1973 Murray Rankin & John Foulsham

Word count 8337, excluding newspaper text

Murray and John's story has never been published in such detail. It includes an in-person three hour interview with John Foulsham. Should you wish to see more stories of CSR Walkers and Cyclists, pop along to mycause and make a donation that will encourage me to keep writing and sharing. 

1973 John Foulsham and Murray Rankin

John Foulsham and Murray rankin


In Easter 1971, Perth Bushwalkers, Murray Rankin of New Zealand and solicitor John Foulsham of Sussex, England, were looking for a challenge. Pouring over the maps of the Canning Stock Route they noted that there were wells within daily walking distance of each other and assumed there must be some sort of track linking them.

A chat with Noel Kealley, the first to drive the whole of the Canning Stock Route in 1968 with holidaying government surveyors David Chudleigh and Russell Wenholz, visiting every well on the way, brought them up to date with the reality of such an undertaking. Noel told them that whilst there were some vehicle tracks they could make use of, a walk of the Canning Stock Route (in the 1970’s) would be mostly through virgin spinifex, bush and sand dunes … and it was isolated, and therefore risky.

How would they do it? Murray felt it was possible with carts. John thought he was crazy and that was the end of it for him. But Murray was not letting go. The idea of walking the Canning Stock Route had sunk its claws into him.

In 1972 he persuaded two English brothers John and Peter Waterfall to join him – pulling three carts loaded with food and equipment. The carts did not last the distance, and one by one, were abandoned. The first cart broke down near Well 7 and John, who was suffering with blisters, elected to pull out, getting a lift back to Wiluna with a newspaper reporter who had driven out to scoop their story. The last cart was abandoned between Wells 15 and 16 where it can still be seen today.

Without the trailers, Murray and Peter loaded their backpacks with everything they could carry and continued north. By the time they got to Well 20, Peter had had enough and returned to Durba Springs (near Well 17) to wait for Murray. Murray continued on alone for another week, walking around the top end of Lake Disappointment to Well 24, close to the halfway mark, before finally turning back. Rejoining Peter at Durba Springs, the two men walked back to Wiluna.

They may have failed to walk the Canning Stock Route in 1972, but by continuing on to Well 24, Murray was able to confirm that there was still water in most of the wells and felt they could get over the sand dunes with better carts. Murray was already planning a comeback before he reached Wiluna.

another attempt by desert walker


Come 1973, in the face of Murray’s enthusiasm, 29 year old John Foulsham, reconsidered his decision and teamed up with Murray for another attempt to walk the Canning Stock Route unsupported. The walkers were no strangers to each other, having shared a house and gone on bushwalks together for the past three years as members of the Perth Bushwalkers Club. They got along well. From their bushwalks John knew Murray to be an excellent navigator and tireless walker. If anyone could make a success of this walk, Murray could. The two intrepid explorers put six months of their lives aside to plan and execute the walk, allowing four months for the latter. This time the walk would start in the north from Old Halls Creek and follow an old track from the town’s cemetery, through rugged terrain, to join up with the Tanami Track at Ruby Plains Station. From there the going would be easier along the Tanami Track to Billiluna Station and then down the Canning Stock Route following Sturt Creek to Well 51 and into the desert proper. They were certain they would succeed without any outside help.


A 1972 cart with 1974 motorcyclists posing - Photo supplied by Phil SchubertLearning from the fragility of the first carts in 1972, Murray had two robust carts built out of aluminium and fitted with motorbike wheels instead of bicycle wheels. The new carts had huge bins with a capacity for about 90kg in each. Both men were competent and fit bushwalkers who supplemented their training by running up and down Jacob’s Ladder, a steep 300 hundred step 43-degree ascent up the side of Mt Eliza in Kings Park, Perth … but … inexplicably … they did not train with loaded carts. This flaw in their preparations and training was to be the expeditions undoing.

Murray’s Ford Falcon van was used to travel from Perth to Old Halls Creek, friends Sandy Vidal-Hall and Anne Jenkins accompanying them.

Remnants of (Old) Halls Creek, a short lived gold rush mining town of mud huts and corrugated iron established in 1885, could still be seen alongside the old cemetery. The new town-site, established in 1955, with its modern buildings serving exploration parties, the cattle stations and later Aboriginal Communities, was a welcome stop-over for travellers to the Kimberley and those tackling the Canning Stock Route.

1973 cart with 1974 motorcyclists fooling around - Photo supplied by Phil SchubertDesert Walkers Ignore DangerOn arrival in (new) Halls Creek, concerned by assertions from the press that they would be stopped by police, they checked in at the Halls Creek Police Station to explain what they intended to do, ‘expecting to be clapped in irons and escorted to the nearest padded cell.’ The Sergeant was friendly enough but warned of the dangers they were likely to face. He actually visited them a number of times in the early stages of their walk to inspect their equipment, see how they were doing and check if they needed rescuing.

The day after arrival in Halls Creek was one of sorting out bags of food, film, clothes, cooking and camping equipment and assembling the carts. John, on seeing the carts for the first time in their assembled state, expressed misgivings - they looked and felt terribly heavy to him. Murray, however, was in good spirits.

