Pioneer History 1906 to 1951

Work Completed, Canniing by Phil BianchiThe iconic Canning Stock Route is touted as being one of Australia's toughest public 4x4 desert tracks due to its sheer length and remote location. Once on the track, there are few options for escape. Seen as a 'last frontier', the challenge of the Canning Stock Route is getting man and machine safely from one side to the other, across 1800km of desert, crawling over 800+ sand dunes.  With 4WD enthusiasts regularly taking up the CSR challenge, a rare breed of adventurers are doing it even tougher - on motorbikes,  bicycles, camel, in 2WD vehicles  and on foot.

The reason for the Canning Stock Route and its original usage.

Why would anyone want to drove cattle for two to three months through a desert? Desperate times call for desperate measures. Cattle were imported from Indonesia in the early to middle 1800’s. These Banteng cattle  brought the dreaded boophilis tick with them. A sensitive eco system was about to come under attack. It was however, only when Zebu cattle were introduced to the Kimberley in 1872 from Indonesia, that the tropical disease babesiosis, which is spread by the boophillis tick, became epidemic. Around 1881, severe losses from tick fever were experienced. Infected cattle would wade into waterholes and rivers to try to cool down. The blood in their urine turned the water red, and the disease became known as ‘redwater fever’. The government promptly banned the export of live cattle from the region, sending the economy of the Kimberley into a tail spin.

Desperate to find a solution, East Kimberly cattlemen approached the Government of Western Australia, suggesting that a stock route through the desert to the hungry Goldfields would solve the problem. The ticks, they argued, would not survive the arid conditions of the deserts during the months it would take to drove the mobs south. They proved correct.

Few explorers had ventured into the desert and of those who did, Carnegie included, judged the desert to be inhospitable and unsuitable for a stock route. There was simply not enough water. Despite these findings, the Government of Western Australia in 1906, appointed Alfred Wernam Canning to survey a route. Canning was no ordinary man and capable of enduring extraordinary hardship. He was not easy on men either. Using captured Aboriginal men in the regions, Canning coerced those who would not co-operate willingly to reveal their water sources. Australian History - The New Propaganda. This was one of the ways a network of native wells and soaks was uncovered. Canning had discovered the secret to crossing the desert. Below its forbidding surface, was a vast source of water that could be tapped. Six months and 2000km of desert exploration later, Canning returned with a favourable survey and was commissioned to construct the necessary wells for a stock route. 

Between March 1908 and April 1910, 48 wells were constructed under extraordinarily harsh conditions, supplementing the existing 20 native wells and bores. Imported camels were used to carry timber and supplies for the construction party. The ancestors of Australia’s pioneering camels can be found roaming in great herds across the outback, an animal suited to the desert like no other.

A hundred and four years of Canning Stock Route history can be found in the recently publish book:  Work Complete, Canning - by Phil Bianchi.

The first cattle drove in 1911 was inauspicious, the drovers only making it as far as Well 37 where Aborigines dispatched them. Cattle droving on the Canning was only for the toughest of men, drover Wally Dowling, The Desert Rat, a legend in his own time. He made nine droves along this stock route, taking what was probably the last horses northwards along the route in September 1951. The stock route however, did not prove popular due to the harsh conditions, the wells unable to supply vast quantities of water for several hundred head of cattle to make a drove financially viable, the isolation, the fact the it took 3 months to drove a small mob the length of the stock route and the skirmishes with the Aborigine. It was rarely used for the next twenty years. 

In 1928 the price of beef went up again due to the monopoly that existed. To encourage competition, East Kimberly cattle needed to be brought south through the desert and in 1929 William Snell was commissioned to restore the wells and bring the stock route back into use. Over the years the condition of the wells and equipment had deteriorated from fire, termites and the occasional act of vandalism. Snell was not in the same league as Canning and much of his refurbishments came under criticism. When family tragedy struck, Snell was unable to complete the task and it was finally completed by Canning in 1931, aged 70 years old!

Kate Leeming, the Great Grand Niece of William Snell cycled the Canning Stock Route in 2004, the first female to do so. Kate's story can be read in her book The Great Australian Expedition

Only one white woman ever made a drove, Eileen Lanagan, wife of drover boss George Lanagan, and she went as the camp cook. There were no free rides through the desert in those days. Eileen's memoirs can be read in the book Stitching the Stock Route. 

During WWII (1942 - 1944) the stock route wells were again brought back into operation in anticipation of an emergency evacuation if the NW was bombed. It was not needed.

In 1948, Spencer Dorman bought Billiluna Station and the family used the CSR to drove cattle until 1959 when drover Mal Brown led the last mob. Many of Mal's decedents make up the Mulan Community on the north end of the CSR.

The Canning Stock Route was not a success from a commercial droving point of view. It was only used for thirty-five known drives, not enough to warrant the huge expense and use of men and resources to build it. Today it gets much more use, the  1850km of isolated, unmaintained track kept open by the passing of around 1000 vehicles each year, mostly in the winter months of May to September. The 51 wells are in various states of disrepair. Most are sunken depressions with traces of historical fittings, but several have been restored offering good drinking water. Private individuals and NGO's like Track Care dedicate money, time and man hours to maintaining these wells and work to keep the track open for the public to enjoy.



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