Ngarkat Conservation Park
A bit of background: We’ve both been avid campers since way back. Early in 2018, we bought our first 4WD – admittedly for the Hippie’s gardening requirements, but hey, why not make it worth it? Second-hand, already lifted, the D40 had huge tyres (which we later found out were rubbish for off-roading), black rims, a snorkel, and bull bar. It looked mean, and it drove well, so we signed the dotted line… only to discover that like many pre-loved vehicles, it was full of problems. It’s been an absolute headache to restore to good working order (neither of us knows anything about cars), but it has opened up a brand new world. And after all my car-related research, I’m convinced it’s better the devil you know: at least we know what has been done on this vehicle. It’s a good, sturdy Ute – it just needs some tweaking.
To satiate Hippie’s need for instruction, we enrolled for First Time Out (FTO) 4WD training with David at Adventure 4WD only a few weeks after purchasing the Nav. The experience was incredible. At an evening theory session, David talked us through fundamental 4WDing concepts such as part-time vs full-time 4WD, wind up, traction, ABS, ETC, ESP, crawl control, stability control disengagement, dealing with mud/water/sand/steep grades, choosing tyres and correct inflation, and the mechanics specific to our vehicle (I’m convinced he knows everything about everything). To be honest, a lot of this went over my head. I’d only had my ‘regular’ car license for about two years, so I’m still learning (and understanding), but David had a way of making even the ridiculously un-car-ish people (me!) understand what he was talking about. A few days after digesting theory night, we ventured out on a day trip to his purpose-built 4WD training track to put our driving, and our cars, to the test. The first pothole challenge looked terrifying - but with David’s jovial and encouraging voice guiding us on the UHF, it was easily conquered. We had so much fun!
A day trip was not nearly enough of an adventure and we instantly wanted more. Check out the photos on the Adventure 4WD Gallery page and look at all the smiles. Honestly, go see David, he is the best!
That’s all it took; we were hooked. We immediately enrolled in Adventure 4WD’s Weekend Walkabouts – tackling beach driving and slushy sand dunes in the Limestone Coast the very next weekend, and steep rocky ridges in the Southern Flinders later on in May. These adventures were definitely a step up from the beginner's track, and full of learning opportunities. We discovered some vehicle limitations (we definitely need a diff locker), weeded out some driver problems (note to self: take foot off accelerator, learn left and right), and some mechanical faults (damn suction control valve!). Some of these we overcame on our weekends out, and some had to be investigated further.
After painful dealership warranty repairs, we wanted to return to the Limestone Coast to tackle Little Dip Conservation Park on our own. We’d acquired some basic 4WDing paraphernalia: brand new Toyo OPAT LT tyres; second-hand CSA alloy ‘Monster’ rims in a size more appropriate for off-roading; Maxtrax and a long-handled shovel for self-recovery in the sand; and a compressor and tyre gauge for the necessary pressure adjustments. We’d borrowed a makeshift sand flag from a dog with disabilities, and ventured out. The weather and conditions were near perfect for driving and camping, and Little Dip was rated highly by the Hippie. The highlight of this trip: coming across a convoy of 4WDers having trouble making it up a particularly tall and soft sand dune. We wandered over and had a quick chat. They had tried several times and decided it impassable. They weren’t going to persist; they were going back to the beach.
Hippie and I considered each other for a moment. ‘It doesn’t look so bad. I think you can do it,’ I said.
‘I think I can do it, too.’
So we did it. Up and over with barely a struggle. Tyres and momentum! 4WD training fools! We wanted our cloud of dust to advertise Adventure 4WD and a contact number for the ones left on the beach. I wish I knew what car they were driving – it’s now a battle of the brands.
Still, we wanted more. We felt we needed a club. We loved camping and 4WDing alone but were far from capable off-roaders. We didn’t have the equipment or the know-how to tackle much more on our own, especially as we wanted to (eventually) get remote. So, the search began.
We quickly found a suitable group willing to let us riff-raffs into their midst. Over pub meets and dinners we began to know our new group of like-minded adventurers. Slowly we added to our 4WD toolbox - recovery kit with snatch straps and bow shackles; off-road First Aid Kit; UHF radios; a more reliable tyre gauge and speedy deflators.
Since joining the Club, our convoy (damn, I love a convoy!) has been to Loveday 4x4 Adventure Park on the River Murray (we LOVED IT and will be going back), Deep Creek Conservation Park on the Fleurieu Peninsula, and Bushy’s 4x4 property near Coonalpyn in the South East. Next year brings many more adventures, and we can’t wait.
The Club was a lifesaver when we “blew our clutch to shreds” (the mechanic's words). We knew it was on its way out, so it had only been a matter of time. We managed to pick a vehicle renowned for its terrible clutch. And although this traumatic event could have broken our 4WD spirit if we were on our own, we were rescued, towed into the nearest town, accompanied during RAA arrangements, and then ferried back to camp to share another night with our Club. Whatever we needed (or had to leave in the Ute) they provided without having to be asked. Who would have thought two weirdos could have been welcomed so wholly into a group? We’d found our community. The next morning we were driven back home, leaving our broken Ute in safe hands at Tinty Auto & Ag, awaiting a new clutch, but saving us a $1k tow fee back to Adelaide.
