The Duncan Road

Thursday, Dec 14, 2017 at 20:29

Stephen L (Clare) SA

Every year, thousands of tourists visit the Eastern Kimberley region of Western Australia and beyond, with the majority travelling the Great Northern Highway that links Kununurra in the north and Halls Creek further south. For the more adventurous traveller there is one road that is overlooked for a couple of reasons, being they have never heard of the road or they feel it is too remote to drive.

For any experienced outback traveller, this road will reward you with many special features travelling through a variety of terrain, from flat open pastoral land to special gorges with permanent water.

As there are no services along this route, you must be fully prepared with food and water, as well as fuel and basic vehicles supplies for the full drive, which is over 500 kilometres from Halls Creek though to Kununurra with no services along the way. So if you are ever in this area and would like to see some special places, then the Duncan Road will tick those boxes. To fully appreciate the lower section of the Duncan Road around Halls Creeks, you will need at least 2 days as a minimum and even longer if you want to camp out in some of the special gorges.

Brief outline on the History of the Duncan Road

In October 1949 there was a proposal to construct a new road along the unmade station tracks of the remote cattle stations in the Ord River area between Wyndham and Nicholson in the south, to give pastoralist access to a reliable route to transport their cattle to the meatworks in Wyndham. The Western Australian Government requested assistance from the Federal Government to help construct this 454-kilometre road. In July 1950 construction began and six years later in 1956 at a cost of £713,677, the road was complete and in 1961 the road was officially named the Duncan Highway, after Ron Duncan, who was District Engineer for the North West from 1940 through to 1953. Also in 1961, the Commonwealth Government extended the life of the Beefs Roads program, and the Duncan Highway was upgraded between Nicholson and Halls Creek.

In July 1976 there was a comprehensive review of the Main Roads throughout Western Australia, the first time this had been carried out in 50 years. One of the changes in the review was to change and abolish the categories of the “Main Roads” and “Developmental Roads”, and to introduce “State Highways” and “Secondary Roads”. Under this new category, the Duncan Highway was not classified as a “State Highway” and thus renamed the Duncan Road. In 1995 there was another review of the Main Roads system in Western Australia resulting in the ownership of the Duncan Road being transferred to the Halls Creek Shire Council, as it remains to this day.

The Drive

In August 2017 Fiona and I spent two days in Halls Creek exploring the closer attractions of the Duncan Road before heading east and then north for the full length of the Duncan Road. The road is very easy to follow and from the main Great Northern Highway that passes through the town, you head out on the well sign posted big brown “T” sign, just up the road from the Tourist Information Centre, where they have a great brochure on the attractions in the area.

Our first stop was at the Rodeo grounds, just out of town to view the memorial
for local Helicopter pilots that had died doing the job they loved most. From there it is only a very short drive to the China Walls turn off, and are a must visit site. This unusual rock formation is a vein of quarts that rises up to 6 metres from the ground in places and when viewed from a distance, looks like the Great Wall of China. Please remember to make sure that you shut the gate as you enter and depart the area, as this is actually on a private pastoral land.

The next turn off from the Duncan road is to another two worthwhile places to visit, Caroline Pool and then further out to the ruins of an old stone hut. Caroline Pool is set amongst large cool shady trees and if you have the place to yourself, makes a great place to camp, or just to have a picnic or lunch stop. Following the road out towards Sophie Downs Station, you then come to old stone ruins of the original final stop to rest horse before making their final leg to Halls Creek after travelling from Wyndham in the north. When you get to the car park, in is only a 100-metre walk across the creek to view the ruins. Retracing your track to the Duncan Road, and travelling further out, the next stop is at the historic ruins of the original Halls Creek.

For anyone interested in history, it is very easy to spend time at what is left of the original Halls Creek ruins. On the 14th July 1885 Charles Hall, John Slattery and their party discovers the first payable gold in Western Australia, resulting in a Gold rush and the construction of the town. Apart from the influx of prospectors into the area, the gold rush contributed to the establishment of both ports in Derby and Wyndham.

Continuing further east along the Duncan Road and 45 kilometres from Halls Creek will bring you to the very delightful Palm Springs, a permanent freshwater pool on the Black Elvire River. This famed oasis in the desert was an important resting place for the Afghan teamsters, who are believed to have planted the original date palms in this area. Even though it is right on the road, it is still a popular place for a refreshing swim and a camping spot. The last pioneer to live and work at the springs was Sam Hazlett, who would regularly clean out the reeds and overgrowth, but since his death in the 1980’s, no one has lived her permanently and cared for the springs. If you are lucky enough, you may even see one of the shy freshwater crocodiles that have been seen here.

