Surviving the Tanami…

… a journey on a road less travelled!

With the Simpson Desert on the top of our ‘to-do-list’ we decided the shortest route to Alice Springs from Halls Creek was via another iconic Aussie 4WD track – the Tanami Road, also known as the Tanami Track or McGuire Road.

This less travelled track crosses the north-eastern corner of the Tanami Desert and carves a 1100-kilometre rugged path through flat, lifeless, and featureless desert from Halls Creek to Alice Springs…

… and with our next off-road adventure just down the road we left Halls Creek and headed 17-kilometres south west to the T-junction where a sign indicating the state of the road announced it was ‘open’!

The Tanami originally followed a cattle droving route from Halls Creek to the MacDonnell Ranges and is today known as a real Aussie adventure… so with tyre pressure dropped for the corrugations and bulldust that lie ahead, we began our journey.

Our first stop and first camp on the Tanami was Wolf Creek Crater.

Known to the local Djaru Aboriginals in the area as ‘Kandimalal’, their Aboriginal Dreamtime legend has it that this crater marks the emergence of a rainbow snake out of the earth, or the site where the evening star crashed to earth after passing too close to the crescent moon.

We know it as Wolfe Creek Crater. It is the second largest meteorite crater in the world and was formed some 300,000 years ago when a meteor, with an estimated mass of 50,000 tonnes, plummeted to earth.

It was named after Robert Tennant Stowe Wolfe, a digger and storekeeper who lived in Halls Creek in the late 1880s, but it wasn’t until 1947 that an aerial survey put Wolfe Creek Crater on the map…

… and it was a horror movie about three backpackers who were taken captive after being hunted by a deranged psychopathic killer (and terrified viewers around the world) that brought ‘Wolfe Creek’ to everyone’s attention!

The first part of our drive along the Tanami was mostly uneventful other than a few bone rattling corrugations, an amazing panorama of desert plains of spinifex grasses, hakeas and grevilleas, a few cattle… and the low range of the crater that appeared on the horizon as we neared the turnoff!

It was the rough ride into the National Park that had us sitting on the edge of our seats… and after opening the gate into the Carranya Station and passing an old derelict homestead the next 25-kilometres were bumpy, rocky and very corrugated!

Unlike the movie it was highly unlikely we were going to find any maniacs here… but what we did find was one incredible meteorite crater that was quite incredible.

To reach the rim we had a steep, rocky 400-metre walk to endure and once there the view was awe inspiring… an almost perfect circle of green, enclosed by a small range of very steep hills in a perfect circle.

In the centre the ground rose slightly and was surprisingly lush with concentric rings of vegetation enveloping a small salt pan. The surrounding dry desert plains portraying a complete contrast to the lush crater floor and creating a remarkable outback landscape!

You can walk to the crater floor and apparently, there is a ‘geocache’ located somewhere in its midst, but as the crater was fenced to prevent any stock from damaging the site (and themselves), we opted to stick to a rough animal path and follow the rim for a glimpse of the crater from a different angle.

Just down the road a kilometre or two from the crater, was a basic free campground…

… so once we’d grabbed a few photos we headed back down the hill and along the road to the hot, windy, dusty almost treeless site of our next overnight stop.

Despite the remoteness of the crater this campground seemed to attract many adventurous nomads – including some who were obviously suffering the effects of the rough road in – all tyres on their van, as flat as tacks.

The isolated Tanami road is used to service outlying communities and mines and although not the daunting experience it once was, it still demands a certain amount of respect. It is because of its sheer remoteness and unpredictability that 4WD is recommended…  and it’s definitely not a road for standard cars, caravans and trailers! 

The sun was setting as we arrived, creating beautiful pink skies and just as we were setting up camp our neighbours popped over to invite us to a movie night near their van. They had lit a roaring fire, set up a projector and screen, and were playing none other than…  ‘Wolf Creek’!

Of course, we politiely declined the offer, but as we settled in for a night under the stars we could hear the ‘ohhhs’ and ‘ahhhs’ and screams coming from nearby and I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these adventurers had been inspired by the thrill of ‘surviving’ a night in these eerie surroundings, and how many had come to enjoy the wonder of the crater itself.

Not having seen the movie we were relaxed and spent a lovely night camped under a starry sky and a full moon. For some however, it could well have been a stressful night…. so, I wouldn’t recommend watching the movies if you’re planning to visit Wolfe Creek!

One of the most exciting things about this nomadic lifestyle is you just never know who you are going to meet on the road.

There are a few couples we have really hit it off with at different camping locations and it was here we met up with Renate and Martin travelling in their ‘big 13 ton SLRV Commander 4×4 Expedition vehicle by the name of Fidgety’. Welcome to our blog guys!

