Great Central Road

Monday, Aug 21, 2023 at 00:50

ExplorOz - David & Michelle

The Great Central Road is a major dirt highway that stretches east-west for 1060km between the start of the Tjukaruru Rd (at Kata Tjuta in the NT) through to Laverton in WA.

Despite being unsealed, it is the main vehicular route linking Central Australia to Western Australia and is well-travelled by tourists throughout most of the year. For travellers, the route offers a practical shortcut but the trade-off is limited facilities and few attractions for travellers.

The NT side of the Great Central Road is called Tjukaruru Rd and starts just 50km west of Yulara (at Kata Tjuta). From here the road heads west for 243km to the border of NT/WA. From the border to Laverton in WA is a further 868km.

The road passes through large tracts of Aboriginal lands featuring a number of Aboriginal communities and all travellers must have a permit to use the road, regardless of whether you stop at these communities. Be aware that you will need 2 permits - one for the NT side, and another for the WA side. Before planning your trip, ensure you read the conditions on these permits as there are certain restrictions. For details about where to get your permits, and for all the points of interest, roadhouses and camps please refer to the Trek Note on ExplorOz - Great Central Road Trek

This blog covers our experience along the track in August 2022 as part of our mapping and POI update project (see past 10 blogs covering each section). Please note that all photos are square cropped thumbnails - tap to enlarge to view full size. On the Track Log, you can show overnight locations, and daily trip segments by tapping in the right hand panel as indicated.

Day 1

On the Northern Territory side of the Great Central Road, the road begins at the junction of the Kata Tjuta Road and Tjukaruru Rd. By the time we reached that point however, we had already travelled 248km that day from our previous bush camp on Luritja Road and it was mid-afternoon. We then had just 180km of unsealed road to reach our camp at Docker River Campground.

Surprisingly it began with a little bitumen but once we hit the dirt we stopped to reduce our tyre pressures. Just as we stopped, another traveller coming from the west heading back into Kata Tjuta/Uluru slowed down to ask us how much further to the tar because they'd had an awful trip! They looked completely exhausted and explained how challenging they had found the road and its extensive corrugations. David took a quick glance at his tyres and whispered to me "no wonder, he hasn't let his tyres down!" but didn't say anything to them. They wished us luck and off they went.

Conditions were good at this point and David sat on about 90km/hr. We stopped at Lasseters Cave, collected firewood, and had a good run to the Docker River Campground where we found ourselves alone with the pick of the sites. It's such a shame this place never got the water activated to the wonderful little amenities huts that were built to support the camp. The campsite layout is gorgeous - with sites nestled in a grove of desert oaks on soft red desert sand. We climbed the little tower on top of a dune for a look around and took some photos at dusk. We did get a visit from a local family from the community who tried to sell paintings from their car. We would have been more than happy to look and buy paintings from a community gallery but found this approach most unsuitable. Campers should not have to deal with hawkers when preparing dinner.

Day 2

The following morning, we decided to take a quick drive into the Docker River Community, having spotted a big "Welcome" sign by the roadside and reading the signage at the camp entrance that gave the shop opening hours. However, as soon as we stepped foot out of the vehicle a policeman approached us with his palm up and said STOP! He was most stern and refused us to step foot towards the store saying it was a breach of our permit and that the Community did not take kindly to "gawkers"! We were completely unaware that the Docker River Community was not permitted for public access as mentioned this was not clear in the permit description to which he argued the point. I made a point to update our Place description to ensure others don't make the same mistake. A very unfriendly place, unfortunately.

Back on the track, not more than 10km from Docker River we came across a very strange sight. A man beside a strange object was flagging us down. We slowed to a stop to find out what was going on and realised he had a motorbike with the front wheel removed, propped up by sticks and had been camped by the side of the road overnight due to a major breakdown.

He told us he was travelling with a mate on his bike, who had gone onto the Docker River Community to get assistance but even they were evicted and refused help! Whilst they had tyre repair patches they weren't holding, and they suspected the patches were too old as nothing they tried would hold and they decided the only fix would be a liquid sealant. They had decided to flag down every driver to ask if anyone had some. It was their lucky day, because we had tyre sealant because we have a similar problem with the MTB bikes and we too had been having troubles with tyre repair patches this trip and decided to purchase a couple of bottles of sealant at $25 per bottle in Newman at the start of our trip after getting flats from thorns when riding in the scrub. The motorbike owner was ecstatic and wanted to take both our bottles but that would leave us with none, but we decided we were closer to home than he was and agreed. During this exchange, another vehicle approached from the west and slowed to a stop. He recognised our number plate and started using our names - turns out they were long-term ExplorOz website users Bill & Kerry.

