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The Canning Stock Route

Warning. Australian Stories may contain the names and images of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now deceased. Australian Stories also contain links to sites that may use images of Aboriginal and Islander people now deceased.

Tjukurba gallery artists and project staff at Well 22. Photo by Tim Acker. Courtesy of FORM.

Creating the Canning Stock Route was the answer to a host of challenges presented by the Australian outback. Pastoralists raising beef cattle in the Kimberley region of northern Western Australia needed to bring their cattle to markets in the south, where tens of thousands of people lived on the goldfields near Kalgoorlie.

In between lay a vast, harsh, arid landscape of sand dunes, spinifex grass and salt pans. 

The Canning Stock Route story revolves around water. To the surveyors and drovers the water was an essential resource for a commercial enterprise. To the people of the desert countries surrounding the stock route, the water defined their social, spiritual and economic existence. The wells built by Alfred Canning became sites of conflict between two cultures. 

Surveyed and created in the early 1900s, the scale of the Canning Stock Route is epic. It runs for almost 1800 kilometres, crossing 800 sandhills and four deserts in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth. It appears a marvel of strategic planning and skilful surveying work, created without the aid of modern technology or conveniences. Yet, despite the huge effort to create and maintain what was designed to be a busy cattle-droving corridor, the Stock Route was never heavily used and quickly fell into disrepair. If nothing else, its existence is proof of nineteenth century European determination to tame the Australian outback.

it's such a long way to take cattle over some of the harshest country that's ever been inhabited by humans, so it was a bold thing to do, but an absurd thing to do in other ways.
John Carty, oral historian and anthropologist from the Australian National University and a member of the Canning Stock Route Project team, in an ABC Radio story, 2008

Today the longest former stock route in the world is busier than it has ever been, attracting four-wheel-drive and adventure enthusiasts from all over the world who are keen to travel the track, experience the challenging remoteness of the Australian outback and learn more about the culture of the traditional Aboriginal owners of the lands it crosses.

A 'vast, howling wilderness'

Alfred Wernam Canning. Image courtesy of WA Health Libraries Network: b2089319.

In 1906, Alfred Canning, a surveyor with the Western Australian Department of Lands and Surveys, was asked to find a way to link the Kimberly region to the Kalgoorlie goldfields. Other European explorers had visited the area, including an intrepid young British explorer, David Carnegie who had tried unsuccessfully to establish such a route just a few years before.

Carnegie's arduous thirteen-month return trip covered almost 5000 kilometres, from Coolgardie to Halls Creek and back again. Carnegie later wrote a memoir of the journey, aptly called Spinifex and Sand. In it he recalled the 'vast, howling wilderness' they encountered, where in one day they crossed over sixty 'high spinifex-clad ridges of red steep that often the camels had to crest them on their knees, and so barren and destitute of vegetation...that one marvels how even camels could pick up a living'.

Carnegie's recollections would have intimidated most seasoned explorers – but not Canning. Perhaps perfectly qualified to complete the job, just a few years prior he had surveyed the route for a rabbit-proof fence, another surveying and engineering project on an immense scale. The fence was planned and built as a way of stopping rabbits plaguing pastoral areas of Western Australia and eventually covered many thousands of kilometres. The rabbit-proof fence survey took Canning three years and was in country not unlike the terrain of the future Canning Stock Route.

Alfred Canning was employed by the Western Australian Department of Lands and Surveys in 1906. He set out from Day Dawn near Cue on a journey of about 2000 kilometres to survey a suitable stock route that would have ready availability of water by way of a series of wells which would provide drovers with water at regular intervals. These wells, which tapped underground water springs, were the life-blood of the track which crosses deserts and salt pans in one of the driest parts of Australia. To this end Canning employed local Aborigines to act as guides, sometimes forcibly, to identify waterholes.

Canning and his team made a return trip in 1908 from Halls Creek to Wiluna and located more wells, laying out the plans for the sinking and construction of fifty two (52) permanent wells, along the route at locations he had previously marked, siting his wells in or alongside Aboriginal waterholes. The sinking of the wells was a monumental task and one he completed efficiently in difficult conditions, at one stage completing one well every 15 days. Sometimes he also used explosives which seriously damaged the waterholes. Canning's planning was meticulous — he took 30 men and used 70 camels, four wagons, 100 tonnes of food and equipment and 267 goats, which were herded along the route and used for their milk and meat. The route was completed in 1910

A difficult history

It seems that there's another history, a...quite a violent history underlying the regular history book version of what happened on the Canning Stock Route...
John Carty

Axel Poignant (1906-1986), Portrait of an Aboriginal mother and child, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia, 1942. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn4463084.

1908 Royal Commission and the Aboriginal guides

Both Canning and Carnegie were criticised for their treatment of many of the Aboriginal people they each encountered during their respective trips. Indeed, a 1908 Royal Commission was conducted to 'Enquire into the Treatment of Natives by the Canning Exploration Party'.

