A Travellerspoint blog

The Canning Stock Route

(...or "Something Canadian This Way Comes")

sunny 22 °C
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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.

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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.

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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.

Well 32

Well 32

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.

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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.

Well 31

Well 31

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.

Well 30

Well 30

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.

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A bit stressful, but a learning experience. I probably should have lower tyre pressure to avoid tearing up the roads for others.

Thring Rock

Thring Rock

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.

Well 28

Well 28

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...

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...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.

Well 27

Well 27

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.

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Well 26

Well 26

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.

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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.

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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.

Well 24

Well 24

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.

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Well 23

Well 23

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.

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I make good time along the freshly graded Talawana Track, which has its own beauty about it.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Posted by stevecrow 00:52 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

The Gunbarrel Highway (Revisited) and the Gary Highway

(...or "A Road Not Well Travelled")

sunny 23 °C
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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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  • ***

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.

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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.)

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Gary Highway continues on ahead of me. Right into the water. Someone put their lake on my road.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Crunch.

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.

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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.

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Posted by stevecrow 06:22 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

The Connie Sue Highway

(...or "Back Out into the Outback, with Some Backing Out")

sunny 21 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

Soundtrack: Selections from The Cure, INXS, Matthew Good and Depeche Mode. All done by me by my campfire. Horribly.

The fire is choking through its last moments, the stark desert chill raining down and draining what little warmth the land is holding on to. A full moon comforts me, peaceful and nurturing. The arrival of night is absolute.

This is Australia. This is what I came here for.

This morning found me already at a cross-roads, a decision with repercussions no matter which way I chose. Directly ahead of me as I leave the Cocklebiddy Roadhouse, just on the opposite side of the Eyre Highway, the canonical road that will lead me through Arubiddy Station to Rawlina and the start of the Connie Sue highway. This route however is notorious for deteriorating into a labyrinth of unmarked and unmaintained station tracks, the likes of which can greatly slow the navigation of unprepared travellers. To the right of me, approximately 11Kms to the east lies the entrance to the track known as the Haig Track that follows a more direct course north to the rail line, allowing the use of the Trans Access Road along the rail track west back to Rawlina. By all accounts it seems the Haig route is the preferred way; even the woman at the roadhouse stresses this when I inquire about Arubiddy; "yeah, but why go that way when the Haig Track is just up the way?" she remarks with certainty.

By the time I'm facing the permanent choice in front of me, I'm still undecided. I do something I'm not accustomed to - I try to toss the thought from my head, evict all psychological council arguing the pros and cons of each possibility. I let instinct take the wheel for the briefest of moments...and it turns me east to the Haig Track.

A short time later I am pulling over and reversing my way to the Haig Track entrance - it isn't marked and flies by in a single blink. The gps program is insisting this is the right road, so I place my fate in the hands of hope and begin to follow the track.

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It begins off like any other small, unmarked, you-probably-shouldn't-be-here Australian Outback road - as a winding dirt pair of tyre tracks leading to nowhere. Things very quickly go downhill from here. The track is riddled with rocky outcrops, razor-sharps stones, deep wash-aways and ruts where it was obvious people had forged through during wetter conditions.

What I foolishly believed at first to be something of a 'shorter' route with regards to time instead robs me of about four bone-jarring and stress-soaked hours of my life. I'm fairly certain it is not supposed to take that long, but I suppose I'm out of practice and take it decidedly easy and slow. Safe for sure - if not ridiculously drawn-out.

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The track provides no mercy - every time it feels as though perhaps conditions may be improving, the road twists and collapsed into a rocky mess with little or no warning. At points, it is like driving on the moon but without a cool moon buggy...and at times, no oxygen either.

The Nullarbor is strutting all around me, what few trees there are happen to be either in the very far distance or really no more than 3 feet tall. But the alien landscape is at the same time serene and fulfilling. Often, I find myself driving along side herds (packs? troupes? bunches? committees?) of kangaroos hopping along as if racing me. Despite repeated requests, none stop for a good photo opportunity.

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The horrific conditions of the track are exuberated by the countless station gates I have to stop for, get out, open, drive through, get back out, and close. I count somewhere in the neighborhood of 18,000. The first couple are an experience, the following 17,998 are just a pain in the ass. The only positive takeaway is many of them provide nearby dead wood to collect as I am stopped.

