(...or "Something Canadian This Way Comes")
16.06.2017 - 18.06.2017 22 °C
I gaze over the rugged desert ahead and below me from the top of the massive red sand dune, squinting from the mid morning sun. I lift the radio to my mouth and say into it "single vehicle, travelling south-west about 5 kilometres out of Well 32. No sand flag...sorry." And with one word, I just announced to whomever might be listening that a Canadian is headed their way.
The Canning Stock Route is - or at least once was - considered the ultimate Australian Outback adventure. The track, long ago forged in order to evade cattle taxes and then resurrected during World War II as a potential evacuation route from the north, traverses four major Australian deserts - the Tanami, the Great Sandy, the Gibson, and the Little Sandy - from the Kimberly in the north all the way down to the Goldfields in the south. It stretches a colossal 2200 kilometres if travelled the entire distance. Over this one passes through some of the most remote areas in the entire world, over vast plains of desert scrub, through rocky mountain ranges and across gigantic red sand dunes. Once upon a time, this journey was only taken up by the most experienced and hardened Outback travellers - there were no facilities or supply points anywhere along the journey, water was scarce given most of the 51 wells dug out along the route had fallen into disrepair at best, or their exact locations lost otherwise. In fact, in order to travel the entire road by motor vehicle one either had to have the capability of hauling an absurd amount of extra fuel or arrange to have a fuel supply dropped along the way...prepaid several weeks in advance, and hopefully there when you finally reached the drop point.
It is not to say that taking on the Canning Stock Route now is by any means easy, but accessibility has improved dramatically. Several of the wells have been restored and now supply water, a select few of them with water that can be consumed untreated. There is now a well established Aboriginal community approximately half-way along the trek that can supply fuel, supplies, food, emergency medical and repairs if needed. There are many well-maintained entry and exit points. There are countless guides and books, maps, software programs, forums and travel sites, and even guided tours. It is still not easy - many Aussies take upwards of three weeks to complete the journey, ensuring ample time to soak up some of the best their country has to offer. It is still big notch in one's belt, but it is a notch that is attained by more and more travellers every year. It has become quite the tourist destination of sorts.
Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, fully restored with a large water holding tank and a sizable flat grass camping area beside it, has evolved into a major gathering area for the track, only a few kilometres from Kunawaritji, the Aboriginal community that is the main fueling point along the way. Ergo, it is with little surprise that there is a sizable number of people set up here when I pull in. This includes a large tour group - primarily seniors that would, or at least it may seem, have little real chance or interest in making the trip on their own.
The warm afternoon is squandered laundering and relaxing (having escaped the consequences of my poor decision-making skills on the Kidson a few hours back), chatting with my neighbours and some folks with the tour group - the lead operator almost immediately starts referring to me as "Canuck". Later as I sit around my fire, quietly strumming on my guitar a bloke named Barry wanders over and shows me a fairly unique looking digeridoo, one that is wound up like a French horn rather than being a long musical walking stick. I have to find me one of these, I think to myself.
An early start, the flocks of parrots frolicking around the water hole next to the tank an inconsiderate bunch at 6am. Some effort is taken to pull out ahead of the tour group, I'm not sure how easy it would be to pass their massive all-terrain bus. I pull into Kunawaritji to fill my tanks for the adventure ahead to find no one serving the bowsers. I find a couple there - Ken and Sue as their rig is decorated to advertise - who inform me that the main diesel pump has been dry-hacking for the past day. At $3.40 a litre, that is expensive air. The older gentleman who normally runs the fuel station, they tell me, just returned from surgery the day before, and is currently roaming around on a ATV looking for some way we can draw diesel from the alternate tank that supplies the community - all while wearing a colostomy bag, the poor chap. We observe he shouldn't even be out here working, but at the same time if neither of us get fuel, we're both stopped in our tracks until the next fuel truck comes through...four or five days from now. The following hour sees myself, Ken, and Sue hand-cranking diesel from the large tank, filling jerry cans, and dumping them into our vehicles...twenty litres at a time. Unexpected work at this time of the morning, but a good story I suppose. Also, I now smell like diesel for the foreseeable future.
I pay for my fuel - honour system at this point - I estimate as best as I can. As I pull away, another huge tour group pulls in with three massive vehicles. And they will have to pump all the fuel into these beasts by hand. I don't hang around long enough to see how they make out.
Soundtrack: nothing but the sound of the truck. I'm going to take this in. I'm on the Canning Stock Route - somewhere I never imagined being.
I point myself south-bound and am initially...slightly disappointed. The Canning Stock here is a wide dirt highway...some of the worst corrugations I've experienced yet, but definitely a better road overall than many I've been on so far. I had imagined something...harsher (am I really wishing for a *worse* road?) I resolve to stop and take pictures of each well I encounter along the way, as best I can.
