Canning Stock Route

To the north, line after line of dunes marched away to the horizon, while far to the south a sparkling glint of silvery white marked the northern expanse of Lake Disappointment’s vast salt-encrusted bed.  Most people have similar feelings when they travel this fabled remote track.

Maybe it’s the wide open spaces where a person’s sense of freedom can seem to soar on open wings; maybe it’s the history that oozes out of the sandhills, like the grains of sand that trickle down their steep flanks; maybe it’s the challenge of travelling in such a remote place; or just the joy of getting over the dunes successfully.

Whatever, the Canning Stock Route (CSR) continues to lure well-equipped modern adventurers to the golden aura of its 1900 km of sandy track from central to north-western WA, through the Little Sandy, Gibson, Great Sandy and Tanami deserts.

For the first few hundred kilometres north of Wiluna, the CSR runs through the mulga scrubland of pastoral properties. Bar the occasional fellow traveller, it’s completely deserted, dotted sparsely with the original wells that make up the stock route and the scattered bores and windmills of the cattle stations.

From Well 14, the long east–west sand ridges stretch to the horizon, and the roller-coaster ride begins. Up to about 15m high, the dunes are dominated by spinifex grasslands. Water points become welcome rest stops and mini-oases, attracting wildlife and dusty travellers. Durba Springs is probably the most popular campsite and few people stay here just one night, taking a day or two to explore the area’s hidden pools of water, narrow gorges, sheer cliffs, ancient Aboriginal art sites, and engravings of explorers and drovers. Dingoes sometimes skulk among the verdant vegetation and camels often quench their thirst at the permanent waterhole close to the gorge’s entrance.

North from the Durba Hills the sea of sand is tossed into huge mounds, like waves cresting over a shallow shoal, creating some of the biggest dunes on the CSR. Among the red sand and silver-gold spinifex, the blooming desert holds forests of holly grevillea and the mauves and pastels of mulla-mullas, the bright yellow blooms of wattles and, in places, the flash of brightly coloured daisies.  Push on to Well 33 and the terrible corrugations are seemingly capable of rattling teeth out of even healthy gums.

Few groups cross this stony plain without some vehicles falling foul of the badly rippled earth. Then, through the northern section of the stock route, many of the wells shelter dark stories in their recesses. Roughly marked graves indicate the last resting places of those who died from illness or were killed by Aboriginals protecting their meagre water supplies. Many of these wells have now fallen in or been burnt down, or both, and only a few have been restored.

For many travellers today, the last blessed night on the stock route is beside the grass-fringed Lake Gregory, and the contrast between the desert country to the south and the vast lake, alive with birds, is something to behold. The lake hasn’t been completely desiccated for more than 20 years.  There’s always a sense of melancholy as you drive onto the Tanami Road and leave the CSR behind. But it’s outweighed by the rich tapestry of experiences enjoyed, vistas seen and marvelled over, people met and feelings shared.

With Aboriginals as guides, 46-year-old surveyor Alfred Canning trekked north in 1906 to establish a route that would eventually bear his name. He was endeavouring to find a way by which East Kimberley cattle could be taken to southern markets. Previous explorers Lawrence Wells and David Carnegie – who had both lost men on their expeditions in the area – advised against continuing the search for such a route. “We have demonstrated the uselessness of any persons wasting their time and money in further investigations of that desolate region,” Carnegie wrote.

But at the instigation of the Secretary for Mines, Canning set out from Wiluna with seven other men, 23 camels, two ponies, 2.5 tonnes of provisions and 1440 L of water. During the ensuing 14-month survey the team trekked about 4000 km, often relying on the Aboriginal guides to help them find water.

On his return, Canning reported that a stock route could be established with fair feed and good water from 52 wells and watering points. In 1908 he sank the wells. Working in temperatures of around 50°C for weeks at a time his crew completed 51 wells, averaging one every 18 days. The deepest was Well 5, at more than 30 m; the shallowest, Well 42, was just 1.4m.

In the 1960s the track began its new phase as the premier route for vehicular adventures. By the early 1980s, more than 100 people were travelling it each year. It’s estimated that more than 500 vehicles made the trip 2007.  The first full-length traverse of the Canning by vehicle was in 1968, but four years prior to that, Henry Ward became the first person to travel by vehicle up the stock route as far as the Durba Hills and Well 18.

source: Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2007