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The Gunbarrel Highway

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The Gunbarrel Highway was the first of many tracks built by the famous Australian surveyor Len Beadell as part of an exploration project for establishing suitable areas in the isolated Australian Outback for weapons research in the 1950's. The track is named after the construction company Len ran, "The Gunbarrel Highway Construction Party" which is a bit of a play on the fact that Len prefered whenever possible to draw straight, long lines on maps where he would build his roads. The idea was to maximize fuel efficiency and time by pushing through the most direct routes possible. - Information summarized from www.exporoz.com (http://www.exploroz.com/TrekNotes/WDeserts/Gunbarrel_Highway.aspx)

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Day 8: The Gunbarrel Highway

"Well the road is in the same condition as it has been for the last 35, 40 years..." the roadhouse caretaker states in that all-knowing, all-wise way that all roadhouse curators are supposed to answer such questions. "It's an ad-ven-chah!"

I clarify, and enquire about the weather recently or if there is any rain expected. "Nah, weather's been goohd..." He cocks his grizzled Santa Claus on a pension look up at the two police officers that had been having a conversation with him prior to my touristy interruption about the road conditions on the fabled Gunbarrel Highway. "You heard of anyone gettin' lost out there recently?" The police both shake their heads and respond in kind. And since the authorities - the ones that may very well end up being the ones who end up going out looking for such lost individuals as myself - don't seem to have any concerns, I am now making the decision for myself. I will travel the Gunbarrel Highway.

"Now memorize the code..." the roadhouse owner says seriously, handing me a tiny piece of paper with a five-digit number printed on it that will allow me access to the toilets, "and then swallow the papah!" He chuckles. I laugh back. But he really does, I can tell by the look on his face, take security here at his roadhouse in Warburton, and Aboriginal community in Western Australia situated about halfway along the Great Central Road, very seriously. I'm not entirely sure if it is because of a stagnant cloud of crime that hovers over the community, inherent racism and lack of understanding by white culture, or a little combination of both.

I don't pass judgement, I'm no better. On the Great Central Road yesterday as I was within about 50 kilometres of the Warakurna Roadhouse I had to slow down for an Aboriginal man standing in the middle of the road with his thumb out. On one the side of the road was a car with the hood (bonnet) up, and on the other side was a small brush fire, presumably started to attract attention. The obvious suggestion here is that he required assistance. But I did not stop. The first reason is that I have read and been warned that it is not uncommon for roadside robberies to occur in this area, under the guise of someone in need of help. Again, whether this is an assumption on the part of racist attitudes or rooted in truth I do not know, so being by myself with no real defence skills I need to err on the side of caution. The other reason, I tell myself as I pass by him as he gives me a bewildered look, is that I cannot really help him anyway. I have no way of calling help for him (I have a sat phone but that is for *my* emergencies), and I have no mechanical skills with which to lend a hand. I cannot carry him and his friend, the one standing next to the car, as the campervan does not have room. I tell myself all this as I pass him, wondering if the true dark spirit of xenophobia has embraced me the same way it has burrowed itself into a good portion of the white population of this country, or if I'm really just playing the survivalism card. Unfortunately, probably a little bit of both. I can only hope that if he truly needed help, that someone stopped to help him. If not, I can only hope no one else fell prey to some more insidious scheme.

But I digress.

"It's an ad-ven-cha!"

  • * * *

Have you ever experienced that feeling of pushing life to its limits, finding some way to take yourself to the very brink of your comfort zone, right to the point of being able to look over the edge to the other side and knowing that you are only a few steps from succumbing to panic and perhaps even hysteria that could threaten every seemingly well-though out decision you've made in order to get here?

  • * * *

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The turn off to the Heather Highway is not particularly well marked, it has only a sign that points to the Aboriginal community it leads to if one were to take it to the end. Luckily I know the name of the community. Luckily, I have a GPS.
The first almost fifty kilometres of the road are not pleasant but nothing out of the ordinary for the middle of nowhere, Australia. I keep myself occupied by mingling with wild camels.

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Then I come to the turn off that leads towards the Gunbarrel. And this is where adventure - sorry "ad-ven-chah!" - begins.

