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Old 02-04-2010, 06:04 AM   #1
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Joined: Aug 2008
Location: Albany Western Australia
Oddometer: 380
A Ride Down The Canning Stock Route In 1983

This is a story of our 1983 ride down the CSR in Western Australia. Considering the equipment we used it was quite a challenge and probably will be remembered as the biggest ride of our lives.
It was written in 1983 and so some of the comments are probably a bit dated or worse. I was only a young bloke and the target readers were BMW motorcycle club members who I knew at the time.
Just recently I found an October the 2nd 1983 Sunday Independent article about our ride. The big news in that edition was Australia winning the America's Cup.

So here is our version of the ride....


Itís hard to remember when the idea of travelling the Canning Stock Route (hereafter referred as the CSR) first enticed us into such a foolhardy venture. I think an Overlander article in the late 70ís was the catalyst forcing the coagulation of a few random thought waves into a whole (the gap between my ears). The resultant idea merely had to be transferred from the mental sphere into the physical realm.
In the interim years motorcycle touring became a holiday pastime. Providence had dictated a Devine gift Ė the motorcycle. Here was the vehicle in which to do the CSR. In retrospect, if we hadnít been led astray by two wheeled contrivances, then our V.Wís would probably have attempted the job.
So much for the decision of whether to do or not to do. Just before I mention the preparation involved and the trip itself, a brief history of this stock route would be in order. The discovery of gold in the Kalgoorlie region and resultant population increase provided a ready market for Kimberly cattle. In 1896 two expeditions explored the land between these regions. Droving of cattle through the desert was not recommended. However, cattle tick caused a change of plan. The disease carried by this tick resulted in a ban on the shipping of Kimberly cattle. It was then found that overland droving, with its dry conditions killed the tick. A stock route from Halls Creek to Wiluna would provide the answer.
Led by Alfred Canning, surveying and construction of wells began in 1908 and was completed in 1910. The last mob of cattle was brought down in 1958 and its full length was traversed for the first time by vehicle in 1968.
Now back to the Powell brothers. We decided to take the machines we were riding at the time i.e. BMW R80 G/S and BMW R80/7 mitt der 21Ē front wheel and long travel suspension. Preparation began in January 1983 with the construction of 40 litre petrol tanks. Fred contacted a few people who had done the trip in 4WD vehicles. They provided some useful information. A fuel drop taken out by Bill Sheppard from Capricorn Roadhouse to well 23 was organized. After this initial burst of enthusiasm things slackened off a bit.
Then came the big setback. On June the 15th I fell off (or more correctly the bike fell out from under me) and broke my neck. Blew C1 apart. It looked like Iíd be incapacitated for half a year. After about seven weeks of rest and recuperation things started to knit together pretty well. The doctor let me remove my neck brace. Freedom at last!
Taking advantage of the situation I decided to do some work on the BMW. Stuff the expense, no neck brace meant we could ride the stock route. So it was up to Fredís workshop at Jurien and into making new sub frames, jerry can racks and carefull engine preparation. Any worn or suspect components on both bikes were replaced. This was hard work with my immobile neck, but over the weeks it gradually loosened up Ė nothing like a bit of physiotherapy.
Fred was flat out trying to prepare his bike and earn a living at the same time. Such is the life of a mechanic; people kept wanting work done on their cars. Inconsiderate human beings! At least I didnít have kids hanging around craving to be educated. By late Friday both bikes were ready. After tea we loaded them up. Shit, what a sight. Two wheels poked out from under each mountain of gear. It was hard work just to stand the bikes up from their side stands and then wheel them around the garage floor. We were going to ride this lot over a thousand sand dunes? A few doubts drifted through the void of our minds but ended up nowhere.
On Saturday 27/8/83 a couple of overloaded German juggernauts wobbled out of Jurien Bay. Hanging off each non-integral cockpit was a true desperado- A & F Powell, sandgropers with a mission impossible. It rained to Geraldton. We stopped for a couple of hours, dried out and bought some food. Made Minilia at half past nine to camp the night.
Come Sunday we left Minilia and headed to Whim Creek for fuel. The annual bike run was on and raging. Plenty of Harleys and beer but no fuel. One of the blokes spotted our giant 40 litre petrol tanks and said ďI was wondering when the fuel tanker would arriveĒ. We assured him that we were not delivering. The 700 km fuel range got us to Pt.Hedland. Once again our tanks became heavier and out wallets lighter.
The bikes roared slowly ??? (loud, anti-social exhausts) out of town and we headed north for tea at Sandfire Flat roadhouse. It must have been the surprise rendezvous centre as we kept meeting old friends and acquaintances. Eventually we rode out and camped a 100 kís up the highway.
Monday the 29th. Drama! After stopping somewhere before Halls Creek my bike failed to start. Diagnosis- collapsed battery cell. Jumper leads off Fredís bike started the G/S. The battery had enough life left to get me to Halls Creek. Twelve volt bike batteries do not exist in this town, they just pass through or just pass away. In desperation, some after closing hour phone calls revealed a Lucas lurking in Kununurra. We resolved to camp the night at the motel and Frederick would ride to Kununurra on Tuesday and buy the only 12v M/C battery in the Kimberlies. A day lost but still a situation far superior to what may have happened- a collapsed battery halfway down the Canning Stock Route.
Tuesday was a hot, boring day. While Fred blasted to Kununurra on the Lucas run I changed the oil, tuned the bike and put on the big desert duelers- 21íí front Dunlop Supercross and rear 4.50 x 18 IRC Vucanduro knobby. The right hand side lugs had to be trimmed for clearance. Fred arrived back at half past four. While he changed tyres to the desert digger Metzeler variety I fitted the new battery and then mustered the courage to inform the local constabulary of our little trip south.
Well, let me tell you, the human face has an amazing contortional ability. The uniformed gentleman on the other side of the counter felt his face change from officer normal to clown incredible when I answered his question regarding type of vehicle. He mentioned that the armed forces Mercedes Unimog currently stuck at well 42 had run out of fuel. How the hell did we think we were going to do it on motorcycles? So the Carribou that passed over earlier had in fact done a fuel drop!
Anyway, he realized there was no stopping us so I filled out the various next of kin style, in case of death forms and the kindly man mentioned that the relevant authorities would be contacted to search for our bodies if we did not appear in Wiluna after 5 days from expected time of arrival. It was dark by now and we had seen enough of Halls Creek so we rode out 56kís and camped. The epic had begun.

