The Canning Stock Route: The Ultimate Guide to Australia’s Gnarliest Road Trip

WHAT

A visual combination of Australia, The Sahara, and Mars, the Canning Stock Route is a 1,850 km trail through the vast deserts of Western Australia. As well as being one of the most challenging, remote, scenic tracks on the planet, the Canning stock route is considered one of the world’s truly great motoring adventures. To appreciate how great, it helps to understand the reasons behind its creation.

A Brief History of the Canning Stock Route

In the early 20th century, cattle farmers in the Australian outback faced a problem. They were in dire need of a way to transport cows 1,850km from Wiluna in the midwest to Halls Creek in the Kimberley region. Between the two locations were no towns, no support, and crucially, no reliable surface water sources. There were only 1,200 miles of barren, unforgiving West Australian desert. Firstly, they needed to plot a route. Secondly, they needed to traverse that route without their precious livestock dying from dehydration. Their options were:

A: Bankruptcy

B: Undertake an arduous search for underground water sources and then begin the backbreaking work of digging them. Consequently, a group of tough-as-nails farmers located and dug a string of 51 wells, each located a day’s walk apart. Thus was born the ‘Canning Stock Route.’

 

farmers leading horses through a town along the Canning Stock Route
Photo Credit: Canning Stock route project.

The Canning Stock Route is a Monument to Human Survival

In time, the Port of Wyndham emerged as an easier, safer way to transport cattle south. Consequently, the route fell into disuse and disrepair. It’s now been over a century since the last Aussie cowboy traveled the Canning Stock Route. However, it remains one of the most remarkable pioneering feats of the 19th century. It’s also a symbolic national reminder to Australians of the backbreaking labor required to make life bearable for settlers. The Canning stock route is as incredible as it ever was, for different reasons. Namely, as one of the planet’s most incredible long-haul 4×4 adventures.

 

Australian Sunset
Photo Credit: Mark Gray

Farmers no longer travel the Canning Stock Route. However, in the past few decades, the trail’s isolation, rugged beauty, and nostalgic ‘final frontier’ appeal have combined to make the route a magnet for outback explorers. Nowadays, Australian adventurers consider the Canning Stock Route a near-mythical rite-of-passage.

Horses are also a thing of the past. Instead, modern travelers ride in tricked-out, military-grade four-wheel drives. Canning adventurers spend their days spraying sand and testing their survival and driving skills. When the sun goes down, they spend nights reminiscing around campfires under the vast, star-filled Australian skies.

 

Kangeroos in the Australian outback
Photo Credit: Bookmundi

 

Camping on the Canning Stock Route
Photo Credit: Redarc Electronics
HOW

The Canning Stock Route is widely considered one of the world’s best, most fun-filled four-wheel drive tracks. However, make no mistake. The Canning Stock Route is a motoring commitment like no other. In the past, many unprepared explorers discovered this the hard way. The 1,200 mile stretch of sun-baked desert is dusty, dry, and desolate. It takes no prisoners and doesn’t care that you ran out of fuel or food in a place where there is precious little of either.

Overturned, burned out wreck of a truck
Photo Credit: Foreman & Wilms Adventures

Stay Hydrated

Other than the towns mentioned above, there are no facilities along the way. Unless you’re a kangaroo, snake, camel, or indigenous person with the survival skills required to stay alive, you’ll be spending three weeks inhabiting the essentially uninhabitable. More than anything, you’ll need water.

The unforgiving terrain features 51 wells, long, winding stretches of sand track, short rocky sections, and around 900 sand dunes. Some of these dunes are taller than three-story buildings. Travelers driving outside the cooler months of April to September should be prepared for extreme heat.

 

Warning sign on the Canning Stock route
Warning Sign at the entrance to the Canning Stock Route. Photo Credit: More Dirt Less Bitumen

Meet the Locals

At wells 22 and 33 live the Parnngurr Community and Kunawarritji Community aboriginal communities. Here, you’ll find a chance for respite among some truly fascinating folks. Additionally, both towns serve as a pickup point for pre-arranged fuel drops. Travelers should organize fuel and supply drops two to three weeks in advance.

Some water wells have been restored. However, most are unusable. Drinking potable water from the few remaining wells will likely require a military-grade water filter. Or, at least a good boiling. To be on the safe side, you should assume total responsibility for your water requirements and pack accordingly. Travelers can fill canteens at the towns they pass en route.

Camel on desert road in Australia
British settlers introduced camels to Australia in the 1800s to use as pack animals. As of 2020, an estimated 3m feral camels were roaming the Australian desert.

Successful completion of the Canning Stock Route requires:

  • Significant planning
  • Adequate water or water filtration equipment
  • Adequate supplies
  • Camping gear
  • A rock-hard four-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance, robust suspension, and both high and low range gear capabilities. You’ll also need tools, spare parts, and someone who knows how to attach them.
  • Finally, all vehicles headed down the Canning Stock Route will require permits. These can be obtained here.

The Easier Option

Attempting the Canning Stock Route alone is a huge undertaking. On the other hand, if you’d rather just enjoy the journey and have someone else do the legwork, then there’s a variety of reputable Canning stock route tour operators to choose from.

 

Canning Stock Route Tour operator group
Canning Stock Route Tour operators. Photo Credit: Outback Spirit Tours
WHERE

The trail extends 1,850 km between the towns of Wiluna in the south and Hall’s Creek in the north. In between the two locations lies the Gibson Desert, the Little Sandy Desert, and the Great Sandy Desert. The route passes through multiple areas of native titled land. For example, you’ll give the towns of Birriliburu, Martu, Tjurabalan, and Ngurrara.

A map of the Canning Stock route
Canning Stock route Map. Photo Credit: motoring.com.au
RISKS
  • Starvation
  • Dehydration
  • Heat-exhaustion
  • Poisonous snakes and other critters

Most of these risks can be offset if you choose to travel with Canning Stock Route tour operators

Overturned, burned out wreck of a truck along the Canning Stock Route
Photo Credit:: Foreman & Wilms Adventures
REWARDS
  • Vast landscapes that remain unchanged after millions of years.
  • Camping in spectacular, isolated locations.
  • The chance to witness physical and cultural aspects of a wild, rugged, and beautiful nation that few ever get to see.

Canning Stock route Campfire

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