The Great Central Highway
Stephen K Ewings 2002
Where there is water, there is life within the desert.
The arid and semi-arid region of Australia comprise 70 percent of the total landmass with an annual average rainfall of 500mm or less, and is the driest continent on earth apart from the Antarctica (AUSLIG 2000). The arid region accounts for 30 percent of Australia, containing ten desert areas representing 18 percent of the mainland. The desert regions receive less than 220mm of annual precipitation and consequently water is a major issue for any person living or working in the central part of Australia. It is little wonder that many European explorers followed watercourses and rockholes as they moved across the country. If early European explorers ignored local Indigenous inhabitants it was at their peril, for they were the custodians of life saving watering points. It should come as no surprise, that the Great Central Highway stretching from Laverton in Western Australia to Winton in Queensland follows a string of watering points across three States. The following is a brief account of transport and communications covering the 560 kilometre western leg, from Laverton to Warburton Ranges.
‘Where there is water there is life’, and the Aboriginal people of the Western Desert have names for several categories of kapi, or water, ranging from ephemeral surface water in claypans to permanent rockholes. Permanent waterholes or springs are the most reliable sources of water and are carefully maintained by Aboriginal people. This could mean keeping the hole clear of sand in-filled by flooding, covering the top to stop animals falling in, or installing tree ladders to allow animals to clamber out in the event they fell in.
Another important water source are soaks. These occur in creeks or run off areas around the margins of large rocky outcrops and evaporation is low due to the sandy covering. Other rockholes are found on exposed rock platforms and hill gullies. Depending on the ratio of open surface area to overall volume, which dictates evaporation rates, these rockholes can hold water for years.
The least reliable category is the claypan, and use of this surface water is opportunistic following good rains. The high evaporation rates means claypans are highly unpredictable sources of water. However, all these water sources were important features in the landscape. The huge pulse of life generated after rains turns a lowly claypan into a focal point and could sustain a group of Aboriginals for many weeks. No matter how clever or innovative a person is they cannot survive in the arid region without water.
Ernest Giles on his second expedition to the central arid region of Australia travelled northwest from Beltana in South Australia making Elder Creek at Warburton Ranges in November of 1873. While his intended destination was Perth, Giles was forced to turn back due to water shortages, although, and unbeknown to him, a string of rockholes extended 600 kilometres west through the Great Victoria Desert to the Laverton area. Giles did not think it necessary to have Aboriginal guides in his first or second expeditions, and even after the death of Alf Gibson he saw Aboriginals as scarcely human, his journals showing evidence of indifference and active contempt (Erickson 1978).
The Warburton Ranges are named after Peter Egerton Warburton (although he never reached the ranges) who left Adelaide in 1872 in the competitive race to Perth. After fifteen months of great hardship, hunger, and thirst Warburton reached Oakover 1200 kilometres north of Perth on the point of starvation.
“Warburton’s account of this epic struggle against the desert was published in 1875 under the title ‘Journey Across the Western Interior of Australia’, and consists of excerpts from the explorer’s journal, with additions and amplifications added by the editor, Charles H. Eden, a relative of Warburton’s. Eden was selected for the task because, as he explains, the privations and suffering of the long journey had “so enfeebled the explorer, and had so affected his eyesight, that he had little inclination, nor the capability, to pen a full narrative of the expedition.” (Olding)
The first European to travel through the Laverton area, and originating from the west, was John Forrest in 1869 looking for the remains of the Ludwig Leichhardt expedition. During a fortuitously good season in 1874, Forrest travelled further west to Warburton Ranges, making him the first European to undertake the Laverton to Warburton journey. Sandalwood cutters revisited the Laverton district in the 1870s and 1880s looking for the valuable aromatic timber, before gold miners arrived in the 1890s. The township was initially called British Flag after the first gold strike in 1896, and was officially gazetted as Laverton on 6th July 1900. Four years later the railway arrived, but the only track to Warburton at this stage was the route travelled by Aboriginal people via rockholes.
Kapi Road – Camel Tracks
The camel (Camelus dromedaries) and their Afghan handlers are an important element in the history of inland transport. Initially, explorers like Giles and Warburton were resistant to the use of camels, maintaining the animals and Asian handlers were too temperamental and unreliable, but later they would become known as ‘ships of the desert’.
The first camel was imported into Australia by the explorer John Horrock in 1840, although it was shot after the animal caused his death in 1846. Another group of 24 camels followed in 1860 destined for the ill-fated Bourke and Wills expedition. Realising the camel’s potential Samuel Stuckey went to Karachi in 1866, and succeeded in bringing out more than a hundred camels, and as nobody knew how to handle camels 31 Afghan cameleers were employed (Flinders Range Research 2003).
It is estimated that over 10,000 camels were imported into Australia in the years 1860 – 1907 and contemporary populations are thought to be in the vicinity of 200,000. A large camel can carry up to 600kg, will tolerate high levels of salt in water, and can survive for many days without water (Williams 1999). However, camel trains used by explorers impacted on meagre inland water resources, and conflict often broke out with Aboriginals over this issue (Ericksen 1978). For instance, on his fourth expedition Giles needed around 1,000 litres of water per week, an amount that would empty many rockholes. This same water could sustain a small Aboriginal group for weeks, and provided the means to move on through the land to the next water.
Once the water was exhausted the chain in a link of rockholes was broken, making life extremely difficult for the local people, doubling or trebling distances to the next resource. At Victoria Springs, Giles camped for 9 days, and 5 days at Ularring where, “over a hundred of the enemy” attacked his party (Giles in Ericksen 1978). The camel undoubtedly contributed to opening up the arid region, but even at this early stage European explorers imposed additional hardship and disrupted Aboriginal living patterns.
