Cycling Australia's Tanami Desert: Out There and Back

Kate cycles the Buchanan Highway on the way to Victoria River Downs Station | Kate Leeming
Kate cycles the Buchanan Highway on the way to Victoria River Downs Station | Kate Leeming

Cycling Australia's Tanami Track: Out There and Back

Kate conceived and organised the Great Australian Cycle Expedition (GRACE), a 25 000-kilometre journey through her own country, 7000 kilometres of which were ‘off road’ on isolated tracks in remote regions. The five main tracks included the Cape York Peninsula Development Road, the Gulf Track, the Tanami Track, the Gunbarrel Highway and the Canning Stock Route. The purpose of the expedition was to promote the importance of, and contribute towards, education for sustainable development (find out more). 
Read this excerpt from Kate Leeming's book, Out there and back, where she cycles across the Tanami Track.
Kate's 25,000km cycle route around Australia
> Kate's current adventure is in South America, where she's taking on the Andes, the Altiplano & the Atacama. This journey sees her cycle from Cusco, Peru, across the Altiplano in Bolivia and Chile and the Argentinian Puna de Atacama to Ojos del Salado, the world's highest volcano. She'll cover a distance of 5,000km in just 56 days. Learn more about this journey and follow her trip.
*Want to win a copy of Out There and Back? We have a couple of copies of Kate's book to give away to 2 lucky members of the Australian Cycle Tours community. Subscribe now (it's free!) and be in it to win it. The prize was drawn in June 2022.* Congratulations to Mark and Val who won the book giveaway.
Out There and Back, The Story of the 25000-km Great Australian Cycle Expedition by Kate Leeming

Excerpt of Out There and Back. Chapter 7: Tanami

This suddenly changed as we reached the edge of a plateau. Descending a jump-up, we were confronted by a vast ocean of sclerophyllous green, studded by the distant remnant buttes of the Victoria River catchment. Most of the land towards the horizon was part of Willeroo Station, owned by the Sultan of Brunei, and our destination for the first day out of Katherine. I had telephoned in advance from Coco’s to set up our stay. Jim, the manager, was expecting us and we joined him and the jackeroos for a beer and chat after their long day of mustering. Both parties could certainly justify hard-earned thirsts. As some of the musterers were camping out overnight, we were fortunate in being able to stay in their quarters and were generously given free rein of the kitchen.

The station extended as far as the boundary with the Gregory National Park towards which we squeaked our way the following morning. The park was named in honour of another of Australia’s greatest explorers, Augustus Gregory, one of whose many feats was to lead the first European land-based expedition to explore the Victoria River region in 1855-56. The Victoria River with its eight tributaries is the largest river system in the Northern Territory and one of Australia’s mightiest. During the Wet, it can rise 17 metres above its normal level in places.
Kate Leeming cycling around Australia |  <i>Kate Leeming</i> Day 1 on the Canning Stock Route. CSR also stands for Corrugations, Sand and Rocks! |  <i>Kate Leeming</i> A lone camel on the Docker River Road, NT |  <i>Kate Leeming</i>

Gregory and his team made many new discoveries in the world of botany, including the boab tree (Adansonia gregorii) which was named after him. The Australian boab, with its huge swollen trunk, is closely related to the African baobab (Adansonia digitata). It has been suggested that seeds from the tree were washed into the sea off the coast of Madagascar and carried across the Indian Ocean to the Kimberley coast of north-west Australia; birds then continued the boab’s eastwards expansion, carrying seeds across northern Australia. Despite similarities, the boab is not related to the ooline or bottle trees we saw in Queensland.

Interestingly, Aboriginal and African legends about the boab tree have a remarkable similarity. In essence they say: when God created the boab, it was to be the most beautiful tree in the universe, bearing the juiciest fruits. But when the tree grew and produced fruit which had a bad odour and tasted vile, God became so angry that this tree would not conform to His wishes that he pulled it out of the ground and slammed it upside-down into the earth. This is why the boab looks as though its roots are above the ground, struggling for survival.

The Victoria Highway carved its way through spectacular layered sandstone formations. Spinifex, lime green and sprouting after an unseasonal 100-mm boost of rain, clung on to all those parts of the scree slopes which weren’t bare rocks. Flowering yellow kapok trees contrasted against wine-coloured, iron-based cliffs.

We paused to appreciate glimpses of the spectacular Victoria River Gorge just before the roadhouse. At the end of the day we were to turn off the highway and onto the gravel. We had attempted to obtain information about water supplies on the route ahead, as the Victoria River Inn was the last obvious reliable information and water stop, but it was unclear what would be available. Greg had even contacted the ranger from the Gregory National Park, but did not receive any guarantee of drinking water. We loaded up at the inn, labouring out of the valley weighed down with an extra 12 litres of water each to last the next day and a half.

