The Canning Stock Route
Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.
Tjukurba gallery artists and project staff at Well 22. Photo by Tim Acker. Courtesy of FORM.
Creating the Canning Stock Route was the answer to a host of challenges presented by the Australian outback. Pastoralists raising beef cattle in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia needed to bring their cattle to markets in the south, where tens of thousands of people lived on the goldfields near Kalgoorlie.
In between lay a vast, harsh landscape of sand dunes, spinifex grass and salt pans.
Surveyed and created in the early 1900s, the scale of the Canning Stock Route is epic. It runs for almost 1800 kilometres, crossing 800 sandhills and four deserts in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. It is a marvel of planning and skilful surveying work and was created without the aid of modern technology or conveniences. Yet, despite the huge effort to create and maintain what was designed to be a busy cattle-droving corridor, the Stock Route was never heavily used and quickly fell into disrepair. If nothing else, its existence is proof of nineteenth century European determination to tame the Australian wilderness.
… it's such a long way to take cattle over… some of the harshest country that's ever been inhabited by humans, so it was a bold thing to do, but an absurd thing to do in other ways.
John Carty , oral historian and anthropologist from the Australian National University and a member of the Canning Stock Route Project team, in an ABC Radio story, 2008.
Today the longest former stock route in the world is busier than it has ever been, attracting four-wheel-drive and adventure enthusiasts from all over the world who are keen to experience the challenging remoteness of the Australian outback and learn more about the culture of the traditional Aboriginal owners of the lands it crosses.
A 'vast, howling wilderness'
Alfred Wernam Canning and scenes from the expeditions to the Kimberley to open up a stock route, 1906-1908. Image courtesy of WA Health Libraries Network: b2089319.
In 1906, Alfred Canning, a surveyor with the Western Australian Department of Lands and Surveys, was asked to find a way to link the Kimberly to the Kalgoorlie goldfields. Other European explorers had visited the area, including an intrepid young British explorer, David Carnegie who had tried unsuccessfully to establish such a route just a few years before.
Carnegie's arduous thirteen-month return trip covered almost 5000 kilometres, from Coolgardie to Halls Creek and back again. Carnegie later wrote a memoir of the journey, aptly called Spinifex and Sand . In it he recalled the 'vast, howling wilderness' they encountered, where in one day they crossed over sixty 'high spinifex-clad ridges of red sand…so steep that often the camels had to crest them on their knees, and so barren and destitute of vegetation… that one marvels how even camels could pick up a living…'.
Native tracker on camel accompanying a police party along the Canning Stock Route in search of a lost prospector, 1937. Image courtesy of the J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History: 003156D.
In 1906 Canning embarked on his own expedition to identify a stock route. Carnegie's recollections would have intimidated most seasoned explorers—but not Canning. Perhaps perfectly qualified to complete the job, just a few years prior he had surveyed the route for a rabbit-proof fence, another surveying and engineering project on an immense scale. The fence was planned and built as a way of stopping rabbits plaguing pastoral areas of Western Australia and eventually covered many thousands of kilometres. The rabbit-proof fence survey took Canning three years and was in country not unlike the terrain of the future Canning Stock Route.
With the voluntary assistance of many Aboriginal people, and enforced assistance from others, Canning began his survey of the route in 1906. A key part of his work was identifying locations for a series of wells which would provide drovers with water at regular intervals. These wells, which tapped underground water springs, were the life-blood of the track which crosses deserts and salt pans in one of the driest parts of Australia.
Canning and his team made a repeat trip in 1908 for the purpose of sinking 52 wells along the route at locations he had previously marked. It was a monumental task and one he completed efficiently in difficult conditions, at one stage completing one well every 15 days. Canning's planning was meticulous—he took 30 men and used 70 camels, four wagons, 100 tonnes of food and equipment and 267 goats, which were herded along the route and used for their milk and meat.
A difficult history
Axel Poignant (1906-1986), Portrait of an Aboriginal mother and child, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia, 1942. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn4463084.
It seems that there’s another history, a… quite a violent history underlying the regular history book version of what happened on the Canning Stock Route...
1908 Royal Commission
Canning and Carnegie have both been criticised for their treatment of many of the Aboriginal people they each encountered during their respective trips. Indeed, a 1908 Royal Commission was conducted to 'Enquire into the Treatment of Natives by the Canning Exploration Party'.
On their return to Perth the expedition cook, a man named Blake, accused Canning of mistreating many of the Aborigines they met. During the Commission, Canning admitted to capturing a number of Martu men, feeding them salt and then chaining them up at night. His objective was to find sources of water along the route. He waited until the heat of the day, when they were thirsty and they would then lead Canning's party to water sources. During the Commission this action was accepted as 'reasonable' and Canning and other men in the party were exonerated of other charges, including raping Aboriginal women and stealing property.
