trailer wandering behind the 4x4.  By trial and error we established 90km/h was the optimum speed for skipping over the corrugations.

<Filesize   4.14Mb>
Our strategy for sharing the road was to slow down and get as far off the road as possible.  Don’t attempt to overtake the slower road trains as they tend to spew out rocks in all directions.  Instead, stop and take a break.  Fortunately we were only overtaken once (speeding Range rover) during the three days.
The bitumen ceased before we reached Tilmouth Wells Roadhouse and along with a road train, we stopped to let air out of the bottom of the 4x4 and trailer tyres.  At Tilmouth Wells we stopped again to refuel the vehicle and make use of the porcelain facilities as we won’t see them again until we reach Broome.  Tilmouth Wells roadhouse is owned by the local aboriginal Ngurratjuta people, although the staff all appeared to be foreign backpackers.  With a full tank and two jerricans we headed west.
Some six hours later I realised I’d got it wrong erred in my judgement.  We were almost exactly between Tilmouth Wells Roadhouse and the next fuel at Halls Creek AND I had miscalculated the distance.  I had calculated we had 600km to travel when it was actually 800km.  At the rate we were consuming fuel we didn’t have enough to reach Halls Creek or turn back.  Running out of fuel in the middle of a desert is serious. “Huston we have a problem”  How do we make our fuel last?  The first step was to turn off the 4x4 air-conditioning <pant pant> which resulted in the fuel consumption dropping from 14.2ltrs/100km to 12.2.  Then we decided to reduce the wheel rolling resistance by putting the air back in the bottom of the tyres raising the pressure.  Fuel consumption dropped to 11.2.   This still wasn’t enough to reach the next fuel stop.  Carlin proved to be the most economical driver and assumed sole driving duties.  By reducing our speed to 70km/h and driving to the road condition he reduced the fuel consumption to 10.2.  I then suggested we stop for the day and recommence tomorrow when the ambient temperature would be cooler and the engine more efficient.  If that didn’t save enough fuel the fallback position was to place Monique on the side of the road wearing shorts and a Tshirt carrying a jerrican.  I was fairly confident one of the road train drivers would stop! Smile
So we set up for the night some 50 metres south of the road.  The location wasn’t a random decision.  The wind was from the south which meant all the fine talcum powder Tanami road dust raised by infrequent passing traffic would blow in the opposite direction. 
During the night I was kicking myself for not filling the 3rd and 4th jerricans!  I’ve created a crisis! Sad smile
Our sleep was broken during the night by the sound of the occasional passing road trains.  They actually sound like a jet aircraft passing overhead.
By mid morning on the second day the Isuzu on board computer was displaying we were using 9.6ltrs/100km and we had 230km of fuel left in the tank.  That was more than sufficient to reach Halls Creek.  One consequence of this was we became emboldened, deciding to make the 40km detour to view Wolf Creek Meteorite Crater.
The meteorite struck the earth here approximately 300,000 years ago and has been calculated as weighing 50,000 tonnes.  It’s the second largest meteorite crater in the world.  It was only discovered by Europeans in 1947 during an aerial survey of the region.
Crater rim on the skyline
And all around the crater it’s as flat as a pancake

Wolf Creek Crater <Filesize  7.5Mb>
We are now well and truly into termite country.  There are billions of termite columns.  Some only 30mm high and other well over 2 metres.

Tanami Termite mounds <Filesize  2.73Mb>
This is harsh country where the flora has to live for long period without rain whilst the termites gnaw at their roots.
It was with a sigh of relief we reached the junction with the sealed Great Northern Highway and signs of civilization (two wheel drive traffic).  The low fuel warning light had been illuminated for the previous 100km!   20km later we reached the Shell service station at Halls Creek.  The 4x4 fuel tank capacity is 65 ltrs and I added 63.8 litres to the tank.  I won’t make that mistake again!
Halls Creek
The best view of Halls Creek is in the rear vision mirror!
Well that’s the last of unsealed roads on this trip.  From now on it’s bitumen all the way back to Perth.   Only 3000 kilometres.

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