Being able to find others that share your love of the outdoors and that you enjoy being around is a bonus when you’re on the road… and an unplanned trip across the Tanami, then our subsequent trip across the Simpson Desert has meant we have developed a great friendship, kept in touch with these lovely people.. and even now are planning other camping trips together.

After surviving a night of gale force winds we negotiated our way back along the horrendous corrugations only stopping to open and shut a couple of gates before continuing our merry way along the Tanami. 

The name Tanami is thought to be Walpiri name for the area, ‘Chanamee’, meaning ‘never die’. This referred to certain rock holes in the desert, which were said to never run dry.

The Aboriginal people from the Warlpiri, Arrente, Luritja and Pintubi groups have land ownership rights along the Tanami Road so with several communities located in this remote desert land, driving off the main road is not permitted without a permit, you can only drive into communities to buy fuel or supplies.

There are a few aboriginal communities that we were aware of along the first section of this track – Mulan, Billiluna and Balgo.

Billiluna and Balgo are the only two communities where you can purchase fuel with Balgo the last fuel stop for a very long way – 600-kilometres to be exact!

We had been told these communities were not very welcoming places and diesel and supplies were very expensive… so we were thankful we had filled up at Halls Creek. With our long-range fuel tank, we knew we could easily make it to Tilmouth Roadhouse.

As far as being ‘unwelcoming’, I beg to differ, as in many cases we have found this statement to be undeserved and the people very friendly!

The community of Billiluna was our first stop.

This small settlement is only a short detour off the main track and the beginning or the end, (depending on which way you are travelling), of the iconic Canning Stock Route – another track for another day on our ‘to-do-list’.

As we drove into the community it certainly didn’t present a very good impression with rubbish strewn everywhere, abandoned rusted cars and lots of dogs wandering around… but this was all typical of the many remote communities we have driven through!

You can purchase fuel and supplies here… and be sure you check out the amusing sign on the fuel pump, which reads – ‘Beware of the camel – he will get you cornered and kick and bite you’. Thankfully we didn’t get to see him – and unfortunately we didn’t get a photo of the sign or the neighbourhood as there were quite a few locals hanging around… but we did wonder if this was one way of keeping tourists out of their little community!

Fuel at Billiluna
Monday – Friday 8.30 – 11.00 am & 2.00 – 4.00 pm
Saturday 8.00 – 10.30 am.
Contact number: 08 9168 8076

A short detour from Billiluna via the community of Mulan and near the northern section of the Canning Stock Route are Lake Gregory and Lake Stretch… two beautiful permanent inland wetlands that are renowned for their abundance of birdlife. A large herd of wild Arabian thoroughbreds also wander this area.

There are three campsites with no facilities but remember, the Tanami is land belonging to the Warlpiri people and you will need a permit if you want to detour off the main track.

Reluctant to stop in the town without purchasing fuel and without a permit we pulled over further up the road for a morning tea break… and close behind Renate and Martin pulled in too!

This was to be the first of many more encounters with our friends after meeting them back at Wolfe Creek and after sharing a decent morning brew made in their coffee machine and biscuits and cheese (complete with Martin’s beautiful kumquat jelly)… we continued on!

We passed more dead cars a common sight on these remote roads…

… and the turnoff to the Aboriginal community of Balgo.

Balgo is a 33-kilometre detour off the track and also sells fuel. There is also a well-stocked grocery shop and apparently a very impressive art gallery, probably the most remote art gallery on the planet … Warlayirti Arts Centre.

Fuel at Balgo
Monday – Friday 8.00 – 12.00 pm & 2.00 – 5.00 pm
Sat & Sun 8.00 – 12.00 Noon
Contact number: 08 9168 894

This small community can also be accessed from the northern end of the Canning Stock Route and the Mulan community.

Continuing past the turnoff the next section of road was to be the longest stretch of road of some 600-kilometres before we reached the next community.

Surprisingly, we passed very little traffic and I can’t actually say there were a lot of attractions that were stop worthy… but there was something about travelling through this remote desert that is compelling – the endless spinifex, saltbushes and termite mounds, a road that continued to be quite changeable with its teeth-chattering corrugations, bull dust and dust whirly whirlies – and we never seemed to be alone for very long!

We passed a few locals traversing the road in their beat-up sedans, the odd truckie, one or two other travellers and a cyclist and runner plying their way through the bulldust … the cyclist heavily loaded with camping gear and both heading in our direction.