Iíll call this day 1 as the 56 kilometres yesterday are relatively insignificant. Day 1 was spent trying to find a way around Lake Gregory. It is normally quite small but recent rains had swollen it to huge dimensions well and truly covering the stock route. The start of the Tanami Road, the Mt. Mueller Road, Ranger seismic lines and various Balgo Mission roads put us alternatively in the right and wrong directions. The help of local aboriginals, the mechanic at Balgo Mission (who sold us some fuel) and a film producer Malcolm Douglas from Sydney, saw us half way around the lake by nightfall. We lit a fire, cooked tea, and slept in the wheel tracks. It was a hot night but the mosquitoes forced us to stay wrapped up in our sleeping bags. We did about 308 km but still hadnít got back onto the CSR.
In the morning we followed the track on past Staffords Bore until it became submerged below Lake Gregory. There was nothing to do but turn back and try a larger diversion. Heading towards our camp for 4 kilometres revealed Ranger Seismic Line 2, so we rode this until it intersected Seismic Line 8 13kís up. We turned right here and travelled 37kís, some of this over small dunes until the Canning Stock Route appeared. What a great feeling it was to find after such a huge diversion, even then the lake was only two and a half kilometers to the north. We rode out to it where well 50 was still under water. Huge axle deep bog marks indicated that the army Unimog had made it thus far. I reckoned the BMW could go further than a Mercedes so I gave it a run. I bogged the R80 G/S down to the pots but beat the Unimog by a length. We had to unload all the gear to get her out.
Flooded Track

Bogged at Lake Gregory

We Found the CSR

The water here was good so we collected some and had a wash. Pressing the starter buttons the mighty twins burst into life and aiming the front wheels down the stock route we cruised happily away- into the Devilís own country. Initially the going was flat and quite good but this soon degenerated into deep, loose sand causing gross steering problems. Both Fred and I fell over countless times, once I was catapulted into the scrub at 70 kph. This shook my neck up a bit so we had to slow down a little Ė making steering more difficult. We reached a stand of Desert Oaks so we stopped for a rest, taking advantage of the shade they afforded.
Resting at the Oaks

Well 49

After a few minutes we carried on and eventually reached well 49. Using our rope and bucket we extracted water of excellent quality. A wash proved most refreshing and accordingly lifted our enthusiasm to partake of a little more travelling. The track was not bad although we experienced difficulties with trees and overhanging bushes hitting the hands, levers and kill switch. Of course the 4wd crews we interviewed prior to the trip failed to mention this problem and it never entered our minds. After all the country we were crossing is named the Great Sandy Desert. It is densely vegetated relative to the conventional concept of a desert. I taped up the kill switch but bush whacked knuckles and ďbrakes onĒ or ďclutch inĒ situations resulting in unexpected diversions into the surrounding flora continued to plague us for the rest of the trip. The solution- scrub shields a la Yamaha Tenere.

