Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mawson Plateau traverse

A remote wilderness area in the Northern Flinders Ranges, the Mawson Plateau is almost untouched by people and their activities. There are no roads or tracks, no buildings or fences, and unlike much of the Northern Flinders Ranges, no history of mining.
Mawson Plateau, Northern Flinders Ranges

SUMMARY - Mawson Plateau traverse
Start Mt Shanahan - northern tip of plateau where Granite Creek meets Hamilton Creek. Dropped off by heli-charter from Arkaroola.
End Arkaroola
Time 6 days
Distance 90km
Mountain Ranges Mawson Plateau and broader Northern Flinders Ranges
Topographic maps 1:250 000 scale Frome SH54-10; 1:50 000 scale Yudnamutana 6737-1; 1:50 000 scale Wooltana 6737-2
Pastoral Stations Mt Freeling Station; Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary
La Nina, one of the weather phenomenons that so drastically affect Australia's weather patterns, brought the gift - as she is wont to do - of a huge downpour of rain to the deserts back in early March. Over five days 247mm fell at Arkaroola. It brought the rain we needed to make this hike possible. There are no rain gauges on the Mawson Plateau, which is a couple days walk north of Arkaroola Village, but it is thought that rainfall on the plateau is similar to the Gammon Ranges, both being of higher elevation than Arkaroola Village, so more rain falls.

Almost all the dirt roads across outback SA were closed in the days after the March deluge, and many had to be graded to be reopened. This kept grader operators busy, so the runway at Moolowatana Station, the first station and servicable runway north of the Mawson Plateau, was still damaged. So like last year, we had to charter a helicopter to drop us out. More expensive, but being able to drop us almost anywhere it saved us two days walking in from Moolowatana Station.

The plateau spans an area seven kilometres wide and 30 kilometres long. The area is littered with large areas of exposed granite, capturing water in numerous rockholes. Granite Creek and its many tributaries drain the plateau, flowing to the north to meet Hamilton Creek before making their way out to Lake Callabonna - one of the many large salt lakes that form a horseshoe around the Northern Flinders Ranges. Its highest point is Freeling Heights, a bluff on the south-western corner of the plateau. Originally the plateau was named Freeling Heights, but was later renamed in honour of Douglas Mawson.

The plateau is largely untouched, it's quite hard to find any sign of human impact. There are no roads or tracks, no buildings or fences, quite possibly no weeds (I've heard tell, I'm no expert), and little impact from feral animals, even goats (which are rampant in the Gammon Ranges to the south.) We found a couple of stardropper stakes in a clearing on our way up to Freeling Heights, marking the site of a government photo survey of vegetation. On stardroppers, one of the waterholes on upper Granite Creek is called Star Dropper Waterhole, so named after the single stardropper there that marks a corner boundary of the Arkaroola and Mount Freeling pastoral leases. We knew of this waterhole, we had seen photos, but did not know its exact location as the pastoral lease boundaries are not usually shown on the topographic maps. We did, unbeknownst to us at the time, see the waterhole on our return from the summit of Freeling Heights. In the back corner of a photo of the waterhole the star dropper can clearly be seen!

A single old track makes a small incursion on the plateau just south west of Mt Shanahan, an old mining track, the type such as litters the Northern Flinders Ranges. Without maintenance these tracks suffer from washaways and soon become undriveable. This one stretched a few hundred metres onto the plateau. It's unusual to hike in the Flinders Ranges somewhere that no 4WD could possibly travel, or has ever travelled.

There were are few other signs of human impact. Behind a rock above the Tee Junction Waterhole, one of the few permanent waterholes on the plateau (after decent rains it is thought to last ten years or so) we found an emergency cache of food and essential items. You know the essential things one might need: coffee, chocolate, cigarettes, toilet paper. From the logbook it seems to have been first placed there by Reg Sprigg in 1987, and has been well stocked since, very little was out of date. As the permanent waterhole, and one of the few named ones, it is a popular spot with hikers to camp at. That said, there were few entries in the logbook, but that may be due to hikers, such as us, not knowing the cache was there; we stumbled upon it on our second night there.

