The Anne Beadell Highway (ABH), named by Len after his wife, formed a critical east-west link in the Woomera range road network and formed the back bone off which many of his outback roads linked. Traversing roughly 1,325km of South and West Australian desert country the ABH runs through some of the most remote, desolate and waterless terrain on the Australian continent and driving across it requires good planning and preparation.
An important part of trip preparation is obtaining the necessary permits, depending on your intended journey as many as five are required for the ABH:
- Woomera Prohibited Area, (SA) tourist permit
- Tallaringa Conservation Reserve, SA parks and Wildlife permit
- Mamungari Conservation Park, SA Parks and Wildlife permit
- Maralinga-Tjarutja Land Council (SA) permit
- Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority (WA) permit
A convoy of vehicles led by the legendary Ron Moon crossed the ABH in late July 2022 – we took roughly six days to traverse the often rutted, corrugated and narrow track – running westward from Coober Pedy (SA) before turning off at Yeo Lake National Park, just before the road’s recognised end point at Laverton (WA).
Much has been written about the road network created by the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party (GRCP) under leadership of Len Beadell, but some of these iconic outback tracks pre-dated the GRCP including eastern parts of the Anne Beadell Highway. Early sections of the ABH were first developed in 1953 to access the Emu Field atomic testing site, with further sections added in the 1960s when the Bluestreak long range rocket testing program was planned to roughly follow trajectory of the missiles and rockets in case they had to be recovered, and also for access to ‘clear out’ any inhabitants of the area.
Coober Pedy to the Dog Fence via Mabel Creek
When planning and constructing the ABH Len’s team started at the existing Mabel Creek Station some 50km west of Coober Pedy. The road to the station turn off is well formed and maintained given that it services the station and hundreds of opal mining pits that dot the landscape with piles of discarded scree for much of the road section’s length.
The road remains in reasonable condition until it reaches the Mabel Creek turn off and deteriorates as it approaches the Dog Fence, a dingo and wild dog control barrier that runs north-south across much of South Australia and eventually into Queensland, to protect grazing land from Australia’s peak predator. The dog fence gate is actually about 3km southward of the ABH, so the track turns to run parallel to the fence and then all the way back again on the opposite side… surely they could have just put in another gate? Once through the dog fence gate the road continues to worsen, its condition depending largely on the type of ground over which it is formed.
Worst of all are sections across ironstone pebbles which seem to form the roughest and deepest corrugations, although these stretches are bordered by beautiful lavender flowered bushes that thrive in this soil type. Not so bad are the sandy sections, still corrugated but tolerable, with the best roads being across bull dusty clay pans which seem to hold a good road surface. In the worst stretches there are diversion tracks beside the road where people have gone cross country given that the road itself is so rough.
To cope with the corrugations and reduce vehicle damage I dropped tyre pressures, 18psi in the front and the trailer, 22psi at the rear axle tyres. All tyres are monitored by a Tyre Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) so that I know if any get punctured or develop a slow leak, allowing the tyre to be repaired before it is completely destroyed. (and yes, the morning temperatures were well below zero!)
Dog Fence to Emu Field
Once past the Dog Fence we continued 60km to the Tallaringa Well to establish camp for the night. Tallaringa was originally a native well or soak found by explorer Richard Maurice in 1897 and used as a watering point on many of his exploration journeys through to 1902. The well was later rediscovered by Len Beadell and partly restored by his crew.
A replica of Len’s original plaque and sign show where to find the well behind some acacia scrub – the well itself is mostly silted up and is protected by an old steel roof rack.
This is as good a time as any for a little rant… Len was in the habit of making plaques at each note worthy point along his road network, by hand punching information into aluminium plates that he nailed to timber or rivetted to steel posts. I can’t understand why people have stolen most of the original Len Beadell marker plaques?! They are worth much less once removed from their original place and I would be embarrassed to show anyone a stolen plaque if I had one. I’m sure most of the removed plaques were eventually discarded or lay in a shed somewhere, forgotten, leaving the Len Beadell support groups to make and affix replicas.
The area north of the Tallaringa well has been used as a camp since Len’s time and has plenty of clear space amongst acacia and mulga scrub.
Tallaringa Well to Emu Junction
The ABH continues in a roughly north-westerly direction across the Great Victoria Desert, through low dune country covered by spinifex and mulga scrub.
The relatively wet autumn leading to our trip left the country in great condition with plenty of vegetation including wild flowers in abundance. We didn’t see many animals in this section, even birds seemed to be scarce which suggests lack of standing water in the area.
