It’s barely visible these days, but the legendary Carson River Track is still one of the most treacherous and triumphant in Australia. Even if you manage to drive just one section of it.
- Words: Sarah Ryder
- Photos: Sarah Ryder & Carlisle Rogers
Having spent a year 4WDing and working all over Queensland, we decided it was time to drive across the shoulders of northern Australia.
We had always intended to do the Gibb River Road, and we were lucky enough to pick up work and live there for six months.
Our digs being Home Valley Station, a working cattle station cum resort/campground. The station is a little over 100 clicks from Kununurra, along the Gibb, just past the iconic Pentecost River Crossing. It’s owned by the Indigenous Land Council, and it’s the focal point for the local Aborigines getting a foothold in the hospitality business.
One of the tours available to guests at Home Valley is heli-fishing, and it was our first port of call when we scored some time off. We somehow managed to wrangle last-minute seats, which took us out to one of the more remote spots on the already remote Durack River.
We landed a few small barra and could see the potential of catching some of the monster fish we had heard about. But unfortunately, we had to return to Home Valley.
On the flight back, Brett and the pilot Dean were looking for the old Carson Track that was used to run cattle from Carson River Station to Wyndham. The track was overgrown and in some places it was swamped with creek crossings and, when we could find the dry part of the track again, it looked like it would be rough, rough going.
Of course, this was like a red flag to a bull, and we were immediately obsessed with the idea of exploring it. The creeks were still high as it was the beginning of the season and we knew we’d have to wait a while for them to dry up, but the plan was definitely in motion.
We met another couple, Tim and Candice and their young son, who were also keen to do the track. After a couple of beers that evening, we discussed traveling the 36km back to the Durack River/Carson Track Crossing.
To access this track, we needed to contact the Balanggarra Traditional Owners from Wyndham to see if the track was open and whether we could get permission.
We headed out at the end of September from Home Valley, due north along the track. Tim and Candice were driving their LandCruiser VDJ 200 Series, and we were in our trusty FJ Cruiser.
There were three water crossings just in our first kilometre, starting with Bindoola Creek. While they were dry for the most part, each crossing was paved with large, sharp rocks on the creek-bed, conditions that demanded extreme care. And this set the scene. This would be nothing like traveling 36km anywhere else.
We drove through dry low-lying scrub and stunted tress and came across the abandoned Aboriginal settlement of Mullyacka.
A couple of old tin sheds and furniture littered the area, but Mullyacka was a memorable experience for a much different reason. Somehow, our presence had stirred a very large bull with very large horns. He took great exception to our visit and decided to literally run us off the property!
After this, the landscape changed to a swathe of open grassland where we drove slowly among packs of wild brumbies. There was also an old truck standing like a tombstone on the side of the track, long abandoned by its last owner. A reminder to us all that this track does not give an inch.
After the grasslands we came across a salt plain and tidal pools, this being where the Pentecost and Durack Rivers clash and feed into the Cambridge Gulf, via a muddy creek crossing.
After some inspection we found a place to cross without mishap and the terrain changed again, from salt plain to fields of towering spear grass that was so overgrown it was brushing both sides of the FJ.
And this was the scene of our next scary bovine moment – with a full herd of high-speed bulls materialising out of the grass in front us. The herd missed us by an arm’s length.
Moving even more cautiously through the grass now, we arrived at our first set of climbs and descents. At the base of one of these descents was another creek – Wilsons Creek Crossing. This time we had to wait, hoping that the tide would recede enough for us to keep moving onward.
The boys had a bit of a fish to bide their time and when the tide turned, it turned quickly, leaving smaller fish to dance in front of the retreating water. While this was terrible news for gasping fish, it was good news for our two-car convoy because the dropping water levels meant we could cross.
At the top of one of the hills we stopped for a quick photo opp. We were at the crest of the range, inhaling the view of the snaking Durack River valley.
The break didn’t seem long enough and we were soon back at it, slowly working our way through an obstacle course of rocky jump ups and set downs which were testing both driver and machine.
The rocks where sharp shale and easily breakable beneath the weight of our Toyotas. At this stage of the odyssey we spent quite a bit of time on foot, with spotters required to guide the vehicles and avoid punctures.
It seemed like the track hadn’t been used for years, which called for first gear low range on many of the jump ups. I’m sure we were the first ones to use it after the last wet season.
The colour and the landscape of the Kimberley is amazing, we had moved through scrubland, salt plains, grassland and then large hills covered in deep red rock all presided over by the Cockburn Ranges in the distance.
