Crossing the iconic Great Central Road…

Our adventure is jam packed with more great stories as our journey takes us to Laverton then across the iconic but flooded Great Central Road (part of the ‘Outback Way‘) that leads through the middle of the country to one of Australia‘s most famous landmarks – Uluru.IMG_3367You need to love the Outback to fully appreciate it and many people have asked how we can enjoy driving through empty spaces of remote nothingness for days on end – but let me assure you… there is plenty out there; the remote communities, the isolated roadhouses, the endless horizons with the most spectacular light shows, the sunrises and the sunsets, the animal and bird life in the harsh desert environment and the history of our first explorers.. these have all made our outback trips so very special!

In Dorothea MacKellar’s words… I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains… and this road had it all!

The Great Central Road (1180-kilometres from Laverton to Uluru) is unsealed all the way with corrugations, potholes, rocky sections and sandy crossings to navigate and I should imagine a good road to drive normally – but as we soon found out… you must allow plenty of time as nature has a habit of delaying even the best equipped traveller in these parts.

We had already obtained our permits for the Great Central Road which gave us 3 days to travel from Laverton to the Northern Territory Border and 3 days from Docker River to Yulara so with travel permits in hand we left Kalgoorlie-Boulder and headed back towards Leonora where we pulled in just long enough to fill up with fuel before heading to Laverton.

Heading towardsLavertonit was obvious the area surrounding us was too arid to support agriculture with the majority of land used for mining.

The Golden Outback‘ is the birthplace of Western Australia‘s first great resources boom and it was no surprise the red rocky country we were travelling through seemed crowded with mines, some abandoned, some had re-opened and most marked by wide dusty haul roads with ‘No Entry’ signs and the occasional eruptions of masts and machinery. We would have liked to have had a look at one but they were nearly all fenced off and noticeably marked with ‘Keep Out’… many with very strange names!!

Closer to, and around Kalgoorlie-Boulder there was Frog’s Leg, Broad Arrow, Black Flag, White Flag and Siberia (otherwise known as Waverley) and further afield we came across mines called Thunderbox and Granny Smith… each name with its own special significance.

Thunderbox‘s name came from a colloquial Australian term for an outback toilet and this mine earned its title when an exploration team placed a 44- gallon drum over one of their drill holes… there is always a good story when it involves a toilet and the name says the rest! Frog’s Leg apparently came from French origins!

There were so many colourful names which we were told stemmed from the prospectors who flocked to the region during the 1890s gold rush. Some names may have come from a lady friend, a farm or where they were born… but regardless our imagination ran wild as we drove along and tried to guess the origins of each!

As we neared Laverton, we became aware of dark clouds to the south that we assumed would form into the daily storm we had been experiencing for the last couple of days… but hopefully not before we arrived at the little mining town!

On the edge of the Great Victoria Desert, Laverton was once a booming gold town but when gold prices fluctuated in the late 1950s it almost became a another ghost town. It wasn’t until 1969 when nickel was discovered at Mount Windarra that life began to return to the town and it now has a population of around 300 people!

Today there are 2 major gold mines in the shire: Granny Smith, owned and operated by Barrick Gold, and the Sunrise Dam Gold Mine, owned and operated by AngloGold Ashanti. Both are open pit and underground mining.

Smaller gold mines, like the BrightStar and the Laverton Gold Mine are also in the area and the Murrin Murrin laterite nickel project is located nearby, just over the shire border in Leonora.

As well as being the starting point for the ‘Great Central Road‘ through to Uluru, Laverton is also the starting point for the ‘Anne Beadell Highway‘, with the finish point, Coober Pedy or vice versa.

The ‘Anne Beadell Highway‘ was built in the late 50s, early 60s by Len Beadell and his team, and was named after his wife Anne, but it’s title Anne Beadell Highway‘ is certainly misleading as it is little more than a dirt track passing through desert terrain.

