The Gary Junction Road +

The Gary Junction Road was scraped through desert by the renowned bushman & track builder, Len Beadell, in the 1960’s. It runs for a little over 1000kms from a little west of Alice Springs to ‘Well 33’ on the Canning Stock Route, & the Aboriginal community of Kunawarritji close by. Other tracks continue west from there, as well as the Canning which runs north/south. The mapping software I use for this blog utilises Google Maps, & I’m pretty sure that Google Maps does not include remote tracks like this. If I tried to get Google directions from, say, Alice Springs in the Northern Territory to Newman in Western Australia I dare say it tell me to either head north or south, then west to the coast, then up or down to Newman…… Essentially half way around Australia instead of the virtually direct route the GJR takes. Of course being out here in the desert with no phone signal for hundreds of kilometres, means I can’t check out just what Google Maps does show. Where it shows no road I can create straight line routes, not ideal but ‘close enough’ to give an idea of our route. If that’s how it is, my apologies, but nothing I can do about it. If you’re interested the geographical info will be out there on the ‘net somewhere. The GJR runs between two deserts, although even that is a statement I am less clear about than I’d like to be. Our maps show the Great Sandy Desert to it’s north, & the Gibson Desert to it’s south. Whether the GJR is the boundary line between two deserts though, I have no idea.

From Palm Valley we returned to the sealed road & drove back to Hermannsberg in the hope of buying a warm jumper to replace the only one I had , & which inexplicably I had somehow lost whilst in Palm Valley. First we tried the old Finke River Mission store, but could see no jumpers. Having asked the woman at the till if they had any jumpers she shook her head. No eye contact. I then asked if there were anywhere else in town where I might get one, “something like this” I said gently touching the sleeve of the top she was wearing. Again a silent shake of the head whilst looking downwards. I thanked her & we left. Whilst walking back to the car, she came running out, & in what appeared to be a shy but smiling manner, she made eye contact & told us we could try the small store at the other end of town. I had felt uncertain about ‘communication protocols’ & hadn’t known whether touching her arm had been acceptable or not, but I’d like to think that in doing so I simply displayed a fragment of human-ness & it was to this that she had responded. Just a tiny example of the awkwardness & lack of understanding between two cultures, something which saddens me, but I understand that it cannot be any different without lots of time. Finding ways to get lots of time on an equal footing is the hard part.

At the second store, there were also no jumpers. However the store was currently being temporarily managed by two white ladies. Would you believe that one of them, Julie, sold me the jumper she was wearing, after the other had first returned to their accommodation to see if they had another in my size in their wardrobes. (They didn’t). The price was very fair, the jumper better than the one I’d lost & the interaction between us & the ladies priceless. After another cold morning I wrote them a letter, again thanking them for their generosity. We posted it at another community further along the road (Kiwirrkurra) where it wont get put on a plane until Tuesday next week. I hope it gets to them before their time at the store is up, or can be passed on to wherever they are going next. My new jumper will be forever known as my ‘Julie’.

From Hermannsburg we drove up past Gosse Bluff, through Tyler’s Pass (where we stopped for lunch at the lookout, & to re-take a photo we took there 10 years ago) before turning once again onto dirt road which led north past Haasts Bluff to join with the GJR at Papunya. That was 5 days ago (at time of writing) & we don’t expect to see a town or a sealed road again for close to another two weeks.

Tylers Pass. Same tree, same fella, same pose 10 years later. Gosse Bluff in the background – formed by the impact of a meteorite.
10 years ago
The first mob of wild camels we saw, between Haasts Bluff & Papunya.
Haasts Bluff
Watching more camels close to the road.
The track to Docker River is known as the Sandy Blight Junction Rd. In hindsight we wish we had come up on it – it will wait for another time.

Currently we are at out 3rd camp along the GJR, 2 one nighters & tonight will be our 3rd here at Jupiter Well. The road thus far has taken us through wide open expanses, varying in colour & texture, past ranges of hills & rocky outcrops, always different to the last we saw, over bitumen smooth, mildly corrugated, badly corrugated & horrendously corrugated in a variety & ever changing rocky, sandy & gravel surfaces. It’s been straight, bendy, flat & hilly. Hardest on fuel consumption but the most fun to drive was many kilometres of deep soft sand where a couple of grader drivers were working. After corrugations it was like floating across it all in a hovercraft! So smooth.