A deep sense of relief grips me when I reach the railway, but the sun has already crested and started towards the western edge of the Nullarbor horizon. This doesn't bother me as much since I don't really have a destination in mind. I would have preferred to be farther by now, but that is just because I'm excited to get on to the actual Connie Sue.

Soundtrack: Mike Birbiglia Comedy stand-up; I am eased by humour right now.

The Trans Access Road that runs parallel to the railway on the south side is a dirt freeway and I blast through the 60 or so kilometres. The road is boring a featureless save for a pack of emus I spot in the distance - my first to date. My brisk pace - and theirs - deter any photo opportunities.

By the time I reach the tiny and seemingly deserted community of Rawlina every shrub, building and fence are casting increasingly tall shadows. I will need to consider soon when to start searching for somewhere to set up for the evening.

I get momentarily off-track in Rawlina trying to find the entrance to the Connie Sue but thankfully there are only so many roads to choose from here. I'll either end up on the Connie eventually or in a mine pit.

I finally find my goal - a road that doesn't really improve my situation any. Much the same conditions as the Haig Track - except narrower.

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In truth, the road does get easier to navigate, fairly straight though with some lengths of sand and a couple of wash-outs, sometimes I recognize immediately the diversion track to follow, other times I have to reverse out of an impassible section and take a closer look. But the landscape is breathtaking.

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There are no destinations of note within any reasonable distance so once the sun reaches a certain angle, the first opportunity to stop will do. On the cusp on twilight I find a clearing that someone has marked with a tire by the road; within the clearing are the remnants of past campfires. I have found my home for this evening.

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I could not have asked for a better place to camp tonight. The sunset was a fiery glow that burned the western horizon and faded out just in time for the almost equally bright full-moon to rise from the east, lighting my dinner table.

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The evening was spent enjoying dinner, a campfire, and strumming the guitar and singing - to no one (the best audience, really). I am at peace, in total and complete serenity, alone, with only an empty road beside me and the deafening silence around me.

This is what I came for. This is Australia.

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The morning blows by as though I'm standing still...which I am. By the time I have eaten, washed, and packed up, it is past 9am. The sun is already racing me across the sky. The days here in this part of Australia at this time of year are discouragingly short, though typically dry, cool, and sunny.

The track to no surprise has not improved at all overnight. I travel about 10kms from my camp to find an access road leading to a place called Premier Downs. Yesterday, I had the idea that this might be a good stop-over, it being an apparently abandoned homestead, and in a moment of potentially careless spontaneity I decide to travel the access road and check out what I thought may have been my camp last night.

The narrow and overgrown track eventually leads to a station that consists of a windmill, a flattened foundation that once may have been a farmhouse, and dozens of what must be at this point feral (maybe?) cows, calves and bulls.

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I take some pictures and then following what I thought was the track leading out I find I'm instead in the middle of what was effectively an open paddock, in the centre of the herd.

All of my bovine friends around me are staring, somehow making me self-conscious like I just walked into the wrong bathroom. Which is a weird feeling...because they are cows. I crawl precariously through the grazing area and head out on what I initially take to be the exit track, to then discover...it is totally not the exit track - this one leads east to God knows where. According to my gps the road is several metres to the west, where after carefully driving though grass and rocks, I find absolutely nothing. Only a single trail that *seems* to lead in the direction back towards the Connie Sue.

This can't be right...can it? I hunt around looking for a more obvious road, worn tyre tracks, anything...with the cows still staring at me in wonder and probably judgement. According to the gps I'm in the right spot. So...what now?

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I see two obvious choices (I immediately discard the idea of following the unknown road east to my probably doom) - I can go back the way I came through the herd and hope that one of the bulls doesn't decide he doesn't appreciate me being here anymore and charge the truck - or just press on in the direction the gps suggests, following the single trail. I choose the latter after which follows about 30 very tense minutes of driving through an open field with no road - over hidden rocks and through sharp shrubs and bushes, just hoping to find my way back to the road before something *really* bad happens.

With forced calm, I slowly navigate my way back to the road and proceed to swear off any further spontaneous ideas like that one again (this resolution will no doubt not survive the day). I also give thanks to the stars - out loud over and over again - that I did not hold out the night before and try to find a camp at Premier Downs.

