July 2017 - Tony's first time on the Canning
It didn’t really sink in that I was about to drive the famous Canning Stock Route until I was on the Great Central Road having passed Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Ayers Rock and the Olgas) 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 then 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 18 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 18 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.
The desert was absolutely alive with birds. This was the result of above average rainfall earlier in the year sparking prodigious plant growth and flowering. Huge swathes of spinifex seed heads attracted thousands of budgies who put on incredible aerial displays. A multitude of honeyeaters gorged themselves on the prolific flowers of the honey and holly grevilleas.
In the sand you could see the tracks of the mostly nocturnal animals and insects. While there still seem to be plenty of insects and lizards in the desert, the lack of any larger native animals had me cursing the introduction of cats and foxes. Mala, possums, bandicoots and bilby are just a few of the animals that have been decimated by predation from these introduced pests.
Dingoes were most evident from their tracks and calls in the Northern half of the Canning. At Well 24, a curious and unconcerned dingo made off with some unsecured plastic bags, obviously knowing that humans equal food. Unfortunately for her, all she got was some cooking utensils and a toilet seat! Maybe because of her failure to find food at our camp, this dingo proceeded to howl just beyond our camp fire light as soon as it was dark and was soon joined in song by her friends. Some of my companions found the howling a bit unnerving, but I reminded them that dingoes don’t have thumbs — so they can’t unzip your tent!
Of course you can’t talk about the Canning without mentioning camels. While they are also an introduced species, there is something about their history and seeing them in the desert that adds to the romance and remoteness of the experience.
A long Time Between Drinks
While Track Care WA has done an amazing job restoring wells and providing toilets along the Canning, it is still a long way between reliable, usable water sources. Up to date information should be sought on this because things change all the time in the desert. Make sure you carry plenty of drinking water and have the ability to treat the bore water when you run out.
Your vehicle needs to drink too. We fuelled up in Wiluna at the start of the track, refuelled at Parnngurr (pronounced Bung-oar), a community 80kms from Georgia Bore about 760kms later. Refuelling here takes away the need for the fuel dump at Well 23 and there is an excellent side trip to the Desert Queen Baths in Rudell River NP. Kunawarritji was our next fuel another 350kms up the track (and had a shower for $5 — ask at the shop) and finally in Billiluna after another 700kms or so, just before we hit the Tanami and headed for Alice.
It is important that you work out distances and fuel consumption for yourself before setting out. Bear in mind that there are a lot of side tracks you might take, the sandy country will suck a lot of fuel, and you may need extra in case of emergencies.
How Bad are the Corrugations?
Everyone has heard about the Canning’s infamous corrugations. How bad they are is subjective. It really depends on what you have to compare them to. That’s why I never take any notice of what other people tell me about track conditions. In saying that, the worst stretch for me was from about 20km South of Kunawarritji to 30km North.
There were a lot of other corrugations too and plenty of lumpy moguls on the dune approaches and descents that have your vehicle swaying violently from side to side. But they are part of the experience. Part of the remoteness of the track. Like a bumpy badge of honor.
Track Travellers and Radio Chatter
On the whole, the other travellers we met on the track were friendly and courteous. We leap-frogged several people up the track and got to know some quite well. I’m sure that some of the oncoming vehicles’ occupants probably rolled their eyes when confronted by nine vehicles in convoy, but I very much appreciated them making way when possible.
When in convoy, we always try our best to have our customers do the right thing. Constant communication with our group is important. I run two radios in my vehicle. One on Ch17 to talk to our group and one on Ch40 to listen for oncoming traffic and periodically broadcast my whereabouts.
Something that drove me bonkers on the trip was listening to inane chatter on Ch40 from other groups. Often I was unable to get a word in as people chatted away about nothing in particular. It would be a simple matter for group leaders to have a 5 watt handheld radio (or a second base set) on Ch40 to coordinate dune crossings and leave the mind-numbing chatter for a private channel.
The best bits
The Canning will keep you guessing. I’ve been to some amazing places before and seen incredible landscapes but I’ve never known somewhere so full of surprises. Maybe this is because the track is so long, but it is incredible how diverse and changeable the desert is. It’s not all sand dunes, that’s for sure.
Do your homework and preparation before venturing onto the Canning. Otherwise you will leave it limping home, sad and dejected with your tail between your legs.
Yes, the Canning is rough and corrugated, long and relentless, punishing on vehicle and body, but that’s not what I will remember most. What I will remember is the red of the dunes, the dingoes and camels, camping amongst the dunes, the prolific wildflowers, animal footprints in the sand, the swarms of birds, the amazing sunsets and sunrises, the brilliant stars, the shining spinifex seed heads, the lakes, the water, the quietness of the night and how absolutely remote it makes you feel.
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