On the odd occasion we pulled over to the verge to let a road train zip past spraying a dust cloud as it disappeared into the distance. These large trucks transport fuel and goods to the remote communities and the operational mines.

We came across some locals trying to jump start their car, but many people had warned us not to stop for these guys, so we continued past.

We spotted a lone dingo standing on the verge, a wedge-tailed eagle and a few roo grazing on the flat desert land that stretched way into the distance for kilometre after kilometre!

Around 86-kilometres east of Balgo we hit the Western Australian/Northern Territory border, meaning our clocks changed and we lost an hour and a half.

Amazingly, those travelling in the opposite direction were fined for taking fruit and veggies over the NT/WA border on the Victoria Highway but here, there was no one to pull anyone over… all that indicated we were crossing from one state to another was the standard border sign, a hand written one… and a couple of drums on the verge with ‘NT’ painted crudely on one, and ‘WA’ on the other!

Predictably, we stopped for border photos – had lunch and a mug of Renate and Martin fabulous coffee…

… then after hiding behind our vehicles to avoid the billowing dust of another road train that rattled past, we bumped and bounced along the track in search of a camp spot for the night.

There were many areas of heavy corrugations on this road and we encountered plenty of bulldust and loose sand as we travelled along. For us we mostly managed around 60-kilometres/hour driving over most of the corrugations and on some of the more severe sections we only travelled around 15-20-kilometres/hour!

The road was slower as we approached the old mining settlement of the ‘Tanami’ and I could see Guy tightly gripping the steering wheel as he did his best to avoid the deep corrugations and manouver his way through the bulldust.

Just before the mine we passed the turnoff to the Lajamanu Road, a shortcut to the ‘Top End’ that runs north-west through the Lajamanu community to Kalkarindji, on the Buntine Highway.

It was in 1900 that Alan Davidson found gold in this area from which small mining settlements grew and by 1908 there were over 200 fossickers in the area… but like Halls Creek, few miners persisted with the harsh outback conditions and the unfriendly custodians, thus moving on!

Davidson took the name ‘Tanami’ for the region from local Aboriginal people who visited his camp.

Since then ‘The Tanami’ and ‘The Granites’ mine, further down the track, have opened and closed according to the fluctuating price of the precious metal and today both are operated by Newmont Mining with ‘The Granites’ housing the administration and processing operations along with the accommodation and a sealed airport for the fly-in, fly-out workforce. Neither allow public access, except in an emergency.

Apart from Wolfe Creek, there were no designated campsites on this track, and it was simply a matter of finding a suitable place to set up camp.

Rabbit Flat Roadhouse turnoff was just up the road but this once popular re-fueling point and campground had closed its doors in December 2010 and was now barricaded off and covered in ‘Keep Out’ signs… but it didn’t stop us from poking our noses in to have a look!

Rabbit Flat was originally built up by Bruce Farrands and his French wife Jacqueline whom he met whilst working on a local cattle station – Mongrel Downs.  It was constructed as a basic roadhouse and a ‘tent city’ offering travellers fuel, a cold beer and accommodation on the long haul across the Tanami. All that remains today are a few run-down courrugated buildings and an old inhabited caravan… and more ‘keep out’ signs – so we quickly turned about and headed back to the main track. 

With nowhere to camp at Rabbit Flat it meant detouring a few kilometres up the road into a dusty, dirty truck stop where the surrounding countryside consisted of only salt bushes, spinifex and lots and lots of rubbish.

The most noticeable thing (apart from all the corrugations and bulldust) on the Tanami was the amount of rubbish strewn along the road – papers, can, bottles, broken down or rusted old cars, shredded tyres and even a burnt-out camper trailer – all just left to the elements!

At first our camp spot seemed a creepy place to set up for the night but thankfully Renate and Martin pulled in too and with our meals cooking away, we soon settled ourselves in with a glass a wine for another evening under the stars.

There is something quite magical about a huge desert in the middle of nowhere. The wide-open spaces, a calmness, a silence only found in the Aussie desert… but just as we were getting comfortable we noticed a faint glow in the distance slowing making its way towards us!

Unsure of its origin it soon became clear it was the headlights of a vehicle… then 20-minutes of so later it pulled in and stopped!

To our surprise one Aboriginal woman climbed out of the driver’s side window… then another quite heavy with child followed.

Much to our surprise 3 more small bodies exited the same way… and immediately bounced around our vehicles, checking out what was in the cooking pot…  then making themselves comfortable in our camp chairs!

Their request was simple… ‘got a funnel mate?’ ‘We’ve gotta put petrol in our car’ and ’can we use ya sat phone’. 

