1976 Kathy Burman, Murray Rankin & Rex Shaw by Kathy Burman


by Kathy Burman

Kathy Burman Photo Rex ShawOn the evening of May 18, 1976, a heavily-laden 1971 long-wheel-base Landrover pulled out of Perth bound for the Canning Stock Route, a 1600 km long trail across the Gibson and Great Sandy deserts between Halls Creek and Wiluna. The stock route, with wells up to 32km apart, was last used in about 1958. The wells are numbered from south to north.

Five of us, all members of the Perth Bushwalking Club, hoped to walk the stock route, a trek impossible without first laying in food and water supplies where necessary along the way. To this end, the Landrover travelled north from Wiluna with three of our party on board; Murray Rankin, leader of the expedition, his wife Serena and Ralph Barraclough, owner and driver of the vehicle. There was no room for Rex Shaw and myself, the other two members. Food and water were buried at predetermined sites, mainly by wells. I will emphasis at this point that once we were out of station country and into the sand-dunes of the desert, the Landrover was forced to follow a zig-zag course, often travelling up to three times the distance between wells, whereas the return journey on foot was by the shortest route possible — a straight line from well to well.

After a long hard five weeks of driving, the three finally arrived in Halls Creek, taking two weeks longer than expected to complete the trip. During this time, it had been necessary to detour out to Newman for repairs and spare springs, a total of nine being broken for the trip. Near well 24, fire had broken out underneath the vehicle, but thanks to copper fuel piping, no major damage resulted. There were over 450 litres of fuel on board at the time!


Meanwhile, Rex and I travelled up to Halls Creek by the more conventional route around the coast and met up there with the others. After hurried repairs to the Landrover and arranging for it to be trucked back to Perth, we left on July 1st, a not altogether fit and energetic looking bunch about to tackle 1600 km of walking, for two of us had contracted a local stomach wog. This necessitated spending two days at Old Halls Creek, during which time a wild donkey was shot by the two fit male members of the party. The result was donkey stew, donkey steaks and a good supply of dried donkey meat, the last of which was used about three weeks later. Fresh donkey, by the way, is delicious.

Serena left us at Billiluna station and two weeks later, at welt 47, Ralph was forced to make the heartbreaking decision to turn back. His hopes were shattered by the recurrence of stomach trouble which had plagued him some years earlier. For the three of us remaining, the walk was completed with no more than the odd bout of nausea and mild diarrhoea. We probably saved ourselves much sickness by straining and boiling the water from most of the wells. Some wells contained dead birds, mainly zebra finches, and from wells 37 and 40, Murray pulled a decaying fox and dingo respectively. After baling out somewhat, these wells produced good water.

The walk itself was considerably easier than expected and at no stage did I find I was pushing myself to my absolute limits as I have done in Tasmania. The hardest section was an area of high, close sand dunes south of well 45, and extending down over several wells. Long distances between wells and heavy packs also took their toll here and our rest day after seven on the move was more than welcome. Our major problem seemed to be one of tiredness, which afflicted us all during the lat­ter half of the trip. A number of factors would have contributed to this, such as the length of the walk, our enthusiasm wearing off and an inadequate diet — mul­tivitamin pills and dried food weren't really enough. Other problems were the usual ones of blisters, sore feet and shoulders, while Murray and I also suffered from stiffness in the legs, especially knee joints.

Once out of station country and away from permanent water, there is little game. Between wells 47 and 9, our ''catch" consisted of one galah, hardly worth the effort of carrying the gun and ammunition! We found that fresh food from people we met really boosted us, although this was perhaps also due to the mental stimulation of meeting people from the "outside world".

After leaving Billiluna, our first contact with people came five weeks later at well 25, when Stan Gratte and three companions of the "Carnegie Expedition" drove up from well 24 to see us. It is difficult to describe the feeling as we first heard the dis­tinct sound of approaching vehicles and shortly after sighted first one, then a se­cond vehicle ploughing down the side of a distant dune. A day later, Bill and Shirley Sheppard from the Capricorn Roadhouse at Newman drove out to meet us at well 24. What a feast we had that day — champagne, chicken and ham salad, followed by fruit and cream, loads of fresh fruit, soft drinks, beer and so on. For two days we ate like royalty, or so it seemed. After that, we met up with Ralph again near well 19. He had hoped to drive in to meet us at Durba Hills and came on two wells further, where he stayed with us overnight before returning to wait for us at Killagara Springs. It was here that we tasted camel meat, left for us by courtesy of Stan Gratte, who had shot one while there the day before. He was running short of food, as he had made contact through his aboriginal guide, Freddy Freddy, with a young Aboriginal family east of Lake Disappointment. For the past seven years, they had been living as their ancestors had done and now they wanted to come into civilisation. Also at Durba Hills, we met two young motor cyclists, Bob and Tony, trying to get away from it all. 320 km later, we were back into station country and civilisation, meeting Henry and Eileen Ward from Glen Ayle station at well 7, then friends from Perth near Wiluna.

