GEM OF WISDOM: THE CANNING STOCK ROUTE
Alexander Forest’s 1879 expedition to the Kimberley discovered vast tracts of excellent pastoral land. The West Kimberley was settled from access to the west. The East Kimberley was settled from Queensland and NSW, with herds of different cattle in the thousands coming from the east coast. Shipping to Perth from Wyndham was expanded to meet the needs of a 5-fold population explosion in WA from 29000 in 1880 to 161500 by 1901, created by “Gold Fever” from Halls Creek to Kalgoorlie.
By the early 1900’s, movement of cattle from east Kimberley and NT to Wyndham was banned due to an outbreak of cattle tick, so the cattlemen were facing ruin unless they could market some cattle in WA. Several cross country routes to ports south of the tick exclusion zone were tried without much success. Finally, under pressure from the cattlemen, a Government expedition across four deserts was agreed to. These are Little Sandy Desert, Great Sandy Desert, Gibson Desert, and Tanami desert.
Alfred Canning, an inspecting surveyor with the WA Department of Lands was chosen to lead an expedition into the feasibility of a stock route from Halls Creek to Wiluna. He was the obvious and ideal choice as he had recently led the successful 4 year survey of the 1900km long rabbit proof fence from Esperance to Cape Keraudren.
He assembled a team of 8 men – 2 drilling/ boring experts, 2 camelmen, himself as leader, Hugh Trotman as his trusted assistant, a general hand, and a cook. To carry the provisions, equipment, water drums, boring plant etc, he determined he would need 22 camels and equipment for them, and 2 horses with saddles. All up including salaries for the men…..Pounds 3495!
Rations per man per week were 10lb flour, 10lb meat, 2lb sugar, 1/4 lb tea. It was anticipated killing wild animals would provide some supplement.
Canning and his crew left Wiluna on May 29, 1906, with the charter to survey and document a stock route to Billuna, some 1860km north east on the Tanami Desert track – SHOW ON MAP. The remaining 190 km to Hall’s Creek was already established. The track had to be capable of supplying sufficient feed and water to support a herd of 800 cattle. Water supplies were deemed to be necessary ideally no more than 30km apart, the distance it was expected cattle could travel daily. The route had to avoid “poison bush”
They arrived in Hall’s Creek on October 29. He blazed 31 trees on the upward and return journey, marking significant features for the future. He ascertained that 51 wells would need to be sunk to supplement several permanent water soaks. Later this became 54 wells. He used aboriginals he “conscripted” on the way to help find promising water sources, but never took them beyond their “traditional lands”. Surveying a satisfactory route was made more difficult by the need to find satisfactory feed as well as water. Some 1000 substantial sand dunes to cross was also a factor in route selection. The party met some resistance from local aboriginal tribes and his most trusted borer, Michael Tobin was killed (speared) in one altercation.
The party stayed on Flora Valley Station south of Hall’s Creek to let the Summer/ Wet season pass, and set off, re-supplied, on the return journey on Feb 18, 1907. This time, they herded 20 wether goats for fresh meat, and this proved most successful. They mainly returned via the same track they had created, but the wet season had transformed the parched desert into luxuriant grass and herbage. Route changes were made where summer water courses had changed the navigable landscape. More experimental bores were sunk to ensure all 51 wells were identified, surveyed, marked and logged. Again the local aboriginals were very useful in identifying existing and possible new water sources.
The party reached Wiluna on July 1, 1907.
In his comprehensive report soon after, Canning concluded the mission a success, and detailed plans showing a compass traverse of the route and well co-ordinates.
He concluded in typical Canning style – “I have the honour to be, sir, your obedient servant, A W Canning.
- THEN WHAT – 1908
Canning had returned in triumph to wide praise and adulation from the Premier, all members of Parliament, the Civil Service, and the public.
All but Edward Blake, the cook on the expedition, who was concerned about what he perceived to be ill treatment of aborigines. He pursued the issue with high ranking Civil Servants, relevant Members of Parliament, and a broad based attack in the press.