Soundtrack: My Revenge on the World by Ayria

The hours melt away faster than the distance, the Connie Sue Highway a challenging offering of wash-aways and rock patches. After a couple of hours, the track merges with an access road to one of the remote Aboriginal communities in the area, and at this point I'm back on a dirt freeway for about 100Kms, managing to pick up some speed and time though again I do not have any particular destination or mileage count to target.

The Connie Sue veers back north away from the access road at the junction with a water tank, and after a brief lunch I continue to find the road once again narrows and becomes a decaying Outback track, but perceptually it seems to be in better shape than the previous rocky stretch. It leads through long stretches of soft yellow and red sand; there is still the occasional obstacle and diversion track and some back-tracking but nothing too surprising. I take one detour off the road (see how well I learn?) along a much rougher track to see a place called the Neal Breakaways, an area of mountainous outcrops that feature a dazzling display of kaleidoscopic rocks, crags, and cliffs. I read somewhere that the traditional land owners consider this area sacred and may attempt to prohibit access in the future - I'm not even sure I should even be here now. Just in case I don't linger, I observe the area with quiet appreciation and head back out onto the Connie.

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The day is aging but it looks like at this point I have a very attainable goal, a place called the Neal Junction which is supposed to have sort of an official bush camp set up with wide sites and a drop toilet (no digging holes for me tonight!). I reach the junction which is where the Connie Sue Highway crosses with another track called the Ann Beadell Highway which runs 800Kms to the east and another 500Kms to the west.

Both these roads - as well as the Gunbarrel and Gary Highways - were built by Len Beadell and his crew in the 1960s. The northern section from Warburton to Neal Junction was built in August to September of 1962, the southern section completed in September to October of the same year. The Connie Sue Highway was named after Len's daughter, the Ann Beadell Highway after his wife. Having driven much of the Connie Sue at this point, I'm not sure how much of a compliment this was.

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At the junction, there is a sign that states "Camping: 200m West". I pull onto the Ann Beadell Highway for the shortest of short stints (can I say I've driven it now as well?) I find the campground and pull in...to find people. A fair number of them.

I get a few curious glances as I drive in; I open the window and greet everyone as I crawl by. This, of course, narrows down my nationality immediately to a choice of two.

I find a spot where I'm not encroaching on someone else and then proceed to get out and go around and introduce myself to a few of the folk. It is little time before I am invited to their fire for the evening.

The entire crowd was one group, fifteen travellers in perhaps six or seven vehicles. They had just come off the eastern section of the Ann Beadell two days before - right before the route was closed for annual military arms testing (!) and were recouping before heading north up the Connie Sue. By all accounts, the section of the Ann Beadell they had travelled was not much different than what I had found on the Connie Sue. They point out that one of them is towing a trailer and it would be in my best interest to pull out before them in the morning.

The evening is spent around the large campfire chatting and exchanging cultural irregularities. They make several crude Kiwi-and-sheep jokes, I apologize for Canada's part in contributing to Boxing Day Sales. As it would turn out they are travelling pretty much the same route as me between here and Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, but likely a touch slower due to the trailer. This is somewhat reassuring, knowing these hardened, intrepid Outback campers will be very likely no more than a day behind me. As we talked about our route the subject of the Gary Highway comes up, since we are both intending on taking it. "The Gary, it isn't too well travelled," one of them remarked. I had this impression because there was not much information about it that I had been able to find during my trip research. This makes knowing these folks should be following behind me a greater comfort.

As usual, the conversation turns to why I'm doing this alone, and I explain my reasons - both the logistical, and the I suppose 'spiritual', and they seem to get it. They are generous with the advice - though much of it I was already aware of, but I continue to nod my head and welcome each tidbit with gratitude. I fear I may have come across a bit eager to win their approval with how much I knew and how prepared I was, somehow trying to prove how I was part of their club or something equally pathetic. I will need to check this attitude going forward.

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In the morning as they advised I pull out ahead of them, all of us agreeing we'll probably run into each other again. I stop to sign the visitor's book at the junction, and then proceed to tackle the next part of the Connie Sue Highway.

Soundtrack: Jen Kirkman stand-up comedy. I suppose these don't make much of a 'soundtrack', do they?

