(...or "A Road Not Well Travelled")
13.06.2017 - 15.06.2017 23 °C
Soundtrack: Matthew Good random playlist. And bats. Lots and lots of bats.
It is strange to be truly in the middle of nowhere, all alone, my light sources an immense quilt of stars above, a citronella lantern...and a laptop screen. But here I am. Such are the times.
The last stretch of the Connie Sue Highway into Warburton takes a couple of hours, a bit longer than I anticipate, mostly because of all the stopping in the middle of the road and climbing onto the roof of the truck and taking a bunch of pictures. I also have to wade through several herds of wild camels. At least it is all for a good cause.
I fuel up in Warburton, check in at home - taking advantage of the cellular service bubble in the area - and head right back out into the empty expanse of the Outback. I realize that having reached Warburton - and having survived the 850 or so kilometres of the Connie Sue Highway from Cocklebiddy - that I have completed a massive circle that started here three years ago. Although I did have a three-year recess before picking up the trail in Perth.
Solo Outback Observation Number 1: if you command yourself - out loud - to stop talking to yourself, you're actually part of the problem, not the solution.
I zoom down the Great Central Road to the turn-off onto the Heather Highway that leads to the Gunbarrel Highway - a route I have taken before. The lingering emotions I felt years ago - mainly anticipation mixed with hesitation - are still with me somewhat. I carry on this time full of confidence and a fair bit more experience. Consequently, I'm wondering at this point if the Connie Sue will render the Gunbarrel Highway just 'another Outback track', robbing from it the mythical and ominous reputation I once regarded it with - both before and after having driven it.
I cruise down the 'nice' part of the Heather Highway, the maintained section that leads to Tjirrkarli, a remote Aboriginal community, until I reach the turn off that leads off towards the Gunbarrel. I remember this moment well, when the realization of what I would be getting myself into was pounded into me with each corrugation, drop-off, sharp rut, and wash-out. I pull onto the road, and brace myself - just in case.
It is true that this section of the Heather Highway, years ago, revealed to me to what I would be up against. But something seems to have happened to the road since. In fact, I swear someone has plowed through it and...graded it? Laid down new gravel? Perhaps filled in some of the wash-outs? I cannot be completely certain, because at the time not only it was my first jaunt into awful unmaintained Outback roads; but also, I just came off 800 or so kilometres of pretty awful Outback road. So, has the road been 'fixed', or is it merely that perception has become an artifact of experience?
I reach the Gunbarrel in about 45 minutes, which is fairly quick, and I wasn't really (consciously) rushing. I'm pretty sure the road was fixed up to some degree, at least for the first portion. Experience and practice likely got me through the second half.
So, what of the Gunbarrel? Do I find it 'easier' now that I have more Outback trekking beneath my belt? Not really - the road is still a total piece of shit, and regardless of what ugly sections of the Connie Sue I had to creep through, this road is just a mess. Everything I remember it being: washed-away-slash-missing, driving at a 45-degree angle at times, overgrown vegetation slashing the sides of the truck, massive hills of sharp rocks, corridors of shin-deep red sand...you get the idea.
Experience does give me an edge though, and I find my groove...mostly...and truck along at a reasonable pace, wondering if it is possible I could reach the Gary Highway today and put the Gunbarrel behind me - not that the Gary is likely to be any better, and in fact it will probably be much worse.
I'm making my way through one section of deep red sand that winds through tall golden grasslands when I turn a corner and find a small beaten up motorhome up on the side of the road (not that there is a side of the road, it is just up in the bushes really) facing the opposite direction. I assume it is a freshly abandoned vehicle, not an uncommon occurrence along these roads, when a man suddenly emerges from the side door. I stop, and wonder just what I might have gotten myself into.
The gentleman explains to me they can't get their rig through the deep sand, and they have been waiting for someone to be coming through in the same direction (so, not the way I'm headed) such that they can winch on and get dragged out. As sympathetic as I am, I make a point to not offer to assist. This may make me out to be a total asshole (and in many ways, I am), but there are a few things to consider: first, I don't really know who these people (sorry, his wife emerged a bit later) are - though to be fair I highly doubt there is anything nefarious about this couple as this would be the worst hijacking setup ever. Second, I'm not sure trying to turn my vehicle around in this narrow channel won't get *me* stuck or spear one of my tyres. Third - sort of the kicker - the gentleman and his wife are both wearing shirts that advertise "Gunbarrel Tours"...so I'm a bit confused as to why they thought this low-riding two-wheel drive aging motorhome would make it through the Gunbarrel. Then again, to their credit, they made it almost the entire way from Wiluna some 700 kilometres away, so perhaps my judgement is both premature and without extensive background. He explains that the tour company he used to run actually travelled along the Great Central Road (which is so *not* the Gunbarrel). But in the end, these folks are genuine and awesome and I feel really bad for them, but I'm certain I'm just not the right person to help. They seem to get the idea I'm not comfortable trying to assist, and I get the idea that they are perfectly capable and not really helpless. He plans on winching himself to the other side of the road which should help as it is harder soil.