It was initially built to support the ‘Woomera Rocket Range‘, Australia’s first atomic testing site with the area chosen by the British Government in 1946 due to its remoteness, uninhabited land and clear skies.  Today, the radiation levels in this area are still considered unsafe however, visitors can safely approach the two marked totems… there’s just no camping anywhere near it!

Laverton wasn’t a particularly attractive town but it was ideal for our 1-night stop, so we booked into the Laverton Caravan Park, set up camp then grabbed the opportunity to plug into the mains power to recharge our batteries for our cameras, phones, laptop etc.

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That evening as the storm abated the winds blew up from the desert ripping at the tree branches and lashing our rooftop tent. It was constant and gusty throughout the night and next morning brought a forecast for more showers and storms, although the clouds cleared momentarily to greet us with a our first rays of sunshine in a few days.

IMG_3340With the all clear to travel, after the ‘Great Central Road‘ was closed the previous day, we set off and about 20-kilometres out from Laverton we felt the full force of more rain.

It was so intense it was almost impossible to see the road ahead but more frightening was the road train we were following that was gouging deep ruts into the now flooded road. Not being able to fully see the road also made it impossible for us to pull over to the side so at a safe speed we slowly travelled on to the ‘The Pines’ rest area 120-kilometres from Laverton, where we knew we could stop.

A couple of motorhomes and the road train had pulled in and looked to have set up camp but deciding that the intense rain was behind us, we continued on to try to make it to Tjukayirla Roadhouse… a decision that was not that sound at the time as for the next 30-kilometres the road was covered with water and had become quite hazardous with us continually changing from side to side in an attempt to find the best place to drive.IMG_3361

On the advice of some miners travelling in the opposite direction from one of the nearby mines we turned around and headed back to ‘The Pines’ but when we arrived the other campers we thought had set up camp had packed up and left and only the road train remained!

It was Thursday and the truckie told us he was here until at least Monday with more bad weather forecast over the coming days! He also told us if  we were caught driving on this road after it had been closed we risked a fine (see Wet Weather section) of $1000 per tyre, which was definitely not within our budget. Stopping here was not in our plan either but we decided to sit it out with him anyway! He was a nice enough guy and even offered us the use of his satellite phone should we need it!

It continued to rain softly and it seemed as if the worst of the storm had passed over, but not 10-minutes later it was right above us again and there was no escape.

Within minutes the area around our car had started to flood and all we could do was watch the water rise until finally the rain stopped and we could assess the situation… and it couldn’t get any worse when the truck driver called us up on his radio to tell us 2 other road trains were heading in as a ‘state of emergency’ had been called for them. Their trucks weren’t going anywhere for a few days and the men from the mines were coming out to pick them up.

On this road there is safety in numbers and even the truckie was reluctant to leave his truck unattended so with no phone coverage and the weather forecast not good we had no choice but to head back to Laverton.

We knew from the last 2 truck drivers coming in that there was a 4WD and a caravan about 10-kilometres back down the road, so we headed off to meet up with them then waited while they slowly made their way to the rest area to turn around.

What was meant to be a 303-kilometre trip to Tjukayirla Roadhouse from Laverton turned into a 300-kilometre drive to ‘The Pines’ and back and even though it was a bit challenging it didn’t dampen our spirits!

IMG_3364The red dirt that had accumulate all over and under Harry over the past couple of weeks was now thick red mud and as there’s no such thing as a car wash out here the best we could hope for was a quick wash at the caravan park at Laverton as we hid between 2 motorhomes.

There were not a lot of campers in the camp kitchen that night but a few people were sitting around the camp fire. We later found out that the majority of people at this park were prospectors in search of the allusive nugget of gold.Unknown

There wasn’t a lot happening in this little town but there was plenty of evidence of it’s once booming past so after picking up a brochure on Laverton’s History Walk we set off on our bikes for a ride past the Old Coach House, the Police complex and goal and a ride along streets that once bustled with activity… a ride that took all of 10-minutes!

For a little town it had the best tourist centre and the ‘Great Beyond Tourist Information Centre’ and the Explorer Hall of Fame are a must do.

