The Gary Highway, constructed by the Gunbarrel Road Construction Party (GRCP) in April and May 1963 was named by Len after his son, born earlier in the same year. It is one of a few GRCP roads that was driven only with a grader, allowing faster construction but with a heavy toll on the grader and its tyres (as they would later discover…). The track provides one of few north-south links in the Woomera range road network but is rarely used today and is therefore poorly maintained.
Hema and other maps will show that the Gary Highway overlays and intersects with the Eagle Highway – this was an access track driven by the Eagle Oil Company in the early 1980s to service their exploration activities in the area.
Running for roughly 323km through the Gibson Desert, this remote track takes you through extremely arid country that can quickly turn an inattentive traveller’s minor problem into a life threatening emergency. Thorough planning and vehicle preparation is necessary before venturing into this country alone.
While permits are not required to drive the Gary Highway, they may be required by travellers planning to enter or leave the track at its northern ends on routes that run along the Canning Stock Route or Gary Junction Road:
- Gary Junction Road – NT Section (Central Land Council)
- Gary Junction Road – WA Section (Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority)
- Canning Stock Route – Wells 5 to 51 (Kuju Wangka People)
A convoy of vehicles led by the legendary Ron Moon ran part way up the Gary Highway (Everard Junction to Windy Corner) in late July 2022 – we took two days to traverse the often rutted, overgrown and narrow track. We touched on the Gary Highway again a few weeks later, passing through Gary Junction when travelling solo and homebound from WA to the NT across the Gary Junction Road.
Everard Junction to Lake Cohen
Our trip up the Gary Highway started at Everard Junction, its intersection with the Gunbarrel Highway.
After spending the night at the Geraldton Historic Society Bore we entered the Gibson Desert Nature Reserve (no permit required) then proceeded on the Gunbarrel Highway heading east for 35km to meet the north bound Gary Highway.
The intersection is fairly nondescript, marked by a replica of Len’s plaque affixed to a 44 gallon drum, along with a visitors’ log book enclosure.
Southern end of the track traverses flat open desert country clothed in spinifex and small shrubs, some of which crowd the track and reach across to scratch at the passing vehicles. We also encountered sections where the spinifex was burnt back, we presumed either naturally or for land management purposes. The area was also dotted with small termite mounds, some right on the wheel track edges and centre line ready to catch out a wandering driver.
Similar to other tracks we had driven, surface condition changed according to the type of soil we travelled over. Worst of all was the ironstone gravel sections which formed nasty and deep corrugations, whereas the sandy sections were in pretty good condition.
We occasionally encountered rocky sections rising from the flat sand plains – usually these were a little rough and rutted but caused no problems provided a good line was taken by the driver.
By far the biggest hazard along the track is the innocent looking seed heads of the spinifex – often growing in centre of the track where it is scooped up and accumulates around hot and moving components of the vehicle to create a risk of trip ending fire.
We encountered one of many vehicle fires, a late model Prado that had recently been gutted by fire and abandoned.
To reduce risk of suffering the same fate I always stopped with the Cruiser straddling a wheel rut, so that the hot exhaust and transmission was over bare dirt rather than resting in the spinifex growing along middle of the track. The group also stopped regularly to clear accumulated spinifex from around the underbody components. Diesel vehicle drivers should especially try to avoid stopping over spinifex when a DPF regeneration is occurring, while petrol vehicle drivers must consider that the catalytic converter is always at high temperature and a potential ignition source.
When it was time for lunch we pulled into one of the few spinifex clear areas, in this case a gravelly clearing on a stony rise was just perfect.
Roughly half way along the Gary Highway is Lake Cohen, a shallow clay pan that fills with water occasionally, but not during our trip. It was however a great place to make camp for the night, with shady trees and clear flat ground.
While kicking back in the TVAN I noticed that the tree behind me had many scars, which I believe shows where aborigines cut coolamons, bark dishes or bowls for carrying seed and water. The ground around me also had other hints of aboriginal habitation in the form of stone chips and flakes that did not appear to match the local rock or dried mud and shale of the lake bed. Its is these little details and findings that make outback travel so interesting and draws me back…
Lake Cohen to Windy Corner
Middle section of the Gary Highway starts out flat and firm with the ever present spinifex growing thickly across the plains and along middle of the track.
The road swings slightly to the north east before again running northward, and the countryside takes on more contours with associated signs of water movement. Sections of the track become more rutted and in places very overgrown, requiring vehicles to push through the spindly mulga and acacia scrub that is not worth stopping to cut back but which still scratches and claws at the vehicles.
Once again I start running with the side mirrors retracted to prevent them getting beaten and bashed by scrub that hangs across the track. We stopped to cut away some larger branches in places where the track wound past wash aways that provided no where to swing wide to clear the obstacle.
It was in this area that a few vehicles suffered more punctures and bent steel wheels, either by stakes hidden in the long grass or washouts that caught the driver by surprise. During the trip many vehicles and trailers had steel wheels bent or buckled – it is always argued that a benefit of steel wheels when off road is that they can be beaten back into shape (which is true) but this trip confirms my belief that modern alloy wheels are a better and stronger option when running low tyre pressures in rough country (sure they may ultimately crack or bend, but at much higher forces than a steel wheel can tolerate).
We push through the scratchy clawing scrub and eventually reach Windy Corner, the point roughly 2/3 up the Gary Highway where it intersects with the Talawana Track. Len’s stories recount how it was so named after a period of terrifically windy weather when he was camped waiting there for the GRCP to meet him on the Gary Highway to commence driving the Talawana Track.
In addition to the replica plaque affixed to a 44 gallon drum, the intersection is marked with a stack of newish blue 205 litre drums that look to have been left by a mineral exploration team.
From here our group turned westward, heading across the Talawana Track to the Canning Stock Route and beyond. I’ll cover this track in the next blog instalment, so subscribe or keep an eye out for the next blog update.
Windy Corner to Gary Junction
We didn’t drive the northern section of the Gary Highway, and from others’ accounts it is more rutted and overgrown because it sees less traffic, with many travellers following our lead and heading west from Windy Corner. Parts of the road also pass through an oil exploration area over which cleared tracks and shotlines can be seen. From research an obstacle to consider in wet periods is a flood out zone about 50km south of Gary Junction, where the track winds back and forward around clay pans and water courses.
We did however pass by Gary Junction intersection when travelling solo on our homebound trip leg. Gary Junction is well marked with a large welcome sign erected by the Martu People and a replica Beadell plaque, affixed to a 44 gallon drum like others along the Gary Highway.