Canning Stock Route

The Canning Stock Route is a track that runs from Halls Creek in the Kimberley region of Western Australia to Wiluna in the mid-west region. With a total distance of around 1,850 km (1,150 mi) it is the longest historic stock route in the world.

A 1928 Royal Commission into the price of beef in Western Australia led to the repair of the wells and the re-opening of the stock route. Around 20 droves took place between 1931 and 1959 when the final droving run was completed.

The Canning Stock Route is now a popular but challenging four-wheel drive trek typically taking 10 to 20 days to complete. A few adventurers have traversed the track on foot, by bicycle, and in two-wheel drive vehicles.

There are two small settlements on the track where fuel and other supplies may be obtained; Kunawarritji, approximately 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) north of Wiluna, and Billiluna, 173 kilometres (107 mi) south of Halls Creek.

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The Canning Stock Route is a track that runs from Halls Creek in the Kimberley region of Western Australia to Wiluna in the mid-west region. With a total distance of around 1,850 km (1,150 mi) it is the longest historic stock route in the world.

A 1928 Royal Commission into the price of beef in Western Australia led to the repair of the wells and the re-opening of the stock route. Around 20 droves took place between 1931 and 1959 when the final droving run was completed.

The Canning Stock Route is now a popular but challenging four-wheel drive trek typically taking 10 to 20 days to complete. A few adventurers have traversed the track on foot, by bicycle, and in two-wheel drive vehicles.

There are two small settlements on the track where fuel and other supplies may be obtained; Kunawarritji, approximately 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) north of Wiluna, and Billiluna, 173 kilometres (107 mi) south of Halls Creek.

In March 2020, the route was closed to tourists due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was reopened on 14 June 2022.

Yellow road sign in a wooded area. The title of the sign reads "Canning Stock Route". The body of the sign reads "This road is recommended for 4WD vehicles only. There is no water, fuel or services between Wiluna and Halls Creek, over 1900km in length. Motorists are advised to obtain adequate supplies and spares before venturing on this road" Roadside sign at the southern end of the Canning Stock Route, near Wiluna

In Western Australia at the beginning of the 20th century, east Kimberley cattlemen were looking for a way to traverse the western deserts of Australia with their cattle as a way to break a west Kimberley monopoly that controlled the supply of beef to Perth and the goldfields in the south of the state. East Kimberley cattle were infested with Boophilus ticks infected with a malaria-like parasitic disease called Babesiosis and were prohibited from being transported to southern markets by sea due to a fear that the ticks would survive the journey and spread.[1] This gave west Kimberley cattlemen a monopoly on the beef trade and resulted in high prices.[2]

With east Kimberley cattlemen keen to find a way to get their cattle to market, and the Government of Western Australia keen for competition to bring prices down, a 1905 proposal of a stock route through the desert was taken seriously. James Isdell, an east Kimberley pastoralist and member of the Western Australian Legislative Assembly, proposed the stock route arguing that ticks would not survive in the dry desert climate on the trip south.[3][4]

Surveying the route Calvert and Carnegie expeditions

The route, which crossed the territories of nine different Aboriginal language groups,[5] had been explored previously in 1896 by the Calvert Expedition led by Lawrence Wells and again later that year by the Carnegie Expedition led by David Carnegie. Two members of the Calvert Expedition perished of thirst and the Carnegie Expedition suffered considerable hardships with camels dying after eating poisonous grass and a member of the party accidentally shooting himself dead. Carnegie investigated the possibility of a stock route and concluded that the route was "too barren and destitute of vegetation" and was impractical.