Most cyclists would barely acknowledge the junction with the Buchanan Highway, a well-graded gravel road heading south, but for us it was significant, a geographical landmark for the expedition. Travellers tend to stick to the tarmac and head towards Kununurra if they are circumnavigating the country. The turn-off marked the start of a 5500-km triangular loop through isolated desert tracks, traversing the Tanami Desert, into the Red Centre, along the Great Central Road and the Gunbarrel Highway. If all went according to plan, I then proposed to cycle with the aid of a support vehicle up the Canning Stock Route. The schedule was tight because I had to return to Halls Creek in the eastern Kimberley before the onset of the Wet season – usually in late October – and it was already mid-August. We bumped off from our high point near Kuwang Lookout, descending the stony road for a few kilometres before finding an old gravel pit secluded from the track, where we pitched the tent.

The Buchanan Highway is named after perhaps Australia’s most famous stockman, Nat Buchanan, and is a clue to our next destination, 110 kms to the south. Through his explorations which opened up huge tracts of land in the Northern Territory and the Kimberley, Buchanan helped settle more new country than any other person in Australia’s history. His most famous exploit was to lead a team of seventy drovers to move 20 000 head of cattle from Central Queensland to Glencoe and Daly River stations south of Darwin in 1880, a feat still unequalled by any other drover in the world. In 1883, he pioneered new tracks from Queensland to the Kimberley, where he took up Wave Hill in partnership with his brother. He also helped his son pioneer Flora Valley and Gordon Downs stations near Halls Creek in 1887. His mates often called him ‘Old Bluey’ because of his red hair and fair Irish complexion, which he shaded with a battered green umbrella.
Controlled burning causes the black smoke across the Stuart Highway near Katherine, NT |  <i>Kate Leeming</i> Crossing the saline Savory Creek, the main source of water for Lake Disappointment, the Canning Stock Route |  <i>Kate Leeming</i> Kate cycles the Buchanan Highway on the way to Victoria River Downs Station |  <i>Kate Leeming</i>

Our destination was Victoria River Downs (VRD) Station, perhaps Australia’s most famous cattle station – so well known that Greg recalled learning about it at school in England. VRD is the centrepiece of Heytesbury Beef, owned by the Holmes à Court family. I had contacted Catherine, a friend from my university hockey tour of Great Britain, and she kindly arranged for us to stay there. Acquired in 1989 by her father, the late Robert Holmes à Court, VRD is part of the company’s 33000 square kilometre (eight million acre) territory, which encompasses eight stations including Nat Buchanan’s Flora Valley. Wave Hill is a neighbouring property.

Despite not being a well-documented tourist route, the Buchanan Highway through Jasper Gorge and the heart of the Victoria River catchment would rate in my top ten days riding for consistently awe-inspiring scenery. The broad valley gradually narrowed over about 40 kms, until the road drew in to hug the path of Jasper Creek, sandwiched between two jagged cliffs. Reflecting the rugged surrounds, the state of the road surface inflicted lasting physical impressions on particular body parts and equipment. At Jasper Gorge, the palm-fringed permanent waterhole was a subtropical oasis which provided welcome respite from the heat of the day. South of the gorge, loose stones played havoc with our wheels as we climbed out of the valley.  Pushing past Kidman Springs towards the end of the day, we were entering productive station land. The alluvial black-soiled plains formed originally by Cambrian basalt can support up to ten cows per square kilometre – a pastoralists’ idea of heaven.

*          *          *          *          *

Arriving at the well-maintained VRD settlement seemed like heaven after a long week pedalling almost 900 kms since Darwin. With a population of around seventy, the station headquarters is virtually a small town, complete with its own post office, shop and weather station. Even the lawns are a manicured green. We cycled past the airstrip and the busy Helimuster Company headquarters, where pilots were arriving back in the last light after a long day of cattle mustering. Looking for Maureen and Jim Coulthard, who had kindly offered to have us to stay, took us past houses which were set just back from the banks of the Wickham River, As general manager, Jim is the big boss of the ‘Big Run’,the name most commonly given to VRD in the Top End.