It was the end of the dry season when we tackled it, making it dusty and inhospitable, but come the wet season and the rain the whole area goes through a transformation. Storm clouds fill the sky, the creeks and rivers burst, and cascades rush down the flanks of the Cockburn Ranges. Plants and grass quickly turning green.
I couldn’t imagine anyone living out here with only basic services, and yet they once did, both the indigenous owners and the white settlers.
We finally made it to the Durack River Crossing, all that stood between us and the fishing spot was a wide creek bed…
At first we had to negotiate soft sand tracks which then opened up to a river of black rocks, the crossing looked 300 meters wide, this was going to be by far the hardest challenge of the drive.
The last wet season had removed any semblance of a track so we were forced to make our own; inch by inch, rock by rock, moving rocks, rolling rocks, packing holes with rocks so the vehicle could get across in one piece.
The trip across the field of rocks was slow, even with the FJ’s 2” lift kit. Unfortunately, the LandCruiser’s sidesteps weren’t so lucky. To say Brett and Tim were happy about getting over to the other side was an understatement. The look on their faces was one usually reserved for those people in India who had walked over burning coals.
So, after four hours and 36km we finally made it, it seemed a bit surreal seeing as it originally only took us 15 minutes in a helicopter to get to the same spot.
We celebrated by finding an elevated campsite overlooking the Durack River. But it wasn’t just the view that was remarkable, the boys were excited to see plenty of bait fish boiling below with barra attacking them. They wasted no time grabbing their rods and their lures and getting amongst it.
The fishing kept everyone busy for the next couple of hours. We kept a couple of barra for dinner that night and caught and released everything else.
After watching the sun sink into the horizon and our forks sink into fresh fish, we went back down for another fish in the dark. It was a bit creepy, as on the other side of the river there were dozens of pairs of glowing eyes blinking at us from among the rocks. While most of them were freshies, there were a few salties thrown in.
The next day, you guessed it, the boys were down fishing again. Dusk and dawn were prime barra time, with the boys landing their biggest during the morning; Tim, a 97cm beast, and Brett with a personal best of 86cm. Sam also brought in an 88cm and I can’t not mention the fish that I caught, it was a 64cm.
But the one that got away was just as memorable. Having hooked it, it launched itself out of the water, flicking its body back and forth and then spat out my lure!
Like all good things, it had to come to an end. There was work to be done back at Home Valley. We packed up the gear reluctantly and started to head back.
The Durack Crossing with its large boulders didn’t seem quiet at bad. We seemed to cross the step-ups and descents quickly, keeping pace with the sun as it evaporated into night.
All too quickly we crossed Bindoola Creek back into Home Valley with fish in our bellies and stories to tell. This trip was one of the highlights of our time in the Kimberley and we’ll definitely be back to explore more of this remote part of Australia.
WHY THE CARSON?
It starts nicely enough, in the shaded oasis of Home Valley Station, just by the Pentecost.
And it winds up at Kalumburu Road, just near the Aboriginal mission, at the northernmost region of the Kimberley, and a place once strafed by the Japanese during WWII.
It was originally the world’s most remote cattle thoroughfare, with cowboys rustling up cattle from the peninsula and driving them to the meatworks at Wyndham, driving them along the length of the 400km trail.
So what? You might say, well, it’s 400km of the most challenging 4WDing anywhere in the world; at its best, in the dry season, it’s a rock crawl through some of the most distant and stunning terrain in Australia. It’s slow, it’s rough going, and it pushes the limits; physical, mental, and automotive.
At all other times it’s inaccessible. It’s unlikely you’ll see anyone else if you drive it, though it’s not uncommon that when those make it to the now-closed settlement of Umbulgarri, they’ll sometimes have to have car parts flown in by private plane to continue their journey. And that’s only a third of the way in.
HOME VALLEY: The Eastern Kimberley’s iconic station along the Gibb. What’s not to love about this northern station of the cross? Depending on which way you’re coming from, this is either the beginning or the end of the Carson River Track. Sleeping quarters here range from luxury villa suites, all the way to lonely campsites. Home Valley is also the fifth biggest station in Australia.
OOMBULGARRI: The abandoned Aboriginal ghost town along the track. It closed 15 years ago, when the WA government declared it uninhabitable, with most of the remaining 50-odd residents moving to Wyndham.
ACCESS: To embark on any touring through this region, you have to check in with the Balanggarra Traditional Owners at Wyndham. Their best contact is via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
TAG-ALONG: There are also 4WD tag-along tours that travel the full 400km of the track, over the best part of two weeks. You can contact Colin Morgan at email@example.com for more information.