The Anne Beadell Highway

Monday, Feb 17, 2014 at 18:40

Peter Beard (WA)


The Anne Beadell Highway is not really a highway, it’s just a track that connects Laverton in Western Australia with Coober Pedy in South Australia. The ’highway’ was first surveyed in 1953 by Australian Army surveyor Len Beadell, who named it after his wife Anne. The track was finally cut in the early 1960s by Beadell and his team - the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party - using a single Land-Rover, a grader, and two trucks loaded with fuel, spare parts and supplies.

The Anne Beadell Highway forms part of a 1600 kilometre network of tracks covering an area of 2.5 million square kilometres. The tracks were used to retrieve British Army test rockets fired from the Woomera rocket range as part of the Long Range Weapons Establishment formed between the United Kingdom and Australia in 1947. The Anne Beadell Highway’s almost 1400 kilometres of red sand, rocks and corrugations crosses the Great Victoria Desert and, even though it passes through some of the best desert scenery in Australia, it is seldom used. Peter and Ali made the crossing from west to east over four days in June 2011.

Tuesday 28 June 2011
We left Laverton via the Great Central Road about 7:30am and headed towards the Mt Shenton to Yamarna road, where we would turn right and head south towards Yamarna Homestead. We had planned to join the Anne Beadell Highway via the White Cliffs track because that’s the path maker of the track Len Beadell had followed, but after hearing the night before that the track was still badly damaged from the February rains we decided on the alternative route. We had travelled the Great Central Road before and the Western Australian side is wide and generally in good condition, as it was this time. And when we turned on to the Mt Shenton to Yamarna road we had an even wider, smoother, freshly graded road – the last half decent road we would see for the next 1400 kilometres.



Yamarna Homestead is marked on the maps as abandoned but when we passed through there were obvious signs of habitation. After we picked up the Anne Beadell Highway at Yamarna and travelled east for a few kilometres we came across three drilling rigs and hundreds of bags of ore samples ready to be picked up for analysis, so we guessed Yamarna was now being used as a base camp for mineral exploration workers.



Not far past the drilling rigs we saw our first dingo for this trip, and our first camel. The camels in central Australia are actually dromedaries (they have one hump), originally from the dry desert areas of western Asia, and they are stupid creatures. Most animals seeing a car approach simply get off the track and let it pass; camels do not. We followed one for 10 kilometres on our first day; we stopped and it stopped, we sped up and it sped up – to 20 km/h at one point. Finally the track opened onto a small clearing and became wide enough for us to pass on the left. Once we had pulled alongside, the stupid camel finally did want we had wanted it to all along; it made a sharp right hand turn and blundered off through the bush.

The recent rains had brought an early spring to the Great Victoria Desert. Mid-morning on our first day we passed through fields of small white daisies that went on for kilometres and extended to the north and the south of the track as far as we could see. The daisies made a stunning display and presented the illusion of snow in the desert.



Not long after our snow-in-the-desert experience we came to Yeo Homestead where Len Beadell finished his 1953 survey trip five months after leaving Coober Pedy. The track between Yeo and Laverton via White Hills was already established when Beadell passed through. Yeo is abandoned now, but the old two-room corrugated iron shack is still there and kept in good condition by WA’s Department of Environment and Conservation and a group of dedicated volunteers.

As well as the two rooms, the shack has a big covered veranda, a rainwater tank, well, drop toilet and even a rudimentary bucket shower. You can expect the water from the well to be pretty cold. A couple of the homestead’s out-buildings are still standing and there is also a barbecue (BYO wood) and a big wooden picnic table. Yeo would have been a great place to camp for the night but it was still relatively early in the day so we stopped for lunch and moved on.



The Anne Beadell Highway passes through extremely remote desert areas and is an awe-inspiring route. The scenery is breathtaking and the landscape vast. The terrain varies between clay pans and salt lakes through soft red sand dunes to sharp rocks and severe corrugations. We were lucky to travel the Anne Beadell Highway following heavy rains a few months before, but parts of the Western Australian section were still muddy and heavily rutted. There was standing water in low-lying areas with side-tracks around the muddiest sections, but the vegetation was verdant and the desert scenery magnificent.