The road is pretty good, at first. I take time to stop and take plenty of pictures of the vibrant red sand of the road meeting up with the pure blue sky in the distance. Like clockwork however the road deteriorates into a dog's breakfast, massive wash-aways and gullies, overgrown in many places (scraping the hell out of the sides of my truck), and long stretches of heavily corrugated red-black sand. I've reached the point where none of this is disappointing anymore - it will take me as long as it does to carry through to the end of this road, and I'm coming to enjoy every second of it, painful or not.

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I take a single detour to see a place called Point Lillian, which is yet another massive rocky outcrop, this one a deep copper red pitted with small holes and caves. It is only a 4km road off the main track, but it takes me about 10 minutes of rough driving each way in and out.

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As I approach the Connie Sue on the way back out I see a vehicle careen by. Apparently, my friends from Neal Junction have made good time catching up. Or, more likely, I tarried. I pull back on the road to find I have joined the centre of their Grey Nomad convoy as they are both ahead of me as well as behind. A couple stop to let me by, but they were going about as fast as I was so it really didn't matter. We all caught up at one clearing where I stopped to eat, a bit self-conscious that I was, at this point, being a bit of a cling-on without meaning to. So, I finished eating quickly and said my goodbyes (again) so that they didn't think I was trying to tag along uninvited. They claim they are heading straight through to Warburton (a change in their plans apparently), but I'm hoping to stop up the track at a place called Waterfall Gorge for the night...so this means they'll now be ahead of me. But as I'm pulling away I see one of the vehicles heading back down the road. Listening in on the UHF radio I hear that they may have run into some trouble with the trailer on the track some way back. I hope everything is ok. But this will slow them down and I doubt they'll make Warburton tonight.

More twisted road, now very reminiscent of the Gunbarrel. Huge sections where the track is simply not there any more, countless diversion tracks around problem areas - with the occasional regroup and rewind on my part - and particularly bad corrugations.

I reach the turn off to Waterfall Gorge early in the afternoon, which is a good thing because I had planned on doing some hand-wash laundry. But the traditional land owners have closed the area, with a large drum on which was spray-painted "No access, no camping, no photographs." I think they conveyed their point well enough.

I carry on further, as there are still a few points of interest that might provide good camping. But in the end, there were none -- nothing but more road.

I keep pressing through, knowing that even if I wanted to, getting all the way to Warburton before the roadhouse closes for the evening would be fairly much impossible.

I find a pull-off on the side of the track about 70 kilometres from Warburton - the Connie Sue Highway all but done. It is a nice area that has obviously been used for bush-camping before, but the sun is starting to set at this point and taking with it what sunlight and heat it provided. I still do my laundry, but it isn't going to dry tonight.

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I'm not quite in the moment as I should be, sitting beside my campfire for the evening. Perhaps it took only a single night to grow accustom to other people. The only sounds are the wind through the trees and bushes, and the fire wood cracking down to coals. Perhaps I may have over-estimated my ability to keep my own company for long periods of time. I'm almost forward to morning at this point. Maybe it's because the moon hasn't crested yet, and I was counting on the accompaniment.

I just turned off the UHF radio. The convoy never made it through, for whatever reason. If fact I might not hear or see them again. And the wind is picking up, so maybe I shouldn’t leave my drawers hanging from the clothesline overnight...just in case.

Tomorrow I'll complete the Connie Sue Highway and move on through Warburton and onto my old nemesis the Gunbarrel Highway, and then the Gary Highway. A road "not well travelled" apparently. I reserve any hesitation; tonight, despite the unsettled mood I am still at peace and proud of the fact that even if the entire trip were to end now that I have accomplished something truly amazing.

Starting tomorrow, I'll see if I can top it.

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Posted by stevecrow 02:49 Archived in Australia Comments (2)

The Hyden-Norseman Road

(...or "A Frantic Race...to the Starting Line")

sunny 20 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

The morning arrives quietly and unimposing, the colour returning to the city slowly as if it had just started breathing again. My safe refuge is at an end; I gather all my belongings and silently say my goodbyes to the Adina Hotel in Perth.

The preparation for this forthcoming pilgrimage has been somewhat of a hobby for almost three years...perhaps starting only weeks after returning home from Australia the previous time. There have been hours of research; gathering useful tips, how-tos, best practices, where-tos and where-not-tos, what to have, what not to have, and what-to-do-ifs. Much of this information sharing a common theme - being primarily how, when driving completely alone through some of the most remote parts of the Outback, not to die.

