Travel The Anne Beadell Highway

Chris Whitelaw — 17 January 2023
The Anne Beadell Highway stretches 1,320km across the Great Victoria Desert, connecting Coober Pedy (SA) with Laverton (WA)

The Highway was surveyed and built in five stages between 1953-62 by the legendary Len Beadell and his Gunbarrel Road Construction Party, and named after his wife, Anne.

The Red Highway

To call it a ‘highway’ is a colossal overstatement. In reality it is a rough, unsealed bush track with the reputation of being the worst outback road in Australia. Despite that – or perhaps because of it – the journey offers an offroad desert experience of a lifetime and is popular among four-wheel drivers as an alternative to the Eyre Highway for crossing the continent’s arid southern region.

Much of the track traverses a red sandy base but surface conditions vary widely from firmly packed to very soft and rutted. There are long stretches of corrugations, with some washouts, and in places the track is so narrow that vehicle paintwork and external fittings are threatened by the encroaching scrub. 

In good conditions, the journey can be completed in five days but longer should be allowed for sightseeing or dealing with unforeseen circumstances. There are many points of interest, including Emu Field which was ‘ground zero’ during the ‘Operation Totem’ atomic tests in the 1950s. Opportunities for bush camping abound along the route, with nothing to disturb the tranquility of this remote outback setting under a sparkling Milky Way.

The Great Victoria Desert 

At an estimated 424,400sq km, the Great Victoria is Australia’s largest desert, ranking third on a world scale behind the Sahara and Arabian Deserts. Its vast, sandy dunefields blanket the southern inland from the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia to the Gawler Ranges in South Australia. On its arid margins lie more deserts – the Gibson, Little Sandy, Tirari and Sturt Stony Deserts and the Nullarbor Plain.

Annual rainfall in the Great Victoria Desert is a meagre 150-250mm, much of it from seasonal thunderstorms that are isolated and unpredictable. There is no permanent surface water, with scarce rock holes, claypans and soaks holding water only during protracted rains. Summer daytime temperatures can reach a scorching 50°C, while mild winter days experience overnight minimums commonly below zero.

Only the hardiest plants survive in this inhospitable environment, typically open eucalypt woodlands, mulga scrub and spinifex grasses. But rain can transform this stark landscape into a multi-hued spectacle of blooming wildflowers across the ochre-red sand.

bush camp in the Great Victoria DesertBush camp in the Great Victoria Desert

The wildlife that adapted to these harsh conditions includes some large raptors and mammal species, a multitude of small marsupials and many birds of conservation significance. By far the most numerous and diverse of the desert fauna are reptiles, more than 100 species ranging from skinks, geckos and snakes to the perentie and sand goanna, which can both exceed 1.6m in length. Australia’s largest land predator, the dingo, also prowls the region.

Coober Pedy to Tallaringa Well (165km)

The east-west crossing of the Anne Beadell Highway begins when travellers turn off the Stuart Highway near Coober Pedy and drive through an eerie landscape of opal tailings towards Mabel Creek Station. Near the station homestead, a signpost marks the head of the Anne Beadell track and points to the first waypoint, Tallaringa Conservation Park, 54km further on.

A section of track in the Tallaringa Conservation ParkA section of track in the Tallaringa Conservation Park

Tallaringa’s eastern boundary is the Dog Fence, which crosses the track, forcing a detour to the entry gate 3km south and back again to rejoin the track on the other side. Proclaimed in 1991, the park conserves a wilderness of dunes and gibber rises vegetated by mulga habitats for wildlife uniquely adapted to this arid environment. After rain, the park erupts in an impressive display of wildflowers that attracts abundant birdlife.

Tallaringa Well supported nomadic tribes for millennia but now offers little more than a few relics of its former existence and a reasonable site for camping. Beside the track near the well is a replica of the original survey marker inscribed by Len Beadell on 5 June 1961, with directions to “Emu 75 miles” to the west. Travellers must pay entry and camping fees to SA Parks and obtain a tourist access permit from the Department of Defence as the park and Emu is within the Woomera Prohibited Area.

Tallaringa Well to Emu Junction (125km)

West of Tallaringa Well, a long stretch of badly corrugated track leads to Emu Field, a large flat claypan designated as the site for ‘Operation Totem’ in 1953. Totem was the codename for British weapons testing that included the detonation of two atomic bombs, 9-kiloton ‘Totem 1’ on 15 October 1953 and 7-kiloton ‘Totem 2’ twelve days later. Subsequently, Emu Field was deemed unsafe due to radioactive contamination, and testing operations were moved south to Maralinga for a further series of atomic blasts in 1956.

