A TALE OF THREE RIVERS GETTING CAUGHT BY THE FINKE, PENTECOST AND FORTESCUE
During her three-month odyssey kicking up the dust in Australia’s backblocks of WA and the NT, Monica McInnes discovers it’s not the bulldust tracks you need to fear – it’s the rivers!
Once upon a time, a little family of Dad, Mum, and their two young sons set off on an amazing journey travelling the remote and wild parts of Western Australian and the Northern Territory. We’ll call them the McInnes Crew. For the most part they bounced along the dirt roads secure in Percy the Prado, with Harry Hawk following close behind. Aside from the incredible sights, it was a relatively unremarkable journey covering 16,000 kilometres. Except for the river crossings!
This is the tale of how three rivers challenged Percy Prado, Harry Hawk (the Jayco Hawk Outback) and the McInnes Crew.
Central Australia, Northern Territory
It was in the Finke Gorge National Park, about 140 kilometres south-west of Alice Springs where the McInnes Crew first met their match. Starting its journey south from the west MacDonnell Ranges, just north of the Glen Helen Homestead, around 130 kilometres west of Alice Springs, the Finke River is one of central Australia’s longest rivers. It meanders for 750 kilometres past the western edge of the Simpson Desert and into South Australia before meeting with the Macumba River and spilling into Lake Eyre.
After having successfully conquered the Finke National Park Boggy Hole 4WD track, sans Harry Hawk, the McInnes Crew were feeling very confident in Percy’s 4WDing abilities. Percy had ambled along the mostly dry riverbed from north to south – pausing to admire birds and access routes – and camped at the sporadic watering holes strung out along the track. Before setting off, the crew had parked up Harry Hawk at the Palm Valley Campground on the western side of the National Park. Two days later they returned, hitched up Harry and said goodbye to the Finke. At least that’s what they thought…
Oozing confidence, they decided to take a fresh track right through the middle of a damp riverbed, instead of following the well-worn path along the banks. Alas, the Finke soon gobbled up Harry Hawk in its soft mud. Percy Prado was happily clear of the bog, and was duly uncoupled in order to rescue Harry. This was a challenge in itself as it was some distance from the trailer to the more stable ground from which Percy could winch. The problem-solving McInnes Crew combined the snatch strap with the winch and recovery strap in order to reach the trailer.
Using the rear bar on Harry, they dragged him through the bog. After an hour of winching, repositioning Percy, and winching some more, Harry was finally on harder ground and able to be re-coupled. The only evidence of any mishap here was a 200-odd-metre trench courtesy of the jockey wheel. The McInnes Crew joked that they should have planted some seeds in what seemed a perfect agricultural furrow.
Moral of the story?
Stick to the main path or get out and inspect the unbeaten path before committing. Confidence will get you in but it may not get you out.
The Kimberley, Western Australia
Next the McInnes Crew travelled north-west across the Tanami Desert and made their way to the Kimberley. After a few nights at El Questro Station on the eastern edge of the Gibb River Road, they continued west before hitting the first of the red Gibb dirt and the iconic Pentecost River crossing. Named after explorer John Pentecost, the 118-kilometre river snakes its way through El Questro Station northwards before spilling into the Cambridge Gulf. Being a northern Australia river that meets the sea, it’s home to hundreds of saltwater crocodiles. Upon reaching the river crossing the McInnes Crew paused to inspect the route (at a safe distance from any lurking crocs). The rocky path was shallow and looked quite benign. With the Cockburn Range in the rearview mirror, the McInnes Crew tracked cautiously across the river… trying to avoid unexpected rocks or drops. None of them wanted to get stuck and become croc meat!
But no sooner than they were safely through, Percy Prado lost a tyre. Opening the car doors to admire the view from the nearby Cockburn Range Lookout, the crew simultaneously heard a deflating ‘whoosh’ of air emanating from the left rear of the vehicle. It seemed Percy may have caught a snag during the Pentecost River crossing. After a roadside wheel change, the McInnes Crew safely arrived at Home Valley Station where the on-site workshop patched and repaired the puncture. The snag was in fact a large bolt some five inches long! The mechanic advised that the patchwork meant the repaired tyre could only suffice in an emergency, as a second spare.
Moral of the story?
Always carry two spare tyres! Thankfully, the McInnes Crew were prepared.
The Pilbara, Western Australia
After an idyllic night camping on the banks of the Fortescue River in Western Australia’s Pilbara region about an hour south of Karratha, the McInnes Crew headed further inland to explore a fraction of the 760-kilometre river (the third-largest in the State). Winding its way from just south of Newman, east of Karijini National Park, to the Indian Ocean just south of Dampier, it is an ephemeral system usually only traced by intermittent permanent pools and small remnant waterholes. The rocky dried riverbanks were not dissimilar to what Percy had encountered along the Finke. The smooth palm-sized rocks would be easily tackled. Or so they thought…
After a relaxing morning, the McInnes Crew returned to camp and hitched up Harry Hawk for the quick drive back to the North West Coastal Highway. Alas, what should have been a 20-minute trip took a full hour. You see, eager to get to Karratha, the McInnes Crew followed their friends (who weren’t towing a van) on a not-so-worn track. This meant the rocks and sand were not sufficiently compact and Percy soon became stuck in small rocks with all the qualities of quicksand! The crew first tried to free Percy using TREDs and digging out some of the rocks by hand. But no luck. Next they tried winching from their friends’ Prado. Again, no luck; as the wheels kept spinning. While surveying the situation, the McInnes Crew heard the unmistakable whoosh of air escaping a tyre – quickly. This could only mean it had been slashed by a sharp rock or had been wrenched off the rim. Time would tell.
Rather than changing the wheel immediately it was decided to extricate Percy from the rocks first – in case another tyre met the same fate. The recovery vehicle was repositioned, more rocks were removed and Percy was finally winched free. With a high-lift jack Percy was raised (a little precariously) on the unstable rocks so the crew could change the offending tyre. To everyone’s surprise the sudden deflation was due to the air valve being completely sheared off.
Moral of the story?
Be wary of loose river rocks – they can be as nasty as mud and sand!
As the McInnes Crew, Percy Prado and Harry Hawk continued their journey, they smiled at their adventures and hoped for more to come.
Tips for getting out of the bog
- If you’re travelling solo or in a group, make sure someone has a winch and a recovery kit.
- Invest in some MaxTrax or TREDs. These ingenious plastic boards help your tyres grip to something and get out of the mess.
- Lower your tyre pressures before you get on soft terrain. It can help prevent getting stuck; but if you do get bogged, lower them further. We’ve been stuck in sand and only needed to lower our tyres to 13psi to get out.
- Carry an on-board air compressor to inflate your tyres after 4WDing.
- Carry a long-handled shovel – the longer handle will make digging out around the tyres less arduous.
- If all else fails and you’re on your own, you will need to call for help. Carry adequate telecommunications for the terrain you’re travelling. A smartphone with a city-centric mobile phone service provider is nothing more than a camera in regional parts. A smarter option is to carry a satellite phone and/or an emergency response beacon (especially if you risk getting into an unrecoverable situation).