Looking down the gunbarrel
Alice Springs to Steep Point
A year had flown past, crammed with home renovations, family catch ups, finding work, moving to Albury – and not a lot of bike riding. It was an abrupt and total change of lifestyle, with any sense of dislocation and loss buried beneath the demands of ‘real life’. There was plenty to enjoy but the restlessness was impossible to contain.
All it took was the sniff of opportunity, a window where we could duck away for a taste of freedom, while maintaining ties to housing and paid employment. We couldn’t quite manage a full continental crossing within our time frame but quickly got excited about a long overdue return to central Australia, and so ‘Fat Outback’ 2019 was born.
We’d been talking about a complete shift in bike set up since our Americas trip. With limited time to prepare, vague ideas and lackadaisical website browsing were replaced with laser-like focus. Couriers were arriving on a daily basis bearing boxes of increasing size. Meanwhile, I was dispatching parcels of dried food to places you’d struggle to find on most maps. We jammed in an Easter weekend ride to check that: a) we could actually fit all our gear on our bikes; and b) nothing broke. Mission accomplished, two weeks later we flew up to Alice Springs accompanied by our new set ups – 29er plus bikes and bikepacking bags.
Aware that the next supermarket of significant size would be found in Perth (i.e. just before we fly home) we did a substantial stock up in Alice. All that food is essentially useless when you forget to buy matches, as we found out on the first night out of town.
The cycle path out to Simpson’s Gap got us quickly out bush, where we were immediately immersed in contrasting colours of the red rock, blue sky, stark white tree trunks and grey-green foliage of the Outback. Back out on the road we turn towards Hermannsberg, stocking up on matches before leaving the sealed road behind.
The road into the Palm Valley section of Finke Gorge National Park is graded and easy riding. Dumping our gear at the campground we rode out to the Arankaia walk in the Valley. It’s short and rocky and probably considerably easier to negotiate by bike, judging by the struggles of the 4WD contingent. Despite the ultra-dry conditions this patch of 3000+ towering adult red cabbage palms remains a lush little oasis tucked in amongst the rocks.
The next day we backtracked from Palm Valley to turn south towards Boggy Hole and then out on to Ernest Giles Road. Park Rangers were trying to dissuade people from using this route, warning that numerous drivers had become irretrievably bogged in sections of deep soft sand. And they did mention the need to not look like a feral horse or camel so as to avoid being shot by the helicopter cull in progress in the area …
Our camp at Boggy Hole seemed to be dingo central. We were woken overnight by a chorus of eerie hair-raising howls from multiple directions. As the call dwindled from one direction it would be picked up from another. We were clearly surrounded.
Hard to dislodge an exhausted rider from bed though, we nodded off again and were blissfully unaware of our nocturnal visitors until we noticed the fresh tracks circling our tent the following morning.
The next day shaped up to be a long one. The response to questions about the track surface was revealing – ‘sand? it’s all sand’. We made pretty good time out of the National Park, but then hit a 50km long section of deep, corrugated sand which undulated over a series of low sandy dunes. Clearly we weren’t going to reach the road on this day, so we nestled in amongst a patch of desert oak trees for the night.
With fresh legs the next morning we made short work of the remaining sandpit, riding out onto a flat claypan before taking a short cut across some low dunes and out onto the road.
After a day spent sharing the Lasseter Highway with a constant stream of cars, trucks, buses and mega-caravans it was a relief to roll into Yulara. It’s not a bad place to sit and people-watch while consuming your body weight in chocolate milk.
Weirdly warm and humid weather culminated in a spectacular thunderstorm which even delivered roughly 32 drops of rain. Not enough, we raided the water tank out at Kata Tjuta to load up before we set off towards Docker River.
Before long we’d left the bitumen and traffic behind. Not the flies though. Extensive research suggested that we needed to be maintaining at least 23kph in calm conditions to leave them behind. With the wind behind us no manner of sprint efforts could dislodge them.
The Great Central Road proved to be flat and fast riding on a decent surface. Occasional sandy sections were no match for 3 inch tyres. Traffic comprised around 20 vehicles a day, most of which tended to pass late in the day after we’d stopped and set up camp.
