Wool Wagon Pathway

Jill Harrison — 8 October 2020
Originally travelled to avoid shipping costs, the Wool Wagon Pathway became a major road in WA's Murchison-Gascoyne region.

On 27 May 1866 Edward ‘ET’ Hooley left the Geraldine Mine, just north of Northampton, to drive 1945 sheep north to the Ashburton River to avoid the exorbitant shipping rate of 13 shillings ($1.30) per sheep. Hooley arrived three months later on the 25 August, having lost only eight sheep along the way.

Hooley’s remarkable overland journey, and the wells he dug along the way, led to the establishment of the Mullewa to De Grey Stock Route in the 1890s, along which thousands of cattle and sheep were driven over the next 80 years.

Today the 1248km Wool Wagon Pathway from Geraldton to Exmouth is one of Western Australia’s great outback road trips. Exploring the pastoral country of the Murchison and Gascoyne regions, you can read the stories of the pioneers, graziers, blade shearers, horsemen, drovers, fencers and well sinkers who pioneered this country which supplied quality wool to London.



WHERE TO START

The Pathway can be explored in either direction, by starting at Geraldton, 417km north of Perth, through Mullewa to Exmouth, or from Exmouth and travel south. The roads are mostly good unsealed gravel, but 4WD is recommended, particularly if there has been rain. I suggest allowing one to two weeks.

In 1839 George Grey was the first European to explore the Geraldton area, followed by the Gregory brothers in 1846, who reported good pastoral and mining prospects. 

With the arrival of Europeans, life for the local Indigenous population was drastically changed. 

There is much to see around Geraldton, including the HMAS Sydney memorial honouring 645 Australian sailors lost without trace 207km off the coast during World War II in 1941. 

Our first stop on the Wool Wagon Pathway is Mullewa, 100km from Geraldton. One of the first Murchison townships, Mullewa’s main attraction is Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, built in the 1920s by the architect-priest Monsignor John Hawes. This is one of 15 churches built by Hawes between 1915 and 1939, which can be explored on the Monsignor Hawes Heritage Trail. 

Built in Romanesque style typical of Italian or Spanish village churches, it was constructed with help from local farmers carting stone from a nearby quarry. 

From Mullewa it is only 30km to Pindar. Once an important railway town, filled with the sound of livestock and people bringing wool to market, it was virtually abandoned when the railway line closed in 1978.

Visitors flock to this area especially to see the spring wildflowers including everlastings and the unique wreath flower, Leschenaultia macrantha, which can be seen along the sandy roadside verges of the Pindar-Baringarra Road about 10km north of Pindar. 

STATION COUNTRY

From Pindar the road is gravel through station country. There are various sites to visit before arriving at the remains of the Wooleen Woolshed. Once listed by the National Trust of Australia, WA, it was blown away by 150km winds in 2004. 

Built in 1922 by Alf Couch, its outstanding feature was the self-supporting curved 80m by 25m corrugated iron roof, a technique perfected by Couch because timber was in short supply. This barrel-vaulted roofline became characteristic of sheds in the Murchison area and can be seen at the adjacent cookhouse.

You have three choices of accommodation here, nearby at Wooleen Station — where you can learn about efforts to regenerate the land following years of over-grazing (and which offers seasonal camping and station stays), the Murchison Oasis Caravan Park, or freecamp at Errabiddy Bluff just north of Murchison. 

Alternatively from Mullewa you can take the slightly shorter bitumen/gravel Carnarvon-Mullewa Road north from Mullewa to Murchison Settlement and visit the historic Ballinyu concrete bridge.

Murchison Settlement is convenient for an overnight stop, particularly if you want power and a hot shower. There are motel units as well as powered and unpowered sites, and fuel, basic supplies and meals are available at the roadhouse. 

You can explore the museum and botanic walk, but the second weekend in July is the highlight of their calendar, with the Murchison Polocrosse tournament, a weekend of fast action and teamwork between riders and horses.

If you prefer a free quiet overnight camp, the turn-off to Errabiddy Bluff Site 18 is only 1km north of the Murchison Settlement. A 12km sandy-gravel track then leads to the Bluff — 4WD is recommended and care is needed during wet weather. 

There is plenty of room to camp within walking distance of the Bluff, but very little shade. There are no facilities and no marked path up the Bluff, but it is a peaceful place to camp — although you might be visited by feral goats! 

