Last changed 11 December 2021

History of Karlantijpa country, northern central Australia

David Nash

(work in progress)

before motor vehicles | aerial | after motor vehicles | maps of travel to 1961 | map of travel to 1965 | chronology

The general area of the Karlantijpa Aboriginal Land Trusts (see map below) is the focus of these pages.  The area is semi-desert, outside the area of Pastoral Leases, and generally west of Tennant Creek, south of the Murranji Track, southeast of Wave Hill and Cattle Creek, east of Winnecke Creek, and generally across the north of the Lander and Hanson Rivers.  My sketch history here has been gleaned from many sources since my first association with the area in 1978.  Then there is a chronologically summary which has some links to supporting information.

before motor vehicles

John McDouall Stuart made forays into the area from the east when he was attempting to find a route north across the continent from SA, 1860-61.  Later in the 19th century some pastoralists and drovers crossed the area about the latitude of Lake Woods.  The first European who published an account of a crossing was Nat Buchanan who in 1896 went from Tennant Creek to Sturt Creek (WA) with a Warumungu man (Jack) and camels.  (Jack later walked home alone.)

Alan A. Davidson in 1900 headed an expedition which left the OTL at Kelly Well (35km south of where the town Tennant Creek now is), crossed north-west to Duck Ponds and then the Buchanan Hills (both of which Davidson named).

In April-July 1909 the geologist Dr Charles Chewings funded by the SA government headed a party which took a camel-drawn boring plant from Barrow Creek to the Victoria River and back.  His line of wells was inspected the following year by Alec Ross who reported to the SA government Engineer, on whose recommendation it was not further equipped, and it was never used as a stock route.

On 1 January 1911 the NT was transferred from SA to the Commonwealth, which later that year funded the Barclay-Macpherson expedition which travelled north between the Lander and Hanson Rivers and then to Newcastle Waters.  The expedition came upon one of Chewings' wells.

A handful of Europeans made forays through the area in the following years, leaving virtually no documentary record.  Perhaps there the only ones were the famous Joe Brown, and the prospecting pair Jack Simpson and Doug Cooper.  There was a flurry of activity in 1929 in the north-west, following the forced landing of the Kookaburra south-east of Cattle Creek (Nash 1982).

The local Aborigines walked out of most of the area for the last time not long before World War II. At the time they probably thought they were making a temporary visit to areas of European settlement such as Wave Hill, Tennant Creek, Powell Creek (see Read & Japaljarri 1978).  Two items in southern newspapers datelined "Tennant Creek" report what may have been the last "coming in" of Aboriginal residents of the country far to the west:
smoke signals from N.W. and S.W. yesterday indicated the approach of big numbers of desert blacks of the Warramulla tribe. Scouts had been sent out to bring them in for the inter-tribal corroboree. (Sydney Sun 2/8/1936)
For the last two weeks members of the Myall and Warramulla tribes, called from the desert by the 'bush telegraph' system of the aborigines had been coming into the reserve. (Melbourne Argus 10/8/1936 'Strange Party in Heart of Desert' by J.D. Balfe)
See Petersen et al 1978, Nash 1980, Aboriginal Land Commission 1978, 1982, 1983, Koch & Wafer 1981, and the Transcript of Proceedings of those traditional land claims for details of Aboriginal lands to the west of the Pastoral Leases west of the Stuart Highway.

The changes that came with "Army time" included the "settling down" of the last Aborigines from the area, and the first crossing by motor vehicle.

aerial surveys

The first aerial survey of parts of the area was by a private party in 1926, then during the Kookaburra search and recovery.

In April 1929 the aircraft Kookaburra ventured a 'short cut' from Alice Springs heading for Wave Hill when it made a forced landing near 18S 132E south-east of Cattle Creek, after which the two airmen Anderson and Hitchcock perished.  Subsequent aerial searches crossed the northern part of the area, then ground parties recovered the two bodies.

In the 1930s aerial surveys were by AGGSNA (Aerial Geological and Geophysical Survey of Northern Australia, including 1937) and by Donald Mackay's party (including their 1937 expedition).