Having reached Warakurna Roadhouse it was time for a day off the bikes – restocking, cleaning up, eating something other than couscous and a visit to the Giles Meteorological Station. Here we saw the daily launch of the weather balloon, somewhat less exciting now that it’s just the push of a button. There’s also a pretty good museum with a heavy focus on the exploits of Len Beadell, renowned in these parts as a surveyor, road builder, war veteran, bushman, author and artist. Of key interest to us, he was responsible for constructing the Gunbarrel Highway, as well as another 5500km of roads through the remote Australian deserts between 1947 to 1963.
After leaving Warakurna we were back on the Great Central Road for a few more days. Temperatures along this stretch were higher than expected, up to 34C some days. Our water consumption escalated and we were grateful for those occasions when a passing motorist would pull up alongside and offer cold water. The days settled into a comfortable rhythm although we appreciated the onset of evening when the flies would finally quit their relentless torture. Bush camping was easy, and particular favourites were the dry river beds with plenty of trees for shade and convenient bike parking, and soft sandy ground.
Finally we turned off for the long awaited ride along the Gunbarrel Highway. I could only find one account of a previous unsupported ride along this track, and this read as a trial of suffering by sand, with hours of struggling to push a heavily loaded bike. Wanting to ride a lot more of these sort of tracks was a big part of our decision to switch to a lighter, wide tyred bikepacking set up and it soon proved a solid choice.
Overall the Gunbarrel was an easier ride than expected. The presence of two functioning bores meant that we only needed to carry water for one night plus six days food. The scenery and surface varied constantly, but there were enough faster sections that we had no trouble covering the minimum distances each day. It was all rideable with the occasional tumble (me) or pause to get the heart rate under control.
Rain was forecast for our departure from Wiluna. We were slightly disbelieving as the landscape was pretty parched and locals tend to scratch their heads and think for a while if you ask when it last rained. But sure enough – it wasn’t long before vehicles were pulling up to warn us that the road would quickly become impassable in the wet and we might want to rethink our plans.
We made it through to Meekatharra, where we found ourselves the third contingent of bikepackers to roll up in search of shelter that day. Leaving the others to wait out the windy conditions, we struck out the next day for the coast, via the tiny settlement of Murchison. The restored police station and jail at Mt Gould was perfectly located as the rain came in again.
Western Australia seems to have an amazing collection of barely used back roads. The road maintenance budget must be impressive because road crews are out grading all these routes twice a year. Zero traffic = stress free riding.
Murchison roadhouse has a fantastic little campground – lush grass, steaming hot showers, excellent hamburgers … we struggled to drag ourselves away but eventually backtracked to pick up Butchers Track through Toolonga Nature Reserve and across to the North-West Highway. This was a pretty ride across red soil dunes and some nice bush, mostly acacia with hakeas and native cypress.
Turning on to the main highway was a complete contrast. It was just an hour north to the roadhouse and turn off, but there was more traffic in that time than over the previous three weeks. It was still early so after a multiple servo pie lunch we pushed on to Hamelin Pool.
I checked in with the Ranger out at Steep Point, who assured me that there was no way we’d make it out there in two days on bikes. Nothing like a challenge, we were off early the next morning determined to get as far along the track as we could. The landscape had changed completely, it was farewell to red sands and mulga and into the coastal banksia and shrublands of Edel Land National Park.
After a couple of nights at Steep Point we jumped on the little barge across to Dirk Hartog Island, apparently the first visitors to arrive by bike. Probably not the last as we found the island to be a fantastic place to ride. Vehicles are limited so the chances of actually encountering one once you leave the barge landing point are pretty low. The scenery is lovely and there are countless little bays, dunes and clifftops to explore. Water supplies are a major limiting factor though so we took advantage of the camping facilities at the Eco-lodge for a few nights. With more bad weather on the way it was nice to have the shelter of a camp kitchen too.
The island has a long history of European comings and goings, dating back to the 1616 arrival of Dutch Captain Dirk Hartog. Several others stopped off for a quick poke around but it wasn’t until the early 1800’s that the industries of guano mining and pearling were established.
The island was sold into private hands in 1868 and the first sheep arrived shortly after. With the drop in wool prices since the 1990s the focus has turned to tourism. More recently, sheep and goats have been removed, and feral cats eradicated. A ‘Return to 1616’ species recovery program is in progress, aiming to reintroduce and restore populations of the ten native small mammals and marsupials lost from the island since European colonisation.
After seven weeks on the road we finally had to head for home. Perth was cold and wet, meaning that we weren’t too upset to head to the airport. And so it’s back home, back to work and starting to plan for Fat Outback Part 2.
Until next time.
Rubber side down,
Ed & Gaye