In June of 2012, I was privileged to join my sister on the trip of a life time: nearly a month traversing the Canning Stock Route (CSR) in Western Australia. In order for you to grasp what an awesome opportunity it was, allow me to tell you a little bit about the Canning Stock Route. As the name suggests, it was a cattle route created in the early 1900's to service the beef industry in Western Australia. Spanning 1,150 miles, it is the longest historic stock route in the world. After the last cattle drive in 1959, the route slowly began to gain popularity as a challenging four-wheeling adventure route. At the time of this trip my sister was living in Australia to be near her Aussie boyfriend, Linden, (now my brother-in-law) and he and some mates had apparently been planning a trip on the CSR for some time. Bri (my sister) decided to invite me to come along, for which I am eternally grateful. After I landed in Perth we had only a few days to prepare for our epic adventure. Bri and Linden had recently purchased a 4x4 Pajero with the trip in mind. It was into this that we packed camping gear, food, spare tires and axle, tools, and jerry cans of fuel and water. There are a number of wells along the route but some are fairly far apart and we were uncertain as to whether they were still in working order, so having plenty of our own water was imperative. As for fuel, we would be going through very few towns and so besides carrying extra gas, the boys had made arrangements for fuel drums to be dropped by helicopter along the way for us to re-stock. The night before the trip we met up with a friend of Linden's, (he goes by "Gerzy") who was to be our final travel companion and tent mate for the remainder of the trip. He quickly dubbed us The Four Musketeers. Our final group count was six vehicles, which included a very brave couple with a small baby. Justin and I are determined to be that kind of couple when we have kids - still out having amazing adventures. The next day we hit the road.
We drove from Perth to Wiluna, which is the start of the CSR if you're doing it in a south to north direction. As the CSR is a single track with a lot of dunes and hilly terrain, we attached a long poled flag to the bull bar of each vehicle to increase visibility when cresting hills, with the hope of avoiding a head on collision with vehicles coming down the track the opposite way. We also tuned into the radio frequency that we'd been told was for use on the CSR, to hopefully hear chatter from other approaching vehicles. However, despite the CSR's increasing popularity we only saw a handful of other vehicles the whole time. I'd like to say that I kept careful notes and can tell you our daily mileage and where we set up camp each night. However, I had not been involved in planning the trip and didn't know I'd write a blog at the time, so none of those details got recorded or stuck with me. Instead I'll describe the trip in a more general sense and include lots of pictures, because the scenery was truly spectacular. The track was extremely rough from the get go, with repairs needing to be made to some of the cars on the first day. After a long day we reached the first well and set up camp. And that was the pattern for the rest of the trip. Full days of picking our way through rocks, deep sand, dunes, washes, and dried out lake beds, before finally reaching a well or just deciding we were done for the day. We'd make camp and Bri and I would cook for the boys. She did an awesome job of planning out food. She even baked a cake in a cast iron pot in the coals of our communal bonfire. That pretty much elevated her to legendary status in our camp. The next day we'd pack up and do it all again.
Being June in the Southern Hemisphere meant it was winter, and deserts are famous for being scorching in the summer and down right cold in the winter. This was no exception. While not cold enough for snow, like some deserts, temps dropped into the low 40s at night which felt plenty chilly to me. I quite enjoyed my zero degree sleeping bag, and Bri and I were wusses and boiled water for hot water bottles each night. Things were cozy in our tent with Bri, Linden, and myself sleeping widthwise across the top while Gerzy slept lengthwise at our feet. I'd brought my Therm-a-Rest to sleep on and I'm into hard core adventures, so I'm a bit ashamed to say that after a week I ended up sleeping with Bri and Linden on their cushy air mattress. Even worse, I kept doing it for the rest of the trip! Poor Linden. I guess that was his first taste of what a crazy sister-in-law I was going to be.
One day we came to an enormous salt flat and Bri and I got out and tasted some. Another day we went over such rough terrain that the brackets on our roof rack snapped, and it catapulted off the car with all of our things, including Bri's guitar. That was the first and only time I've heard Linden swear. Sometimes we had to stop and let some air out of the tires to prevent ourselves from getting stuck in the sand, it was so deep. There were numerous flat tires. It was rough but it was liberating, and wild, and wonderful. At night we'd make a huge communal bonfire and just sit around for hours chatting. Never much of a runner, I took it up during the second week. I'd help get everything packed up and then would start out running down the track ahead of the group. I would just run until they caught up to me. Sometimes it would only take a couple of kilometers. Sometimes I'd run five or six before I'd hear them coming in the distance. Running through the wild terrain in absolute silence and complete solitude is almost a sacred memory for me.