Having driven through Papunya, our first stop, to top up our fuel tanks, was at Mt Liebig. This small community a few kms off the GJR has like most, just a single small general store & a locked fuel bowser. We cruised around town trying to find the bowser, driving past it inside it’s locked cage, not recognising it for what it was. Asking locals we got directions together with smiles & waves. It felt like a friendly place. Diesel was $1.95 a litre. I asked about places to camp for the night a bit further down the GJR. “Just pull off anywhere” the shop manager told us. All well & good, but for most of the GJR pulling off the road just isn’t do-able as the road is cut into the sand & the edges are piled high & deep with soft sand just waiting to bog us. Even if we could get through the sand, the desert scrub makes driving around a risk. Too many puncture hazards, holes etc. Our first night was at the base of a radio repeater tower, complete with a view of the tower & an assortment of construction waste. Lots of wire, tek screws etc waiting to pierce a tyre, but thankfully none did. Not one of our better camps.

Second night was far better. On spec we took a turn off the road, along an unsigned track somewhere near the Dover Hills where we found a beautiful little spot to camp among white gums. An hour or so after setting up camp a couple in a Landcruiser turned up. Turned out that they knew the area quite well, & were surprised to find us in their favourite camp spot (which they referred to as ‘White Gums’. We offered to share, but they wanted their privacy & took off elsewhere, although returned in the morning to check we had had a good night & to tell us that showers were available at Kunawarritji (several hundred kms west) for $5 each.

Our ‘White Gums’ camp. A pretty good find along a road which has few places to pull off for the night.

Next morning we crossed the border from the Northern Territory into Western Australia. No quarantine station out here like on the main roads! We drove into what is reputedly the world’s largest local shire – East Pilbara. At least that’s what I read on a friends blog recently. 🙂

The white posts are the border between the Northern Territory & Western Australia.

Somewhere between here & Kiwirrkurra a small roadside plaque told us that this was the spot where Len Beadell’s ration truck had caught fire in 1960. Famously, as it was engulfed in flames & it’s drinking water tank was boiling, he put several shots into the tank, caught the water in some sort of receptacle, claiming it’d be a waste just to let the water boil away, better to make a cup of tea with it. The original truck has been partially restored & moved to Kiwirrkurra to deter thoughtless souvenir hunters. Try as we might, we couldn’t find the truck at Kiwirrkurra though. Certainly isn’t where our map told us it was, maybe it’s been moved again? Diesel was $2.50 a litre & bananas were $1.20 each (regardless of size). The white shop manager demanded to see our travel permit before dispensing fuel. Claims he’d send us back to Alice if we hadn’t of had one! We don’t believe that he had any such authority, but rather just enjoys winding up travellers. Since then other travellers have told us he is well known for it.

It was at Kwirrkurra we had to decide whether to purchase sufficient fuel to take us down the Gary Hwy to Windy Corner & then west along the Talawana track to well 24 on the Canning Stock Route. We have been unable to determine whether or not the Talawana is still impassable due to wet conditions at the Canning end. 3 weeks ago when we left home no-one had been able to get through. It was to have been the most remote section of our desert crossing & would have required us to carry both fuel tanks full, plus the 5 jerry cans we carry on the Tvan, in order that we would have sufficient fuel to return several hundred kms if we found the track still impassable. With some regrets we have decided to give the Talawana a miss this time around, & instead to continue on to Kunawarritji & after that on to Karlamilyi National Park, before reaching Newman.

For the past couple of nights we have been at Jupiter Well, the site of a well dug or exploited by Len Beadell, & named because he saw the planet Jupiter reflected in the water. It’s a lovely spot, set between the ever present red sand dunes, but here the water table must be close to the surface. A hand pump pulls water easily out of the ground, & it is good water. Bore water can have smells or heavy taste, even when potable, but here it is beautifully fresh & clear. No doubt it is this water which supports an extensive stand of Desert Oaks. We passed through several kms of them before arriving here. In some lights they look so soft as the breeze almost imperceptibly moves their fronds. I think they are one of my favourite trees. Not sure how much further along the road they extend for.

Desert Oaks at Jupiter Well. They always strike us as such ‘relaxed’ trees.

It’s Friday today & we will stay here another day, leaving on Sunday, intending to camp elsewhere before reaching Kunawarritji on Monday. (The store closes on Sundays, & as we want to avail ourselves of their showers, & don’t wish to risk finding the showers closed with the store, leaving it another day makes sense. Besides which it’s my birthday tomorrow & MrsTea as promised to bake me a lemon teacake in the camp oven, just as she did last year when we were camped at Pooncarie. With the exception of about 3 months at home, this is the end of our first year ‘full time’ on the road. Seems to have passed all to quickly!

Filling our water tanks at Jupiter Well
The well supports the local birdlife. One of large numbers of Zebra Finches.
Such pretty little birds. They are a good indicator of the presence of water in this dry country. They need to drink every couple of hours.
Our ‘home’ & site of my 61st birthday at Jupiter Well
MrsTea does dune sitting at sunset so well!

