Could Len’s northernmost road be his best?
Len Beadell and the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party (GRCP) have carved their way through outback Australia, and don’t we love them for it? They opened up extremely remote sections, initially for missile testing, but more importantly, for us to be able to build up our 4WDs as tourers and tackle some amazing country.
Namatjira Drive would have to be one of the world’s most spectacular. The colours, ragged ridges and towering ranges – a photographer’s paradise. Mount Sonder’s jagged peaks dominate the skyline past Glen Helen Lodge, the cheapest fuel stop.
The Papunya Road leads you past Haasts Bluff and the stunning Bell Range, and once you reach the T-junction you’re on the Gary Junction Road, heading west into the wild blue yonder. I lost my way in Papunya and I am sure the locals were having a laugh as I kept on driving back and forth. I eventually found the right road, albeit not signposted.
I ran into some Telstra techs with fuel issues, but they had it under control. They told me that they’re running cables to Mount Liebig and then onto Kintore (Walungurru). Once complete, the towers will rise, opening up the outback even more.
Closing in on Mount Liebig, the Amunurunga Range explodes from the plain like a wave. Its geometrical shapes like the side of a pound reaching high into the sky. Between Papunya and here, the road changes from burnt orange sand and clay base to a gravel base. The sandy sections have the corrugations; the gravel sections have savage stones crying out to take a chunk out of a sidewall. Thankfully my Kumho MT51s were more than up to the task.
Stopping for lunch by a long dry waterhole, there wasn’t much shade about. I had my shadow awning up within 20 seconds and enjoyed lunch in the shade and away from the flies. It would make a good campsite; however, camping is not permitted between Papunya and Kintore unless it is an emergency, or the camp is within 50 metres of the centre of the road. Also, fires are not permitted to be lit on Aboriginal land.
There is a good stretch of soft sand once through the Ehrenberg Range as the sand dunes flank both sides. The repeater tower signifies 70km to Sandy Blight Junction and nearby a small patch of desert oak tells me I’m in the Red Centre.
A chilled desert wind hit during the night, dropping the temperature quickly. The shadow awning was too noisy for me, so I crawled out of the swag and packed it up – so easy to do in the dark.
This got me thinking – colloquially, we say things are ‘dropping like flies’, but what if it is the flies that are dropping? The cold night wiped out a million of the buggers, but there are several million more to take up the slack.
Eventually, I reached the Len Beadell marker for the Northern Territory/Western Australia border, and my short time in the NT was over. There is a good campsite on the western side of Buck Hills with the turnoff just atop the crest. It is a good distance from the road and well hidden.
Len and the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party built the Gary Junction Road in two stages, from August to September 1960, and October to November 1960. It was named after Len’s only son, Gary. Work was interrupted when the grader broke down and the ration truck caught fire and was destroyed. The grader had to be towed back to Giles behind the bulldozer, via the Sandy Blight Road.
As Len told it, “Quinny stopped my Rover and bellowed ‘this is absolutely terrible’ – the great caravan he was pulling had disappeared! Suddenly we observed a black cloud of smoke about 6km away and a plume of dust from a vehicle coming towards us. We thought, here comes Scotty to tell us a stray caravan was lying dormant back up the road. However, Scotty yelled from somewhere in the miniature dust storm ‘the ration truck’s gorn!’ The black smoke was coming from our harmless truck full of food supplies! We drove back to the exploding tins of stew and tomato sauce. The big tyres were spouting globules of molten rubber and a tin of pea soup splattered me. Doug and Rex could only save one of the wheels. The 14,000-litre water tank behind the cabin was boiling so I shot a hole through the tank side and with tea leaves from the wreck, made a cup of tea.”
The community of Kiwirrkurra operates on Northern Territory time, important to note for the fuel window. It is also good to know that the Roadhouse is closed Wednesday and Saturday afternoons and all-day Sunday, something I remembered as I rolled into town to find the place shut down. You can phone and see if the owner will be kind enough to reopen for fuel purchases, but expect a callout fee and to pay cash only. Thankfully my fuel economy was going well, so I would be able to make it to Kunawarritji on the Canning Stock Route easily. I had some difficulty finding Len’s restored ration truck, but find it I did, the rust blending in with the orange soil.
Once over the last dune of the visually splendid Pollock Hills, the road widened and improved. Recent grading work was evident, with a road crew set up near Top Up Rise. The dune section is a load of fun; the single lane through the deeper sections rocking you from side to side like the scenic railway at Luna Park. A Len Beadell marker can be found attached to a desert oak 18km east of Jupiter Well. The area is heavily populated with this beautiful tree, and in the late afternoon light, the sun shone golden on the spinifex under the oaks – just magical.
I arrived at Jupiter Well as the sun dipped, the change in time zones making things appear different. I’d just finished setting up camp when my satellite phone rang; my daily hook-up with my wife. The good thing about my Thuraya Hot Spot is that I can talk to Roxy as though I’m talking normally on a mobile phone and because she calls me, it costs the same as a mobile-to-mobile call. I pay $15 per month to Optus and I can put my plan on hold at any time without being charged to reconnect again and my existing phone number doesn’t change. I have yet to have a failed call or no satellite signal over the past 18 months.
There were a few other campers set up under the desert oaks and once I’d finished cooking up a large batch of paella, enjoying a large helping too, I headed over to the largest and loudest group. Bird watchers, the lot of them.
Who’d have thought they would be so loud? The group were from Tasmania and out enjoying retirement, having been partners in a Hobart map shop recently sold. A bull camel was grumbling in the background; he was frustrated that so many people were occupying his watering point.
The rising sun stirred me from my slumber, at 6am! I packed up camp quickly as I wanted to get away before the others – I detest following dust. The water from Jupiter Well was extremely drinkable and had a normal tap ending on it, making it easy to fill water containers and tanks.
From Jupiter Well, the Gary Junction Road is like a highway, ironic for Len, I guess. You see, he named his tracks highways but the one he named a road has had a load of work done to it. I wonder what Len would think of the Gary Junction Road now?
WHERE: Central Australia to the remote East Pilbara in Western Australia.
SUPPLIES & FACILITIES: Fuel is available at Glen Helen Lodge, Papunya, Kintore, Kiwirrkurra and Kunawarritji. The opening times and payment types can vary so it is best to contact the communities before you get there. Carry enough cash to cover your fuel purchases just in case. Supplies are available at Alice Springs and limited at the communities.
CAMPING: The Central Land Council permit expects that you will cover the distance to Kintore and beyond from Namatjira Drive in a day (323km), as camping is not permitted. Beyond Kintore and on to Kunawarritji there are bush campsites to be found. Jupiter Well is a nominated campground. Just be aware that just because a campsite exists on WikiCamps, doesn’t make it a legal campsite.
BEST TIME: Milder months from May to September.
TRIP STANDARD: Suitable for any vehicle with high clearance and tyres that are rated LT. Recent grading works have improved the condition of the road, especially on the Western Australian side. A number of people use this road to access the Pilbara region of Western Australia, as well as the Canning Stock Route.
PERMITS: You will require two permits to traverse the Gary Junction Road. You can get the NT permit from the Central Land Council and the WA permit from the Ngaanyatjarra Land Council.
- Central Land Council: https://www.clc.org.au/index.php?/articles/info/visiting-aboriginal-land
- Ngaanyatjarra Land Council: https://permits.daa.wa.gov.au/travelpermits/