All Good Things …

Canning Stock Route – Breaden Hills to Halls Creek

Well 51, northern most well on the Canning Stock Route

Well 51, northern most well on the Canning Stock Route

We drive out of the Breaden Pool valley and back onto the main track. Near the turn off to Well 48 we can’t resist another short stop for more photos but eventually we leave the hills behind and head on to Well 49 passing yet another Outback Spirit convoy on the way. We’ve been told there is excellent water available at the well and I’m quite surprised to find that when I lower the bucket it won’t even sink and the water I haul up is a little muddy. It’s fine for washing water which is all we need at this stage but I’d be disappointed if I was after drinking water. Later we find out that the Outback Spirit people pump water here and would have taken 1300 litres and dropped the water level in the process. It will refill fairly quickly but we arrive too soon after their departure for that to have happened. We refill our washing water and have a cuppa before moving on.

Well 49, Canning Stock Route

Well 49, Canning Stock Route

Six kilometres up the track there are three camping areas under stands of desert oaks. We had thought of using one of these for an overnight stop but it’s only mid-morning and we’re not ready to stop for the day. We find the Unimog mob in the process of finishing their morning pack up after an overnight camp at one of them and stop for a chat, and another cuppa. We’re always ready for a chat and another coffee. We thought they would have been further ahead of us but they had a couple of short days because they had to change a tyre, no small task with those massive rims and treads. They are only planning on travelling a short distance today to a gorge and Galvida soak near Well 50.

We finish our chat and leave them to their packing to continue our journey. It is only another 25km to the turn into Well 50 but there are lots of corrugations so it’s slow and bumpy going. Some trees in the direction of the well look like a promising spot for lunch and we head in. Lots of trees are scattered across and around a large mud pan and promise good camping but we continue past this area and the well to investigate alternatives near the gorge another few kilometres on. A quick look shows it to be worth exploring this afternoon but not a good spot for the night. We’ve just finished lunch when the big red Unimog is seen approaching and the others arrive. The kids want to join us in our exploring so Julie gets them a quick lunch to eat while we walk and we head across the rocks and down onto the sandy floor.

Boy do they have loads of energy. It’s the middle of the day and hot but that doesn’t stop them running ahead and clambering over rocks and diving into soft sand. We follow the gorge for a while with Dominic quizzing Paul for photography tips and Eloise demonstrating her sand swimming skills then decide the soak is probably in the opposite direction so we return to the vehicles. Jim and Julie are just setting out for their walk and the kids have the choice of joining them or staying with us to see if we can find the soak back along the road we drove in. They stay with us and we drive up the road to a spot we think likely and walk through the spinifex to the dry river bed. We’ve come further than we hoped so we walk along the sandy bed identifying animal tracks until we reach the bright red wall we hoped would be the soak. No luck and we’re very hot by now so after a rest in the shade we return to the cars. When we finally catch up with Jim and Julie we find out they went further than us and found a rock hole with a good amount of water plus side gorges and Aboriginal etchings. Oh well, we tried. We all return to the treed area to camp for the night and enjoy another good campfire and very pleasant evening.

It is a short drive in the morning to Well 51, the final well of the Stock Route, just 20km north. From here the Unimog mob are continuing north along the western side of Lake Gregory to camp at Stretch Lagoon which is about 12km before Billiluna and the Tanami Track, which is the end of the Canning Stock Route. We want to spend some time at Stretch Lagoon too but first we are planning to follow the track around the eastern shores of Lake Gregory to a camp site there then finding a smaller track across the top rejoin the Stock Route just below the lagoon.

The track around the south and east of the lake is good with far fewer corrugations, no doubt due to far less traffic. Brolgas are common and fly off as we approach. We find the Handover campground with no problems and Paul is very keen to capture some of the beauty in the evening and tomorrow morning. The lake has lots of water in it but near the water there is no shade and loads of insects so we spend the afternoon in a shady spot in the campground two kilometres from the lake edge.

When Paul is heading off to take photos in the late afternoon he notices the front of the car bouncing far more than normal. A quick check shows the shock absorbers are shot, this could mean a change of plans. Paul is still hopeful of sticking to our plan but after we have packed and headed on in the morning it soon becomes obvious that rough tracks should be avoided as far as possible. We aren’t far from the Aboriginal community of Mulan and there is a graded road from there to Balgo and then into Halls Creek. It is adding quite a bit to our distance to be travelled and means we miss Stretch Lagoon but at a steady rate we can make it into town today and organise repairs.

