Monday, May 20, 2013

Mt Woodroffe, #7 of the State 8

Is it OCD? That sees a list of the eight highest peaks in Australia's states and territories and then wants to tick them all off? Maybe. This one, Mt Woodroffe - South Australia's highest peak - was my number seven, of eight, the so-called State 8, or Aussie 8. Apparently I'm not alone in my affliction, there were 28 other people booked onto this tour.
SUMMARY - Mt Woodroffe climb/hike
Duration1 day hike (3 day trip)
Start/endNgarutjara (3 day trip to/from Uluru)
FridayDrive from Yulara, Uluru, to Ngarutjara camp (base of mountain)
SaturdayHike up Mt Woodroofe (Ngarutjaranya) 1435m
SundayDrive from Ngarutjara camp (base of mountain) back to Yulara, Uluru
AreaAPY Lands (permit required)
BookingsDiverse Travel Australia, SEIT Outback Australia
Topographic Maps1:250 000 Mt Woodroffe SG52-12: printed map, on-demand 1:100 000 print, free download (official map)

The only way to access Mt Woodroffe, in the remote APY Lands in northern SA, was via a tour group. Once a year they run a trip in, and it's the only one with permission from the Traditional Aboriginal Owners to do so. It's also rare for them to give anyone else permission, so the tour is the most practical way to do it. It makes Mt Woodroffe the most difficult of the State 8 to organise.

With the permission in mind, at our camp on the first night near the foot of the mountain, we were visited by Lee, one of the Custodians. As can happen in these situations, we took him all a bit too seriously, almost missing his first joke and his fine sense of humour.

When he first sat by the fire, he took his shoe off to warm his foot, complaining about the severe pain in his foot that a heel spur was giving him. Of course we doubted - I can hear your mocking cries now - that he would make it to the top of Mt Woodroffe. We were equipped with all our expensive hiking gear, when he looked more like he had come from fixing a car (he had, as it turned out). Of course, how wrong we were, it was Lee who led the charge up the first steep waterfall rockface. Few followed up the waterfall though, preferring to pick an easier route over a gung-ho approach. There was no doubt that Lee got into as much mischief now as he did when he was a ten year old boy.

Later Lee's father, aged 82, arrived. It quickly became apparent that he would talk in exchange of cups of tea, and if the tea disappeared so would he. He talked with a hint of humour in his slow words. He'd only been learning English in the last 10 years, evidently taught by the many school girls that came out here on school trips (SEIT tours core business is ten-day school Aboriginal cultural camps, this being one the campsites they use for that). I'm not sure how much that skewed his vocabulary, but in exchange he would teach them his language.

On our first day, after arriving at camp, we were taught how to not use the supplied swag, and a discussion ensued about the wisdom of camping in the creek bed, with it soft sand and shade. Normally, of course, this is a poor decision - to camp in a creekbed - but when you can see the headwaters, just a mere 7km away up the mountain, it's pretty safe to camp, even in a wide creek. I've done it before when the headwaters can be seen. If it rains, and especially if it rains a lot, then it's time to move. Pretty hard to miss rain in a swag.

We drove over to the foot of the mountain, to assess routes to hike and climb up the following day. Being a rogainer, I was already formulating a few options into plans, and on the drive closer was able to clarify some of them. At the foot, with most of the mountain obscured behind the immediate base, advice was given as to the easiest routes, and as to where the harshest spinifex lay.

Before dawn the following day, we drove back to the base and at first light set out. It was a case of each to their own, or better still, in small groups. A few set out directly from the cars with a short but sweet route, a straight up the mountain. It was a route plotted through the harshest spinifex, but nonetheless a sound route. Most others followed Lee to the waterfall rockface, before quickly dispersing by a variety of routes. For a while there it looked like we would find about 29 different routes up the mountain. I took a gentle route around the waterfall, taking my plotted course up to the ridge in the east, before hiking up the long spur to the summit. It was the easier route, relatively free of spinifex, and easy to navigate. Although I got to the top first, even having taken the longest route, I had hiked alone, and no doubt that allowed for some speed. It was just seven minutes later that the next group arrived, having taken the most direct route up from the cars.