During WWII the area was covered by aeronautical charts, and traversed by military flights, including on the east the 1945 Mitchell B25 forced landing.

In December 1959 the geologist Ken Phillips made an aerial reconnaissance west of Tennant Creek.  In 1960 BMR Geophysical Branch made airborne magnetometer and radiometric traverses over eastern third of GREEN SWAMP WELL (1956: part of Tennant Creek sheet) (Spence 1962, Smith 1963:2, Ausgeo 1994).  In 1962 BMR made an aeromagnetic traverse Gordon Downs to Tennant Creek in their DC3 VH-MIN.  In June 1965 Wongela Geophysical Pty Ltd carried out a helicopter gravity survey under contract to BMR (Flavelle 1965).  In 1965 BMR made a geology survey by helicopter.  In about 1966 an airborne magnetometer survey of the southern Wiso Basin was made by American Overseas Petroleum Ltd (Adastra Hunting Geophysics 1967).  On 3 June 1967 aerial photography was acquired across the north of Green Swamp Well sheet area.

Through access by helicopter, a number of survey control stations were established 1967-70. In 1967 NM/G/201, and NM/G/202 were established on the Department of Interior DD and DJ traverses.  In 1968 NM/G/284, 285, 291, 292 were established.  In 1970 NM/G/302, 304 were established.  Then between 11 June and 5 July 1971 aerial photography was acquired across the Green Swamp Well sheet area.  This was used for navigation by a BMR helicopter geology survey in May-July 1975.

In the 1970s there were a number of aerial and ground searches for the remains of the aircraft Kookaburra, and at times since its recovery in 1978 there have been several aerial visits to the location.

In 2009 and 2010 large areas have been accessed by helicopter for burning.

origins and use of the vehicle routes to the west of Warrego

A road to the west of Tennant Creek (from the Alluvial or Warrego) has been envisaged by Europeans since at least 1941, when Gerry Whitlock's party made two tracks as a defence measure: 1) a southern one, from Three Ways (25km north of Tennant Creek) west through to WA; 2) a northern one, between Cattle Creek and Muckaty.  However, it seems these tracks were never subsequently traversed, and there was no human activity at all on the ground in the Karlantijpa area in the subsequent two decades, until the surveyor VT O'Brien and party made a traverse from Alluvial Bore (north of Warrego) to Duck Pond in 1960 (leaving Tennant Creek on 28 March), and the following year from Wave Hill to Powell Creek (on which they encountered what proved to be the remains of the aircraft Kookaburra). See his map, O'Brien 1961.

The eastern end of Whitlock's southern track was used to recover personnel and cargo from the Mitchell B25 bomber (the one on display at the Darwin Aviation Museum) which on 25 January 1945 made a forced landing near the track not far west of the later site of Warrego.  In May 1947 the northern Whitlock track was probably used by Newcastle Waters Police Const Bowie and Tracker Tommy to a point roughly 45km west of Muckaty homestead.

maps of travels to 1961

Nash 1980 map
  Some exploration routes (to 1961) across Karlantijpa country*; reproduced from Nash (1980:29).

* NB An major omission from Nash (1980:29) is the 1911 Barclay-Macpherson expedition; this is shown on map, Fig. 5 in Gibson (1986:20):
Gibson 1986 map
'Explorers of the Tanami Desert', Fig. 5 in Gibson (1986:20)

NB: I believe the western part of Buchanan's 1896 route is too far south on Gibson's map.

