by Simon Patterson
Driving 1,350km (850 mi) along a corrugated sandy track through the Australian desert is not the usual way for a family to move home across Australia. Especially when it is a four year old child travelling with his mum and dad. Even more so when the route goes past old nuclear bomb test sites, which continue as an active military testing range to this day.
One of the greatest feelings in the world is camping under the stars in the Australian outback. There is nothing like the peace and tranquillity, hundreds of miles from civilisation. It’s a real privilege to safely pitch a tent with one’s family and enjoy a simple camp fire meal in the crisp, clear air. The view of the milky way above is breathtaking and mesmerising, inviting travellers to stare upwards for hours on end. All this can only be experienced by leaving the black topped main roads and heading into the bush.
The Anne Beadell Highway is a bush track that crosses the Great Victoria Desert in central Australia. Len Beadell, who oversaw its construction in the 1950s and early ‘60s to facilitate British rocket and bomb tests, named the road after his wife, Anne. We drove it in 2013 as we moved house from south-west to south-east Australia. Our household possessions followed, transported in containers by rail.
The most common way to drive across Australia is via the Eyre Highway, a wide, smooth bitumen ribbon carrying hundreds of cars and enormous road trains daily. Far to the south of our route, the Eyre Highway encompasses the world’s longest straight stretch of tarred road (146 km / 91 mi). That road traverses the Nullarbor Plain; “nullarbor” literally means “no trees”. We had crossed the Nullarbor by both car and train previously, so decided that a more remote outback adventure was in order this time.
It is now over sixty years since the British atomic bomb tests in Australia, so the landscape on the Anne Beadell Highway shows little evidence of the devastation from the bombs. Travellers and the local Aboriginal population are warned, however, not to camp in the affected area due to the lingering radiation levels. Nuclear radiation damages people as it accumulates in the body via prolonged exposure, so it was safe for us to view the area for a short time. We ensured we camped overnight far, far from the test sites.
Although we saw very little native wildlife on our trip along the Anne Beadell Highway, one animal we did see plenty of was the camel. Introduced from the Middle East in the 1800s, now numbered in the millions with no natural predators, camels are vermin in the Australian outback.
Camels on the track ahead have a tendency to run directly in front of a moving vehicle, never allowing a chance to pass. We found the best way to deal with camels was to chase them for a short distance then completely stop, and let the camels go on ahead out of sight. A wait of a minute or two usually saw the camels finally wander off into the bush and allow us a clear path to continue our journey.
The Anne Beadell Highway itself requires a sturdy vehicle to survive the rigours of several days of punishing road corrugations. Our old Nissan Patrol fit the bill perfectly because of its robust design. The four wheel drive feature was completely unnecessary because the sand was well compacted. The road itself was generally corrugated, due to a lack of maintenance for probably at least 50 years in some parts! Vegetated sand dunes, encountered throughout much of the trip, could be described as undulating at most; there were certainly no mountains to climb.
Other modes of transport in the area had clearly not fared quite as well as our car. We encountered a wrecked caravan along the way, and also a crashed light aeroplane. The aeroplane had been carrying census forms to remote communities some years earlier, when it was forced to crash land in the desert. I understand the aircraft’s occupants survived the ordeal and escaped safely. Australia’s population record was probably slightly reduced that year due to the census forms failing to arrive at their destination!
Practically, our trip on the Anne Beadell Highway was straightforward. Travelling at the fastest safe speed on sandy corrugations seemed to work best, minimising the effects of the bumps whilst still maintaining complete control over the vehicle. Our speeds ranged from 20 km/h (12 mph) when there was limited sight distance due to vegetation, up to 80 km/h (50 mph) on some clearer sections. Our four year old son managed very well, as long as there was a game of cricket or two with daddy every day!
We carried enough water for the whole trip, but found that water tanks had been installed along the route by a government funded land management group. We filled up at each one and so never actually emptied our first water container.
We carried sufficient fuel for just over half the journey, knowing there was a general store that supplied fuel roughly mid-way along. This shop mainly serviced the local Aboriginal population in the region. It was incredible to go shopping for fuel and a few basic supplies at what seemed to us to be the middle of nowhere. There was even a public phone booth connected to a satellite dish so we could report in to close relatives, all at standard public phone booth rates! Cell phone coverage is of course unavailable in such a remote place.
Almost every public remote track in Australia, including the Anne Beadell Highway, is very popular and garners more traffic than many would expect. We travelled in a quiet period, because the military had, up until almost the last minute, declared the area closed, reportedly for testing a stealth drone. We were excited to be able to take advantage of their sudden change of mind and we applied for the requisite permits from the military and Aboriginal land councils just in time. Many other travellers probably made other plans, leaving the road largely clear for us. In the end, we saw about ten other parties during our five day journey.
Several challenges face the photographer who tries to capture the magic of this place. First, the fact that the sunlight is often strong and harsh during the travelling times, means that many features along the way are shot in less than ideal light.
Secondly, there are limited opportunities to either find a substantially elevated place to shoot the landscape from, or mountains or steep dunes to shoot up to from below. A drone with a decent camera would be a great boon for a photographer here.
Thirdly, the generally clear outback skies during the early morning and late afternoon in Australia’s winter didn’t lend themselves to great sunrises or sunsets. We saw a reasonable sunrise on our second morning, but that was the extent of it for us. The flip side of this is that night skies tended to be excellent for photographing the stars.
In conclusion, the Anne Beadell Highway traverses a place of peace and serenity but also harsh desert beauty. I recommend the Anne Beadell Highway to travellers who have a reliable, sturdy vehicle and a conservative approach to carrying supplies. Our journey there provided us with great memories and some satisfying images from remote central Australia.
About the Author
Simon Patterson is an enthusiastic hobbyist photographer who also likes discovering the truth about things. He loves hiking and camping in the wilderness and the challenge of learning to communicate through the art of photography. Simon aims to create images that affect people emotionally. When not out shooting or processing images, he reads everything he can about photography. Simon resides in country Victoria, Australia.