There is confidence in history. In 2012, I entered the scene when I picked up a 4wd and travelled - alone - from Alice Springs to Uluru, across to the Kimberly on the Tanami Road, and east to Darwin along the Gibb River Road. In 2014 the bar was raised slightly when I once again drove away from Alice Springs through the West MacDonnell Range, along the Mereenie Loop through Kings Canyon and past Uluru on to the Great Central Road, eventually plunging myself into the adventure that was the 800Km stretch of the Gunbarrel Highway.

Soundtrack: a rugby match (I believe) on the taxi radio as we ride in otherwise complete silence to where my drive begins.

The Longest Road to Queensland - aside from being a rather campy blog title - begins here in Perth in the Bassadean. I am hiring a 4WD camper van that is equipped for remote Outback travel. The plan is to drive east and across the Nullarbor plain and then steer north along several renowned (or so they are in the Outback travelling community) remote roads - the Connie Sue Highway, the Gunbarrel Highway, the Gary Highway, the Canning Stock Route, and the Talawana Track. Assuming I re-emerge eventually, I'll then head north through the Pilbara region to Broome on the western edge of the Kimberly. After a brief reset I'll tackle parts of the Gibb River Road, and then cut across the Top End along part of the Savanah Way and through the northern Gulf region until I reach Cape York on the far northern edge of Queensland. It all ends in Cairns and approximately 10,000 kilometres later. There are much shorter ways to reach Queensland from here. But what fun would that be?

I will need plenty of water and food - enough to cover at least two weeks days with no supplies. I have tools to keep myself and my clothing clean (most of the Outback, oddly, provides no showers or laundry). I will be fully self-contained and pack around all my own rubbish until proper drop-points can be found (I plan on brown-bagging all organics and burning them in a nightly campfire). I have both electronic and paper mapping systems, a satellite phone, a UHF radio with the 40 channel Australian citizens band programed in, and two iPods: one full of music and the other loaded with over 200 hours of stand-up comedy.

I think I'm ready. I better be.

The rugged beasty I obtain from the rental company (by the way they are called 'Travel Car Centre' if you are ever thinking of perhaps trying to top me) is a well-seasoned Toyota Landcruiser with a roof-top tent, two spare tyres (I will be using Aussie spelling, get used to it), a stove and gas bottle, dishes and cooking equipment, an air compressor, recovery gear, an extra-high lifting jack (called a Kangaroo jack, for lifting vehicles out of bogs and ruts), a winch, an emergency locator, a sleeping bag and blankets, a fridge, and an awning.

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And no, I did not pick out the licence plate.

After a brief walk-through my new home for the next five weeks, I set out to gather all my food before pointing the wheels east and hitting the accelerator.

Matilda, my murderous GPS, now joins the fun as she guides me from the depot to the nearest grocery store by leading me not along the most direct route possible but rather back and forth across said route through peculiar industrial park back-roads. I gather that she is thinking that perhaps my grip on right and left turns is not at its sharpest since I'm driving on the left side of the road. Thankfully my day trip to the Blue Mountains primed my skills at least enough to foil Matilda yet once again. Poor Matilda...she'll have me one day.

After packing every nook and cranny in the truck with stuff, I'm already several hours behind where I hoped to be by now - huge surprise. I had planned on about 500Kms today alone...and in retrospect this was a naive notion; it is well past 1pm, and there is no way I will be able to drive that distance before sunset. It wasn't really a good idea to begin with.

I set out and immediately feel the intoxication of driving through Australia.

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The trip from Perth to Hyden, despite being a fairly smooth highway the entire way, is absolutely spectacular! I enjoy a reinvented freedom as I careen through thick forests, clumps of brightly and flamboyant trees, rolling hills of platinum and emerald, gorges and spillways, small picturesque towns, and of course swaths of brown-red soil and rock...all this while the sun rapidly races towards the horizon. Oh, Western Australia and your knock-kneed time-zone.

I pull into Hyden, specifically a landmark called Wave Rock, just as the last debris of sunlight extinguish behind me. I consider that perhaps this is not such a bad Plan B; I'll be able to at least say I've seen Wave Rock - a fascinating natural formation that has, of course, been appropriated and cordoned off so that entry fees can be harvested. But also, this puts me in a reasonably comfortable caravan park for my first night, allowing for the time and space needed to organize all the crap I bought. I'll be living in this truck for a while - I need to establish a system.