Breadon Hills

Doing Some Repairs

Ninety- eight kilometers from well 50 saw us at the Breadon hills in the vicinity of well 48. A few kilometers diversion lead up a valley to Breadon Pool and Godfrey Tank, the tableland scenery here providing a welcome break to the normal surroundings. Back on the stock route we decided to camp, the sun having set. We rode across approximately 160 km of country plus 20 km extra to recover some lost gear by myself. Note entry in diary- expect to get to well 42 tomorrow, mmm.
DAY 3 FRIDAY 2-9-83
We crawled out of the sleeping bags at dawn but it took a couple of hours to get away. Fredís tank required the Araldite treatment and our racks (supporting gross weight under adverse conditions) needed mending. Itís amazing what you can do with a Swiss Army Knife, pliers, wire and Mulga. Anybody need a trick frame? Contact A & F Powell for your Mulga and wire special. We are working with a genetic engineer to produce the first self healing, organic frame.
I divert. Once mobile we struck the first dune on the stock route proper about 17kmís out. It was only a tiddler, 7 metres high with a direct approach and easy but worth a photo. We move on but 6kmís further Fred scores a flat front tyre. It was mended on the bike in short time ( BMW pots and a Menzel are better pumps than the hand variety provided) and we were on our way. Soon we were into dune country.
View From the First Dune

Fred Scores a Flat

Wave upon wave of sand ridges stretched before us, running in an east/west direction from horizon to horizon. What a familiar sight they were to become. The Bee Emmís cruised up no worries. The biggest problem was caused by the Army Unimog W-I-D-E wheel track creating a ridge between the conventional 4wd tracks.
This made steering difficult especially when clipping trees and or approaching dunes. It wasnít long before it became named something more than just an ordinary Unimog.
About 30 kays from well 45 the dunes gave way to very loose, sandy, undulating country. It went on for about twenty kilometers and could be described as being similar to crossing a very wide, sandy creek bed. It was dotted with small white trunked trees around which the track wound. This section gave us a lot of trouble. The bikes went bush several times and came close to overheating- as did our frayed tempers. The day as per usual was very hot and this combined with the hard work of guiding our reluctant steeds reduced the fun value of this section. It was with much pleasure that we savored the brownish treasures of a part collapsed well 45. The water was good for a wash but not so for drinking, okay for emergency use. We ate some food and rested for a while. I spent the time making a carrying container and a helmet peak for Fred from some discarded containers laying around.
Well 45

Spinifex Flat

Leaving well 45 we cruised back into dune country. The sand ridges were regularly spaced and gradually becoming higher and higher. The approaches were good and although tired we rode them quite well, getting some enjoyment out of cresting these red desert wonders. After the sun buried itself in the dunes we kept our eyes open for a suitable camping spot with some wood. A few dune crossings, but still nothing. Fred wanted to camp (so did I) but I said ďone more dune eh?Ē So we crested the next one and there, hiding behind a bush crouched two blokes hanging their thumbs out. Bloody hitchhikers! They belonged to a 4wd crew who had just set up camp a couple of dunes along and hearing us coming had run out to meet us. What a coincidence, we could easily have camped a kilometer back thereby missing out on the benefits of terry Gilesí expeditionsí hospitality, cooking and copious quantities of cold beer. We had a great evening telling stories and comparing vehicles. The boys couldnít believe out rigs and the size of our loads. Eventually we went to sleep having completed only 127kmís for the day- still 75 kays from well 42.
Terry Giles' 4wd Expedition

We got away at half past seven, nursing headaches and giving the 4wd boys a demo on how to fall off going down the first dune. Some difficulty was experienced as we progressed south. Not lack of power or traction but overhanging bushes bouncing man and machine off the track.
Ready For a Push