On their return to Perth, the expedition cook, a man named Blake, accused Canning of mistreating many of the Aborigines they met. During the Commission, Canning admitted to capturing a number of Martu men, feeding them salt and then chaining them up at night. His objective was to find sources of water along the route. He waited until the heat of the day, when they were thirsty and they would then lead Canning's party to water sources. During the Commission this action was accepted as 'reasonable' and Canning and other men in the party were exonerated of other charges, including raping Aboriginal women and stealing property.

The only reason he was able to survive, let alone survey a stock route, was because he had help from the local people, whose country they were moving through.
John Canty

No. 18 Well, Canning Stock Route. Image courtesy of WA Health Libraries Network: 001069D.

The Stock Route itself runs through country where nine different languages are spoken. By co-opting the assistance of Aboriginal people over long stretches of track, Canning and his group forced them to cross into countries that were not their own. Canning was aware that Aboriginal guides perceived the act of entering another's territory was an extremely dangerous transgression and theoretically guides were released before they left the grounds of their own country. In reality however, the surveying party was unwilling to let go of the source of their information and Canning was convinced that chaining men was necessary. This meant that Aborigines were not only fearful of the European men, but also of punishment and reprisal from neighbouring Aboriginal peoples.

After the Stock Route was completed, commercial droving began in 1910. Even with the wells that Canning and his team had installed, it was a long, tough and unforgiving journey. The first few droves were of small groups of horses — the first began with 42 horses and ended with just nine still living.

First droving runs, Confrontations and dispersal

Native tracker on camel accompanying a police party along the Canning Stock Route in search of a lost prospector, 1937. Image courtesy of the J.S. Battye Library of West Australian History: 003156D.

In January 1911, the first mob of bullocks – about 150 of them – left Halls Creek. It was also the start of a spate of violent confrontations between Aboriginal people and white drovers.

During the first drove, three men – George Shoesmith, James Thompson and an Aboriginal stockman who was known as 'Chinaman' – were speared by Aborigines near Well 37, later known as Haunted Well. Their graves are not far from that of Jock McLennan's, a prospector who died in 1922 after being clubbed to death by Aborigines. Reprisal attacks on Aborigines followed. One attack by drovers and a policeman resulted in the death of at least 19 Aborigines near several of the wells dotting the Stock Route. 

Subsequent to the sinking of the wells, the droving disrupted customary patterns of movement and connections with country; families were dispersed and gradually moved to settlements, stations, missions and towns.

Deterioration, disrepair and damage

I believe as a stock route it wasn't terribly successful at all.
James Canning, surveyor, historian and great-nephew of Alfred Canning.

Droving mobs of cattle, horses and bullocks might have worked efficiently from 1910 to the 1920s but, for the first twenty (20) years, from 1911 to 1931, only eight (8) mobs of cattle had used the stock route. In the meantime the wells deteriorated.

David Rust and drover Teronie watering bullocks at rock hole near Moola Bulla. Image courtesy of the WA Health Libraries Network: 007855D.

One of the reasons why the Stock Route never became a busy thoroughfare was that the violent interchanges between Europeans and Aborigines went on for some time. Drovers were fearful of attacks from Aborigines, and by the mid 1920s many of the wells had deteriorated so badly that it was not possible to safely complete a trip.

After another Royal Commission, the stock route was re-opened in 1929. William Snell, who was commissioned to recondition the wells, was critical of the structure and location of Canning’s wells; Snell believed that the wells were impossible for Aboriginal people to use safely. Snell felt that the destruction of the wells by Aboriginal people was due to their anger and frustration at not being able to access the wells for their own water. Snell rebuilt some of the wells with ladders for easier access.

Often, wells were put out of use by local people who were furious when the new wells ruined the traditional springs that had sustained their communities for generations. 

Axel Poignant (1906-1986). Portrait of a teamster, Canning Stock Route, Western Australia, 1942. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: vn4404065.

In 1930 after other attempts had failed, Canning, who was then 70 years old, was asked to return to the stock route to supervise refurbishment of the wells. Despite his age, he managed the project with his usual precision and efficiency, completing refurbishment on all the wells in 16 months.

In any event, by the 1950s, markets and technologies were changing, and more cattle were being sent south by ship instead of overland. Despite Canning's refurbishments, and more in the early 1940s, only 20 more mobs of cattle were driven down the route in the last twenty seven years. The last droving run was completed in 1959.

Carnegie's much earlier recommendation regarding the creation of a stock route through the area became a prophecy: 'We have demonstrated the uselessness of any persons wasting their time and money in further investigations of that desolate region'.

Painted land surveys

While these events show a discord between the white people who used the track and the traditional owners of the land, there are others that show a different side to the Route and the people whose lives were affected by it.

In 1957, when the Canning Stock Route was of more interest to mining surveyors and less to drovers, a starving boy of 10, Yukenbarri Tjungurrayi, and his mother who had been wounded by a spear, were found by a mining survey team not far from Well 40. The surveyors saved their lives, giving Yukenbarri and his mother medicine and food. They also arranged for them to be airlifted to Derby hospital for treatment. They both survived and later settled in Balgo. The young boy was given the nickname 'Helicopter', after his airlift to Derby. Now known as Helicopter Tjungurrayi, he is one of the most respected artists of the Western Desert, known the world over for his representations of his country.