Upon leaving the Tallaringa Conservation Park we entered the Maralinga-Tjarutja Aboriginal Area and there’s no missing the large signs that spell out permit requirements for entry. The Maralinga-Tjarutja are custodians for much of the land through which the ABH runs in South Australia other than the conservation parks managed by SA Parks and Wildlife.
Emu Junction marks the intersection of a side track that takes us to the Emu Field clay pan, site of the first mainland atomic test blasts under taken by the British in 1953 as part of Operation Totem. There are now concrete obelisks to identify the blast locations along with twisted steel remnants of the towers from which the bombs were suspended. Despite the area having been ‘cleansed’ of radioactive material by two clean up operations there is still plenty of evidence of the blasts, including shiny transparent fragments where the blast’s heat melted the sand, turning it into glass.
In addition to the blast sites the area around Emu Field is littered with old pipes, sections of cable and concrete footings for various observation points, measuring instruments and cameras to record details of the blasts. There was even an accommodation and worker’s village not far from the blast sites along with an airstrip and other infrastructure to support the project.
There is no signage or information to reflect on the tragic impact the blasts had on people, whether indigenous inhabitants, rural workers or the military personnel involved in the tests. Much of this human impact was later documented by the McClelland Royal Commission which put these terrible events on the public records and lead to a range of reforms and compensation actions.
Emu Junction to SA/WA Border
The road west of Emu Junction sees a lot less use and becomes narrower and more overgrown – mulga and acacia branches reach well across the track in places to scratch your vehicle’s paint and tear at any accessories that can be wrenched off. The scrub became so thick in places that I was forced to run with the side mirrors tucked back to avoid them getting smashed by passing branches.
Remainder of the ABH was constructed by the GRCP during 1961 – 62 to service the rocket range activity that followed the atomic bomb testing.
The next landmark encountered is the intersection with Mount Davies Road, named Anne’s Corner by Len and marked with another aluminium plaque, this being one of the few originals still in place.
We made camp not far past Anne’s Corner in an area where the spinifex and scrub cleared a little. A condition of the entry permit is to remain with 50m of the track, not that’s its often possible to go any further due to the vegetation hemming you onto the road.
Another great night spent under a billion stars and our convoy continued westward on the rough and narrow Anne Beadell Highway. The still morning without any breeze left dust hanging in the air, forcing the vehicles to string out over several kilometres which had the disadvantage that you couldn’t gauge the track’s condition based on movement of the vehicle ahead.
The road soon entered the Mamungari Conservation Park, another SA Parks and Wildlife area that set aside and UNESCO listed to preserve the unique desert flora and fauna of this remote arid area. The park continues to the SA/WA border and the track becomes more meandering as it threads through the many red sand dunes. An oddity of the Park is that the sign boards still call it “Unnamed Conservation Park”, likely a bureaucratic foible that required the signs to be erected before a name was agreed for the area.
The main Beadell landmark in this section of track is Voakes Hill Corner, named after the nearby hill of the same name and marking the T intersection with a track that heads southward to Cook siding on the Trans Australian Railway. The south bound track was driven in 1961 to facilitate supply of materials into the Woomera Rocket Range from the railway, and to provide a short cut to the relatively tame Eyre Highway (even though it was just a dirt road in those days). The plaque was added the following year when the ABH was extended from this point to the west and is one of few original Beadell plaques we found, perhaps a testimony to how remote and unvisited this area is.
We camped for the night in the Mamungari Conservation Park in area that was relatively clear of spinifex, likely due to a fire through the area some time in the past few months. It rained lightly overnight as well which made for a cosy night’s sleep and settled the track’s dust for our departure the next morning. I had mostly been setting up the TVAN with only the rear canvas screen rather than the full tent, which worked out well because I didn’t have to pack away a wet canvas tent…
The morning run from camp to the State Border was an easy one, rolling through red sand dunes clothed in spinifex, wildflowers and the occasional marble gum tree. A standout feature just before the border is crossing of the Serpentine Lakes, a series of (mostly) dry lake beds that caused Len Beadell some consternation in his search for an all weather crossing point. In the end he stayed on the ABH traverse line and it has proven to be a safe crossing point ever since.
SA/WA Border to Ilkurlka Roadhouse
The SA/WA state border is marked by both Beadell plaques and modern government signage. Immediately upon crossing the border we notice an improvement in condition of the track and the first decent facilities along the track for travellers, including shelter and emergency fresh water.
