The Gunbarrel Highway
by Annette Flottwell
Click on Len Beadell's map for a large map by the maker of the Gunbarrel. The new Gunbarrel is marked in this extra map.
Connects Wiluna (630 km east of Geraldton) with Yulara and Alice Springs and Mt. Isa.
Length: 1412 km from Wiluna to Yulara, Travelling time: 3- 4 days
Best time to travel: Anytime
provided the track is dry.
Road conditions: Unmaintained road since 1968 between Carnegie and Warburton (500 kms), frequently graded on the 'new' Gunbarrel between Warburton and Yulara. Slow, boggy after rain. Take care of the river crossings and frequent washouts. Carry enough diesel or petrol for 1000 kms.
Maps: AUSLIG Topographic Maps 1:250.000
Permits have to be obtained at least 4 weeks before your intended departure.
Please consider before you even head for Wiluna or Yulara that it's a much better idea to find another party travelling the same direction, check your vehicle, buy your rations and top up water while still close to spare parts dealers, supermarkets and good drinking water. The places to do this are Alice Springs or Cooper Pedy on the eastern end and Geraldton or the mining town Newman (500 kms north -west of Wiluna). It might not be as easy to find another vehicle willing to travel the Gunbarrel in Wiluna, in Yulara I'd deem it impossible. I strongly recommend not to do this trip on your own.
Carry at least 30 litres of water per person, the next vehicle might be two weeks away. Don't expect these regular roadhouses on the Gunbarrel, the shops are only open between 9 and 5 on weekdays. By the way, the police in Wiluna ain't interested whence you disappear, so do report with Carnegie Station and don't forget to tell them when you're through.
The history of the Gunbarrel construction is also described in the Len Beadell section. Sadly enough these days you aren't allowed to travel the eastern part of the Gunbarrel. But you will travel along the southern end of the original Sandy Blight Junction road and passing Docker River you will pass the beautiful Petermann Ranges
Since 1900 there had been rumours in Alice Springs that gold was to be found along the Petermann ranges. In 1930 Harold Lasseter set out with a herd of camels to find a "golden reef he claimed to have discovered 33 years earlier. While the main party headed west of Alice Springs, Lasseter must have tried on his own to find his claim. In his diary he even stated that he had pegged his reef, but only a couple of days later his camels bolted and Lasseter waited despairingly in a cave for a rescue party. When he finally set out on his own, he only found a drier place to die. The 'new' Gunbarrel - the Docker River Road in fact - passes by his cave.
The Gunbarrel was realigned in the seventies, as there was no more need for the rocket range observations, but all the more for a road link between Alice Springs and Perth. For more than 10 years, there was even a regular bus service along this new well maintained Great Central Road, as it is called on the roadsigns.
This will describe the Gunbarrel from west to east, because this way will save you a lengthy discussion with the rangers at Yulara NP about the entrance fee and public roads. I'll start in Meekatharra, assuming this is a good place to stay the night close to a petrol station and a well-stocked supermarket.
Meekatharra - Wiluna - Carnegie
Two hotels with pub, supermarket and two service stations make the thriving town of Meekatharra, which has today 250 inhabitants.
Before you head for Wiluna and a very lonesome track, this is where you can get the latest information on road conditions and your last cold beer for five days. Enjoy it and relax. Don't forget that your permit states you must not bring alcohol across aboriginal lands. So this the place to drink all the rest!
The good dirt road -watch out for cattle- to Wiluna will take you three hours the next morning. The road passes through dense bush and doesn't challenge you more than the obligatory corrugations.
I definitely don't recommend Wiluna for a stopover. By the way, Carnegie Station offers bunkhouse accommodation and camping near the main station buildings.
(Carnegie Road - note they filled the creekbeds with gravel!)
A couple of years ago the atmosphere in Wiluna resembled very much that of the Lower Falls Road in Belfast in the early eighties, a road that divided 'catholic' and 'protestant' districts. Tribal wars never seem to end. The fighting and shouting during the whole night is bad enough. The bar is strictly divided between blackfellows and whitefellows, being one of the few places in Australia where this is still a rule. After Wiluna, you will understand why the central desert communities won't have alcohol on their lands. Rumours had it that some rambo tried to shoot Aboriginals on the Canning Stock Route, but the nearby Farmers don't like travellers any better. They are quite sick off repairing the road after each party messes up the Canning.
Get some diesel in Wiluna, check on the road conditions at the police station or the shop again and leave for Carnegie. The track is crossed by many station tracks, so make sure you always take the direction of Carnegie: 43 kms behind Wiluna you keep right when the main track leads to Glenayle and keep left at the Prenti Downs turnoff 178 km from Wiluna.
