Retracing the Canning Stock Route and Other Early Explorers' Routes in Central Western Australia






The most noted Australian explorers were often the most foolhardy, Leichhardt, Burke and Wills lost their lives as a result of bad planning or leadership and because of this they have gained a place in Australian history books and a reasonable number of people have heard of them.


But how many people know the name A. W. Canning?


In 1906, this man was commissioned to carry out a reconnaissance survey between Wiluna and Halls Creek in Western Australia for the purpose of locating a well watered stock route between the two towns. Few had travelled this region. Forrest, Giles and Wells had crossed the southern section and Warburton and Carnegie the north, and it was up to Canning to fill in the gaps. This he did admirably and a few years later the actual stock route was constructed. During its life, the route was used some 20-30 times but since the reconditioning in 1933, it has gradually fallen into disrepair until the last known mob of cattle was taken down in 1959.


This story describes a holiday journey in two four-wheel drive vehicles along this stock route and the retracing of some of the early surveying and exploring associated with the area.


As the journey was a private venture the main problem was that of fuel. Experience had shown that four-wheel drive vehicles, operating under adverse sand-ridge conditions, returned about 6 mpg. Map distance along the route scaled approximately 1,000 miles; therefore planning had to allow for a speedometer distance well in excess of this figure, so about 200 gallons per vehicle would be needed, in order to allow a fair safety margin.


A quick trip from Canberra to Halls Creek via Alice Springs and Tanami enabled one drum to be taken 200 miles down the stock route to Well No. 48.


With the co-operation of the native welfare officers from Woomera, some more fuel was deposited at Well No. 35 approximately half way along the route. Another drum was taken out to Well No. 24 via Balfour Downs and then the journey itself commenced from Wiluna in July, 1968.


The party consisted of myself, fellow surveyor R. Wenholz from Queanbeyan, N.S.W., and N. Kealley from Perth, W.A., a man sufficient­ly interested in the desert to take his long service leave for the trip.


Vehicles used were short wheel base Landrovers with 7.50 x 16 highway tread tyres and extra fuel and water tanks, a two-way radio was hired from Perth and the Royal Flying Doctor base at Port Hedland used to cover any emergencies.


Food was selected with consideration for weight, staple diet being salted meat and damper, thereby reducing weighty tinned stuffs.

A Wild T2 theodolite was included for astro fixes, more from the hobby point of view than anything else.


A brief history of the Canning Stock Route


About 1905-06 east Kimberley pastoralists were clamouring for a market for their tick infested stock. The cattle tick was brought to Australia from Java in 1872 by water buffaloes and soon spread to plague proportions. Shipment of cattle from Derby was denied these pastoralists and, with Wyndham their only outlet, they approached the State Government to construct a stock route from the Kimberlies to Wiluna to gain the potential market in the southern gold fields. It was claimed that the tick thrived in wet humid conditions and hence would drop off the cattle and perish whilst they travelled through the dry desert country of the stock route.


Alfred Wernham Canning, a surveyor in the W.A. Department of Lands and Survey, was asked to lead an exploring party to examine the possibilities of such a stock route. Even to-day, few people can appreciate the magnitude of the task that confronted this man. Reports from earlier exploring parties indicated that water was almost unobtainable and vast areas of sand-ridge desert would have to be crossed.


Colonel Warburton and party set out in 1876 from Alice Springs to reach the N.W. coast and having got into a desert of sand ridges, travelled through these in a westerly direction for nearly 700 miles. Intense heat, lack of water and heavy travelling in the sand caused delays and the party eventually struggled to the De Grey River, in poor condition and surviving on dried camel meat only. The Colonel himself completed the journey strapped to the back of his camel and never regained complete health as a result of these privations.


In 1896, the Calvert Expedition left Wiluna to explore country between the southern mining areas and the Fitzroy River. Sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society and Albert F. Calvert, a wealthy Englishman, the party was led by surveyor L. A. Wells.


They too suffered hardship and anxieties and two members of the party perished when a pre-arranged rendezvous point could not be located.