A tombstone in the Old Halls Creek Cemetery warned the two adventurers of the very real danger that lay ahead, a memory that still elicits a shiver from John today: ‘To the memory of John Brown who perished from thirst near the Tanami in Feb 1909. Erected by his Kimberley friends.’

01 June 1973, the pair set off from Old Halls Creek. The night before departure, well-wishers gathered to celebrate. In the morning John and Murray, wanting to capture the moment, took their time filming. The day warmed up and became exceedingly hot. A decision was made to lie in and wait until 3pm when temperatures cooled. At 3pm they loaded their backpacks, collected the trolleys and said goodbye to Sandy and Anne who were taking Murray’s vehicle and travelling on, leaving the two men to get on with it.

Immediately John’s fears were confirmed – the carts were heavy and pulling them over the first two hills was a nightmare in determination. Just 5kms out of town they set up camp next to a well, exhausted. John made a fire and put the billy on for tea, whilst Murray made Johnny cakes – a sort of crumpet like scone made of flour, water and milk powder, jazzed up with onions or raisins for taste and fried in olive oil, rather than baked in the ashes like damper. Sitting by the fire, contemplating the next day, they heard a mournful dingo howl.

The next day was not any easier. Leaving the main road, pushing and pulling the carts along a faded track littered with dry creek beds, was a terrible experience. In trying to get through the creek beds, John and Murray would run one trolley at a time, down into the creek in the hope of getting enough momentum to help them manhandle it up the other side.

To make matters worse, on the way from Perth to Halls Creek, John had been nursing a very bad blister on his foot that had become infected, turning into an ulcer. When it finally healed, it left a large hole in his heel, hampering his ability to walk and certainly limited his ability to push and pull the heavy carts. On the second day it was decided that John would rest up with his boots off to give the wound time to heal, whilst Murray pulled the lighter cart to the next camp. On returning to John, the two pushed and pulled the second heavier cart to camp alongside the Black Elvira River bed. Although the river was dry, they could not cross - the banks were too high.

Walk DelayIt was here they realised they had to make some changes: lighten their loads and arrange a food drop on the Canning. Leaving their carts at the creek, they walked back to the main road where two Spaniards in an old Holden gave them a lift into Halls Creek. Looking like vagrants, with thick stubble and red dust matted hair, John arranged with the Halls Creek Community Services Department (same government department he worked with, but in Perth) to collect their excess supplies. Murray telephoned Mark de Graaf in Perth who planned to be on the Canning on the 24th August travelling south to north and he agreed to drop the supplies at the top end of Lake Disappointment, Well 24, sometime between 28 August and 01 September. Mark asked the walkers to leave a note at each well advising of their progress. He also let them know that another convoy of travellers led by Wayne Dodd, was planning to drive the whole of the Canning, leaving Darwin 1st July, travelling north to south. Maybe they could offer additional assistance?

Lisa Wilson from the Community Services Department, drove the walkers back out to their camp at Black Elvira River and collected the excess food and equipment. This would be handed to another Perth Bushwalker, friend and geologist, Maureen Muggeridge, to give to Mark de Graaf in Perth. The carts were emptied and dragged through the riverbed and up the steep embankments. Next they carried armfuls of food and equipment across and repacked the carts. With lightened loads the two pressed on to Ruby Plains Station where they enjoyed tea with the then owners, Mick and Cherrie Quilty (now deceased) who advised them of the watering points along the Tanami Track as far as Billiluna Station.

On the 10th June 1973, the walkers were 1.5km east of Ruby Plains Station, trudging along the Tanami Track. Even in the 1970’s the Tanami Track from Halls Creek to Alice Springs was well travelled. People stopped to chat, ask questions, take photographs and share local gossip. One of these wayside visits was by a doctor from the Royal Flying Doctor Service in Derby who was visiting the stations as part of his fund raising medical duties. He stopped with his wife and two children and cooked the walkers a steak sandwich meal. The walkers really appreciated these meetings and the friendliness and encouragement expressed.

John Brown Memorial - Photo supplied by Gaynor SchoemanThe going was not always easy even on the Tanami Track. On the night of the 13 June it rained and the next day the walkers found themselves struggling to pull the carts through puddles and mud. It was on this day that an old bus came trundling by and stopped. Out poured people with name tags on their lapels, excited to meet the daring walkers they had heard so much about. The outback may be remote but word gets around about anything unusual or newsworthy and the walkers’ story was widely known.

One person was decidedly not happy about them attempting the walk. They received a frosty letter of warning from the Billiluna Station manager Les Verdon:

(This is an abbreviated version. I have been asked to withhold the full tongue lashing by letter for now.)

‘Dear Sir

No assistance will be offered on your attempt to walk the Canning. For your information, the last time a well-equipped party went down the Canning was about 1959 by experienced bushmen mainly to see what the condition the wells were and they reported them to be falling in then.

……. Furthermore, I am not alone in regarding your venture foolish, as your unsuccessful attempt starting at the other end of the Canning was reported in detail by our neighbours and the same company as Billiluna.’