It’s not quite the way we planned to finish our journey up the Canning Stock Route but the change of plans is minor and the problem will be easily fixed. We have had a fantastic journey with many great sights and experiences.

The rain and mud in the early stages were unexpected and gave us a totally different view of the track. I found it challenging but I’m much more experienced and confident in mud now, or at least as long as there is a firm bottom. The rain also put fresh life into the vegetation making everything greener and bringing on the wildflowers we saw more of later in the trip.

The southern section had an abundance of good camp sites with our favourites at North Pool, Windich Springs, Pierre Springs and the highlight, Durba Springs. We’d be happy to spend more time at any of them.

When the rain finally cleared we were treated to clear blue skies and brilliant sunshine. As the track dried and the sun heated the sand, the dunes which had been easy to cross while damp become far more challenging.

I always thrill to the sight of the red sand dunes, damp or dry, burnt or unburnt, they really reflect the Aussie outback to me and I love the anticipation I feel when I’m driving up one face, what will I see when I reach the crest. That’s apart from the ‘will I make it over the top feeling’ of course. I’m far more confident of my abilities in sand now as well as mud.

The sheer variety in the track surprised us. Conditions constantly swapped between sandy or rocky, corrugated or firm and level, straight or winding, open or bushy and every combination and degree. It can make for tiring driving but if you are not in a hurry and love driving, as we do, it is a delight.

We met lots of great people as we travelled. It is rare for people out here not to take the time to stop and have a chat and we shared some friendly campfires and yarns. On the other hand there weren’t so many we felt we couldn’t get our own space and we often had the camp site to ourselves.

Overall it is the sheer dimensions of the journey which make it special. 2,000 km of rough unmaintained tracks through rugged and unforgiving country including three deserts with extremely limited support or services over a five week period make it an epic journey and it is certainly one we won’t forget.

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I Thought Deserts Were Dry

Canning Stock Route – Windich Springs to Well 15

Mud, Glorious Mud, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

Mud, Glorious Mud, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

Overnight the rain continues for hours and hours. Brief excursions outside reveal more and more and bigger and bigger puddles, it looks like we’ll be here tomorrow to let the track dry out. The next day has brief periods of lighter skies and each time we hope that’s the end of the rain but soon more showers fall. Our stay extends another day. After a very brief period of warmer weather on the day we arrived here when we managed to change into shorts the temperature has dropped again so I’m happy to be able to retire inside the camper and keep warm and dry. We’re both surprised to find there are lots of flies around even in the rain, they must be desperate.

After our third night here the next morning is another grey and overcast one with light mist and some drizzle. While the worst of the puddles around camp have dried up the track is still damp and no doubt there is mud ahead. While we’ve been here one 4WD and one trail bike have gone through heading north, they haven’t returned so maybe that’s a good sign but then there hasn’t been anyone heading south either so we don’t know what to expect. We debate staying another day but it seems unlikely conditions will change anytime soon so eventually we decide to push on.

It is 11.00am by the time we head off and after an initial easy start we reach our first section of mud and water. Then there’s more water and mud, and then even more as the water-logged dirt track winds between the trees. There are a few slippery patches but generally we have a firm base underneath and we get through without mishap. At times it is hard to tell where the track goes as it resembles a creek and our passage through the water extends up to 200 metres and around bends. Following the tracks of the vehicle which passed this way two days ago helps us identify where to enter the water and where to come out but a few times some exploration on foot first is in order. I haven’t had a lot of mud driving experience and I know my vehicle is pretty heavy so I’m a bit apprehensive but following Paul’s lead and suggestions make it much easier. As Paul says it’s all fun unless you have to get the shovel out.

After a couple of hours we are almost 40km along the track, better progress than I expected, and the country changes. Sand dunes appear and the ground becomes far redder and sandier. Grass trees dot the sides of the road and most of the low trees we have been weaving between largely disappear.