This misfortune brought us our opportunity to see Ngarkat Conservation Park, which had been highly recommended by 4WD instructor David and had been on Hippie’s hit list for some time. Our trip was a brief one: a weekend to take advantage of us having to travel to Tintinara and back to pick up the Ute. Instead of a boring 6-hour drive on the highway there and back, we would camp overnight and go 4WDing through Ngarkat – a place we knew we would have to come back to for a longer trip, especially when the famous Border Track reopened after fire danger season. With over 270,000 hectares of vegetated sand dunes, Mallee bushland, an array of flora and fauna and an extensive network of tracks, this is somewhere to spend an extended weekend at the very least.
We left home just after midday and arrived in Tintinara around 3pm and swapped cars. I had to sing the entire Moana soundtrack on repeat because the battery had been disconnected and we didn’t have the code to reset the stereo. The Ute, however, sang beautifully. Finding the clutch point was like relearning to drive. Much appreciation to the folks at Tinty Auto & Ag for finding time for us in their busy season.
It was a longer drive than expected from Tintinara to the Ngarkat Highway, but when we turned off the bitumen onto sandy Pertendi Track, we finally engaged 4WD. We erected our new (actual purpose-built) sand flag. We hadn’t seen any signage indicating we should reduce our tyres pressures, and the track didn’t seem conducive to stopping, so we decided to leave them until we reached camp. We’d only travelled the track for about 10 minutes before changing our minds. It would be safer, and more comfortable, to let some air out. We stopped in the middle of the one-lane track stretching to the horizon and lowered the Toyos to 20psi. Much better.
The tracks in the north-east corner of the park were simple and fun. We stayed in 2nd gear high range from the bitumen to the camp, giving it some gas for the taller dunes, letting off the gas for a few jiggly patches, but mostly staying at 40kph as is the speed limit in National Parks.
We finally arrived at camp around 6.30pm. WTF?! Should have stuck with the passenger car? The long drive, encroaching darkness, and lack of water (guess who shittily packed the back of the Ute? Both 15L water containers had rattled around, upended and broken, the water mostly gone), left me feeling exhausted. We had about 7 litres remaining - 6 litres per person per day when camping, they say! The rule ran through our heads as we eyeballed each other. Perhaps one of us could survive in this inhospitable environment? This was our first time 4WDing to our campsite. Previously, we’d always had smooth, flat roads to the camp, unpacked our gear and then gone off-road. Another lesson learned in ensuring gear is appropriately secured in the back. Neither of us had to cannibalise the other for their fluids.
We had the campsite to ourselves, and seemingly, the whole park. The adjacent campsite had water (not suitable for drinking) and an immaculately maintained long drop (seriously excellent). We set up camp. It was a very nice spot under shady trees, with a picnic table and a campfire ring, though fire danger season eliminated the possibility of a campfire. I washed all the dishes gone mouldy after 2 weeks in the back of the Ute, while Hippie attempted the new JetBoil for the first time. At dusk we set out to do the quick Nanam Well bush walk, hoping to catch a glimpse of goannas, pygmy possums or hopping mice. We saw tracks and traces of wildlife, but only saw kangaroos. We reached the creepy well right on sunset and wandered back in the torchlit dark to the eyeshine of a billion spiders. My light ran out of battery, and I was actually thankful. So many eyes!
We heard one vehicle as we were venturing off for our bush walk but we think that was the park ranger. The campsites themselves were huge; ours, as one site, had enough space easily for four or five tents. We ate late and crawled into bed.
Overnight, we only heard one formless monster making noise outside of our tent. Then it was morning.
We ate breakfast, packed up, and drove the Pine Hut Soak Track where we had to stop and collect the top of our flag from an overhanging tree. Hippie’s plans to do the Orchid Hike were foiled by high temperatures and strong winds. Not pleasant weather for a bush walk, nor safe with our dwindling water reserves.
By 11am we were back off of the sandy tracks and onto the Ngarkat Highway (with tyre pressures back up) until we reached the South Boundary Track, where we had to stop and let them down again. With irrigated and weed-infested farmlands on the left and dense Mallee heathland scrub on the right, it was a stark picture of food production versus conservation. We were escorted down the length of the track by clouds and clouds of psychopomp—wrens. We encountered emus, kangaroos, dragons, and wedge-tailed eagles. The tracks in the south-west corner were mostly sand interspersed with rocky patches, just as the ranger had informed us when we’d called up for some advice the day before. It wasn’t particularly challenging, but engaging, fun, and stress-free.
With scenic Mallee vegetation, attractive campgrounds, and sandy winding tracks, Hippie told me it was “better than Little Dip”. I agreed, though it definitely needed a longer, more thorough exploration.
We drove Gosse Hill Track, Buck’s Camp Track, and a bit of Jimmy’s Well Track, but then we took Mount Rescue Track back towards Tintinara, as severe weather was heading our way and we still had 3 hours of highway driving before we got home. Our 4WDing had come to an end for this weekend. Sadface.