Canning's proposed route lay square across what apparently was 1,000 miles of waterless desert. He not only had to cross it but, in doing so, to select a watered route suitable for cattle. The enormity of the task must have been rather subduing, but, undeterred by these factors, Canning gathered a party of 8 men, 23 camels and 2 ponies and left Wiluna in May, 1906. This preliminary trip took 5 months to complete and, after reaching Halls Creek in October, they rested there and re-equipped themselves until January, 1907, when the return trip was commenced. Five months later they reached Wiluna, having travelled across and successfully explored some 2,000 miles of country. Many native waters were found and mapped, each being recorded by its native name so future drovers would not have any difficulty in finding them by asking local natives.


The mapping and locating of these waters was done in a systematic way. The main party never moved until forward water had been found and when it did the route was compass traversed. These traverses were controlled regularly by latitude fixes carried out by Canning so the position of each soak could be plotted. This efficient and methodical work marked the end of an era of reckless exploration that had characterized Australian history up till that time.


The only incident that marred the complete success of the expedition was the loss of Michael Tobin, one of the borers who was fatally speared by a native near a native soak that was later to become Well No. 40.


The Premier. Sir John Forrest, personally welcomed the party on their return and Canning received a standing ovation when his report was tabled in Parliament.


As a result of his recommendations Canning was asked to form another expedition for the task of constructing and equipping the wells and final fixation of the route: This party contained 26 men, 70 camels, 2 waggons and over 100 tons of equipment. Construction commenced in April, 1908 and the last well was completed just 2 years later. The scaled distance of the stock route was 925 statute miles and it contained 52 watering places (26 of which were native waters) averaging 17 miles apart.


The success of the whole project was a result of excellent leadership that encouraged the men to pull together and finish the job regardless of situations or feelings.


But the history of this now famous route was only just beginning. In 1909, Shoesmith and Thomson, the first drovers to attempt the Canning with cattle, were attacked and killed by natives at Libral Well (No. 37). Tom Cole, the drover following, found the bodies and buried them. In 1922 a person by the name of McLennon, with the Locke Oil Expedition, was killed with a nulla nulla and also buried at Libral Well which then became the haunted well to the drovers who followed.


In 1929, some 20 years after construction, a lot of the wells needed repairing and cleaning out and Canning at the age of 65 again went out into the desert and led a party successfully through the 18 months it required to complete the job.


I venture to say this effort has rarely been equalled in the survey field to this day and it could well serve as an example to quieten those who grumble about present conditions in the profession.


The journey


On the night of Wednesday, 10th July, 1968, we camped some 10 miles north of Wiluna and contemplated what lay ahead of us. We knew that parts of the Canning had been driven over previously but as far as we could ascertain, no one had driven a vehicle from Wiluna to Halls Creek along that route, in one concerted effort.


This challenge seemed small in contrast to the one that lured Canning to the desert but nevertheless it existed and we were there to accept it.


Well Nos. 2 and 3 were found by following Cunyu Station tracks but owing to the extremely wet season great difficulty was encountered in crossing Lake Nabberu. The method adopted was slow but sure. When­ever an arm or lake section had to be crossed one would walk ahead testing the ground with the heel and, if doubtful, by digging with a shovel to see if it was solid or bottomless underneath. One vehicle would then wait while the other crossed.


On this section we had only the 1:250.000 map to navigate with and our being spoilt by a couple of years of experience with aerial photos made this task rather difficult. Across Nabberu and up to Windich Spring it was necessary to "scrub bash" in order to find Well No. 4A. Scrub driving, with only a 1:250,000 map in mulga country was not easy, but after a lot of back tracking and walking we eventually located Kennedy Creek and followed it up to find Well No. 4A.


A few more miles of mulga country and the first historic spot for the trip was reached. The waters of Windich Spring were full and clear and covered with mountain ducks. This spring was discovered by John Forrest in 1874 when he explored from the west coast to the overland telegraph line. Tommy Windich was one of his faithful native boys and was honoured by the naming of the spring.


