The remote central desert country of Western Australia is crossed by few tracks or roads, other than the great legacy of outback roads constructed by the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party under leadership of Len Beadell, and the more recently established Great Central Road (GCR) from Laverton to the the NT which overlays and links to much of the Beadell road network.
A noteworthy exception is the David Carnegie Road, a roughly formed track running south-north between Tjukayirla Roadhouse on the GCR through to the Gunbarrel Highway at Mangkili Claypan. The ~250km long road was originally driven by the Eagle Oil Company during their 1980s exploration work and named the Eagle Highway, in 1996 the southern half was renamed to celebrate centenary of David Carnegie’s 1986 exploration and prospecting expedition which approximately follows part of the road as he trekked from Coolgardie to Hall’s Creek and back again.
A convoy of vehicles led by the legendary Ron Moon traversed the David Carnegie Road in late July 2022 – we took two days to drive the often rutted, corrugated and narrow track – running northward from Tjukayirla Roadhouse (WA) before turning east onto the Gunbarrel Highway and camping at Geraldton Bore.
Tjukayirla Roadhouse to Empress Spring
We joined the David Carnegie Road from the south, turning off the Great Central Road after resupplying 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…
The southern entrance to David Carnegie Road is marked by a sign on the GCR 15km west of the roadhouse, although it could be easily missed if travelling in dust or low light.
We camped not far north of the GCR on a gravelly flat amongst the mulga trees. From there we struck off northward the following morning on a road that was narrow but pretty well graded and maintained. The track mostly crossed shaley clay ground in this section with signs that water would lay about in wet weather. The track remained in good condition but becoming more sandy accompanied by low dunes.
Our first side trip was a run into Breaden Bluff, a small gorge like formation of eroded rock lined with caves. The turn off is marked by a 44 gallon drum and is well used, so easy enough to spot.
Breaden Bluff, named by Carnegie after his expedition 2IC Joe Breaden, is a large red stone rise that sits above the desert and is extremely weathered – a small gorge is eroded down centre of the bluff and each side is punctuated by small caves and fissures.
Some references suggest this was an aboriginal ceremonial ground, we found no evidence of artwork but I did find a small quartz grinding stone that was out of place compared to the other rocks around it…
Roughly 30km further along the track is a truly impressive landmark – Empress Spring. Named by Carnegie after Queen Victoria, Empress Spring is an underground cavern and spring that was shown to Carnegie’s expedition team at a time when they were desperately low of water supplies, by an aborigine who was captured and forced to help them. Despite the method used to reveal the spring it saved the expedition who might otherwise have perished, for it is doubtful they would have discovered it alone.
Entrance to the spring is via some erosion holes in rock bed of a small water course – there is now a steel chain ladder to descend into the cavern but you can only imagine it was a difficult climb in and out before it was installed.
Once inside the cavern it is impressively large, with several side tunnels that became low and narrow. Inside and ceiling of the cavern is blackened by what looks like fire smoke, so perhaps aborigines would live in the cool of the cavern during inland summers? Although there was no sign of water when we were there, the area was surrounded by flocks of finches who undoubtedly knew the secret to finding it.
The site is marked by both formal and unofficial signage that touches on the spring’s history.
Empress Spring to the Gunbarrel Highway
Once northward of Empress Spring condition of the road quickly deteriorated, no doubt due to most traffic only going that far before turning back to the GCR. The road became a pair of wheel tracks that continued to follow what looked like a wide shallow valley or depression between sand dunes of the Great Victoria Desert.
Occasional stony rises crossed the track creating rougher sections that kept drivers on their toes, while in other areas water had eroded away the track leading to bypasses and side tracks around the worst sections.
Firewood is relatively rare along the track, a suitable clearing amongst the spinifex is also hard to find. By late afternoon we found both and set ourselves up on a sandy plain where the spinifex was at least a little less thick.
Towards its north terminus the track is however more low lying, with thicker scrub, clay pans and evidence of water laying about in wetter times. In several places there were deep wheel ruts and places where previous travellers had bypassed bog holes in the track. We also came across a long abandoned hybrid camper trailer beside the track, no doubt left behind due to a break down but never recovered.
We eventually broke out of the David Carnegie Road where it intersects the Gunbarrel Highway, the junction marked with a simple sign.
The intersection also abuts the Mangkili Claypan which was mostly dry except for a shallow basin of muddy water -but it still made a perfect place to pause for lunch.
From here our little expedition left the David Carnegie Road and continued eastward on the Gunbarrel Highway to the Geraldton Historic Society Bore. This proved to be a great area to set up camp, with good freshwater from the bore’s hand pump that could literally be a life saver for a traveller in trouble.
It was also a good place for several of us to lick our wounds and repair damage sustained over many thousands of rough outback kilometres. Amongst the list of damage spread across the group was a hot running wheel bearing, a diesel leak, tyre punctures to plug and in my case a TVAN shock absorber whose oil leak was getting progressively worse over the past few days. Luckily I carried a spare of the Koni shocks used on the TVAN and it was a simple enough job to replace it.
From here we’ll head to Everard Junction then turn northward onto the Gary Highway – but that’s another story, to make sure you see it subscribe to the blog and catch up with you soon 🙂