Grass Trees, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

Grass Trees, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

Instead of negotiating mud and water we now have corrugations and occasional rocky patches. By 1.30 we arrive at Well 6, Pierre Springs. Stands of white gum trees are spread throughout the camping area and the fully restored well has crystal clear water in it. Lunch and coffee are the first order and then, as we are wandering around, we decide that even though we have covered less than 50km today and it is still quite early this is too nice a place not to spend more time so we will stay the night. As a bonus the flies have decided not to inhabit the area.

Pierre Springs, Canning Stock Route

Pierre Springs, Canning Stock Route

We’re set up and enjoying the peace when 6 vehicles travelling in convoy arrive at about 4.00pm. Much to my surprise in this large camping area they set up close by around us. I guess they must have had a weather forecast as during dinner it starts to sprinkle and then gets heavier. The rain continues steadily all night and by morning the camping spots I thought they could have used are pools of water. Everyone sloshes around in rain gear as the ground gets wetter and wetter and the pools of water bigger and bigger and all vehicles stay put for the day.The stand of white gums next to our camp is now surrounded by a pool of water about nine inches deep.

It is Paul’s birthday today, the big 60, and we had envisioned sitting around a campfire in the desert enjoying some of the bottle of scotch I picked up in duty free on my way back from Malaysia. No campfire is practical in these conditions but we make a feast of nice cheeses, pate, smoked oysters and olives followed by chicken souvlakis from the left over roast to go with the scotch. Jazz music and lots of laughs provide accompaniments to our celebration.

Happy Birthday Paul, Canning Stock Route

Happy Birthday Paul, Canning Stock Route

Apart from an occasional light shower the rain has finally stopped by the next morning and the convoy of 6 vehicles head on by 7.00am. We decide to give the track a bit of a chance to dry out and to take another rest day. A couple of other very muddy vehicles pass through in the morning and mid-afternoon two more pull in to camp. It’s Vince and Robyn, people Paul met originally in Alice Springs and then spent time with in Esperance accompanied by their friends Jim and Julie. They decide to stay the night and we spend a very pleasant evening sitting around the campfire chatting and later watching some of Paul’s photos on his big screen.

The following morning the others leave and we get our act together and follow a short while later. We don’t expect to see them further up the track as they have a much faster rate of travel than us with a planned total of two weeks from Wiluna to Halls Creek; we’ve taken a week and a half to get this far. We’re both keen to get moving though as our stays have been longer than we planned and we hope to cover a good distance today.

It sure is an interesting day’s drive. We start with lots of mud and water, really long patches which aren’t too bad as they are reasonably firm. A few slippery patches see us drifting around a bit, the vehicles in front of us have churned up the mud and the additional time has allowed the water to start seeping into the base. While they aren’t too bad they still take lots of my concentration and when we eventually reach a dry area I’m glad to take a short break. People following in the next week or so might have a more difficult trip until it eventually dries out. The wet and muddy patches are interspersed with sections of corrugations which have to be taken very slowly, small patches of rocky track and the occasional sand dune crossing. As the day progresses we see more of the sand dunes and eventually fewer of the long patches of water although they don’t entirely disappear.

More Mud On the Track, Canning Stock Route

More Mud On the Track, Canning Stock Route

We make good progress, keeping to our average of 20kph, which we consider pretty good considering the conditions. We make it to Well 11 by about 3.00pm and decide to head on toward Well 12 before stopping for the night. The onward drive starts with more sand dunes and then we come across a sight we didn’t expect to see in the desert; a flooded lake bed normally filled with dry grasses which is now a billabong probably a kilometre across. Patches of grass still showing above the water look like reeds. Ducks and other water birds poke between the grasses and further away we can see numbers of white necked herons striding through the water.

Desert Billabong, Canning Stock Route

Desert Billabong, Canning Stock Route

On top of the next sand dune we look over a large round depression filled with green vegetation, White Lake we presume. A firm track leads us around the perimeter of the lake and we cross more sand dunes before arriving at a dune above the water filled Aerodrome Lake which is normally dry and used as a landing strip by light planes. We pause on the edge of the lake while Paul takes some photographs.

Lake Aerodrome, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

Lake Aerodrome, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

The track around is firm and I’m feeling pretty happy with that, I’ve had enough mud for the day but I was too optimistic with that thought and we have to cross several more patches of mud. They are a bit slippery but again we make it through with no problems. It’s almost 5.00 by the time we reach Well 12 but we’ve covered over 130km for the day, a very good distance for us. The camp area is delightful with desert oaks surrounding us. Paul is able to gather enough wood nearby for a small campfire and spots plenty of camel tracks while doing so. I hope we see some soon. Another lovely place to spend a night especially with the sound of the wind in the oaks.

