DESTINATION: GUNBARREL HIGHWAY
Here’s how to tackle the Gunbarrel Highway just as the wet season clears.
Tourism WA suggests a trip along the Gunbarrel Highway should only be undertaken by experienced adventurers who genuinely enjoy the trials and tribulations of traversing extremely harsh and remote desert tracks. Sounds fantastic — when do we leave?
Peak season for tackling the legendary Gunbarrel is between late June and October. Not being folk who take pleasure in crowds, we took our chances at the start of April and were the first travellers to tackle the Gunbarrel for the year.
Wiluna is considered the western point of entry to the Gunbarrel Highway, though technically you are travelling on Wongawol Road until you reach Carnegie Station. First on the agenda was the Wiluna local store to fill the jerry cans with unleaded and top up the food, then it was out to the back of town for the obligatory photo in front of the ‘Start of the Gunbarrel Highway’ sign.
GUNBARREL LAAGER STOP POINT
It wasn’t far down the road to the Gunbarrel Laager, our overnight stopping place. Owner Gillian Marchant welcomed us to her former table-grape-growing property and made us feel at home. It wasn’t exactly what we had envisaged. The family’s second business is heavy machinery and there was a bit of noise from the driving. Still, there was gushing hot bore water in the donga showers, so it wasn’t all bad. The kids got out their paper and pencils and drew the scenery, using the scenery: scooping up handfuls of the vivid red dirt and rubbing it onto the page. It looked very effective and judging by the mess, it must have been fun.
By morning we were totally overrun with ants; the ground was teeming with them. An audio edition of Len Beadell’s Too Long in the Bush on the construction of the Gunbarrel Highway had warned us of the plagues of ants that Len had encountered, which amazingly never seemed to enter the vehicles. We decided the ants surrounding us must have been Len Beadell ants, which was their only saving grace as they were absolutely everywhere else. We must have looked a sight as we danced around trying to pack up and not get ants in our pants.
Heading out, the road appeared freshly graded, sometimes as wide as a freeway with other sections merely a rutted, single lane. There was evidence of recent water everywhere, with the occasional warning sign in place. We only hit two actual water crossings but one was a little tricky, with a rocky bypass detouring around a deep hole. There were quite a few deep washouts randomly appearing across the road, keeping the driver on his toes and causing the occasional expletive as we bumped through one we hadn’t spotted in time. But what a great time to travel; the bush was a vivid, luxuriant green with huge lakes full of swans and ducks and not another vehicle to be seen.
Early afternoon we arrived at Mingol Camp — an area off the side of the road right next to a magnificent permanent waterhole. We set up near the edge of the water under the shade of the mammoth gums and were visited by an enormous perentie as birds and dragonflies entertained us with their calls. Dad and the kids braved the slightly murky water for a swim. The sunset was stunning through ominous clouds and the sound of distant rumbling thunder.
After a couple of drops of rain in the night, we woke to a gorgeous red sunrise before continuing for about an hour on the road to Carnegie Station. Station managers Dusty and Jodie, and their gorgeous little girl, Jaz, greeted us as we arrived. What a great family and what a welcoming station! They supplied us with unleaded fuel for our thirsty ’Cruiser and showed off their little museum dedicated to Len Beadell and his Gunbarrel Road Construction Party. The lush grassy camping area and clean ablutions with hot showers would make this a great place to stop but with only an hour’s driving under our belts we decided to push on.
We were now on the Gunbarrel Highway proper and wow, what a drive! Down to a single lane, the wheel ruts and boggy sections left the ’Cruiser gasping. Deep washouts, gullies and vicious rock outcrops threatened to poach our diff and demanded intense concentration from our driver as we crawled at a painstaking pace. At the Mungilli Claypan we encountered a large body of water right across the track; even the bypass track was wet. An exploratory wade revealed slimy mud with a solid rock base. We let the diff cool a little before idling through with water up to the bumper, sliding just a little.
GERALDTON BORE TO EVERAND JUNCTION
The section from Geraldton Bore to Everard Junction was a pearler. It was rough; at times the track disappeared entirely in the tall spinifex and it was guesswork for a couple of hundred metres. Lucky Len made his roads so ‘gunbarrel’ straight. The tunnels of spinifex, encroaching sheoaks and beautiful flowering wattles each did their bit to pinstripe the ’Cruiser and camper trailer. Vigilance was needed here, with rock outcroppings, deep washouts and gullies prevalent. Average speed was around 20-30km/h with long sections of slow crawling.