Generally, the stations keep the track till Carnegie (right) in in a state suitable to cattle truck during the mustering season. That doesn't mean they'll grade it for the tourists. The road is no problem for a 4WD, though. There can be really mean washouts after rain, even the Carnegie station people occasionally dropped in these. Vegetation is scarcer now, as you get closer to the big salt Lake Carnegie. The Mingol Camp, - 25°54'40"S 122°21'10"W that is on your left one hour before you arrive at Carnegie, is a nice campsite, too.
At Carnegie station, fill up all fuel tanks and jerry cans you've got, cause you're facing some slow 500 kms without fuel.
An optimistic biker
The lassie who pumped the diesel told me about a Japanese biker's preparations.
This modern samurai hardly new any English, so Gretchen couldn't figure out how he made the 356 kms from Wiluna. Beside the 25 litre tank of his bike, he carried a five litre spare reservoir. As for water, he had a five litres bag; food he kept only a wee bit. Spare tubes or the like were a miss.
Gretchen tried to explain in sign language the road conditions and the distance he was facing - in vain. She called the station lady, who tried to point out their was no way they would go searching for him. It still didn't impress the small man who wanted to be brave and nothing else. Only when they mentioned the police a couple of times he agreed to go back. Of course, you might wonder why these guys do it. That easy enough, explained Gretchen, they earn extra point in their companies for having proven that they are very brave!
Carnegie - Everard Junction
The first 50 kms are quite straight, turning Northeast between Lake Buchanan and the Link lakes. Wild camels are common in the area - the station people won't blame you if you want one for your barbie. Bogs can occur at every watercourse, the ground being flat and forming new watercourses after the downpour. Soon enough, I was to face a major digging exercise.
Having no suitable car (click here to learn more about unsuitable vehicles) I got bogged badly. As the rental company didn't even provide a decent spade, having trusted the rental company, I had to dig with my hands and a bowl. After this, I wisely kept to the saying -always keep straight unless there is a recently used detour. You are crossing the aptly named Little Sandy Desert now.
Fortunately, the ground soon rises, the road is winding up left of Mt. Archie to the Fame Range sandridges The going is rough but dry. 96 kms from Carnegie when the road leads "straight as a Gunbarrel" to the East a track to your left takes you to Mt. Nossiter's summit, a nice spot to camp and watch the weather. 56 kms later a sign informs you that you have entered Mungili Claypan Nature Reserve (below).
You'll soon notice that the absence of cattle yields more diversity in plants than before. The signposted Mungili outstation hasn't been used for many years. The eagle highway crosses the Gunbarrel in the middle of the reserve- that's your last chance to escape to the Leonora road if you're facing any problems. Kangaroos and emus cross the track not only in the small hours.
When you leave the claypan and the ground becomes sandy, you'll find lots of hard antbeds and washouts in between, take care as these always seem to lurk where you change the lane of wheelruts hoping for less rattle. 205 kms from Carnegie, 7 kms after a 45° turn right, you'll arrive at the Geraldton Historical Society Bore turnoff , where emergency only drinking water can be pumped. A couple of hundred metres behind the bore, you pass into the Gibson Desert Nature reserve, not that you'd see much of a difference. Certainly, it helps to be sure to enter the very desert where Giles' companion Gibson perished 140 years ago. But the threat of dehydration is very real - read about Len Beadell's misfortune in 'Too long in the bush'. The Gary highway turnoff 238 kms from Carnegie is called Everard Junction. A Len Beadell original diesel drum filled with concrete and a genuine plate has become a guestbook for the travellers now. The Gary highway turn north via Windy Corner to Gary's corner. This was Len Beadell's main northern crossing,linking the Canning Stock Route, his ill-fated Callawa track and the Canning Papunya or Gary Junction road to Alice Springs. This is a nice alternative to the Gunbarrel, if you really know what you're doing. There is a special permit for this and you have to carry enough fuel for 1200km, so don't be tempted to change your mind just there. Len's plate on the drum (left)
Everard Junction- Warburton
9 kms after Everard Jct. the track turn Southeast between Mt. Everard and Mt. Gordon. This will be the last slope for the next hour. The track continues through the Gibson Desert plain, a well graded bit 18 kms from the turnoff serves as an emergency airstrip. Bad corrugations and thus divided tracks are the rule now, but there is no real escape from the rattling. Please stick to the main track, whenever possible. The track to Mt. Beadell with the giant theodolite on top is 55 kms from the Junction, don't miss the fine lookout on top. The memorial was donated and erected by the Land Rover Club of Australia. Another track leads down to the main road, where you'll find Camp Beadell 5 kms later. This is another lovely camping spot for a large party.
Another landmark is Notabilis Hill and bore, between which you pass 92 kms from the Junction. The road now winds among the definitely higher dunes, leaving the unpronounceable Thrytoteme Hill on your right. Another ten kms further, there is everybody's favourite camping spot, Len Beadell's tree on the picture below. Look at the plaque and imagine how they have cut this track more than forty years ago, relying only on Len's theodolite and their mechanical skills.