Les Verdon also sent a letter to the Lands and Surveys Department, stating his concerns regarding obligations to mount a rescue because he was the closest potential rescuer at the northern end of the CSR and, apart from the high cost of such rescues, he was concerned that there was a real danger to the rescue parties as well. He cited the worrying increase in the number of vehicles using the CSR since the publicity surrounding Murray Rankin and his party attempting to walk the CSR in 1972.

No action was taken on Verdon’s suggestion.

On the 17th June the walkers passed through Billiluna Station, the last cattle station before entering the desert. Les was away at the time and his wife apologetic. She was under strict instructions that no-one was to help them and even stated that they were not to use the old Billiluna track. This the walkers ignored as Murray had maps and knew of the five mile easement along the Canning Stock Route that entitled pubic usage. (This easement in fact was never formalised, but no-one questioned it and, for over 100 years, everyone assumed it was in place) Mrs Verdon did however allow them to fill their water bottles from the garden tap. The governess, Jay Jolley, was the only friendly person there, lifting the walkers’ bruised morale.

As they walked through the station they noticed the living conditions of the Aboriginal stockmen at that time – tents and wurly’s (wind and sun shelters made from branches). The conditions shocked John’s sensibilities; he considered their accommodation to be appalling. Aboriginal people had lived out in the open before the advent of white man and possibly viewed the situation differently, even preferable to being enclosed in a box with four solid walls and a roof. Or maybe not.

Murray carried a .22 rifle, and despite seeing donkeys and kangaroos between Old Halls Creek and Chungla Well and bustards, galahs, budgerigars, camels, dingoes and snakes further in the desert, they only shot a few birds the whole time they were on the Canning. Early in the journey the rifle butt broke and became a useless weight. Neither walker was into eating bush plants and as far as John was concerned, he would not have tried eating the unfamiliar foods anyway, considering a lot of them to be poisonous, requiring preparation to make them safe to eat.

They passed Lake Stretch and Bloodwood Bore, the latter a lovely spot with a functional windmill, tanks and water. (In 2010-2017, under Traditional Ownership, Bloodwood Bore was neglected and no longer offering water.)

Groups Meets Two on Stock RouteA truck driver from the Bureau of Minerals stopped by and chatted. He was heading south to Point Massie, a rock outcrop to the east of the stock route.

Chungla Well had deep dams filled with water. The walkers had seen a lot of donkeys up to this point, but this was the location for their first sighting of camels. (In 2015, Chungla Well had also fallen into ruins, the dams dry, but with natural spring water still coming up to the surface and spreading out over an area of about 10m in diameter, providing wonderful clear water to flocks of finches and the occasional larger animal.)

The next day they were back on the track. By now John’s foot had healed, although he still bares the hole in his heel today as a reminder of his ordeal. The going was hard in the loose sand and low sand hills. After walking for about three hours a Toyota Land Cruiser came by with two men from the Bureau of Minerals. These chaps had set out earlier from Balgo Mission and were on their way to their base camp at Christmas Creek to the west, in the direction of Fitzroy Crossing.

There were other encounters with vehicles from National Mapping who were surveying the area around Point Massie, Godfreys Tank and Well 49. One of the supply truck drivers named Pierre said he had been to all the wells except a few south of Well 35. He reported that there was good water at Well 41 and Well 35. He was enthusiastic about the walk and felt that the two could make it all the way. The National Mapping vehicles were to be serviced in Broome and then they were to return to Well 35 for more work. He hoped to see them there.

Before Well 51 they found a large clay pan with very thick, grey muddy water. It was here that they tried out their home-made water distillery: A fire was built and an aluminium bucket filled with water put on the boil. The lid of the bucket was covered with sand for insulation. A long copper pipe was pushed through a hole in the side of the bucket above the water line. The other end of the pipe was placed in a billy with a lid sitting in a frying pan away from the fire. The pan was filled with cooler water to encourage steam travelling through the pipe to the billy to condense into water. The fire had to be constantly fed to keep the water boiling, and the muddy water in the bucket topped up. Keeping the copper pipe cool was difficult to achieve in the heat of the day. Much of the steam escaped through the gaps where the pipe entered the bucket and billy. John reports that three hours of effort produced one litre (3 pints) of distilled water.

The water at Well 51 was found unfit to drink. Here, the walkers wrote their first note, and a tradition of leaving notes continues at many of the wells today. After pulling the carts for about three quarters of an hour past Well 51, a boundary fence was encountered, marking the southern boundary of Billiluna Station. They were now leaving cattle station country and entering the desert.

Well 50 was dry. Murray dug down about two feet finding slightly damp soil, but no water. As John told me this story, I found myself crying out inside: “Don’t give up. Dig a little deeper!” In 2015 I had dug down two and a half metres at a soak near Well 27 and given up on finding only damp soil. I later discovered that a dingo had dug another two feet down and found water. Drinkable water seeped between the layers of clay and sand into the hole.

