A Travellerspoint blog

A Road Trip to the Murchison River - Western Australia

History and antiquity in one trip.

sunny 20 °C

Thick yellow dust billows behind my car as I start my five day journey along a road that is my bridge between the present and billions of years ago.

I am set to explore the outback of the Murchison River area starting in Perth, Western Australia. I will make a trip where the oldest dated zircon crystals have been found, where rock painting made by first inhabitants of Australia stay protected in a small cave, where settlers, pastoralists and truckers didn’t necessarily tame the parched land, ending reading about pie-in-the sky science fiction where ultra-modern spider-like structures study the evolution of the universe.

The Outback. The word conjures up different images to each person. But what is the Outback? It is no one specific place or location but rather the vast, remote arid and desert regions of the interior of Australia. It is the smell of gum trees, the din of a flock of cockatoos and the bolt of an emu or kangaroo that come bounding out of nowhere. It is the truck creating a cloud of dust in the distance, a beer in hand, red soil and rocks, windmills churning up water, and bricks from an old homestead. It is an area of boundless space, glaring sunlight, parched land, seclusion and a piercingly blue horizon.

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It is also affectionately called woop-woop, the never-never, the bush and back o’burke.

Day 1: Perth to Koorda

My first stop is the township of Toodyay some 68 km to the east of Perth, the Noongar people being the first inhabitants of this region. The township was once known as Newcastle but changed its name to Toodyay in 1910 to avoid confusion with Newcastle in New South Wales. A number of the existing historic buildings in Toodyay were built using convict labour including the gaol, the Old Courthouse, Connor’s Mill and the Old Post Office.

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Fine examples of federation filigree on the some of the buildings lining Stirling Street, the main street, can be observed and considered while sitting on the veranda of the Toodyay bakery eating pies voted the best in Western Australia.

I continue to Goomalling, about 51 km further to the northeast of Toodyay. Although clean and tidy, it’s very quiet as not an awful lot goes on in Goomalling. The majority of grain silos in Western Australia are tall and cylindrical. However, Goomalling is home of the most impressive domed silos in the southern hemisphere and which provide a dominate landmark to the entry to the town. Four giant concrete bosoms, affectionately known as the Dolly Twins, are creative feats of engineering that were built in 1994. Each dome is 40 metres in diameter, 20 metres high and can hold 44,000 tonnes of grain. That’s a lot of loaves of bread.

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My next stop is Dowerin where I indulge in very tasty bowl of homemade corn and chicken soup and a freshly baked bread roll at the bakery. It’s been an unusually warm winter, so a walk in the Rusty Dog Creek Reserve, which holds some of the last stands of untouched bush in the Wheatbelt region, signals the impending glory of the spring flower season.

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I follow the backroads heading nearly due north, stopping in the tiny settlement of Minnivale, once a thriving community. Many of the original buildings such as the church and grocery store still stand, and the local community is refurbishing the old bakery oven. Not far out of Minnivale, I cross the Rabbit Proof Fence No 2 built in 1907 – 1908, one of the three fences built in Western Australia to control the rabbit plague, all brought about by the introduction of 24 rabbits in 1859.

My first night is spent in the rather fine Koorda Hotel, opened in 1925 at a cost of £10,000. The hotel speaks of its posh history in the jarrah floors that creak, the stained glass windows, jarrah panelling and bannisters, and cornices with rose relief flowers.

Koorda Hotel

Koorda Hotel


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Koorda, like many towns in the district, doesn’t have much more than an IGA grocery store, a post office, and council building, but it can boast having an outdoor cinema and residents that are happy to wave and say ‘gud day’ to strangers.

“Tonight is skimpy night, so you may want to eat your dinner early,” the manager of the hotel warns me. Ah – good ol’ skimpy night - an Australian tradition of ladies wearing tiny tops while serving beer. I leave the bar to the fluoro vest set and I have my dinner of chilli prawn pasta in the dining room. I then settle on the veranda overlooking the main street and watch the sun set flare red in the west.

Day 2: Koorda to Mt Magnet

Keeping with my desire to take the byways, I head north on the Koorda-Mollerin Road so I can hook onto Maranalgo Road to Paynes Find.
I make a pit stop at Mollerin Rock, one of the many rather large granites outcrops found in the region. I saunter up to the top of the rock checking out two ways the local indigenous people, settlers and pastoralists collected and stored water. A retaining wall made of small rocks cemented together snakes along the downward slope of the rock face and scattered further up are gnamma holes which are natural cavities in the granite that act as mini water tanks.