The conversation at one point turns to where my route and I mention I'm headed towards the Gary Highway. "The Gary, eh..." he pauses, "that isn't very well travelled," he says thoughtfully.
Eventually I say my goodbyes and promise that if I encounter anyone coming the other way I'll let them know about the situation. The opportunity comes sooner than I think, maybe twenty minutes down the road I find two vehicles have pulled to the side, having seen me coming. I approach slowly and thank them for pulling over for me and tell them about the couple. These folks don't come across quite as friendly so I keep my greetings brief, but at least I know they will have to deal with the couple in the motorhome soon enough.
By the time I reach Camp Beadell - this being my stop-over on my first trip along the Gunbarrel - it is still light but getting late quick. I resolve to push on and see how far I can get. The road from Camp Beadell to Mount Beadell, only 6 kilometres, is extremely rough and slow, so by the time I reach the mountain I decide that if there are any previously established camp sites there, I will stop for the evening.
There probably are old campsites somewhere, but I don't see them. I park at the foot of the mountain that last time completely defeated me when I tried to apply my very infantile 4wd skills to drive to the top, resulting in a crumpled rental-vehicle bumper. I get out and look around, but see no obvious camp sites. I walk to the foot of the mountain and take a look at the rocky track leading to the top, and it actually looks worse than the last time - just a stony road with huge ruts and massive shelves of rock. Really like a dry and almost vertical creek bed. It appears as though it would be in my best interest to again accept defeat and carry on.
Sorry...but fuck that.
I return to the truck and drive to the base; I slam the truck into 4WD, and crawl up the track. Right in the middle, exactly where I chickened out last time and tried - and failed miserably - to reverse down the track, my wheels start spinning frantically. I gear down to low 4wd and rock the truck back into grip and push on, and somehow make it to the top. My heart is still pounding.
I get my pictures that I was denied last time - the expanse of the Gibson Desert all around me, as well as the monument to Len Beadell. Satisfied, I gingerly crawl back down the track and then inspect the truck. No damage...that I can see right now.
Once again, the end of daylight is imminent and I've already accomplished a fair amount today so I head back to Camp Beadell for the evening. I spent the night listening to the bats, actually at times seeing them flutter around and dive-bomb their prey. This place has a magic I cannot describe, and I suppose that is ok because it is getting so cold I can't type properly anymore anyway.
Tomorrow I hit the 'not well travelled' Gary Highway. I have some contingencies if the track is too challenging or if I chicken out. If you are reading this however, then I must have come out of it ok...somehow.
The moon is finally cresting the horizon...I have to go and lecture it on being late this evening. But at least now I'm not completely alone.
Soundtrack: Hannibal Burress stand-up. More comedy, more morale. Also, it's like having company in the truck with me.
I swear the Gunbarrel Highway, despite the fact that allegedly the conditions don't change much over the years, is in far worse shape than I left it three years ago - the wet season in Oz this year was record-breaking so this is not completely implausible. Or perhaps my memory is just shoddy - equal chances of either. The going is slow; I crawl, sometimes almost sideways, for almost two hours towards Everard Junction, where the Gary Highway begins. Along the way I have to pull over for a convoy of five vehicles coming the other way. The lead truck stops and we chat a bit, thanking me for pulling over, them coming from the far west end of the Gunbarrel at Wiluna. He asks where I'm headed, I say I was hoping to take the Gary Highway if it looks ok. He frowns "Hmm, that isn't very well travelled." Seeing the look on my face - a combination of mild discouragement mixed with a hint of disbelief that the exact same expression can be used to describe this road by so many different people - he follows this up with a positive spin "well, there seemed to be fresh tyre tracks on it." This is a bit reassuring. He adds to this however "not sure how much water is in Lake Cohen though." Lake Cohen is a seasonal desert lake that only has water during wetter times, on the northern end of the Gibson Desert Reserve about 80Kms from the junction. So, this is something else to be concerned about, of course. Why not?
I finally reach Everard Junction to find that: a) some asshole has stolen the replica of the plaque that Len Beadell left here some 50 or so years ago, and b) I can't find my original entry in the visitor’s book from 2014. The book has seen better days, and perhaps the page with my entry fell out and disintegrated. No matter, I sign the book again, and look towards the Gary Highway.
The Gary Highway is another Len Beadell track built in the early 1960s, this one named after his son. And it does have relatively fresh tyre tracks along it. I try to use some fabricated logic that would suggest that if the tyre tracks were any more than a week old, the wind probably would have faded them away somewhat (this is farcical thinking though, I have no real bush or tracking skills to speak of). To me, this means someone has plowed their way through in one direction or the other recently, and has at least mowed down some of the vegetation and/or left fresh and obvious diversion tracks. I hope.