In 1962 a road was sealed from Tennant Creek as far as Orlando Mine. This was reported at the time with a comment about the prospects for its extension:

29th March, 1962 - The tender was let for the construction of the Orlando Road and won by Thiess Bros. … The length of the road from the turnoff just above the aerodrome will be 17.2 miles and this represents a savings of about 7 miles on the present route. The Government is contributing 60,000 pounds towards the construction of the road, the remainder of the cost being to Peko. Peko will be responsible for the maintenance of the road until such time as it is in substantial use by the public in general. This road could, at some later date be the starting point on a route to Western Australia, a project which was contemplated by the Government at one stage and which is on the agenda for long term planning and development. (Reprinted in Peko Clarion June 1984, page 4.)
In May 1964, a party of Warlpiri men from Hooker Creek (as Lajamanu was then known) (including †Peter Blacksmith Japanangka) and †Max Cartwright and Graham Clark of Welfare Branch took a two vehicles across a fairly direct route from Lajamanu in the direction of Tennant Creek. For some distance from Duck Pond they made a straight cut-line. The NTA Bedford truck reached the Stuart Highway at Cabbage Gum bore (20km south of Tennant Creek town); Cartwright had to return from halfway to Hooker Ck, then came back east and took a more direct route on to the Alluvial and thence by roads to Tennant Ck. The party tried to return along their tracks but with vehicle trouble and threatening rain they turned back from west of Alluvial, and returned home by highways. (Cartwright 1995:62-68)

In July-August 1964 Department of the Interior surveyors Norman Vaughan and Carlos de Lemos carried out preparatory levelling survey roughly along Whitlock's 1941 track west, and established the DE series bench marks.  This was followed by a BMR Gravity Traverse.

Between 9 June and 20 July 1965 the Bureau of Mineral Resources sent a drilling rig (Gorey & Cole Drillers Pty Ltd of Alice Springs) through to Winnecke Creek and then Hooker Creek (later Lajamanu), and drilled 9 scoutholes GSW 1-5, WC 1-4.  At the same time a BMR reconnaissance survey made a helicopter traverse over a period of 33 days, supported by Land Rovers, Toyotas, and two 4WD 3 ton GMC 'Blitz' trucks. This activity left wheel tracks that could be followed for some years. In 1966 BMR carried out geological mapping of the northern Wiso Basin (Randal & Brown 1967).

Map showing travels to 1900-65 (click for large version)

surevy routes to 1964
Fig. 5 from BMR Record 1966/47, Geology of the Wiso Basin, Northern Territory, GEOCAT catalogue number 11761, available for free download from Geoscience Australia Product Search
Geoscience Australia map licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia Licence

In June 1965 HA Johnson made a lone reconnaisance, across country from Muckaty to Hooker Creek, for National Mapping.  Then in Sept-Oct beacons were constructed along the route, the 'Helen Springs-Hooker Creek traverse'. The next year, 19 May to 24 June 1966, National Mapping carried out a theodolite/ tellurometer traverse along the beacons (Ford 1979). Between 23 April and 2 June 1969 the same route was traversed by a National Mapping astro party.

In about 1968-69 Peko geologists John Elliston and Bob Richardson drove direct from north of Tanami to the Warrego area.

Then in the early 1970s Warrego Mine was opened, and the all weather road was extended as far west as a pumping station established about 15km west of Warrego. About 1972 Geo-Peko graded the eastern half of the BMR track, and continued the graded track further due west then around to the south, east of Lake Buck, where there was a copper prospect that had been located by †Jim Weir. (See Weir's evidence in the first Warlpiri land claim transcript.)

September-October 1972:
A National Development (Division of National Mapping) levelling survey followed the 1964 DE series bench marks along the east-west part of the track graded by Geo-Peko, and established the NMV/G series on spurs to north and south, and continued through to Lajamanu–Tanami road.

In early 1974 there were widespread very heavy rains.
In June 1974 the Mitchell B25 bomber was recovered from west of Warrego.

winter 1975:
BMR drilled scouthole GSW 6, which proved dry.
BMR geology mapping, by helicopter; base camp beside track west from Warrego.
Airstrip graded near Goddard's Prospect, with vehicle access along Geo-Peko's track west from Warrego.

After 1961 there were various searches for the Kookaburra aircraft south-east of Cattle Creek, culminating in Dick Smith's successful attempts in 1977-78. See Nash 1982 and references therein.  Additionally, in 1971 Weston and Cauley drove from Cattle Creek southeast in that area.

