The dawn was colourful as the corellas sipped water from the overflowing tank. Footprints left by wandering dingoes littered the orange sand.
The campsite at Well 33 on the legendary Canning Stock Route is deep within the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia and jump-off point for some remote adventure. The challenges are great, but the rewards are better, with everything from gut-wrenching corrugations and artistic bush pinstriping to serene campsites and stunning geography.
A five-minute drive from Well 33 is the Kunawarritji Community and a welcome fuel stop for many. It’s always handy to carry cash when exploring the desert regions of Australia as the eftpos situation can often be sketchy. Expect to pay a premium price for fuel, upwards of $3 per litre in places. The community also has a store with limited supplies and it’s $5 for a steaming hot shower — the managers are extremely friendly too.
The Gary Highway is a typical Len Beadell track — unmaintained, tight, corrugated and very slow going, especially the first 60km. Desert holly thrives in this region and is vicious when it reaches — it tears into your duco and the noise is worse than fingernails down a chalkboard. However, once you get into the rhythm of this bush track, you become absorbed in the landscape.
Upon reaching an intersection where a track north leads 31km to Gary Junction, it’s time to head south. You’ll soon find yourself zigzagging through a stretch of dune country, the spinifex dwarfed by eucalypts that dominate the swales. The landscape opens up again as the track tightens, washouts ready to catch the unwary. A shot line leads 16km to Veevers Meteorite Crater if time allows. From here it’s 56km to Windy Corner and the start of the Talawana Track.
The Talawana is renowned as one of the toughest 4WD tracks in the country and the number of burnt-out 4WDs adds some realism to this. The major cause is spinifex. It grows tall between the wheel tracks, above the bonnet in places. As your vehicle pushes the spinifex, some of it gets caught in all those awkward spots like the chassis rail, and around your exhaust.
Spinifex contains flammable oils, that once heated (by your exhaust) catch fire very quickly. Before you know it, you’re hurriedly trying to escape a burning 4WD. To avoid this horrific event, stop often and check under your vehicle, cleaning away any grass or spinifex that may be caught up.
How do I rate the Talawana Track so far? It’s one of the most spectacular desert experiences I’ve encountered. It is so remote, with the vibrant orange dunes of the Little Sandy Desert covered in golden spinifex, burnt out in places giving a glimpse of the dunes in all their glory.
The feeling of getting out and walking up a sandy hill, maybe the first person to have ever done so in that spot, is amazing. A solitary camel diverts the attention, loping alongside the track, froth from its mouth floating in the breeze. Eventually deciding enough was enough, it heads for sanctuary amongst the desert oaks.
A rarely used track leads to Midway Bore and windmill, the spinifex giving the suspension a real workout. There was water in a bathtub below the windmill, but even the birds wouldn’t drink it. A little further on is Midway Well, the soak providing precious water to local fauna.
A couple of hours further along and salt lakes cover the track. It’s always a good idea to walk the crossings first — it may look solid, but if the crust is broken, a lot of time and effort will be spent trying to extract yourself, especially if you are travelling solo.
Not far from the final salt lake, the Talawana intersects with the Canning Stock Route.
Turn left and follow the Canning a few kilometres to Georgia Bore, a great campsite to stop and relax for a couple of days. The bore water is fresh, drinkable and perfect for a hot bush shower. The bore can get busy with travellers tackling the Canning enjoying some respite from the corrugations as they fill up water tanks.
Continuing along the Talawana Track from Georgia Bore, the track begins to open up and the Mackay Range rises majestically in the east, the Harbutt Range to the west. This is a landscape photographer’s dream view.
About 60km from the bore is a turn-off to the Parnngurr community where you’ll find the last fuel stop until Newman, plus a well-stocked store. Check the opening times though as a call-out fee will be charged if you get your timings wrong. Returning to the Talawana, it's 28km to the turn-off to Karlamilyi, Western Australia’s largest and most remote National Park.
KARLAMILYI NATIONAL PARK
The initial 30km are some of the worst corrugations I've ever encountered, though reducing your tyre pressures further will ease the ride. As you skirt the Fingoon Range, the sandy track changes to a hard dirt base. Upon crossing the sandy Rudall River, you’ll find a plaque explaining that the traditional owners of the land, the Martu people, know the upper reaches of the river as Waturarra and the lower reaches Karlamilyi.
