Cycling the Canning Stock Route: Out There and Back

Being chased by a storm near Well 7, Canning Stock Route | Kate Leeming
Being chased by a storm near Well 7, Canning Stock Route | Kate Leeming

Cycling the Canning Stock Route: 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 (learn more). 

Read this excerpt from Kate Leeming's book, Out there and back, where she cycles across the Canning Stock Route.
Kate's 25,000km cycle route around Australia

>> 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 10: The Grit Between My Teeth

Determined to beat the heat, I made an effort to start even earlier. But I was tired and, for the first time, I felt my spirit wane. My muscles were shaky and completely drained of energy, and my heart raced with each minor effort. Yesterday’s dehydrated state had caused extreme stress to my cells and they had not recovered.
Day 2 on the Canning Stock Route, crossing station country |  <i>Kate Leeming</i>

The first twenty kilometres to Savory Creek was utterly soul destroying. The sand dunes weren’t particularly high, but they ran haphazardly in different directions and the track wriggled through them like a seemingly never-ending maze, often traversing diagonally over the ridges, which meant long, slow inclines in hopeless sand. I couldn’t summon the power needed to pedal under these conditions, and restarting after losing balance was near impossible. Walking was almost as fast, and required far less energy. My average speed to Savory Creek was just 6.6 km an hour.

The severity of the conditions, combined with my exhausted state, led me to lose control of my emotions. As I trudged up the dunes, thoroughly feeling ground down, tears started to flow, like the summer storm I had endured three days earlier. A few sporadic drops evolved into a torrential downpour. The hot, dry sands instantaneously absorbed my salty trail, as if the desert refused to tolerate such a show of weakness, fragility, vulnerability.
Taking a break from the enormous corrugations on The Gulf Track |  <i>Kate Leeming</i> Kate pushes a 50kg load through the sands of the Gunbarrel Highway |  <i>Kate Leeming</i> A lone camel on the Docker River Road, NT |  <i>Kate Leeming</i>

Giving way completely, I sat down as if on strike. I had to think the whole situation through, remind myself of why I was doing this, of the level of satisfaction I would gain from achieving my goals. The CSR was the most important part of the expedition, and I always knew it was going to test my limits. I had at least another 1000 km of sand ridges to go. I had never given up on anything before and I reminded myself of how much I would regret throwing in the towel after only ten days and about one-third of the journey. I couldn’t bear to give my doubters any satisfaction.

Psyching myself into a fixated, almost robotic, state, I took several deep breaths and pushed off again. I wasn’t going to get there sitting on my bum! Every step forward was a step in the right direction and a step closer to my target. I set very short-term goals, such as reaching a small bush or a desert oak beside the track twenty or fiftymetres ahead, then gradually raised my sights to reach the next sand ridge. Making each manageable target was a small success – I was getting there. I needed to see my situation with ‘new eyes’, so I made a conscious effort to look for the beauty in my surroundings and appreciate that few people ever create such opportunities. It also helped if I diverted my mind away from the task at hand, so I searched for favourite songs and positive thoughts – I had transformed the desperate situation into a Beautiful Day. By the time I neared Savory Creek three hours later, I was feeling much better. I carved my way through the sand in an hypnotic fashion, with a new inner strength, no longer paralysed by the emotional or physical pain which had forced me to question what I was doing.

Don was surprised to catch up to me so soon on a samphire flat just before the creek. The terrain had been little obstacle for his vehicle and he had found this section much easier than the conditions between Wells 17 and 18. He couldn’t have imagined the journey I had been through during the previous three hours.
Crossing the saline Savory Creek, the main source of water for Lake Disappointment, the Canning Stock Route |  <i>Kate Leeming</i>

Savory Creek is the most notorious hazard for vehicles on the CSR. This time the saline creek was low, so the crossing, which Don treated it with respect, was straightforward. He took care to first walk a path across to ensure his vehicle would not hit any deep soft patches – with no buddy 4WD to act as an anchor to winch the vehicle from a bog, he had to exercise extreme caution. Although I relied on the 4WD to carry supplies, with potentially so many facets that could break down, it was the weak link in my journey. Don is a great mechanic, but if something failed drastically, we were extremely vulnerable. For me, Savory Creek was no different from any other water crossing I had done on the journey so far and as there was no threat of crocodiles I simply picked up the bike and walked across. The fine black mud which squelched between my toes was a reminder of how treacherous this obstacle is after rain.

Cycling along the dry clay-based banks of the creek towards its confluence with Lake Disappointment was a short-lived joy. Savory Creek is the principal stream supplying concentrated brine to the lake. From the Ophthalmia Range (near the mining town of Newman), it traverses hundreds of kilometres over the entire Little Sandy Desert. I am amazed that any water at all reaches Lake Disappointment before evaporating. 
Battling endless corrugations on the Tanami Track |  <i>Kate Leeming</i> The track to the Calvert Range, just off the Canning Stock Route |  <i>Kate Leeming</i> Looking for water near where Lasseter passed away on Irving Creek |  <i>Kate Leeming</i>

Lake Disappointment, whose great white expanse covers an area of approximately 64 km from north to south and 48 km from east to west, was named in 1897 by explorer Frank Hann.  Noticing that many waterways headed east from the Ophthalmia Range, Hann was searching for an inland sea surrounded by fertile land. The name he gave what he found – a lake which only holds water after heavy rain, and is perfectly flat except for an occasional island of sand – echoes his sentiments. Our arrival coincided with the hottest part of the day and lunch break. 
After yesterday’s experience, I decided to extend my rest period; there was nothing to be gained by flogging myself in such conditions – definitely unsustainable. Our down time provided the opportunity to walk out on to the lake’s surface, which was surprisingly moist underfoot. A massive mirage hung over the lake, like a giant blanket of steam, and the islands appeared to hover above the shimmering expanse like extra-terrestrial ships. If Greg was with me it would have definitely reminded him of his visit to Antarctica. It was comforting to imagine the freezing landscapes of that cold desert when it was 43 °C in the shade. I am certain the reverse idea has warmed the hearts of many polar explorers. Here the red dunes made a dramatic contrast with the whiteness of the lake and the stunted salt bushes which stabilised its shores in the foreground, the brightness of my surroundings forcing me to squint continuously.

> 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.

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.
Donate to support Kate's adventures and educational endeavours:
Follow Kate's adventures on social media:
*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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