AFTER seven days on the road through some of Australia’s harshest terrain, the community at Kunawarritji offered a welcome respite for the Mercedes Benz G-Wagen convoy.
This was first published in 4x4 Australia's December 2011 issue.
The 16 travellers were dusty, dry and rattled after bumping along 1017 rugged yet spectacular kilometres of the Canning Stock Route from Wiluna.
The seven G-Class vehicles, five G 350 BlueTec wagons, one G-Professional wagon and one G-Professional ute, had performed well so far. The punctures that dogged us earlier in the week became less frequent as the drivers adapted to the rocky track – though we spotted a leaking shock when stopped at the Kunawarritji fuel pumps.
The Kunarritji store’s diesel cost $3.20 a litre on our visit – expensive considering the community is on a main road and that fuel at our drop at Well 23 cost less than $3 a litre. This was our last fuel stop for the trip and the vehicles and jerry cans were all top up for the 600km run to Billiluna.
Finally, while we enjoyed the facilities of motel-style accommodation, Mercedes-Benz’s mechanics gave our vehicles the once-over.
As we loaded ourselves in to the repacked G-Wagens the next morning I noticed our spare wheel was loose. Mercedes-Benz techs pounced on it and discovered the wheel carrier had cracked from the pounding and vibration of the track’s harsh corrugations. It was welded up in the workshop before we hit the road.
The first part of the CSR north of Well 33, like the 40km south of it, is flat country with some of the track’s harshest corrugations – they are so bad that some maps mark them with warnings. It wasn’t long before vehicles reported shock absorber failures over the UHF radio, and as the G 350s slowed, the trip leaders called a stop to assess the situation.
We had spare shocks but at the rate they were failing we’d soon run out. The vehicles were still driveable with blown shocks (or with them removed) but it makes slow and uncomfortable going; too slow to meet our tight schedule. At around 40km from the nearest airstrip we could have them flown in – or turn back and end the expedition by taking the vehicles west to Port Hedland.
We wanted to complete the Canning in stock vehicles. Satellite phones were fired up and a call out was made to gather any spare G-Class shock absorbers in Australia, get them to Perth and on a charter flight to Well 33. In the meantime, the convoy limped on to what was planned as our lunch stop near Well 36.
Our G 350 was the only vehicle to have not fallen victim to shock failure, a feat we put down to our superior driving. We were feeling confident as the trip was moving forward again and the corrugations gave way to sand dunes.
But it wasn’t long before our nostrils were filled with the now unmistakeable smell of the hydraulic oil from the shock absorbers and we felt the back of the car start to bounce. The left rear shock had blown its seals and was leaking fluid so our progress slowed considerably.
The track between Wells 35 and 36 heads north-east through a forest of desert oaks and over small red dunes. It didn’t take long before the leaking shock started to rattle and then, as we crested a dune it broke with an almighty bang.
We checked to ensure the broken shock could do no more damage to the vehicle and was clear of the brake line to the rear wheel, then drove on at 10km/h, rattling and banging as we went. We were able to crawl over small dunes slowly using the centre and rear diff locks but making terrible noises from the busted damper.
Camp was among the desert oaks at a native well called Bungabinni, a slow 10km distant. We would camp here for two nights while we awaited the replacement shocks, to be collected by the G-Professional. Meanwhile we found more cracked spare wheel carriers, which went back with the Professional to be welded up.
Canning’s original expedition party of 1906–7 was led to Bungabinni by a local aboriginal guide named Tommy Walden who also led them to the wells at Kunawarritji (Well 33), Nimbil (Well 34) and Minjoo (Well 35). However once at Bungabinni.
The well at Bungabinni was too small to hold enough water to supply a mob of cattle and Well 36 was established 11km further on at Kirlkirl. Aboriginal names were used for many of the well along the CSR so that if drovers lost the track on their journey south they could use the names and the locals could lead them to water source.
A little more than 24hours after we made camp, the G-Professional arrived back with the supplies including the new shocks and repaired wheel carriers. With the worst of the corrugations behind us no further problems were anticipated.
The terrain on the CSR is ever changing. We left the forest of desert oaks and were back in to rolling sand dunes with mulga scrub and spinifex in the swales. The track splits with a direct route north towards Well 38 or the original CSR out to Well 37 which is noted for the murders of stockmen there in 1911.
We took the direct route, lunching on the southern shore of Lake Tobin. At the time was a dry clay pan but just six months earlier was flooded had closed the route. Along this direct route you pass a small cave, Reeve Rock, containing aboriginal paintings. Well 38 that is located in a rocky gorge to the left of the track.
There are markings in the rock wall here with the initials of Canning’s party and aboriginal markings that may be up to 20,000 years old.
North of Lake Tobin you’re in the Great Sandy Desert, the third desert you pass through on the trip north, and the sand gets redder and the dunes higher and more regular. We stopped at Well 41 to top up water supplies at wet our heads in water stained brown by the surrounding tea trees.