The area immediately across the WA border is protected and managed by Ilkulka, a group representing the Spinifex People who are the traditional owners of the area. The desert through this section of the ABH is beautiful with many wildflowers on show against a red sand canvas. Most of the area does not look to have been burnt for some time, as evidenced by the large spinifex circles caused by the growth pattern of the spinifex with new growth radiating outward and the older inner growth dying away.
We spent our fourth night on the ABH camped beside the track about 200km on WA side of the State Border. The previous night’s showers had cleared leaving a glorious blue sky day that really illuminated the desert colours as we made away to Ilkurlka Roadhouse, the only fuel and supply point on the ABH.
At $3.65/l this was the most expensive fuel purchased on the trip, but it is still a reasonable price when you consider this is the most remote service station in the country and the logistics of crossing the ABH would be much harder without it. The roadhouse also has some basic grocery supplies and vehicle maintenance consumables.
Ilkurlka Roadhouse to Neale Junction
Onward ever westward, the group continued our run across the Anne Beadell Highway buoyed with full fuel tanks and an ice cream from the roadhouse.
In addition to steering the road construction party Len Beadell was setting out the framework for a geodetic survey grid that included many “trig points” (trigonometric marker points) that following surveyors and mapping agencies would use to locate features in the desert. These trig points were erected on the tallest points in the landscape and often came into view along the track.
The track becomes less curvy and sandy, with more stone and clay sections that were in pretty good condition. About 60km from the roadhouse is a sign to a light aircraft crash site to the north – we didn’t detour to inspect the wreckage but by all accounts it is a fairly complete wreck of a crashed Cessna plane that crashed in the 1993.
The next Beadell landmark we encountered was Neale Junction, intersection of the Connie Sue Highway (named after Beadell’s daughter) and the ABH. The Connie Sue Highway became an important north-south link in the Woomera Range road network, running from Rawlinna railway siding in the south all the way to Warburton mission (now an indigenous community) and the famed Gunbarrel Highway.
One of few Beadell landmarks not named after family or friends, Neale Junction was named in honour of a WW1 flying ace who later undertook aerial surveys over much of the western desert in 1935, and whose work guided much of Beadell’s.
Neale Junction to end of the ABH
Our final stretch of the ABH took in some beautiful country, varying from dunes to remarkable rock formations.
Another marker plaque was spotted along the track, but not one placed by Len – instead it is a simple plaque placed by family of Anne Beadell to reflect that the woman whose name the road bears had her ashes placed at Woomera.
Our final camp along the ABH was made just west of the Neale Junction Nature Reserve amongst a stand of black desert oaks. An early departure next morning saw our dust cloud continue toward the west on a road in good condition thanks to efforts of the local grader driver.
The rolling desert dunes and wide horizons were interrupted now by some jump-up country, with the low flat mesas of the Morton Craig Range rising on the horizon. One of the more notable points is Bishop Riley’s Pulpit, a red rock peak that stands slightly taller than the surrounding escarpments.
Weaving through the hills also marked a shift into the Gibson Desert and start of the Yeo Lake Nature Reserve, named after the Yeo Lake Station that formerly occupied the land before it was deserted in the 1960s after prolonged drought made working of the station untenable.
While we had benefit of travelling in a group we encountered plenty of evidence of how badly things can play out in this remote part of the country.
The ABH is particularly hard on vehicles due to its relentless corrugations, dry arid terrain and the ever present threat of spinifex fires. During the trip we encountered numerous abandoned and wrecked cars and trailers, broken by the track but too remote to repair or recover.
Ensure that your travelling party is aware of the trip’s hazards and precautions are taken by way of adequate water, fuel, food and communications.
Soon after exiting the Yeo Lake Nature Reserve we turned north onto Point Sunday Road, ending our traverse of the Anne Beadell Highway. For those wanting a complete end-to-end ABH experience, the track continues for about 50km to meet the well formed White Cliffs Yamama Road, then ultimately another 130km to the gold fields town of Laverton.
Instead, we ran north to meet the Great Central Road then north east to resupply with fuel, water, groceries and great hamburgers at Tjukayirla Roadhouse.
An interesting feature at the roadhouse is a community tyre changing bay, consisting of several tyre replacement tools welded to chains and secured to a steel post – a little crude but no doubt handy in this remote part of the country…
And so ends this leg of our trip as we transition from the Anne Beadell Highway to the David Carnegie Road, but that is another yarn that you’ll have to read about in the next blog 😉