Murray and John found that Culvida Soak nearby was also dry. They followed the creek line to rockholes where the presence of excited zebra finches indicated the location of the water. There was only a little however, and it was muddy. The walkers admired Aboriginal art engraved on a rock nearby. For John the most memorable figure was one with what looked like rays of sunshine or electricity bristling like a halo from its head. This is the figure that stood out for me too, decades later.

Murray Surveys South Esk Tablelands - Photo supplied by Perth Bushwalkers ClubWalking on, they looked for a rockhole north of the track between Well 50 and 49, mentioned by Wally Dowling, a Canning Stock Route drover. They saw finches but could not locate the water. Instead they shot a few cockatoos only to discover how tough and bad tasting these birds are!

Well 49 was in good condition, living up to its drovers name ‘The Crystal Well’, offering clear, excellent tasting water. On 26 June they followed the track around Breaden Hills, passing the cliffs of Twin Heads and Crown Head, turning east and walking up into Breaden Valley. As they walked, the lush thick valley grass erupted with swarms of disturbed grasshoppers, the violent sounds of thousands of fluttering little wings filling the air.

Leaving their trolleys at a base of a steep slope, they scrambled up without packs looking for water. Murray found a small sandstone gorge with a series of rock holes, one with clear water deep enough to swim in. They had found the little known and lovely rockhole, Diribarri.

The two men camped for four days on the hard rock platform separating two rock pools, exploring and finding Godfrey’s Tank and Breaden Pool, both of which had little water.

On the top of Crown Head they found a cairn of rocks with a weather vane established by the National Mapping crew. It did not look like a recent addition but rather one that had been there for some time. (National Mapping worked this area in 1964 and possibly established it then.)


1964 Map of track scraped by Bill Moyle, Billiluna to Well 45

In 1964 Bill Moyle scraped a track from Billiluna to Well 45 in preparation for National Mappings Geodetic Survey between Halls Creek and Well 35.
Murray Rankin and John Foulsham walked this track, leaving it temporarily to locate Well 47 and then again to cross to Well 46 and go bush to Well 45, without trolleys. This track is still used today, although the new alignment including Wells 47 and 46 is more popular, as it is the original stock route established by Canning. NATMAP.

Moyles track 1964

On 1st July, the well rested walkers resumed their big walk, leaving a note for Wayne Dodd on the track, at the entrance to Breaden Valley, to let him know they were continuing south. The track was still hard and relatively easy going in the morning but by afternoon had deteriorated into a quagmire of soft sand with bushes growing in the middle of the vehicle tracks. The two trolleys carried a load of 57 litres of water, plus food and equipment, and it was truly a mission to keep moving forward in the soft sand. The start of the sand dunes was the final straw.

1973 carts pulled though sand by Murray Rankin and John Foulsham - Photo supplied by Perth Bushwalkers ClubThe first two sand dunes were crossed by both men pushing and pulling one trolley over at a time. On the third dune the heavy trolleys with their motor bike wheels became really stuck. The only way to get the trolley up and over the dune was to tie a rope to the front with one person standing and pulling from the rise of the dune, whilst the other push-pulled the trolley by its handles. This was their first day out of Breaden Hills and they had only travelled 18km, the sand sucking the wheels and their strength.

Exhausted with the effort of pulling the trolleys over the third dune, they made camp on the downward slope, too exhausted to continue. It was pancakes and tea that evening and all doom and gloom as the walkers contemplated the impossible task ahead.

Canning walkers in dunes What was very clear in both men’s minds was that they could not get themselves into a position where they needed to be rescued as this would justify all the nay-sayers, particularly in light of the negative media Murray’s first walk attracted and Les Verdon’s recent warning. They had to ensure that they could get back under their own steam; that they had enough energy, food and water for the return journey. Injury was out of the question.

A discussion ensued because, despite all the difficulties encountered, Murray wanted to continue. John refused. The walk was over. Murray conceded that they could not carry enough food and water to make the whole trip, but got John to agree to continue as far as Well 40 where they would pay their respects to Tobin and his grave. At that point they would turn around and walk back to Halls Creek. In reality, Murray was still hoping to convince John to continue with the walk, and that they would meet up with Wayne Dodd's convoy from Darwin and that he would make food drops to get them to Well 24 and Mark de Graaf’s deposit. The next day, near survey Benchmark PT54 also known as FX54, they buried 32kg of food for their return, but no water as the rockhole at Breaden Hills had water. A cairn of rocks was built over the supplies to mark the location for their return.

In 1973 the Canning Stock Route 4x4 track did not connect with every well, missing out Wells 47 and 46. The men were going to have to leave the track and walk cross country to follow the water. Survey Benchmark PT54/FX54 was the point where in later years a right angle turnoff onto a re-aligned track would take travellers to Well 47, Well 46 and Well 45.

Murray was keen to locate Well 47, but it was decided not to pull the trolleys through the spinifex and sand as they would not gain much latitude distance whilst walking west to Well 47. The direction was at right angles to the track, the distance 25km. Mark de Graaf had not been able to find Well 47 the previous year and so they had no information regarding the availability of drinkable water. They decided it was better to leave both trolleys on the track, walk to Well 47 with backpacks, locate the well with future ventures in mind, return to the trolleys and then continue south. Packing their backpacks with two day’s supply of food, equipment and 4.5 litres of water they walked off track in search of Well 47.

