The 1820 km Canning Stock Route was initially established in 1910, with water wells being dug in a more or less straight line from Wiluna in central WA heading north-east to Halls Creek. This was to allow cattle from the Kimberley region to be driven down to the Goldfields. The last of only 37 cattle drives was in 1959.
The area is said to have been in use by Aboriginal people for 50,000 years and has a large number of heritage sites and places of cultural significance. As much of the area is under Native Title, several permits are required and need to be purchased well before the trip.
Although horses, cattle and camels were normally used on the track, the first car to make the distance was a short landrover in 1968, using many fuel drops placed earlier using access tracks bulldozed by mining exploration.
More information about the history of the Canning is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canning_Stock_Route
This was one of the three trips that Alison and I had been planning for the last few years, and which I intend to complete in her memory. I have found that these solo trips are a good way for me to cope with the grieving and get over the self pity. The other two are to walk the coastal path of Cornwall in the UK using B and B’s and then to walk the Te Aroroa, the 6 month unsupported end to end walk of NZ. I’ll get to the other two one day but since crossing the Simpson Desert in 2017 had set us and the troopy up for desert living, I decided to carry on with the desert crossings and include the Canning. This trip was a whole order of magnitude more serious than the Simpson crossing and required quite a bit of money for upgrades to the troopy to handle it, with a water tank, extended fuel tank and an electric winch all on the list. I must be getting older and careful as a satellite phone was also on the list of upgrades for solo travelling.
I had sold Alison’s caravan to a buyer in Esperence, WA, so my initial plan was to take the van and Clare from Mossman in Queensland south to Victoria, allowing me to see several friends along the way. I could then continue west across the Nullabor, drop off the van then head on into South West WA for a while, then Perth to see more friends before heading off to Wiluna to start the Canning. However the night after dropping off the van, Alison’s brother Peter called with the bad news that their father Alan, had gone into palliative care and was not expected to survive much longer. I turned around and headed back to Melbourne to be there for the family.
Once all the sorry business had been completed I was able to head back to WA, but this time instead of driving that boring bitumen road back to Norseman, I decided to take another couple of desert tracks, and use the Strezlecki track from Tibooburra in NSW to Coober Pedy in SA to connect onto the Anne Beadell hwy that runs from Coober Pedy to Laverton in WA. That is another story. This tale then starts after farewelling friends in Perth and heading off north east to Wiluna and the Canning.
Friday August 2
After getting away from Perth with a new fridge, spare tubes and door latches, I refuelled at Meekatharra, then went on to Wiluna to top up. I then had 290 litres of diesel and 100 litres of water on board which would be ample to get to Kunawarritji and fuel at the 1040 km mark. Many of the wells have potable water, so that wouldn’t be a problem. I left Wiluna and made a detour out to Well 1 on principle before continuing on a good road for North Pool intending to have lunch then camp by the last open fresh water.
Cattle have open access, so the water was brown with muddy banks, even Clare wasn’t too interested in a swim. By 2.00 I was too excited to stay and had to get on to the track proper, so off we went again. We had about 25 km on a good gravel road at 80 kph to the turn off and the slow track began.
Down to 3rd gear at 40 kph on either rocky, rutted or corrugated single lane track with many bypasses. Did 50 k or so and camped at well 2a, the Granites, where the well has been blasted down into the rock. There was no water visible in the ruins, but it looked like it was filled in long ago.
Saturday 3rd August
A very windy night, but only cool because of that. I kept the windows mostly closed to stay warm inside. The track was very rough and rocky for about 50kms to well 3a, so I was driving mostly in 3rd gear at 30 to 40kph. After well 3a we were able to rocket along at 60kph although too often braking hard for a corner or a rock ledge. Had to stay alert.
My first southbound car came past and stopped for a chat. It was their last day after 15, and they were looking forward to civilisation, so I hope Wiluna was able to satisfy that need. We stopped at Windich Spring for morning coffee but I was unable to find any spring or water, only a very large dry river bed, so quite a bit of water flowing at times. Another party of 4 cars, each with a couple, stopped while I was there and everybody had to give Clare a cuddle. Another north bound car rolled through but they were apparently heading out at well 5. Saw 2 feral cats just north of there, so they don’t seem effected by the baiting. Poor old Clare has to stay tied to me or the car for the duration of this trip as there are warning signs about the 1080 baits everywhere.
We rolled into well 6/Pierre Spring at about 1, planning to stay but a north bound party of 3 single guys had already stopped in the middle of a lovely grove of gums. They were planning on staying a couple of nights. I decided to have some lunch and move on. Their doof doof noise started as I had my sandwich.
So I was very glad to move on. Well 7 was dry and dusty with bull dust drifting in the breeze, so we kept going to find the track blocked by another 2 cars on a woodcutting exercise. They were also from Mossman, but a different friendship circle. That made 11 cars for the day, a bit busier than I expected.