In July 1978, Diane Bell, David Nash, †Charlie & †Ruby Charles travelled from Tennant Creek a few km west of GSW1 bore; there had been no traffic for many months (or even a year or two).

In July 1979, David Nash and Diane Bell, CLC field officers †David Long Jupurrula and Stanley Scrutton with Warlmanpa and Warlpiri people from Alekarenge travelled from Warrego as far west as GSW3 bore, and returned. (See Bell's illustrated article in Identity, and the photograph in Langton (ed.) 1983:21)

Between 31 August and 9 September 1981, a part of bird-watchers under the auspices of the RAOU travelled from Lajamanu to Tennant Creek. Their route headed due south-east then south from Merrina Waterhole, and intersected the old east-west Geo-Peko track about 68km west of the point where the new graded track leaves it. (Fleming & Gibson 1981) This was the first vehicle connexion from Winnecke Creek to that track.

Between 22-26 May 1983, the Australian Army 4th Field Survey Squadron (from Keswick, Adelaide), under the command of Major Adler, took 12 vehicles and a helicopter from Tennant Creek to Lajamanu, including a vehicle each from NT Police, Department of Customs, and RAAF. They were accompanied also by †Billy Jupurrula Baker and †Tony Japaljarri Gibson from Lajamanu. This was the second connexion between the east-west Geo-Peko track and Winnecke Creek, along or sometimes to the east of subsequent graded track.

About September 1983, David McClay, adult educator at Lajamanu, with Warlpiri men took the opportunity to follow the tracks of the Army from Lajamanu to Warrego (and returned to Lajamanu by highways). Soon after the Lajamanu grader with crew of two Warlpiri men (one was Geoffrey Matthews Jakamarra) graded the route track from 'Duck Pond' to the GSW1 bore near Warrego, in two weeks. The graded track happens to cross Chewing's 1909 route around the point where it joined the 1960s east-west track. Then Warlpiri people from Lajamanu drove over the freshly graded track.
A senior member of the [Lajamanu] Council told me:
- The thing I really want is that road to Tennant Creek. We got a lot of relatives that way. Too far to go round top way. Too much drinking at Top Springs. Put a road through to Tennant Creek. That's what we got to do. (McClay 1988:281)
Between 26-31 October 1983, David Gibson and Jeff Cole (Conservation Commission of the NT, Alice Springs) with several Warlpiri/Warlmanpa people travelled west to a place in sandhills about 20km west of fork to the north-west. (Cole & Gibson 1983).  Gibson and others made other surveys across the area in following years.

About November 1983, Brian Ede (Member for Stuart) drove from Lajamanu to Tennant Creek with men from Lajamanu.

About December 1983, †Charlie Charles Jakamarra and others travelled from Warrego to Lajamanu and return via the direct track.

In March 1984, after heavy rains in January, Bill Binz, Conservation Commission Ranger, Tennant Creek, travelled about 213km west about as far as the fork (west / north-west), lighting small fires.

Over 29 April to 2 May 1984, two Warlpiri/Warlmanpa vehicles, with David Nash and Adrian Hyland (NT DCD) made a return trip from Tennant Creek to Lajamanu. Previous tracks since rains were only those of Conservation Commission Ranger, and, to about GSW4 Bore, some motor cycle tracks.  South-east of "Duck Pond" there were no tracks since the last rain.
Aboriginal development in Tennant Creek and surrounding areas is at the crossroads. Provided proper support from Government and people is given, the next couple of years should see a number of communities developing in the areas between Tennant Creek and Hooker Creek, with perhaps some on the east side also, the people coming from Tennant Creek, Ali Curung and Hooker Creek.
This has economic significance for Tennant Creek as the Hooker Creek Community (especially once a good road is put through) will relate here more instead of Katherine, as at present. (Clark 1984:7)
In 1984 Max & Marie Cartwright travelled from Lajamanu at least as far as Duck Pond. (Cartwright 1997:63).