The Warburton Road
In the 1930s, government employees Paine and Barclay completed a survey of the track to Warburton Ranges. Wongi people from the area pointed out a track that followed rockholes, soaks and waterholes, forming a corridor leading from Laverton to Warburton Ranges. The first Europeans to regularly use this track were the missionaries Wade and Jackson during 1932-33. The missionaries travelled by camel from Mt Margaret near Laverton, stopping to water their animals along the way and making contact with Ngaanyatjarra people. The missionary’s first camp at Warburton was near the Mirlirrtjarra waterhole, which is about 5 kilometres from the present township, and a mission station soon became established.
The development of the road follows a simple truth; “there would be no routes if there were no stopping places” (Braudel 1966). Known colloquially as the Warbo Road, this meandering sandy route followed a string of water points that were indeed ‘stopping places’. Ultimately, and as motorised transport became readily available, the distances between stopping places increased due to decreasing reliance on intermediary watering points. However, the first motor vehicles used were manufactured in Britain or America, and were not engineered for the terrific heat of Australia’s inland. This meant rockholes were still used to replenish the overheated and fuming radiators, which were designed to keep an engine warm, not cool.
The first motorised vehicle to complete the trip was a 1300cwt (660kg) Dodge in 1934. The driver was guided by the sinuous camel pads threading through spinifex and sand, combined with Paine and Barclay’s survey pegs placed every mile or so (Harry Lupton pers. comm., 12th June 2003). The 560 kilometre journey took several days to make, and as the Mission became established a regular monthly supply-trip ensued. The mobility and avenue for communication associated with the Warburton road, progressing from foot track, to camel trains, and then trucks is juxtaposed against an increasingly sedentary lifestyle of a once nomadic Indigenous people. During this early stage, commodities such as, flour, tea and sugar were exchanged for game, and locals were paid two pounds per dingo scalp. The Mirlirrtjarra waterhole was well known in the region, having been a gathering place after heavy rains. Over time more people gravitated to the Mission, and by the 1960s, and after being directed to vacate the Woomera rocket-testing region, more than 400 people congregated at Warburton Ranges. The community was made up of people from Jameson (Mantamaru), Blackstone (Papulankutja), and Peterman Ranges plus groups from Giles (Warakurna) and Wingellina ( Irrunytju) and other outlying areas. The disruption to living patterns, ceremonial activities, Aboriginal law, and amalgamation of different groups gave rise to some conflict. Forty years later, and beginning in the 1970s a number of ‘out stations’ were established and many people were able to return to their own country.
When the Kalgoorlie Royal Flying Base was established in 1937, and with the advent of Alf Traeger’s Radio, a new level of remote communication was reached. Apart from placing food and fuel orders, there were medical and health benefits, and telegrams communicated personal and administrative information. For the first time critical communications were not reliant on slow vehicular transport, but reached out to Warburton in seconds.
For seventy years trucks and cars have made the sandy and corrugated journey to Warburton years. Supply transport for many years was provide by United Aborigines Mission (UAM), and at one stage when funds were low and whilst waiting for another truck, a tractor with trailer made the voyage. During the war years and with fuel rations, trucks were converted and powered by charcoal gas burners. Green Mulga (acacia aneura) was gathered from the roadside, pits dug and the smouldering heap watched until it provided enough charcoal for the remaining journey.
The pit method required a large pit dug in the ground and lined with bricks or sheet iron. Then a small amount of kindling wood was placed in the bottom for lighting purposes after the pit had been stacked with the timber to be carbonised. The wood was cut into logs regular in size and shape, and then stacked very carefully into the pit to utilise as much space as possible. It was stacked to a level higher than the ground and covered with sheets of iron or sods of earth to stop air entering the fire after the kindling wood had ignited. So that the charcoal would not become contaminated, the sides and bottom of the pit were lined with sheet iron, bricks or stone. The type of hardwood burnt influenced the quality of the charcoal. Charcoal was stored and transported in disused grain sacks with a sack of charcoal weighing about 40 lbs. (18.2 kg.) (GREAT 2003).
During the 1960s, British built Gardner and Foden trucks made weekly trips, and while the eight-wheeled Foden was licensed to carry 8 tons, it laboured under12 tons and pulled a 12 ton trailer.
Perhaps one of the most famous drivers was the Englishman, Dennis Meaker, who nursed his 1970 Leyland Hippo for nearly two decades, clocking up millions of miles. After being awarded the contract for the ‘Warbo Run’ Dennis built a truck with two gearboxes doubled behind each other. The ability to select low gearing enabled him to crawl through the sand with two 16 metre trailers dragging behind. Once Dennis was blocked on the Warbo road by a semi trailer bogged in the sandhills about a 100kms from Warbuton Ranges. Dennis cant’t get past… and says ‘I’ll pull you out’. With his gearboxes he can crawl… he pulls the whole rig off to the side through spinfex and sand.. no road just an uphill sand dune.. creeping at 0.5 k/ph he brings his unit in front of the bogged semi. He hooks on and pulls the semi free!
Today, Warburton Ranges is a thriving Aboriginal community, serviced by satellite television, internet and telephones, with regular road and air transport. The road is a far cry from the single winding foot-track of the 1930s. Over the decades the road was slowly straightened bypassing the rockholes, and now only a few watering points can be seen from a speeding Toyota. This brief account covers the Great Central Highway, from Laverton to Warburton, another 2,000 kilometres lies ahead in the journey from Laverton to Winton.