Well 8 was peaceful and relatively dust free so we made camp. Clare collapsed into her bed while I had a bath and washed my 4 day clothes. 200 km today from well 2a.
Sunday 4th August
Another busy day for traffic. 12 cars southbound, 1,1,1,3,6. Finally had to let my tyres down a bit (30,25) to make it over one dune, but the track is still very rocky so I’m more worried now about the sidewalls. Tomorrow is when the dunes start to get serious as we will enter the Great Sandy Desert. I’m also starting to use more water, and am having to top up the radiator with a half litre or so every day now. I lost count after 20 camels, including one mob of about 12. Clare even got to woof at two running across our front. I’m sure she thinks she could take one down, if only in her dreams. More roos around today with several by the road and more on the way into Biella spring.
The track into Biella Springs was very rocky and stopped about 100m short of the pool. Fouled by cattle etc, but still a pretty spot. Rock cliffs and overhangs with lots of small ochre drawings that look like children’s work. Not a good camp site because of the rocks, but good enough and empty. We could have gone on to Durba Spring but I was exhausted and it was likely to have more people. Clare had her dinner and crashed. Wells 12 and 15 were renovated and functional, but all the others were in ruins with the well usually full of rubble from the walls caving in.
Monday 5th August
Another busy day, with 17 southbound, but mostly stopped as I went by. 2,3,5,2,3,2. Only 5 camels, but a pure white baby one made me wonder if they are all that colour and just dirty. Two bustards flew up and away out of a swale as I popped over a dune. A large flock of zebra finches made for a worthwhile detour in to a functioning bore, 18 I think, where I also refilled my jerry can. Came past Lake Disappointment and lunched out on a peninsula with awesome views out into the mirage.
The river (Savoury ck.)from the lake actually had water in it, but very saline with salt crystals all around. Much of the road was hummocked, making for a slow speed as with every jump, the loose items in the back, including the now full water can, bounced forward trying to join Clare. Lots of dunes today also, so glad I had let my tyres down to 20 front and 30 rear, as we had no trouble on any of them. They are quite different from the Simpson desert ones as the road wanders around hunting for the easiest route through, while on the Simpson the road goes straight ahead on the bearing and has only minor deviations from it. We reached Georgia bore by about 3, but decided to push on a bit more as there were people camped and likely more to come. Another 3 in fact were heading in as I left. Finally stopped at well 24 after 30 km of straight and graded, but corrugated road. Had a dingo investigating old dead camel remains in the morning. Clare was very interested too when we went over there.
Tuesday 6th August
More traffic again with 14 cars total for the day, 1,2,2,4,2,3, including a commercial group “Diamantina tours” and two others with trailers. They said they were going well enough, but the tracks up the dunes showed many with several attempts. Very slow going today, with rocky bands across the track as well as the hummocks again. Managed almost 200 km again, eventually camping at well 31 in a grove of the spectacular white trunked gums, not eucs. Very sandpaper like leaves and very regular opposite leaves. 5 camels for Clare to dream about and some lovely flowering shrub bands with yellow, purple and white.
And another big mob of zebra finches at the one functioning well we went past today. Went into Nugurna soak as well but couldn’t find anything resembling a damp spot, just a dense patch of titree.
Wednesday 7th August
Made it into Kunawarritji by 8, meant to be opening time for the shop, but it’s now 8.30 so sat around outside waiting and watching the community come to life. Had just done 1040 km on the main tank since Wiluna, so filled it anyway with 167 litres at 3.40 per litre. Forty km of corrugated straight road both north and south of Kuna, but I was able to sit on 65 ok, so a bit of a buzz but not too bad. Once past well 35 the sand dunes started in earnest, sometimes the track even ran along the ridges for a change. Fairly small dunes and quite firm sand, so not the drama I was expecting. The hummocks were the main problem in having to cross them slowly. Not much traffic today, I only had three cars go past, all singles, one rangerover with a patriot trailer. Radio traffic had another two behind me, but they disappeared after a while and must have camped earlier than me.
We went by a very new looking Mitsubishi Triton where the chassis had given up, one of many cars abandoned as not worth the effort of retrieval. Clare had her dinner and crashed asleep while I had a bath and washed out some tee shirts. Camped with a view out over a salt marsh called Lake Tobin after a grave on the far side. 3 camels, two bustard tracks,and not much else today.
