Beadell's illustrations with kind permission of Anne Beadell, photos by
Australia's western desert in the 40's was still vaguely described as an 'arid area' in the map. Pilots and the early explorers like Giles had described and named many ranges and saltlakes, but few had dared to follow their tracks. Except the Canning Stock Route, a rarely used cattle track in the north west, there were virtually no roads between the Stuart Highway from Adelaide to Darwin and the mining towns in Western Australia.
was to change the map as the military forces became suddenly interested
in that vast area.
Australia's Western Desert in 1940
The black marker defines the area that has been opened up by Len Beadell's road network.
The dotted line is the Canning Stock Route from Wiluna to Hall's Creek, never intended as a vehicle track.
The only road crossing the whole continent went from Darwin in the north via Alice springs to Adelaide. It followed some years after the railway had been operating.
The atomic experiments at Emu and Maralinga fortunately ended in 1957.
Woomera rocket range is still in existence, but rather used for satellite launching now.
After the war, the British and Australian government decided that a rocket range was to be established. In 1946 Len Beadell of the army survey corps was appointed to the task and selected the site named Woomera. The missiles´ direction was the north-western coast, because the area covered was considered uninhabited. Soon after, atomic bombs were tested at the Emu and Maralinga sites in Southern Australia.
Len Beadell had chosen and surveyed the Maralinga and Emu sites from 1951 to 1954.
When large parties of scientists, military officers and others moved into the Emu claypan, they had to adapt to a desert environment and driving techniques in a new vehicle- the LandRover.
The road surface, particularly when corrugated, is dangerous at high speed. The safe max. speed is 35-40 mph
His 4 WD driving guidelines must be among the earliest around. The inexperienced drivers had to be warned against saltlakes and the dangers of occasional rain
At one stage, Len tried to warn a crew member against driving his Rover onto a 'dry' saltlake surface. "Look, we haven't got a couple of days left to pull you out, and I doubt we can" he said. But the guy wouldn't listen and drove off. After a hundred yards, he cried to his mates on the shores
'Look mates, no hands!'
but 10 seconds later, Len had every reason to reply
'Look mates, no Rover!'
By then, nobody knew exactly how far the Woomera rockets would be launched. The scientists involved knew even less about the impact of atomic explosions on the weather and environment. So there was a need to survey the area, build a meteorological station and roads to get there.
Len Beadell was chosen again for the task, recommended by his vast bush experience and reliability. So he was to build the first road to cross the western desert from east to west. In 1955 he decided upon the site of the future weather station during a reconnaissance flight. Soon after, a party of four men and Land Rovers went out to the spot across the bush. The station was named Giles. It is still operating and certainly one of the remotest on earth.
Giles Met Station
The next year saw Len building a road to Giles, which was called the Gunbarrel Highway later on. It was aptly named, being as straight as a Gunbarrel. Len Beadell went on long, lonely reconnaissance trips through the dense mulga bush to establish a suitable route. He navigated using a compass, the theodolite for astrofixes to calculate his position and his rover speedo.
Once he had found a suitable course, he drove back to his road construction party, thus often deciding on a better route with less sandhills. Then he guided the bulldozer driver by flashing a mirror from the roof of his LandRover. When the first cut had been bulldozed, Len would go ahead of the party again for another reconnaissance of the following piece of road.
When Giles was finished, Len had to build another road from there heading in a south-easterly direction towards Woomera. It was supposed to be closer to the rocket centreline. But before he could reach the Maralinga road, his rear diff broke down and he got hopelessly bogged in a sand dune. So he had to wait four weeks for a rescue party. Later he came back with spare parts and fixed the Rover.
At one stage, Len was given a new winch for his LandRover. Next time he was thoroughly bogged out in the bush again, he gave the winch a try. His comment on the winch was:
'It was excellent. It pulled out every mulga bush within 300 yards from there I was bogged!'
So Len did his best to avoid that his roads crossed big sanddunes.
A sanddune near the Gunbarrel
1957 Len continued the Gunbarrel Highway, pushing it further west from Giles
to Carnegie cattle station. There theeasternmost West Australian track ended.
His long reconnaissance trip to the tiny mission outpost of Warburton was
almost his last. The heat in the heart of the Gibson desert can be as bad
as 60°C, so on one these days Len' radiator had completely evaporated.
He almost perished before he found water digging in a dry creekbed.
After he had revived at the mission outpost, using another track back he returned safely to his anxious crew. Len's nightmare happened pretty close to the area where the early explorer Giles lost his party member Gibson.
To let future travellers feel safer about their position, Len marked trees or concrete-filled diesel drums with aluminium plates. On these he had chiselled the exact position of the plate, calculated by with an astrofix. The author can assure that they are very exact, so that you feel ashamed using your GPS!
Plate at Everard Junction
Len Beadell at work by night
The Gunbarrel was completed in 1958. The last section of 750 kms from Warburton to Carnegie was first explored by a party of three surveyors, another lonely survey being to risky. This last section crosses mainly flat country, with the occasional creekbed and some claypans. But to build it this way, the party still had to find a way around perennial Lake Carnegie. They literally had to chop their way through dense mulga bush. While a vehicle can easily bend the bushes to the side to get through (that's called bush-bashing) the hard sticks penetrates easily through LandRover tyres. Len had to mend up to six tyres per day! The total distance of the original road is 1357 kms form Carnegie to Victoria Downs on the old Stuart Highway.