Once the riders were satisfied that they were saved, we got to hear their story. Originating from Tasmania they had travelled 11,000km on their bikes so far on this adventure. They said they would like us to encourage travellers to toot bikers when passing on dirt roads. I wasn't sure at first why they would wish for this but they explained that on heavily corrugated roads, they ride standing up and weaving across the track to find the best path through the rough spots and they can get into a daze and not be aware of upcoming traffic! A loud few toots lets them know that a vehicle is coming up behind and intends to pass. So please take that onboard.

We stopped at Warakurna Roadhouse and waited for a queue of hot food to be served to the two police that had just put in their order. There was then a lot of activity of people coming and going and the cops told us of their ordeal that day having just been called in to investigate a crime. Turns out the local kids had destroyed the classroom iPads and damage costs were very high. When it came our turn, we kindly asked for them to open the art gallery, accessible from inside locked sliding doors. It's a fabulous, small gallery and we had to choose carefully but ended up with 3 colourful paintings we liked very much. We didn't need fuel and didn't stay for the balloon release from the Giles weather station that occurs daily as we've been here previously in the days when you could do a tour inside the Giles weather station rather than watch from outside the fence as is required now.

We drove on to continue our search and verification of numerous gnamma holes and PBay locations. Gnamma holes occur across the desert regions of Australia, extending across SA, WA, NSW and QLD and the area through which the Great Central Road passes is full of gnamma holes. These rockholes, called gnamma holes would have been the main source of water for the Aboriginal people that used to live and passed through the area. Arid areas have low and unpredictable rainfall but they knew where to look for water. The gnamma holes are natural cavities found in hard rock, particularly granite outcrops and act as natural water tanks, which are replenished from underground stores and rainwater run-off. Gnamma holes vary in shape and depth and the small surface area of the hole helps to minimise evaporation. Aboriginal people would lay sticks and leaves over the narrow openings of the gnamma holes in order to protect the precious water sources from being fouled by animals, and to further help prevent evaporation. Some of Australia's early explorers were guided by Aboriginals to these waterholes and have been given names based on an interpretation of the spoken language. Many gnamma holes have been documented by government surveys and are noted on today's topographic maps, including EOTopo. If you look for these rockholes today, you will find they still trap water although they are often fouled.

132km west of Warakurna we pulled in to inspect/verify the Yarla Kutjarra designated free camp, although it was only midday and too early for us to stop. There's quite a few curiosities to see here and there's a long drop toilet so it's a worthwhile camp for sure but our purpose here was to document and photograph for an ExplorOz Places update.

When we reached the Warburton Roadhouse we arrived just as a convoy of about 30 colourful Toyota FJ 40s were driving out. They were heading east and appeared to be on a club group of some sort. We didn't need fuel but stopped to check the fuel prices and added these as a comment into Places, took a quick look around and documented our updates and photos and moved on.

Our day ended at a nice bush camp to the west of Warburton we've called Caves Camp. It's a nice spot but not very level and quite small so may not suit everyone. The ground is a honeycomb of holes in the ground opening up into small caves. You can walk around the back of the range and drop down to the lower level and then walk into the caves and look back up to the sky through the hole above. Someone has placed ladders to make it easier to get up/down but you can also easily just climb around the back area.

Day 3

Our next day was spent exploring yet more gnamma holes and verifying that Places markers shown on our EOTopo maps along the roadside were in the right position and were photographed. In doing so, we came across another solo vehicle with WA plates at one of the areas where a rockhole and a survey post was marked on our maps. This couple said they couldn't find so they were a bit amazed when we arrived and simply walked straight to the post, so they came and followed us. This sparked conversation! What maps were we using? They were using Hema 4WD app and when looked at Traveller, they were amazed that the difference. In Traveller, we could tap on the existing marker for the rockhole and it showed an arrow indicating in which direction we'd need to go to reach it, along with how many metres away we were from it. This data works offline because it uses the GPS in your device. By having the app on our phones, we simply walked directly to the site without hesitation. The Hema 4WD app does not have this type of functionality. We were quite amazed at how primitive it was. Anyway, we'd made new friends with Keith and Vicki from Geraldton who like us, had years of experience in the outback but could see an app like ours would make a huge difference to their ability to find specific things of interest. ***Post Trip Edit: I was contacted by Vicki just last week telling us they had decided to purchase ExplorOz Traveller and were about to head off along the Anne Beadell Hwy. We appreciated the contact because its nice to know what becomes of people we met along the tracks.

We then moved on to correct the locations of a few more rockholes - some were out by a small margin (40m) but we found them all. We also cross-referenced many of these in Wikicamps and read comments from people saying they could not find them. I later read an article that explained that the GeoScience Australia survey of these rockholes had perpetrated the incorrect coordinates for these rockholes long ago, so it was great to finally get all of them corrected. The terms rockhole and gnamma hole are interchangeable.

