Thursday 20 September –We were packed and ready with the car and camper trailer loaded by the time John and Julie swung through Dowerin to start our big trip across the Great Central Road. We were on the road by 10:30 and lunched in Merredin before pushing on towards Coolgardie. We made a wonderful first night camp at Lake Douglas, a pretty little reservoir off the road between Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. A roaring fire held off the cool of the evening and Christine’s slow cooked lamb done in the thermal cooker satisfied the bellies, along with a few beers and wines of course.
Friday 21 September – Kalgoorlie was meant to be by-passed but in the end we did go in to find a Super Cheap Auto store so John could buy a UHF radio. He had bought a hand-held but it was playing up so a new dash unit was in order. From there it was on to Menzies. For us, it was the first time north of Broad Arrow. The woodlands north of Kalgoorlie are some of the most beautiful anywhere, with gimlets and salmon gums creating a stunning area to drive through. The woodlands form part of the World’s largest surviving Mediterranean climate woodland.
Menzies was quiet, tiny and impeccably clean. The town was started in 1895 but a mere 10 years later, most miners had left. A beautiful stone town hall had been built in 1896 and a clock ordered in 1905 but the ship carrying it from England sank and the building remained clockless until 2000. Today, Menzies seems to be little more than a rest stop for the miners working around the district. A lot of people come to see the sculptures on nearby Lake Ballard (we didn’t go this time) or to have a coffee and cake at the cafe (which we did do this time).
From Menzies we headed out to a stop at Niagara Dam, built in 1896-7 for the railway as it pushed north to Leonora. It had a bit of water in it and made for a picturesque camping spot. We marveled at the history of the construction. The need for a water supply was identified in the WA Parliament with working starting 6 months later and the dam completed a further 9 months on. That’s a bit faster than the wheels of government turn these days. Another classic sight was the number plate collection adorning the roadhouse. They came from every corner of the planet and must have taken years to collect. Now, the roadhouse is unattended and the building locked behind a secure fence.
Next stop was the ghost town of Kookynie, served by a single pub that has survived the years. The pub was once one of four, all on a corner of the same crossroads. We had a cooling beer and inspected all the historical mementos decorating the walls. A few other groups of travellers had the same idea so there was a merry atmosphere. Willy, the local horse, obviously wanted to join in the fun and stood patiently at the front door waiting to be let in. He would peer through the windows on occasions. Apparently the proprietor would make up a meal of carrots for him and it was about time for a snack. We headed out to the cars to make our own lunch but Willy decided to join us and things got difficult, until he finally heard his own carrots being prepared and trotted off to the rear of the pub.
From Kookynie, 140kms of good dirt road took us to Malcolm, a rail shunting area about 30kms out of Leonora. Here another railway dam had been built, in packed earth this time rather than the concrete of Niagara. There was a good body of water present and lots of water birds. We set up camp right on the earth wall and relaxed in front of a very restful watery landscape. A flock of four pelican made a beautiful landing in front of us and a few darts fished for some unknown species of fish. Another camper had a go with some yabby nets but apparently the yabbies of yesteryear had all been eaten when carp and perch were somehow introduced.
Chicken Frajitas (John and Julie) maintained the standard of cuisine we had set for ourselves.
Saturday 22 September – We decided to drive in to Leonora for a quick look before heading Laverton. Just as we neared the end of the gravel road out of the dam, a loud crack signaled the end of our back window in the car. A stone coming off the camper had shattered it. Fortunately, the window was fitted with a special UV film which held everything together and it really looked as though it would hold up for the trip across the Great Central Road. In Leonora, we bought some heavy duty duct tape and strengthened the bond on the outside. In hindsight, we should have covered the window with cardboard, as many others do. This is our second shattered rear window so we seem to be slow on the uptake.
Leonora is currently going through one of its periods of decline. The bustle of 2000 people a decade or so ago has dwindled to around 500 and the main street is full of boarded up shops. As with Menzies, everything is very neat and clean (apart from a layer of red dust). No doubt some new mining fad will see the people return.
We reached Laverton before lunch and set up camp in the caravan park to get ready for the Eagles- Melbourne Preliminary Final. The local pub, called the Desert Inn, had a great sports bar with big screen TV and we had front spot. I expected a larger crowd but there were only a few in the end to see the Eagles demolish the Ds. There was another group out the back in the beer garden that got noisier as the game progressed and a big guy rolled into the Sports Bar and let rip with a very loud “Go the Eagles!” He then proceeded to tell everyone that he could shout as much as he liked because he owned the pub. Julie was very quick off the marked and replied, “Good, you can shout us a drink then.” So we all got a round of drinks on the house. No one else seemed so lucky. The free round was probably the tipping point and we all staggered home mindful that public drunkenness in Laverton is probably not tolerated.
After the squid rings and wedges consumed during the footy we settled for a few nibbles for dinner.