Karlamilyi was previously known as Rudall River National Park until it was retitled in 2008, recognising the significance to the Martu Aboriginals. Rudall River was named by explorer Frank Hann who bumped into government surveyor William Frederick Rudall in 1896 while prospecting. Rudall was searching for lost members of the Calvert Scientific Expedition, but having walked the length of the river, had come up empty. The mummified bodies of the two men were later found in 1897.
The track into the jewel of this park, Desert Queen Baths, is slow going and low range is the best option. This is the best way to enjoy the stunning views of the rugged Broadhurst Range as you move through the valley. Bush camping is permitted at the end of the track, however, there are no facilities here. Leave only footprints, and take only photos.
The walk into Desert Queen Baths starts from the campground and is challenging, with no signage and lots of rock hopping. Python Pool is the first permanent waterhole and a popular swimming spot for those who can’t venture any further. Upon reaching Desert Queen Baths, you’re rewarded with a waterhole overlooked by spectacular rockfaces. The water may be chilly with the waterhole not getting much direct sun, but it is welcome after a hike on a hot day.
There are often native beehives within shady crevasses, which are quite beautiful to look at. Don’t get too close though as the bees can become narky at times — I had one sting me on the neck whilst enjoying an early morning walk. This is one reason why it’s a good idea to carry hayfever tablets in your first aid kits, as they reduce the reaction to the sting. However, if you're allergic to bee stings, always keep your EpiPen on you.
The Rudall River has several permanent waterholes along its length and Watrara Pool is another great campsite. The drive out of the gorge was as breathtaking as the drive in, especially when seeing the morning sun bouncing off the ranges, the colours in the rock changing constantly.
Back on the main track, I encountered a mob of 30 or so camels grazing in the distance. Feral camels are wreaking havoc on the waterholes within the park, with a single camel capable of consuming up to 80L of water at a time. Imagine what a herd of 30 would do.
The turn-off to the pools is signified by an old oil drum and the rough old track is slow going. With a lot of tracks heading off in all directions, having accurate mapping software is gold. I witnessed a vehicle take the wrong turn and disappear from UHF range for a while, scaring the crap out of their travelling companions.
Watrara Pool is a magical spot, ghost gums line the rocky banks, and the waterhole has a sandy base, perfect for a refreshing swim, a picnic lunch or a few days camping. I recommend this as a basecamp to enjoy day trips into Desert Queen Baths, as the bush campsite has a beautiful setting.
With the Talawana Track waiting to be completed, it’s time to retrace your footsteps, remembering those corrugations on the way out.
Back on the Talawana, the six-lane width of the track is surprising, but the landscape is still impressive. Passing through the Wells Range you’ll encounter some blind crests on dunes and a few tight bends that can catch you out, so be especially alert if towing. The Desert Oaks are in abundance as you approach the Poisonbush Range then it’s Ghost Gums and Gidgee with a few termite mounds in between the dunes.
Beside the Old Mia Well stockyards is where you’ll find the final Len Beadell plaque. The Talawana Track was the last track he and the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party completed.
With only 36km to the end of the Talawana Track, there’s one more point of interest to discover — a large rough leaf Ghost Gum stands tall amongst the gidgee. Upon reaching the Balfour Downs Road junction, you can feel proud as you tick off one of Hema Maps' 5 Most Remote 4WD Tracks
WHERE: East Pilbara
SUPPLIES AND FACILITIES: Fuel and limited supplies are available at Kunawarritji and Parnngurr. Times are generally Monday to Friday daylight hours and Saturday morning.
CAMPING: There’s camping at Well 33 and Georgia Bore on the CSR as well as many bush camps along the Gary Highway and Talawana Track. There are recognised campsites at Desert Queen Baths and Watrara Pool in Karlamilyi National Park. The Hema HX-1, Hema apps and Hema maps all have suitable camp spots marked. All camping is self-reliant, so take out what you take in.
BEST TIME TO TRAVEL: Milder months of May–September.
TRIP STANDARD: This track is extremely remote, has severe corrugations, washouts, soft sand and salt pans. You will need to be self-reliant, have suitable recovery gear, satellite phone/HF Radio, EPIRB, remote first aid kit, extra food and water. Your vehicle will be severely scratched by the end of the track. Travelling solo is not recommended.
PERMITS: No permits are required to travel the Talawana Track or access Karlamilyi National Park.
Kunawarritji phone: (08) 9176 9040
Purnngurr phone: (08) 9176 9051