In 1997, Paul Sampson and John Hepburn met in the Birdsville pub. As it turned out, both had a love for the Australian outback, and now they make a trip every year in their Toyota Land Cruisers. Cedric Smith was lucky enough to join them on one of the adventures
Text: Cedric Smith
Photography: Cedric Smith, Paul Sampson and John Hepburn
Through the years, Paul Sampson and John Hepburn have travelled thousands of kilometres in the Australian outback, taking photographs on the way. These pre-planned trips have grown to include friends and family, who had similar interests and enjoyed “roughing it”.
John and I have known each other for some 25 years, going back to the time when he still lived in SA.
It was in 2009 that John suggested to Paul that I join them on “the HOR09 trip”. Paul was perhaps a little reluctant at first because of past experiences with interlopers, but agreed. And so my first unbelievable trip to the outback has left me with memories I shall never forget, and I look forward to joining them again in the future.
Each member of the team was given a nick- name: Roger (Music Man) Bates, Cedric (MIA – Man in Africa) Smith, Paul (MB – Miserable Bastard) Sampson, Wayne (Big Fella) Abrahams, Bruce (Fire Master) Copeland and John (A-hem) Hepburn.
I had not met Paul, Roger, Wayne and Bruce before the trip, but today we are big mates and often reminisce about our adventure.
Six men, three vehicles and one goal – to traverse the Hunt Oil Road (HOA) in the remote desert region of Western Australia during May/June 2009.
The track was originally built by the Hunt Oil Company in the 1960s for petroleum exploration, and once commercial activities ceased some years later, it was seldom used.
It is very remote country and carries a high level of risk for the unprepared. Vehicle fires are common, and travellers need to constantly check underneath the vehicles to clear build-up of grass and other scraps of vegetation. “Spinifex build-up”, as it’s called, can ignite fires from the engine heat, with fatal consequences.
The trip would cover 13 500km over three weeks and would involve five permits for access to Aboriginal land, including the Central Land Council (LC), Anangu Pitantjatjara Yankuytjatjara LC, Ngaanyatjarra LC and Maralinga Tjarutja Lands.
From Sydney, our group turned west following the mighty Murrumbidgee River before heading north to Coober Pedy (famous for its opals), and on to Uluru, one of the most iconic outback destinations. However, this was just the beginning of our “real” trip. From Uluru, we visited Kata Tjuta, previously known as “The Olgas”, and headed farther west to eventually link up with the HOR.
To access this road we would need to follow some of the “gun” roads built by one of Australia’s most intrepid and determined pioneers, Len Beadell, and his “Gunbarrel Construction Crew” – so called for the arrow- straight tracks he developed.
Shortly after the Second World War, the British and Australian governments decided to establish a range to test long-range missiles. In 1946, Len was commissioned to survey and build the service roads, leading to the establishment of the Woomera Rocket Range. The missiles were to be launched in
a north-westerly direction, up to a distance of 3000km. The area was considered uninhabitable – a view which no doubt surprised the Aborigines who had been living there for many years! Such were the times.
Opposite: The Hunt Oil Road in Australia runs through some very desolate territory. Australia’s famous road trains (above) run on these roads (left). Passing one of these “trains” can be quite a difficult chore.
Len Beadell was also involved in finding the test site for Australia’s first atomic explosion, at Emu, in the mid-fifties. He was a remarkable man who set up a grid of service roads in areas that had never seen a white man before. He navigated through dense scrub using a compass and a theodolite for astro-fixes to calculate his position.
Once Len had found a suitable course, he would drive back to his road party, comprising a bulldozer, a grader and a supplies truck.
He would guide the dozer driver by standing on top of his Land Rover and flashing a hand mirror in the direction of the dozer. The driver would take a straight bearing on Len’s mirror, and that was the route!
Over eight years, the Gunbarrel Construction Crew built more than 8000km of track through Australia’s most remote and inhospitable outback country. Len was awarded the British Empire Medal in 1959, and completed the last of his roads in 1963.
When he died in 1995, Australia lost one of its true pioneers. In many ways, our HOR journey owed much to this remarkable man.
From Uluru, we travelled west and eventually took a northerly turn onto the old Gunbarrel Highway, near the Giles Weather Station, which was established by Len Beadell at the beginning of his road construction journey.
Len had a wry sense of humour and named many of his tracks “highways”. Be assured, highway it isn’t! With corrugations that can shake teeth fillings loose and destroy shock absorbers, this is a tough track. In many
sections, our average speed would be less than 10km/h.
Nonetheless, minus dental fillings and after some 4 000km, we arrived at the northern point of the HOR, just west of Everard Junction. The HOR runs 260km between
the Great Central Road and the Gunbarrel Highway. However, the notion of a road is a mistake. Heavily overgrown with spinifex, and with so-called mulga stakes ready to rip tyre walls apart, the HOR is anything but a road. In many parts, the track has disappeared and GPS navigation is required.
Self-sufficiency is critical for trips like this. You must have a satellite phone, emergency tracking unit, lots of water and fuel, back-up
GPS navigation, UHF radio and vehicle spares. That said, it’s also important to be well fed. After a hard day’s travel, we always attempted to serve above-standard food.
Meals on the trip included ocean trout (wild lime, chilli and ginger marinade), roast pork and beef (always a delight in the camp oven), Muscovite duck breast (seared, and served with a beetroot relish), kangaroo fillets (with a native pepper sauce), lamb back straps (with cumin spice, char-grilled with a red wine jus), veal shanks and eye-fillet steak with a delicate pepper sauce. I should add that the accompanying wines were of a similarly modest standard!
The HOR region is home to a number of Aboriginal communities. For the most part, they remain isolated and access is generally only for emergency purposes. The track still shows evidence of those petroleum exploration activities many years ago, but there are no travellers. Camping is wonderful in this area, with the sense of isolation a nourishment for the soul. Sunrise and sunset often reflect the intense colours of the outback – hues of red, pink, blue and gold.
The HOR track takes three to four days to travel. It can be done faster, but to what purpose? Along the way, we took in a myriad sights that will remain vivid in our memories.
The growth of spinifex along and on top of the track was something to see – and to regularly clear from under the vehicles to avoid fires. Incidentally, the fastest way to put out a spinifex fire is to spray it with a recently shaken can of beer. For this reason, and being particularly safety conscious, our convoy was well provisioned with this essential safety item!
Once the HOR had been traversed, it was time to head home, but the adventure was not yet complete. We headed south to join up with the Anne Beadell Highway (ABH) at Neale Junction – again, one of Len’s gun roads.
The ABH made for slow, tortuous travel, and again we could travel no more than 10km/h in parts. This section of the trip covered about 500km before we headed south to find the Nullabor Highway, which abuts the great southern ocean.
This is a truly inspiring coastline, which each year plays host to migrating whales as they head north to breed in warmer waters. The views from the Bunda Cliffs are simply magnificent. One has to be careful not to drive or walk too close, as the edges regularly give way.
By now Sydney beckoned, and we reluctantly turned the vehicles east, for home.
All in all, it had been a wonderful journey through remarkable, remote desert scenery, in the company of good friends.
It’s probably time to start planning our next trip…