The Discovery Centre tells the stories of the explorers and pioneers of the region in a way that’s guaranteed to capture your interest and the information centre has one of the best selections of outback books and maps for sale, an extensive selection of Len Beadell‘s books and CD’s…  and real coffee.Unknown

Fortunately, we have a long range diesel tank in Harry so we were not dependent on the expensive diesel at the roadhouses along this outback road but we still topped up at the local service station before our second attempt to cross the ‘Great Central Road‘!

The road had only just reopened after the heavy rain but only to 4WDs. It was closed to all caravans and heavy vehicles! So after reducing our tyre pressures for a second time we headed off really early.

It doesn’t take much before these outback roads are closed and for the next 303-kilometres the road surface was still very wet, muddy, slippery and flooded in places and again we were continually changing from side to side to try and escape the mud and sunken tyre tracks.

20-kilometres out of Laverton we came to the quarantine bins for fruit, veggies, plants, etc that are not allowed into WA and 8-kilometres further on was our first interpretive panel – Deba Gnamma Holes. These rock depressions, often found in granite outcrops, act like natural water tanks and gather water in the dry season to sustain the wildlife… and once provided life sustaining water to the Aboriginals and early explorers. There was also some amazing breakaway country that was well worth checking out! All the sights we had missed the day before!

It was slow going on the wet, slippery road and in need of a break and a coffee we pulled into a very basic campsite about 400 metres off the road that overlooked a spectacular valley of colourful cliffs and offered a great photo opportunity! images-1-3.jpegIt was still flooded from the recent downpour but we managed to find a dry spot to set up our trangia to cook up a snack and make a cuppa then we set off to explore following camel tracks in the hope of finding a couple. Apparently there are estimated to be more than 1,000,000 camels roaming Central Australia, and we were yet to encounter one on this road!

Further on we passed the sign to Cosma Newberry (Yilka), an indigenous community housing about 50-people and a roadhouse with limited supplies and fuel. IMG_3375If you find you need to refuel here make sure you read your travel information closely as this roadhouse is only open for a couple of hours each week day and Saturday mornings!

As we continued on we drove through deep tread marks made by the road train wheels the day before. They ran down the centre of the road and there was no escaping them in the slippery conditions as we moved from side to side to avoid the water. The rain had settled the dust but Harry was now covered in red mud again!

We eventually pulled into ‘The Pines’ and we could see so much better this time…  it was a lovely large area with tracks radiating off in all directions. The trucks were still there and would be for another few days!

There was another parking area further down the road but it didn’t appear to be much especially after all the rain – it had a couple of shaded sites but no amenities.

A little further on we couldn’t miss the enormous ‘White Cross’ standing tall on a hill in front of us. Erected by Aboriginal Christians in 1991, the cross also marked the location of some rock art caves… so we pulled in to check them out.

Set above the Beegull Breakaway outcrop and adjacent to the cross we came across the small caves eroded into the edge of the escarpment that were easily accessed via a short pathway through the spinifex. Not only were these caves home to rock art but also hundreds of beautiful finches.

As we continued east towards Tjukayirla Roadhouse (pronounced ‘Chook-a-year-la’), Australia’s most isolated roadhouse, we passed through the Great Victoria Desert where small sand hills, spinifex, woodlands and the the occasional tree dominated the landscape.

If we had realised the roadhouse was closed when we arrived we probably would have kept going to find the free camp further down the road but it was late in the day and we were tired from concentrating so hard on the wet road all day!

We arrived a few minutes after 5:00pm only to be told by the owner that they had shut! Unlucky for us even if the brochure said they shut at 6:00pm! The sign on the door read there was a $20 fee charged for after hours call outs – and according to the owners it was after hours – no negotiation! While we were paying 2 more people rocked up and they too had to pay the extra $20 as did the convoy of campers who pulled in not long after them! Welcome to our blog Ken and Guo Hua Zou!

One thing we have learned on our travels is when in the Aussie Outback, time is not an issue, and nothing happens when its meant to… these people work off their own time!