Moving on from Well 32 the road narrows, and starts to wind around...and around. And crumble into stony plains, over-grown and rutted. This is more what I expected. And shortly I encounter my first sand dune.
These immense escarpments of fine red sand are probably dozens (hundreds?) of kilometres long, west to east, and maybe thirty metres high and at times over well 100 metres wide. The road over them, made out of the same extremely soft red sand goes straight up the crest; if you are not paying attention and don't get a good run at it, or have not released some pressure from your tyres...or have not locked into 4wd, you simply are not getting over, and you might even get stuck part way up.
This first one, I make it up ok, and get a spectacular view from the top. Etiquette dictates that you announce your direction of travel and current location over UHF channel 40, because the track is so narrow and twisted, without knowing someone is on the track ahead of you headed your way, you could slam directly into them (imagine being in a head-on collision when you are the only two vehicles in a hundred-kilometre radius...how embarrassing). Also, you are expected to have a tall sand flag on your vehicle to assist in seeing oncoming traffic. Unfortunately, I do not have one - and hence the Canadian-esque apology each time I call out my position to the world.
As it happens, no one was headed in my direction...for the entire day. So much for busy/touristy.
This whole experience and the beautiful land it takes me through just makes me fall in love with this country all over again.
I catch up with the tour group from I met at well 33 at Well 30. There the tour leader named "Storm" (and under normal circumstances this would be seen a tad pretentious but considering his line of work, I find it completely appropriate) gives me a complete run-down of the Pilbara region that I will be headed to once I leave the Canning - mostly where to get the coldest and cheapest beer. I mention to him I was planning on heading into Karlamilyi National Park (formally known as Rudall River National Park before being renamed back to its traditional Aboriginal title) off the Talawana Track, and he pauses and cautions me on the very rough and treacherous condition of the entry track. Something to consider.
Some members of the tour group approach me with a curious interest - it seems I'm a bit of an oddity to them, like a strange mushroom you find in the forest that you admire from a distance, remark about its unusual appearance and nature, but have no intention of putting into your soup.
But the fact is some of these people *will* remember me.
I leave ahead of the tour group and continue crossing sand dune...after sand dune...after sand dune. One doesn't provide a good run-up and gives me a moment of trouble, and I have to back down and take a couple runs at it, and then only reach the top crawling along in low 4wd.
A bit stressful, but a learning experience. I probably should have lower tyre pressure to avoid tearing up the roads for others.
I miss Well 29, because I took a diversion track to see Thring Rock. By all accounts Well 29 is long gone anyway.
The day burns away faster than the distance, and I make slow progress, partly due to the winding, corrugated, and very sandy track, and also because I keep stopping to take pictures.
My goal of reaching Well 26 tonight becomes increasingly unrealistic and I find the sun setting directly in front of me, blinding me and forcing me to crawl very, very slowly...
...to well 27 where I find a clearing behind one other group.
A truly spectacular sunset - now that it isn't blinding me through the windscreen - and some socializing around the campfire with this group of folk who were very curious about my encounters with the Gunbarrel Highway since they are headed that way eventually. They ask several questions about it, and I almost get a sense of apprehension in their voices. I'm sure they will have no problems with it if they have managed the Canning, but this does inflate my ego just a little.
Soundtrack: alternating between silence and comedy - Jim Gaffigan at the moment, if you must know.
I push on just after my previous night's company vacate the site, and I find more of the same road - sand dunes and long stretches of some of the most picturesque desert I've ever seen.
As I reach the top of one dune, ahead of me far below between this dune and the next I see massive red lakes - there was enough rain this season to fill up some of the desert basins such that there is still water. The red sand has given the surface an extraordinary chocolate cherry mousse colour.
I pause at the one of the shores and just stand in the cool fresh breeze blowing off the surface. I'm probably experiencing something that perhaps does not happen every year - I could be wrong though.
I miss Well 25 because it is right in between two lakes and the road has been temporarily annexed by water, forcing me to take a long diversion around.
I reach the point where the Talawana Track merges with the Canning Stock for a while, and the road improves dramatically. I would be making good time if I didn't keep stopping mid-track for pictures.
At Well 23 I venture up to the old fuel drop. It appears to be still in use, though I'm not sure how often, or for how much longer.
And then I reach the edge of the Canning Stock Route for me - at a place called Georgia Bore, an established camp with a working well. I sign the visitors book and plan on stopping for lunch, but a small armada of some of the largest, ugliest, scariest wasp-hornet like things milling around the truck change my mind. Those that know me know that I am usually quite casual about wasps and hornets - don't bug them, they don't bug me. I wasn't taking a chance with these monsters, they were probably six centimetres or so long, the sun glistening off the tips of their stingers.
I make good time along the freshly graded Talawana Track, which has its own beauty about it.
I reach the turn off to Karlamilyi...and the road in, at least from here, looks well enough. I decide to see how far I get before it becomes too treacherous to continue.