The next morning’s drive is delightful. We are really in sand dune country now and cross plenty of them. The damp sand means reaching the summits is straight forward even though some are close to 10 metres high. It would be far more difficult if the sand was dry and hot. In between the dunes sections of rough corrugations could make the driving unpleasant but we’re quite happy slow to 10kph and we walk the vehicles over them with time to admire the countryside. I’m loving the colours in the vegetation, there are so many greens; blue-greens, grey-greens, yellow-greens and straight out green-greens and every variation in between. Pale yellow spinifex and other grasses and spindly black bushes provide contrast as do the occasional patches of red or yellow flowers. All these are set against the bright orange-red sand dunes, I just wish there was also a blue sky but once again it is horizon to horizon grey.

Early Sand Dunes, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

Early Sand Dunes, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

Lunch is at Well 14 then we are back on the track and what a difference. No more dunes but lots more mud and this time we strike patches without a firm base. A couple of times we are revving the vehicles as hard as possible and just maintaining forward motion, lose that and we’d be stuck. Getting bogged vehicles out would be no easy thing as the nearest firm ground could be around the next bend and there are very few good size trees. If the other vehicle came to help we’d end up with both stuck. I’m very happy to get to the other side of this swampy ground without mishap, the adrenaline was flowing a few times but it’s all good experience. Mind you it is an experience I’d be quite happy not to repeat, or at least not from the driver’s seat.

A short side trip just before the next well takes us to a lookout and we climb the rocks to take in the views. The land all around looks pretty flat and is covered in small bushes so we get no preview of what we can expect from the road tomorrow and the grey clouds covering the sky don’t suggest a sunset worth a camp up here so we return to the main track and head onto Well 15. We arrive by 2.15 and while I was keen to travel an additional 40km to Well 16 for the night I’d prefer not to face more mud today so we make an early camp. It’s another pleasant spot and some firewood has been left behind, by Vince, Robyn, Julie and Jim we suspect, so we can enjoy another fire. The time is well spent transferring the diesel fuel we have been carrying on our roof racks to our tanks, much better carried down low especially over dunes and along ruts where our vehicles are tilted. We’d hoped the weather was finally clearing but more clouds and drizzle fill the night and the next morning.

I shouldn’t have been too worried about the track to Well 16 as there is no more mud, just lots of beautiful country and easy driving. At least after a good night’s sleep I can relax and enjoy it. The corrugations and the odd rocky patch keep the pace down once again so our average remains around 20kph and we have several photo stops as well. We made a late start because I prepared a slow cook curry before we left and we stop for coffee and lunch at Well 16. To add to the pleasant morning’s drive the grey skies are starting to break up and for the first time for a week we are seeing some patches of blue.

Rocky Track, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

Rocky Track, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

The Adventure Begins

Canning Stock Route – Wiluna to Windich Springs

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Windich Springs, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia

It’s 4.00pm by the time we leave the Aboriginal Dreamtime Art Gallery next to the visitors centre in Wiluna and follow the sign north for the Canning Stock Route. The well-maintained Wiluna North Road forms the first 31km of the Stock Route but track maintenance will be scarce or non-existent after that. Tonight we are only going 10km up the road and then taking a 10km detour to North Pool to stay the night. The road is wide and in good condition apart from a short section of corrugations on the North Pool Road and we reach the lovely tree lined billabong well before dark. I had been concerned it would be busy with other campers but there is nobody else around and it looks delightful so it is an easy decision to stay two nights.

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North Pool, Canning Stock Route, WA

Two nights stretch to three and time passes very easily. Paul is hard at work on his backlog of photographs from his time in the south west and I spend my time taking walks, writing and even trying, very poorly, to do some drawing. Open fires to cook on and later to sit by while watching the night sky add to our enjoyment. Just a pity it isn’t a little warmer but we’ll have to get further north for that. This is the type of place we could happily spend a week or two but with such a long distance ahead of us we know we can’t linger longer.

