The Canning Stock Route

Wednesday, Jul 22, 2009 at 18:34


Back to previous chapter - Alice Springs to Billiluna

The Stock Route was established in the early 1900's to provide a means of droving cattle from the grazing lands of the Kimberley area of NW Australia to markets in the south west of the continent. It passes through very inhospitable desert areas and about 50 wells were sunk to augment the very few occurrences of surface water. The wells were spaced a day’s droving apart and today many have fallen into disrepair. Of the surviving wells, the quality of water in many cases is poor – often very salty, sometimes contaminated. Some though have been restored and provide welcome water in otherwise largely waterless areas.

We planned to travel the northern 2/3 of the Stock Route, passing south of the halfway point (Georgia Bore) where exit to east (Alice Springs) and west is possible, then continuing south to the Calvert Ranges before returning to the western exit. As such our time spent on the CSR was part of our much longer WA journey, rather than an objective in itself.

Well laid plans may not always survive the reality of the CSR, and this was the case for us. We spent about 2 weeks travelling as far south as Well 19/20. During that time we cursed the track for its trials and loved it for its subtle rewards. To”do” the Canning is an adventure, an experience and a challenge. Thorough preparation is essential, in terms of both vehicle set set-up and mental preparation. Whether we were adequately prepared in either aspect is a moot point.

There is not a lot of scenery on a grand scale to be found in the part that we traversed. The best area is in the north where extensive areas of flat topped hills provide spectacular sights.

The sand dunes too offer some beautiful sights, with a variety of forms from tall dunes running straight for kilometres on end, to small jumbled dunes. The colours vary endlessly but subtley. Most dunes were well-clothed with tough desert vegetation, mainly Spinifex, mallee and the beautiful white barked gums. It was possible to trace the outlines of old fires in the growth and flowering of the shrubs and grasses. Recently fire had in places left the dunes almost bare of cover, and here the sand shone brick red, etched by the blackened stems of burnt shrubs.

We were lucky to catch some early wildflowers. The ubiquitous red flowering holly leaf grevillea, yellow cassias and wattles, acres of perfumed delicate Thryptomene, and a brilliant blue flower were predominant. We also saw occasional big mallee blossoms, and big yellow Grevilleas were just starting to open. Closer searching found many other less common plants suggesting a surprising richness to this desert area.

Not many birds were seen though, except near the water sources where zebra finches, crested pigeons, galahs and corellas were most common. At some wells these birds had scratched out tunnels down to the water and the sound of their wings reverberated as they flew up into the open air.

We saw quite a few camels and many more camel tracks. At one spot we worked out that a particular animal with a distinctive pad-print had a gait in excess of 2m. A few dingoes howled at night and once or twice we saw them during the day. One confident fellow circled our camp a few metres from the vehicles then settled down and curled up to watch us. At the northern end of the track we saw big mobs of brumbies and a few brolgas near big claypans.

There are other rewarding places and experiences. Gulvida Soak, near Well 50 was a little oasis with water, big green fig trees and some rock art. The huge stands of desert oaks are magnificent with the young trees spiky with juvenile vigour and the mature trees mostly weeping and graceful in the wind. There did seem to be some difference between the northern and southern forms though. Either way they make a great place to camp and their wood is excellent for a campfire. Slate Range was interesting with its multicoloured rocks and interesting geology. Well 38 is a rockhole and although it was dry there were small pools of water in rocks nearby where finches and brilliant green budgies contested for bathing rights.

Lake Disappointment with its gleaming salt surface and distant mirages, and Savory Creek with salt crystals forming on the surface of its ultra saline water brought home the harshness of the area and the disappointment that must have been felt by the early explorers hoping to find sweet water.

Then there was the relief at finding our drum of fuel at Well 23, of the abundant water for washing and bathing at Georgia Bore, and gratitude when we found friends there on our return trip.

And the downsides: the corrugations, the unrelenting corrugations, closely followed by the chewed out approaches on the dune crossings. Both appear to be the result of people travelling at speed with their tyre pressures far too high. Every section of the CSR is corrugated, it’s just a matter of degree. Only the winding sections where the sand is loose are relatively corrugation free. Our approach was to let our tyres right down to about 1/3 of highway pressure and travel slowly, less than 20kph for much of the time, and even more slowly around Kunawarritji where the corrugations were most severe.

The track jinks around a lot, often for no apparent reason. Originally there was probably a tree or some other obstacle to be avoided, now removed by the passage of time. Many of the dune approaches have a right angle bend on the approach making it difficult to get up momentum. Careful choice of gears and speed is necessary to get over comfortably. The southern approaches seem to be more chewed out than the northern sides, so as we were travelling north to south we often bounced down the southern faces of the dunes.

This bouncing became our undoing as we broke the main leaf in a rear spring. We turned around and struggled back north. How lucky we were to find a group of supportive friends from our 4WD club at Georgia Bore working on a similar problem on one of their Troopies. With their expertise, a virtual workshop of tools and spares, and their unbounded enthusiasm and generosity we were provided with an excellent temporary solution (2 plates held together by high tensile bolts to clamp the broken leaf in position). This proved sufficient to get us mobile again to go somewhere where we could arrange a more permanent solution.

So we didn’t get to the Calvert Ranges or to Durba Springs. Maybe next time. Will there be a next time? Its much too soon to make that call.

Forward to next chapter - Georgia Bore to Port Hedland

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J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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