Thursday 8th August
Off and driving across the lake by 7 am after a warmish night. Didn’t even zip up the sleeping bag. Dune crossings again all day, thinning out after about well 46, but still quite small but made slow by the hummocking. The first car of the day we met just at popover for me as he was ascending. I backed off to the side and he came on up and past, then I had trouble getting back onto the track. Back and fill a few times digging deeper but it finally came free. Had a long chat to the next older couple from Trinity beach in an overloaded elderly cruiser with a poor map. I gave them mine and they took my phone number. Hugh and Gloria. Only four cars went past, but saw another 10 camped and two more after I camped. Also 21 camels for the day. Camped on an exposed ridge with good views but no shelter. There hadn’t been any spots for 30 km so I gave up on shelter when I found some spinifex free gravel. Clare was on tiptoes due to the gravel but she slept soundly on her mat till tea time, then again until my leftovers came out. Burned all the plastic and paper trash in the first fire for the trip. Nana napped 4 till 5.
Friday 9th August
An early start this morning as it is not so cold as other mornings so not unreasonable to get out of bed before sunrise. Followed a track into Breaden Pool, but it was dry although the sand was quite wet, so digging would probably give water. On past the last of the wells, all ruins except for 49, which had a ranger station and a sign asking that permits be available for inspection. No one present, but a shelter shed with water and toilet were open. Well 51, the last of them had a turkey nest tank and a windmill next to the old well, which had water visible, but nothing was working and the tank was dry. The track kept on improving, so we were able to drive at 75 into Bililuna, where we met the main Tanami road. 90 kph from there to the turnoff to Wolf Creek crater. Lunch at the crater after a climb up onto the rim. Weird how the floor of the crater sits below ground level on the outside, and it’s been filled up by wind blown sand over the past 300 thousand years.
Then on into Halls Creek and refuelling amid the crowds. A quick check of mail and Facebook before heading out to Sawtooth Gorge for a camp. Found a spot free of most of the bulldust and settled in. Didn’t need a jacket to sit outside for the first time in the trip.
Saturday 10th August
Just a long day driving endless straight gravel roads. NT border, then Kalkaringi, remembering Vincent Lingiari, Top Springs and camped 15 km short of the Sturt Hwy, inside a Turkey nest dam. Quite a novelty provided it doesn’t rain as the Dam has been built that way to collect runoff from the road. The drains providing the access. The stretch from Kalkaringi to Top Spring was busy, while the only car to go past before kalkaringi was while I changed a flat. I had neglected to pump my tyres back up to Hwy running as they were quite high anyway (35/30) or a spinifex needle worked it’s way through. Put in a new tube anyway as I had two new spares and repaired the puncture for a spare. At least the roads, while gravel, are well made, so able to sit on 100 without much drama. Pressures now back up to 50/45. Back into shorts this morning, with shirt and shorts until the flat. Filthy after that and even got giggled at by two English tourists at the top springs roadhouse. Lunch was a disgusting microwaved limp chicken roll with peach tea. Clare enjoyed her share of the roll. Fish fritters for dinner went down well for both of us.
Sunday 11th August
Just as well to keep this diary as I’d have no idea what day it was otherwise. Warm enough overnight for me to put on shorts this morning. Singlets are not too far off but still put on my puffer this evening. Just a long day of driving mostly on corrugated gravel roads, but generally managing 80 to 90 kph. One dip had a surprise river at the bottom, so almost skidded into the water. Very few cars went by except for the bit between Cape Crawford and Borroloola. Waved as we went by but didn’t bother going up from the turnoff. Refuelled in Daly Waters, so that should see us to Normanton. Camped at a billabong on the Hann River, 4 others already set up but lots of space on both sides of the pool. Clare managed a woof at two cattle that went the wrong way, mostly they are scared off by the noise of the car, but there are always exceptions. Greeted by black cockies as we set up camp. Clare had a good sniff around before collapsing in her bed. Only got up when I started eating.
Monday 12th August
Just kept pushing today all the way through to Georgetown and found a camp about 10 km east in old road works. The road all the way is tightly fenced with only crowded options for stopping, or very dusty ones and I’m sick of the dust. The Georgetown Chimney site must have had 30 or more vans wall to wall. The Gilbert River favourite spot has been closed by the owners. Another flat this morning not detected by the tpms so I was out on the road 100m on a flat before I realised. Still carrying the flat and hoping to make it home tomorrow without a spare. Stopped for coffee at the Leichhardt crossing and I think Clare must have picked up something. Three bouts of vomiting hopefully got rid of the problem, but as the first was over my mattress it could be a smelly night. The second and third were out the window, so I’m hoping for rain through Ravenshoe as usual to wash the side of the car. Doomadgee, Hell’s Gate, Tirranna typical bush roadhouses while Burketown was a small town, with a hot bore as the attraction. I didn’t stop. Skipped past Normanton, Croydon and Georgetown getting worried about finding a camp. Fixed the flat in the morning rather than risk another. I think I was too generous in getting off the track for oncomers.
The last day was an easy run through the Tablelands and down to Mossman. And relax for a few days to plan the next run.