The only reason he was able to survive, let alone survey a stock route, was because he had help from the local people, whose country they were moving through.
After the Stock Route was completed, commercial droving began in 1910. Even with the wells that Canning and his team had installed it was a long, tough and unforgiving journey. The first few droves were of small groups of horses—the first began with 42 horses and ended with just nine still living.
No. 18 Well, Canning Stock Route. Image courtesy of WA Health Libraries Network: 001069D.
By co-opting the assistance of Aboriginal people over long stretches of track, Canning and his group forced them to cross into countries that were not their own. This meant that they were not only fearful of the European men, but also of punishment and reprisal from neighbouring Aboriginal peoples. The Stock Route itself runs through country where nine different languages are spoken. Establishing a corridor through which large numbers of stock would travel meant that many Aboriginal countries would be constantly traversed by animals and people who did not belong there.
First droving runs
In January 1911, the first mob of bullocks—about 150 of them—left Halls Creek. It was also the start of a spate of violent confrontations between Aboriginal people and white drovers.
During the first drove three men—George Shoesmith, James Thompson and an Aboriginal stockman who was known as 'Chinaman'—were speared by Aborigines near Well 37, later known as Haunted Well. Their graves are not far from that of Jock McLennan's, a prospector who died in 1922 after being clubbed to death by Aborigines. Reprisal attacks on Aborigines followed. One attack by drovers and a policeman resulted in the death of at least 19 Aborigines near several of the wells dotting the Stock Route.
While these events show a discord between the white people who used the track and the traditional owners of the land, there are others that show a different side to the Route and the people whose lives were affected by it. Just one of these is well-known to the people who live in its vicinity.
Mining surveyors and painted land surveys
Helicopter Tjungurrayi. Image courtesy of the Australian Art Print Network.
By 1957, the Canning Stock Route was of more interest to mining surveyors and less to drovers. It was then that a starving boy of 10, Yukenbarri Tjungurrayi, and his mother who had been wounded by a spear, were found by a mining survey team not far from well 40.
The surveyors saved their lives, giving Yukenbarri and his mother medicine and food. They also arranged for them to be airlifted to Derby hospital for treatment. They both survived and later settled in Balgo. The young boy was given the nickname 'Helicopter', after his airlift to Derby. Now known as Helicopter Tjungurrayi, he is one of the most respected artists of the Western Desert, known the world over for his representations of his country.
Rover Thomas was born in about 1926 at Gunawaggi, Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route. Shortly after moving to Warmun early in 1975, Rover Thomas found or was given the open ceremony of the Gurirr Gurirr (Kril Kril). First performed in Warmun in the late 1970s, participants carried on their shoulders pieces of plywood painted with ochre, which complemented verses of the Gurirr Gurirr song cycle. Rover Thomas and his classificatory uncle Paddy Jaminji painted many of these works. Mary Macha, the Manager of Aboriginal Traditional Arts, Perth began to market their work in about 1983–84. A few years later Rover began to paint for Waringarri Aboriginal Arts, Kununurra.
An early demise
David Rust and drover Teronie watering bullocks at rock hole near Moola Bulla. Image courtesy of the WA Health Libraries Network: 007855D.
I believe as a stock route it wasn't terribly successful at all.
James Canning, surveyor, historian and great-nephew of Alfred Canning.
Violent interchanges between Europeans and Aborigines went on for some time. This was one of the reasons why the Stock Route never became the busy thoroughfare it was designed to be. Drovers were fearful of attacks from Aborigines, and by the mid 1920s many of the wells had deteriorated so badly that it was not possible to safely complete a trip.
Often, wells were put out of use by local people who were furious when the new wells ruined the traditional springs that had sustained their communities for generations. As getting water out of a well required a great deal of strength (three men or a camel), many were injured or died while trying to access water; after falling in and drowning or breaking bones on pulleys. Buckets were cut off or timber was set on fire in reprisal.
Axel Poignant (1906-1986). Portrait of a teamster, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia, 1942. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn4404065.
Between 1911 and 1931, only eight mobs of cattle had used the route. In 1930 after other attempts had failed, Canning, who was then 70 years old, was asked to return to the Route to supervise refurbishment of the wells. Despite his age, he managed the project with his usual precision and efficiency, completing refurbishment on all the wells in 16 months.
