With a bit of preparation, avid adventurers can experience the majesty of the Gunbarrel Highway.
The Gunbarrel Highway, pioneered by the famous surveyor, explorer, artist and author Len Beadell, starts its journey at Wiluna in the northern goldfields of WA. It heads in an easterly direction for more than 1000km before eventually turning south close to the WA/NT border and heading into SA.
From Wiluna, we chose a more scenic northerly route on the Granite Peak Road that loops up through Sydney Head Pass and past the Kaljahr Pinnacle, before rejoining the Gunbarrel close to Carnegie Station.
This route, along with the more direct one to Carnegie, are usually in good condition and suitable for most caravans.
Eastwards from Carnegie on Len Beadell’s original survey line, the track deteriorates and is best suited to people experienced in remote travel, and who are suitably equipped. It is not a place for ‘soft road’ 4WD vehicles, and only rough-road vans or campers should attempt it.
An HF radio or a satellite phone is essential, as is a good first aid kit. If you get stuck out here it may be some days before you can get professional help.
The track is narrow and mostly heavily corrugated, with many rough sections and wash-outs. Trees and shrubs overgrown onto the track were our biggest problem. But they were mainly soft mulga and pushing through at a walking place did no damage.
The 360km stretch from Carnegie to the north end of the Heather Highway took four days. They weren’t particularly long days, but they were slow days. The constant bouncing from the corrugations, and the stop-start of manoeuvring through the washouts were hard on our not-so-young bodies.
Much of the driving was just poking along in second gear, and for the most part we probably only averaged 15-20km/h. Traction, even in a 4WD, was poor due to the steep corrugations and pebbly surface, but having the correct tyre pressures and observing suitable speeds made for a considerable improvement in comfort.
The country is mainly rolling savannah interspersed with patches of open mulga and spinifex, while the surface of the track itself consists mainly of sand and lateritic gravels.
NATURE AND HISTORY
The first 30km east from the station is sandy channel country that was still wet from recent rain; this actually firmed up the sandy sections, and apart from navigating several bog holes, the driving was relatively straightforward.
A nature reserve was established in 1977 to protect the unique freshwater wetlands around the Mangkili claypan. While usually dry, claypans flood during occasional rains, stimulating desert bloom. If there has been recent rainfall, take care when the track crosses the southern end of the claypan.
Mount Everard is a pretty spot to explore. The changing afternoon light illuminates the north-western face of the hill and is perfect for photographers.
Further down the track you arrive at Mount Beadell, which has an almost spiritual feel about it. The information board at the base of the hill records Len Beadell’s life’s work in creating a vast network of inland roads, including the Gunbarrel. This was the first – and still only – 1500km east-west crossing of central Australia.
On the top of the hill is a beautiful memorial consisting of an exact copy of his trusty theodolite – all made in stainless steel.
As you travel the length of the track you will pass several of Len’s blazed trees or navigational benchmarks. On most of these he placed plaques stating the exact latitude and longitude, as well as the distances to the nearest outposts.
These plaques are exact replicas, with the originals now on display, along with his original “Gunbarrel Construction Party” grader, at the Giles Weather Station in WA.
It is well worth reading some of Len’s books before travelling this route. In addition to all being highly entertaining, they provide a good insight into the difficulties faced during the track’s construction.
Later, after turning south onto the Heather Highway, we rejoined the Great Central Road south-west of Warburton rather than continuing along the abandoned “Old Gunbarrel”, which is seriously heavy-duty with restricted access.
Continuing east, we spent time around Kata Tjuta, Yulara and Kings Canyon. These are all beautiful spots, but the constant flow of coaches, vehicles and people soon had us yearning for the solitude of the desert we’d just traversed.
- Desert solitude
- Mangkili claypan after rain
- Rich outback explorer history
- Ensure your vehicle and trailer are serviced and reliable, and carry long-range communications.
- Carry tools, spares, recovery equipment, first aid kit, and plenty of water – don’t assume the bores will be working.