In Search of O'Grady Well
​Dateline: August 2014
Michael Terry was the first Whiteman to find, deep in the Tanami Desert in 1932, a native well he called O'Grady's Well. We went in search of it.

'We called it O'Grady's Well ...... It was the largest most outstanding native well any member of the party has ever found ..... Down this, holding on to ropes linked together, I climbed till it became too dark to see. Peeping ahead with a lighted candle I espied a little pool of water where the lubras had left off work.'

So Michael Terry described in his book, Sand and Sun, his discovery of this important native well, known to the locals as 'Ylalya' when he was exploring the remote areas of central Australia in 1932.
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Passing through Siddeley Range.
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Permanent waters of Wartupunya Waterhole.
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Our first night's camp near the Siddeley Ranges.
When a friend of mine, Willie Kempen, (long time readers of the mag will remember his contributions back in the late 1980s and early 1990's of his adventures – he is still out there doing it!) said he had a Central Land Council permit to go to O'Grady's Well, my hand was up like a flash to join the small party of adventurers.
 
A few weeks later, after gathering in Alice Springs, our convoy of five vehicles pulled into the remote community of Nyrippi in the heart of the Tanami Desert, some 360km north-west of the Alice and 150km west of the main Tanami Road.
 
Our route west from the Tanami Road had taken us through Aboriginal land and we camped for the first night close to a spectacular but un-named gap through the Siddeley Range. From a vantage point on the hills we could see a line of peaks to the south-east, jutting up from the surrounding flat sand plain, Central Mount Wedge being the most prominent. It was a top view!
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An easy start to the cross country travel.
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Night camps were always time for a few minor repairs.
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Our small convoy dwarfed by the incredible landscape.
Our 1:250,000 maps also showed a waterhole nearby and after a short search we found it tucked up at the base of some cliffs in a fold of the range. Zebra finches flittered in from the nearby bushes for a speedy drink from the life giving water, but that was the only movement we saw in this secluded spot. 

The next day our route took us through Newhaven, the one time pastoral property that some years ago had been acquired by Birds Australia and the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and now run as a conservation park. You can camp here and enjoy this remote property and the bird watching it offers, but we pushed on along what was signposted, 'Private track - use at your own risk'.

Quite suddenly we came into Nyrippi, a community of around 150 people, although most times there are considerably less inhabitants there. We found the well stocked store and fuelled up with diesel for the vehicles and chocolate bars for the people. Yarning to a few of the locals we met a number of traditional owners (T/O's) who gave us their blessings for our trip and allowed us to photograph the spectacular mural that graces the local school. We also got told that they were hoping to set up a small tourist camp ground amongst the spectacular peaks to the south of the community. I hope they do! 
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Trying to follow the leader.
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Trying to find a way through.
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Easier going.
That evening after travelling on poorly maintained and little used tracks since leaving Nyrippi we were skirting along the edge of Ethel Creek on a track that was about to vanish completely into the surrounding grass and spinifex. Amongst this verdancy we had trouble finding a campsite free of vegetation and when we did camp, disaster almost struck when a small campfire licked flames into the nearby grass and fire erupted quickly around us. A hastily grabbed bucket of water, a couple of fire extinguishers and a fire blanket had the flames under control, but it was a near thing and a valuable lesson on how quickly disaster can strike out here and the many forms it can take.
 
Next day we turned off the track and struck west, at first following the wheel marks left by a group of T/O's and Aboriginal rangers who had been out to their traditional lands, but we soon left these ephemeral marks as they swung north to areas we didn't have a permit for.
 
Pushing west over flat grassy spinifex plains for the first few kilometres we had easy going as we ran between, what at first were widely spaced dunes. Our plan was to head west and cut south of the McEwin Hills – an area our permit expressly forbade us to visit – bypassing them by at least a kilometre.
 
Quite suddenly the vegetation changed, subtly at first with the spinifex clumps getting bigger and the waving fronds of seed heads taller before we passed through a band of thick low verdant scrub of spindly wattle and dense cassia and emu bush. Rain had fallen across much of this country a couple of months previously and in places amongst the scrub and spinifex were splashes of brilliant colour from a myriad of daisies, flowering honey and rattlepod grevilleas and corkwood hakeas.

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Pushing through some thick scrub ... don't mind the paintwork!
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Plugging another tyre.
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Another stake; another flat tyre!!
We swung south to the edge of a dune, trying to get away from the thick scrub before a call over the UHF heralded the first puncture. A quick plug repair and we were away again, but had only gone less than a kilometre when our little convoy growled to a halt with another radial tyre whining to empty.
 
Both Willie and I who were up the front busting scrub had previously fitted our Patrols with tough MRF cross ply tyres while those following us had stayed with their radials. Certainly the MRF tyres are a dog of a thing to drive on bitumen roads, but out here in untracked country when you are driving through thick scrub, they are worth their weight in gold.
 