Well 47 was the most difficult well to find being far from the track, overgrown and with few distinctive features to navigate by. Even with the aerial photographs they could not find it before nightfall and finally gave up and made camp. They had enough water for the night but if they did not find the well in the morning it was going to be a long and thirsty walk back to the trolleys the next day.

John Foulsham surveys desert - Photo supplied by Perth Bushwalkers Club

Taking advantage of the cool mornings, they got up early on 03 July at 4.45am. Murray plotted a possible position for the well at about 6kms to the north of where they had camped, deciding to have one last look there before returning to the trolleys. They stumbled on the well – it was hidden in bush but a large variety of gathered birds pinpointed its location. There were zebra finches, galahs and bigger birds with white backs and pink chests. The whip pole was absent, but otherwise the well was in good condition and very importantly, had water.

Murray maintains that Well 47 was incorrectly positioned on the map by several hundred metres and a number of other people over the years who tried to find this elusive well and experienced the same problem, might agree. There was a certain satisfaction in contemplating that they were likely the first white people to have visited this well since Noel Kealy’s surveyors group in 1968.

Due to animal contamination, the morning was spent boiling up 9 litres of drinking water. This was a slow process as they could only boil a litre of water at a time, wait for it to cool, pour the luke warm water into a plastic bottle, fill the one litre billy again and repeat the process, over and over, all the time keeping the fire stoked. (It takes a hiker a lot of time and energy to treat a day or two’s supply of water by boiling because hiking equipment is small and requires transfer cooling time, something many people do not take into account.) They watched the larger birds, including a hawk, try to get a drink of water, but the shaft of the well was such that only the zebra finches could manage it with ease. The bigger birds and animals might get to the water, but struggled to get up the narrow shaft afterwards and often drowned - hence the numbers of dead animals in the well.

Water replenished, both in their plastic bottles and their bodies, the adventurers returned to the trolleys well hydrated. Back at the trolleys they camped and dined on a concoction of Deb Mashed Potato, onions and raisins. Yum.

The next day they continued south along the track pulling the lighter trolleys through soft sand. The National Mapping trucks had left deep ruts in the track, cutting up the sand dunes as they forged their way to Point Massie. A short distance later the National Mapping trucks left the CSR Track in favour of a more easterly direction. The walkers continued the struggle along the CSR Track, the wheels sinking deep into soft sand, the track deteriorating into nothing. Eventually they realised they were going to have to abandon a trolley.

At a point on the track that lined Point Massie up with Well 46, they dug another hole burying 45kg of food plus 13 litres (3 gallons) of water and equipment for their return, including the useless rifle with its broken butt and other unnecessary items such as a pair of trousers John had not worn due to it still being warm. A rock cairn was built over the stash and the trolley pushed off the track into the bushes.

That night a bull camel paid them a visit, snorting and stamping and making a lot of noise. The walkers were quite fearful of this display of aggression and kept the fire burning bright throughout the night.

With the excess supplies buried and one trolley abandoned, they now had about 55kg of food between them for the journey down to Well 40 and back to this supply drop, with more supplies further north at Benchmark PT/FX54.

On the 06 July 1973 they were up at 5.15am and moving by 6.30am. There was still 12km of flat trackless desert to cover to get to Well 46. The land had burned here and progress was easier than before, due to the lack of vegetation. Both carried lightly loaded backpacks, Murray taking the head of the trolley, in charge of navigating, with John pushing from behind. They crossed over a dry clay pan, arriving at Well 46 at 11am. The well had water. Murray did another test with the water-still to see if they could improve on the production time. He managed to get a pint in half an hour. Bread was made and the last of the onions eaten, followed by prunes and powdered milk. In 1973 the soak near Well 46 was visible. In 2015 it was completely filled in, disappeared without trace. In fact it is now a place favoured for parking vehicles and camping - travellers completely unaware that they are atop an ancient well that once supported the inhabitants of the area.

At Well 46 they abandoned the second trolley, taking all they could carry in backpacks, Well 45 their next destination. John carried 13kg of food, 4kg of camera equipment, 7kg of water, personal kit, sleeping and camping equipment, a total of about 36kg. Murray carried about the same weight. Without the trolleys the walkers were free to take more direct lines to water and not follow any tracks they might find. John struggled with the aluminium frame backpack digging into his back, making carrying 36kg very painful. A typical walking pattern would be to walk for about an hour and rest for 15 minutes.

On 10 July they had a rest day at Well 45. The well was in bad condition and looked as if it would fall in at any moment, but it did have water which tasted fine despite being red in colour and contaminated with finch poo. The area was littered with nasty thorns John refers to as Double G’s. The scientific name is African boxthorn (Lycium ferocissimum) and was introduced from South Africa as a drought resistant hedge or windbreak. It has the capacity to injure livestock and in John’s case, make another hole in his foot.

