1985 Dune Buggy on the Canning by Gordon Hayes

Diary complete - History notes, maps and more photos to follow

The  Team - Eleven Members participated in this expedition :

Convoy start


Peter L Vernon (Mechanical Engineer) - Expedition Leader, 4x4 Driver
Mick Le Plastrier (Taxi driver) – Co-Driver
Vehicle – Holden powered hybrid machine

Richard E Mason (Motor Mechanic and Rally Car Driver) – Motorcyclist
Vehicle – Motorcycle, 600cc Tenere

Charles T Chapman (Geography Teacher) – 4x4 Driver
Vehicle – Toyota Landcruiser, FJ 45 LWB

Albert J C Bowden (Geography Teacher) – 4x4 Driver
Gayle M Crocker (Geography Teacher) – Passenger
Vehicle – Toyota Landcruiser, FJ 40 SWB

Malcolm Hayes (Geography Teacher) – 4x4 Driver
Kerri L Bremner (Packer at a Medical Company) – Co-Driver
Vehicle – Toyota Landcruiser, FJ 45LWB

Martin Hayes (Fitter and Turner) – 4x4 Driver
Patricia McCarthy (Worked at Melbourne Blood Bank) – Co-Driver
Vehicle – Toyota Landcruiser, FJ 45 LWB

Gordon H Hayes (Manufacturing Chemist) – 4x2 Driver (Article perspective)
Vehicle – 3K Toyota powered Dune Buggy on a VW chassis

A trek to re-mark a famous stock route

By Graeme Johnstone

They set out from Halls Creek, up in the deep north of Western Australia, in an assortment of vehicles…. A Holden HT panel van converted into 4-wheel drive, four land-cruisers armed to the teeth with bull bars, a dune buggy, and a Yamaha trail bike. A sort of mini Mad Max scenario, but with a much more serious aim.

Mad Max AKA Gordon Hayes

For 50 years, the Canning Stock Route was one of the key lines to the development of the Kimberley cattle country in Western Australia. It came into existence after a fever spread by cattle tick forced authorities to ban shipping of cattle down the coast, in an endeavour to contain the disease.

The route consisted of 54 wells evenly spaced along a 1600km track through the heart of WA. It started at Halls Creek near the Northern Territory border and snaked its way down to Wiluna, north of Kalgoorlie. It passed through the clay pans, sand dunes, rocky plains and scrub of the Great Sandy, Gibson and Victoria deserts.

Engineer Alfred Canning surveyed the route for the WA Mines and Water Supply Department, and later he and his construction team slogged through the area for two years, from March 1908 to April 1910, digging and shoring up wells every 20km or so.

The new route meant that the cattle could be brought directly down to the busy markets surrounding the goldfields. For 48 years it served this purpose – teams droving thousands of head of cattle, moving slowly from one life-saving well to another. (Edit: Incorrect. Due to limited water and feed, typically only around 400 head were moved per 39 known droving events)

The wells were basically a 13m galvanised steel trough, equipped with buckets and a windlass. (Edit: Incorrect. The shaft is an important detail for accessing water. More detail to follow in a separate article) They were renovated in 1942 when it was felt the track could be used for an evacuation of people and cattle from the north if the Japanese invaded. But in 1958, the Canning Stock Route was overtaken by the road trains – the mammoth trucks that can carry hundreds of beasts at a time. The route fell into disrepair. (Edit: A number of wells were/are renovated over time, not just in 1942, but desert conditions etc take their toll and well renovation is an ongoing effort to keep them alive and functioning - see Track Care WA)

A trek to re-mark a famous stock route

Today (1985) only about 20 of the wells have water, many have caved in, others have simply disappeared – and the associated track has changed direction many times over the years.

Enter an enthusiastic group of 11 Melbourne school teachers – interested in the history and geography of Australia. They felt it was a shame that this original and significant track – symbolic of the inventiveness and ingenuity of the people of those days – should be lost forever. After several months planning, their strange motorcade rolled out of Halls Creek on June 13 to follow the track, re-mark the five missing wells, and provide fresh access to them.

Then followed weeks of painful travelling – sometimes as slow as 5km an hour – as they slogged over the rugged country. There were hours of taking compass readings, of checking bearings and back-bearings, of gingerly driving vehicles to an estimated spot to find they were wrong, of checking again, and pushing on. Some of the missing wells were little more than holes in the ground, others had rusting and rotting pieces of wood and metal left.

At each one, they traced out a new access to it from the main track, and left a small plaque listing their names – Peter Vernon, leader, Charles Chapman, Malcolm Hayes, Martin Hayes, Albert Bowden, Gordon Hayes, Richard Mason, Trish McCarthy, Gayle Crocker, Kerri Bremner, and Michael Le Plastrier. At times their first estimate was 5-6km out, but a bit intuition and a re-reading of the descriptions Canning gave eventually put them right.

“The experience in finding Well 47, for example, demonstrated to us what an accurate description Canning provided for the drovers,” said Charles Chapman this week. Even after 75 years, the descriptions of the well site could still be used.”

But the trip was not without its drama. Punctures and tyres being shredded beyond repair became par for the course as they patrolled across the spinifex and scrub.

“Repairing tyres around the camp-fire at night became an accustomed part of the ritual,” said Charles. “After a while we reduced wheel-changing down to three minutes – even in thick sand.”

The trip came to a shuddering halt when a rear wheel-bearing collapsed on the Holden. New parts had to be ordered, via the Flying Doctor Service on the radio, and another vehicle had to go back to Halls Creek to collect them and return. The rest of the party waited at camp for a week, keeping a very good eye on the dwindling water supply. Another week was lost when two vehicles broke down near Well 23.

“The cheerful characters who operate the Flying Doctor bases at Derby and Meekathara were following our progress and antics with great interest,” said Charles. “As, probably, were the rest of the population in that part of the outback.”

A third major breakdown saw one of the cars being towed for the last 500km. When the convoy finally emerged at Wiluna, after a total of 2400km and many weeks in the desert, the first thing they were struck by was the road littered with cans and wrecked cars.

“This avenue of filth was in striking contrast to the clean serenity of the desert,” said Charles. “But we were cheered up by the jubilation of the local population, who had been expecting our arrival for some time.”

There will be two articles published on this 1985 expedition. The first is from the perspective of a young adventurer who teamed up with a group with a historical interest. The second will be the historical perspective. Information still coming in.

Last Updated on Sunday, 15 April 2018 15:46

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