Sunday 23 September – With everything packed tight, fuel containers full and tyre pressures down, we set forth on the start of the Great Central Road. Some people call this the “Gunbarrel” but that actually refers to another abandoned track further north. A few 4WD die hards use it but travelling on it is generally discouraged. The Great Central Road traverses the mostly aboriginal lands between Laverton and Uluru, a distance of 1,126km, largely unsealed but formed to a reasonable standard. The road passes through a number of Aboriginal communities where fuel and basic supplies can be bought. Two permits must be obtained and carried to traverse Aboriginal Lands, one for the WA part and one for the NT section. Both were obtained on-line and were free.
The road was in excellent condition,n at first with few signs of the promised heavy corrugations and bulldust sections. We kept the speed right down anyway to avoid damage to the rigs and stopped at regular intervals to check for things coming adrift. There was little to see, just endless plains of savannah land, mulga scrub and a scattering of trees. Even wildlife was scarce, with a few camel herds providing amusement. They do not appear the least bit afraid of humans and at one stage we caught up with John and Julie to find them stopped and completely surrounded by curious camels.
The most common sight was dead cars, mostly sedans with the odd 4WD thrown in. I was sorry that I didn’t start to count them out of Laverton because there were literally hundreds. All were burnt out and many lay upside down. A decent truck with a portable crusher and a crane could make good money out here.
We stopped at a little roadhouse called Tjukayiria to pay $2.26 a litre for fuel. The long bearded fellow there told us to be mindful of the fact that Warakurna (Giles) was closing at noon the next day for the Queen’s Birthday holiday and that they operated on NT time, making them close at 10:30am WA time. A few calculations told us that there was no way we would make it in time so we resolved to camp early, about 70kms out of Warburton and to make sure we could get between there and Docker River the next day. We found a secluded camp off the road and lit a roaring fire. The nights have been surprisingly mild. We were kitted out for some real cold stuff but some nights we managed to sit out in shorts and T-shirt.
Christine’s excellent spaghetti bolognaise capped off a great day.
Monday 24 September – After the usual pack up and breakfast, it was on towards Warburton. Not far out we spied what we thought was two bustards (bush turkeys), standing in the middle of the road. As we drew closer, I realised that rather than bustards with short legs, they were in fact black swans. They stared at our approach before taking to the sky. A short way on we crossed the Warburton River, a mere puddle, which explained why the swans preferred to stand on the road.
Warburton was a bit of an eye-opener. A heavily fortified compound served as a camp ground. Vehicles with smashed windscreens and lots of broken bits were in abundance. One battered 4WD with a full length roof rack had a huge red kangaroo on top. Whether it died from gunshot wounds, a spear or a semi trailer is not known but it was surely destined for the camp fire.
After Warbuton, the road deteriorated, with some 4 to 5km stretches of real bone shaking corrugations. The land was still pretty much flat and uninteresting for much of the way and the wildlife remained scarce.
We passed through Warakurna which, as predicted, was closed for the holiday and pushed on towards Docker River. After Warakurna, a few interesting landforms started to appear and a range of mountains in the distance gave us a focus. We made camp at the “Behind the Range” campsite, complete with amazing views of Gill Pinnacle and the surrounding ranges, brilliantly lit up as the sun set. A good bush fire was lit and Christine prepared a wonderful meal of Lamb Boulangere (chops, onion, leek, cabbage and potato) in the camp oven. It was another top meal. We have not let isolation beat out culinary needs.
Tuesday 25 September – The last leg of the GCR was ahead of us. The WA/NT border was only 20kms or so further on from the night camp. From reports down the road, we expected the road to deteriorate greatly on the NT side but were pleasantly surprised to find some roadworks on the go and a good stretch of freshly graded surface all the way into the Aboriginal Community of Docker River. John needed fuel but I calculated I could avoid the $2.45/L and make it to Yalara. We had to hang around and wait for the store to open at 10am but were soon on our way east following beside the Petermann Ranges.
We took a brief stop to look at Lasseter’s Cave, where Lasseter spent some four weeks or so after his camels bolted. He was helped by Aboriginals but died while attempting to walk the 140km to the Olgas.
As we head east, the groves of Desert Oaks become more prominent. The Desert Oak is a member of the casaurina family and not a true oak. They are a very majestic tree and provide a lot of much needed shade in a very arid environment.
The road did start to break up a bit and the corrugations deepen but overall, the surface was better than expected. The GCR emerges at the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) and the long awaited bitumen commences around the time the famed formation comes in view. From far to the west, the site of the Olgas is really amazing, probably the best aspect of all, and one that we had not seen when here previously. Still, it was with a huge sense of relief that we left the dust and corrugations behind and wound around the Olgas, past Uluru and on to the Yalara campground.
The GCR is one of those trips that just begs to be ticked off but in truth it does not have a lot going for it other than saving a lot of kilometres. It is mostly a long stretch of poor quality road with few attractions and a high chance of damage to vehicles. As a 4WD adventure it is not really very challenging other than bolting on all the bits that fall off the vehicles. Would we do it again? Probably not but then it has been ticked off the list.