John recalls that the tiny ants were terrible in the desert, the worst of irritations, particularly when they fed on the tender skin of his groin and armpits. They crawled over and into everything in their packs, sugar and barley being their favourite. According to John the ants tasted really bad if he happened to mistakenly eat one. Murray so hated these ants that he would wage war and set fire to them whenever possible. The flies were also bad, but after a few weeks John got used to them, except for when he swallowed one or it buzzed in his eyes. He did not like that.

Well water was often polluted with dead animals and had to be boiled before consumption. Maximum duration without replenishing water was two days at 4.5 litres per day. From here they typically carried about 9 litres of water each in their backpacks. Not knowing which wells would have water and which not, carrying this quantity of water allowed them to walk to the next well and if it had no water, to be able to walk back to where they knew there was water.

Well 44 was 25km away in a straight line, but the vehicle track by-passed it by a great distance. They followed the track for the first 12km as far as a clay pan (Gravity Lakes), in the hope that the pan might have water to top up their small carrying capacity. It did not. Nor did they did have a recent well condition report on Well 44 as Mark de Graaf had not found it on a previous trip in 1972. This well was far off the track and had not been visited by many despite attempts to find it. It may very well have been marked incorrectly on the map as was Well 47.

The walk was hard on John. The weight and discomfort of the backpack caused him a great deal of back pain and walking deeper into the unknown preyed on his mind. To ease the burden, he unloaded some of the weight from his pack and buried it, marking the spot with a purple T-Shirt. Murray, a tireless walker, swapped packs with John and took more weight, going ahead and allowing John to follow at his own pace.

Well 44 was a struggle to find but they did, just after dark. It was dry. This did not please John and he wanted to turn back to Well 45 where they knew there was water. Murray wanted to push on to Well 43, but John was not willing to take the risk. What if Well 43 did not have water either? That would be the end of them. They only had one day of water supply left. For Murray, the question was still ‘How’ to continue on to Lake Tobin but in a way that would appease John’s concerns of the increasing risk. They agreed upon a solution. In the morning they burnt the area around the dry well in order to make it easier to find and left some of the gear and water at Well 44. They then walked back to retrieve the supplies they had buried with the purple shirt marking the spot and returned to leave it at Well 44.

A search for a native well said to be in the area, Burnagu, was unsuccessful, as was mine in 2015. Stripped down to the bare minimum in gear, primarily water bottles, sleeping bag, a small amount of food and water, they did a quick march back to Well 45 via the clay pan, linking up with recent tracks of the National Mapping trucks. It was a big day, a total of 36km walked, the furthest distance of the whole trip and in 30C heat. Murray’s feet were blistered. They stayed overnight at Well 45 and had a day of rest the following day. The day after, well rested and rehydrated, they both carried 22.5kg of water each plus their sleeping bags and returned to Well 44 at a fast clip, walking about 5km/h for one hour, resting for 15 minutes and on again. With 8.5 litres (2 gallons) of water stashed at Well 44 for their return trip, they now had enough water to get to the next well, Well 43 and back if necessary should they find it dry. The tombstone in Old Halls Creek was ever present in John’s mind … ‘perished from thirst …’

12 July 1973 was John’s 30th birthday. Murray baked him a cake, or rather bread iced with Milo and wrote on it ‘Happy Birthday John’ from a paste of milk powder. It was a nice thought but tasted disgusting. The Milo without sugar was so rich it made them feel sick and they ended up scraping it off and eating the bread without it.

Murray was an expert navigator and had found all the wells from Well 51 to Well 40 using a compass, Canning’s notes, modern survey maps and aerial photographs.

Hiking was proving a lot easier without the trolleys. They had covered 20km by lunch time on the way to Well 43. The backpacks weighed about 20kg which was a great deal easier to deal with than the 36kg from before.

As they camped up one afternoon, the two Toyota Land Cruiser convoy of Wayne Dodd, Bil Bolton and Ian Smith arrived. The walkers got to witness how these 4x4 men gathered wood for their fires. They drove at speed at a dead tree and collected what fell. As John explained … they were from Darwin.

CSR Tracks during the time of 1963-65This convoy had been following the National Mapping vehicle tracks, but when they saw the intersecting foot prints, had diverted and followed the walker’s tracks, collecting the notes they found left at each well. Strangely enough they had not noticed the food dumps. Another interesting fact shared was that when this convoy had checked in with Halls Creek Police Station, the officers had not mentioned the walkers they might meet. The men from Darwin had spoken with Les Verdon in Billiluna and he was the one who told them about the walkers and that they had reached Godfrey’s Tank.

Concerned for the walkers Les had followed their tracks all that way, read the notes they had left and decided they were doing okay and left it at that. According to the Darwin men, Les did not sound annoyed anymore and perhaps there was even a hint of admiration for what they had achieved so far.

The Darwin men could not help with food supplies, but said they would leave water at Well 42 if it was dry. The Toyota Land Cruisers left following the track and Murray and John decided to see if they could catch up with them by taking a direct line to Well 42. John asked to have a go at navigating to relieve the boredom of just following Murray’s footprints in the sand. They never met the convoy again but did find a note left by the party at Well 42, explaining that they had not left any water as the water at the well seemed to be drinkable despite being covered in green slime. (Well 42 is never dry. Digging down two feet in the black mud always supplies water to drink.) Murray dug a hole beside the existing pool that the animals used (evidence of camels, dingoes, galahs, budgies, zebra finches and wasps) and the new hole produced beautiful water. The walkers boiled the water which tasted like fish soup. That night it rained.