At Site 7, the Errabiddy Outcamp, you can read the remarkable story of Mary and 

James Watson who lived at this isolated outstation in the 1920s. During the two years they lived here, Indigenous girls were Mary’s only regular companions. Her infant son is buried here. 

Continuing north, Site 10 is Murchison Gate. Cattle grids are common across outback roads today, but in the early days, grids did not exist, and travellers had to continually open and close gates. There were nearly 100 gates on the road between Mullewa and Gascoyne Junction, so truck drivers often worked in convoy. The first driver would stop and open the gate, the trucks passed through, the lead truck closed the gate and joined the back of the convoy. The new lead truck would open the next gate, and so on.

At this site, you can read the fascinating story of the formidable German Peter Gurache and his young Indigenous gate opener Emperor Hamlet. As Gurache would not stop his truck for the gate to be opened, Hamlet had to run ahead, open and shut the gate, and then run to catch up to the moving truck. Despite this treatment, Hamlet become a respected stockman and member of the Murchison community. 

FOLLOWING THE ROUTE

Site 11 is Stock Route Well 19. Restored in June 2007, the well is one of 52 wells dug in 1895 along the Mullewa to De Grey Stock Route. Lined with stone, and equipped with troughs, buckets and a windlass or whip lever to raise the water, these wells, located 12–20km apart, were capable of watering 3000 sheep or 300 cattle at one time. Wooden fences were erected around the wells to protect them from being trampled by thirsty stock.

Approximately 150km north of the Murchison Settlement is Site 12, Bilung Pool, part of a tributary of the Wooramel River. Known as Birlungardi by the Wajarri people, this natural water feature holds water year-round. Water courses like these were vitally important for early inhabitants, animals, and drovers. Today this is a rather pretty place to stop for lunch.

Gascoyne Junction is 282km from Murchison at the junction of the Lyons and Gascoyne Rivers in the Upper Gascoyne Shire. Established in 1897, Gascoyne Junction is a centre for mining, pastoral and merino wool industries and is a good place to buy supplies. The Gascoyne Junction Pub & Tourist Park offers cabins, powered and unpowered sites. 

Roads in this region can flood during heavy rain, and Gascoyne Junction has been virtually washed away by huge floods several times, most recently in 2010. 

Our next stop was Site 16, the Cobbled Road. In the early 1920s, transport through the region used camel or horse-drawn wagons along rough dirt tracks pushed through the scrub. It was an arduous process and carters were often bogged, sometimes for weeks, beside the track. During the 1930s, labour intensive public works programs were created using sustenance labour. Men were given work depending on the number of dependent children — for instance, four children equalled four weeks' work. The road between Carnarvon and Bangemall was upgraded using locally sourced white rocks. What a mammoth task it would have been to create this road! 

The Kennedy ranges are 30km north. The Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions campground is nestled 12km in, near the 100m red rock ramparts which soar above the surrounding Lyons River valley plains. Campsites and amenities may be basic — long drop toilet, no power or showers, and bring your own everything, including water — but this is more than compensated by the setting. I recommend a two or three-day stay. Camping fees apply and there is a camp host May to September. 

The Kennedy Ranges run north-south for 75km and can be up to 25km wide. The southern and eastern sides have eroded over millennia to form spectacular cliffs, cut through by a maze of steep-sided canyons, surrounded by red sand country dominated by spinifex and supporting 400 plant species, including 80 species of annual wildflowers which flourish in August and September after good rains. 

There are several walking trails. The main Temple Gorge walk trail (2km return, 2 hours) starts from the campground. Most of the trails have only basic trail markers so check the information boards. Some follow creek lines and are quite rocky, requiring some clambering, so walkers need to consider their capabilities and the approximate time to allow.

You can also walk to Honeycomb Gorge from the campground (approximately 3km each way) or take the short drive to the start of a 600m relatively easy trail. The gorge features intriguing honeycomb-like cavities on the rock face which have been formed by wind and water spray from a seasonal waterfall above the cliff face. 

The Ranges, known as Mundatharrda by the Inggarda Aboriginal language group, are the traditional lands of three Aboriginal tribal groups — the Maia to the west, the Malgaru to the east, and the Ingarrda to the south. 

