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Across the Tanami - On Foot

Across the Tanami - On FootIn 1856, Augustus Gregory discovered the Tanami Desert and contemplated a crossing from west to east with horses, but baulked. Four years later John McDouall Stuart - also using horses - attempted a crossing from the opposite direction, but was beaten back a quarter of the way into his journey.

In 2002, Kieran Kelly and Andrew Harper set out with five camels toachieve something previously unrecorded - the first crossing of the Tanami Desert on foot. Their successful journey of 720 kilometres in 35 days has become one of the great treks in Australia's modern history. This is their story.

It looked like a wall of dense spinifex and acacia. The late afternoon heat boiled out of the scrub. There was no sign of water. It was a brutal landscape. "How are we going to get through this?" I queried my fellow traveller Andrew Harper, whose desert experience had provided all the answers so far. "We'll just have to pick our way through it, but there'll be a lot of weaving around and it won't be easy," he replied. "What do you do in this situation in other deserts?" I asked. He thought before replying, "Well, it never gets this dense in the Simpson or Gibson. You can always walk around the spinifex and mulga down there. This sure is thick. No idea how long we'll have to go before the country breaks either. It might be like this all the way to Thomson's rockhole. It's going to be slow. Scrub traps the heat doesn't it?" he added.

Across the Tanami - On FootI had never experienced anything like it. This was the dry season, the cool time of year in northern Australia, but we were walking north-west straight into the afternoon sun. The glare burned through shirts and boots and turned our faces and the backs of our hands black. Waves of heat billowed out of the spinifex. My shirt was soaked in sweat. I had lived in the same clothes for nearly a fortnight.

"They need some air-conditioning out here in the Tanami and a drop of rain wouldn't hurt either," I replied, trying to make light of our difficulties. We turned and headed back the way we had come, the camels crashing down the mulga like portable scrub clearing engines mounted with packsaddles and water jerry cans.

We camped at the top of a long plain just below the line of scrub. It was late afternoon on July 26, 2002. We had reached the ridge where, 142 years earlier, explorer John McDouall Stuart had been turned back by the arid waste and blazing heat of the Tanami Desert. Andrew, an experienced desert guide and camel handler had agreed to join me on an attempt to walk from Central Mount Stuart north of Alice Springs to Lake Gregory in Western Australia. Stuart was trying to cross the Tanami in his race across the continent against Burke and Wills and saw Lake Gregory as an oasis of known water in a hostile landscape.

After two years of planning and training, we were 12 days into the journey and had walked almost 200 kilometres from Central Mount Stuart. Stuart was mounted and we were on foot, so he should have had the advantage. But Stuart brought thirsty horses and was beaten back. We were determined to succeed with five camels that laboured under a load including 484 kilograms of water.

On Thursday May 3, 1860 Stuart wrote from the top of that terrible ridge: "We are expecting every moment to come upon a gum creek, but hope is disappointed. I have not so much as seen a water-course since I left the Fisher, and how far this country may continue it is impossible to tell. I intended to have turned back sooner, but I was expecting every moment to meet with a creek... I am almost afraid that I have allowed myself to come too far. I am doubtful if all my horses will be able to get back to water." Get back to water they did, but only just, and Stuart, his men and horses were lucky to escape. Story end

Full story: OUTBACK, February/March 2003

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