Our surprise soon turned to ‘the urgent need to help these people’ – that was if we didn’t want their company for the rest of the night… possibly even sleeping with us!

Luckily Martin had one of each!

These locals obviously had had a lot of experience at running out of fuel… and to our surprise both women (one 7-months pregnant), and the three kids scrambled onto the roof of their car… 20-litre jerry can in hand!

The only trouble was they managed to spill more petrol on the ground than into the fuel tank, which required some intervention by our men if they wanted to continue their 300+ – kilometre journey along the road. They had just travelled well over 300-kilometres on a round day trip to another community!

Distance means very little to these people of the outback and it’s not uncommon for those from these remote communities (and the surrounding stations) to travel hundreds of kilometre in a round-trip just to visit the nearest supermarket or, in this case, to attend a sporting event. If you ask them about the distance, they usually say ‘ it’s just down the road’ or ‘it’s only 300-kilometres’… but what I couldn’t help but think was this distance is also along a rough, corrugated and unpredicatable road!

There was something quizzical about these ladies that we didn’t find surprising at all… they knew what they were doing, they were not afraid to ask for what they wanted (obviously, running out of petrol was a common occurrence on this road for them), and the children were not afraid either… even to the extent Renate had to coax them away from their truck with ‘Woolworths ooshie’s’ she had been collecting – small Lion King creatures that seem to have taken Aussie kids by storm.

All I can say is thank heavens for ‘Woolworths ooshie’s’… and it was such a heart warming feeling to see the big smiles they brought to these kids faces. Regardless, I think they were the most uninhibited, happiest kids I had seen in a long time!

Finally, with all bodies back in their car (through the window) – no child seats for the kids I might add, and each eating half empty bags of potato chips (packets scattered all across the back of the car), we bid them farewell. The driver yelling out the window – ‘keep try’n me dad… tell him Chenia said to meet her halfway’ – wherever halfway was!

There are lots of small remote communities that branch off this road… some many kilometres inland, and where they were heading was anyones guess, definitely not a place we were familiar with!

All was calm again for a short time… then just as we settled down to finish our meal and wine, more headlights could be seen in the distance. 

NO, not again….. so with all our lights out, we sat quietly and waited.

Almost 20-minutes later, a bus load of locals pulled in on the opposite side of the road. The scrub was hiding them, and the wind was blowing the other way, but we knew they were there – we could hear raised voices and people relieving themselves. They were probably just chatting but in their Aboriginal language it sounded a lot like they are having a heated discussion.

Luckily for us our camp was difficult to see from the road in the dark so it would have been near on impossible to know we were there!

After what seemed ages, they finally moved on – minus one we thought at first, and by this stage Renate and Martin had decided if another vehicle pulled in they were off… but for us, in the rooftop tent, it was a little more difficult!

After our brief encounter with these remote travellers, the rest of our night passed uneventfully – thankfully… and after watching the sunset and the pink sky linger for what felt like hours, we ate our dinner around a shared campsite then spent a peaceful night under the stars!

Each evening usually finished the same for us of late, clear skies and starry nights…. and each morning began the same – a cup of tea and a delicious breakfast of warm oats, topped with lots of healthy grains… but after a rather ‘action packed’ night we were rather keen to pack up and hit the road – so after shovelling in a couple of weetbix, we were back tackling the corrugations and bulldust.

Our next destination, Alice Springs!

53-kilometres south of the ‘Tanami Mine’ the ‘The Granites Gold Mine’ appeared on our right.

With the ‘Tanami’ and ‘The Granites’ gold mine right in the middle of the Tanami Desert we mistakenly expected the road to be in pretty good condition from here on as it mostly catered for all the road trains that serviced them, but how wrong were we – there were more corrugations, more potholes and more bulldust than we had encountered on the whole of the track and it was about here our UHF aerial decided to part from its mount and fall flat on our bonnet.

Further down the road we pulled into ‘Renahans Bore’ for a quick look.  Here, and at the abandoned ‘Chilla Well’ a further 34-kilometres south, there are bush camping spots but not a lot else to see – although it is said to turn into shallow waterways attracting many birds after a rain!

Next was Mt Doreen ruins. This station was named after Doreen Braitling, wife of Bill Braitling who ran the station in the 1920s… but it was abandoned due to a poor water supply – and it was easy to see why!  

Not much remains at Mt Doreen now only ruins and lots of rubbish strewn around but it does provide a bush camp beside the creek and an interesting place to explore!

Gradually, as we travelled south, the dry flat country gave way to low hills and ranges as the road weaved its way through the rugged landscape of the ‘Red Centre’ to Yuendumu.

