The Canning Stock Route is Australia's toughest four-wheel-drive challenge. To successfully drive the entire 1700km route requires great self-reliance. The mostly sandy, rocky or deeply corrugated track is extremely remote.
It exacts a terrible toll on vehicles, and the desert country it traverses is harsh and unforgiving.
Last winter I was part of an expedition of 12 adults and seven children who shared a great adventure on the track. We were in five vehicles with two trailers. We drove 2000km north-east from Perth to reach our starting point near Halls Creek.
On the first day we tried to drive quickly over the corrugations that we encountered in long stretches but soon realised the vehicles would either be shaken to pieces or burn out if we persisted. We continued much more slowly on low tyre pressures, averaging about 120km a day. It gave the vehicles a fighting chance.
It wasn't long before the convoy was forced to tackle the sand dunes . . . not that any of us were disappointed. It was always going to be a major highlight of the trip.
I shared the driving of the most powerful vehicle. It easily scaled each dune. We waited on the other side, ready to tow or snatch the vehicle behind, if required. It was usually loaded with kids and pulling a trailer. We would wait anxiously for it to appear at the crest of the dune and the voice on the two-way radio to say: "We're over." We would let out a cheer and offer our congratulations. It was very exciting.
It wasn't all plain sailing though. Some of the vehicles were bogged a number of times. Worst of all, we twice bogged the vehicle that had come to pull out one already stuck in the sand. On these occasions all able-bodied men and women pitched in with spades, blocks and a huge mechanical jack. The two trailers suffered what would have been catastrophic damage had our team of bush mechanics not been so well prepared. The first trailer snapped its mainframe, and the second, a number of springs. Our mechanics took three car batteries, the welding equipment and spare steel bars and fixed them both. They had practised this process at home.
But their best trick was to rig a gravity feed from the roof of one of the vehicles to take petrol directly into the carburettor, after the demolition of a fuel pump. Incredibly, this worked for hundreds of kilometres.
It looked like a mobile bomb to me, so I kept my distance when driving. I concentrated instead on the tinkling noise that appeared to be a precursor to my own vehicle's engine blowing up. After confounding the bush mechanics on the two-way radio, we were all relieved when I cleverly discovered that the noise was only the ignition keys jangling.
There are few facilities along the route. The Kunawariji Aboriginal Community sells fuel and some grocery items. Some of the wells that Alfred Canning sank a century ago have been restored and provide good drinking water. Occasionally, a designated camping spot had a toilet, but otherwise we carried everything we needed.
Given knees that won't allow squatting, I took a raised, fold-up toilet seat. It required the careful placement of my body weight. I got the hang of it after being unceremoniously tipped into the spinifex on three occasions. Another time, after dark, I abandoned the seat when I heard a dingo sniffing around behind me. I bravely retrieved it in the morning.
With rare exceptions, we made camp each evening and moved on the following morning. This was tiring after hot and dirty days on the track. We felt some very cold nights, leaving those of us who were inadequately prepared very uncomfortable. It made the campfire, rekindled in the morning, very welcome indeed. In spite of the best efforts of one or two of the children, we avoided burning any human flesh.
We encountered a variety of wild animals including camels and dingoes. To see two, three or more camels gallop across the track was brilliant. However, my favourite memory is of the dingo, who one evening, stood in the darkness on the ridge above our camp and howled. This wild dog was unmoved by the torch lights shone in its direction. I wished I knew what it was trying to communicate and to whom.
My favourite time of the day was sunrise. Almost without exception there'd be a splendid display of red and yellow against a backdrop of white clouds and the black of the disappearing night. The desert landscape, illuminated in the soft morning light, was as exhilarating as driving up a dune. It was a magical experience before negotiations on a departure time got underway. I never had the numbers.
We made it to Wiluna safely but it is appropriate to end on a cautionary note. We stopped one day to look at some Aboriginal art in a cave just off the road. I care little for caves so didn't enter. The other members of the party did and most came out reporting little to see.
A few minutes later, I heard the crash of boulders behind me - it was part of the roof caving in. There was immediate panic as we tried to account for all of the children. One child was brought out with a foot that swelled up in minutes and may have had broken bones. She was in a state of shock.
The Canning Stock Route is a wild place. It's not for the unwary or unprepared, but it offers a great adventure.
Some of the wells that Alfred Canning sank a century ago have been restored and provide good drinking water.