Bugs, corrugations and red dust

WARNING – this road eats cars…and trucks…and road trains…and caravans…and just about everything else that travels across it!!

The Tanami Road/Track/Highway (take your pick) runs for just over 1,000 kilometres from just north of Alice Springs in the NT through to Halls Creek in WA. The first 200 kilometres to the crossing at the dry-as-a-bone-at-this-time-of-year Napperby Creek is mainly a narrow bitumen strip running through bony-arsed cattle country – you can look out your window and see next years McDonalds burger lurking in the Mulga’s meagre shade.

From Napperby to Yuendumu, where I live, is 100 kilometres of dirt road…well, more sand, rocks, bull dust, and corrugations – lots of bloody corrugations.

Three sets of driver run the Tanami – the tourists, the truckers and the locals.

By this time of year the tourists are long gone – chased away to their fair-weather shelters in the temperate south by the heat rising out of the ground. For many, particularly the so-called Grey Nomads, driving the Tanami has become a sort of geriatric rite of passage, up the Tanami then over to the Gibb River Road and the Canning Stock Route, the Birdsville Track and Big Red on the way home.

I once spent six hours sitting on the side of the road at Napperby Creek hitching a ride back into Alice Springs in late September and lost count of the number of late-model 4-wheel-drives (with or without the sagging caravan being dragged along behind) loaded to the roof with all manner of junk and with two of the meek perched in the front seats Рwho with $150,000 of their life-savings rolling underneath and behind  them stared glumly out at what they must have thought were endless wastelands. There was no way they were going to let a local like me into their space.

Many will do the big trip just the once before they shuffle off – grasbbed by cancer or some lifestyle disease. The Big Trip – all the way around the Australian block – leaves them so traumatised that when they finally get home they park the van in the back yard and the car in the garage – wheeled out once a week for a wash. Other – braver and more adventurous – just keep rolling – filling in the gaps and pushing back fate for just a few more kilometres.

And the Tanami hates the caravan – every now and then you come across that peculiar wreckage that a caravan leaves behind when it rolls and dies…I’ve examined a few of these sites and lying among the shards of glass and aluminium lie the detritus of a towed life – broken jars of peanut butter, tubes of personal lubricant and Anusol, grey hair rinse, those weird half-hats that golfers wear.

The Tanami’s corrugations can set up a harmonic jack-knifing rattle and roll in a van – get the tyre pressure wrong, go too fast, go too slow…the van wants to drive the car with dramatic fishtailing swerves that shake the car like a rag doll and suddenly wrest control from the driver who all-too-quickly has just become a passenger. Try to correct it, or brake or do anything other than take your foot off the gas and leave soft-hands on the steering wheel and the car, van, driver and passenger can all end up in the bushes – if you are lucky won’t hit a tree or end up being medi-vacced to Alice Springs hospital.

And it is not much better for the trucks. Here most trucks are either single rigids – doing the weekly store runs to the few scattered townships, mineral exploration camps and stations, or four-trailers – one trailer up on the usual three-trailer limit, hauling diesel fuel or cyanide, cement, lime and other materials used in processing at Newmont Mining’s The Granites gold mine 550 kilometres up the Tanami from Alice Springs.

140 tons of metal and rubber!
140 tons of metal, fuel and rubber!

For truckers on the Tanami, the 1100 kilometre round-trip to and from the Tanami Mine is an occupational health risk – and not for the usual reasons of fatigue or boredom.

As the Owner of G & S Transport, Frank Bilato explained to Elizabeth Attwood of the Alice Springs News a few years ago piloting his 140 ton, half-million dollars of metal and rubber for the 14 hour round-trip is hell:

Driving across the corrugations and the dirt needs patience and experience. The Tanami road is just shocking – the corrugations can get six inches high and it sounds like you’re driving an express train. Forget using a CD player! You’re down to just 20 to 30 kph because the road is so savage. I’ve bruised kidneys and my urine goes brown because of being bounced around like billyo. It really hurts your back too.

But for all that he loves it:

I’ve seen meteorite showers, dust storms, whirlwinds and incredible sunsets and sunrises. And the people you meet are fantastic. Some of the Aborigines I’ve spoken to have never been to a city or even seen traffic lights.

Chemical tanker at Napperby Creek
Chemical tanker at Napperby Creek

In 2003 one of the cyanide tankers cracked and spilt its load onto the Tanami Desert – resulting in the deaths of hundreds of birds. As the general manager of Alice Springs-based North Fuels predicted to the local ABC Radio, another najor chemical spill is looming:

If there’s no progress in the sealing of the road there’s a significant potential for an environmental problem on that road. There are all sorts of chemicals, fuels and acids being carried on that road. It (the poor condition of the road) just increases the likelihood of an environmental incident.

And for the locals travelling the 100 kilometres between Yuendumu and Napperby is the kind of expensive adventure no-one needs but that no-one will do anything about. I drive the Tanami in either my Peugeot 405 sedan or my partner’s Toyota Landcruiser.

In the Peugeot the drive can be great fun – there are sections where you can drive (reasonably) fast and sit on 120 kilometres-per-hour and then there are horrible seemingly endless stretches where the road becomes little more than a collection of fist-sized, sump-busting rocks, ribbons of calf-high windrows thrown up by high-clearance vehicles and deep sand washes that rip the steering wheel from your hand and throw heart into mouth for that brief second of terror until the gyrposcopic effect of the wheels pulls the car into line again. I have at one of those heart-stopper moments each trip – either rocks chewing and kicking the soft metals of the engine or the fuel tank, that muffler-ripping drag through a deep sand wash or just the sheer terror of momentary loss of control.

Small, low cars don’t last long out here –¬† mine, through careful management and sheer luck, is still largely intact and I haven’t lost much more than a radiator, a couple of mufflers and a few shredded tyres. And I’ve gained a whole new set of scratches, scrapes, dings and bends, especially underneath the car.

Others aren’t so lucky and the roadside is littered with the indicia of damage. Those odd-looking doughnuts from a retread that has shed its outer skin, the mangled tangles of wire and rubber from an exploded tyre, the silly plastic so-called bumpers stuck at both ends of modern Australian cars, and an awful lot of mufflers and exhaust pipes untimely ripped from their mountings. Every now and then the burnt-out shell of last weeks not-so-new new car, ringed by the black scars of burnt rubber and plastic.

A dead Landcruiser...Picture: Gloria Morales
A dead Landcruiser...Picture: Gloria Morales

The Landcruiser is different – 2 tons of difference – when you lose control you really lose control. High and heavy, it is very easy to sit inside this air-conditioned behemoth as king (or queen)-of-all-you-see. Until something goes wrong and you suddenly realise that all that holds you to the road are four very small patches of rubber bouncing over the tops of the corrugations, ploughing sideways through the sand or digging you deeper into the occasional mud-bog.

The Tanami is a bad road in what can be, in a good year, the best country. One day, when either the mine or a government that cares decides to spend in excess of $150 million we might get a safe road

I’d lovbe to ghear your tales of driving the tanami – do it once you’ve got a lifetime of stories. Or if you think you know of a road harder on people and vehicles – leave a post and let us know!!

Safe driving.