African Zebu cattle introduced to the Kimberley in 1872 were infected with the tropical disease babesiosis, which is spread by the boophillis tick. The tick had hitchhiked across the Indian Ocean with the cattle and rapidly spread the disease throughout the Kimberley. Infected cattle would wade into waterholes and rivers to try to cool down. The blood in their urine turned the water red, and the disease became known as ‘redwater fever’. The government promptly banned the export of live cattle from the ports of Broome, Derby and Wyndham, sending the economy of the Kimberley into a tail spin. It was known that the tick did not survive in the sandhill country, so pastoralists started lobbying for a stock route south across the vast Great Sandy Desert to the markets of the Eastern Goldfields and Perth.
This country had previously only been penetrated by a few explorers. Both David Carnegie and Larry Wells had described the area as unsuitable for a stock route, that it would be impossible to move cattle across the waterless sea of sandhills. Regardless of this, the government saw a stock route as imperative, and in 1906 appointed surveyor Alfred Wernam Canning to lead a survey expedition north from the goldfields. It took six months for the party to cross the 2000 kilometres of trackless desert. Aboriginal ‘guides’ led Canning and his men to numerous wells and waterholes en route and found out what Carnegie and Wells had not known—beneath the surface of the Great Sandy Desert there lies a huge sub-artesian basin. Canning was able to tap into this, and from 1908 to 1910 he led a well-sinking party.
Labouring under extraordinary hardship, they managed to sink and construct an average of one well every fifteen days. It was an incredible feat, given the harsh terrain and searing heat. To line the wells timber often had to be carted great distances by camel. Against all the odds, suffering from thirst and starvation, Canning managed to open a viable stock route through some of the most remote and inhospitable terrain in the outback.
Fear of attack by ‘hostile natives’, the rugged terrain, the isolation and the sheer length of the stock route deterred most drovers from using it. By 1929 there had only been half a dozen cattle drives, astonishing given the construction had cost the Government a staggering £22 000. Nonetheless, the government commissioned William Snell to lead a reconstruction party in 1929. Snell’s expedition failed to fully complete the task, and in 1930 Canning came out of retirement and returned to the stock route to lead a reconstruction party northwards. He arrived back in Wiluna eighteen months later, having completed his sixth crossing of the Great Sandy Desert. He was seventy years of age!
In 1942, Japanese air attacks and the sinking of the Koolama forced the closure of Wyndham, and another lengthy and expensive reconstruction of the Canning Stock Route was undertaken. Drover Tom Cole led the first known cattle drive in 1911, and in 1959, drover Mal Brown led the last. There were only thirty-five known drives, which seems incredible given the huge amount of resources taken to construct and maintain it.
Today, an 1800-kilometre unmaintained track connects the fifty-one wells of the Canning Stock Route, kept open only by the passage of vehicles. Some wells lie in ruins; others have been restored. A journey down this track is one of the world’s great four-wheel drive adventures, taking around two to three weeks to traverse both the Great and Little Sandy deserts. It is always exciting for me to swing the wheel of the vehicle left onto the station track south out of Billiluna, knowing that I am leaving my familiar existence behind and entering a world of iron-red sandhills, waving fields of blond spinifex punctuated by termite mounds and desert rangelands, containing hidden galleries of Aboriginal ochre paintings on the walls of the gorges.
Excerpt from OUTBACK- Recipes and Stories from the Campfire
By Andrew Dwyer
The Miegunyah Press ISBN 0-522-85380-3 More...