That night was peaceful and relaxing, however, we were woken very early in the morning  by dingoes howling – they sounded like they were right outside our tent!

IMG_3396Leaving the roadhouse we enjoyed a small section of bitumen that was actually an airstrip for the Royal Flying Doctors then 17-kilometres from Tjukayirla we came to Kurrojong Sentinel interpretive panel and a distinctive tree on the south side of the road.images-2

These interpretive panels are all the way along this road providing us travellers with the stories of the Outback – 30 in total!IMG_3386

A bit over 70-kilometres further on we came to another parking bay and Paradise Camp or Desert Surf Central because the breakaway resembles waves. This is a great camp to mark on your map!

Warburton is the largest Aboriginal community along this road but our permits only allowed us to drive along the Great Central Road.  We were not allowed to detour or enter any Aboriginal communities or we risked a $1000 fine.

This is Ngaanyatjarra Lands region with approximately 2000 people based over 10 communities across these desert lands.IMG_3421

Warburton has a population of 720 forming the largest community and has strong language and cultural practice, with the majority of residents speaking Ngaanyatjarra. This unique part of the world faces complex challenges, including poverty and low life expectancy and of course, like all communities along this road, Warburton is a ‘dry’ community and alcohol is not permitted.

It was named after the range of hills (Warburton Ranges) to the north of the community which in turn was named after one of the early European explorers who travelled this region in search of good pastoral land. The community is colloquially referred to as ‘Ranges’ and the other name for the community is Mirlirrtjarra which is the name of a site nearby.

Facilities in the town include a large community store, airstrip, community health clinic and flying doctor service, community school, community college, women’s centre and youth centre, church, football oval and swimming pool. The town is also home to the Tjulyuru Cultural and Civic Centre featuring local Aboriginal art in the Tjulyuru Regional Art Gallery.

Warburton Roadhouse was our next stop to top up with fuel and it was certainly an eye opener.IMG_3451

As we drove in we weren’t surprise to see it all surrounded by metal! Tjukayirla Roadhouse had also been encased by a high security fence with the gates locked and unlocked as people came and went.

The fuel pumps were caged in metal, there were high metal fences and gates around the camping area and there were large metal signs everywhere at this roadhouse stating ‘NO PHOTOS’.  And just to reinforce the law – incase we couldn’t read… we were even reminded not to take photos by the proprietor – a number of times!

If you have to refuel along the way, these roadhouses are very handy. They sell fuel, basic supplies, have clean amenities, often carry out minor car repairs and have up-to-date road condition information… and there were plenty of locals to welcome us!

It seems when visitors arrive an ‘outback message’ is sent to the Warburton community because it wasn’t long after we pulled in that 2 cars loads of Aboriginal people pulled up in Land Cruisers with not a single window in existence, just holes where they should be, and each had at least 6 people inside.

They shouted ‘Allooo’ and waved to us then as some climbed out of their vehicle and proceeded to push one vehicle to the petrol pump the others headed in our direction beckoning us to buy their paintings.

It was obvious to us that cars didn’t last long in this harsh environment by the number of burnt out cars along the road that increased in numbers the closer we got to the communities!

This is a road that is known to be tough on cars but there were literally hundreds of car bodies strewn along this leg of our journey and at first they felt quite threatening.

This is desert out here with temperatures already hitting 35+ degrees on the thermometer. During peak summer months temperatures can reach 45°C and over and we didn’t really want any car problems.

The Outback is filled with lots of space and very few people and services so it could be quite a time before someone passes… it’s who that worried us! After chatting to the guys at the roadhouse, we soon learned that most cars were crashed or dumped and set on fire by the locals… just like they seem to do on all the Aussie outback tracks and we had already passed quite a few prominent signs that read ‘Secure your fuel or lose it’!

What was just as worrying were the number of shredded tyres we passed. We had a spare, but only one.

After a while these deserted and forgotten cars became part of the outback scenery and after counting 200 we soon lost count of how many more we passed!

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89-kilometres from Walburton we came to the Yarla Kutjara Campground with an information bay, a drop toilet and some large caves in a breakaway. Further on was the Tjukuriapini Rock Hole.