For all my efficiency and speed in getting to the top quickly and with minimal spinifex injuries, I must have banged my head on the way down - maybe I should wear a safety helmet on such climbs - for I momentarily lost my mind. I decided against taking the three additional people now hiking with me along the long distance ridge, and decided on a shortcut down. Ricky, perhaps sensibly, decided to hike on along the ridge to the western end and it's unnamed summit. It wasn't long down our shortcut that it became obvious - this was no shortcut, and indeed, it took us longer to complete then the distant route. Thankfully I brought those three companions to share the misery of my foolishness. Ricky, having completed his second peak climb, caught up with us near the base. So much for our shortcut. Encouragingly, it seemed that everyone was slower on the trip down, compared to their trip up.

The view from the top took in distant Uluru and Kata Tjuta, some 130km away across the NT border. The Musgrave Ranges spread out to the east and west, a mess of scraggly mountains. Many South Australians don't know what lies up here, thinking that St Mary Peak in the Flinders Ranges, on the Wilpena Pound rim, is the highest peak in South Australia. It's not. Here in the Musgrave Ranges lie 21 mountains over 1,000 metres, and the top seven mountains of the State. St Mary Peak comes in as the 8th highest. Mt Woodroffe rises 680 metres above the surrounding plains.

An old stone surveyor's cairn marks the top of the mountain. A famous photo, taken in 1933, with three Pitjantjatjara guides, shows how the cairn originally appeared. The mountain was named after George Woodroffe Goyder, the 1857 South Australian Surveyor General highly regarded - at least now anyway - for his work in establishing what became known as Goyders Line, the line across the state that marks arable farming land from that which is not sustainable farming land. He was mocked at the time, but hey, at least there's the odd thing around the state named in his honour.

My skills in the exploration of the stone cairn fell well short of my skills displayed in getting up the mountain, and it was someone else who found the logbook in a rusted old can buried deep in the stone cairn. The word 'logbook' is a somewhat generous description, it was almost entirely a collection of rotten indecipherable paper fragments, with the odd modern addition of single pieces of paper. Why some people feel the need to describe the 'marvelous' or 'spectacular view' they saw is beyond me, it's really quite self evident to others who have managed to get there to read the logbook. Anyone with the misfortune of climbing in poor weather, which really is misfortune in Central Australia's stable weather, would hardly find enlightenment with the description of the view in the few moments they spent huddled on the leeward side of the stone cairn before heading back down.

With 29 people on our tour, every one of them made it to the top of Mt Woodroffe that day. Whilst it's cliched to say "there's one in every crowd", it was nonetheless true. If there is one thing more fun than 29 people on a tour, it's this: 29 people offering advice to the one person who is scruffing around in the red dust under the vehicle with a car jack replacing a blown tyre. That wasn't quite true, we had two vans and a ute for the tour, so whilst there were plenty offering advice, it wasn't quite as bad as 29 people. It was a big tour group, I had been warned when I booked that if the tour didn't reach the minimum of four people, it would be cancelled. Last year it was cancelled, with just two bookings.

So in my State 8 pursuit I've been all around the country and found many hiking places to return to. My first peak, Mt Ossa, in Tasmania was mostly accidental, a side trip on the Overland Track. I almost gave up climbing it too, if it hadn't been for Tim's enthusiasm. Now five years later, only one remains. A crazy plan is in place to complete it - Queensland's Bartle Frere. We shall see my friend, we shall see.

View photo album in Google Plus (9 photos).

More photos to come

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Download GPX file of the Mt Woodroffe summit climb hike - for use as a navigational aid in a GPS unit
Download KML file of the Mt Woodroffe summit climb hike - view in Google Earth

My State 8 (Aussie 8)

The highest peak in each Australian state and territory:
  1. Mt Kosciuszko, New South Wales (NSW), 2228m, March 2012
  2. Mt Bogong, Victoria (VIC), 1985m, March 2012
  3. Bimberi Peak, Australian Capital Territory (ACT), 1913m, March 2012
  4. Bartle Frere, Queensland (QLD), 1622m, NOT YET DONE, June 2013?
  5. Mt Ossa, Tasmania (TAS), 1617m, December 2008
  6. Mt Zeil, Northern Territory (NT), 1531m, July 2012 (first attempt August 2011)
  7. Mt Woodroffe, South Australia (SA), 1435m, May 2013
  8. Mt Meharry, Western Australia (WA), 1252m, June 2010