Trails: Gunbarrel Highway

The Gunbarrel Highway is an isolated desert track in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. It consists of about 1,350 km of washaways, heavy corrugations, stone, sand and flood plains. The Gunbarrel Highway connects Victory Downs in the Northern Territory to Carnegie Station in Western Australia. Some sources incorrectly show the highway extending west to Wiluna.

The road was built as part of Australia’s role in the weapons research establishment called Woomera which included Emu Field and Maralinga, both atomic bomb testing sites. The name comes from Len Beadell’s Gunbarrel Road Construction Party so named as his intention was to build roads as straight as a gunbarrel.

There were three main reasons for the construction of the Gunbarrel Highway. The first was to provide access for a future meteorological station which was needed to forecast upper winds prior to the testing of atomic weapons in South Australia. The second was for instrumentation along the centre-line of fire for rockets launched from Woomera, and the third was to allow surveyors from the National Mapping Council to continue the geodesic survey of little known areas of outback Australia. A side benefit of the construction was the completion of the first east-west road link across the centre of Australia.

By any standard, this is a long and tough haul through very remote territory. Its isolation requires travellers to be totally self-sufficient with water, food and fuel (the longest distance between fuel outlets is 489 km, between Warburton and Carnegie Station.) Part of the highway between Warburton and Warakurna (near Giles) is now known as the Old Gunbarrel Highway, and is no longer maintained due to the construction of the more direct route, the Great Central Road.

The route passes directly into Aboriginal reserves and it is a legal requirement for travellers to hold a valid transit permit at the time of travel. Three permits are required and they are available from the Department of Indigenous Affairs. The permits are free. Some of the eastern section of the road is now named the Tjukaruru Road for the Aboriginal people who live in this area.

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