The sand ridges were now numerous with the dunes being spaced from 500 to 1000 meters apart. Well 42 appeared around lunch time so we stopped for a feed. The site was collapsed and overflowing with water polluted with bird shit. Thousands of squawking little red beaked finches added interest to the area by roaring in and out of the well from the surrounding bushes. The twilight saw us reach well 41, a total of 133 kmís being covered for the day. The water here was brownish and a dead bird was fished out. Regardless, it proved good for a wash, the factor of expired bodies being disregarded in light of the heat and dirt we constantly wallowed in. a couple of litres was boiled and filtered in case of emergency. Camp here gave me the opportunity to work out a few consumption figures. Drinking water being used at a rate of about two and a half litres a day per person. The daytime heat was consistently around the old century mark so we wouldnít have minded consuming more. The bikes were doing about 13 km per litre.
Well 42

Camp at Well 41

Track Scraper

DAY 5 SUNDAY 4-9-83
A great start. We managed to leave before sunrise. The mandatory dunes stretched out before us. The bikes were going up real well- down is the problem. Weight transfer to the front wheels caused steering problems. This was compounded by the fact that all the gear being carried prevented us from hanging off the machines and moving around. Anyway, about 30 kmís of riding saw us at well 40, the site of Tobinís grave.
Tobin's Grave

Michael Tobin, a member of Canningís 1907 survey party was speared by an aboriginal here. A marble cross sacred to his memory is erected on a nearby sand ridge. Leaving well 40 we rode the 15 kilometres across Tobin Lake. This was a real buzz, itís hard flat surface allowing us to use top gear and hit 80- 100 kph- unreal! On the other side a stop was made to stitch up the bum of Fredís trousers, the units having been ripped by the lids of the Jerry cans. There was not much we could do for the skin of his bum though.
Well 40

Well 39

A polluted well 39 was passed shortly after. Here I put in a Jerry can of fuel. Another 90 kilometres brought us to well 36. It was a jewel, holding brilliant clean water so we each gulped copious quantities of the aqua- vitae. I made up a bath in the remaining cattle trough. It was superb after the previous 20kayís of tough sand dune country. We were both stuffed from fighting ploughing front wheels, falling off and lifting up the bikes but knew distance had to be made so it was back onto the track. It was the same bad sand again so another 6 kiometres up we called it a night- too dark anyway. We had managed 130 kilometres.
Half Way Up Possibly the Biggest Dune

DAY 6 MONDAY 5-9-83
We packed our gear and rode away just after sun up across a couple of dunes then hard flat gravel- a fantastic 20 kilometre section. We passed Everard Junction then 10 kilometres further on the Gary Highway intersection. Once again the CSR had degenerated into bumpy, deep, coarse sand creating the old steering problems again. This kept the speed down to about 50kph but it was punctuated by some good flat 70kph sectons.
Well 33 had no troughs but contained excellent water, even better than 36 so it was replaced by some ďstrained 33Ē (through my T shirt). Three kayís past this well we crossed the Kidson Track, an interesting intersection because of the paraphernalia deposited there i.e. a stop sign, a city street sign reading CANNING ROAD and a complete porcelain toilet bowl. Stuff like this is sure to convince anthropologists of the distant future what a crazy mob the Aussies of the 20th century were.
Well 33

Kidson Track Junction

Eighteen kís further and we reach well 32. This was the only well with original bucket, cable and derrick still operational. Riding on, we had to stop and refuel a few times from the Jerry cans. We entered a semi-dune area with a bumpy track winding through it, once again testing our steering skills. An hour of this and it was time for lunch: oysters and fruit cake plus water. Another 40 kilometres on and it was back into dune country. More hard work, screaming motors and red rooster tails. We reach well 29 to set up camp after completing about 180 kilometres for the day.
Well 32

DAY 7 TUESDAY 6-9-83
Big drama day! Fred and I rode out of well 29 just after sunrise but only 25 kayís further on he runs out of fuel. Itís srill 130 kilometres to the fuel drop at well 23 and one bikeís dry. What do we do? Mental agony is finally suppressed with a decision. Fred will ride my R80/GS to the fuel drop, fill up and then come back: a radical move but the only practical solution.
Camp Site