By day's end we found a nice quiet bush camp 8km west of Tjukarilya Roadhouse.

Day 4

The next day, we drove back 8km to Tjukarilya so that we could follow one of the ExplorOz Trek Notes out to the caves track expecting to find excellent Aboriginal paintings. There is a 5km cave track and a 15km cave track so we decided to head out to the furthest track first. Despite all the information we had, there was nothing matching the description. We found the caves but no paintings.

We hunted and hunted but in the end accepted defeat and drove back to the 5km caves. What we discovered there confirmed that the paintings at the 15km site have literally "disappeared" due to erosion - possibly man-made.

After years of previous visitors splashing water onto the ochre paintings, they have been washed away. Back at the roadhouse I poured through the old photo albums and discussed our experience with the new operator who said they hadn't been out there yet but had been told the paintings were all but gone. Sad. The nearby Tjukarilya "Zoo" was a bit of a let down too with the promise of rock formations that looked like a wide range of animals but we were hard-pressed to make out a few "elephants" maybe.... but we did find a massive car yard junk pile and tried to see if we could find a unique car part that our son's car back home needed.

After the frustration of looking in vain for the paintings in the caves, our day continued to become even more frustrating - searching for numerous rock holes that weren't where the GPS positions said they were. Not only did we have to verify rockholes, but also gravel pits, campsites, bores, blaze trees and memorials, rock formations and any form of tourist attraction (if any). Both of us found today painfully boring work because nothing seemed to be going right. Everything was not where it should have been and it just took so much time. I don't think either of us liked this day at all and wanted to be anywhere else but here.

This tree is setup as a tourist attraction alongside the main road. According to the information signboard here, this is one of the last specimens of the Kurrajong tree in this area. There had been recent rains a few weeks prior our visit and it was certainly looking healthy with green leaves.

We had intended to end our day camping at the Giles Breakaway camp but due to all the delays we couldn't get there before sunset so we stopped 70km earlier a fabulous spot called "The Pines". The trees here are actually not pines but Casuarinas. This section of the Great Central Road is actually in the Great Victoria Desert, one of 85 bioregions of Australia and the largest desert in Australia. We had only travelled a total 185km today but were completely exhausted!

This camp was not marked on any maps we had at the time but was a signed rest area with extensive bush camping out the back. It appeared at just the right time so we finally felt like the day had taken a turn in our favour. There was only one other camper in this vast area stretching back for at least 2km and there was firewood galore! It was an excellent, isolated camp spot for our last day on the Great Central Road.

Day 5

The following day, we still had some site verification to do in the final 120km to Laverton. We stopped at all the remaining points of interest including Giles Breakaway which provides a spectacular view out across to the Desert Gate, which is the name of the pass between the rocks through to the valley floor that was found in 1894 by explorer David Carnegie. At the main rest area, you'll find bins and picnic tables but you can follow the narrow tracks through the scrub to wind your way further along the edge at the top of the rim if you wish to find a quiet spot away from the main area if you prefer. Next time we come along the Great Central Road we would like to come back here to get some sunset photos and drive into the valley floor through the Desert Gate. It's only 50km east of Laverton.

Upon reaching Laverton we had hoped to get fresh food supplies from the supermarket attached to the Laverton BP Roadhouse where we fuelled up and filled our water tanks but sadly, we discovered that the shop isn't manned the same hours as the servo so we were denied access to purchase anything. Instead, we made our way to the Great Beyond Visitor Centre (worthwhile) and found some food in the cafe and then drove on towards Leonora via the Old Laverton Road, following the Golden Quest Trail.

The GQT was so well signed and interesting! In our next blog, we will detail this as we enjoyed this section of the trip and took a number of side trips to grave sites and cemeteries. We ended up exploring the area around Mount Margaret not fully realising it was an Aboriginal community on the edge of an enormous mine site but went up the mountain, and out to the salt Lake Carey but doubled back and made our way to Mount Morgan and enjoyed looking through the old Mount Morgan Municipal Chambers. from here, the Old Laverton Road continues to guide you along past some more signs and information at historic mining sites and eventually we started to look for a camp. We found a possible camp at some old railway bridges but the ground was quite damp and looked unpleasant so we checked our maps and aimed instead for Malcolm Dam and was thrilled with the spot and had it all to ourselves. 117km from Laverton, a total distance of just 237km driving for the day.

The next stage of our journey continued through the Goldfields but will be covered in more detail in our next blog.


David (DM) & Michelle (MM)
Always working not enough travelling!
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