From Geoff Vivian's Kimberley Page
From Geoff Vivian's Kimberley Page

I’ve written about the Tanami Track/Road/Highway here before – but that was based on a couple of years of driving the  short stretch of one hundred horrible kilometres or so of occasionally-maintained dirt road between my home at Yuendumu and the end of the bitumen at Tilmouth Well, two hundred kilometres from Alice.

But this past month I’ve had cause to travel the rest of the road from Yuendumu north-west to where it ends, seven hundred lonely kilometres away, just outside of Halls Creek in Western Australia.

Image from David Grant's Holidays page
Image from David Grant's Holidays page

There isn’t a lot between the two points – occasional signposts point to station homesteads or outstations set well off the road, a cluster of mine sites – The Granites, Tanami, Coyote – and one roadhouse, Rabbit Flat.

I’ve driven from Lajamanu to Rabbit Flat and Yuendumu before – but twenty or so years ago – and my memory of the state of the road then has faded into a haze of dust.

As I’ve noted previously, one of the major impacts on the Tanami Track is the steady stream of fuel and chemical trucks that service the Granites Mine at about the six hundred kilometre point on the road.

Tanami fule tanker
Tanami fuel tanker

These massive trucks can drag loads of up to 140 tonnes and cause an enormous amount of damage to the roadway, which for large stretches of the Tanami Track have never been properly formed and sheeted.

In the long dry season the Tanami Track is a sandy, shifting surface of corrugations, dust and huge potholes, and in the wet the roadway turns into little more than a muddy ditch, with long pools of water lying in the many un-drainable sections of the road that have been cut down below the level of the surrounding countryside by the constant grading required to maintain some similarity to a road.

The Tanami Track falls within the jurisdictions of two large Shire Councils, the Shire of Halls Creek in Western Australia and the recently-constituted Central Desert Shire in the NT.

The Central Desert Shire, which has about 700 kilometres of the Tanami Track in it’s area, has had little to say about road  conditions and how it may affect local communities and businesses.

There is not much in it’s Plan of Management and the web home page is, at the time of writing, out of action.

The NT Government does most of the regular maintenance and is currently spending about $12 million to upgrade and seal a 14 kilometre section at the south-eastern end of the road that regularly floods in the wet season. That work is certainly welcome, but there will still be an awful long stretch of the Tanami Track that will continue to be maintained only by several grader skims a year.


The Halls Creek Shire appears to take its responsibilities to its residents more seriously than governments in the NT do.

Recently the Halls Creek Herald reported on the Shire’s recent efforts. Earlier this year the Shire commissioned a cost benefit analysis on the Tanami from Cummings Economics.

Shire President Lynette (“Jim“) Craig told the Halls Creek Herald that communities along the Tanami Track rely upon it:

“…for their supplies of food, fuel and services and the artists rely on the passing tourists for a substantial proportion of their livelihoods. The current condition of the road deprives them of income as well as adding to the costs of their stores, and the costs of doing business for the mines and stations.”

Shire CEO Warren Olsen told the Halls Creek Herald that:

“The Shire does its best within its resources to maintain and upgrade the road…But without sealing we know that after the wet season you won’t see where the money went, and that’s a heartbreaking waste of scarce materials and taxpayer’s money.”

In June this year the Shire released a report (Regularising Local Government Services in Halls Creek Shire – available by search at the Shire home page) into council services to the communities along the Tanami track.

A major part of that report considers serious legal liability issues for the Shire and the costs and lost economic opportunities arising from the road’s condition.

The report is refreshingly blunt in its assessment of the Shire’s capacity to provide services and of the state of funding from other levels of government required to provide those services.

For me this bluntness is rare and welcome – and certainly worlds away from the kind of comments that I have heard from either the NT Government or from the recently-established Shire councils that operate in remote areas of the NT – where there are similar concerns about roads of of the same nature and magnitude as raised by the Halls Creek Shire but that the NT Shires and the NT Government appear disinterested in.

It is worth quoting from the Halls Creek Shire report at some length:

The Shire of Halls Creek is particularly impecunious; it has a very small rating base and few other revenue opportunities, its remoteness causes it to have a very high cost structure both for labour and for the supply of goods and services, it is responsible for a very large road network that it does not have adequate resources to maintain at an appropriate level (including a major interstate road1 that should more properly be a state or federal responsibility), and its communities have been identified as among the most disadvantaged in Australia – consequently requiring a high level of local government services per capita in order to try to redress the high level of disadvantage.

Across the state, the funding available for maintenance of roads to remote communities is woefully inadequate for the work that ought to be performed to maintain the roads in a reasonable condition.

The poor state of the Tanami Road is a serious impediment to providing services of all kinds to the communities of Billiluna, Balgo and Mulan (as the poor state of the Duncan Road also impedes the provision of services to the Ringer Soak community).

And there is evidence that the state of the road not only results in highly inflated costs to offset expected damage to vehicles, but that in some instances contractors refuse to tender, or tender at unacceptably high prices, for work that involves use of the road.