Further out on the Duncan Road and 52 Kilometres from Halls Creek will bring you to the last of the major gorges that are close to Halls Creek and are a popular camping spot at Sawpit Gorge. Besides the permanent water here, the striking feature of the spot is the magnificent towering rock wall where over thousands of years; floodwaters from the Black Elvire River has cut through the range.

Not long after leaving the undulating country after Sawpit Gorge, you now enter open pastoral country that is famous for its cattle production. The road through this section is quite wide, flat and in good condition and your time will pass very quickly allowing for a number of stops along the way to either stretch your legs or photo opportunities. You will pass through a number of waterways with concrete causeways until you are 175 kilometres from Halls Creek where you will come to the only turn off for the entire Duncan Road – the junction of the Buntine Highway which will take you through Wave Hill and further on to Katherine on the Stuart Highway.

At this junction you now change your direction of travel and will now be heading north for the remainder of your journey. Soon after leaving the junction you pass through the usually dry Nicholson River and within a short distance, the observant driver will notice that the road is starting to narrow and then soon turning into a single two wheel track. It is at this point that the conditions will now be at a slower pace and the varying track conditions will be encountered, from rocky sections through to minor corrugations. I say minor, as they cannot be compared to some of heavily corrugated highways like the Anne Beadell Highway, Connie Sue Highway and other popular outback drives.

The open flat pastoral country now gives way to ever changing terrain, with a constant outline of the Bungle Bungle Ranges in the distance. More creek crossings will be encountered and even well into the dry season will still have water over the Duncan Road. The first major crossing will be as you plunge down from the Duncan Road to the Forrest River causeway. This will be the first of many river crossings heading north that have major concrete causeways and you can only imagine just how deep these rivers are during the wet season and are now part of the Ord River Catchment area.

Exiting the Forrest River and immediately on your left are the ruins on the original Ord River Homestead and the first of the larger Boab Trees that the Kimberley area is famous for. Heading further north, you now make the first of your border crossings as you enter into the Northern Territory and after a short drive, re enter back into Western Australia.

The most noticable feature after crossing into the Northern Territory is the road widens up and is in good condition compared to the Western Australian section. During your time in the Northern territory, you will pass through only one major river crossing that is a popular camping spot on the banks of the Negri River. Even if you are not going to camp here, it is still worth spending time here and to take in the sheer volume of water that rushes through here in the peak of the wet season eventually entering the lowest sections of Lake Argyle.

A couple more twists and turns and you are now back into Western Australia and the road conditions are still rocky. Heading further north and there are some very serious road works and the rocks give way to a well-compacted and wide dirt road that is like driving on concrete. It is full marks to the Halls Creek Shire Council, as these road works would have cost a lot of money to construct, and it makes you wonder if in time, this section could be bituminised. Having travelled all day, it is now time to set up camp and the Behn River was that perfect location for that. Even though it was still warm, we had small campfire going to cook tea and to sit by and take in the ambiance and solitude of the area, knowing that our nearest neighbours were hundreds of kilometres away. At dawn next morning, I was woken by a chorus of birds that were at the river and it was time to get out of bed early to make the best of a perfect morning. I soon had the fire going and the kettle was on the boil in no time flat and we could have sat here all day on the banks of the Behn River, but we still had a long way to go before we would be in Kununurra.

Not long after leaving camp, we were back again into the Northern Territory, and would remain this way for the rest of the Duncan Road. Conditions again improved after the border crossing and there were even sections of bitumen, even if they were only for a few kilometres in length. The scenery was still changing and the distant hills were growing in height. Some of the creek crossings were dry and others still had good levels of water.

The biggest thing the further north we travelled was the number of Boab trees growing, but they were still young to some on the real old daddy’s that you find further out in the Eastern Kimberley.

It was just on lunchtime when we came to the final sign advising that we were now approaching the Victoria Highway and the end of the Duncan Road. Seeing it was only 20 kilometres until we crossed back into Western Australia, we travelled slowly before passing thorough the Quarantine Checkpoint and once through, we had lunch and I inflated my tyres for the final drive into Kununurra.

Stephen Langman

December 2017
Smile like a Crocodile
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