The plan was to reach Camp Beadell for the overnight stop but that wasn’t going to happen. We reminded ourselves — drive to the conditions, not the schedule. We spotted a flat space amongst the sheoaks. These clear spots are few and far between, so we braked and wandered over on foot to check it out. It looked good at a distance but a closer inspection revealed billion of small ants…not here too! Further on, we found another spot, open, almost free of spinifex. We set up under the threatening, black, heavy clouds, which made us a little nervous just thinking of what water would do to these tracks.
The flies were very early risers and we couldn’t beat them out of bed, despite being up before the sun. It was a quick pack up before we tested out our new Tanami pump, transferring four 20L jerry cans of fuel into the ’Cruiser — it was so much easier to use than tipping the jerries on their backs. We returned to the track and were very glad that we hadn’t decided to push on during the previous night.
The track was rough; there were some very nasty washaways, deep corrugations, boggy red sand, rocky outcrops and all possible combinations of them all. At one stage we got the poor Cruiser well over 45° sideways and nose up at the same time, trying to get through a particularly bad washaway. Exciting stuff — once you’ve safely made it through. The spinifex was amazing too, at times almost as high as the car itself. We managed to collect a good mat on the radiator from the clumps growing in the middle of the track.
We eventually arrived at Mount Beadell, checking out the fascinating information board at the base before climbing to the top to take in the wonderful views and see Len’s theodolite, which is protected in a cage at the summit. It’s hard nowadays to truly appreciate the isolation and conditions Len Beadell and his crew endured. It is well worth getting hold of some of Len’s audio books as you travel his highway. Len has a real larrikin sense of humour and a gift for the Aussie understatement and you’ll gain a greater understanding and admiration of what was involved.
THE LEN BEADELL THEODOLITE
After continuing on to Len Beadell’s tree, we decided we’d had our fill of unformed tracks (even if they are called highways) so we turned off down the Heather Highway towards the Great Central Road. Well, that was wishful thinking; the Heather ‘Highway’ actually disappeared. There was no track to start with, though it eventually appeared as two ruts overgrown with wattle. Overall, it was in even worse condition than the Gunbarrel. We spent the whole drive wondering if we had made the right choice, but eventually made the Hunt Highway which had at least seen a grader in living memory (a luxury after what we had endured the rest of the day). We finally reached the Great Central Road, at least six lanes wide with smooth gravel and — would you believe — traffic.
Warburton Roadhouse on the Great Central Road had some inviting green grass to camp on out back, which provided a comfortable place to check over the ’Cruiser and do something about the spinifex decorating our radiator and under body. The compressor was useless in this task and we had to resort to scraping it off with our hands. With everything cleaned and tightened, we were ready to move on. Although Warburton Roadhouse wasn’t our objective, it was an important turning point in our trip, giving us pause for thought on the journey ahead.
GUNBARREL HIGHWAY PERMITS
You need to obtain two transit permits from separate Aboriginal land councils to travel on the Gunbarrel Highway. These are transit permits and cost nothing to obtain.
Contact the Ngaanyatjarra Council, WA, if you wish to travel through Aboriginal Land in the Central Reserves of Western Australia, to or from the NT border to Laverton. Visit www.Ngaanyatjarra.org.au or email firstname.lastname@example.org for information.
The Central Land Council grants transit permits for travelling through Aboriginal Land in the Northern Territory, to or from the WA border to Yulara. For more information, visit www.clc.org.au or email email@example.com
Travelling on the abandoned section of the Gunbarrel Highway is prohibited unless prior approval has been obtained via the Ngaanyatjarra Council (Aboriginal Corporation). Conditions apply.
> Carnegie Station is located 340km east of Wiluna.
> The camping area is close to the Carnegie Station homestead and costs $15 per person per night, or $40 for a family of two adults and two children. The tariff covers the cost of the bathroom — including a hot shower — and use of the camp kitchen. Barbecue facilities are also available. Meals available by prior arrangement. Power supply is limited and restrictions on electric appliances apply.
> Visit www.carnegiestation.com.au or phone (08) 9981 2991 for more information.
> Warburton Roadhouse is 230km west of Warakurna on the Great Central Road.
> The camping area behind Warburton Roadhouse has grassy powered sites and costs $12 per adult but is free for kids. Facilities include ablutions and hot showers. Visit www.warburtonroadhouse.com.au or phone (08) 8956 7656 for more information
> Too Long in the Bush by Len Beadell provides a unique first-person account of the construction of the Gunbarrel Highway. Visit www.beadell.com.au for your nearest stockist and for information on how to place an order.
Originally published in Camper Trailer Australia #65, May/June 2013