As we approached Bishop Riley’s Pulpit, an unusual landmark rock formation in otherwise flat country, we came across our first real mud for this trip. Most of the mud sections had side-tracks, which we followed, apart from one in particular that was in a heavily wooded grove. There was no choice but to gain a bit of momentum and drive on through, and it was also here we had our first tyre damage for the trip. The mud section through the trees was heavily rutted and we partially rolled the right rear tyre off the rim in one of the deeper ruts. The tyre was flat the next morning and had to be changed.



While the recent rains had greened the desert and brought out the wildflowers, they had also caused considerable erosion to parts of the Anne Beadell Highway, especially in low lying areas. Some sections of the track more closely resembled a river bed than a road and care had to be taken when passing through. Most of the washed away sections had side tracks skirting around the bogs, however extreme care was needed on side tracks through the mulga to avoid staking a tyre.

There aren’t many intersections on the Anne Beadell Highway, so when you come across one it's worth stopping, looking and pondering where the tracks lead. One such intersection is Neale Junction, named after aviation pioneer Frank Neale, who flew a plane over the area in 1935 during the Mackay Aerial Reconnaissance Survey Expedition to Western and South Australia. At Neale Junction the Anne Beadell Highway crosses the Connie Sue Highway, so named after Len Beadell's daughter. The Connie Sue Highway connects Rawlinna on the Trans Line and Warburton on the Great Central Road.



All of the major intersections on the Anne Beadell Highway are identified with hand-stamped aluminium plaques placed there by Beadell and his team when they cut the track in the 1960s. Some intersections have visitors' books kept in weather-proof boxes and travellers can log entries in the books as a lasting record they passed that way.

It's always a good idea to set up camp well before dark and there are plenty of good campsites along the Anne Beadell Highway. About 500 metres west of Neale Junction is a camping area with toilets, benches and fire pits, and we chose to set up camp there for our first night in the Great Victoria Desert. There’s not a lot of firewood around the camping areas - any suitable firewood has been cleared out long ago - so if you want a fire it's important to remember to start collecting firewood a couple of hours before you plan to set up camp. The option that best suited us though, was to clear up after dinner, turn off all the lights and lean back and look at the stars.



Deserts are renowned for their spectacular sunsets and those of the Great Victoria Desert are no exception. News of a severe cold front on its way meant we could expect rain on the Anne Beadell Highway any day. While this was a concern, it also meant the high clouds ahead of the front produced some amazing sunsets. To make sure we kept ahead of the rain and to minimise the risk of getting stuck in a mud hole for a couple of days, each evening we contacted the VKS-737 HF radio network to check for messages and get the latest weather reports. Even though our satellite phone would provide more reliable and certainly more private communication, it’s re-assuring to hear others logging in and knowing you’re not out there completely alone.

Wednesday 29 June 2011
The condition of the Anne Beadell Highway to the east of Neale Junction was a pleasant surprise. Either not much of the rains of previous months had fallen in this area or the track had been recently graded for mining exploration vehicles. We suspected the latter, given the greenness of the spinifex and the abundance of wildflowers. We took advantage of the good road and were able to comfortably travel at 80 km/h to try and keep ahead of the rain clouds looming in the west.



About a hundred kilometres east of Neale Junction there’s an interesting deviation. In 1993 a Goldfields Air Services twin engine Cessna crash-landed in the Great Victoria Desert.The pilot and the aircraft's census collector passengers survived the crash and were rescued after a few days. In 1995 a track to the crash site was cut over the sand dunes and much of the plane still remains, apart from any valuable parts, which have long since been souvenired. It's a worthwhile diversion but the track can be fairly difficult in places as it crosses about 20 very soft sand dunes on its 12 kilometre route.



From the plane crash site it’s only 60 kilometres to the only sign of human life on the Anne Beadell Highway – Illkurlka. Illkurlka is a small Aboriginal community and roadhouse 650 kilometres east of Laverton and 750 kilometres west of Coober Pedy. The roadhouse is said to be Australia's most isolated and carries the only fuel and food supplies on the 1400 kilometre track. It also has hot showers in the camping area if you’re prepared to light the fire in the donkey heater.