Water was a major problem on the walk. About 25% of the wells are dry and about one in ten too salty to drink. We carried lightweight distillation units, designed to fit on the billies, but thanks to the people we met out there and who put in extra water supplies at salty wells, we did not have to use them. The water in many of the wells, particularly In the northern half, is stained a tea colour, while that in some of the southern ones is an opalescent milky colour. Neither type did any apparent harm. While drinkable, the water was often not really good quality and I would not be surprised if a lot of it was worse than we thought at the time. I vividly remember just how clear and sweet the water was in the supplies filled from well 18 and Killagara Springs at Durba.

Weather wise we were very lucky, although often the sweat was pouring from us by 9 or 10am, while in the dune country, it did not become as hot during the last month as we'd expected. During the whole walk we only had one day of light inter­mittent showers and rain overnight. When we needed it most, between wells 45 and 43, the days were cool and overcast.

Generally, our daily routine was to rise at 5am, start walking around 6am, rest for several hours during the heat of the day, then walk again until we reached the next well. This is the best pattern to follow in this country. We walked from one well to the next each day and wherever distances between wells were short, we were usually at our destination by midday. We all found an extra half day's rest very agreeable!

Walk 1977 Melbourne Bushwalkers MagDepartment of National Mapping maps should not be relied on, as a significant percentage of wells are incorrectly positioned and obvious landmarks such as hills or ranges, are not even marked. Besides these we used photostat copies of Canning's original maps and aerial photographs for difficult areas. These, combined with Murray's knowledge of the area, gained both on the trip up and on previous attempts, plus excellent navigation enabled us to walk to all wells but two before nightfall. Both of these were found early the following morning.

The desert is a fascinating place. Topography varies from sand dunes, salt lakes and open plains to rocky outcrops and low ranges. Perhaps the prettiest place was Durba Hills, south of Lake Disappointment. The rocky gorges of this low 16km long range, with their permanent springs and lush vegetation, are a haven from the surrounding dunes. These however, are not without their own special kind of harsh beauty and I found them anything but boring. There is a tremendous variety of vegetation, each inter-dune corridor is different from the last. Shrubs and small trees are quite thick in some places, whilst in others is open spinifex. During winter the country, particularly in the north, is dotted with splashes of colour from numerous flowering plants — grevilleas, hakeas, cassias, otilotus, pimelea, acacias, micromyrtus, crotalaria, soianum, many types of peas and so on. Two species of melaleuca, distinguished by Canning as cajaput and tea tree, are often found near the wells. These plants are a good indication of ground water close to the surface. Wells are also located in stands of desert oak, mulga and white gums. Mulga first appears about halfway down and predominates after Durba Hills.

In summing up, I would consider the Canning Stock Route to be a long distance walk of considerable merit. However, I would suggest that the walk be restricted to between Billiluna homestead or well 51 and well 9, there being no point in walking through station country or along tracks navigable in the main by conventional vehi­cles. Not only does this save time, but it also saves walking through the least in­teresting country of the whole route — that between well 9 and Wiluna. I would also suggest that anyone else considering such a venture, should look very closely before hand at individual water requirements. The need for a constant and plentiful water supply and little tolerance to salty water were the major factors which precipitated Ralph's decision to turn back. Another point worth noting is to start the walk at the northern end and walk south into cooler weather. Finally, if organised properly, including adequate precautions for possible retreat, the major dangers of the walk can be minimised. Provided good navigation and common­sense prevail, it does not become a major feat of endurance. Indeed, to my mind, the two really outstanding achievements of our venture were Murray's navigation and the driving of a single, overloaded vehicle through country which is difficult to traverse other than on foot.

Published in 1977, in the Melbourne Bushwalkers Club Walk Magazine, issue 28
Courtesy Geoff Schaffer



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