No guts, no glory. (Not pointing out the flip side: no guts, no catastrophic errors in judgement. Ignorance is bliss.)
The Gary Highway starts much like the Gunbarrel behind me, but narrower. Much narrower, even narrower than the Connie Sue. Stretches of corrugations lead to massive, and I mean kilometres long, wash-outs of ruts and stony plains. In some places, the road has completely collapsed into large dirt pot-holes that, had my attention slipped from the road even in the slightest, would have been devastating to drive into. Thankfully, as my very, *very*, tense shoulders are proof of, I did not look away once. When I get to the resort in Broome, I don't care how much it costs - I'm booking a massage.
An extremely slow slog through some of the most beautiful countryside I've seen yet (or so my anxiety-riddled brain suggests).
It is truly amazing how much this country can change from one moment to the next; you could be driving through a narrow forest or knoll, absolutely peppering the sides of your rental vehicle with scrapes from the overgrown bushes and trees one moment, and only moments later you are driving through tall yellow grass that is so high you don't actually know where the road really is. And the grass stretches for infinity in all directions, with no evidence that the environment you may have witnessed only minutes earlier ever existed.
To describe the Gary Highway in its entirety, or even just the parts I've seen so far, would take an incredible amount of time and far too many words, and I'm already running very low on good adjectives. I will say this: it makes the Gunbarrel Highway look like a cakewalk in terms of driving (well ok, that's a bit much)...but what it does do well, that the Gunbarrel does not, is throw everything it has planned for you right in your face in the first couple of painful hours of travel. You will be driving through what feels like someone's really overgrown yard (that is hundreds of square kilometres in size), you will be inching your way through wash-aways and gullies and huge flat mud plains where you will see the deep bog tracks of those who came through before the weather dried up and got stuck. You will also lose a fair amount of paint from the side of your vehicle. Oh, and also, make sure to stop once in a while and check the underside of the truck to make sure all the tall grass and spinifex shrubs you are driving through have not clogged your radiator or any other parts of the underside of your rig, becoming a fire hazard.
Oh, yes, and then there is rush hour - Outback style.
I followed this goofy critter for about a kilometre because he simply wouldn't leave the road - they tend to prefer the softer road on their feet.
The drive is very challenging but I find myself eating it up with elation (suppressing the trepidation that wants to follow me along).
I reach Lake Cohen in the very early afternoon, and it is a sight unlike anything else I've ever seen. A massive clear blue lake in the middle of a desert, flocks of birds grazing on the shore and on the trees growing out from the water.
The Gary Highway continues on ahead of me. Right into the water. Someone put their lake on my road.
I get out of the truck and try not to get too carried away. I invoke calm as I walk to the edge of where the road leads into the water, and find that before I even get near it the soil begins to suck my shoes down. I cannot carry on this way - if I do, I will be a minor headline on Australian news in about a week's time.
I consider the fresh-ish tyre tracks on the road. They had to have come this way, in one direction or the other. This lake is the result of a phenomenal wet season in Oz, so there is no way it just showed up in the last few days. I venture around - carefully, stomping and avoiding tall grass as to not have any run-ins with snakes - and look for any evidence of diversion tracks. I find nothing.
Later I will think to myself: what would 2012 'Aus-newb' Steve have done in this situation? Trick question, there is no way he'd be here, he's still trying to figure out how to order food from a bar. What about 2014 'Outback-Poser' Steve? Probably unceremoniously shit his pants and panic. 2017 'Outback-Action' Steve? He invokes calm - and evaluates his options.
The choices are: hunt for a way around, make my own, or turn back. I decide to try and navigate around the lake and if the way is too difficult to call it quits and head back to the Gunbarrel.
I carefully inch east a ways until I feel like I've cleared the far side of the lake, and it is then I see tyre tracks. As dramatic as the whole situation initially felt, it has resolved itself in mere minutes. I follow the tracks and find myself back on the Gary Highway before I even realize I've made it that far.
The track just continues with more of the same. I reach the Tropic of Capricorn as the sun is performing its final act in the sky for the evening. I have chosen a place, simply labelled "Good Gary Highway Camp" on the gps program, only another 10Kms or so down the road.
Outback solo observation number 2: have you ever stood naked in the warm Outback sunset, washing your hair and sponge-bathing in a basin? Please do not visualize, just appreciate the sentiment.
Having travelled about 250Kms today, mainly north, I have found much warmer weather. And bugs. Lots of bugs. Thankfully I learned from my first trip and rest a lit torch (flashlight) on a log well away from my dinner table. I can hear the little buggers smacking up against the lens now.