Opened in 2003, the Illkurlka roadhouse is managed by Western Australia's Department of Indigenous Affairs and mainly caters to the local Aboriginal people. The roadhouse was built, is owned and is operated by the Spinifex People, who hold Native Title over the area. Illkurlka is located in the centre of the Spinifex People’s lands and is named after a nearby rock hole. The track to the south of Illkurlka goes to Loongana on the Trans Line and eventually leads to Madura on the Eyre Highway. The track to the north terminates near Giles on the Great Central Road. From Illkulka it's 165 kilometres east to the Western Australia - South Australia border.



The landscape has changed little in tens of thousands of years and, apart from the two wheel ruts through the bush, not at all since Len Beadell and his Gunbarrell Road Construction Party first brought vehicles through this part of the desert in the 1950s and 1960s. Beadell is known as Australia’s last explorer. He was a surveyor in the Australian Army Survey Corps and at the end of World War II he was required to serve a further 12 months because the British and Australian governments had decided to build a rocket testing range in outback Australia.

Beadell was charged with locating a suitable site and in March 1947 he chose the site that would later become known as Woomera. Beadell then selected and surveyed launching pads, the centreline of fire for rockets, an airfield, and a village. Beadell’s discharge from the Army became effective in December 1948; however in November 1949 he was asked to re-join the project and began further surveying in August 1950 for the Long Range Weapons Establishment.



Some parts of the Great Victoria Desert had been ravaged by fire, probably a few years before we passed through, and the bare, dead branches at the tops of the trees were the result of those fires. Fires in the desert are common and are usually caused by lightning. An ever present danger, fire can burn through the vast, empty landscape for days or even weeks, with no one to fight it. Fortunately for the desert eucalypts, they are well adapted to such conditions.

Although fire can seemingly devastate an area, it generally only takes a shower of rain to stimulate new growth, which bursts from the base of the trees, growing fresh and hardy around the skeleton left by the flames. The combination of fire and rain means an explosion of new life and seeds baked in the fire germinate at the first rain. The small bushes on the edges of the track will one day close in and the track might need to deviate around them, but that’s many years away.



Setting up camp in the evening became easier and quicker as the days went by. We slipped into a comfortable routine of a quick recce to find the flattest looking patch of ground, and then out with the spirit level to check the angle of the car followed by the inevitable toing and froing to get it just right. Camping on a flat, even surface makes for a much better night’s sleep.

We had our Engel car fridge on freezer mode, giving us pre-prepared homemade meals every evening heated up on our small gas burner. Washed down with an ice cold beer – we cycled freezer bricks through the Engel to keep the contents of the eskies cold – it was wonderful to sit, talk about the day’s adventure and watch the stars. We washed up after dinner with a small amount of water boiled in the kettle, careful not to waste a drop. Although we were carrying 60 litres of water, we were very conscious that if we got stuck on this trip we might have a very long wait for a recovery. Water is life in this harsh and lonely place.



The Great Victoria Desert is Australia’s largest and consists of mainly small sand dunes, grasslands, gibber plains and salt lakes. It covers an area of 424,400 square kilometres and stretches from Western Australia’s eastern goldfields to the Gawler Ranges in South Australia. The Western Australia mallee shrub ecoregion lies to the west, the Little Sandy Desert to the northwest, the Gibson Desert to the north, the Tirari Desert and Sturt Stony Desert to the east and the Nullarbor Plain to the south.

In 1875 British explorer Ernest Giles became the first European to cross the Great Victoria Desert and he named it after the then-reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria. In 1891 David Lindsey's expedition travelled across this area from north to south, and prospector Frank Hann fossicked for gold through here between 1903 and 1908.