From Windich north a bush track runs all the way to No. 9 Well so it was an easy matter to locate No. 5. This is the deepest on the route, measured by Canning as 106 ft 5 in in depth.


No. 9 Well is on the Weld Spring, this also being discovered by Forrest. Canning used waters found by Forrest as far as this point but their tracks diverged from here. Forrest had trouble with hostile natives at this spring so he constructed a small stone fort to protect his men and animals from attack. The remains of this fort are still standing and they indicate the thoughtfulness of the man who constructed it. The rear of the fort was open and faced some 200 yards of open country whilst the front stonework faced the spring and the thick bushcovered creek that would provide cover for stalking natives. Beside the fort a small corkwood tree is growing and was probably the one blazed by Forrest with  F 46.  The blazed section had been removed and apparently can be seen in the Perth Public Library.


The country around this spring was described by Canning as good pastoral land and it now forms Glen Ayle Station owned by Mr Henry Ward. As this was the last station on the route until Billiluna, a welcome stopover was made with the friendly and hospitable Wards. They kindly provided all the salted meat necessary for the trip, as well as a few fresh greens and meat that were luxuries for the first few days.


From No. 9 north, every Well was located, No. 16 being 1 mile different from the indicated position on the 1:250,000 map. No. 17 water or Killagurra Rock Hole in the Durba Hills provided the starting point for a number of interesting finds. The cairn Canning had constructed in 1906 on the western edge of the hills was still standing and the terraced creek bed of Biella Spring was a series of cascading waterfalls and it was hard to believe such a sight could be seen in the desert. The Durba Spring (an alternative stock water for No. 17) and some 2 miles east provided an idyllic camping spot as we rolled out our swags on a mat of couch grass. This grass was in existence here when Trotman (Canning's second in command) first discovered the water in 1906. The spring is situated at the mouth of a rocky gorge, the walls of which now contain a role of honour as each drover has scratched his name and the year he was on the Canning.


From the Durba Hills to Well No. 24, detours were made to locate Diebil Spring, Onegunyah Rock Hole and Gunanya Spring, all of which were shown on Canning's plan.


In trying to locate Well No. 26 confidence in our navigation became a little shaky. The map showed a sand ridge gap close to the well but, after carefully counting ridges and watching mileage, we could not find such a gap on the ground. After a fruitless afternoon trying to match up ridge features with map lines we camped and decided an astro fix may help to work out where we were. Before leaving Canberra much practice had been done so that we could do a reasonable fix. Timing equipment consisted of a single hand stop watch reading to 0.1 secs and an ordinary wrist watch, with a large second sweep hand used as a chronometer and rated frequently on WWV(H) signal. Rimington's method was chosen because of speed in reductions and two balanced pairs this evening plotted us 3 miles north west of Well 26. Examining the map, it then became obvious that an anomaly existed and the gap in the ridges we were searching for did not exist; instead the ridges were continuous features. Confidence was then restored when, on driving, 3 miles S.E., we located No. 26 Well only a half mile different from the indicated map position.


This experience proved helpful as about 20 miles east of Well No. 27 we searched for and found Separation Well. Canning's description eventually led us to the well, just a slight damp depression at one end of a small claypan between ridges. This was half a mile north east of the map position and took the three of us a solid morning's walking to locate it. Digging down six feet in the sand and clay the old hole cut in the limestone by the Calvert Expedition was found and by morning it had "made" some 5 feet of water. L.A. Wells, the leader of the Calvert Expedition (mentioned in introduction) completed a latitude observation at this well and a 4 pair Rimington fix by ourselves gave the following interesting comparison:


                                                        Latitude                Longitude

Wells (1896)                              22°  51'   14"

Canning Tourists (1968)             22°  51'   09"         124° 01' 00"

       Indicated Map Position (Scaled)  22° 51'   40"         124° 00' 20"

Actual Identified Map Position

(Scaled)  22° 51' 20"           124° 00' 50"


It was at this historic place that the Calvert Expedition split up in order to search more country. A rendezvous was arranged at Joanna Spring some 200 miles to the north but the two men (Charles Wells and George Jones) could not locate the spring and perished.