Wells and Carnegie both mistreated Aboriginals they encountered on their expeditions, including by tying them up and forcing them to find water. Carnegie is also believed to have fed them salt, and he was later publicly criticised for this. Evidence supports that Alfred Canning had read both the Calvert and Carnegie expedition accounts to find out about the country (both described the terrain as "extremely difficult") and the use of Aboriginal people to find water, an example Canning followed during his own expedition.[6][7]

Canning survey

After it was determined that ticks could not survive a desert crossing, the government endorsed James Isdell's scheme and funded a survey to find a stock route that would cross the Great Sandy Desert, the Little Sandy Desert and the Gibson Desert.[8] Alfred Canning, a surveyor with the Western Australian Department of Lands and Surveys, was appointed to survey the stock route.[5]

Canning's task was to find a route through 1850 kilometres of desert, from Wiluna in the mid west to the Kimberley in the north. He needed to find significant water sources – enough for up to 800 head of cattle, a day's walk apart – where wells could be dug, and enough good grazing land to sustain this number of cattle during the journey south.[8]

In 1906, with a team of 23 camels, two horses, and eight men, Canning surveyed the route completing the difficult journey from Wiluna to Halls Creek in less than six months. On 1 November 1906, shortly after arriving in Halls Creek, Canning sent a telegram to Perth stating that the finished route would "be about the best watered stock route in [the] Colony".[2] Canning was forced to delay his return journey because of an early wet season in the Kimberley that year. The survey party left Halls Creek in late January 1907 and arrived back in Wiluna in early July 1907. During the 14-month expedition, they had trekked about 4,000 km (2,500 mi), relying on Aboriginal guides to help them find water.[9][10]

Canning had always planned to rely on Aboriginal guides to help him find water and had taken neck chains and handcuffs supplied to him by the Wiluna police to make sure local "guides" stayed as long as he needed them.[8][11] In order to gain assistance in locating water along the route, Canning captured several Martu men, chained them by the neck and forced them to lead his party to native water sources (soaks).[12] As many soaks were sacred, the Martu may have misdirected the explorers away from these, resulting in the eventual stock route winding more than would otherwise have been necessary.

Royal Commission into treatment of Aboriginal people

After the Canning survey party returned to Perth, Canning's use of Aboriginal guides came under scrutiny. The expedition's cook, Edward Blake, accused Canning of mistreating many of the Aboriginal people they met during the survey expedition. Blake objected to the use of chains and criticised the "party's 'immoral' pursuit of Aboriginal women, the theft and 'unfair' trade of Aboriginal property and the destruction of native waters". Blake was concerned that the planned wells would prevent Aboriginal people accessing water.[13][14]

Blake's complaints led to a Royal Commission into the Treatment of Natives by the Canning Exploration Party.[15]

Blake was unable to prove many of his claims, but Canning did admit to the use of chains.[5] Kimberley Explorer and the first Premier of Western Australia, John Forrest, dismissed Canning's actions by claiming that all explorers behaved in this manner. Despite condemning the use of chains, the Royal Commission accepted the survey party's actions as "reasonable" and Canning and his men were exonerated of all charges, including "immorality with native women" and stealing property.[5] The Royal Commission approved the immediate commencement of the stock route's construction. Canning was appointed to lead the construction party.[16]

Construction

Canning left Perth in March 1908, along with 30 men, 70 camels, four wagons, 100 tonnes of food and equipment and 267 goats (for milk and meat), and travelled the route again to commence the construction of well heads and water troughs at the 54 water sources identified by his earlier expedition. He arrived back in Wiluna in April 1910 having completed the last of 48 wells and bringing the total cost of the route to £22000 (2010: A$2.6 million).[1]

Thirty-seven of the wells were built on or near existing Aboriginal waters and were constructed in the European tradition, which made many of them inaccessible to Aboriginal people. Pulling the heavy buckets up from the bottom of the wells required the strength of three men or use of a camel. Consequentially, many Aboriginal people were injured or died while trying to access the water, either falling in and drowning or breaking bones on the windlass handle. In reprisal, buckets were cut off or timber set on fire, and by 1917 Aboriginal people had vandalised or dismantled approximately half of the wells in a bid to reclaim access to the water or to prevent drovers from using the wells.[5][17] Canning's party had constructed the wells with the forced help of one of the Aboriginal peoples whose land the route traversed, the Martu.