Eventually, on Nov 15, the Minister for Lands asked for Canning’s comments. Canning responded that the claims were “nonsense”, and because Blake “had little experience with natives”, his perceptions of certain events were wrong. There had been no mistreatment of person or property.
However, Blake’s allegations were quickly picked up by all newspapers, and with pressure building and opinion divided, the Government instituted a “Royal Commission to inquire into the treatment of natives by the Canning Exploration Party”.
The drawn out process of charges and witnesses and cross-examination exonerated Canning and his expedition party of all charges, but the recrimination continued in the press and public domain. The Government allowed the turmoil to subside but still planned for the Canning Well construction Party to proceed.
- WELL CONSTRUCTION, 1908 – 1910
Canning left Wiluna on March 28, 1908 disappointed with the accusations and antagonistic towards the press for not publishing his refutations of the accusations, but determined to accomplish the project aims.
This was a massive undertaking, but with experience from the original exploration expedition, he left well prepared.
“The 73 camels bulged with gear, 23 men plodded out, and Nipper controlled a herd of 500 goats for fresh meat.” This trip, they had to carry heavy boring gear, and well construction material including bracing, windlasses, buckets, and troughing for all the wells, to enable all the cattle to be watered in good time. Routine was soon established with the well construction team at a well site while the bulk of the party moved to the next to do preliminary work and source suitable timber for well supports and gantry, thus “leap-frogging” each other.
After 31 wells were completed, supplies were exhausted, as were the men, so on July 28, 1909, Canning reported his position and distributed his remaining material up the route before escaping to Halls Creek to rest, recuperate and prepare his return after the Summer/ wet season to complete the remaining wells.
In Feb 1910, the Construction Party set south to complete the remaining wells, with 50 bullocks and 150 goats as auxiliary food supplies. Progress was swift to complete the outstanding wells, but then hampered by damage to the earlier wells by the natives. The team finally arrived back in Wiluna on March 12, 1910, and promptly cabled The Secretary for Mines” in his inimitable style – “WORK COMPLETED – CANNING”
A substantial report followed, giving the depth to water, the storage at the well, and the flow rate at each well, together with cattle feed available at and nearby to the well. He also described the journey between each well and the terrain nearby. He estimated the droving journey with a full herd would take around 2 months.
- WHAT THEN
- Only 8 herds were driven between 1911 and 1931, mainly due to destruction of well infrastructure by the aboriginals and lack of maintenance. There was also a fear of the natives, who killed 2 drovers on the first drive in 1911, and another geological explorer later.
- William Snell led a “Re-construction Party” in 1929, and added 3 further wells just out from Wiluna. Snell was a bushman/ cattleman, and his work was slow and “rough”. The party returned to Wiluna well short of the planned refurbishment. During the layover period, his work was inspected and found so inept that Canning was recalled to re-do and complete the task in 1930. Spasmodic droving resumed, but limited to 600 head.
- Major maintenance and reconstruction was done after the bombing of Darwin in WW2, as the CSR was seen as an escape route for people and cattle to the south, should the Japanese invade.
- Last of 30 droving crossings was in 1959, by which time road transport was well established.
- WHAT NOW
- The CSR is considered to be the most challenging and remote 4wd adventures of its type in the world
- Around 300 vehicles attempt it each year. It is mainly over the highest level native title land (right to exclusive possession), and pastoral lease land, so several permits are required and strict protocols must be adhered to.
- Most of the culturally significant aboriginal sites near the stock route have now been closed to public access, due to the impact of a few idiotic travellers.
- Self-sufficiency is a must as there is no routine “recovery” available on the CSR
- Denise and I, with close friends Val and David Edwards are leaving Melbourne on May 20, to be in Wiluna June 5 for our adventure, crossing the Canning Stock Route. We are experienced and well prepared, adventurous but not fool-hardy. We plan to take 3 weeks on the CSR, but are prepared for the unforseen, and provisioned to cope. We are excited but take on this adventure with some trepidation.