July 2017: “So you’ve done the Canning before then?”
It didn’t really sink in that I was about to drive the Canning Stock Route until I was on the Great Central Road having passed Uluru about 3 hours previously. Of course I had prepared for the physical aspects of the trip, but mentally, I had not prepared for the enormity of it all — the longest and potentially most difficult 4WD track in Australia.
Combine that with the fact I was also responsible for another eight vehicles and 14 people as sole tour leader, and you might start to understand why I was getting slightly nervous.
“So you’ve done the Canning before then?” came the obvious question from one of the customers as the group first met the evening before departure.
“Well, no.” I had to be honest.
“But you’ve done desert crossings before right, the Simpson?” came a searching reply.
“I haven’t actually crossed any deserts,” I said, somewhat sheepishly. “But I have played around in the Simpson and done a fair bit of sand driving in Central Australia and up in Arnhem Land. And I’m a full time 4WD instructor.” I thought I’d better add that last bit to comfort the customers. The fact that this is all said with a Kiwi accent didn’t seem to be offering them much encouragement.
Fortunately for me, one of the group members had also been on tour with me to the Victorian High Country some months earlier and he was able to allay some of their fears.
This wasn’t my first rodeo as they say. This trip to the Canning was my 20th tag-along tour as leader. Not bad for a Kiwi who, at the time, had lived in Australia less than three years. Ok, so I hadn’t actually done a desert crossing, but I’d done enough back country touring to know that if everyone has the right gear and drives their vehicle reasonably conservatively, then we’ll make it to the other end.
Do your Prep
One of the most important things you can do for a Canning crossing is preparation. Make sure your vehicle is in top condition before setting out and carry spares and items to make running repairs because things do break. Things like underbody bash plate mounts; swing away wheel carriers; winch control mounts; spotlight mounts; bullbar mounts; roof racks; shocks; springs; bearings and axles, to name a few. On this trip, everyone was carrying a range of spares but thankfully, nothing more than cable ties, tape, nuts and bolts were needed.
The most important part of your 4WD is the part that is in contact with the ground. Your tyres will make or break a trip. You need light truck construction tyres (LT) with at least an all terrain pattern and plenty of tread. I personally wouldn’t set off for a trip like the Canning with only 50% of my tyre tread remaining.
If tyre type is so important, then it stands to reason that tyre pressure is also very important. Dropping tyre pressures from what you use on the highway has some important benefits. Firstly, lower pressures reduce the incidence of punctures because your tyre can mold around obstacles such as sharp rocks, rather than the rocks going through the tyre. The same is true for the sidewalls of the tyre. Secondly, the larger footprint of the tyre (slightly wider but much longer) provides a greater surface area.
This increases traction in rough and steep terrain and also spreads the load of the vehicle making driving in sand and mud easier. Thirdly, your shocks will last a lot longer. The lower pressure provides some cushioning allowing the tyre to take some of the impact of corrugations and holes in the track.
Remote and Remarkable
I love to look back on how I saw something in my mind’s eye before going there and compare that to what it was actually like. I can tell you, the Canning was nothing like I thought it would be. It was so much better. To be constantly blown away by the diversity of the landscape was a pleasant surprise. There were days when I thought “this is amazing, it can’t possibly get any better than this,” only to have the same thought a day or two later.
Out in the sand dunes I was reminded of being on the ocean. From the crests, you can imagine the dunes are waves rolling towards you like a restless sea, always changing in size and frequency.
This was the remote Australia I had always dreamed about seeing. To be amid this vast landscape and reliant on yourself is an amazing feeling. The desert has a profound beauty but at the same time a raw savagery that you know could chew you up and spit you out without even noticing.
The Canning really is relentless and punishing. And long, did I mention long? 1850 km from one end to the other. We travelled South to North and out of our 26 day tour from Yulara to Alice, with 20 days on the Canning itself, we had 24 different camp sites. Having an easy camp set up and take down is essential.
I know a lot of people travel the Canning in much less than 20 days, however, for me travelling with a group, this was perfect. We had a couple of extra days factored in for repairs and maintenance but ended up using these to make the trip a bit more leisurely. Because we didn’t have to rush, we didn’t end up breaking anything major.
I can guarantee you that there is a direct correlation between the speed at which you tackle the Canning and how much you break your vehicle.
This is not to say that we drove the whole track at 20 km/h. Absolutely not. What we did do is have plenty of stops and not drive all that far in a day. This allowed our vehicles to have a break occasionally, allowing things like suspension components to cool down. We also got to have a good look around.