Q. What could be worse than travelling 800 kilometres at an average speed of 3 kilometres per hour?

A. Having to stop every two hours to grease all the rollers on the bulldozer tow vehicle.

Q. What could be even worse on the trip above?

A. Losing the ration truck and everything on board.

What went wrong?

This week’s story blog contains details of the story above plus Len Beadell’s own words on the making of the Gunbarrel Highway.

Len Beadell’s team of seven, the Gunbarrel Highway Construction Party, were working on the Gary Junction Road in 1960 when the grader transmission failed about 100 kilometres west of Pollock Hills, later the site of Jupiter Well.

Reflections in Jupiter Well

The Caterpiller Train

The only option was towing the grader with the bulldozer, to the closest site where repairs could be done. This was Giles, some 800 kilometres away. Attached to the ‘Caterpiller Train’ was the fuel trailer and the water trailer. At a top speed of about three kilometres (usually two) and an average of 40 kilometres per day the trip took 18 full days to get to Giles. Adding to the agonisingly slow speed was the fact that the whole group needed to stop every two hours to grease the track rollers on the bulldozer.

Len’s Landrover was in front preparing smoko and setting up camp for the two-hourly dozer maintenance. The Caterpiller train towed by Doug in the dozer came next. Quinny followed in his truck towing an old caravan the group had ‘liberated’ from Woomera and filled with workshop equipment. Paul, the camp cook drove the ration truck, towing the refrigeration trailer and the cooking/equipment trailer. Tail-end Charlie was Rex in the Mechanics truck, acting as sweeper for any running repairs along the way.

caterpiller train
The Caterpiller Train

Truck Fire

Less than a week into this journey the ration truck caught fire, destroying the truck and all provisions. Behind the ration truck, the fridge van was also badly damaged but later repaired. One wheel was all that could be removed from the truck before it was engulfed by the fire. The group of six men had only a few tins of stew found in the cabins of other vehicles.

Len Beadell had to make an emergency dash to Alice Springs for food. After a round trip of more than 1500 kilometres, he found the crew had advanced a mere 150 kilometres.

ration truck
The Ration Truck

The full story is in the book Beating About the Bush.  

Why were they there?

The Gunbarrel Highway was built so the Department of National Mapping (Natmap) could complete a detailed survey of Australia. The Weapons Research Establishment (WRE) also wanted the road to recover rockets from the same area. High-level co-operation between Natmap and WRE resulted in the many tracks specifically designed to achieve the goals of both organisations.

Read more about the Weapons Research Establishment in Len Beadell’s book Blast the Bush

Hear more about the Weapons Research Establishment in Len Beadell’s audiobook Blast the Bush

Why is it called The Gunbarrel Highway?

Written for Westprint by Len Beadell, 1993.

Post war weapons research.

In February, 1946, Australia was approached by the United Kingdom to set up a joint facility for weapons research. This facility, named Woomera and built in the South Australian desert, needed access from a major city, isolation from the general public and vast tracts of uninhabited land for testing. When asked to advise on the siting of the range and the survey of access roads I recommended an area of more than 2,500,000 square kilometres of desert between Woomera and the 80 mile beach between Broome and Port Headland for the main firing range. This huge, almost uninhabited desert waste-land was the most isolated, most remote, most desolate and yet the most suitable area in the world for a rocket range.

Mapping the shape of the earth

A ground survey was needed to determine the shape of the earth so that missile tracking instruments could be placed in the right position. This survey resulted in a 6,000-kilometre road network accessing the north-west line of fire for the Woomera Rocket Range.

The first task was to construct a road running east to west across the centre of Australia to provide a major service access for the construction of all other linking roads.

Drawing Straight Lines wherever possible

Being a surveyor who liked to draw neat lines on maps I decided to site the roads in areas where long straight lengths could be built. This would maximise the efficiencies of distance, fuel and maintenance and should be of general benefit to future users. I lightheartedly named my small group of seven the ‘Gunbarrel Highway Construction Party’ as a reference to the alignment of the roads we were building.

typical camp
A typical Gunbarrel Highway Construction Party camp

I led my party in a Landrover, often working alone many hundreds of kilometres in front of the rest of the crew. A D8 Caterpillar bulldozer driven by Doug Stoneham followed. As we started each new section Doug would drive toward a flashing mirror or a flare shot high into the air, then after a few minutes I could carry on with my own work and he would keep a straight line by sighting back over his shoulder. Scotty Boord drove the Number 12 Caterpillar grader. His job was to tidy up after the bulldozer so that the other vehicles could follow.

Straight as a Gunbarrel

You can hear Len speak about making the Gunbarrel and other roads on the audio CD Too Long In The Bush.

We carried supplies in three, 3-tonne trucks and a second Landrover, all driven by the remaining four members of our crew.

Rex Flatman, our expert mechanic, was in charge of heavy equipment and vehicle maintenance. Bill Lloyd, the long distance driver, brought up the rations, water and fuel, often from 100 kilometres back along the track. Those trips were non-stop and made alone.

Paul Christensen, our former shearers’ cook, was ideal for keeping the crew fed. He also drove the ration truck. Bill Appleton drove the workshop Landrover and doubled as a general hand and cherry picker, clearing the road of debris after the last pass of the grader.

The first 150 kilometres of road to Mulga Park Station was built in 1955 and during the following year we finished the next 550 kilometres to the site where Giles Meteorological Station was to be built. During 1958 we built the last section of 800 kilometres to link Victory Downs Station near the Stuart Highway to Carnegie Station 350 kilometres east of Wiluna. It seemed appropriate to call this new road, the first east-west road across the centre of Australia, the Gunbarrel Highway.

Scotty always said that after he had been through ‘the road is done’.

Thinking of following Len Beadell’s tracks? Check out The Beadell Roads atlas.