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I'd like to claim I have forgotten how cold the nights in the southern half of Oz can be during the late fall and winter, but I haven't so much forgotten as much as I had simply tried to forget and ignore the fact. Thankfully I did have at least a miniscule amount of foresight when I bought a knitted cap (a toque, eh) at The Reject Shop yesterday.

Did I mention it's really cold?

  • ***

Last night was really cold.

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The morning is crisp and vibrant but still frigid. I spend as little time as possible cleaning up and eating so that I can generously allow myself perhaps 20 minutes or so to mindlessly snap poorly composed pictures of Wave Rock before I turn around and head back to the truck. If I were Wave Rock, I'd be insulted.

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I do see my first roos of the trip - early in the schedule, by my standards.

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So only about 750Kms to drive today if I hope to realign with my original schedule...a generous portion of the trip over gravel.

Shall we?

Soundtrack: While We Were Hunting Rabbits by Matthew Good

The Hyden-Norseman Road

The Hyden-Norseman Road

My first Outback track to travel is the Hyden-Norseman Road, an unsealed but reasonably well-conditioned shortcut from...Hyden to Norseman. I had imagined this to warm me up a bit for some of the harsher roads to come. But at first it appears this will not be the case, as a shroud of forethought at some point descended on the route and strapped it down with bitumen. Well on the bright side, I suppose I can take this road with more speed and gain more time.

And then, maybe 50Kms in, the pavement suddenly ends.

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The road is in very good shape however, and I make fairly good time and this allows me some short breaks to capture the beauty of this road.

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The drive is magnificent and serene (save for the loud rattling and creaking of my well-worn truck), leading through dense forests and past large empty lakes...that double, apparently, as 4WD playgrounds.

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I reach Norseman by lunch time. 300 kilometres down, and only about 450 to go. And the sunset is blazing towards me. It seems I have a knack for doing this to myself.

The trip from Norseman to Cocklebiddy traverses an iconic stretch of road on the Eyre Highway called the Nullarbor (literally meaning "no trees"). It is not so much that there are no trees, but rather there are very few, and those few are very short and they don't really interrupt your view of the otherwise perfectly flat horizon in all directions.

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One well-known length of the road is known at the '90 Mile Stretch' (139 kilometres), the longest straight patch of road in Australia. I blow through it in as little time as possible.

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The sunset and I grimace at each other in stiff competition; I continue the race until the full moon leaps into the eastern sky, replacing some of the lost daylight, but not enough to convince me that I will have enough time to manoeuvre around some imbecilic kangaroo - or a flock of ravens feasting on an previously imbecilic ex-kangaroo in the centre of the road.

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Night falls and I manage the Cocklebiddy Roadhouse; I treat myself to a delicious grilled fish and beet salad - my last real meal for some time. I am sore and stiff from the drive already, but quite pleased I have realigned to my original plan. Tomorrow I head out into the Outback, and it will be almost two weeks until I reach Broome. Between here and there, only empty desert and isolation.

Goodnight from Cocklebiddy, Western Australia.

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Posted by stevecrow 06:09 Archived in Australia Comments (1)

Back and There Again

(...or "Perth...something for everyone!")

sunny 24 °C
View The Longest Road To Queensland on stevecrow's travel map.

===Part II: South by Southwest===

Things are in motion now, my enjoyable but brief acclimatization to the country is behind me. The Longest Road to Queensland waits for me on the opposite side of the country. Oddly enough, standing in the domestic terminal of the Sydney airport I am only but a couple thousand kilometres to the south of my finish line in Brisbane. My path however leads far away from here.

The flight into Perth is largely uneventful, with the sole exception of getting a bird's eye view of a massive prescribed burn that engulfs a massive area of forest below.

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Once I have settled into my hotel room I find that the smoke from the fire I observed earlier is wafting over the city, bringing with it the unescapable fragrance of camp-fire. The sunset is super-charged by the particles in the air, amplifying the fiery reds and golden embers of the approaching twilight.

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My hotel is, suffice to say, not quite of the same calibre as my swank condo in Sydney; by no means rundown or unsettling but it has the ambience of an apartment I may have occupied as a bachelor twenty years ago. The walls are soaked in the stench of a thousand home-cooked meals, mostly of the Asian and/or curried variety.