Since being at Jupiter Well there have seen 3 other Tvans here. Two were already here when we arrived. We went to say hello & were greeted with “You’re from Ballarat aren’t you?” Turned out that Both Dick & his wife, plus ‘Young Nomads’ were folk from the Tvan forum & Facebook page & have been following this blog. Hi guys! Today yet another Tvan turned up (common as muck out here ya know) with John & Liz. They parked their car, wandered over to our camp with the opening line “You’re Cuppa & MrsTea aren’t you”. Turns out they too follow this blog. Who would’ve thought – we are about as much in the middle of the middle of nowhere as it’s possible to get & yet we are recognised! Just as well I’m not a wanted criminal……… can’t hide anywhere! 🙂

On Sunday we left as planned, continuing along the Gary Junction Road west to where it officially ends at Gary Junction, a crossroads.

Gary Junction – behind us the Gary Highway.

A brief foray southward on the Gary Highway for a ‘look-see’ very soon had us realising that we had made a mistake. Where the GJR had been a wide road for most of it’s length, the Gary Highway was a very narrow track, just two wheel tracks & very tight. Brushing through window height spinifex & taller bushes. It rapidly became obvious that we were at risk of having our side mirrors broken off except for when passing burned patches of spinifex. Problem was that a number of these burned areas were still smouldering, giving rise to fears that the increasing wind might cause fires to flare up around us. On the horizon, in the direction we were heading were large plumes of smoke. Just 3.5kms along the track we decided our level of discomfort was sufficient for us to turn back. Easier said than done though on such a tight track. There was nothing for it except to drive into the scrub, risking staking a tyre. Thankfully we managed unscathed, & reached Gary Junction once again with a sense of relief, to continue west on the same road, now called the Jenkins Track until it intersects with the Canning Stock Route, just east of Kunawarritji.

We drove into Kunawarritji, a three tanker long road train there to fill the diesel tanks which supply adventurers driving the CSR blocked our view of the entry to town, which we missed, continuing left past it. Downtown Kunawarritji was a shock. Dilapidated, third world conditions are the worst we have seen in the communities we have been too. It was only later we realised there is a separate area for visitors to the town & a sign saying tourists are not permitted to enter the town itself. This area being basic but in good condition, providing accomodation for those who need it, a small general store, showers, toilets & a couple of washing machines. We said g’day to couple of residents , & felt sadness for their loss of culture & traditional lifestyle, replaced with slum-like conditions & nothing to do. We had hoped that being the only refuelling opportunity on the Canning Stock Route that we would find a thriving small community but all we saw said otherwise. It is possible that there is far more to the community than a the brief look of an outsider could see. These are the children & grandchildren of the last desert dwellers to have been rounded up & prevented from living in that country as their ancestors had done for thousands of years by, white invaders, a crime committed during our lifetime. Today their country is known primarily for the Canning Stock route, a route pioneered by Alfred Canning who needed the traditional waterholes which had sustained people since the dreamtime, to water cattle to get them to market. Some of them he was told about, but many he found by starving locals & then feeding them very salty food before releasing them, to follow to their sources of water. The stock route was only used for a relatively short time, but long enough for water sources to be ruined or made inaccessible & culture lost. Today the Canning Stock Route is Australia’s most remote, & longest drawcard for 4wd’er’s to ‘conquer’. Many, it seemed to us, are similarly indifferent and or ignorant to the rich history stolen from those who now struggle to make sense of their place in their country. We spent the night outside of town at the Well 33 campground, having availed ourselves of a shower & left the following morning after picking up a few (very expensive) essentials at the shop. We had assumed that the prices – 3 times that we are used to (eg. $12 for a small box of cornflakes) were tourist prices. Not so, here folk who have no work, & exist on a small government pension pay just the same. A young thin barefoot chap in front of us bought sufficient food for what we considered a normal meal for two – meat & 2 veg – $63! We felt impotent to say or do anything, but left feeling angry at the injustice & lack of caring by our society which leaves these abused & forgotten people in this imposed cultural wasteland & poverty trap.

The track west, now known as the Wapet Rd (Western Australian Petroleum) from Kunawarritji continues to the Telfer gold mine, after which the immaculately graded, smooth as a baby’s bottom, road continues west to Marble Bar for those heading to Port Hedland & the coast. We however intended to take a somewhat different route from the mine southward.