I drive along Maranalgo Road because it runs parallel to Moore Lake, the largest inland lake in Australia. Unfortunately, it is not an easy lake to access as most of it lies a wee bit away from the road and is on pastoral land. However, I am able to access the lake near Maranalgo Station. I walk out onto the dry lake bed leaving my foot prints with those of lizards, emus and kangaroos. The silver mirage in the distance fools me into thinking there is water where, I discover after a fair walk, there is none.

Emu tracks Lake Lake Moore

Emu tracks Lake Lake Moore

The primary attraction of Paynes Find is the profusion of wildflowers in spring when the reddish-brown landscape is transformed into masses of pink, white and yellow everlasting flowers. I am a bit early in the season, but the sprigs of the young plants hold promise of a delightful wildflower showing.

Dust turns to bitumen once I leave Paynes Find and head north to Mt Magnet along the Great Northern Highway. About 50km south of Mt Magnet I take a dirt road that runs past Yoweragabbie Station and I set up camp in a cluster of minni ritchi trees with their curly red bark on contorted branches. All I hear is the sound of quiet. Nary a chirp of a bird, scurry of a lizard or snuffling of a marsupial. There are no lights to hamper the brilliance of the night sky: the Milky Way is a mass of celestial matter that had been streaked across the black velvet sky with a paintbrush.

Minni ritchie tree

Minni ritchie tree


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Day 3: Mt Magnet to Meekatharra

After eating my breakfast of instant porridge and packing up my swag, I continue driving north along the Great Northern Highway to Mt Magnet and to one of my very favourite outback towns: Cue.

At the turn of the 20th century, over 10,000 people lived in Cue all because of the prospect of gold during the Murchison gold rush. It doesn’t have the population it once had, but what a ripper of a town to get a sense of outback history.

Cue had a Gentlemen’s Club, once the mainstay of respectable gentlemen in the late 1890s and early 1900s. One prestigious member was Edgar Hoover, a former American president, who worked as a mining engineer in Western Australia in the late 1890s. The honey coloured sandstone building now houses the offices of the shire council and a hive of information about the region.

Downtown Cue

Downtown Cue

I investigate the other sandstone heritage buildings along the main street including the Bank of New South Wales, the post office, the Courthouse and Police Station, the Cue Hotel and the Old Gaol.

Just outside of Cue is the turnoff to the Cue Lookout. A couple are at the top taking in the sweeping views of the town and the surrounding mulga covered shrub land.

“This is our first time this far north. It’s pretty amazing. But there sure ain’t a lot out there.”

I ask where they are from.

“Brisbane. But we have a daughter living in Bunbury so we come to Western Australia quite often. We have driven across the Nullarbor 40 times so far.”

The Nullarbor Plain. An expanse of road extending from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, to Port Augusta, South Australia. Some 1,866 kilometres one way. Forty times.

I take a side trip to Walga Rock, some 48 km to the south west of Cue. There is nothing to see for kilometres but an undulating sandy plain covered in grey-green mulga trees until a massive rock suddenly rises out of the flat surroundings. The monolith is about 2 km in length and is of heritage significance to the Wajarri Yamatji people. I find the largest gallery of Aboriginal rock paintings in Western Australia, potentially 10,00 years old, preserved on the western side of the rock in a small cave: paintings depicting snakes, emu, kangaroo tracks and hand motifs.

Walga Rock

Walga Rock

Walga Rock art

Walga Rock art

Back on the main road, I continue north again and arrive in Meekatharra (Meeka for short), some 116 km north of Cue. My plan is to drive along the Belele Mt Hale Road as I was hoping I could explore Jack Hills a wee bit. I had read that the oldest zirconia crystal dating some 4.3 billion years ago was found in Jack Hills in the 1980s and this peaked my curiosity.

It had been raining the previous week so I spend time getting road information from all who were in the Meekatharra Shire office when I walk in and who are all most helpful. My main concern is knowing I would have to cross the Murchison River and a number of its tributaries, some crossings having a bridge, others not. I find that all the roads were in reasonable condition and that I should have no problems getting through.

I am not into driving at dusk trying to avoid unruly kangaroos that bound out onto the road without warning, so I check into the Commercial Hotel for the night. It was functional and clean, had the requisite veranda overlooking the main street, no skimpy night and it totally suited me.
I did my usual wander around town before dinner. Meeka also sports an outdoor cinema and the old bakery is a good example of the tin lined buildings common at the turn of the century.