A ways into the trip we began to see evidence of wild camels. Imported to Australia from India, Arabia, and Afghanistan during the 1800s to aid in the colonization of Western Australia, these camels were set loose when cars took over their role. There are currently around 300,000 feral camels and we were determined to see some. For several days we found their tracks in sand and mud around water holes, and knew we were getting close. Then finally one day we crested a hill and spied a herd on the horizon. We parked and watched them for awhile, but before long they loped off and that was the last we saw of camels. It was still pretty awesome.
Around 300 miles into our journey we reached a camp right before well 17, called Durba Hills. It was without a doubt our most pleasant camp site, being a bit of an oasis, and we ended up staying for several days just to relax and enjoy its beauty. The rocks formed a sort of sheltered, grassy basin full of snow gums, with a comely water hole at its edge. It even had two pit toilets, something we'd only encountered at the very beginning of the trail.
We didn't complete the entire route because there were other things we wanted to see, and so at the end of our third week we left the Canning Stock Route and cut across to the mining town of Tom Price in order to pay a visit to Karijini National Park. Karijini reminded me of Zion National Park in Utah. Red rocks, slot canyons, and water.
It was here that we met up with a guy and his wife who were friends with some members of our group, and who happened to be visiting Karijini at the same time as us. The previous year he had floated through the water filled canyons of Karijini on blow up mattresses with friends. He wanted to do it again, and even had a stack of mattresses with him that we could borrow. And so that's how I ended up climbing down into the canyon with a mattress the next day with five of the guys and this dude's wife. He seemed like a chill fellow but I reckon he was into extreme stuff because what he portrayed as a leisurely lazy river style float ended up being more than most of us had bargained for. From the get go we couldn't climb all the way down into the canyon and had to throw the mattresses down and then practically cliff jump into the icy pool below. And icy is not an understatement. It was headache-inducing catch-your-breath cold. And instead of floating on some gentle current we found that we were dealing with pools filled from rain water or springs that had to be paddled through AND were not seamlessly connected as we'd believed. We had to paddle across a pool, and then get out and carry our mattresses across rough terrain to the next pool. Four hours later and we were still at it. There just didn't seem to be a place where you could get out because the canyon walls were so sheer and tall. But the dude said we were still on track and that we hadn't reached the "fork in the canyon" that would lead us to our take out point. Needless to say all cheerful banter had ceased at this point and we were all just quietly focused on getting out of this mess. This isn't to say that we didn't see some beautiful sites. At one point we passed some small waterfalls cascading down the canyon wall into a pool. In another spot we paddled past a tree absolutely laden with sulfur crested cockatoos. However, we also had to go through an insanely disgusting pool full of dead fish. I don't know what had led them all to perish in this particular pool, but it was pretty awful to have your arms down in that mess while paddling. Finally--hallelujah--there was the fork. We cut left and began to climb through a series of small pools and waterfalls. This eventually led to a big pool and waterfall in a deep basin. This was the end of this canyon and therefore our take out point. But how were we suppose to get out? Apparently, climb, which wasn't something we'd been aware of either. We deflated our mattresses and rolled them up. I took off my shirt and used it to tie my mattress to my back. And thus, slippery and soaking wet we began to scale the best looking wall. Part way up I noticed we were climbing past anchors and realized that this route was set up for rappelling/legitimate climbing, which made me very uncomfortable that we were just free styling it. Even without that knowledge I was fully aware that this wasn't a safe situation and was very unhappy about it, and yet what other options did we have at that point? I guess the moral of this story is that you should always ask thorough questions of your guide before adventuring! When we had almost reached the top a lady appeared (we discovered this was the end of a hiking trail) and began to scream at us that we were in great peril as someone had fallen from this spot yesterday and had to be airlifted out. I was thinking "Amen sister! You think I want to be doing this?" The good news is that we all got out safe and had plenty of stories to tell our worried group when we got back. I guess it definitely made Karijini memorable for me.
After Karijini we headed to Exmouth, on the coast. We stayed in a sandy little campground only a short drive from the beach--one of the prettiest beaches I've seen. The sand was as soft and squeaky as baking powder, with perfectly calm clear water. The only downside was that the water was quite cold, but I'm sure it would feel great in the summer.
After Exmouth we all went our separate ways. Bri, Linden, Gerzy and I. headed back to Perth where the whole thing started. After so much planning on their part it was hard to believe it had already come to an end. But what an un-replicable adventure! To date, it's still the most epic thing I've done, and I will always have a huge soft spot in my heart and a longing to return to the barren red deserts of Western Australia.