Today, it is possible to visit Emu Field, although residual radiation levels make the area unsafe for camping. Safe camping is possible near the airstrip at Emu Junction, 15km to the north-west. Large concrete obelisks mark ‘ground zero’ at the detonation sites, and stark evidence of the devastating explosions may be seen in concentric blast rings etched in the ground, small glass balls of molten sand, and twisted metal plates and bolts – the only remains of 30m towers that held the bombs aloft.

Emu Junction to WA Border (340km)

The track west of Emu Junction is a mixture of rocky sections, corrugations, sand hills and claypans as it weaves its way past Annes Corner to Voakes Hill, signposted by Len Beadell plaque. This section of the track crosses Maralinga Tjarutja Aboriginal Land, for which a permit is required. 

From Voakes Hill to the WA border, the Anne Beadell track traverses the Mamungari Conservation Park. Entry to the park is free but fees apply for camping, which is limited to 100m either side of the track and in the Serpentine Lakes area. At more than 21,000sq km, Mamungari is the largest conservation area in South Australia.

Serpentine LakesSerpentine Lakes

The park encompasses a pristine wilderness of stark limestone plains, salt lakes and red sand ridges rising 20m high and stretching up to 100 kilometres. This arid environment supports some 270 unique plant species, such as the majestic marble gum, desert kurrajong and the ooldea mallee, and an array of wildlife that includes 120 species of birds.

The park is managed jointly by the SA Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources and the traditional owners (the Maralinga Tjarutja and the Pila Nguru people), for whom the area has great cultural significance.

The SA/WA border 

Approaching the SA/WA border, the landscape undergoes a dramatic change from red sand dunefields to the flat, pinkish-white expanses of the Serpentine Lakes. These salt lakes are the modern-day remnants of an ancient palaeo-drainage channel, formed in a chain that stretches almost 100km south of the Anne Beadell track. They are normally dry with a firm crust of clay, silt, salt and sand, which generally makes for an easy crossing, though travellers should be wary of boggy patches after recent rain and not venture from the track. When full, the lakes cover an area of 9,700ha and would be impassable until they drain.

Corrugations on the SA side of the borderCorrugations on the SA side of the border

As well as the official signs, the border is marked by a humble 44-gallon drum supporting a replica of a Beadell plaque, inscribed with the location’s co-ordinates, directions and the date “April 1962” when Len erected the original. The signage is a salutary reminder of WA’s quarantine laws and the heavy penalties for disobeying them.

Spinifex Country

West of the border, the Anne Beadell is also known as the Serpentine Lakes Road as it crosses Spinifex Country. These are the traditional lands of the Anangu Tjuta Pila Nguru – ‘people from the land of spinifex’ or Anangu, for short – whose name derives from the native grasses that dominate the landscape. The centre of the Pila Nguru homeland is Tjuntjunjarra, perhaps the most remote community in Australia, 133km south of Ilkurlka Roadhouse on the Anne Beadell Highway.

Archaeological evidence confirms that nomadic ancestors of the Anangu roamed this desert region for at least 20,000 years before the arrival of Europeans on the continent. In 2000, the Federal Court granted Native Title to the Spinifex People over 55,000sq km of the Great Victoria Desert.

The Spinifex Arts Project was established in 1997 to support the Native Title claim by documenting the claimants' birthplaces and depicting traditional stories in large, boldly coloured acrylic dot paintings. In 2005, a major exhibition of their work in London brought the artists widespread notoriety. Since then, the art of Spinifex People has been presented at solo and group exhibitions in major cities around Australia and overseas and is keenly sought by collectors and institutions.

Ilkurlka Roadhouse

Beyond the border, the Anne Beadell track is reasonably well maintained and the going becomes noticeably easier. After 170km, travellers arrive at the Ilkurlka Roadhouse, one of the most remote roadhouses in the outback, 700km from both Coober Pedy to the east and Kalgoorlie to the west. It presents the only opportunity on the track for refuelling and restocking basic supplies.

