The following text was written by Bob Simpson the second cyclist to finish a complete traverse of the CSR. It was reproduced in Australian Cyclist magazine Oct-Nov 1997 - I have added some headings, dates and other notes/corrections that are enclosed by [square brackets]. Also, read my analysis of the first (Robin Rishworth) and second CSR cyclists CSR Duel 1997 - Robin Rishworth vs. Bob Simpson.


Bob Simpson - 1997

With over 1,000km still to ride to Wiluna, the words of the ABC radio announcer came into my mind. He was questioning my sanity and expressing the sentiment that the Canning Stock Route was impossible by bicycle - I was beginning to agree with him. As the dunes began to dominate the track with their unstable sand, steep slopes and depressing regularity, my average speed plummeted and, when the swales also became soft, I seriously questioned why I was there at all.

I thought about a convincing "injury" that could get me off this hook that I had made for myself - maybe a sore knee? It was so easy to be brave about the rigours of such a ride in the comfort of home before setting out, making positive comments to the media, but reality gave me nowhere to hide. The greatest challenge of this ride was not with the desert but with myself. The words of Michael Groom that had helped him through the trauma of frostbite drifted into my head: “Tough times don’t last tough people do”. My plight shrank into perspective and, with the encouraging words of my support crew I weathered the emotional storm.

Previous CSR Successful Traverses

Alfred Canning's original expedition in 1908-1910 established a stock route to bring cattle from the Kimberley to feed the miners in the Southern Goldfields - a distance of almost 2,000 km. Despite cruel temperatures, flies and years of physical hard work, Canning and his team succeeded. It had been said by many at the time that it could not be done. No doubt people said the same when [Russell] Wenholz, [David] Chudleigh and Keally first drove it in five weeks in 1968, or when [Murray] Rankin [, Kathy Borman] and [Rex] Shaw walked it in 1976, or when Peter Vernon took 35 days to run it in 1988. I wonder what Canning would have made of an attempt to ride a bicycle along his route?

I'd first heard of the Stock Route when wife Jayne and I visited Australia In 1992 for an ill-fated transcontinental MTB race [this was the first and only Great Australian Bike Challenge, a story in itself]. Rod Evens, the first Australian to complete that crossing described the Canning Stock Route as the last great un-cycled outback track. After emigrating from Scotland to WA in 1995, we began planning the ride. Early on we decided it was over-ambitious to attempt it by tandem, so Jayne took the support role while I would ride.

I knew a completely unsupported attempt would be impossible so we set about organising a crew. Richard Millard, 1995 Simpson Desert Cycle Classic winner, and his wife, Ann, along with four friends from Esperance in an Oka and a 1962 International truck, agreed to help. Jayne drove our Landcruiser. This meant that I could concentrate solely on riding. Before we began, three vehicles seemed excessive to support one cyclist, but we soon found it gave us flexibility. Safety was a concern - the Canning is not a place to break down alone.

Solo Fully Supported Attempt on Pro-Flex 857 with 45mm Wide Rims

The importers of Pro-Flex were very enthusiastic about the ride, agreeing to supply a dual-suspension 857. As soon as I started to use it on a variety of terrain I knew it was a winner. The balance and positive handling, courtesy of the suspension, would be ideal for the soft sand and corrugations I was to encounter on the Canning. The only adaptations I made to the bike before setting out were to fit a "Ride On" Goretex cable for the rear changer - the rear suspension creates a difficult cable run - and to fit a pair of "Snow-cat" rims flown over from Alaska. These are 45mm wide for use on snow, which has a similar riding characteristic to sand. This allows use of very low pressure so the tyres float on, rather than cut into, soft sand. Hours of planning and preparation were also devoted to ensuring the motor vehicles were up to the challenge:

We reached Halls Creek, the starting point for the Stock Route, late on a Saturday evening. Despite party noise in the pub, 48 hours of non-stop driving meant we had no difficulty in sleeping. Next morning we drove the 16km to Old Halls Creek, locating the ruins of its Post Office. At 10.20 AM on [Monday] July 7 [1997], I started to ride towards Wiluna Post Office, 1,900 km southwest.

The first 200 km is on maintained station roads and, although corrugated in places, is fast going. After a detour to spectacular Wolfe Creek Crater, largest meteorite crater in the southern hemisphere, I passed through Billiluna community, the last buildings on the route until Wiluna. Just outside Billiluna the sand begins. Suddenly my cruising speed halved. I had expected a more gentle introduction to the rigours of riding the Canning but, from that point on, there were very few easy sections.

One sight that we had expected greeted me on this part of the track - footprints interspersed with bike tyre tracks. We knew that somewhere ahead was Robin Rishworth. He had made an attempt a year ago, but had failed due to the heat. He’d decided to have another go and, on hearing of my attempt, appeared to have brought his starting date forward, leaving 16 days before me. The fact that there were now two cyclists on the track generated interest in the media. Our calculations suggested that we might both reach Wiluna at around the same time.

As the first week unfolded, I established a routine. I aimed to be on the bike by sunrise, around 6.30. This meant rising at 5.15. This early hour wasn’t a major problem in the north but, as we moved south, overnight minimums were always below zero, the lowest -6°C. During the day I would usually have three short breaks, commonly at a Well, then stop riding around dusk. This translated into a daily average of 8-10 hours actual riding and around 120km ridden.

From day three on, sand dunes and other vehicles became almost as common as Robin’s tracks. The former was no surprise but we met 165 vehicles between Halls Creek and Wiluna - far more than expected. The dunes dominate the scenery, some as high as 15 metres and many with multiple heads. The top section of each had to be walked and this had its effect on my speed, strength and stamina. I soon became used to incredulous stares of 4WD passengers who, open mouthed, reached for their cameras as if I was rare wildlife!