Before he left we had to mend my extra strength homemade rear sub-frame with the standard Mulga and wire cure. I sat under a Mulga and listened to the diminishing sound of the GS until it became inaudible whilst my mind made about 20 different mental calculations as to how long itíll be before Fred arrives back. My estimates covered a broad variation so I decided to do something in the meantime. Well, just what do you do in the middle of the desert with nothing to do? I made a sundial, went for a walk, collected ten times too much firewood, broke it into neat lengths, rigged up a shelter, combed my hair and cut my nails (I spread that over two hours), cleaned the comb and filmed a lizard. Itís amazing how slow time can go when you donít want it to, especially when there is a degree of worry involved. Come dark I lit a fire, made a damper and then crawled up to sleep.
While I was indulging in these amazing feats of human endurance Fred was out there battling the sand ridges. On the way he found a tin of Emu Export and a packet of rice bubbles (we later devoured these for breakfast). Fred arrived at well 23 about 3 oíclock, siphoned in enough fuel from our drum and headed back. Arriving again at well 26 it was already dark. A rest for 20 minutes was in order before tackling the night section back to my camp.
On the first big dune 3kís out he got stuck two thirds of the way up and had to unload the Jerryís, drag the bike down and have another go. On many other dunes Fred had to push the last 2 metres. These problems occurred because the dark of the night made it hard to anticipate and judge hazards. There were times when the headlights did not indicate that the ascent of a dune had already begun meaning that full throttle was applied too late.
Around 10pm I woke to the distant sound of an engine, itís quite purr rising and falling in time with the dunes. It gradually grew louder and eventually a streak of white light penetrated the camp. Fred was back. What a tremendous achievement, he had doubled our daily average distance in one day. But in reality we had effectively only travelled 25kmís for the day.

Sometimes a Bike Bounces off the Track.

The Scenery Did Vary

The sun is well up and weíre still organizing our loads and repairs. Once moving we cruise over heavy dune country stopping at well 27 with excellent water. The R80/FP is giving steering trouble but we carry on until well 26 is reached. This is an interesting spot, the well having been faithfully restored to its original condition. The shaft was re-timbered, troughing set up and winch equipment fully operational. We spent a while here playing stockmen, operating the equipment and washing ourselves in the cattle troughs. Before leaving, the visitors book was read, our spiel added and BMW club membership cards glued in. The precedent has been set folks!
Well 27

Well 26 Plaque

Water Container as Carried by Canning's Camels

Well 26

Water From Well 26

Well 25

Well 25 Railing

Blasting up a Dune

Well 24

Passing a dry well 25 and well 24 set in a rocky ledge we reached well 23 around 3 to 4 pm. It is in good un-restored condition. It was a good feeling to be here, past the half way mark and completely refilling our bikes from our 200 litre drum. We began to feel like the trip was almost over. Thirty-six kís past this fuel drop we make camp having followed an excellent 80kph track running parallel to new dunes, something we hadnít seen since well 25.
Fuel Drop 1km West of Well 23

200 Litres For Powell

Fred Syphons The Fuel

Well 23

We get away after sunrise. Initially it is very good 50-60 kph going. We cross the first big dune about 30 kís out of camp. Itís just not the CSR without the dunes! This area is covered with nice wildflowers e.g. pine like trees with large orange honeysuckle style flowers. Around well 20 a large stand of princely Desert Oak is entered. They will provide welcome shade and scenery for the next 40 kilometres. Salt pan country is also encountered indicating that Lake Disappointment is nearby. Eventually itís aptly named vast expanse of white nothingness is sighted. Following the edge of the lake and then a salt waterway entering it we cross the boggy Savory Creek and head past well 19.

Spinifex Garden

Saltpan Country

Desert Oaks

Powell Brothers

Well 19

Very soft sand dunes now pose a problem. They are not steep, but complex in formation, unlike the previous clearly defined ridges. We had trouble and had to push a couple of times so it was decided that a reduction in tyre pressure was in order. Half a kilometer after that Fred gets a flat rear. What a pain. You can guess why it happened. After the repair job we carry on. Itís really tough going and weíre having bulk trouble- the bike tracks not matching the torturous CSR marks to well. More than once a Bee Emm was seen to go charging up a dune only to veer sharply at 90 degrees and end up bouncing through the Spinifex clumps and through bushes. Several times the bikes pulled super quick 180ís halfway up a dune to come charging back down at full revs- so much for throttle steering.
Late in the afternoon we roll into Durba Springs. It is a magic spot, your classic desert oasis- consisting of a tapering gorge cut into the sides of the hills. Between the cliffs is a beautifully grassed flat dotted with tall Eucalyptus trees. At the base of the western face a large crystal clear pool of fresh water is surrounded by trees: words fail to describe the charm of this place. Camped there with his Range Rover was a bloke by the name of Jim Fax with his mate and their families. Apparently he had met Harry and Claw the year before on the Talawana Road. After a jaw session and some tucker we crashed out.

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