Joanna Spring was discovered by Colonel Warburton's party (see introduction) of 1873 and some people blame the colonel for this unfortunate incident as generally the longitudinal fixings of his route were found to be 20 miles in error to the west.


However, in his journal, the colonel admits to some doubt in his longitudes:


Took a lunar last night, using Antares by computed altitude, it being too low for observation. The longitude is exactly to a second the same as the last; a distance of about six miles lies between the two places of observation. The first was taken with a waning moon at 4.30 a.m. by Pollux, east of moon; the altitude of the moon was computed in the first case that of Antares in the second. Every argument employed differed in one instance from the other, yet both give exactly the same result, from which I infer that neither are further in error than lunars usually are, and a few miles one side or the other will not injuriously affect us. I may take the result as near enough for our purposes.


No. 37 Well, shown on Canning's plan as Libral Well but known to the drovers as the "haunted well", was another interesting spot. The remains of Shoesmith and Thomson, the first drovers of the Canning, rested here until they were exhumed and taken to Wiluna. In 1967 a member of the Department of Interior survey party found a rusty piece of tin near this well. This piece of tin was once the grave marker since the holes punched erratically read: "S. & T. R.I.P".


Nailed to a tree near the well was an end piece of troughing; it too marking the resting place of a desert traveller for the nail holes read: "R.I.P. SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF W. McLENNON WHO WAS KILLED BY NATIVES 1922".


No. 40 Well (Waddawalla) just on the northern edge of Lake Tobin is the resting place of Micheal Tobin as mentioned previously.


The 1908-09 well constructing party had taken a marble cross from Perth to place over the grave and it stands there to this day with the sides encased in galvanized iron to prevent natives from chipping the marble for spearheads and knives.


Surely these graves of the Canning would be among the most remote in Australia and, bearing mute testimony to human efforts in conquering this land, they bring to mind Barcroft Boakes' "Where the Dead Men Lie":


Out on the wastes of the never never—

That's where the dead men lie.

There where the heat waves dance for ever—

That's where the dead men be.

That's where the earth's loved sons are keeping

Endless tryst: not the west wind sweeping

Feverish pinions can wake their sleeping—

Out where the dead men lie.


From Well No. 42 (Guli Tank) we detoured 50 miles east and found David Carnegie's Helena Spring. Carnegie, an energetic Englishman, completed a remarkable journey from Wiluna to Halls Creek in 1896, along a route well to the east of where the Canning Stock Route was eventually built. In his book, Spinifex and Sand, Carnegie described the Spring:


Between two sand ridges in a small outcrop of limestone was a little basin 2 ft 6 in in diameter and 3 ft deep holding approximately 70 gallons.


Seventy-two years had filled the spring and covered the surrounding limestone with 6 inches of sand so that the spring was just a slight depression about the size of a kitchen sink with 3 inches of water in it when first found. Digging out the sand revealed the basin in the rock and also unearthed an old tin pannikin from the very bottom of the spring. Who knows, perhaps this came from Carnegie's party as very few motor vehicles have been so far afield as to be near this Spring?


Carnegie carried out numerous observations for latitude at this spring and our 3 paired Rimington fix gave the following comparison:


Latitude                Longitude

Carnegie (1896)                  21° 20' 30"           126° 20' (D.R.)

Canning Tourists (1968)      21° 20' 31"           126° 33' 47"

Map and Actual Identified

Position (Scaled)   21° 20' 40"           126° 33' 50"


Carnegie also discovered the South Esk Tablelands and named them after his father the Earl of Esk in Scotland. Well No. 48 on the stock route took us right to the tablelands and a morning's walk found Godfreys Tank, Breadon Pool and Kunningarra. All of these are rock holes, the first two being named after Carnegie's men. Again on the walls around Godfreys Tank a roll of honour had been formed by the names on the rock. The original C96 left by Carnegie was above all, then the next visitor H.S.T. 1906, followed by a series of drovers. The only evidence of any marking left by Canning himself was found here in the form of C23.




