Surviving the Tanami… Just! The detour that almost cost us
When planning your Tanami crossing – preparation is key.
Our enthusiasm for crossing the Tanami Desert wasn’t always mirrored by family, friends and fellow travellers.
“Really? You want to cross the Tanami Desert with young kids? What will you do if something goes wrong? What if one of the boys is bitten by a snake? What if you run out of fuel? You’re not going to stop at Wolfe Creek? You’ve seen the movie, right?”
Those who had done the crossing sang from a different song sheet altogether. Their comments included: “You’ll love it!” “I’m jealous.” “We camped at this great little spot near the mines – you should stay there.” “Download the geocaches and find them along the way.”
We were well prepared with EPIRB, satellite phone, well-stocked first aid kit, spare tyres, plenty of tools and parts, heaps of water and food, and (of course) an extra fuel jerry can. Problem was, we forgot to fill it.
And, with the Tanami Track extending just over 1,000 kilometres between the Northern Territory’s Alice Springs and Halls Creek in Western Australia, it was an oversight that almost cost us.
But let’s start at the beginning.Turning onto the Tanami Track just north of Alice Springs with a full fuel tank, our scenic bitumen drive following the West MacDonnell Ranges was an easy start to the journey. There were plenty of indicators that we were entering remote territory though – hard-to-miss big red fuel and road warning signs, blown tyres, broken down cars and roadkill. We covered just 160 kilometres before pulling into the first night’s camp and our first refueling spot at Tillmouth Well. It’s a delightful place – an oasis of green thanks to a well-used irrigation system, chirping galahs, fire pits and free Wi-Fi at the shop… and all set on the sandy banks of the dry Napperby Creek.
Before hitting the road the next day we searched for an elusive geocache adjacent to the fuel pumps. There’s another a short distance away so we continued along the bitumen before getting out to ‘bush bash’ again in futile search of hidden treasure. Our efforts were rewarded when we scaled some rocks to find an impressive view from below the rock face.
Continuing our journey, there was a turnoff to the Aboriginal community ‘Yuelama’ just before the bitumen ended. We took this 60-kilometre round trip detour to seek out an Aboriginal art gallery and we were greeted with long stares. Suspecting we were in the wrong place, we asked a local for directions. After a long pause we were informed it’s at the community a little further up the road: ‘Yuendumu’. Easy mix-up, right?
Back on the Tanami, we soon arrived at Yuendumu with its menagerie of dogs at the Warlukurlangu Art Gallery. A human welcomed us and said, “Feel free to go through all the art, touch it and find what you like.” Local artists were busily crafting their paintings outside to add to what appears to be an artwork oversupply. Inside the gallery, staff were busily packing orders for Sydney and Melbourne. Artists are well remunerated for their handiwork – being paid 50% of the selling price. After browsing the paintings we grabbed a quick bite where we were joined by what seemed like the whole town’s dog population that must have sniffed out the fresh ham.
About 100 kilometres later as we were rattling over corrugations it suddenly dawned on us – we had forgotten to refuel! Our next fuel stop (according to road signage) would be Halls Creek, 640 kilometres away. Using the Hema Maps phone application (it cost 30 bucks and it’s worth every cent), we worked out distances and searched with bated breath for a fuel stop before Halls Creek. BINGO! Fuel is available at the Aboriginal Community of Billiluna in Western Australia. Just in case the road signage was correct, we dropped the revs and reduced speed to help conserve our remaining fuel.
We became easily distracted from our fuel concerns by the sights on the big screen outside. Huge wedge-tailed eagles sat feasting on a recent road casualty, seemingly oblivious to the approaching vehicle. The crows sought refuge in nearby gums, but the eagles grandly lorded over their prize until the very last minute – swooping skywards and giving us a private birds of prey show you would pay good money for in the cities.
We stopped at a roadkill feast to grab a few photos… but with an eagle circling above, I made haste to the cabin of our 4WD. They really are majestic birds and I am both awestruck and afraid.
On dusk we pulled into Rusty’s Rest. Wiki Camps allowed us to find this site opposite the granite mine and just south of the old Rabbit Flats fuel stop which closed in 2011.
While the corrugations continued, termite mounds increasingly dotted the landscape. Some were tall and grandly reminiscent of Litchfield National Park, and others were much smaller. Predictably we stopped at the border for photos and stayed a while to watch a road train rattle by before hiding behind the fourby to avoid the billowing dust. That was pretty much the last of the ‘good’ dirt road before we bumped, bounced and bounded along the track until we hit bitumen at the Great Northern Highway.
The fuel gauge slipped closer to empty as we calculated distances and discussed contingencies if Billiluna had no fuel. But we were in luck. We just had to wait an hour for the shop to re-open after lunch, before paying the hefty price of $2.60 per litre for diesel.
We tripped further north to the infamous Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater (the setting of Australian horror movie ‘Wolf Creek’). As we pulled into the campsite at the foot of the crater, my husband fist-pumped the air when he spied other campers. “Safety in numbers,” he said with all seriousness.
The crater itself is massive – the second-largest in the world – and is approximately 815 metres in diameter and 20 metres deep. We walked the short distance to the crater rim to marvel at its enormity while watching a glorious sunset. The next morning we wandered inside the crater and finally find our trip’s very first geocache.
The final leg of our Tanami crossing was just 160 kilometres – but there was an unexpected stop along the way. A couple of Swiss backpackers had blown a tyre on their hired 4WD and they flagged us down for help. Their jack just wasn’t up to the job, so we assisted them with our high-lift jack and had them gratefully on the road again in next to no time.
Soon after, we finally met the blacktop and cheered our survival on this notoriously hostile road. There were a few casualties: The door latch and drawbar water tap on our camper trailer snapped; and its independent electronic brakes were cut. The one warning we would stress to other would-be Tanami travellers? Make sure you have plenty of fuel!
The Tanami Track links Alice Springs in the Northern Territory with Halls Creek in Western Australia and is an ideal shortcut for those not averse to dirt to go up into the Kimberley or down into Central Australia.
Look – it’s the desert; so expect hot and arid conditions, and cool evenings during the winter months. However, the Tanami Track is often impassable during the summer months anyway due to flooding. Be sure to check road conditions before heading off.
There are plenty of unmarked camping spots along the way. Check Wiki Camps for specifics. The visitor information centres in Alice Springs and Halls Creek say that you can camp anywhere along the road and recommend giving at least a 10-metre buffer between you and the road – and you will want this, with plenty of road trains barreling past in the middle of the night. There are two paid camping options at Tilmouth Well near Alice Springs and Wolfe Creek Meteorite Conservation Park near Halls Creek.
The Tanami is an easy 4WD route. High clearance isn’t required and there aren’t many challenging sections. However, it is remote and preparation is key – make sure you are equipped with communication devices to get help, plenty of fuel, food and water, a well-stocked first aid kit, and at least a couple of spare tyres. If you do break down, you may need to double check towing costs as it could be cheaper to get a tow from Alice Springs rather than Halls Creek (even when you are closer to the latter).
Fuel and mobile
Fuel is available from Tilmouth Well Roadhouse and Billiluna Community. Carry an extra (full) fuel jerry can just in case. Surprisingly there was mobile coverage at various points along the road – mostly near the mines and communities.
Tilmouth Well Road House
Warlukurlangu Art Gallery
Wolfe Creek Crater
Halls Creek Visitor Information Centre
Alice Springs Visitor Information Centre