By now John was bored with navigating, and Murray a little frustrated with his attempts which were sometimes a little off line. The area around Well 41 was muddy from the evening’s rain but the well water was good and there was a bonus in the form of fresh rain water in a trough once used to water cattle. There was a broken-down trailer at the well with 2 x 44 gallon drums in it and an empty bottle with note inside that said: ‘Greetings Walkers. Hope you are enjoying this weather. We are leaving the remnants of our trailer. If you wish to carry it out, you are welcome. You should enjoy this water better than 42.’

Lighting a fire was difficult due to everything being wet.

They made good progress to Tobin’s Grave and Well 40, following the convoy’s tracks, arriving at the well on the 16th July. The well was in good condition, the whip pole still in place, the internal timbers sound and the water only about 1.5m down. There were numerous 44 gallon drums littering the area with galahs and finches drinking from the well.

Here they found another note from the men from Darwin: ‘Walkers, Greetings. Glad to see you made it. Tobin’s Grave by a big dead tree. Water is a little bit salty so we left you 5 gallons (22 litres) of beaut Darwin water. Good luck for return.’ The beaut Darwin water was in a large red can that had previously contained ethyl alcohol and tasted so foul they did not drink it, but rather drank from the well.

The men walked up to Tobin’s Grave under a dead tree on a hill and paid their respects to this man who died 6 April 1907. They marvelled at the solid marble cross transported over such difficult terrain to mark the grave of a man deeply respected by Alfred Canning and his well building team. The edges of the cross were sheathed in tin to prevent Aboriginal people from chipping off pieces to use as implements, particularly anything that could be used as a weapon. The next day they hiked over high dunes for a view of Lake Tobin (a dry pan) and to take some photographs to mark the occasion.

It is interesting to note that, as in 1972, Murray would have liked to have carried on, even at this point, but John deemed the risks too high. He was adamant that he would go no further even though Murray wanted to push on to Well 39. Food was already in short supply at Well 40 as they had been eating more than anticipated and the next possible resupply south after Well 40 was at Well 24 … maybe. That was if Mark de Graaf’s convoy did drop food for them as arranged. But what if the convoy did not make the journey? What if they did not find water in two of the wells in a row? They had no recent intel to confirm what lay ahead, there were very few people about and no quick exit should they get it wrong. They were completely alone.

Desert camp with John foulsham - Photo supplied by Perth Bushwalkers ClubAt Well 40 Murray’s compass disappeared with the shirt it was in. They dropped the billy can into the well to see if it may have fallen in there but nothing was dredged up. Perhaps a dingo took it as they are known to collect an assortment of strange things. Fortunately, they had a spare.

It was 17 July 1973. They had been southbound on the track for 47 days and had walked to this furthest point, Tobin Lake, which was around 563km from Halls Creek. It was time to start their long journey back north. Giving up in the 1970’s did not mean it was over. It meant walking for another month to get out of the desert. In some ways, this was the time John enjoyed himself the most. They were returning to safety over territory they had already covered, following their footprints, making navigation less stressful and more certain. With lightly loaded backpacks in comparison to their south bound journey and without the trolleys, it was almost fun.

At Well 41 they had approximately 400km to go to Billiluna Station. At Well 42 they picked up supplies left there – muesli, flour and rice. The hole Murray had dug for water was still good and they drank without boiling it. After a meal of soup with rice they went to bed early. It was a cold night with the fire burning through to morning. Heavy dew and no tarp meant their sleeping bags were wet. Both had a touch of the runs probably due to drinking the unboiled water. A couple of tablets from the medical kit soon fixed that, the decision to boil all water in future cemented by their discomfort.

Following the tracks of the Land Cruisers back up to Guli Lake, they hoped to come across their footprints that had taken a more direct line from Well 43, but the ground was hard and they missed them, only finding the tracks in the final approach. They recovered 500g of rice and a kilo of apricots at Well 43.

21 July
, they left Well 43 starting out at 6.10 am. Between Wells 43 and 44 are some of the biggest sand dunes on the Canning Stock Route. It is a long, hot, difficult section, and in those days there were no vehicle tracks, only their own footprints. They were carrying 4.5 litres of water each, knowing they had left water at Well 44. They arrived at 4.15pm. Drinking deeply, they left the following day for Well 45 with 4.5 litres replenished in their bottles, knowing there was more water waiting for them at Well 45.

At Well 45 they found a note left by Wayne Dodd saying he would find them yet, which of course he did. The walkers enjoyed a meal of Milo, rice and Vita-Brits (or Weet-Bix). A curious cat made itself known and sized them up for a while, which was surprising. They did not see any dingoes on the whole walk, only hearing one howl early on near Halls Creek. Kangaroos boxing was another animal display they rather enjoyed at Well 45.