There is no time to take in any of the city before dark falls and the modest metropolis morphs into a sparkling shadowy presence looming all around me. The highlight of the evening, apart from a thoroughly fulfilling Italian dinner is noting that right outside my hotel the block contains a late-night Wanton house, a tattoo parlour, and a porno shop. Under somewhat different and assuredly more seedy circumstances, all of one's needs would be met within fifty metres of the doorstep.

Soundtrack: Remember by In This Moment.

The entire first part of the following day is spent revelling in my most favourite activity - shopping. I traverse all around the city - including a train and bus trip out to a north-western suburb called Innaloo, gathering various pieces of camping equipment and other supplies ranging from why-not (a handy-dandy clip that holds a wine glass on a camping chair) to what-if (duct tape, cable ties, and leather gloves...which all put together, in retrospect, seems a tad serial-killerish). By the way, I am pleased to see that Australia has labeled their dollar stores with the more accurately described "The Reject Shop". A perfect place to gather cheap supplies for camping...or, I suppose, killing. I kid...please don't flag me.

I relax after my scavenger hunt with a glass of red and a pizza that, among other things, features some kind of citrus mayonnaise - much of which gets scraped off because it gets a bit overwhelming. I get half of the mayo pie boxed up to take away, having the feeling I just may come to appreciate it more at a later time.

I'm finally able to give Perth a bit more of the attention it deserves, at least more than I was able to the last time I was here when the freak rainstorm turned the streets into floodways. And I am utterly taken aback at just how gorgeous this city really is.

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Perth has a very interesting quality. From a distance - say riding in from the airport, or taking the train back from one of the suburbs, it appears much like many other bustling cities, with towering skyscrapers clustered together in a modern urban hub of business and commerce. However, some wandering around the downtown core provides a completely different feel, as it seems at any given time there is no more than one or two large buildings in view...anywhere, in any direction. It is as though one could arrive expecting a murky concrete forest but instead be saying to themselves "where did all the buildings go?" Upon venturing further along the city corridors, it turns out that the city really has a single boulevard of large towers. It is as if Perth were wearing a disguise - recall the cardboard town from Blazing Saddles - to discourage any further development that might make the city bigger (this, despite the obvious cranes and construction sites everywhere around the city - it looks more like it is in the middle of a boon). Anywhere away from that two block stretch of real city along St. Georges Terrace, there are plenty of smaller buildings - many of them heritage and almost Victorian looking - that space out any possible clustering of towers. It is a fascinating illusion.

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With all that said, and despite the haze from the distant fire that dresses this modest Western Australian city up into something that resembles a Los Angeles suburb, it is perhaps the most beautiful major city in Australia that I have seen yet (out of, so far, Sydney, Darwin, Perth and Melbourne). The weather, although approaching winter, is a very pleasant mid-twenties; the menagerie of temperate and tropical greenery plentiful, and the architecture - a mix of both classical and modern design - melds together to form a cityscape that is undeniably unique and pleasing to the eye. It is an energetic urban hub that holds its own without the frantic pace of it's larger cousins. It truly is gorgeous.

In fact, I could see no reason why someone would not want to live here - granted, I'm somewhat ignorant of exactly what the current economic environment here offers. But ignoring the question of what one comes to this city to do exactly, this place seems to have everything in terms of lifestyle.

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Waterfront...

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Churches...

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This...arch thing...

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A cool pedestrian bridge...

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What appears to be a building made to look like a hatched dragon egg...

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A carousel...

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This massive park I won't get a chance to see...

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Dinghies...

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A circus (well, an ex-circus)...

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This tree...

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Business opportunities (ok that's a touch unfair) ...

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Rigid parking regulations...

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Diagon Alley

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An arena seemingly made up of massive D&D die...

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A lively art scene...

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...and mini golf.

This place has everything. Who would not want to live here? I certainly do.

Evening barrels in sooner than I would like, but I take this last opportunity for the foreseeable future to indulge in Kangaroo for dinner before settling in for the evening. I have a bit of trouble falling to sleep; I am restless and excited, yet at the same time apprehensive and even just the slightest bit scared.

Starting tomorrow, everything will change.

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Posted by stevecrow 04:55 Archived in Australia Comments (3)

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