On 16 June 1986 a large meeting at GSW4 (192km west of Tennant Creek) witnessed the presentation of the Karlantijpa ALT titles by the Minister Clyde Holding.  Many vehicles attended from Tennant Creek, and a couple from Lajamanu.  By then the bore had been equipped with a CAT hand pump.

In May 1987 the Australian Army conducted Exercise Hardslog III, a walk direct west from Tennant Creek aerodrome to Mallee Hill near the WA border.  The eastern part of the track was used by support vehicles.

The name 'Warrego track' was applied by Wynn's Safari, later Australian Safari, which used it as a stage in 1987, 1993 and on 26 August 1999.  The term 'Wiso track' has also been used.  The journalist Frank Alcorta publicised the track after he drove across it in 1993, and for a few years after a re-grade in 1994 the track was used by a number of travellers.  In 1998 (?) a Victorian couple drove from Lajamanu to Tennant Creek along the track.

On 31 May 2000 the Bureau of Meteorology opened rainfall station 'Central Tanami' No. 014805 at 19.0178S 132.0E near the track.

In July 2001 a large party of bird-watchers used the track as a base for a fortnight's observations for the Birds Australia Atlas project, as they made their way from Warrego to Lajamanu.

Between 24-28 May 2004 David & Jane Allworth drove from Tennant Creek to Lajamanu. "About 3 months previously a sports group had traveled the track and their tracks were visible."  In 2004 the track was used by a back-up group for people walking across the Tanami.

In June 2005 the Olsens drove from Warrego to Lajamanu, and observed that "Two vehicles have used the track in the last two years (one didn't make it and had to be rescued)".


[Clark, Allan.] 1984. The Aboriginal people of Tennant Creek, pp.6-7 in The Tennant & District Times. 50 Golden years, edited by C. Afianos. The Tennant & District Times Commemorative Issue in conjunction with the 'Back to Tennant Creek' celebrations. May 1984. 56pp. Tennant Creek.

Cartwright, Max. [1995]. Missionaries, Aborigines & Welfare Settlement days in the Northern Territory. [Alice Springs, N.T.]: Max Cartwright.

Cartwright, Max. 1997. Lasseter’s gold, Tanami gold : the story of two highways. [Alice Springs, N.T.]: Max Cartwright. ISBN 0958652805.

Langton, Marcia (ed.) 1983. After the tent embassy : images of Aboriginal history in black and white photographs. Woollahra, NSW: Valadon. Photographic research by W. Stacey and N. Perroux; photographs first shown at an Apmira Festival Exhibition, Paddington Town Hall, Sydney, 1982.

McClay, David J.L. 1988. Surviving the Whiteman’s world : adult education in Aboriginal society. University of Queensland, Graduate School of Education, PhD thesis.

chronology of travels

References are being added sporadically; see also the chronological bibliography.