Other than this ominous sign warning of certain doom ahead, the going is good - too good in fact, as I pull into a grove just outside of the park boundary where a couple having a nice leisurely lunch, immediately upon hearing the foreign accent as I greet them, proceed to lecture me on driving too fast and pulling all the dust in along with me. I present my most Canadian of apologies and eventually warm them up to me. I inquire about the road in, and other than advising me to take more pressure out of my tyres (I should have done this ages ago), they seem to think that I'm well-equipped and experienced enough to have a go at. After following their advice about the tyres and one more round of apologies, I set out into the park.
The track in is in really good shape. That is, until I have to turn off west to find my chosen camp site, a place called Tjingkulatjatjarra Pool (real name, I didn't accidently lean on the keyboard). The fortyish kilometres into the park took about as much time as the eight to ten kilometres off the main track to the pool. I find - much to my delight - no one here, and I set up right on the bank of the semi-permanent water hole. A glassy water pool, the small ducks swimming and playing, the sounds of birds in all directions. It is the most serene and peaceful campsite I've laid claim to yet. And to think that I am now in one of the most remote National Parks in the world. Not many people make it here.
Outback Solo Travel Observation 3: ever skinny-dipped at sunset into a dark, black, and startlingly cold water-hole in the middle of nowhere in Outback Australia? Again, no visualization, just ask yourself if you'd do this, given the opportunity.
I did and it was amazing. And cold. But it was the closest I've had to a real shower in...let's see...8 days I think?
I sat and just watched the sun set against the red rock outcrops in the distance. And I've never felt so at peace. This is simply one of those incredible moments in life that you know you may never have again, so you take it and soak it up and make each moment last as long as possible. There is no other place or state of being like this.
And then I attempt to ruin it with some rough calculations, and it looks like getting all the way out to Newman may be a bit of a white-knuckler. Not because of the roads - once I inch my way back out of the park it will be smooth sailing. But because of that whole fuel snafu at Kunawaritji, I wasn't able to completely top off the tanks and I may be pushing it to fumes to get there before running out. And there aren't any other fuel stops along the way.
2012 Steve? Let's not bother.
2014 Steve? Panicking, probably. And chattering madly to himself, possibly not entirely in English...except the cuss words. He also won't sleep tonight.
2017 Steve: well, that's a problem for tomorrow 2017 Steve. Tonight 2017 Steve just simply does not care.
Soundtrack: more guitar playing and horrible singing by me. I manage to turn a Rush song into a campfire song.
Sorry ladies...I'm taken.
I keep hearing largish things hitting the ground and the truck, and find that there are grasshoppers (I assume) madly jumping around the area. But these beasts are probably ten to twelve centimetres longs. I'm glad they don't eat people.
In the morning, I find my bread has started to mould. I anticipated this and have the supplies to cook up a make-shift bannock using a recipe I got from one of my wife's students. Yes, I am so committed to bread...I take the time to make bannock for breakfast. And it turns out pretty good and I just may make this again in the near future regardless of how hairy my bread is.
Soundtrack: Prayers For the Living by Strap-On Halo.
It turns out that 2017 Outback Action Steve (or more accurately Outback Smell Steve) figures out the fuel situation by taking things easy, keeping speed and acceleration steady, and simply not really worrying about it until it actually becomes a problem.
I inch my way back out of the park - it is just as slow and manic on the way out as it was the afternoon before.
I get back to the Talawana Track and re-inflate my tyres - since I'm expecting a fairly good road from now on, the higher pressure will keep my mileage up.
Soundtrack: Led Zeppelin I, the whole album, singing along with every word, grunt, and whine. A couple of things to note: first, 'Dazed and Confused' does not work well out here - especially the violin bow solo bit; also, a peculiar condition - I dub this 'Corro-hand', whereby your hand, having been gripping the steering wheel tightly to maintain control, develops pins and needles from all the vibrations from the road - this makes air guitar-soloing difficult.
The trip from Karlamilya to where I am now in Newman, Western Australia, was uneventful, and to boot I pulled into town with almost a quarter tank of fuel. Either I did some really bad math, or I'm really good at conserving when I need to.
Newman is not as unattractive as I had heard (ok, from "Storm") - it has a humble attractiveness despite the end of the mining boon from which the town has yet to recover. The park I book into, Kalgan's Rest, has definitely seen better days but one can easily picture what it might have looked like during more prosperous times.
I just had the best shower of my life. Ok, that's bullshit, it was nice but I expected it to be better. I suppose I was managing fine without them.
I cannot describe the culture shock from the camping I've been doing until now - going from alone in the middle of the Outback to parked up next to a maintenance shed with hundreds of other people. But at least there is cellular service. Always look on the bright side.
Besides - I just drove, at least in (small) part, the Canning Stock Route.