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At first, I am wondering if this is really the road - the very inaccurately named Heather Highway, because it is not only not a highway but it is barely a road. It would be more correctly described as the ill-marked path leading from one's back porch to one's shed where one stores his or her wheelbarrow. The track is overgrown and clearly not well used. At least at first. Then it descends into a mayhem of completely washed-out ruts and gullies, and corrugations that could shake the very bowels of hell. I tell myself this is just a test, to see if I can handle the rest of the voyage that awaits me. If only I knew.

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The longest thirty-seven kilometres of my life (...so far). There are some places where diversion tracks lead off the main road, which at first I'm hesitant to attempt but after driving through some nearly impassible wash-outs I start to get brave and take them, thinking to myself that they must be here for a reason. And I have GPS, right? Right?

The stretch takes an hour. But I reach the Gunbarrel, wondering if the road I'm about to follow for about 700 kilometres will be any easier to navigate. Or simply survive without a complete mental breakdown.

If only I knew.

  • * * *

Have you ever been in a place where you knew it was only your wits keeping you part of this world, both mentally and physically?

  • * * *

The GPS breaks down - rather the horrendous Heather Highway has knocked loose some wire or something in the power supply that plugs into the cradle. I will find this out later when, out of nowhere, the GPS will start to announce that it's battery is getting low - when it isn't supposed to be running on its battery. Of course I am prepared for anything and have brought not only a 12V cigarette lighter USB charger but the GPS USB sync cable, which keeps the battery charged. There is a brief moment of panic however before I realize I have it all under control, because without the GPS I think I would be lost. I don't mean I need the GPS to know where I am, I mean that if I didn't have the GPS the only real reason I would possibly be where I am right now is if I were completely lost...

The Gunbarrel Highway lives up to it's reputation. What the Heather Highway served as an appetizer the Gunbarrel blasts out as a butcher-and-cook-your-own all-you-can eat Australian Outback track through Hell. The first stretch of the road is a labyrinth of total and complete wash-aways...and in case you are wondering what this means, it means simply that massive parts of the road are gone. Totally gone. Vanished. Blown away. This is the Walking Dead of roads, a zombie track who is in the later stages of total and complete rot. The road is so washed out in places that I'm driving at a 30 degree angle, just hoping I don't bottom out on the rocks underneath me, or worse yet roll over. There are so many diversion tracks in places that the road looks like a divided dirt freeway. Sometimes there are diversion tracks leading away from the diversion tracks that have already been used enough to become corrugated all to hell. In most cases the diversion tracks don't help with corrugations because they've been used too much, I only take them on the chance that they are leading around some place in the track that has washed out so badly that I would have to be a moron not to avoid it. This turns out to be true on several occasions when I can see the main track beside me turn into a narrow gully of rock and stones, basically an empty river bed that was once many years ago a road.

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And to think: yes, I intentionally came here.

I take it slow, I stay in low gears, I keep my eyes on the road, and somehow I'm completely at peace. I have something to take my mind off the current situation - that being focusing on the road. And I'm somewhere I've never been before, and in fact most people have never been or will be, including many Australians. I'm in one of the most remote areas on Earth. Well, I read that somewhere but I'm sure there are places in Africa or eastern Russia or Antarctica that are way farther away from anything, but maybe what it meant was one of the most remote *accessible* places on Earth.

And I am rewarded with some of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. There are literarily hundreds of kilometres of untouched natural beauty all around me. Endless plains of bright yellow desert grass, rocky hills jutting out on the horizon, and long narrow passages through Australian Outback forest. And despite my growing anxiety of reaching a camp site before the sun goes down, because already the approaching dusk is making the minor but very important details of the road harder and harder to see, I am starting to feel some satisfaction in myself, some restlessness quelled. Some amount of "if I pull this off..."...

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Of course I continue to remind myself, I have over 300 kilometres before I might see another human being. This somehow makes me happy.

  • * * *

Have you ever been in a place that is so dark and lonely you wonder what to do with yourself?

This is where I am now, at a place called Camp Beadell. It is named after Len Beadell who built the Gunbarrel, and many other remote tracks in Australia (the Connie Sue Highway, and the Anne Beadell Highway for example - no clue why he, or anyone, would refer to any of these roads as highways...) I watched one of the most spectacular sunsets I've seen in my life, though now there are no stars because it is cloudy. There is no one here, which is not surprising if you've been following my tale until now. The only lights are this iPad screen, a citronella candle, and the blurred moon through the light clouds. No words can possible describe the peacefulness of this place right now. It is totally quiet aside from my typing...and bats. There is nothing else. This is what I wanted. This is Australia.