Cabin-style accommodation at the Ilkurlka RoadhouseCabin-style accommodation at the Ilkurlka Roadhouse

Ilkurlka was established in 2003 at the intersection of the Madura Loongana Track (Aboriginal Business Road) and is owned and operated by the Tjuntjuntjara Aboriginal community. As well as fuel, water and provisions, the roadhouse has an unpowered campground with large drive-through sites ($10 per person per night), toilets, showers and barbecues. For those who crave some creature comforts, there is also a self-contained studio with kitchen and outdoor shower and toilet ($140 per night, bookings are essential). The roadhouse does not provide mechanical services, but it does stock some vehicle spares and offers the use of a workshop for limited DIY repairs.

Ilkurlka to Neale Junction (170km)

About 60km west of the roadhouse, a short detour leads to the remarkably well-preserved wreck of a light plane that crashed-landed in 1993. All on board the Goldfields Air Services flight survived the crash and were later rescued. For another 110km, the Anne Beadell track is a twisting roller-coaster through dunes and swales before intersecting the north-south Connie Sue Highway (named after Len’s daughter) at Neale Junction. At the centre of this flat clearing stands a large white post bearing one of Len’s plaques (inscribed “August 16 1962”). Next to the plaque is a post bearing a visitor book which affords the opportunity to read other travellers’ experiences in this magnificent landscape and to add a few impressions of your own. The junction lies near the centre of a large nature reserve, both of which are named after Commander Frank Neale who flew the Mackay Aerial Reconnaissance Survey Expedition over this region in 1935.

The Len Beadell marker at Neale JunctionThe Len Beadell marker at Neale Junction

Neale Junction to Yeo Homestead (166km)

The Anne Beadell passes a pleasant campsite beneath the stark ochre outcrop of Bishop Riley’s Pulpit at the entrance to the Yeo Lake Nature Reserve. The reserve encompasses the ephemeral salt lake after which it is named and, together with Lake Throssell to the north, protects wetlands that provide vital refuge for diverse wildlife in this semi-arid environment. Just south of the lake, the abandoned Yeo Homestead is the focus of a camping area with rainwater tanks (boil before use), fireplace, picnic tables and a toilet. Another campsite is located 25km further on at Point Sunday on the western edge of the reserve.

Bishop Riley’s PulpitBishop Riley’s Pulpit

Yeo Homestead to Laverton (210km)

Beyond Yeo Homestead, the track heads southwest on the last leg to Laverton. Along the way, travellers encounter Old Yamarna Homestead (abandoned), an outstation for a grazing property, and marks the official end of the Anne Beadell Highway. This section crosses Ngaanyatjarra Aboriginal land and a permit is required. Thereafter, the road becomes a smooth, undivided highway that cuts a broad swathe through the countryside all the way to Laverton, where the rigours of the Anne Beadell become a dusty memory in the rear-view mirror, leaving lasting memories of an excellent Outback adventure.

The abandoned Yamarna HomesteadThe abandoned Yamarna Homestead

The Anne Beadell Challenge

The Anne Beadell Highway traverses one of the most remote desert regions in Australia. The track is rough, there are few facilities and only Ilkurlka Roadhouse offers fuel and basic provisions along the way. Would-be travellers need to be totally self-sufficient, so careful planning and preparation are essential to a safe and enjoyable journey.

Check on road conditions and weather forecasts before setting out. It will take at least 5-7 days to complete this 1300km trip and a lot can change during that time. You don’t want to breakdown or get stuck out there with no chance of recovery.  

The track is suitable only for well-maintained 4WD vehicles and high clearance, offroad-capable caravans and camper trailers. In terms of four-wheel driving, it is not particularly difficult, but this is not a track for newbies. It poses its own special challenges and should only be undertaken by drivers with remote, long-distance desert experience. Ideally, the trip should be done by groups in convoy, rather than alone.

Carry adequate supplies of fuel, water and provisions to get at least as far as Ilkurlka and allow extras of each in case of delays through unforeseen circumstances. There are no mechanics between Coober Pedy and Laverton, so carry a sensible selection of spare parts, tyres, tools and recovery gear.

For navigation, the HEMA Great Desert Tracks maps (Central and Western sheets) and a Garmin GPS are excellent resources.

In case of emergencies, carry a comprehensive first aid kit and ensure you have adequate communication equipment on hand - UHF/HF radio, satellite phone (fully charged and with plenty of airtime credits) and EPIRB. Don’t rely on mobile phones out here because coverage is negligible. The track involves some undulating dunes and it’s a good idea to put a red flag on your aerial to alert oncoming traffic to your presence.

The Anne Beadell Highway Contacts

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