We leave North Pool at 9.30 am on the fourth day of our journey and we have 10km to rejoin the Wiluna North road and when we reach it we are only 10km advanced from town. Just as well we aren’t in a hurry. The remaining 21km on the Wiluna North Road is the same high standard gravel road. As soon as we make the turn towards Well 2 and Halls Creek we know we are where we belong, on a dusty track rather than a road.

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Dusty Track, Canning Stock Route, WA

At this southern end of the track we are in station country, broad and flat with the odd range of low rocky hills. The track certainly isn’t boring though with numerous changes to keep us concentrating. There are rocky sections which need to be crossed slowly and carefully to make sure tyres and suspension are looked after, washed away ruts to be straddled or detoured around and sections of corrugations, although thankfully not the bone jarring and car breaking type. Sometimes the track crosses open country and other times it weaves through the low bushes. The twists and turns over such flat country make me wonder why such a tortuous route was followed, perhaps they didn’t want to take out a single stumpy tree or perhaps they were just following a rambling steer. It’s not a hard drive but neither is it a fast one. Often our speed is 15kph although occasional flat stretches can see it rise to a giddy 20 or 25kph.

We passed a turn to Well 1 just after we left Wiluna and Well 2 is only 2km after we leave the Wiluna North Road. A brief stop for photos and to read the information sign is made before we continue. We started hearing radio traffic from a group just ahead of us before we reached Well 2 and shortly after our stop for a morning cuppa we catch up with two walkers. They are part of a larger group of five who are walking the Stock Route in order to raise awareness of suicide prevention. They have a support crew travelling in three vehicles. We chat with the two women for a while and not far up the track we catch up with the rest of the group and hear more about their trip and the cause. Some of the group have completed a variety of other challenges in the same cause.

Lunch is at Well 2A, the Granites, and we make our overnight stop at Well 3 after covering the grand distance of 107 km for the day. We had planned to fill our water containers with washing water from the restored well but the smell and look of the water is definitely off so we’ll wait until a better source of water is available. The camping area doesn’t look promising either, resembling a large dust bowl with a steady wind and millions of flies. Instead we drive a short distance up the track and set our camp amongst some low trees. They help with the wind but do nothing to decrease the number of flies so we hide inside, it’s great to have a fly proof area in these conditions.

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Well 3, Canning Stock Route, WA

Next morning the track leads us due east. According to our map we should be heading north east and we wonder if we’ve missed a turn but recent tyre tracks encourage us to keep following the track we are on. Before long we are heading in the right direction but about three km east of where we thought we should be. Several dry and rocky creek crossings later we meet up with the original track, it was apparently re-routed because of washouts. Lesson learnt; you can’t always rely on maps and GPS.

Radio banter lets us know two vehicles are approaching us and soon we’re stopped on the side of the road swapping tales and sharing some laughs with Julie and Carter. They have come from the north and can provide some information about good spots to stop as we go. Carter was working as a lifeguard at Prevelley Beach when Paul was there a couple of months ago and recognised Paul and his truck. He travels when he can in between jobs. Julie lives in Queensland when she can’t be on the road travelling in her 4WD camper “Mudda Trucker”. She is joined at times by her husband, who is hard at work in Brisbane. She was delighted to meet another female driving her own vehicle in these remote areas, we are few and far between. It’s close to an hour before we are mobile and heading north again.

Well 3A is the next well we pass and soon after we arrive at Windich Springs. As with many other places along the Canning Stock Route, this was an important meeting place for Aborigines long before Canning asked for their help to find a route for the northern cattlemen to walk their stock south to the rail head at Wiluna. It certainly isn’t hard to see why this was such an important place. The camping area is separated from the springs which are in a fenced off area and a short walk reveals a lovely tree lined billabong. The white trunks of the gum trees line each side and bright green reeds provide a strong contrast to the tannin coloured water. It’s early and we’ve only covered 70km today, partly because of the long chat with Julie and Carter, but this is too nice a place to pass by so we set up camp for the night.

2015 0201 098 _WFW9172 CSR Windich Springs

Windich Springs, Canning Stock Route, WA

A short walk supplies us with firewood and we cook butterflied peri peri chicken and roast vegetables on the fire. We settle down after dinner to enjoy the moderate temperatures and look forward to some star gazing. A few drops of rain get us scrambling to get everything under cover and before long we’re inside sheltering from the now heavier rain. Hopefully it will pass soon and this country is so dry it should just settle the dust tomorrow.