There is also evidence that occupational health & safety issues are emerging as a barrier to service provision:

“…we have sought proposals from various contractors to either directly provide services to the communities or to provide backup services in the case of service disruption, we were unable to obtain any prices because potential service providers are unwilling to provide services to communities located along such a vehicle-damaging road.

The Department of Housing…advises that the condition of the road is causing the Department delays in having contractors undertake work in those communities. It appears that contractors regularly report vehicle damage on trips to those communities. While vehicle damage might well explain the reluctance of contractors to service those communities, it is reasonable to assume that it also affects the prices that contractors charge to service the communities.

The Department of Housing also expresses concern for the safety of its officers when they are travelling on the Tanami Road.

Mulan Community Store reports that it suffers from considerable damage to its stock, particularly fruit and vegetables, soft drinks, freezer goods, and some dry goods such as cans – which it attributes to the condition of the Tanami Road. On the morning the Store management wrote its letter to the Shire, they reported destroying 74 cans of Coca Cola due to road damage. They also reported fortnightly losses in the range $250 to $400 due to damage in transport.

The freight company that delivers to the community stores has reportedly given notice that it intends to seek a substantial increase in its rates when its contract expires in September 2009, which will cause food prices to increase and add to hardship in the communities.

The Shire report also notes the direct and indirect economic effects that the road condition ha upon the remote communities in its area, particularly those enterprises that rely upon passing tourist trade.

Warlayirti Artists is the indigenous-owned Art and Culture Centre in Balgo Community. This art centre supports over 200 indigenous artists in the communities of Balgo. Mulan and Billiluna. Other than Centrelink payments and CDEP it is the major provider of the income for many of these artists. In 2007-2008 it contributed $ 1.5 million in direct payments to artists across these communities. The dry season (April to October) is the art centre’s busiest time of the year and when most of the income is earned to sustain the artists through the wet season…significant volumes of artwork are sold directly to tourists and collectors travelling to the Art Centre along the Tanami Track from either Halls Creek or Alice Springs.

Warlayirti Artists report that the condition of the road is discouraging tourist traffic and thereby reducing the potential sales that they would otherwise expect to sustain the local economies. They also report that a builder they had lined up to commence building work has pulled out of the job because of the damage the road is doing to his vehicle and the time it is taking to reach the community.

And the Tanami is also used extensively, particularly during the dry season, to ship cattle out and to carry material for pastoral, mining and exploration activities into the region.

…it is heavily used by road trains and other heavy vehicles that cause considerable damage to the road.

The Shire is in receipt of complaints from various pastoral companies along the road, including the owners and managers of Youga Walla Station, who state (inter alia) that: “Carriers of livestock, general freight and fuel are now refusing to come down the road and deliver our freight. If you can even convince them to come down it will be at a rate of 5 to 10 times the normal going rate. For example I was recently quoted $5500 for one trailer of goods from Halls Creek to the station. I can get the same goods from Adelaide to Halls Creek for $6500. A recent purchase of cattle has had to be stopped due to the carrier refusing to use the Tanami Road. This is obviously having a huge impact on the ability of us to run our business viably . . . We have had staff and visitors who have travelled here from Alice Spring on the Tanami who have commented that the road is in excellent condition until you get to the WA border. This is an entirely unacceptable situation and needs immediate attention.”

Not only is the Tanami Road a huge burden on the Shire of Halls Creek that it cannot afford, but it is an inequitable situation that the Department of Main Roads takes responsibility for two intra-regional roads (both the Great Northern Highway and the Gibb River Road) linking the West Kimberley towns of Derby with the East Kimberley towns of Wyndham and Kununurra, while leaving the Shire of Halls Creek with the burden of this important interstate road.

The Northern Territory end of the Tanami Road is currently being sealed to within 80 km of the state border. Upgrading the Western Australian end of the road to the same standard (at an estimated cost of $60 million) would not only provide the opportunity for alternative modes of service provision to the Tjurabalan communities, but it would also reduce costs significantly to the Shire and to the road users, and facilitate the economic development of Balgo, Mulan and Billiluna by reducing their transportation costs, bringing more tourist traffic, and making businesses in those communities more viable.

the estimated cost would be in the order of $60M.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for further news from the north-west about the state of this road – and also whether the NT agencies see fit to change their approach to the parlous state of the road and their reluctance to acquit their responsibilities.

And if you are interested in matters north-west I cannot recommend the many great stories and links at Geoff Vivian’s Kimberley Page highly enough. Not only does Kimberley Page have original contributions from Geoff but it pulls in all manner of articles and links on matters of current and historical interest from around Australia and the globe.

Well worth an hour or two of browsing.

And me, I wimped it – after driving up the road and spending a couple of weeks wandering around the Kimberleys I had the choice of taking the short route (700k’s) via Balgo home to Yuendumu – or going the long way round via Kununurra, Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs (approximately 2,500k’s).

I will admit to having lost my bottle on the Tanami Track – and I took the long way home after convincing myself that I had business in Darwin…and not being able to face the likely repair bills to sanity, health and vehicle after dragging it across the horrorshow that is the Tanami Track right now…

Got a story about the Tanami Track – send in a post and tell me, and the rest of us, all about it!