The town has had its up and down cycles, all correlated to the fortunes of the gold rush and subsequent mining activities. These days it’s a bit quiet but the sign “Haircuts: dogs and humans” snags my interest and I wander into Anna’s shop. I find an array of books, tourist trinkets, Aboriginal paintings, three rather large short-haired dogs and the owner, Anna, an outgoing, wonderfully rambunctious character.

“Yeah, I was living in Melbourne working in the media industry and happen to pass through Meeka. Liked it and moved here. Been here for seven years and love it.”

A short and sweet story. And the gentleman with his hair coifed the same length and style as the dogs looks very chuffed.

Day 4: Meekatharra to turn-off at Carnarvon Mullewa Road

After an early morning cappa, I head west onto the Meeka Rangelands Discovery Road. This road is also referred to as the Meekatharra -Landor Road, Carnarvon Meekatharra Road and the Kingsford Smith Mail Run drive. Multiple names all depending on what sign or map you are reading, all heading in different directions eventually, but at the beginning in Meeka it’s the same road.

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I did a quick stop at Peace Gorge which is a ring of red granite boulders scattered around an open flat area. The area was known as the Granites, but renamed Peace Gorge in 1919 in commemoration of the diggers who returned to the region after World War I.

The road was dirt, well graded and dusty. Keeping to a speed of 80 km per hour, not much happened while I passed a lot of nothing which consisted of flat land dotted with mulga and termite mounds. My first significant lump in the landscape was Mt Gould.

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The Mt Gould Police Station and Hold-up, constructed in 1888, was built to incarcerate sheep rustlers. It once housed up to four policemen and a dozen Aboriginal trackers. One can only imagine living in such an isolated, hot and, during the summer, fly infested country.

Lone Grave - Mt Gould

Lone Grave - Mt Gould

Mt Gould Police Station site

Mt Gould Police Station site

I walk up Mt Gould for a view of the surrounding country collecting lots of pink quartz and, not being a geologist, what I consider as other pretty rocks. I can see Jack Hills in the distance to the south. Unfortunately, having not referred to my map, I discovered too late that there was no turnoff to Jack Hills from the Meeka – Landor Road. The hills really weren’t anything spectacular – I could easily say there was jack all at Jack Hills. My consolation is that because zircon crystals are very tiny, the chances of my finding any was zip. So I gaze from my vantage point on top of Mt Gould onto an ancient land that was formed at least 4.3 billion years ago.

A time of 4.3 billion years ago is well beyond my imagination. What were the universe and planet Earth doing at that time? The solar system was still a baby at 160 million years and our moon was a recent appearance, created by a Mars-sized body slamming into the earth. The zircon crystals were formed as the lava lake that covered the entire surface of the planet cooled. We are talking about the oldest piece of Earth ever found. In our back yard.

There was massive flooding along the Murchison River in March 2006 as a result of Tropical Cyclone Emma with water levels reaching about 17 m and the river reaching a width of 20 km in some places. Some of the flood damage could be seen at the Beringarra Old Sheep Shearing Station where I indulged in a bit of a sticky beak. Some of the buildings and outposts are still standing but are now abandoned.

Outback sentinals

Outback sentinals

I reach a crossroad where the road markings are not very clear, so I stop at Beringarra Station to get directions to Murchison Settlement. Kim, the station caretaker, and I have a wonderful chin-wag while leaning on the old mulga wood fence. Clarence, the dog, decides I am not a threat and becomes my best friend forever. We only need a reed of wheat between our teeth to complete the scene.

“We couldn’t get out for three days last week because the roads were so sticky. One old codger was really suffering because he ran out of smokes and it was three days before he got a cigarette. But the road is sweet today, so you will have no problem getting through” Kim informs me.

“Did this station get flooded in 2006?” I ask.

“Yep. The flood waters came halfway up the walls. There was a lot of mud so a lot of cleaning to do afterwards. But all is well now.”
What do you do for entertainment out here in the middle of woop-woop”?

“Well, we are pretty busy during the day running the cattle. But we have the internet via wireless here so we can watch Netflex, Fox Sport and browse the internet.”

That is more than what I have in Perth.

Kim sets me in the right direction and I am off again along the Beringarra Byro Road, stopping to check out the abundance of birdlife including white cockatoos, egrets and little dicky birds at the water hole at the Murchison River crossing just before Millie Millie Station. I literally drive through Millie Millie Station crossing a number of still damp tributaries of the Murchison River until I get to my campsite nestled in an amphitheatre of flaming red rock not far from the Carnarvon Mullewa Road turnoff.

