Canning Stock Route - Catching up with the old crew, the haunted well & the high country

Sunday, Jun 14, 2009 at 00:00


Sunday the 14thJune, 2009
Copse of Acacia on the track east of well 36 - CSR

An interesting day. The morning bought a biting wind out of the east so I opted for a dingos brekky (a pee, a scratch and a quick look around) to get on the track early hoping to head south and make Kurnawarritji tomorrow. I was packed and away by 06:45 and plunged back into the overgrown scrub, to complete the 17 odd kilometres back to the Canning. On reaching the intersection, I crawled under the car to peform a spinifex check before heading south into a beautiful morning. I decided to go looking for the faintly signposted Gunowarba Native Well but the track petered out only a kilometre or two east of the Canning proper. I peformed a circular search pattern in an effort to locate the track to no avail, it had well and truly been absorbed by the desert once again. Defeated, I returned to the Canning to continue my journey south.

At Well 40, Waddawalla, I joined Mr Tobin on the hill above the well, visiting his lonely grave and later the well and attached salt lake. Michael Tobin and his brother Joseph were members of the original Canning Expedition of 1906. They were camped at this location in April, 1907 when he was fatally speared. This excert is from Canning's letter to the Engineer for Water Supply and Mines in WA outlining his journey (Dec 1907).

"At this well on our return journey we had the great misfortune to have one of the most important and valuable members of our party (Michael Tobin) speared fatally by a native. It happened on the 5th April, about 5.30 p.m., he dying, after suffering bravely, at 1 p.m. on the 6th. It was a very sad thing, as he was a splendid man. The native who speared him was shot by Tobin at the instant he was fatally speared. We buried poor Tobin at the foot of the marked tree on the opposite side; cutting a cross, with the date of his death, etc., on the tree. The loss of such a valuable member of the party, in a spot so far away from civilisation, cast a gloom over the remainder of the trip, and I hope when it comes to my turn I may be able to look death in the face as bravely as he did".

What a difference a few short years make. In 2006, on my first visit to the well, the entire area was inundated, a sea of water. The water was 45 centimentres deep across the salt lake and was licking the edges of the surrounding dunes. Now the lake surface sported a dry crust of salt that was solid enough to walk across. The only water that remained was the muddy remnants at the bottom of camel scoured furrows. Emerging from the nearby dunes, a well worn path left by countless dingo paws easily defined their daily route to water.

Once on the road south again I was soon on the shores of Lake Tobin where the vast flat expanse of samphire provided excellent radio reception. I heard a couple of vehicles transmitting that they were heading north and surprisingly, the familiar clipped accent of the Captain also. I caught the trailer-less GQ with The Captain driving and George in the passengers seat. George explained that they were having a lay day in the desert oak camp area on the lakes southern edge. As I drew closer I heard Suzettes familiar voice over the UHF radio. From her alerts to oncoming travellers, it appeared that she and John were heading south as well. Somewhat confused I called into the camp site to find Maureen & Michael. It was great to see my old travelling companions. It seemed that the inevitable had happened and Mr Magic had decided to head out due to his "time constraints", no doubt influenced by a forced lay-day or two. They had had all sorts of difficulties getting one of the vehicles and its heavily laden trailer over the numerous dunes prior to Tobin. It had to be snatched several times and it appeared that the MRF tyres on the vehicle had been run at extremely low pressures allowing sand to get past the beads into the tyre, soon destroying the tubes. Bidding my farewells to a very tense camp, I continued south chasing the desert dinghy. Over the dunes and swales I ploughed finally catching the crew at Well 38. It was great to see them and I think they were very relieved to be away. We had a good look round 38 and the rock holes and carvings before heading on as a convoy of two.

We headed south to Well 37 “libral” or the Haunted Well as it is often referred to. Near Well 37 are the graves of Messrs. Thomson, Shoesmith, Chinaman and McLernon. This collection of grave sites led it to become known as the "Haunted Well", although there is no record of any ghost sightings at this remote location. In 1911 there was a droving party driving one of the few mobs of cattle to ever actually use the stock route from Halls Creek to Wiluna. A tribe of local Aborigines attacked the drovers killing Christopher Shoesmith, James Thompson and an Aboriginal stockman known as Chinaman. The Aboriginals took exception to the cattle drinking from their native wells and destroying their good sources of water. The fourth grave is that of John McLernon. McLernon was a member of an oil prospecting company who lost his life on the track about 50km to the south of Well 37 in 1922. It is a sad reminder of just how harsh and dangerous the deserts could be to the unsuspecting.

In the confusion of tracks around Well 36 we ended up on the eastern most, and least used section of the Canning. This took us out of the sand dune country and onto the higher gibber plains and their thick scrub. It was very windswept, the breezes of the desert seeming to pick up speed as they swept upwards across the rocky rises. Late in the afternoon, a decent campsite was becoming hard to locate. We finally pulled off into the shelter offered by a copse of spindly acacia, got a fire going from our supply of timber and prepared dinner. Over a refreshing beverage or three around the fire, I caught up on all the gossip and the dramas of the past few days. Plenty of drinks round the fire with Mrs Incredible dosing off in the chair at one point. It is a cold night with the wind adding a definite chill factor as well. I’ll be climbing into the Gumby suit (Selkbag) for sure tonight.

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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