We passed the junction of the Gunbarrel Highway, which we would like to travel one day, but we will need an additional permit for that road and the brochure I picked up at Laverton said there must be a minimum of between 2 and 5 vehicles in convoy with good UHF equipment… so we will save that trip for another time.images-4.jpeg

Knowing how the roadhouses operate in this part of the country we arrived at the Warakuna Roadhouse a bit after 3:00pm and we were very surprised to find it all shut!

The sign on the door clearly stated it shut at 3:00pm… then we noticed another notice that read all Western Australian travellers should put their watches forward 1½-hours.

It would have been helpful if this information had been written on our tourist brochure, especially when there is a $20 call out fee after hours… but lucky for us the lovely couple running this roadhouse were only care taking for the weekend and waived the extra cost.

Apparently this part of the world runs on South Australian/Northern Territory time even though we were still a few kilometres away from the Northern Territory border… and the reason why is because the ‘Giles Weather Station‘ is aligned with the Woomera Rocket Range which is in South Australian.

This roadhouse is actually owned by the aboriginal community 6-kilometres away and before we even set up camp it went into lock down because there were some Aboriginals disputing over something somewhere… and the story goes once they forget what they are fighting about they target the roadhouse.

This was the only roadhouse on this highway that wasn’t fenced in with metal and locks. It was open for anyone to roam or drive through and it wasn’t long after we set up camp that a couple of car loads of Aboriginal women drove through trying to sell us their woven baskets… dispute forgotten!

That night we had an intense electrical storm that we sat and watched for quite a while before turning in and a very curious dingo who made his way over to check out some unattended food on our camp table.

At this roadhouse there was fuel, supplies, accommodation and an Aboriginal gallery with artworks from the nearby Warakurna community.

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Just up the road was the Giles Weather Station and in a small room with some weather station bits and pieces were some old pictures of Len Beadell and his Gunbarrel Road Construction Party and some of Len’s amazing artworks… he was quite an artist!

Outside were the crumpled remains of an old Blue Streak Rocket fired from the Woomera Rocket Range in the 1960s and the old Gunbarrel Highway grader with all the original Len Beadell plaques on display.

Len Beadell not only explored the Outback but he also surveyed huge tracts of this country and created iconic roads such as the Gunbarrel Highway.v7ZPTDS5HaY4ra-cXbn9ylSsr12Xox9-u0z6kxgVb7U.jpg

Even the road we were now travelling was surveyed by Len Beadell and built by his Gunbarrel Road Construction Party and we are now lucky enough to retrace his footsteps and enjoy his legacy some 60 years on. Before this, no road existed and this part of the country was very remote and difficult to navigate!

We were a bit late when we arrived at Warakurna and a bit early when we left so we didn’t get to see the weather ballon released which is usually between 8-45am and 2-45pm each day…  but if you are travelling this road ‘Giles Weather Station‘ is a must do!

With no ‘Road Closed’ sign on the eastern end of the road heading out of Warakurna we hit the road again. Unbeknown to us the road after this point was actually closed all the way to Yulara in the Northern Territory but someone had forgotten to put the sign out!

65-kilometres down the road we came to lonely ghost gum and a Len Beadell plaque, then came the border crossing between Western Australian and the Northern Territory which we wouldn’t have even noticed had it not been for a big road sign in the middle of no-where.. so we had to stop for a photo!

Since leaving Warakurna, photos were quite limited because of all the bumps in the road! The road on this side of the community was certainly a little bit rougher than it had been!

Our drive across the Great Victorian Desert and the Gibson Desert was an outback adventure all its own but now it was time to say goodbye to Western Australian (thank you for an amazing adventure)… and hello again to the Northern Territory!

Docker River (Kaltukatjara) campground was only 5-kilometres east of the border and this campground had an honesty pay box where you pay $5:00 for a night for a very basic toilet, fire rings set among a small forest of desert oaks providing some lovely shade. It was amazing that now we had crossed the border we would be paying for these bush camps! This was the last campground on the Northern Territory side of this track until you get to Yulara .