Thirty-four days after leaving Wiluna we arrived at Halls Creek, having travelled 1600 miles, the extra mileage being caused by detours to search for rock holes and historic spots or "running out" a bad ridge in order to find a crossing point.


Our fuel had been adequate and thanks to Mr Frank Welsch of Yarrie Station, W.A., our food supplies were supplemented when he made a supply trip to Well No. 33 along the W.A.P.E.T. road. This in itself was quite a journey as with only one vehicle and no radio he had to drive through flooded Lake Auld where the previous months heavy rain had caused it to flood over the road.


Mechanically both vehicles performed well. They returned about 6 mpg in the heaviest conditions and broken springs were the only repairs necessary throughout the whole journey. Despite double covers on the radiators, both became clogged with spinifex husks and dust and over‑heated badly. Only after painstakingly pricking the core clean and then daily blowing backwards through the radiator with a reducing nozzle
on a spark plug pump, were they kept clear enough to function efficiently.

Travel across spinifex and sand ridge country is slow and unbelievably rough. Each sand ridge has its own exclusive feature and many times it was necessary to shovel the spinifex humps clear so a smooth momentum-gathering approach could be made. With the front wheels nearly on top of a ridge and the motor dying, a few pounds by the others pushing often brought success and avoided that long roll backwards and
another straining attempt. Travelling in this type of country it was difficult to average more than 40 miles for the days driving but once that was accepted as the daily limit, it was almost a pleasure to grind along at 4 mph and observe the intricate patterns of tracks in the sand left by the nocturnal desert animals and the swaying spinifex stalks.


Other than wells, little evidence of the stock route remains to-day. Just near Well No. 20 a stock pad was found but it faded out after a few miles. Each well was found by careful use of aerial photographs. The likely position was transferred from the 1:250,000 map and then ridge features watched carefully until the last ridge was crested. After reading Canning's description of the well, a search with binoculars from atop the vehicle from the last ridge often revealed a whip pole above the stunted cajaput or a section of troughing railing between clumps of spinifex. If this failed, a thorough search of the area on foot usually located the well. Some were only holes in the ground and it was quite easy to walk within 100 feet of a well and not detect it because of the tall swaying spinifex.


The only evidence of natives seen on the trip was at Well No. 46 where fresh footprints, fire ashes and wind breaks were found. A search of the area revealed 2 spears, a boomerang and a cloth bundle of items in a mulga tree. These were photographed and replaced, the owners possibly being natives on walkabout from Balgo Mission as this is only 200 miles northeast.


One kangaroo was seen at Durba Hills, a dingo at Guli Tank and a set of emu tracks near Helena Spring. Along with the flocks of finches and budgerigars at each well or rock hole, these were the only signs of animal life observed.


Many people ask, "Why go out there for your holidays?" I think the answer to this lies in the words of Rus Wenholz, my travelling companion.


Townspeople can never appreciate the pleasure of camping where there are no tracks but those you have just made yourself, or spotting a whip pole in the spinifex and cajaput or having a bird bath in an icy cold rock hole, or rolling down a ridge it has taken an hour to ascend.




I would like to thank the following people who made the trip possible.


The Commonwealth Surveyor General for granting the necessary leave.

Frank Welsch of Yarrie Station, Marble Bar for a supply trip to Well No. 33.

Henry Ward of Glen Ayle Station, Wiluna for supplies and fuel.

Bob Verburgt, who is Native Patrol Officer from Woomera, for arranging fuel at Well No. 35 and who in so doing became bogged for 7 weeks in unusually wet conditions.




David C. Chudleigh received the Bachelor of Surveying degree from the Uni­versity of New South Wales in 1964 and was registered as a land surveyor in N.S.W. and the A.C.T. in 1965. He has been engaged with the Survey Section of the Department of the Interior since graduation, on land development surveys in the A.C.T., gravity control traverses in Qld, N.T., and W.A. and hydrographic survey ship position control in the Timor Sea. He is an associate member of the Institution of Surveyors. Australia.


Published in THE AUSTRALIAN SURVEYOR, December, 1969 and reproduced with permission. © Copyright applies.