The Great Victoria Desert is a World Wildlife Fund ecoregion and an Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia region. The area has had very limited agricultural use and habitats have remain largely undisturbed. Parts of the Great Victoria Desert are protected areas including Mamungari Conservation Park in South Australia, a large area of pristine arid zone wilderness that holds cultural significance for the Aboriginal people. It is also one of Australia’s 14 World Biosphere Reserves. Habitat is also preserved in the large Aboriginal local government area of Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara in South Australia and in the Great Victoria Desert Nature Reserve in Western Australia.

Thursday 30 June 2011
The Serpentine Lakes is a series of long salt lakes running parallel to the Western AustraliaSouth Australia border. Like the many hundreds of salt lakes dotting inland Australia, the Serpentine Lakes are the only signs of standing water in a barren landscape – but it is not the water of life. High salt levels mean very little vegetation and not much animal life either, apart from the insects. Crossing salt lakes is always an unnerving experience. You never know if the seemingly hard-packed track is only a thin crust of sun baked salt that will give way under the weight of your vehicle leaving you bogged in treacherous, salty, stinky mud. Fortunately, this section of the Anne Beadell Highway proved solid.



The Anne Beadell Highway turned into a real track on the South Australian side of the border and progressively got rougher the further east we travelled. Our average speed dropped considerably – it took us three hours to cover just 100 kilometres on the morning of our third day. There were significant washaways that stretched for hundreds of metres and in other places the vegetation crowded close to the track making it a tight squeeze. The shady spots had an added danger – potholes, rocks and stakes were very hard to see in the diffused light.



The Anne Beadell Highway has no neat truck bays with picnic tables to pull into to have lunch, which on our third day was cheese and vegemite on crispbread washed down with cold water from the esky - simple but very welcome. The best place we found to stop for lunch was a stand of trees big enough to cast some shade. The first such spot we saw had been colonised by camels and, although pretty stupid-looking when running along in front of a car, they are also rather large and we didn’t want to start a turf war over a patch of shade. We found some more trees a short distance away but couldn’t even really pull off the track. The ground there is treacherous and full of sharp sticks and rocks that could easily puncture a tyre. Fortunately we didn’t have to contend with any traffic; so far we had seen only one car a day, all heading west. Just before we stopped for lunch we passed a young German couple in a hired 4WD. They confirmed what others had said – we had lots of corrugations to look forward to as we headed east.



Voakes Hill Corner is another of the few access points to the Anne Beadell Highway. From here it is possible to drive south to Cook on the Trans train line - 280 kilometres away. To the north there is nothing but desert. There are several wells along the south track, the first of which is about 30 kilometres down, but travellers are advised not to rely on them for water.



The feeling of isolation and distance is palpable in the desert. The land rises and falls in long waves and from the crests we could see the spinifex reaching the horizon in all directions, the only break in the landscape being the rusty coloured wheel ruts heading east. Birds and insects have colonised the Great Victoria Desert, the conditions too harsh for larger animals like kangaroos and emus … but not camels. The absence of wildlife – no movement, no sound – accentuated the feeling of remoteness. Time is somehow both palpable and irrelevant in the desert.

We had been warned about the corrugations east of the South Australia border. We had thought sections of the track a day or so earlier had been rough but it was nothing compared to the eastern end of the Anne Beadell Highway. Under a very thin layer of dust the ground is hard packed like solid rock and driving over the corrugations was a bone-jarring experience. Our average speed dropped to 10km/h and for many hours the car and its occupants took a real battering. The scenery also changed from green spinifex and blooming eucalypts to rapidly thinning smaller bushes and scrub.



The recent rain had obviously not reached the eastern parts of the Great Victoria Desert and even sightings of birds and insects were becoming rare. We were entering real desert country. We spent our third and final night at Anne’s Corner, the junction of the Anne Beadell Highway and the Mt Davies track. It’s a desolate place, but we were able to pull off the track onto a level patch of ground making cooking, sitting and sleeping very comfortable. We were certainly ready for a cold beer and a hot meal - the worsening track had made it a punishing day.