A couple of old stone cairns built by surveyors mark summits, there is one on Mt Shanahan, a summit which seems remarkably insignificant, and on Freeling Heights. Towering drystone structures, they never cease to amaze me in how well the surveryors of old constructed them. The Freeling Heights one, like all good summit cairns, is complete with a logbook of sorts, in this case loose paper in an old jar. Of all the notes in there, and there were not many - it seems there was only one, sometimes two, visits each year. Some year had no visits. Tafe was a common visiting party - the outdoor education course - they also featured quite well in the cache at Tee Junction Waterhole. Up at the Freeling Heights summit there were several cleared campsites, perhaps most clearly noticable by the large slabs of stone that had been carefully positioned to form chairs and even side tables.

The March rains filled all the rockholes, even after seeing so many waterholes we did not grow tired of them. It's hard to imagine what hiking here might look like in drier times. The waterholes were often an obstruction, a few times we had to scramble around them, many times over and around them. There were upsides to this though, by lunchtime on the first day we were already swimming in a vast waterhole. Every day on the plateau featured a good swim.

On our second day we decided to leave Granite Creek, with its many obstructing waterholes. We followed a spurline for two kilometres up to the escarpment edge, from here we had dramatic views over the eastern plains and Lake Frome. Following the escarpment to the south west, the escarpment grew increasingly dramatic. We crossed back across the plateau, which was no easy navigation task, to Granite Creek and its rockholes.

The views from Freeling Heights were also dramatic, we had a very clear day, one of the clearest I have seen up there. We could easily see Mt Painter, which we climbed in 2011, and further south Benbonyathe Hill (2010), Mt McKinlay, Patawarta Hill (2009) - 110km away - and Rawnsley Bluff on Wilpena Pound - 180km away.

On the fourth day we hiked to the escarpment, dropping off 400 metres in elevation down a long spur line to a creek. From here we followed it downstream to the hot springs at Paralana. The days were all hot, and most sunny, and we often sought out the shade of trees, no matter how small. A Paralana Hot Springs we sat in the cool reeds beside the hot flowing spring water. It was here we saw our first people since leaving Arkaroola, a couple visiting the springs in their 4WD. An offer of a cold beer would have been nice. Alas, unrefreshed we hiked on in the hot sun.

We camped beside a waterhole every night, and it was only one night where we forewent a swim, in that case to preserve the water from contamination for drinking. Our last night was possibly the best swim, in Bararranna Waterhole. Here the creek was flowing and the waterhole large, it reminded me of some of the rocky vegetationless gorge waterholes in the Kimberley, it was enormous.

On the sixth day we sidled into Arkaroola, and showers, cool drinks, food and chairs. Ah the things you miss hey.