Helicopter Tjungurrayi. Image courtesy of the Australian Art Print Network.

Rover Thomas (Joolama) was born in about 1926 at Kunawarriji, Well 33 at a soak called Yalta on the Canning Stock Route in the 1920s and raised by his parents around the middle stretches of the stock route.  When his parents died, he was picked up by a drover Wally Dowling and taken north to Billiluna and the Kimberleys where he became a stockman himself, settling at Turkey Creek, known today as Warmun. Shortly after moving to Warmun early in 1975, Rover helped initiate the east Kimberley school of painting, first with ochre on plywood with his classificatory uncle Paddy Jaminji. Later, Rover began to paint ochre on canvas, telling the stories of the wells of the stock route. Rover’s bold striking style became renowned the world over when his work represented Australia at the 1990 Venice Biennale.

One of Rover’s first works on canvas was of his birthplace, Kunawarriji Well 33, the heart of the Canning Stock Route and the site of many of the jukurrpa or Dreaming stories. It was also one of the main places from where people left the desert.  Country around Well 33 and Well 34 of the Canning Stock Route (The Seven Sister’s Story), tells the story of the spirits who inhabit the waterholes and the stars relating to their travels, painted over with a rich yellow ochre plain of colour. The black dots represent all the people who arrived at this place to make a decision to leave the desert. The people, who had travelled from many countries, took strength from the sacred sites, the mother dingo Jarntu, whose home was at Well 35, a fierce protector of her people, as well as the yellow stars of the Seven Sisters, that would always shine over them.

Since the 1970s, the settlements and towns that supported the Canning Stock Route are now dotted with community art centres – such as Warlayirti Art Centre (Balgo, Mulan and Billiluna), Halls Creek, Mangkaja Arts (Fitzroy), Warnum (Turkey Creek), Birrilburu Artists, Ngurra Artists (Wankajungka and Nyumpan), Martumili Artists (Newman, Parrngur, Jigalong, Kunawarritji and Punmu), Kayili Artists at Patjarr, Papunya Tula Artists at Kiwirrkurra and Tjukurba Gallery at Wiluna, as well as thriving desert communities where traditional land owners live. Many of Australia's most senior Aboriginal artists hail from this region.

The Canning Stock Route Project and Aboriginal art

And the white man history has been told, and it's today in the book. But our history is not there properly. So one way to tell them, we've got to tell them through our paintings. They might see it through there. Our people are not resting in peace properly, you know. We need to do something, we need to do something so that they can rest.
Clifford Brooks, Aboriginal artist from Wiluna, Western Australia

Bidyadanga artist return to Winpa

Bidyadanga artist return to Winpa [near Percival Lakes, Gibson Desert], 2007. Image courtesy of Rebel Films, Desert Heart .

In 2007 Bidyadanga artists with 23 other Yulparitja elders returned home to Winpa, near Percival Lakes in the Gibson Desert, documenting their journey in the film Desert Heart.

Also in 2007, many Aboriginal artists participated in the Canning Stock Route Project: more than a hundred people from twelve language groups and twenty four (24) communities told their stories in their traditional languages, the individual stories from many senior people creating an interwoven history of culture, creation and law for a new audience.

Travelling over 1800 km of the Route, through the lands of Martu, Kukatja, Manyjilyjarra, Wangkajunga, Walmajarri and Yulparija peoples, they created contemporary representations of their experiences and the history of their people, especially through paintings.

In 2009, work created as a result of the project was acquired by the National Museum in Canberra and a touring exhibition of the work began in 2010, one hundred years after the first drove on the Stock Route. Large canvases, brilliantly lit with stories of waterholes, shimmering Warla [salt lakes], the dreaming tracks of Jila (living spring waters), the Jila men, the Kalpurtu (rainbow serpent), mother dingo Jarntu, and the Seven Sisters, glimpsing the dancing as the people return to their countries, dimming the thin white lines of the stock route that snakes its way through the lines of wells.

One of the largest rock art galleries on earth

...this place has been continually visited and possibly inhabited for the past 15–25,000 years.
Dr Shaun Canning, archaeologist and anthropologist and great grand-nephew of Alfred Canning.

One of the survey images from the Canning Stock Route captured by the research team. Image courtesy of the project.

Along the Stock Route, thousands of Aboriginal rock paintings and carvings can be found; some of them date back tens of thousands of years. Concern about the safety of some of these sites is increasing as the number of visitors to the area climb each year. Most are respectful of the art they see, yet others have desecrated what are sites of cultural significance, in some instances even using angle grinders to remove rock carvings.

Recognising that there is a need for a comprehensive catalogue of rock art and dreaming sites in the vicinity of the Stock Route, an Australian Research Council project (whose research partners included the Australian National University, representatives of Aboriginal land councils and various government departments) set out to create guides and visitor information tools and also protect sites that are of special significance to the Indigenous peoples whose lands cross the Canning Stock Route.

Useful links

Look, listen and play

The Canning Stock Route

European surveying and exploration

Aboriginal heritage and art

Last updated: May 2011
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd, and Kathryn Wells.

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