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This is an "ad-ven-chah".

  • * * *

Day 9: Carnegie Station

What could possibly be better than the best sunset you've ever seen? The best sunrise you've ever seen.

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I make sure to get up at literally the crack of dawn, six am Western Australia time. It seems to me that Western Australia drew the short straw on time zones, because it isn't that far removed from central Australia but is one and one half hours behind. This means that the useful parts of the day come and go very early.

I enjoy a peaceful breakfast as the sun rises, knowing that I cannot unfortunately linger long. Briefly I wonder if I could just stay here for an entire day...this has been perhaps the best camping I have ever done, by myself with no facilities except what I have brought with me. My morning shower is actually a partial sponge bath with boiled water. This place is absolutely amazing. However two things get me moving: the fact that I know a mild low pressure system will likely move over this area in the next day or so, threatening the all-evil rain that I have been warned about. The other thing is the fact that during the daylight hours the desert flies are absolutely unbearable. There is little reason to hang around.

By the way, I just want to point out that I believe I have earned two additional Outback Explorer merit badges, neither of which are particularly pleasant. The first was actually a couple days ago when I operated on myself. By this, I mean I had a blister on one of my ankles that was about 4cm wide. It was big enough to warrant it's own place setting at the dinner table. So I sterilized my hunting knife and cut it open and drained it. Some antibacterial cream and off I went. That bastard was big enough though that I think I'll probably have a scar. The other badge was earned when this morning I, well, made my own toilet using the fold-up spade from the 4x4 recovery kit, toilet paper, a lighter, and an awesome stick I found that holds toilet paper really well. I leave it at that.

I break camp over half an hour later than I intended, and am on the road by 7:45am. Obviously if the road continues in the same way it has been this will be a slow, painful, but ultimately satisfying journey. If only I knew.

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  • * * *

Have you ever fucked up so badly that you knew you could not possibly get out of your current situation unscathed?

  • * * *

I recall fondly the gentleman at Bell Gorge campground on my previous trip, the one through the Kimberly, when having told him I made it along the Tanami Track he responded with "The Tanami? Not bad, for a foreigner..." If only he knew.

I do meet other travellers, by which I mean I pass two 4x4s travelling in the opposite direction. I wave as I pass, in thanks for them allowing me to go through past them, but I do not stop and roll down the window to chat as I probably should have. I'm not sure what the travellers etiquette is in these parts. They probably think I'm German and do not speak a word of English.

After several rough patches of shitty road and diversions around washouts, I reach Mount Beadell, which I plan to take pictures from the peak. I hunt around and find what I presume to be the track leading to the top.

About half-way up I realize that this may not be a drivable track - which is to say, with my limited 4x4 experience I am staring at a washed out road that is nothing but steep sharp rock, and I'm already at a 45 degree angle pointing up. I cannot continue, I decide. I am now in a very serious bind - if I cannot keep going, I have two choices - roll in reverse back down the steep, sharp rock infested track...or attempt to turn around. Neither choice is right, and I make the wrong one anyway. I attempt to turn around.

Crunch.

That is the back end of the campervan colliding with the stone embankment of the track. In my mind I start listing off all the possible religions I can join right here, right now, and start praying to my new god or gods to get me out of this OK.

Crunch.

I probably back into the side of the track six or seven times before I manage to right my the truck and point back down the track. I roll back down the mountain, telling myself that everything will be OK.

It isn't.

Back at the base of the mountain I find that I have completely mangled the rear bumper of the campervan, and that there is a huge stone jammed in the tailpipe. I stop to let the panic subside, knowing that I cannot continue with a huge rock jammed in the tailpipe.

Several minutes of WTF do I do after trying fruitlessly to pry the rock out with my bare hands, other rocks and small bits of wood lead to a comprehensive inventory of the tools I have available. I pull out the 4x4 recovery kit, the compressor, the awning pole pegs and rubber mallet, and the tire changing tools. In the tire changing kit I find pliers and I manage to wrestle the stone out of the tail pipe. So I can drive the rig. But the bumper is totally fucked. Which means that if all the insurance I took out on the rig doesn't cover me for dumb-ass decisions, I am also totally fucked.

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But why let this ruin my voyage?