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TRACK NOTES - Mawson Plateau traverse
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Label Location Grid Ref Time Note
Sunday 15/04/12
Start NE of Mt Shanahan GR 559 770 8.20am drop-off (15min flight from Arkaroola) on hill NE of where Granite Creek meets Hamilton Creek. Hike along Granite Creek.
1 waterhole on Granite Creek GR 542 747 12.01/1.05pm Lunch + swim
2 Break GR 535 731 2.05pm
3 Turn around - too far GR 533 726 2.50pm Gorge narrowing, gorge exit missed
4/Campsite Campsite day 1 GR 535 731 3.10pm. Day's hike was 9.2km/6hr walk Camp beside creek on sandy area beside large shallow waterhole
Monday 16/04/12
4 Campsite day 1 GR 535 731 7am Leave camp, hike up spur to escarpment (5)
5 Escarpment GR 547 717 7.56am Follow escarpment to pt 7
6 Break GR 538 700 8.50/9.18am
7 Leave escarpment edge GR 520 686 10.35/10.55am Begin to cross plateau from escarpment edge back to Granite Creek
8 Break GR 513 682 11.45/11.57am
9 Lunch at head of creek GR 505 282 12.25/12.55pm
10 Rockholes on Granite Creek GR 498 681 1.19pm Lots of rockholes here, continue up creek to point 11
11/Campsite day 2 Tee Junction Waterhole GR 489 678 2.15pm. Day's hike was 13km & 7h15m Explored further to tee junction, waterhole a few hundred metres downstream from junction.
Tuesday 17/04/12
11/Campsite day 2 Tee Junction Waterhole GR 489 678 6.50am Leave camp with daypacks for hike up to Freeling Heights summit and return to camp here again
12 GR 8.36am Proceed up southern arm of Granite Creek, contour around to more open flatter area to west. Yes got a little sidetracked turning too far north when cross-country.
13 Clearing GR 458 665 8.50am Break in open clearing. Proceed across clearing, then following creek lines to vicinity of 449 655. Proceed up spur to flatter ridge near summit
14 Freeling Heights summit GR 448 643 10.30/11.10am Summmit marked by stone surveyors cairn in SW corner of ridge. Numerous campsites near summit, some shady.
15 Clearing GR 457 664 12.35pm Lunch. Follow creek lines across clearing and open country. Easiest way is to continue following creeks into major Granite Creek. Last 1.5km into Tee Junction difficult due to waterholes.
11/Campsite day 2 & 3 Tee Junction Waterhole GR 489 678 2.15pm. Day's hike 16.9km, 5.5hr moving, 7.5hr total Camp here again for a second night.
Wednesday 18/04/12
11/Campsite day 2 & 3 Tee Junction Waterhole GR 489 678 7.10am Leave camp. Proceed up SW branch of Granite Creek to waterfall
12 (oops duplicated) Waterfall GR 479 667 8.07am Contour around hills beside creek, hills clearer than creek here
13 (oops duplicated) Break, clearing and stand of trees GR 473 655 9.09/9.27am Clearing in creek
13 (oops duplicated again) Escarpment edge GR 473 650 9.50am Proceed down long spurline
14 (oops duplicated) Start of steep spur GR 478 642 10.28am Continue down spur, this section is very steep
15 (oops duplicated) Hot Springs/Paralana Creek GR 484 630 11.40am/12.20pm Lunch in creek at base of long spur. Proceed downstream along creek to Paralana Hot Springs.
16 Paralana Hot Springs GR 499 607 1.45/2.15pm
17 Exit Yudnamatana Creek GR 483 588 3pm Proceed up Nicolls Spring Creek, go right at major creek junction after a narrow gorge
18/Campsite day 4 Camp north of Nicholls Spring GR 482 578 4pm. Day's hike was 17km, 5.5hr moving, 9h overall Camped beside two-step waterfall, pools of water under each, pink granite rock
Thursday 19/04/12
18/Campsite day 4 Camp north of Nicholls Spring GR 482 578 7.07am Proceed up creek
19 Nicholls Spring GR 477 573 Marginal spring, spent sometime verifying location
20 8am Spring found, returned to packs, continue following creekline up
21 Head of creek 8.45am Break. Proceed up to saddle and ridge, skirt around 450m peak, proceed down long spur to East Painter Creek
22 East Painter Creek GR 457 5444 10.30/10.45am Break. Follow East Painter Creek downstream to East Painter Bore and tank.
23 Old Mine Track An easier start to tackling Humanity Seat? No, doubt it, track not long enough.
24 11.30am
25 East Painter bore GR 479 521 12.00/12.40pm Bore and tank. Creek enters plains here. Proceed along 4WD track to Paralana Hot Springs road, south past Lady Buxton Mine for 1.25km, turn south-west along an Arkaroola 4WD track past White Ants Mine
26 Top of hill GR 469 492 1.40pm A real bastard this track. Why didn't we navigate around it? Continued down track.
27 Creek/Road T-junction 2.20pm Take south track to Bararranna Waterhole
28/Campsite day 5 Bararranna Waterhole GR 457 479 3pm. Day's hike was 19km, 5.5hr moving, 7.5hr overall. Very large waterhole in gorge. Two waterholes at present. Carpark at end of road, but road looks out of service since March rains.
Friday 20/04/12
28/Campsite day 5 Bararranna Waterhole GR 457 479 6.50am Leave camp, proceed along track back to Arkaroola, track follows creek
29 Echo Camp Waterhole GR 429 497 8.10am
30 Arkaroola Bore 9am Break
31 Arkaroola (reception) GR 400 455 10.15am. Day's hike was 14km, 3h moving, 3.5h overall