The vehicle track between Wells 41 and 42 deviates from the original CSR and crosses the tallest dunes on the route. The tallest measures 16.9m, which might not seem tall if you’re a Simpson Desert veteran. Many dunes here have multiple crests and tricky approaches.
They posed no trouble for the G-Wagons, which crossed them in high range with the centre diff locked, the rear diff lock only used on the most difficult. Trig points are located on some of the dunes and escarpments along this stretch and our camp was under one such dune in a stand of trees.
The view from the dune was spectacular with the dunes ahead looked like waves rolling in as the golden ball of the sun sank below the horizon.
All the fuel from the jerry cans was put in to the vehicles to take the weight off the roof racks. The fuel pump in the G-Professional ute had been getting noisier since leaving camp and the engine check light had come on. This was the vehicle being driven by Erwin Wonisch and Luke Pascoe, the two Mercedes-Benz technicians, so they knew what the problem was.
It worsened as we approached Well 42 so we stopped there to remedy the fault. They quickly found the pump clogged with dust, probably the result of dirt in one of the jerry cans and thankfully limited to the one vehicle.
They cleaned it out, reset the fault light and we were soon back on the road. Meanwhile, we who were waiting were treated to an amazing display of colour and flight by a large flock of budgies competing with a flock of chats for their turn at the pool by the well.
The track continued across the small, dry Guli Lake then through tall scrub along a dusty track. Wells 43 and 44 are off a branch to the right but we took the route straight ahead. Termite mounds became more evident as we drove north, some of them small and scattered along the sides of the track, larger ones towering over our Mercedes vehicles.
Well 46 is an idyllic, shaded campground and was well populated when we stopped there. It has been recently restored and provides fresh clean water. It’s noted on the lid of the well that there’s a snake living in there and sure it enough it was there when we filled our buckets.
A small mesa by the side of the route, with obvious vehicle tracks heading up it afforded the group stunning views of the surrounding county as we left the sand hills behind. We drove on though tall spinifex grass, heading for Well 48 at the foot of Breadon Hills. The late afternoon drive to camp had shadows across the track and the rocky terrain was treacherous resulting in our only puncture on this second leg of the drive.
The Breadon Hills were named after Joe Breadon, a member of Carnegie’s party that passed through here in 1896. Carnegie named the two cliffs at the head of the range ‘The Twins’ and Warburton also noted these ranges during his east-west trip in 1873.
We made camp under the cliffs and the warmth of the night prompted a few of the group to skip putting up tents and enjoy a perfect night under the stars.
The sand dunes were now gone and the flat track below the bluff provided the first real bull dust of the trip. Our trek was nearing its end and the flatlands passed by at speed as went drove on to the last of the CSR wells.
In open plains with a windmill and dry reservoir beside it, the last of them, Well 51, could be a waterhole in any part of the country. The surrounding country contrasts dramatically to the rocky, sandy, often stunning scenery we’d seen over the past 11 days.
We were now driving on what was Billiluna Station, the original staging post for cattle drives heading down the CSR. It’s typical flat, Top End, cattle country. The red sand dunes were gone replaced by grey dust and lakes filled with bird life. The track skirts the western edge of the Lake Gregory system.
At one point the track detoured around a section where it was flooded. Like many station tracks it is a maze but following the main track should keep you on course.
It wasn’t long before we were camped, enjoying a beer in the cool water of the lake. Not only did the waters provide relief but there was a sense of accomplishment as we had all but completed our trek up the Canning.
Mercedes Benz had become the first vehicle manufacturer to take a convoy of standard vehicles up the 1600km of the Canning Stock Route, one of the harshest tracks in the country. There had been trials, tribulations and added expenses but all seven vehicles had made it on schedule.
Now there was just 10km to go to refuel at Billiluna, then 170km up the Tanami Road to Halls Creek. A camping permit is also required for your stay at Lake Stretch and this is purchased in Billiluna.
From the junction of the Tanami Road it’s 158km east to the WA–NT border then a further 620 to Alice Springs – or 170km north to Halls Creek. The Tanami Track is a highway compared to the CSR and you can drive at highway pace. Keep an eye out for the dust clouds sent up by the massive road trains – get as far off it as safely possible to let them pass.
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The total damage toll ran to five tyres, four cracked wheel carriers, one rear view mirror knocked off and a few more damaged, two G 350s with non-operative airconditioning, two AdBlue tanks breaking their mounts, 10 shock absorbers and a cracked radiator hose from a reversing incident. A lot? No: these were seven vehicles that were showroom standard (but for tyres) and driven over some tough terrain.
At Halls Creek a group of Mercedes Benz dealers took over the vehicles and drove them to Broome via the Gibb River Road. Mission accomplished.