Connections to the Canning Stock Route
In the mid sixties possibly 64-65 I was working for a department of National Mapping out of Canberra . Our job was to travel round the country , checking contract surveyors work and doing new work in areas where it was not feasible to operate contractors . We were leveling or tying into the national grid, benchmarks , trigonometry points , aerodist stations and tidal gauges .
The purpose of this work was to gather the information that would allow the collation of maps , essential data for a growing civilization . Without this information , it would be near impossible to construct any or most of our required infrastructure . Up to and during the war years some of this work had been done by teams on horse , donkey , or camel back . On a lot of occasions we were the first teams to go to these ground marks , since being put in place by the first explorers . The Australian Army Survey teams during the second world war advanced our knowledge considerably , also did a large amount of survey on an as needed basis .
Australia was about to purchase the F111 advanced fighter bomber and we were about to enter the world of computers , in a big way . The micro wave communication system with its many repeater towers was to dot the countryside . Micro waves travel in a straight line , the towers needed to be erected around about 40 K's apart to allow this to occur . They needed to be positioned exactly , at a height above the ground that would stop a ground effect interference . Accurate mapping was needed .
The F111 advanced [ for its time] was able to fly virtual ground contour lines but needed accurate mapping to achieve this . Ground heights of hills and valleys were needed , to be fed into the aircrafts computers to allow this to happen. Heights above sea level were originally obtained by barometer , carried in a pack on a animal from the journeys start , sometimes months before .
The barometer would be hand held an the top of a hill and read . This would establish the height of that hill or mountain or whatever . A major problem with this was the accuracy , a barometer can read plus or minus about 20 odd meters . So that could be a variance of 40-50 meters . Catastrophic for an aircraft flying very fast , being flight managed by a computer.
So it was up to surveyors and their trusted field hands to go fourth and gather the necessary information to make all of this possible . To make the new maps. It would be around twelve years before the new data appeared in print and available to the general public . Modern days , like now 2008 , this can be achieved almost instantaneously from satellite imagery . There is possibly no need for teams to wander the outback .
We were the teams that followed the original explorers , our major difference was that we had the use of the motor vehicle , which served as our pack animal . Really that was the only major difference , oh , and the radio transceiver . Other than that we , as a party issued with one side arm and a rifle , we slept in swags mainly on the ground , we ate mainly tinned foods without the variety one can buy today . Very few fresh vegetables , and no refrigeration , which was still to become available to travelers . Mail was received on an irregular basis . Beer was , when available consumed Kimberly Cool , that is at the ambient air temperature . Most of us smoked , rolly's , so when tobacco ran out , native grasses , spinefex wrapped in toilet paper was all the go . Sometimes we were isolated totally for up to a couple of months at a time , seeing no others than our own team members . So when we got to town we partied , hard .
We did meet the wonderful locals wherever we turned up and more importantly we were treated as locals , which allowed us to experience real life as it was , not as a tourist see's and experiences . We always had the time to observe natural history , although I for one , really only understand what I witnessed with the mind of a young man , now that I am older and wiser .
So onto the Canning . We were traveling toward the West Australian border thru people less country , in a convoy of guvment trucks . On tracks that were very , very rough . Even Rabbit Flat wasn't on the maps then , only a few ruins of the old gold workings , abandoned many years before and strewn across the country . We knew that we had work to do on the Canning . Our fearless leader thru no fault of his own , became confused , not lost . Our guiding maps were inadequate .
It was late in the afternoon so we decided to set up the radio transceiver and listen to the Galah session , for a clue as to where we were . Our radios were the best available and set band crystals needed to be installed for the frequency you wished to work . Also a long 10 meter telescopic aerial needed to be erected to make the sets operable . Platforms were built over the roofs of our trucks and one had to climb onto these to erect the mast . These platforms also carried our spare wheels , and were used as observation platforms .
The dust had been so thick that our trucks were running about 10minutes apart. Our leader set up the radio and asked me to keep driving down the track and see what eventuated. I did this and within a few K's I came across the homestead of Billiluna . The Owners were at that time speaking to our leader trying to work out where he was . Between them they had worked out that he was possibly about 200 k's away. Just gives some idea how tough it was for travelers to work out where they were . Before decent maps and before G.P.S. location systems that work in conjunction with good maps.
Billiluna Station was a very proficient cattle station , modern for that day in a wonderful stone built homestead . It is situated on the top end of the Canning and would be the last permanent contact for those drovers taking cattle down . The next permanent occupation would be at Willuna , which is the contact point on the southern end over a thousand K's away . The stock route actually goes beyond both of these points . It was a overland drain to transpher stock , on the hoof from the far northwest to the southern goldfields and then onto Perth .
