The Canning Stock Route: What you need to know

David Cook — 16 December 2019
Designed as a stock route in the early 20th century, but long since abandoned, the Canning Stock Route now tempts committed 4WD tourers.

The Canning Stock Route was once considered the toughest trek you could undertake in Australia. It took serious planning and you needed to consider your capacity and the reliability of your vehicle before you even began sorting out the logistics of the journey and securing the necessary permits. 

Today, as a sure sign of the pervasive presence of the modern 4WD vehicle and the viral spread of people into all corners of this nation, you can book a commercial tag-along trip into and through one of the most remote areas of Australia.


The Canning was exactly what the name implies: a route for taking stock south, from Halls Creek in the East Kimberley down to the Goldfields Highway at Wiluna, in the mid-south, so that they could be shipped to the markets in Perth and the goldfields around Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie. At the start of the twentieth century those meat markets were dominated by cattle from the West Kimberley and prices were pretty high because of the lack of competition.

The problem was that cattle from the East Kimberley were badly infested with Boophilus ticks, which in turn carried a malaria-like parasitic infection called Babesiosis. There was concern that the ticks, and their Babesiosis infection, would be able to survive any sea journey south, which meant shipping them was not an option. However, it was theorised that the long and dry overland journey would be harsh enough to kill off the pests, leaving the cattle disease-free by the time they reached the southern markets.

An East Kimberley pastoralist by the name of James Isdell began to push hard for such a route to be opened, and from 1905, with the support of neighbouring cattlemen, Isdell began prodding the government, which appointed Alfred Canning to survey a route.

Canning set out with two horses, 23 camels and eight men and in six months laid out an 1850km-long trail that, between 1908 and 1910, was prepared to meet the needs of the cattlemen. It was the longest formal stock route in the world. The government’s requirements were that water sources should be no further apart than a single day’s walk for the cattle, and of sufficient capacity to meet the needs of up to 800 head of cattle at a time. Canning installed 51 wells along the way to fill the gaps between the natural springs and other water sources and in 1910 the first herd began its journey south.

The Canning was not a success as a practical stock route. Over its life as a pastoral route only 37 herds used it to make the southerly journey, the last of them doing so in 1959. It wasn’t that its resources were insufficient; the trip was simply too arduous.

It was only in the 1990s, as modern 4WDs became more competent and comfortable, that offroad enthusiasts began to tackle the journey in vehicles. It’s a tough ask, even for experienced drivers and well-equipped 4x4s, with fuel available from just two indigenous communities and a single fuel drop point (which you have to pre-arrange) along the way. 

Typically the trip takes between 10 and 20 days to complete. Diesel-fuelled vehicles are preferable, because dry grasses can build around the exhaust and catalytic converter of petrol vehicles and start disastrous fires.


One of the biggest challenges is the requirement to cross over 950 sand dunes along the way, sometimes in dense scrub that brushes along the sides of the vehicle. There’s little opportunity to get off the track for a break from driving.

Australia is home to the world’s largest longitudinal sand dune systems. These differ from the solitary crescent sand dunes that we tend to recognise from places such as the Middle East or northern Africa, or transverse dunes, such as we see at the back of a beach. Longitudinal dunes (AKA seif dunes) form where there is a steady general direction of wind, a moderate supply of sand and a firm, rough base.

Australia’s sand dune systems, which dominate so much of the landscape of the continent, began to form as the land mass moved northwards away from the cooler and wetter longitudes of its earlier attachment to Antarctica. 

What was originally a widespread rainforest environment began to transform into more drought-tolerant plants and animals, until about two million years ago when desert-like conditions began to impose themselves.

Around 900,000 years ago the ice ages caused not just a cooling of the Earth; they also resulted in a drop in rainfall. This saw the formation of the first sand dune fields around the Lake Amadeus region in Central Australia. 

These have continued to spread right up to the present day where we see so much of the land dominated by the steady rise and fall of sand ridges, ranging from 10 metres up to 30 metres in height and separated by corridors of 250 to 400 metres in width. Some individual dunes can be of great length, reaching up to 300 kilometres long.

The typical image of a sand dune — of steep faces of fine yellow sand with only occasional patches of plantlife around small oases — is not applicable in Australia. Typically Australian desert dunes are red, or orange, and are almost universally covered with plant life of varying sorts, from lower level eucalypts and other trees, to coarse grasses and desert shrubs.

Australian dune systems are in many ways very different to those of other continents, even down to the impacts of animal life on their formation and nature. 

Recent studies have shown the impact dingoes have had on them. Dingoes tend to keep pest species, such as feral cats and foxes, in check, thus ensuring the happy survival of small marsupial animals which assist in keeping plants alive, and thus the dunes become higher and at the same time more stable. It is yet another example of the fine natural balance of organisms with their environment and of how easily this balancing act can be disrupted. 


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