Frances Gregory explored the area in 1858, naming the ranges after then WA Governor, Arthur Kennedy. Within 20 years pastoral leases were taken up but were hampered by lack of water. The 141,660ha Kennedy Range National Park was gazetted in 1993. 

GETTING TO EXMOUTH

From the Kennedy Ranges the trail continues to Exmouth on North West Cape, via Ullawarra Road and the Lyndon-Towera Road, following the Pathway signage. You cross the Tropic of Capricorn before reaching the North West Coastal Highway and the bitumen at the Barradale rest area. 

Stops along the way include the Nyang Shearing shed, Site 21, built in 1912 and Emu Creek Station which offers flat, shady, unpowered campsites.

From Barradale it is bitumen all the way to Exmouth. Skirting the bottom of Exmouth Gulf, via Burkett Road, you turn north onto the Minilya Exmouth Road which runs parallel to the rugged Cape Range. Interesting stops include the Krait Z-Force and Potshot memorials commemorating the World War II US submarine base, code named ‘Operation Potshot’, and the top-secret special operations Z-Force which attacked shipping in Singapore Harbour. You can learn more about this in the Exmouth Discovery Centre.

Exmouth served as an Allied Base during World War II. The RAAF Base and Learmonth Airport is a joint use Royal Australian Air Force base and civil airport. There was a USA naval communications base here from 1964 to 1992 and the communication towers still operate today at the tip of the Cape. 

Exmouth has plenty of facilities and accommodation choices and is a gateway to the magnificent Ningaloo Reef Marine Park, home to around 200 coral and 600 fish species. You can snorkel over coral gardens from the shore or join a whale shark swim cruise, visit the lighthouse at the Cape and explore walk trails in the dramatic gorges of the Cape Range National Park. There are also spectacular views over Exmouth Gulf from Charles Knife Canyon. 

From Exmouth it is at least a two-day drive back to Perth, or longer if you choose to explore along the way.

The Wool Wagon Pathway is just one of three outback pathways in the Gascoyne-Murchison area. The Kingsford Smith Mail Run and the Miners Pathway are also great options to be explored. 


ALTERNATIVES

As an alternative route from the Kennedy Ranges you may consider a 260km side trip to Mount Augustus. Take particular care as gravel road conditions vary from sandy flood plains to rocky sections through the ranges — watch out for the sharp dips, and drive to the conditions. 

Mount Augustus, known as Burringurrah by the Wajarri people, is the largest rock in the world rising 715m from stony red sandplains and scrubland. The underlying rock is 1,650 million years old, buckling to its present structure about 900 million years ago. A 49km circuit road gives access to many walking trails. 

Camping is not permitted in the Mount Augustus National Park, but you can stay at the Mount Augustus Tourist Park only a couple of kilometres away. 


FAST FACTS

WHERE IS IT: The trail starts at Geraldton, 417km north of Perth, while Exmouth is 1270km from Perth.

DISTANCES: Geraldton to Murchison Settlement is 355km; Murchison to Gascoyne Junction is 298km; Gascoyne Junction to Exmouth is 611km.

BEST TIME TO TRAVEL: June–September, to coincide with the wildflower season and avoid the summer heat.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: 

Following the trail is easy with distinctive Wool Wagon Pathway signs at main road intersections and interpretative signs at the main places of interest.

This is remote travel, so please make adequate preparations. There are no services between Gascoyne Junction and Exmouth. Supplies and services are limited, and road conditions can vary, so plan ahead, stock up on food, water and fuel, make sure tyres are in good condition and contact local visitor centres for up-to-date track information. This is unfenced grazing land, so be aware of possible stock on road. The good unsealed gravel roads include some corrugations if not recently graded, and 4WD is recommended. 

Walking trails — take note of signage and consider your own physical ability. Avoid walking in the hottest part of the day, don’t walk alone, carry plenty of water and food, wear a hat, sunscreen and good walking boots. Even on a cool day it can become very hot within the gorges.

USEFUL REFERENCES:

WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions: parks.dpaw.wa.gov.au.

Gascoyne and Murchison Outback Pathways website and guide book: outbackpathways.com.

Tourism Western Australia: westernaustralia.com.

Shire of Murchison: murchison.wa.gov.au.

Tags

Travel Destination WA Murchison-Gascoyne region Wool Wagon Pathway

Photographer

Jill Harrison