At Well 46 they found their abandoned trolley, moved it and uncovered their supplies dug into the ground below it. Milk powder, sugar and cups of tea were enjoyed once more. The trolley was lightly loaded with what was left and consequently easier to push and pull.

By the time they walked back to Breaden Hills, collecting their supplies along the way, the water level at Diribarri had dropped considerably, but was more than adequate for their needs for the few days they rested there.

On 30 July they hiked down from the rockhole to their trolley which took about three quarters of an hour. The note they had left with it was still there indicating no-one had come by whilst they had been up at the water. Pushing their trolley, crossing three creek beds, they arrived at Well 49 by 11am. It was a little strange to hear and see aeroplanes flying overhead.

Well 50 was still dry and they filled up at the rockhole near Culvida Soak.

Just south of Billiluna, an oil exploration vehicle heading out to Halls Creek for resupply, stopped and gave the walkers a lift. The driver had heard all about Canning walkers and allowed them to load their  trolley, the other having been left on the track east of Wells 47 and 46. (This abandoned trolley further south was later recovered by Murray in 1976 on a supply run) Despite the walkers’ trepidation, the driver stopped in at Billiluna assuring them that all was well with the manager. Les Verdon was indeed more cordial, inviting them in for cold drinks and allowing them to make a call to Mark de Graaf to cancel the food drop at Lake Disappointment. He explained that he had felt they were inexperienced and had followed their tracks to Culvida Soak to see if they needed rescuing. He had found their note at Well 50 and due to the fact that they managed to find water despite the well being dry, came to the conclusion that they could take care of themselves.

With the walk over, and no longer needing the trolley, with Les’ permission, they left it at Billiluna where it became a conversation piece for years to come. The driver agreed to take them all the way to Halls Creek, stopping off for a tourist visit to Wolfe Creek Crater.

The walkers arrived at Halls Creek on 6 August 1973. The entire journey had taken them 66 days, the return faster without the trolleys and benefitting from the lift.

John went to the Community Service Department in Halls Creek where he borrowed money for an air ticket back to Perth. From there he travelled on to England to visit his parents, met his future wife and returned to Perth to resume his work as a solicitor for the Government of Western Australia. John never felt the need to try and walk the whole length of the Canning Stock Route again.

Murray hitchhiked to Queensland, to meet up with Sandy and his vehicle. He was already planning another come back. The question was not why ... only how.

Points of interest:

Deb Mashed PotatoFlour, rice, Vita-Brits or Weet-Bix, macaroni, sugar, barely sugar, Deb Mashed Potato, dried fruit and vegetables, cooking oil, milk powder, muesli and soup. Murray made Johnny cakes regularly. They ate Vita-Brits or Weet-Bix (brand unconfirmed) most mornings and Deb Mashed Potato most evenings.

Lightweight ground sheet which doubled as a cape, a sleeping bag, lightweight nylon tarp type tent without poles that tied between trees and bushes (it was tarp-like in that it had no mesh to keep the insects out, providing shelter from the sun and rain only). Sand was a more comfortable surface to sleep on and for added insulation and comfort they packed grass and soft branches underneath the tarp.

How much rain did they experience over two months in June, July and early August?
About three nights of rain. No rain during the day.

Longest distance walked in a day
36km whilst hiking with backpacks only, but usually they only walked to the next well which was about 25km a day.

Daily routine
Get up early around 5.45am and start walking by 6.30am. Walk until 11.30am. Have lunch and rest in the heat of the day. Start walking at 3pm until about 5pm.
They never walked at night, despite police suggesting they might try this. Faced with the reality of it, they were concerned they might fall or get hurt. After they left their last trolley at about Well 46, they walked for the most part through virgin spinifex, not on a track. John walked in shorts with no gaiters. At the end of two months his shin skin looked like hard crocodile skin, full of knobbles left by the spinifex piercings.

Condition of the wells
All wells from Well 51-40 had water, except for Well 44. Most of the water was good but some was saline and some had dead animals in it – one a kangaroo. Obviously polluted water was boiled. They had a home-made desalinator but it was very slow and energy consuming to maintain. Over about three hours they could make about 1 litre of pure fresh water. When they drank muddy water John found it caused constipation. Drinking water from Well 42 without boiling led to diarrhoea.

Did they meet any Aborigines south of Billiluna?


Work Completed Canning by Phil Bianchi

My thanks to these resources:

Ref: Work Completed, Canning by Phil Bianchi
Ref: Canning Stock Route - A Travellers Guide by Ronele and Eric Gard
Ref: The Age and The Canberra Times plus two unknown newspaper origins
Ref: Photo's of cart at Billiluna with motorcyclists fooling around, taken in 1974 by Phil Shubert
Ref: The Venture magazine, courtesy Phil Bianchi
Ref: Perth Bushwalkers Club, 40 Years 1969-2009, courtesy Geoff Schafer
Ref: Interview with John Foulsham, 2015-09-21
Ref: Paul Wise and Laurie McLean, Natmap



Last Updated on Thursday, 08 March 2018 19:58

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