Some 600-kilometres on from Balgo along the bone jarring Tanami we finally reached the turnoff to Yuendumu where, just back from the crossroads we stopped for morning tea and another of Renate and Martin’s wonderful coffees!

It was here the dirt road ended and the black top began – in sections anyway!

This remote community of Yuendumu is one of the largest Aboriginal communities in central Australia and lies three kilometres from the Tanami Road. It sells fuel, has a shop – three actually and has become famous for its excellent indigenous art with its artists known as the ‘Warlukurlangu Artists of Yuendumu’.

Fuel at Yuendemu
Monday – Friday 8.00 am – 6.00 pm
Saturday & Sunday 9.00 am – 6.00 pm

Just beyond Yuendumu the bitumen road interspersed with three gravel sections of 25, 8, and 5-kilometres – with the last 2 very rocky and corrugated… and mistakenly it was here, just past the Yeuenduma turnoff, and after spying a truckie pulled over airing down for the tough Tanami, that we felt safe to pull over ourselves and air up.

Our next stop was Tilmoouth Well Roadhouse, 106-kilometres down the road.

Heading on we passed more signs and dirt roads leading to isolated communities with one rather battered sign pointing to the Aboriginal community of Papunya, best known as the home of the Warumpi Band, an influential Aussie band of the 1980s.

Small rolling hills surrounded us and we endured more corrugations.

Finally, we were back to smooth black top, and we could breathe a little sigh of relief…

Tilmouth Well Roadhouse, set on the sandy banks of the dry Napperby Creek, really is ‘a must stop’ on the Tanami Road… not just for a break or to get fuel, but to admire the indigenous art from the nearby Papunya Aboriginal community.

It is also quite an up-market roadhouse for such a remote area with fuel, take away, groceries, toys, motel-style accommodation, a restaurant, a swimming pool, a lovely green lawn camping area at $30 a night and an undercover picnic area out the front… a little oasis in the desert and a welcome break for lunch with our friends.

Fuel at Tilmouth Well Roadhouse Monday – Friday 8.00 am – 6.00 pm
Saturday & Sunday 9.00 am – 6.00 pm

It is also a popular place for many the local communities to shop and it was here we were able to dispense of the remainder of our ‘Woolworths ooshie’s’ to some more very thankful children. To be honest I’m not sure who was more thankful – the children or the adults – the driver of the car couldn’t thank us enough and waved frantically callling out ‘thank you, thank you’ as he exited the carpark. It really is so heartwarming to think that one small jesture can mean so much to someone else!

After we topped up with fuel it was then smooth sailing for the remaining 187-kilometres.

The majestic West MacDonnell Ranges reared up in the distance to our right providing a striking contrast to the surrounding plains as we negotiated our way along, in parts, a single lane road which required careful navigation when passing the odd road train or the occasional beat up sedan heading full speed in our direction!

Finally we turned off the Tanami Road onto the Stuart Highway with our next stop Alice Springs.

This remote desert drive of just over 1000-kilometres (800- kilometres of rough gravel, corrugations and bulldust), was far from the boring and monotonous road many had told us it would be.

It was exciting, exhausting, bone jarring… you name it, it bounced, jarred, and crunched… and we just wanted to make it out the other end in one piece – but we had so much fun doing it!  

Another iconic road trip completed and one more ‘must do’ crossed off our ‘bucket list’.

If you are set up for off-road and you’re looking for an alternative route from the Kimberley to Alice Springs or vice versa, then the Tanami Road is your obvious choice… before it’s sealed!

This great outback adventure track appears destined to change forever with renewed efforts to have it sealed, opening up these sacred lands for more visitors to access.

We would like to thank the Arrernte, Jaru, Walpiri, Luritja and Anmatyerre people for allowing us the opportunity to cross their country, we really enjoyed our journey – and we love your land!

Arriving at Alice Springs around mid-afternoon we checked into the Heritage Caravan Park for 4 nights.

We were desperately in need of a shower and access to a laundry and while free camping is our preferred option we do occasionally need to pull into a caravan park!

Caravan parks are serious business in Australia and they’re invariably set up with a camp kitchen equipped with all our needs – ovens, hot plates, fridges, kettles, toasters, sinks, undercover area, Wi-Fi and usually a TV to catch up on the news… and sometimes it nice just to kick back and relax with a few mod cons!

The last time we visited Alice Springs we journeyed over the Great Central Highway before making our way back down to the Oonadatta and Birdsville Tracks.

The purpose of this visit is as an access point to the ‘Mighty Simpson Desert’ – but before we start, lets get our bikes down and explore ‘The Alice’… and book Harry Hilux in for a service!

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