1-kilometre further on was Docker River (Kaltukatjara) an Aboriginal settlement where they speak only a little English… and it was not a pretty sight!  The fuel station was again surrounded by metal with cages around the fuel pumps. Wild dogs and horses roamed the streets, the houses were rundown and smashed up cars littered the streets.

As we left Docker River we passed small desert bushes with their striking yellow flowers, desert oaks and pretty purple flowering shrubs. A couple of herds of brumbies munched on grass at the side of the road and in the distance we saw lots of the well camouflaged yet elusive camels which until now we had only seen a few of on this road.

Our  journey then continued over a number of creek crossings and past Petermann Ranges then 40-kilometres east of Docker River we came to Lasseter’s Cave where we stopped for a cuppa.images

The story of Harold Lasseter is one of the outback’s greatest legends. In 1929 he claimed he’d found a gold reef in the far south west of Central Australia, but a trip to find the gold in 1930 went horribly wrong when he became stranded in the bush. He had taken refuge in this very cave for 25-days and as luck would have it he was found by a local Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal family, who provided him with food and water. Lasseter then decided to leave the cave and attempt to walk the 140-kilometres to Kata Tjuṯa but he was weak from dehydration, malnutrition and exhaustion, and died 3-days into his journey having only walked about 55-kilometres. His remains were found in the Petermann Ranges in 1931 and his diary was found in this very cave revealing his camels had bolted, leaving him stranded without food and water.

After some photos of the cave and the dry Hull River bed we headed off again.

The weather had improved somewhat since leaving Warakuna and we were now enjoying beautiful sunshine and beautiful scenery although the road condition had deteriorated noticeably from bad to worse since we had crossed the border with the majority of the road now under water!

This was Australia at its best, in all its vastness, with its ever changing landscape… a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains!

There was a lot of road development and maintenance happening on this stretch of road making driving very stressful with the bulk of traffic now mainly workmen and their heavy equipment… and the rain over the past few days certainly didn’t help!

Between the road works and the detours (they were laying pipes across the road), it made this road virtually impassable and at times the water was half way up our doors as we attempted to cross rather precarious water crossing or dugout detours that were actually lower than the road! At one stage it did occur to us that the road might be closed… but what could we do, there was no turning back and absolutely nowhere to pull over!

A bit over 150-kilometres from Docker River the huge rock formations of the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) appeared on the horizon.

It was an incredible sight after the long journey through the barren deserts and flooded road and although we still had to negotiate large puddles, flooded dug out sections and river crossings the surrounding country side was very scenic with views of the Petermann Ranges, undulating sand dunes, lovely stands of desert oaks, colourful myrtles, acacias, grevilleas and still more wildflowers.

IMG_3557We finally pulled up in front of a ‘Road Closed’ sign… we had reached the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) and the end of the road. IMG_3558IMG_3559.JPG

We re-inflated our tyres and headed back onto bitumen and after one last glance in the revision mirror at Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) we looked forward to see Uluru (Aryes Rock) in the distance rising from the ground and I have to say it was nothing short of spectacular as we drove towards it. IMG_3566You really can’t ignore Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and that first glimpse of the ‘Big Rock’ is only a taste of what you will see and feel once you see it up close.

Every photo, painting or description just does not do it justice; its colours are mesmerising and its sheer size so impressive… and we felt very privileged to be seeing Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and Uluru (Aryes Rock) for a second time! 

We turned left and head to Yulara Campground to set up camp for the night and reflecting on our journey across the Great Central Road we felt very fortunate to have been able to travel this iconic road before it was sealed!

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Be sure to check out our blog as we travel the Australian Outback. There are so many special places to visit along the way.

The next part of our journey will take us through the magnificent Red Centre; from Uluru (Aryes Rock) to Kings Canyon; Alice Springs to the West MacDonnell and East MacDonnell Ranges then south to the Oonadatta and Birdsville Tracks – this road trip has it all!

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