Despite having everything in the back tied down and packed tight, there had been considerable movement in our gear. The six jerry cans of fuel and three of water had moved forward and left a gap into which smaller items could drop and roll around. The corrugations had shaken everything beyond reasonable limits. We spent a good half hour checking over the car, tightening nuts, bolts and straps that had come loose from the endless shaking. The Engel fridge was also suffering. Our frozen food was beginning to thaw and the freezer blocks were not freezing. The Engel was dying and would have to be replaced when we returned to civilisation. Fortunately the esky was very well sealed and insulated so the beers were still cold!



Friday 1 July 2011
The 1953 atomic bomb test near Emu on the Anne Beadell Highway affected many Australians. The blast generated a black mist, which rolled through places occupied mainly by Aboriginal people. At the time the black mist was not reported in the media and no mention would be made until nearly 30 years later when the Monday, 12 May 1980 edition of the Adelaide Advertiser carried the front page headline: “A-test ‘mist’ may have killed 50”. In response to the media reports, Atomic Weapons Test Safety Committee chairman Ernest Titterton told national radio: “No such thing can possibly occur. I don’t know of any black mists. No black mists have ever been reported until the scare campaign was started.”



Despite the official denials, witnesses of the black mist continued to suffer, and remember and report their experiences. Aboriginal woman Lallie Lennon and her family were primary witnesses, and she featured in Australian film-maker Harry Bardwell’s production: “Backs to the Blast, an Australian Nuclear Story”. In this film Lallie Lennon describes the black mist and shows the visible scarring on her skin from contact with the fallout. Another witness was Yami Lester, who also continued to speak of what he saw and suffered as a result of the black mist. Yami Lester saw the black mist as a child, and has spent the rest of his life blind. His account inspired Paul Kelly to write his song "Maralinga".



We both had smiles of relief and a strong sense of achievement when we reached Mabel Creek Station. We were nearly there! It’s always an interesting experience to come across warning signs from behind. Near the eastern end of the Anne Beadell Highway we came up to the back of signs that warned of the dangers of the journey ahead for those travelling west. We wondered what happened to the ones for we travellers heading east.

We also noticed the first warning on the top sign had been covered with a sticker that advised travellers to "notify a reliable person/persons of your intended itinerary, destination and ETA". We suspected it had formerly advised to tell police at Coober Pedy that you were travelling on the Anne Beadell Highway and to do likewise when you reached Laverton. We tried to do that at Laverton but the burley, battle-scared policeman there showed little interest and just said "good luck and I hope you've got plenty of spare tyres".



The Anne Beadell Highway proper finishes at Mabel Creek Station, 60 kilometres west of Coober Pedy. The neglected cattle station was recently acquired by the Pitjantjatjara Council with the aim of it becoming one of Australia’s first Aborigine-owned carbon farming projects, turning the 4900 square kilometres of scrub and rock into a money spinner for local Aboriginal people. Under the Commonwealth’s much-maligned carbon trading scheme, one carbon credit equals a tonne of carbon dioxide saved from emission. To offset their emissions, about 500 Australian companies must either pay a tax or buy carbon credits via brokers or direct from carbon farmers like the Pitjantjatjara people.

The plan is for Mabel Creek Station to provide local Aboriginal people spiritually connected to the land with jobs and wealth as a direct result of the price on carbon. One of the traditional Aboriginal methods of repairing the land is savannah burning, which managed properly can also reduce greenhouse emissions. The Mabel Creek initiative will hopefully give local Aboriginal people the opportunity to use their traditional skills and earn money at the same time.

After four full days on the Anne Beadell Highway we made it into Coober Pedy at sunset on Friday, 1 July 2011. The road between Mabel Creek Station and Coober Pedy was wide and regularly graded, and we were able to do the last 60 kilometres in well under an hour. We booked in at the first hotel we saw (it looked like it had hot showers), had a shower, put on clean clothes and headed for the nearest pub for a steak, a beer and to reflect on our adventure.

The Anne Beadell Highway was tough. It had certainly been our hardest off-road challenge so far. The cost of the crossing? An Engel fridge, two flat tyres (one repairable), two batteries, 260 litres of diesel and two cartons of Coopers Pale Ale.

Would we do it all again? We can't wait for our next adventure!
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