Lone bull camel
Lake Auld – salt lake

Our route to Telfer mine took us past the aboriginal community of Punmu, where we topped up our diesel tanks – our most expensive to date at $3 per litre. Punmu had a very different feel to Kunawarritji. Welcome signs were painted on old car bonnets mounted alongside the entry road to town. Evidence was clear that we were in a community which cared about itself. Folk were helpful. We may be mistaken, but suspect that a significant difference at Punmu, one which has a significant ripple effect right through the community is the existence of an active Ranger programme. This provides employment for local people to care for country as has always been done, & in doing so gives purpose & self worth & in turn attracts more funding & more aspirational goals for young people. The Ranger Programme although struggling to get funding from government is we believe one of the most positive moves we as whitefellas can support. It’s core values of encouraging self determination, & respect for culture are, we believe, responsible for the most hopeful way forward in changing the disempowered lives of many of our country’s first peoples and has the potential, if expanded & properly supported to take a very different , & positive path than has been the case since white settlement to date.

The entry to Punmu looked a little reminiscent of the Mad Max movie

Lake Dora ….. & the termite mounds are becoming increasingly larger as we continue west.

A note for those unfamiliar with Australian deserts. Looking at some of our photos you could be forgiven for thinking “That’s no desert” because of the sometimes lush looking flora. You would however be mistaken. These are very old deserts & vast tracts of country are not the Saharan type bare sand deserts. They can be, but being older has given many plants the chance to evolve an opportunistic existence. There is no season for this or that flower. It happens when & if it rains….. & very quickly. In a week the desert can transform! We have never seen Spinfex grass as tall as we have on this trip. Looking out over long distances to the horizon shows a wide range of colour. The tallest spinifex, some as high as a person is pure white, looking almost like snow in the distance. From ground level the country appears to be coated with a dense covering, but can look very different from the air when the red sands dominate. Animals too have a variety of ways to cope with the extreme climatic conditions, but so far animal life has been relatively rare on this trip, other than close to water sources. So far I have not seen a single roo, MrsTea has seen one.

Spinifex – we have not previously seen it like this.
As we drove past the bushes like this we thought they had berries, but they are flowers. Leaves have sharp points similar to Holly.

6 thoughts on “The Gary Junction Road +

  1. G’Day Cuppa. Love the blog mate and your contributions over at the Patrol Forum.
    We are planning on this route this year in late April – although we will probably meet the GJR by coming up the Sandy Blight Track.
    What permit was old mate at Kunawaritiji expecting to see? One for the CSR? I’m organising my GJR and SBT permits at the moment – but I can’t figure out if I need a permit to go from Gary Junction to Telfer?
    Any advise appreciated mate!

    1. G’day Steffo,

      We had to get permits for the NT side of the GJR from the Central Land Council. This was pretty quick. Same day as I recall, & for the WA side of the GJR from which took longer – about 10 days I think. All easy to do & no cost.

      We had to change our dates & this too was no problem & quick.

      I wish we had gone via the Sandy Blight Track, & will do if we are out that way again. Friends went up there in their Canter, & it looked to be a much more interesting track. As you will know parts of it are in the NT & parts in WA. They can be included in the same permits you get for the Gary Junction Rd I believe.

      As you probably also know, we turned south at Telfer & went down to the Karlamilyi NP & enjoyed that track. I’d recommend it provided it’s dry – several kilometres of the track are along a sandy creek bed. If instead you follow the road from Telfer toward Marble bar the dirt is the smoothest you’ll ever come across. When you hit the bitumen turn left & go to Marble Bar via Skull Springs Rd. check out Running Waters (on Hema map) & Skull Springs themselves.

      Hope that helps.
      Have a great trip.


  2. Mate, my hat’s off to you! What a perceptive bloke you are in your observations of Aboriginal people. Most people would view the Hermannsburg lady as shifty for not making eye contact. But you could see it was something else. It is disrespectful to look, particularly an “Old Man”, in the eye (to be called Old Man is to be shown respect). The eye aversion you encountered is a mark of respect.
    This aspect of culture often gets Aboriginal and nonAboriginal people off on the wrong foot because broader Australian culture puts great store in making and holding eye contact. You will also notice a big difference when shaking hands . Aboriginal people shake hands ever so gently, just like you would with a 90 year old grandma.

    Love your blog and the perceptive way you look at the country and its people.

    Regards pete

  3. The countryside looks very like our last trip through there two years ago. Our friends travelling with us a few years ago were hugely dismayed at seeing community conditions. They had previously held very idealistic notions of ‘culture’. Having grown up and working in various communities all my life I am frequently saddened at disintegrating culture, which has really only happened in recent years. But there are many good, functioning communities. The question is what makes the difference? I have some views but no real solutions.

  4. As usual, enjoying your posts. This part of the trip is breaking new ground for me: up to now it has been mainly familiar country.
    I think you would enjoy reading an acclaimed new book “Deep Time Dreaming – Uncovering Ancient Australia” by Billy Griffiths.

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