It takes a while before I let it pass, but I get through it. The truck is fine, drivable, the tires (tyres) are ok, and nothing is leaking. But I do not get to take pictures from the top of Mount Beadell. This, I know I will regret.

  • * * *

Have you ever felt lost, and at the same time, really happy about it?

  • * * *

The road continues in the same manner in which I left it - it is rough, angry, mean and aggressive, and mostly missing in places. But after a while, a groove sets in that starts to somehow indicate which diversion tracks to take and which ones not to. In some parts I'm not totally on the ball, so to speak, and end up on tracks that are way more overgrown than the main road, but in most cases I can look over to the original Gunbarrel and see that it is so worn out that no one has driven that stretch for long enough for entire trees to take root and grow right in the middle of the road.

This pattern repeats itself for about a hundred kilometres, probably more. I stop at the junction of the Gunbarrel and Gary Highway (another "highway" of Beadell's) and sign the visitor's book. A few entries back of mine I see some party has come through on the 28th of May...and then again on the 29th of May after "breaking a wheel". I can only hope they were going west to east.

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Minutes pass like hours as I traverse the awesomeness that is the Gibson desert.

And after a while I stop at a point where the road is marked with two gigantic tires (tyres), one to either side if the road. The sign in one of the tyres says "Welcome to the Shire Of Wiluna". I get out and look at the road. There is something peculiar about it...

The road has been graded.

And just like that, the "ad-ven-chah!" kind of comes to an end. From this point, I'm doing sixty to eighty kilometres an hour. From here on, the Gunbarrel really is a highway. I enjoy the scenery around me, the mountain passes, the fields of grass, and the camels, and livestock...which have some really odd roadside mannerisms. First, they like to wait until you are crawling by them before moving; they hesitate right until you are actually past them and finally putting distance between you and them...and *that* is when they suddenly break into their awkward cow-run in some unpredictable trajectory. In fact I had one kind of scare when I came across three cattle - a cow, a calf, and a steer, all standing in the middle of the road. My path would lead right through the calf, but of course I've stopped to see of they'll move without me having to fire off a gun or something. The steer moves in front of the campervan, between me and the calf, and then turns to face me...and just stands there. I'm now freaking out that this psychotic beast is about to rush the truck, but eventually the calf just ups and bolts to the side of the road, after which the steer calmly follows.

And I finally see freaking kangaroos!

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Lots of them.

I spend the rest of the day tooling along, stopping to take what pictures I can. There are a couple of small, ahem, mountains where I can take some great pictures of the surrounding landscape, but I'm still smarting from not getting to the top of Mount Beadell, by far the tallest of all the, ahem, mountains along the route.

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I reach Carnegie Homestead just in time for sundown, and though I'm happy I made it to an established place, I'm also a bit sad that I couldn't spend another night camping all alone in the middle of nowhere. Of course, this place has it's quirks to relish in.

For starters, it's a homestead. It's like camping in someone's backyard. Actually, it really is camping in someone's back yard. I'm met by a young fellow working on trucks in the garage, who leads me to a small camp ground behind the homestead. From here a young girl points out the facilities - a full kitchen, and a bathroom with a donkey water heater for the showers. The place only has power at certain times of the day, the generator I guess works on a timer. I take them up on their offer for both the donkey water heater for a shower, and the use of their kitchen.

As I'm cooking my pathetic dinner of well-past-their-prime potato patties (which I bought in Alice knowing I couldn't bring real potatoes across to Western Australia due to quarantine rules) and some kind of chicken sausage, the whole family comes into the kitchen for their own dinner. I guess the homestead has a single kitchen.

On the invitation of the older gentleman, whom I take to be the homestead owner, I join them to eat my dinner. There is the older gentleman, two younger blokes, and the young girl, who really seems German but sounds *almost* Australian. Her name is Julia. Yep, she has to be German (turns out I was right). At first the whole situation has kind of a creepy "what-if" about it, like what if this totally isolated homestead gets on by cooking up rogue tourists? At this point Stephen King has already written the first three chapters of his next bestseller. But I kid, because really these people are unbelievably friendly and awesome and in the end it ends up being me being rude as I excuse myself after a while to come out and sit under the again blurred out moon and write this blog entry.

Even now as I write this I can hear the young girl wandering around the homestead watering plants. This has been an amazing journey, and it has only been two nights.