Canning produced a detailed map of the stock route, Plan of Wiluna–Kimberley stock route exploration (showing positions of wells constructed 1908–9 and 10) on which he also recorded his observations of the land and water sources along the route. The map has become a symbol of Australia's pioneering history.[2]

Using the stock route First droving runs

Commercial droving along the stock route began in 1910. The first few droves were of small groups of horses – the first started out with 42 horses of which only nine survived the journey.[5]

The first mob of bullocks to attempt to use the stock route set out in January 1911; however the party of three drovers, George Shoesmith, James Thompson and an Aboriginal stockman who was known as "Chinaman", were killed by Aboriginals at Well 37. Thomas Cole discovered their bodies later in 1911 during his successful drove along the stock route. In September 1911, Sergeant R.H. Pilmer led a police "punitive expedition" to find the culprits and ensure the stock route remained open.[18] The police made no arrests, but the expedition was considered a success after Pilmer acknowledged killing at least 10 Aboriginals.[19]

On 7 September 1911 it was reported that the first mob of cattle to traverse the entire length of the stock route had successfully arrived in Wiluna. The cattle had apparently gained condition on the long drove.[20]

The stock route was closed at some time prior to 1925. In 1925 the Billiluna Pastoral Company requested that it be reopened. The state government refused saying that it had fallen into disrepair from disuse as a result of stockmen being attacked by Aboriginals. The government claimed it would cost £5,625 and take six months to repair and refused to consider the expenditure at that time.[21]

Despite police protection, drovers were afraid to use the track and it was rarely used for almost 20 years. Between 1911 and 1931, only eight mobs of cattle were driven along the Canning Stock Route.[5]

Reopening of the stock route

A 1928 Royal Commission into the price of beef in Western Australia led to the re-opening of the stock route. In 1929, William Snell was commissioned to repair the wells and found that the only wells undamaged were the ones that Aboriginal people could use. Snell criticised the construction of Canning's wells because they were difficult for Aboriginal people to use safely, and he put the destruction of the wells down to the anger and frustration people felt at being unable to access traditional water sources.[22] Snell personally committed to making the wells more accessible to Aboriginal people:

Natives cannot draw water from the Canning Stock Route wells. It takes three strong white men to land a bucket of water. It is beyond the natives power to land a bucket. They let go the handle [and] some times escape with their life but get an arm and head broken in the attempt to get away. To heal the wounds so severely inflicted and [as] a safeguard against the natives destroying the wells again I equipped the wells ... so that the native can draw water from the wells without destroying them.—William Snell[23]

Snell started work on the refurbishment of the wells, fitting some with ladders for easier access, but he abandoned the work after well 35. Reports vary that he either ran out of materials or the desert became too much for him.

In 1930, Alfred Canning (then aged 70) was commissioned to complete the work. While Snell had encountered no hostility, Canning had trouble with the Aboriginals from the start but successfully completed the commission in 1931.[8][24]

With these improvements, the route was used on a more regular basis although in total, it would only be used around 20 times between 1931 and 1959 when the last droving run was completed.[25] None of the larger station owners used the track as it was found that only 600 head of cattle could be supported at a time, which was 200 less than was estimated when first completed. As Carnegie had accurately reported in 1896, the track was impractical for cattle drives.[5][8]

During the Second World War the track was upgraded at considerable expense in case it was needed for an evacuation of the north if Australia was invaded. Including horse drives there have been only 37 recorded drives between 1910 and the last run in 1959.[1]