As usual after a long stint, we wandered around in a daze for much of the following morning. After Karen had taken the meteorological readings – which she does five times per day – she drove us out past the airstrip and the old hospital, to the Centre Camp stock-yards. There John was working with a team of seven jackeroos and jillaroos, drafting and loading the Brahman cattle. The scale of it all was astounding. Six three-trailer road trains lined up in a row, each vehicle approximately 50 metres long; the queue that extended over 300 metres contained 372 wheels (sixty-two wheels per vehicle). Eighty per cent of the stock were being sent out to the rich flood plains to be fattened and 20 per cent of the heaviest (350 kg) beasts were being sold off to Indonesia. VRD/Heytesbury Beef have led the way in developing their own South-east Asian markets.

We were able to find out important details about our proposed route of cutting across from Lajamanu to the Tanami Track – a track, known locally as the Suplejack Road, about which we had previously been unable to discover any information. It was vital to know where we could find food and water supplies, and to be able to calculate accurately what we needed and what we could carry. Key in finding out about the Suplejack Road was to talk to Letty and Bill Cook at Suplejack Downs Station, the only habitation on the 240-km stretch. When I rang her, Letty sounded most enthusiastic about our proposed visit and told us that their cattle road trains were able to negotiate the road, even with the sand. This was enough assurance for us to commit to travelling the route.

I next called Bruce Ferrands of the famous Rabbit Flat Roadhouse for any further information he could give us. I had been warned by several people who had driven to Australia’s most isolated roadhouse that I might not get a friendly reception. Bruce and his wife, Jacqui, only open for business four days per week, from Friday through to Monday. Anyone showing up on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays will not be served under any circumstances, no matter who they are or what they require. With this in mind, I dialled the number. But I needn’t have worried: when I explained what we were doing, Bruce proved helpful and enthusiastic and, in the end, I had a job putting down the phone. Before I did, he told me how to get in contact Newmont Mines. These two major installations – the Tanami Mine and The Granites – are about 100 kms apart, straddling Rabbit Flat and positioned conveniently to fit in with our daily schedule. I called the Tanami installation and they didn’t hesitate to accommodate us.
Crossing Victoria River upstream (away from the crocodiles (as we wanted to believe!) |  <i>Kate Leeming</i>

Satisfied that the following week was under control, we now had to pay attention to the following day. Jim gave us permission to travel their private tracks to Pigeon Hole Station, explaining the route with detailed maps and loaning us a two-way radio as an extra precaution. It was only just over 70 kms through but we were assured that the going would be slow.

Thinking that the route to Pigeon Hole, even if a bit rough, would be only a half-day ride, we were in no hurry to leave the comfort of the VRD Centre Camp. As the day started to heat up we at last farewelled our friends and headed off back past the airstrip, through a pair of rusty gates and across the shallow pools in the sandy Wickham River bed. The deep sand on the track was testing for a few kilometres, but then the land opened out into vast plains with more ancient escarpments. A sense of freedom enveloped me as we crossed land which few cyclists would have had the opportunity to tackle. The usual red soil abruptly changed to a monotone grey. Coarse grey stones combined with corrugations were camouflaged by the alluvial dirt of the floodplains so the track lived up to its notorious reputation, belying its initial, tamer appearance.

Police Hole Yards provided some welcome shade for a lunch break and was also the end of the more moderate track. For the final 30 kms of the day, we navigated our way along fences and through cattle-yards over the roughest track of the whole journey to date. It was all large, awkward-sized stones, some embedded into the ground, others loose. In the face of adversity, Greg remained in touch with his sense of humour. This time he made jokes about wanting to divert down an even rougher track so that he could boast about visiting Gregory’s Remarkable Pillar – a prominent landmark named after Augustus Gregory, a few kilometres west of Pigeon Hole. We arrived at the homestead just after sundown, later than expected. I felt like a boxer suffering from brain shake. Chaffing was so bad I walked like an apprentice jillaroo after her first day of mustering. Greg was no longer making gags about remarkable pillars!

Great Australian Cycle Expedition trailer

Watch this footage from Kate's journey to get a feel for the harsh terrain and conditions she was dealing with while crossing Australia.
Read about Kate's adventures:
> Out There and Back. The story of the 25 000-km Great Australian Cycle Expedition. Get your copy as a physical book or digital book, from only $10.
> Njinga. The story of Kate's astonishing 22,000-kilometre trek by bicycle across Africa.  This is more than a story of mental grit and physical endurance – it’s a story of hope. Get your copy of the book.
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Want to win a copy of Out There and Back? We have a couple of copies of Kate's book to give away to 2 lucky members of the Australian Cycle Tours community. Subscribe now (it's free!) and be in it to win it. The prize was drawn in June 2022. Congratulations to Mark and Val who won the book giveaway.


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