The Gary goes a bit further from here but it looks like it may improve about 40 or so kilometres from here, and from there I head straight to Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route for the next challenge. That said, I'm not sure anything I've done - or will do - in Australia compares to the day I just lived through. I feel accomplished, having done something - apparently - few others have done ("not well travelled"). I'm not out of the woods yet, but I feel confident and simply want to embellish the moment. And look at the stars. And just enjoy being where I am - in the middle of nowhere with no one around.
The first twenty minutes or so of the morning is spent watching the sun rise from my bed. Later, a good hour or more is spent cleaning all the dried grass and spinifex that has clogged various parts of the underside of the truck, presenting a very real fire potential.
Soundtrack: Jim Gaffigan stand-up. You get the pattern now.
I plow through the 40 or so kilometres of Gary Highway conundrum, and reach the start of the better part of the track. Or so I thought. It begins better, wider, just simply corrugated in places...but quickly reverts back to its overgrown and washed-out self. My Hema map is *so* not very accurate.
I continue along as I did the day before - slowly - and reach the turn-off to Veevers Crater, a rough 16Km track to a small meteor impact site. I follow this track - through more paint-destroying and washed-out madness - to the crater.
I stand at the edge of the crater, and think: this could be the most isolated I have ever been - or ever will be - in my life. This is as alone as I will ever get. It is an incredible feeling, one I just stand and enjoy for several moments before making my way back along the access road to the Gary Highway.
Kilometres more of wash-aways and drop-offs and sand. And a few small brilliant red sand dunes to add to the mix.
I finally reach the turn off where the Gary Highway continues north but I will be turning north-west towards the Canning Stock Route. Again, this track, the Kidson, looks in much better shape.
Not. It is only a kilometre before I'm right back into narrow, overgrown, flooded-out insanity.
The trick is to watch the sides of the roads for any diversion tracks, because as little-used as they may seem, they will probably save you from certain horribleness - these tracks are often marked with a bundle of dead wood across the road to cue you into knowing not to continue - but not always. A few times I have missed a diversion track only to find an impassible road and have to reverse back to find a way around.
At one point, I come across a massive wash-out. I don't remember seeing a diversion track...so, perhaps the wash-out is drivable. I get out and check it over. It doesn't look very good. But, for whatever reason, I lock the 4WD in and crawl forward.
About twenty metres forward and the soft washed-out soil collapses under one of my front wheels, leaving me spinning. I frantically reverse a bit to find a deep rut where my wheel once was. Clearly, this is not drivable. I climb up onto the roof of the truck and look to either side of the road, but still find no diversion track. It would be moronic to try to continue, and I decide to back out of the wash-out.
I slowly reverse, until the back end of the truck lurches and falls.
The truck is now stuck at a 45-degree angle. And it won't move.
I put it into low 4WD, but the tyres just spin whether I try forward or backward. I jump out and look underneath to find the read axle is embedded in the ground. I am now officially stuck.
I practice panic management, which is not easy to do when the situation is real. Still, I force myself to maintain composure.
I walk along the washout, looking for ways I could pull away from it if I get dislodged but I find only more ruts and pits to either side of the road. I am now, lacking a better description, a bit fucked.
Thinking about 2012 Steve - once again, a dumb thought, he wouldn't be here, he still hasn't figured out to stop asking for directions to the 'bathroom'. 2014 Steve? Probably more pant shitting. Let's see how 2017 Steve handles this.
I return to the truck and pull out the fold-out spade, which to this point, was only part of my toilet equipment. I start digging under the rear axle and thankfully find the soil gives way fairly easily - which explains how easy it was to get stuck. I maybe spend about 15 minutes chipping away at this until I think it is worth trying to move the truck forward. I try it out and it at first doesn't move, but I make sure to straighten the wheels and inch ahead - and sure enough the truck dislodges. I then carefully reverse back at a hard angle to avoid the rut again. Once I am back on the road I slowly reverse back more...and more...until I finally find the very unnoticeable and unmarked diversion track.
I get out and find what wood I can and throw it over the road ahead of the diversion track to hopefully stop someone else from making the same mistake I did (not that I expect many travellers along this road - thank heavens I'm not still stuck). I then very slowly crawl across the diversion track and thank whatever force it was that decided I didn't need to spend the night stranded at a 45-degree angle in the middle of the Kidson Track.
I'll spare you the rest of the redundant details - it was more shitty road, followed by an awesome road once it met up with the Jenkins Track, and I hit the Canning Stock Route about 2:30pm, and decide to stake my spot at Well 33 just up the road. I'll head into Kunawaritji in the morning for fuel before hitting the Canning.
An afternoon spent laundering, cleaning, chatting with other travellers, and just relaxing. Because I'm not spending the night at a 45-degree angle out on the Kidson Track.
But next is the Canning Stock Route - at least a small portion of it. Things could possibly get even more interesting and fun from here. We'll see tomorrow.