Yet, markets were changing, and more cattle were being sent south by ship instead of overland. Despite Canning's refurbishments, and more in the early 1940s, only 20 more mobs of cattle were driven down the route. The last droving run was completed in 1959.
Carnegie's much earlier recommendation regarding the creation of a stock route through the area became a prophecy: 'We have demonstrated the uselessness of any persons wasting their time and money in further investigations of that desolate region'.
The Canning Stock Route Project and Aboriginal art
Bidyadanga artist return to Winpa [near Percival Lakes, Gibson Desert], 2007. Image courtesy of Rebel Films, Desert Heart .
And the white man history has been told, and it's today in the book. But our history is not there properly. So one way to tell them, we've got to tell them through our paintings. They might see it through there. Our people are not resting in peace properly, you know. We need to do something, we need to do something so that they can rest.
Clifford Brooks, Aboriginal artist from Wiluna, Western Australia
The region is dotted with art centres—such as Warlayirti Art Centre, Halls Creek and Papunya Tula—as well as thriving desert communities where traditional land owners live. Many of Australia's most senior Aboriginal artists hail from this region.
In 2007 many Aboriginal artists participated in the Canning Stock Route Project. Travelling over 1800 km of the Route, through the lands of Martu, Kukatja, Manyjilyjarra, Wangkajunga, Walmajarri and Yulparija peoples, they created contemporary representations of their experiences and the history of their people. In 2009, work created as a result of the project was acquired by the National Museum in Canberra and a touring exhibition of the work will begin in 2010, one hundred years after the first drove on the Stock Route.
The largest art gallery on earth
…this place has been continually visited and possibly inhabited for the past 15–25,000 years.
Dr Shaun Canning, archaeologist and anthropologist and great grand-nephew of Alfred Canning.
One of the survey images from the Canning Stock Route captured by the research team. Image courtesy of the Road to somewhere project.
Along the Stock Route, thousands of Aboriginal rock paintings and carvings can be found; some of them date back tens of thousands of years. Concern about the safety of some of these sites is increasing as the number of visitors to the area climb each year. Most are respectful of the art they see, yet others have desecrated what are sites of cultural significance, in some instances even using angle grinders to remove rock carvings.
Recognising that there is a need for a comprehensive catalogue of rock art and dreaming sites in the vicinity of the Stock Route, a project (due for completion in 2010) is underway to create guides and visitor information tools and also protect sites that are of special significance to the Indigenous peoples whose lands the Canning Stock Route crosses.
Look, listen and play
- Watch a clip of the 1988 movie, The Last Great Cattle Drive
- Watch a clip of Beyond the behind – driving down the Canning Stock Route
- Canning Stock Route slideshow showing many wells and Aboriginal rock art
- Driving the Canning Stock Route 'documentary' style showing the changing environment and conditions: Part 1: Halls Creek to Well 46 ; Part 2: Well 46 to 25 ; Part 3: Well 26 to 18 ; Part 4: Well 18 to 12 ; Part 5: Well 12 to Windich Springs
- Desert Heart , video clip, David Batty and Rebel Films. From documentary film of Bidyadanga artists return to Winpa DVD
The Canning Stock Route
- Following in the footsteps of Canning – modern day surveying of the Canning Stock Route.
- The Canning Stock Route - Australian Geographic
- Canning Stock Route - Wikipedia article
- Road to somewhere - ANU Reporter item on a project to safeguard Aboriginal rock art along the Canning Stock Route
European surveying and exploration
- Alfred Canning
- David Carnegie
- John Forrest – an early explorer of the region
- Peter Warburton – early explorer
- Hubert Trotman – Canning's assistant on many of his surveying trips
Aboriginal heritage and art
- The Canning Stock Route - radio transcript about aboriginal heritage, artists and the Canning Stock Route, PM ABC Radio
- Road to somewhere - Full ANU News article about their project to catalogue ancient Aboriginal art and sites of significance along the Route
- The Canning Stock Route Project
- A traditional look at the Canning Stock Route - Landline, ABC
- Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route - behind the scenes film of one of the Canning Stock Route Project’s creative workshops, ABC Arts Online
- Through Our Eyes: The Canning Stock Route – Canning Stock Route Project images and information exhibition, Port Hedland Courthouse Gallery
- National Museum acquires Canning Stock Route Collection - National Museum of Australia.
- Yiwarra Kuju: the Canning Stock Route exhibition at the National Museum of Australia
- Canning Stock Route: indigenous story - Australian Geographic
- Martumili Artists
- Art of the Wangkatjungka community
- Contact – information about the film of the first encounter Martu people had with non-Martu people in the 1960's.
Last updated: 4th September 2009
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, et al.