Through the brutal heart of WA Alfred Canning's Stock route

11 May, 2005 08:45 PM
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THE history of Australian pioneering and exploration is as terrible, brutal and wonderful as the landscape in which it took place.

Most Australians grew up with the amazing tales of the fated Burke and Wills, the mystery of Leichhardt, who wandered into the vast outback in 1848 and was never seen again, Charles Sturt's mad dash for the centre of the continent in 1845, and the immortal trek of Edward John Eyre across southern Australia in 1840-41.

Their achievements are the stuff of legend, their truths stranger than fiction, and Australia as a country should be proud that the heart of its creation is the courage and vision of these early pioneers.

Some other heroes of exploration include, John Oxley - the first of the great overlanders, Thomas Mitchell, John MacDouall Stuart, and John Forest.

Or George Grey, who's exploration of the Kimberley in 1838, and his attempt at finding an overland route from Shark Bay south to Perth, rank up there with the most resilient.

Quite often though the list of our most famous overland explorers leaves out one name which has had a profound effect on the history of WA, Alfred Canning.

In 1906-1908 Alfred Canning lead a team to survey and establish a stock route from the East Kimberley to what is now the south western corner of the Shire of Wiluna.

And perhaps, unjustly, the reason why Alfred Canning is not a household name is due to the fact that the leadership of his expedition was so efficient and competent that it lacked the human drama of starvation and death that mark so many of our pioneering stories.

The idea for such a stock route came about through the need for Kimberley cattlemen to access the southern markets at the beginning of the 20th century.

The outbreak of Red Water Fever, spread by cattle tick in northern WA and the Northern Territory, saw the end to transport by sea, authorities fearing the spread of the tick to southern parts of the state.

When it was soon discovered that the tick could not survive a period of dry, inland heat, and so the idea of an overland cattle route was launched.

By rights the Canning Stock Route should have remained a thin pencil line on a dusty map; hollowed shells of men were left dead in the dirt, and others were pushed to the most extreme terrible reaches of mental and physical suffering on early expeditions find a suitable track.

"At least we have demonstrated the uselessness of any persons wasting their time and money in further investigations of that desolate region," wrote David Carnegie who led one of two expeditions in 1896.

But the wealthy and powerful graziers up north had made up their minds, and with pressure on politicians in the south increasing by the year, 46 year old Alfred Canning was handed the unenviable task of making it happen.

On paper, Canning was just the man for the job.

A Department of Lands surveyor, originally from Campbellfield in Victoria, Canning had surveyed the route of the rabbit-proof fence stretching the majority of WA, from Esperance to Cape Keraudren, north east of Port Hedland, no mean feat in itself.

But the most qualified of men had a habit of going spectacularly to pieces in the nightmarish landscape of the Australian desert, and evidence of that was plentiful in almost 100 years of Australian overland pioneering history.

Not Alfred Canning.

In fact the tale of his survey of the stock route is almost entirely without incident, and as such would not be worthy of a place in our history books were it not for the sheer epic scope of the achievement.

Between May 7, 1906, when the team departed from the now abandoned town of Day Dawn, near Cue, to their arrival back in Wiluna in 1907, Canning and his team had trekked over and mapped 4000km of some of this most inhospitable and punishing terrain in Australia, in the world.

Eight men, 23 camels and two ponies carried 2.5 tonnes of stores, 180L of water, plus the equipment that such an exercise requires.

The food rations were supplemented by game - pigeons, ducks, kangaroos, even a little bush tucker, goannas and native plants.

The group was guided along the way by a succession of aboriginal guides, whose local knowledge was no doubt more than partly responsible for the success, indeed survival, of the mission.

In gratitude Canning's men treated the aborigines harshly, in keeping with the fashion of the time, chaining them at night and sometimes during the day, and rewarding them for their life-saving guidance with trinkets.

However the Europeans' mistrust of the aborigines would have been made worse when bore expert Michael Tobin was speared by a native of Waddawalla.

He died shortly after, but not before shooting dead the aborigine.

On their return to Perth a Royal Commission was established to investigate claims of the Canning party's cruelty to the aborigines.

They were cleared of wrong-doing, but the use of chains was condemned.

And when Sir John Forrest, explorer turned minister, presented the completed report of Canning's survey to parliament, he received a standing ovation, which, with any luck, Canning was able to hear, echoing through the halls of parliament house in Perth.

Not prepared to rest on his laurels, Canning was soon lacing up his marching boots again, to lead a team charged with sinking drinking wells along the 1900km stock route he had just charted.

51 wells were built by Canning's team on the route between 1908 and 1909, some as deep as 31m, blasting and excavating through rock.

Again the job was completed with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of drama.

And when, in 1929, it was decided the wells needed reconditioning, again they turned to Canning.

At 70 years of age, Alfred Canning was still able to prove his mastery of the stock route which to this day bears his name.

However the Canning Stock Route never got the use that was predicted by the Kimberly pastoralists.

A combination of things - live trade to markets to the north, and the export of beef to Europe, the deaths of a number of drovers at the hands of the elements and the aborigines along the route, and the establishment of a meatworks in Wyndham in 1919 - reduced traffic along the Canning Stock Route to an estimated 31 mobs.

The last mob was moved in 1959, firstly by Len Brown and then by George Lanagan.

It's arrival at Millbillillie station, near Wiluna, marked the end of a great era in Australia's droving history.

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