Now it's about time to say goodbye to the real Gunbarrel, because 720 kms from Wiluna and 127 from the Junction you have to turn right to the Heather highway. Sorry, I have no idea why it is called 'heather', it looks quite different in Scotland ;-)
After 41 kms you turn left again- don't miss the turn off at the Warburton sign. After this, the road gets definitely better, suitable for old Holdens and Falcons frequently in use in these parts. Now you can accelerate a bit, 47 kms later you'll arrive at the Great Central Road. From here it's real smooth and graded, suitable for these road trains supplying the communities and often travelling to Alice. Even traffic is there to get accustomed to, you might see a vehicle every hour. Now it"s only another 40 kms to Warburton roadhouse.
At the Warburton roadhouse, you can shop, top up diesel, have a shower - if it's a weekday and between 9 AM and 6 PM - and even stay for the night. Yes, they ask for the permit. There is even a very convenient camp kitchen, which I liked definitely less when a snake sneaked behind the fridge. I went to tell the manager, apologizing that I didn't know what kind of snake it was but then he might know better than me. He couldn't tell either by the description I gave him, but he agreed it had no business in the camp kitchen. He went to fetch a shovel and expertly killed the mulga snake. I never learned what it was till Alice, when a snake expert could tell me by the description. Of course, the expert deemed the snake harmless unless provoked but how do I know when they feel provoked?
Warburton - Giles
you've relaxed a bit in Warburton, the road passes pleasantly between
the slopes of the Warburton Range. When you leave the range behind you,
among the sandhills, you're in the area where Gibson was lost and a hundred
years later even Len Beadell almost died of thirst, hadn't his expert
knowledge led him to a well hidden waterhole. These sandhills are covered
with scrub and wildflowers in spring.
Great Central Highway in spring with Rawlinson Range in the distance
Near Giles Meteorological Station is the Warrakurna community and roadhouse. They offer a bit less than Warburton, but your basic supplies can be bought. The next fuel supply is in Docker River, is only 110 kms further on. Cold drinks are available. Warrakurna live by the N.T. time zone, so advance you watch 90 minutes and consider this if you're planning to visit the roadhouse. You shouldn't miss the short detour to Giles Met station, which was once the world's remotest weather station before they established one in the Antarctica. Here is also another Len Beadell memorial, the original Gunbarrel Road Construction Party grader can be seen behind the station.
Warrakurna - Yulara
Now you're driving again on the Original Gunbarrel, but this is only for a short distance of 28 kms. The new track now turns left to the southern end of the Sandy Blight Junction road and there is no way known to get a permit for the real thing. But don't complain, you'll travel along the southern side of the Schwerin Mural crescent now which is a true beauty. When you pass the gab between the prominent Rebecca Hill and the westernmost end of the Petermann Range, this is a stunning sight. Shortly behind the gab, you turn right to Alice where the Sandy Blight Junction road goes north. You follow the Petermann Range on your right, enter the northern territory and admire the scenery. Only don't get caught with a camera, being close to Yulara they don't exactly fancy tourists...
The going is very easy now, the sanddunes come in perfect shape. Somebody might stop you and ask for water, petrol, meat - you name it - try to see that they have a culture of sharing everything. a small donation of a tin of coke often works wonders.
There is something else you should know: Yulara sells alcohol to everybody. So watch out for broken bottles on the road.
When You're getting closer to Yulara, enjoy the solitude and the beauty before you meet the crowd. The Katatjuta Range is visible 50 kms before you arrive there, so take your time and a couple of pictures. It doesn't get any better once you hit the bitumen.
Here is what I was telling about. 15 minutes later, you will share this sight with 1000 tourists. Between Katatjuta and Yulara, I could count 47 tourist busses. That and an oncoming thunderstorm made me drive into the rainy night till I found a late shelter near the Mt. Connor lookout.
The Yulara campsite is probably the most expensive in Australia. It wasn't the best when I stayed there the first and last time 13 years ago. You are not allowed to stay elsewhere in park, and they really do check on that. So drive on for another 85 kms to Curtain Springs roadhouse, which offers a shower and a campground, too. There you can also have your first beer. After the roadhouse, there is nothing to keep you from bushcamping, too. Mt. Ebenezer is another 90 kms and offers the same treats plus a fantastic home-made kangaroo pie.
If you'd like to see the rest of the Gunbarrel as well, turn right to Mulga Park 11 kms after Curtin Springs. From Mulga Park to Victory down and the Stuart highway, you don't need a permit. Of course, this not the route to take to Alice Springs, which is 257 kms from Mt. Ebenezer.
by Annette Flottwell