Murchison River pool

Murchison River pool

Day 5: Murchison Settlement to Three Springs

One of the more captivating aspects of driving along the Carnarvon Mullewa Road was reading the story about Emperor Hamlet.
Emperor Hamlet, born in 1939, was a local Wajarri man who worked for a German by the name of Mr Peter Gurachi.

A bane of a trucker’s life in the early 1900s, before cattle grids were developed and installed, was the stock gates built across the road to ensure stock stayed on their own territories. There were around 100 gates between Mullewa and Gascoyne Junction, a distance of some 400 km as the crow flies. This meant that truckers had to stop, open a gate, drive through, stop again, close the gate and finally move on.

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Mr Gurachi, a German truck driver who carted stock across the Murchison region, decided that this was far too much effort and took far too much time. He was not willing to drive in convoy with other truck drivers so he simply drove through the gates.

Story goes that the local pastoralists got fed up having to replace the gates so they developed one that would smash Mr Gurachi’s truck radiator. Not good for Mr Gurachi. As a consequence, Mr Gurachi hired Emperor Hamlet as a gate opener and closer. Emperor would jump down from the cab of the truck, open the gate and Gurachi would drive through. All well and fine except Gurachi would not stop so Emperor would have to close the gate and do a 50 yard dash through the dust of the truck to catch up and scamper back onto the truck.

Emperor eventually became a stockman and well known member of the Murchison community, passing away in Mullewa in 1999.

Murchison Settlement is an oasis in the Murchison outback. While waiting for my not too bad cappuccino at the roadhouse, I noticed that seniors were very much catered to. Not only was the Senior Newsletter the only reading material available, it’s also the only place I have so far encountered with not only the usual reference to sanitary supplies not be placed in the loo but also incontinence products.

A wander into the local museum gave me an informative narrative of the history of the region and very quickly brought me into the future. There was a video and display about the Murchison Widefield Array, a low frequency radio telescope located some 200 km WSW of Meekatharra which is exploring and studying the evolution of the universe. The telescope consists of an army of white, spider-like antennae sitting on the ground awaiting messages from outer space. I am not sure which was the more intriguing – a 4.3 million year old crystal, how Emperor got his name or the metal devices that may tell us how Earth and our universe was formed.

It was a pretty straight run from Murchison Settlement to my last stop, the very pleasant township of Three Springs where I settled in for the night at the Commercial Hotel having a fine Aussie dinner of chicken stew and mash.

I have traveled some 1,600 km which, in the scheme of things Australian, is a really short distance. But, I have explored one of the most ancient landscapes of Earth, passing through eons of time.

Some advice on traveling in the outback

The outback of Australia is a magical place but it can be a very deadly place. You must be prepared regardless of where you go. The distances are great and it can get bloody hot in the summer. My trip took me on some well-traveled roads so I was never in total isolation but here are some of the rules I follow.

1. I make sure my car is in perfect condition and I figure out where my petrol stops will be.
2. I take plenty of water (at least 2L per day) and food to cover my trip and then some extra for contingency.
3. I have a good first aid kit and know basic first aid.
4. I give my friends and family a rough itinerary of my trip before I leave. I bring really good maps and a GPS, and record my location each night.
5. Mobile phone coverage can be sparse but I decide to risk taking only the mobile and nothing else on shorter trips. Consider a satellite phone for longer and more remote trips.
6. I check the condition of the dirt roads and the daily weather report before setting out.
7. I drive to the conditions of the road not the speed limit signs. The back roads are pretty good, but I still have to keep my eye out for unexpected surprises such as potholes, muddy spots when crossing streams, soft edges and wayward stock or wildlife.
8. I keep my headlights on while driving. I do not drive at dawn or dusk when there is the greatest risk of hitting a springing kangaroo or other animal.
9. I never, ever, ever drink and drive.
10. I stop frequently for a rest break. This gives me the opportunity to stretch my legs, take pictures and check out the micro-world of the outback that one misses being in the car. I always enjoy a short stroll away from the road looking at the rocks and pebbles, the insects scurrying on their way, lizards flinting, and the patterns and colours of the flowers and the vegetation.

Enjoy the bush, be sensible, err on the side of caution and get home safely.

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Posted by IvaS 05:28 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

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