During the war years it was considered to be a useful escape route , for occupants of the north to use if ever we were invaded by the angry hordes . At this time reconstruction of Cannings original watering points was undertaken to allow the route to become a life supporting retreat line , by hoof or heel.
We had work to do here so part of our team went south from here . Others were deployed on other work within the area. So this was our first contact with the northern end of the Canning . The following year we came in from Giles meteorological station along the Gunbarell and went north to fill the gap . The year before we obtained some very good local knowledge and learnt many useful tricks to help us in our explorations on the harder sections.
As far as we could work out we were around the 3rd or 4th motorized people to travel thru . It was in the early times , a very expensive and dangerous undertaking to venture out there . It was only in the realm of the government that it could be achieved . The person who seems to have the call an the first motorized venture thru the Canning was the Director General of Australia's , National Mapping's Mr Johnson . He pioneered the way as to vehicular access . A staple diet of tinned fish , kippers and sardines was his trade mark . Empty tins being nailed to sparse tree trunks by himself marked the route. Being aluminum they didn't rust and reflected light , semi permanent marks of re assurance . Mostly they have disappeared due to the trees having been destroyed over the years by fire and vandalizing.
Mr. Johnson has the most important ground mark in Australia named in recognition of his contributions to the fields of Australian survey . The mark called Johnson Geodetic is placed on the top of a small rocky hill , which looks not unlike a small Ayer's Rock. A half K west of the old Alice Springs rd on Mount Cavenagh station , just a stones throw north of the South Australian border .
At this point it must be noted that these motorized achievements were only possible due to the pioneering work of and for The Woomera Rocket Range . Undertaken and carried out by Australia's greatest modern explorer , Mr. Lenny Bedeall in his capacity of range surveyor , over many years . From around 1946 to 1963-4 .
Another small group before us was I think a survival team associated with a university and supported by the Army . I do not know much about them .
Then it would seem came our florae's . It was tuff , lots of punctures to be mended with only hand pumps to re-inflate, 100 pumps per lb in a truck tire . Most of these would be staked and have to have the tyre mended also. Grasses and grass seeds filled radiator cores and caused fire when clogging up the transmissions and exhausts underneath your vehicles . Hidden tree stumps amongst the vegetation dented sumps and caused oil pumps to be moved from the optimum point for collecting oil to lubricate the internal lubrication of the motor .
The track was ill-defined and I was given the job of leaving before all the other trucks to discover where it actually was . This required very careful observations on burnt out areas to spot the minute re-growth of grasses , that would first appear in the slight sand blown depressions of a wheel track years before. In heavier grass a visual tunnel appears thru and under the grasses where compaction has taken place . A practiced eye would , with concentration be able to follow this marking . Many vehicles driving around looking for the track was hopeless , it ended up like a maze , tracks going everywhere and nowhere .
By our second year Billiluna had been sold to the Aboriginals and they had burnt out the homestead and it had become an eyesore and a very unwelcoming place. It never improved throughout the years .
My next trips were in the 1980 Bi Centennial Year West Australian celebrations when I was employed by a outback tourist company to conduct two expeditions around the entire state of W.A. In all around 40 people did the Canning section including an A.B.C. camera team , both movie and stills . By this time individuals were starting to take the trip in their own vehicles . I would say that around 4-5 other vehicles per week could be encountered .
!983 was my last trip with a journalist friend from Queensland , Bob Moncrieff , Allan , a farmer from Victoria , and my then wife Barbara. Bob wrote a story of the trip , tilting toward Barb who drove her own Land Rover the full length. We all think that she was the first woman to drive The Canning.
By this time there were many party's traveling the Canning , 2-3 a day could be encounter , and a couple of couples had entered thru Newman with caravans in tow and made it to Durba Springs to camp . It hadn't been easy they said but they managed it . Rubbish had become a major problem and grave type mounds were appearing everywhere , just waiting to be disturbed by the dingo's and cat's.
Since these times much has happened including the establishment of Aboriginal out camps who use the stock route as access . It is now common talk for people to say they have done The Canning . I really would not recognize the country now , and would think there would be little similarity to 35 years ago . Even the transport is more comfortable . However I do take my hat off to those before me , maybe their only comfort was a battered old umbrella , and their buttocks were pummeled mercilessly by a stock saddle , for months at a time as workers , not tourists .