Friday, March 05, 2010

Tony Abbott – up Fossil Creek without a spare water-bottle?

Longitude 131 west of Alice Springs is perhaps a mysterious relation to the three great salt lakes that straddle (1) the NT/WA border further west, at 129°. While the unnavigable (thin salt crust atop deep blue mud) salt lakes have a serpentine north-south road around two of them, longitude 131 is simply a gap on the map. An invisible dividing line, it exerts a strong, and often hidden, attraction to cross it – to go west. But not far – after suitably messing with your head, you will be spat out slightly confused, and turned around to face – retreat – east; consciously, although no less painfully so this time.

Explorer Ernest Giles spent almost two months, in September-October 1872, unsuccessfully searching up and down longitude 131, around the Tropic of Capricorn, for a viable path west to the Indian Ocean:

“[Giles] also made his first acquaintance with another distressing fact in the geography of the Centre. Every westward-trending line of mountains eventually falls away . . . Past the end of the MacDonnells [a point about 50km east of 131°] . . . the ‘mountains’ and ‘ranges’ – Putardi, Udor, Kuta Kuta, Ehrenberg, Kintore – are worn hills of fractured rock . . . stand[ing] separate from each other in a ragged plain, rough and dismal.” (2)

A case of not being able to see the mountains – not to mention the Cleland Hills (3) – for the plain – or the irregularity of the former not compensating for the predictability of the plain, at least. Admittedly, objective geographical fact in this area often ends as abruptly and disappointingly as the Western MacDonnells – and moreover at the very same point, just east of longitude 131. Google “second highest mountain in the Northern Territory” and you may expect, after name-checking Mount Zeil (at 1531m, the generally-accepted highest mountain in the NT), mention of Mount Liebig (usually ascribed a height of 1524m). Instead, Mounts Sonder (at 1380m) and Edward (at 1397m) are the only named contenders by this phrase. Indeed, my pre-metric Reader’s Digest Complete Atlas of Australia gives Mount Liebig, at 5,000 feet, the thumbs-up over Mount Zeil, at 4,955 feet. Conversely, the official Australian government site records Mount Liebig at a lowly 1267m. Someone’s (Haasts) (4) bluffing here.

Anyway, as I was saying, the longitude 131 pattern is that you reach a western-most turning point. After which, when your return journey reaches, literally or metaphorically, the solid ground of the Western MacDonnells, the recriminations begin. Ernest Giles, after sacking his expedition assistant in consultation with his second-in-charge (and only after reaching comparative safety), found instead his second-in-charge taking off, in high dudgeon, with the said assistant (5). The path or road back east to Alice Springs, for all its solid ground, is where the loss or “lost” really sets in.

Midnight Oil’s 1986 strange journey from Yuendemu to Alice Springs has a prescient ring to it: Charlie McMahon, a jack-of-all-trades acting as Guide For a Day, who has lived and worked in the area (6), but was “unfamiliar with this part of the country” (7) got his erstwhile charges – in this case, the members of Midnight Oil – “well and truly lost” (ibid). How and why McMahon and the band went “too far west” (ibid) is left open in Andrew McMillan’s account, tantalisingly so when the Tanami Road from Yuendemu to Alice Springs appears (on a map at least) to be a well-worn, obvious path, and all the more so because the Oils’ Yuendemu gig was their last in a dusty, “dry” tour of the Western Desert, and the comparative civilisation of Alice Springs is (or should be) only a three-hour drive from Yuendemu. Unbelievably, you may think (that is, if I so far haven’t convinced you about the mysterious powers of longitude 131), the Oils’ road crew got separately lost – again heading west, of course – while trying to make a beeline for Alice Springs from Yuendemu (ibid). This time, though, the explanation is simpler: a wrong (right-hand) turn, just out of Yuendemu (presumably towards Nyirrpi). More haste, less beer, perhaps.

Tony Abbott’s journey getting “lost” west, or south-west, of King’s Canyon had a nominal purpose – seeing sacred sites – that seems to have fallen by the wayside, either on the day, or overshadowed by subsequent media coverage – remember, this is the zone where (cue spooky music), you struggle to see the mountains for the plain. The three journo’s who got “lost” with Abbott – Tom Dusevic from the Australian (an objective non-story only worth a passing, 136-word mention), Paul Toohey from the Herald-Sun (the full catastrophe), and Mark Davis from Fairfax (the Age and SMH) each published accounts of the experience quite different in their emphasis, with Mark Davis’ two accounts also curiously (or maybe not) dissimilar.