After stopping in a burnt area clear of the spiny spinifex for lunch we pushed on, making pretty good time of about 7-10kph. The afternoon run was similar to the morning's effort with a few more radial tyres sighing flat before we punched a couple of plugs into them and rolled on. At one stage in thick, thick spinifex Willie's Patrol smashed into and unseen conglomeration of dome-shaped limestone rocks, their ominous presence hidden by the thick grass and spinifex. These outcrops, which may cover an area of many square metres, are by all accounts the remnants of ancient mound springs, the main structure of the spring having eroded away. Whatever causes them, they are hell to hit unexpectedly in a vehicle, and it was lucky that Willie's tough old Patrol bounced its way through relatively unscathed.
 
That evening we again pulled up in a large cleared patch of sandy plain for our night's camp. Dotted across the sand and easily found were scattered clumps of daisies, common firebush, purple parakeelya and the multi, muted pastel colours of mulla mullas. A few taller grevilleas and hakeas plus the odd drooping desert oak completed the scene and made for a very pleasant camp.

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Clearing spinifex from under vehicles was a job every few hours.
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Approaching the Sandford Cliffs.
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A pleasant desert camp site scene.
The next day's travel was much the same but with thicker spinifex and scrub dominating our travels. The low long dome of the McEwin Hills, visible and tempting for much of the journey were past, away to the north. Our stops were only regulated by the calls of a flat tyre as we slowly pushed west, the dunes coming ever closer and the inter-dunal valley narrower.
 
As we approached the Sandford Cliffs in the early afternoon, thick bands of scrub thwarted our progress and at times we were driving blind with scrub taller than the windscreen hindering our way. Suddenly we were amongst large clumps of tea-tree, with the spiny spinifex giving way to grassy tussocks and much easier going. It was also a sign of better watered country, the water from infrequent storms running off the rocky slopes of the nearby Sandford Cliffs.
 
Now I've searched for a number of native water holes and rock holes during our remote desert travels and rarely are they found easily. In Terry's book, he describes O'Grady's Well being found at the eastern end of the Sandford Cliffs and he had approached the cliffs from the east as we were doing. We pulled up close to the cliffs and spread out, our party all keen to find the well. And it was remarkably easy with my mate and travelling companion, Neil, spying it from a lofty rock he had climbed.
 
Lying in an almost imperceptible creek bed that ran from a low rocky amphitheatre, the well was located just 50 metres or so from the more dominant rocky cliffs at the south-eastern end of the Sandford Cliffs and was surrounded by tea-tree. It was much smaller and shallower than when Michael Terry had first found it being only dug out to about five metres below ground level with no water in it, although I'm sure a bit of digging could result in water being found there. It was obvious that when rain does fall here, a lot of silt gets washed down the creek and fills the well, so in days past the Aboriginal people would have been kept busy keeping it clean and accessible to its reported depth of 10 metres or more. Still, though shallower and not as big as first reported, we were still mighty pleased with ourselves and the area we found ourselves in. 

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Wilie contemplates O'Grady's Well.
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View from a small cave in the Sandford cliffs.
We spent the next day exploring around the rocky hills finding the odd small cave and overhang but little else. We saw very little sign of life with no wallabies or kangaroos present although by their droppings they sometimes used the caves and overhangs for shade and protection. We got the impression that these isolated cliffs were used only rarely and in the very best of times.
 
Next day saw us heading back east and once we made the track network we turned south, taking a new mining track we had been told about and given permission to use by one of the T/O's at Nyrippi, to the outstation of Emu Bore. Here we picked up another track which headed south and then swung west for a long run down a valley between the east-west dunes before dodging around to pass through a gap in the dunes or to cross them at their lowest point. We got to Kalipima Native Well and were side tracked while trying to find the water point amongst some tall gum trees and coolibahs. Eventually we found the well a few hundred metres south, its dry depression still attracting wandering camels by the look of the churned up dust bowls which the large animals used for a dust bath nearby. From here the track swung east to run between the dunes again before swinging south, eventually coming out on the Gary Junction Road, at Sandy Blight Junction.
 
Our adventure was nearly over as we turned east for the run back to Alice Springs. Now, having been to two of Michael Terry's most important  discoveries (the other was Chugga Kurri, which I visited in 1990), I only had one more to go, but the Cleland Hills will have to wait for another day and another permit! 

The all important permit.

Travel Planner
Most of the Tanami Desert is now included in the Southern or Northern Tanami Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA).

For info on Newhaven and the camping there (bookings essential) go to: http://birdlife.org.au/visit-us/reserves/newhaven.

Nyrippi is a small and friendly community west of the Tanami Road and, from an email I received from the office there, no permit is required to camp or stay at or near the community – but you MUST visit the community, to let them know you are there and get permission to camp. The local store is well stocked and sells petrol/diesel – the store is closed on Sundays. Bush camping is permitted on the Karku loop road (near Mt Cockburn). For more details contact the Nyrripi Office, email: nyrripiRJCP@ngur.com.au, or phone: (08) 8956 4982.

To head west from Nyrippi like we did, you will need a permit from the Central Land Council (CLC); go to: www.clc.org.au.

O'Grady's Well is located at 22°02'9.1"S 129°20'53.1"E.

​Copyright Ron & Viv Moon