Around 1800km of unsealed desert roads in very remote country; be prepared!
Words & images Greg Cartan
There are two well-driven highways linking central Australia and the west coast: The Eyre Highway from Port Augusta and the Victoria Highway out of Katherine. Both are good easy runs. The slightly more adventurous might choose to head west from Dunmarra on the Stuart Highway, or perhaps take the Great Central Road out the back door from Uluru. But if you are looking for something really different, there is another way.
Hidden among the deserts of the Northern Territory and Western Australia are a combination of beautiful roads that link up Alice Springs and Port Hedland. You may not have heard of some of them: The Gary Junction Road, the Jenkins Track, the Wapet Road (aka the Kidson Track), the Telfer Mine Road and the Ripon Hills Road. This is an absolutely amazing journey on unsealed (but formed) roads of seriously diverse quality. Do you like the desert? Do you enjoy remote travelling? Can you handle paying a few cents extra for fuel (around $3 per litre)? Do you have a strong off-road van with high clearance? If yes, then this is certainly a trip to put on the drawing board.
Into the desert
Okay, let’s get underway. We have checked out Alice and surrounds, cleaned up, stocked up, fuelled up, and we are pointed north on the Stuart Highway. At about 20km turn left onto the Tanami Road for 120km. This is a sealed road. Here we intersect with the Gary Junction Road. Now the adventure begins and we turn west for a long stint on unsealed roads.
The Gary Junction Road runs for about 815km through desert country and tracks near several Aboriginal communities including Papunya, Kintore and Kiwirrkurra. Papunya is famous for its Aboriginal art and you might score a bargain. Around this area the imposing Mount Liebig is truly inspiring, particularly if you can catch it in the late afternoon sun. Fuel is available at each community, and also some limited supplies. Be sure to check out opening times as these can vary and are usually non-negotiable. Most communities encourage you to just get fuel and visit the store. Don’t go nosing around the streets as this is considered a gross invasion of privacy. But I do recommend that you call in, even if only to buy an ice-cream.
This road was built by the legendary Len Beadell and his construction crew in the early 1960s. Do a little bit of research on Len before you leave. Then, as you follow his road markers along the track, you will get a taste of the history of the road. Various sections are graded from time to time, but you won’t know in advance so the actual conditions are somewhat of a lottery. You might find some water pooled on the road, or some stretches of serious corrugations, or some soft sections with sand blown across the track, and lots of nice clear smooth road surface. The road is wide and not overgrown, so your van and vehicle won’t get a flora massage. But overall, a pretty rugged rig is required.
This road flows into the Jenkins Track (at the Gary Junction itself) which crosses over the Canning Stock Route and ends at the Kunawaritji community near Well 33, about 70km further west. Mike Jenkins pushed this road through to give a direct run into Kunawaritji (Len Beadell originally veered off to the north west, cutting the Callawa Track to Well 35). There is some pretty tidy accommodation at Kunawaritji, which some wag labelled ‘the marriage saver’ because it offers some civilised respite for the intrepid four-wheel driving families who take on the Canning Stock Route (that can reportedly be stressful and hard on relationships). About 4km north west on the Canning Stock Route is Well 33. This is the CSR, and these corrugations are horrendous, but we’ve taken the van up there a couple of times at a very slow pace and had no problems. The camping area is quite large and the water from the well is quite good. If you don’t want to take the van just leave it at Kunawaritji and scoot up in your vehicle. At the very least, this entitles you to say, “Yeah I’ve done some of the Canning Stock Route.”
We can smell the ocean (nearly)
Our path continues west on the Wapet Road (also known as the Kidson Track) crossing over Lake Auld at 110km from Kunawaritji. At the lake the Wapet veers off to the north west and ends up right near the 80 Mile Beach caravan park. This exit point might be attractive to some, but the track is a bit suspect in places and probably better suited to a tough camper-trailer than a caravan. This road was originally built by West Australian Petroleum Pty Ltd (WAPET) over unallocated crown land, for exploration. The land is now controlled by the Nyangumarta people and subject to exclusive Native Title rights. A permit is required to travel the road north. Back at the lake we move out past Punmu community (fuel and basic supplies available) through some more sandy country and dunes; but nothing too soft or challenging.
We arrive at the Telfer goldmine access point some 213km west of Lake Auld and, needless to say, you can’t go down there! But this does provide an access point to Rudall River National Park just a little bit to the south. There are a couple places on the northern edge of the park where you could set up camp, leave your van and do some four-wheel drive exploring. It’s a fantastic piece of country. But, continuing west, the good news is from here on out the road improves markedly. This is a beautifully groomed, wide, compacted, unsealed road designed and maintained for the heavy mine vehicles. The road was constructed by Newcrest to haul copper-gold concentrates from the mine site to Port Hedland for export. It’s a delight, and a pleasant change from the rough roads we have experienced so far.
After 107km the Telfer Mine Road merges into the Ripon Hills Road which feeds the Telfer and Woody Woody mines. We are getting closer to civilisation now. This road is sealed and provides a comfortable run of 154km Into Marble Bar. Yes, that’s the very hot place they always talk about! But it’s a delightful little town and has a nice caravan park with trees and grass and good facilities. A great place to take a break.
There is a final stretch of 193km on the Marble Bar Road before you can enjoy the sea breezes on the west coast at Port Hedland. There are plenty of caravan parks in Port Hedland.
So there you have it…
Around about 1850km of mixed road conditions from Alice to the coast (or vice versa). There are plenty of places to camp and there’s quite a bit of firewood around. So you can take your time. We tend to mooch along at an average of about 60km/h, which works out at about five or six days. This is remote country. You can hear the silence, and be dazzled by the stars. It is simply a brilliant trip. But you will need to be well prepared, with vehicle and van in top condition. Take plenty of water (although there is water available along the way), a satellite phone and a couple of spare tyres. Be prepared, gather together a few like-minded souls for the trip, do some research… and get going.
You will be travelling about 1800km in remote country, over a variety of dirt roads and tracks, so the usual caveats apply. Vehicle and van must be in good condition with appropriate spare parts. High-clearance four-wheel drive and a genuine off-road van are the preferred choices. You will need good communications equipment; ideally a sat phone. You can get water, notably at Jupiter Well – but I would aim to take my own drinking water. Fuel is available at the communities, but ring in advance to check. Top-up supplies are available at community stores. Some permits are required. My distances are approximate, so get out the calculator.
Papunya Community: 08 8956 8522
Kintore Community: 08 8956 8566
Kiwirrkurra Community: 08 8956 8435
Kunawarritji Community: 08 9176 9040
Punmu Community: 08 9176 9110
Marble Bar Caravan Park: 08 9176 1569
You will need permits to travel these areas.
Click the links on the right for more information.