Beadell's tree near Mt. Samuel
Today, you can still drive along parts of the Gunbarrel. The main traffic has lately been redirected to the Great Central Road from Laverton to Yulara, though. It links Central Australia to Perth and is suitable for road trains and sturdy conventional vehicles. Only the Gunbarrel's part between Carnegie and Warburton is usually listed by 4WD tour books, as it is very hard to get a permit for the other half. From Warburton on you are to use the Gt. Central Road. Still, you need two permits to do even that. The central Land Council will supply the application forms needed
Some wise guys think they don't need to apply. Well, it's some sort of respect for the traditional owners of the land - and it's the law. If you get into trouble and you haven't got a permit, this might be real expensive. Mind you, even the roadhouses do ask for the permit. So it's that simple: no permit- no fuel!
As the Gunbarrel hasn't been maintained since the late sixties, it's a real 4WD track. It offers some spectacular landscape, but can be challenging after heavy rain
Gibson desert after heavy rainfall
The story of the Gunbarrel Highway can be enjoyed in Len's first book, 'Too long in the bush'.
In 1959 Len Beadell received the British Empire Medal for his roadbuilding. As a reward , he also got a three months leave, which he used for a tour around the world. His book Around the world in 80 delays recollects this epic journey in text, cartoons and photos. Don't miss it! It is funnier than Crocodile Dundie but unfortunately Len never lived to see it published. (His widow sells all his books at the link above). On his trip he had the opportunity to visit the Solihull factory:
Stands of young desert oaks
They can survive seven years without water
Other roads were requested after the Gunbarrel highway was completed in 1958.
During 8 years, he and his party of 6 men build a road network of more than 6000 kms under these harsh desert conditions.
The first road after the Gunbarrel was the Sandy Blight Junction Road, named after an eye disease that plagued Len on the reconnaissance. This road originally connected Giles Met Station with the Papunya Aboriginal Community 300 kms further north. It is certainly the most scenic of his road,he called it his road beautification project.
The area resembles more a park than a desert with large stands of desert oaks. Len was trying to spare the trees whenever he could, so the road has many bends around stands of exceptional beauty. Even today you can still see the results of his efforts. Some travellers seem to have blamed Len for the straightness of the Gunbarrel, so the many dunes and Ranges of the Northern Gibson provided a good reason for a more curvy road. Further south there is a maze of saltlakes Len had to avoid.
100 mile desert oak and marker
He even thought of the interest of sightseers. So certain parts of the road lead seemingly straight to a prominent mountain or range. He found a field of giant boulders near Mt. Kintore and rediscovered traces of Giles expedition, a tree blazed by Tietken.
While building another road west from Sandy Blight Junction to the Canning stock route, the Gunbarrel road construction party had the worst possible luck. First the ration truck burned out at Jupiter Well, then the grader's gearbox broke down.
That lead to longest towing operation in Australia's history. The grader and the party's water supply were towed by the 5 km/h bulldozer all the 800 kms to Giles.
Of course all this is in another book, named 'Beating about the Bush'. If you intend to travel this road, read it first. Than, take it with you on the trip, so that you can find all the features described. It's forty years old and still the best tour guide on a real bush experience. Again, you need a permit from
and a good reason to get it. (At the end of December 1999, I had obtained permit # 87 for that year)
The next road to follow the Gunbarrel went west from the Maralinga site to Laverton in Western Australia. It is another stretch of 1350 km through the mulga and saltbush covered Victoria desert. There was a very tricky challenge waiting for him at the state border. The Serpentine Lakes, a long maze of sausage shaped saltlakes, presented an obstacle to be respected. Chasing his Rover up and down the lakes, he finally came upon a dam between two of them. So he first tried it on foot, poking the ground for firmness, then inched very, very slowly across in the Rover, back again and so on with the supply truck and grader till they finally dared to take the bulldozer.
Len had married in 1960 and two years later he decided to take his wife Anne and five months old daughter on the next long recce trip. He even decided on a new LandRover for the purpose, using a SII 109 for the first time to provide enough space for his family.
They headed south from Warburton, decided on a future road corner and went east to meet the construction party. Len's family stayed for five months with him till the future roads had been defined and the area was explored west to Lake Yeo. In honour to his wife and daughter, Len called the road to Laverton the Anne Beadell Highway and the road from Warburton to Rawlinna on the railway line the Connie Sue Highway.
More roads followed, the Papunya to Canning road and the Talawana track linked Alice Springs to Marble Bar across the aptly named Great Sandy Desert. The Gary Highway and the Windy Corner road followed and formed new north to south connections. Intended first for surveyors, geologists and the military, today they form the neccessary supply tracks for the various Aboriginal communities of the Western Desert.
If you've got an appetite now, be aware that all these roads are very lonely desert tracks. Thanks to Len Beadell, they are more scenic than the eastern desert tracks and avoid major dangers carefully. But still, you have to get permits for ALL of them, and you must be well prepared. Please don't hesitate to read the information on the Central Lands Council site, as I don't want to encourage anybody travelling the desert without due respect for the traditional and lawful owners of the land you will meet on the track. See my 4WD Travel in Australia section coming soon on this site.
Len Beadell finished the last of his roads in September 1963. In 1965 he went on an anthropologic expedition with Professor Thomson to find a group of Aboriginals Len had met two years ago in the far north-west. During this trip, he fell seriously ill but declined to be transported back to Adelaide. His long sojourn in the bush living on a poor diet had caused serious health problems. A long hospital treatment followed and from then on Len was given lighter duties. He died in 1995.
Len Beadell wrote seven books, made two videos on the early days and held more then 900 lectures. In the remotest places in Australia, his books have been read by grader drivers, schoolteachers and motor mechanics. They are almost known by heart because they reflect the true bush spirit.
by Annette Flottwell