All the time I was receiving information on Robin’s progress. He knew I was also on the Route and clearly believed I would catch him. We had reliable information that he was bypassing many of Canning’s Wells and taking short cuts, effectively cutting the distance by over 200 km. This was a major topic of conversation at night. We decided that I shouldn’t change my schedule and should continue to visit all of Canning’s wells. All record attempts in the past had done this and so, therefore, would we. This meant I would also use the tracks which closely followed Canning’s original line, rather than the more direct 4WD track. Robin and I were doing two different rides - he was riding from Halls Creek to Wiluna taking the shortest possible route, and I was riding what I consider to be the Canning Stock Route.

Progress southwest was aided by either an easterly or nor-easterly wind. I certainly wouldn’t recommend a start in Wiluna. Constant headwind combined with the state of the dunes would make it heartbreaking. The vast majority of vehicles travel north and inexperienced drivers have ripped the southern side of the dunes to pieces. The sand is soft, unstable and heavily scalloped as the vehicles sway up the slopes. Two of my four falls occurred on descents of dunes. The others were courtesy of a low tree jamming on my front brake and where my pedals refused to release my feet as I approached a dune.

Despite the tough riding, the Canning’s interest lies in its history, both human and natural. Along the whole Route ranges of low hills appear, the most spectacular of which are the Durba Ranges. I spent a couple of hours one afternoon off the bike exploring the spectacular Killagurra Gorge with its abundant birdlife at the beautiful, silent pools and its many Aboriginal paintings and carvings. Every Well has a story behind it. There are graves of some of the early explorers and drovers; the most famous that of Michael Tobin near Well 40.

Modern history is evident in the remains of various vehicles which didn’t make it, including the frame and wheels of Murray Rankin’s and Peter Waterfall’s hand cart. They had attempted the first walk of the Stock Route in 1972, four years after the first vehicle traverse, using the cart to carry provisions. After many setbacks, they abandoned the walk and the cart between Wells 15 and 16. There are the remains of numerous 4WDs, trailers and even motorbikes along the track, salvage too expensive.

As we inched closer to Wiluna we heard from northbound travellers that the southern section of the track was flooded and closed to vehicles. This would mean detouring through Granite Peak Station, missing the final four wells. Having visited all the wells to this point, I was desperate not to miss any. We decided one of the vehicles would accompany me as far south as possible while the others would take the detour. They would then drive north as far as possible to meet me. By doing so, the vehicles wouldn’t venture onto the closed section, and I only needed to ride about 70 km without support. However this plan was never used - the day we arrived at Lake Nabberu the track was reopened and, after two muddy river crossings, we were firmly into station country.

With the dunes behind my pace again quickened. At this point we met one of only two convoys heading south and after leapfrogging with them, much to their amazement, I overtook them, beating them to Wiluna by 24 hours, managing to cover 380 km in the final two days [190km/day].

Arrived Wiluna after 16 days cycling - Tuesday 22 July 1997

As the sun was setting on the 16th day out of Halls Creek, the dusty buildings of Wiluna gradually emerged from lengthening shadows. The final 500m to Wiluna Post Office were bitumen and I felt as if I was riding on a billiard table. It soon dawned on me as the champagne flowed, that I would not have to rise at 5 am. the next day and ride my bike. The ride was over.

After all my rides I always say a silent thank you to my bike, and in this case it was thoroughly deserved. The only part of the bike that needed any attention was the chain - routine lubrication twice daily. I had no puncture, nor mechanical problem of any sort. After 16 days of riding there was nothing I would or could do to improve the Pro-Flex. The suspension was magnificent on the wide variety of terrain encountered on the Canning, and after a day off the bike I began riding again feeling no ill effects.

In Wiluna that evening, as we enjoyed a meal at the local hotel, we reflected over the 1,908km and the events of the previous 16 days. I had become the first cyclist to ride the complete Canning Stock Route, visiting all the wells en route. We had heard from the police in Wiluna when we reported our safe arrival that Robin had arrived 4 days earlier. He had taken 27 days to cover around 1,700 km. He had clearly had many adventures during his ride, however I wondered whether in the future he would reflect on his ride and regret that he had missed so much of What is the Canning Stock Route.

I am sure that, in the future, there will be those who attempt the Canning unsupported. If you do please don’t underestimate it. Most wells are now either collapsed or producing undrinkable water. It is possible to have food and water left on the track as Robin did, but please think about the environmental impact of your actions. All travellers by whatever means are encouraged to "leave only footprints (tyre tracks?) and take only photographs". Passing motorists are a potential source of sustenance but, remember, they are carrying food and water for 2-3 weeks and may not have anything to spare. Don’t rely on them. Finally, please respect the station owners’ instructions at either end of the Stock Route. The land is their livelihood and we should co-operate with them.

The Canning Stock Route is the ultimate challenge to 4WD enthusiasts. Now the same can be said for mountain bike enthusiasts. If you do venture onto the Stock Route I hope you enjoy the adventure. I guarantee it will be a memorable one, but please protect the track for future generations. If you train well, prepare your bike thoroughly and gather a sympathetic and hard-working support crew around you who would welcome the chance to see some of Australia’s most spectacular desert scenery, I can thoroughly recommend the challenge of the Canning Stock Route.

Further reading:

Gard, Eric and Ronele, Canning Stock Route - A Traveller’s Guide, Western Desert Guides, 1995. ref

Royal Automobile Club, Canning Stock Route (map) RAC.

Stanton, Jenny (Ed). The Canning Stock Route, Australian Geographic Society, 1992.

Carnegie, David, Spinifex and Sand, Hesperian Press, 1989 edition of 1898 original.


comments Copyright © 2016 Peter Gargano. Amendments? - email me: bike.csr@gmail.com.