What does not appear to be in dispute (although neither Davis account makes this explicit) is that the participants’ chief concern was having run out of water, by about 6pm (Toohey). While Toohey’s account has it that the group were expected (and so presumably expected themselves to be) back by 5:30pm, even accepting this, it seems that the group set out for the day with insufficient water between them.

As to whose fault this was, probably we’ll never know. Primary responsibility to bring adequate water would surely be upon each individual participant. I suspect that, if supplies weren’t originally communal from the start, late(r) in the day, the water-provident shared with the improvident. As you do, of course. The “lost” drama – in which the guide and another member went off – announced – for a 20-minute (Toohey) foray that turned into two hours, while the main body of the group simply stayed put (8) – coincided with the time the water ran out. Without this fact, I strongly suspect, the l-word (and so the whole media story) would not have even arisen.

Once back at King’s Canyon Resort (remember “solid ground” and let-the-recriminations-begin, above) Tony Abbott did speak up, nailing the water-improvidence issue without naming, or even implying (AFAICT) the malfeasor/s:

“We were one jerry can of fuel, six bottles of water and about three hours of daylight short of what we needed.” (same URL)

Of the four published accounts, only Mark Davis’ SMH story runs this quote. Longitude 131 around Capricorn, I salute your ever-reliable caprice.


1. Lake Hopkins is entirely (just) in WA.

2. Ray Ericksen, Ernest Giles: explorer and traveller (1978) William Heinemann p 71. Giles' original intention was to stick south of the Western MacDonnells (and so the Tropic of Capricorn) (p 66), but he ended up going as far north-west as the Ehrenberg Ranges. To the south-west, his path was blocked by the near-continuous quagmire of (salt) lakes Amadeus and Neale. Had he back-tracked slightly east, Ericksen notes (p 83), Giles would have been able to skirt Lake Amadeus, and thence proceed west from Uluru. (Footnote amended 6 March 2010).

3. “At Cleland Hills, some three hundred and twenty-two kilometres to the west of Alice Springs [and 40km west of longitude 131], are low and stony ridges which Aboriginal people frequently visited. They camped in the area at Gill Creek and Uliila Waterhole and in both places there are paintings and rock engravings. There is much archaeological evidence of human presence. Some of the paintings and engravings are quite remarkable. Over three hundred in number, they include tracks, circles and human faces”. David Carment, “History and the landscape in Central Australia” (PDF), 1991, p 31.

4. “Yet errors were made [by Giles] and later travellers confused – as witness, for example, two widely separated features each named Haast’s Bluff on the maps.” Ray Ericksen, p 72. Haast’s (or Haasts) Bluff is also notable for being at the uncomfortable intersection – or near-miss, perhaps – of two great Indigenous art-traditions: the Western MacDonnells water-colour school (Albert Namatjira et al), and the Western Desert school (starting at Papunya in 1971). Haast’s Bluff (or one of them, at least) is about equidistant from the Western MacDonnells and Papunya; i.e. out on the plain, apparently belonging to neither.

6. Ray Ericksen, pp 84-89.

6. Andrew McMillan, Strict Rules (1992) Sceptre pp 42, 53-55, 295 (official role on tour is “camp coordinator”).

7. Andrew McMillan, pp 152-3.

8. Toohey’s account varies strikingly from the other three in this respect. While Dusevic and Davis (in the SMH) imply that the group simply stayed put during the two hours in question, Toohey maintains:

As he set off, [our guide] said: ‘You blokes walk up that valley. You’ll find cool, sweet, crystal clear water and plenty of rock art’. We walked up. There was no water. There was no rock art”.

A slight variant to the stay-put theory is offered by Davis (in the Age)

We were happy enough to be left to mosey around, looking for Aboriginal rock art in a couple of nearby caves.”

The weight of numbers, combined with the seriousness of Toohey’s implication, suggests that Toohey’s account is a gross exaggeration. (Footnote added 6 March 2010).

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