^ a b c "History of the Canning Stock Route: Diamantina Touring Company". Archived from the original on 16 February 2011. Retrieved 13 February 2011. ^ a b c Of mining and meat: The story of the Canning Stock Route Archived 26 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine, National Museum of Australia. Retrieved 4 June 201.1 ^ Gard, Ronele, & Gard, Eric. Canning Stock Route: a traveller's guide, Western Desert Guides, Wembley Downs, W.A, 2004: pp. 41–44. ^ Stanton, Jenny (editor). The Australian Geographic Book of the Canning Stock Route, Australian Geographic Pty Ltd, Terry Hills, NSW, 1998 (revised edition): ISBN 1-86276-800-5. ^ a b c d e f g h "The Canning Stock Route". Australian Stories. Australian Government. May 2011. Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 28 June 2011. ^ The Legacy of Alfred Canning, Education at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, available at Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route – Education Kit Archived 2 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine
Both Wells and Carnegie used ropes to tie Aboriginals up so that they could not escape. In Carnegie's case to help them find water and in Wells's case, for help in finding two lost members of their party. Carnegie also deprived his captives of water or fed them salt beef so that they would lead him to water more quickly and he was publicly criticised for this at the time.
^ Canning Stock Route Royal Commission: Royal Commission to Inquire into the Treatment of Natives by the Canning Exploration Party 15 January – 5 February 1908, edited by Phil Bianchi et al, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA, 2010: pp. 138–140 (Q3418). ISBN 0-85905-059-9. ^ a b c d e The History of the Canning Stock Route, Education at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, available at Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route – Education Kit Archived 2 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine ^ Ron Moon, "The Canning Stock Route", Australian Geographic Archived 30 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine, AG Online, accessed online 1 August 2010 ^ Ronele & Eric Gard, Canning Stock Route: A Traveller's Guide (3rd edition), Western Desert Guides (2009) ^ Canning Stock Route Royal Commission: Royal Commission to Inquire into the Treatment of Natives by the Canning Exploration Party 15 January – 5 February 1908, edited by Phil Bianchi et al, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA, 2010: p. 126 (Q3126). ^ Knowledge of the locations of soaks was essential to survival in the desert and subsequently Aboriginals, who knew soaks had been misused by Europeans in the past, were reluctant to reveal their locations. Canning's 23 camels are known to have destroyed several soaks due to drinking them dry. A mob of cattle on the Canning route required more than 110,000 litres (29,000 US gallons) of water a day. ^ Questionable methods – Of mining and meat: The story of the Canning Stock Route Archived 22 March 2011 at the Wayback Machine, National Museum of Australia. Retrieved 4 June 2011[dead link] ^ Report of Royal Commission to Inquire into the Treatment of Natives by the Canning Exploration Party, included in Canning Stock Route Royal Commission: Royal Commission to Inquire into the Treatment of Natives by the Canning Exploration Party 15 January – 5 February 1908, edited by Phil Bianchi et al, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA, 2010: pp. 309–10. ^ "Treatment of Natives". The West Australian. Perth. 1 February 1908. p. 3. Retrieved 18 January 2013 – via National Library of Australia. ^ Report of Royal Commission to Inquire into the Treatment of Natives by the Canning Exploration Party, included in Canning Stock Route Royal Commission: Royal Commission to Inquire into the Treatment of Natives by the Canning Exploration Party 15 January – 5 February 1908, edited by Phil Bianchi et al, Hesperian Press, Carlisle, WA, 2010: pp. 309–336. ^ WA State Records Office File 1917/1424: The Condition of Wells and Natives along the Canning Stock Route. ^ Pilmer, quoted in the East Murchison News on 22 September 1911: "I can assure you that it is the intention of the authorities that Canning's track shall be a main highway to the Nor-'West and that that route shall be entirely cleared of all obstacles likely to be a menace to those using that route." ^ R.H. Pilmer. Northern patrol: an Australian saga, edited and annotated by Cathie Clement and Peter Bridge, Hesperian Press, WA, 1996 ^ Kalgoorlie Western Argus, 12 September 1911, accessed 30 December 2010. ^ "Canning Stock Route cannot be re-opened". The Daily News. Vol. XLIV, no. 15, 720. Western Australia. 11 September 1925. p. 12. Retrieved 4 March 2017 – via National Library of Australia. ^ Re-opening the stock route 1929-31 – Of mining and meat: The story of the Canning Stock Route Archived 22 March 2011 at the Wayback Machine, National Museum of Australia, accessed 4 June 2010 ^ State Records Office WA, File 64/30: "Miscellaneous information requested by Aborigines Dept re condition of natives along the Canning Stock Route". ^ John Slee, Canning, "Alfred Wernam (1860–1936)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Online Edition, Australian National University, accessed online 28 December 2006, ISSN 1833-7538 ^ "Last mob of cattle to travel down the Canning Stock Route – left well 51 on 9 June 1959, arrived at Wiluna on 13 August 1959", Post & rail, March 1994, p. 9.
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