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Now I have a problem, one that I'm sure many Canadian folks back home would love to have. I'm Australia, I have a campervan, plenty of food and water, and I have seven nights to waste before I need to return it and start the long plane journey home. Where should I go? What should I see?

And what the hell am I going to tell Britz about the chewed-up bumper? As the older gentleman suggested, "tell 'em it was a 'roo that did it!"

Looking at the damage, I do not think they'll buy that.

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  • * * *

Day 10: Wiluna (And the Oddest Campground...Evah!)

I say my thanks and goodbye to Carnegie Station (well, Julia...I never see the other guys again). And also the two awesome Australian cattle dogs that were actually the first to greet me here.

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The road doesn't get any worse, really (can you believe I say this in moderate disappointment?) 335 kilometres of pretty easy, slick-as-butter for the most part dirt road from Carnegie all the way to Wiluna. I make sure to try and take as many pictures as I can but the beauty of the land is muted by the total and complete overcast sky.

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As I reach the final paved ('sealed') stretch into Wiluna where I stop to re-inflate my tyres and unlock the four wheel drive, it starts to rain. Not much, just a light desert sprinkle, but enough to let me take comfort in keeping to the schedule I ended up following.

I stop in Wiluna and grab some simple supplies and eye up the local caravan park. It looks a bit less of a holiday park and more like the prison camp from The Great Escape, walled off with tall fences and locked gates. Wiluna, admittedly is a very run-down and poor Aboriginal community so I guess the extra security is needed...but I just can't see myself voluntarily staying here unless there is no alternative.

But there is an alternative - I saw a sign a few kilometres back for some place called "The Gunbarrel Laager Traveler's Rest". It can't hurt to check it out - it has to be more pleasant that the Alcatraz of a park here in town, right?

The place is back about 14 kilometres from town, and because of this I guess I'm expecting a quaint little homestead-style accommodation or something equally as back-woods Australian. What I instead drive into, at first, is several lots of run-down or in the process of running down vehicles, mostly trucks...and a big field that I guess used to be a vineyard, but those days are well over. Then I drive into the 'campground' - several dirt plots flattened out beside a cluttered and chaotic disarray of vehicles and buildings built out of trailers and what looks like school portables picked up second-hand. I enter the 'reception' office that looks more like an active war outpost to find a portly gentleman who is the first Australian I've met to respond to "how are you doing" with not "great" or "fine, thank you" but instead "well..........if you have a few hours........I could tell you........." Again, I kid a bit because the gentlemen is beyond friendly and awesome. Really friendly and awesome. I mean 'it takes me half an hour to check' in friendly and awesome due to some of the cool stories that I am entertained with as we chat.

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Well, to make the most of the situation. There are ants and frogs in the bathroom, and really I think Stephen King has at this point written the first half of the sequel to the best-seller he started at Carnegie, but there is this cool cat that visits and hangs out for a while.

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Then I found out why I was lead here.

A gentleman comes by and asks if I came off the Canning Stock Route - which is, by the way, the Holy Grail of Australian Outback voyages, something like 2000 kilometres through some of the roughest terrain on earth (something I would love to do but the logistics alone would require me to move to Australia and buy my own rig...and have several other vehicles to travel with). No, I respond, I came off the Gunbarrel - which I guess is kind of the kiddie-coaster of Australian Outback adventures compared to the Canning, but in any case the conversation leads me to end up joining the campfire a couple sites over from me. Three vehicles and I think about eight folks who just came off the Canning who welcomed me with open arms. We spent the evening chatting about everything, about Australia, about Canada. They were genuinely impressed not only with the balls I demonstrated taking the Gunbarrel - as a foreigner, alone - but by the fact that here was this Canadian who was doing Australia right, seeing it the way it was meant to be seen. Not even once, but twice. They supplied me with some dinner, baked potatoes with homemade garlic butter and salad to go with my still pathetic sausages, and some kind of awesome bread pudding in a vanilla cream (how do they make this stuff while camping???)

It is funny, because after spending what I thought was the perfect camping night at Camp Beadell, all by myself, I now am spending an equally awesome camping night surrounded by new friends by a campfire. I regret I do not remember all their names, but I will forever remember their faces and the hospitality they showed me.

This is Australia.

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Posted by stevecrow 05:14 Archived in Australia

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