1860-2 John McDouall Stuart
1871 OTL
1878 Sulivan & Mylres
1880 Wallace
1880s? Renner Springs manager
1884 Beasley
1885 Hedley & Morgan
1885 Lamond
1886 Goodliffe
1886 Sam Croker
1887 Herbert Kenny
1890s WH Willshire
1896 Nat Buchanan and Jack
1896 Eylmann collection in Bremen
year unknown (before 1960) Jim Stevens
1900 AA Davidson and Central Australian Exploration Syndicate
1907 WR Murray
1907–28 Joe Brown
1907–13 WH Tatlock
1908 Hamilton
1909 C Chewings
1910 Alec Ross inspected Chewings wells
1910 W Laurie
1911 Hutton 80mi east from Tanami
1911 Barclay-Macpherson
1912 Lavender
1913 Robert Robinson Wyndham to Tanami by car
1915 Admin report Beckett
1920 Wickham & Johennesen
1921-26 Braitling
1922 Noblett
1925 W Taylor, Jas Strake, Robert Sharpe, Jim Massie, Eric Conway
1926 Alec Ross
1926 aerial; Stark, Ambrose, Ryan and Wallace
1926 Owen Cummings
1928 railway survey 'Frews Ironstone Ponds to The W.A. Border'
1928- M Terry
1928-37 J Simpson & D Cooper
1928/1985 Killing Times
1929- Kookaburra
1930s Barker 1964
1932 Chapman
1932 Willis, Joe Roberts
1932 WE Harney mentions
1936 aerial Murranji
1937 Hossfeld AGGSNA
1937 July Donald Mackay aerial survey including between Tanami and Tennant Creek (and MACKAY 1937 EXPEDITION RADIO)
1937 Waldron
193? Sam Irvine
1939-41 Charles Young
1940 Linklater/Nugent
1941-42 Whitlock
1941-45 Jack Mulholland (Willey 1971:144-5)
1945 Mitchell B25 forced landing
1950- surveys
1951-57 Phillip Creek
1954 Toowoomba visit to perform for QEII by men from Phillip Creek
1955 Byers & Tennyson
1959 Olsen
1959- K Phillips
1960 NTA: VT O'Brien
1961 NTA: VT O'Brien
1964 Vaughan & de Lemos levelling traverse
1964 Welfare Branch: Max Cartwright et al
1965 BMR activity: geology mapping, with helicopter; concurrently BMR sent Gorey & Cole drilling rig through to Winnecke Creek and then Lajamanu, which left wheel tracks that could be followed for some years, and drilled 9 scoutholes GSW 1-5, WC 1-4
1965 Wongela Geophysical helicopter gravity survey under contract to BMR: Lindsay Ingall and others
1965-66 Natmap: HA (Bill) Johnson reconnaissance, followed by Helen Springs to Ord River traverse (Johnson 1964, Ford 1979)
1967- Harrison & Liebeknecht
1968 April–May: NatMap John Madden groundmarking, Banka Banka to Hooker Creek; camp at NM/G/142 Medusa Ridge
1968-71 NatMap Aerodist stations
1968 NatMap Aerodist preparation: dumps of helicopter fuel made by Murray Porteous and Bernard Morell, from Warrego along the 1964 DE level traverse to the Tanami – Hooker Creek road, in Bedford ZSU 262
1968 Ostatshenco prospecting
1968-69 geologists Elliston & Richardson drove direct from north of Tanami to Warrego area
1969 Astro HELENORD (Helen Springs to Ord River) traverse
1970 1–12 August: NatMap Aerodist helicopter support, access by trucks to fly camp 160 kilometres west of the Warrego mine along the 1964 DE level traverse
1971 Weston & Cauley drove from Cattle Creek southeast
1972 levelling survey
1972 Nicolas Peterson and party down Lander River to Yinapaka
1972- Jim Weir prospecting
1974–78 Kookaburra searches
1975 BMR activity: drilled scouthole GSW 6 (dry); geology mapping, with helicopter; airstrip graded near Goddard's Prospect (grid ref. 674839), with vehicle access along track from Warrego
1975 BMR geomagnetic survey
1975 MAGNT Kookaburra search
1976- CLC
1978 Pawurrinji, Warlmanpa etc land claim
1979-80 Warlmanpa etc land claim
1980-81 Ian Ogilvie from Warrego to macrofossil locality 70km southwest
1981 RAOU, Gibson & Fleming; Aug-Sep, from Lajamanu to Warrego
1981 Kaytetye-Warlpiri land claim
1982–83 CCNT surveys: Gibson & Southgate, Gibson & Cole
1983 Army, Tennant Creek to Lajamanu
1983 Royal Australian Survey Corps
1983 David McClay and party, Lajamanu to Tennant Ck
1984–99 Nash travels
1985 Cusack
1987 Australian Army Exercise Hardslog III, 16-31 May, Tennant Creek aerodrome to Mallee Hill
1987 Wynn's Safari
1988 Australian Army Desert Flower
1990 PK Latz
1993 Frank Alcorta
1993 Australian Safari
1994 road re-grade, John Deckert's Track Information
1994 seismic
1999 26 Aug  Australian Safari Warrego to Duck Pond section
2000 Bureau of Meteorology Central Tanami rainfall station
2001 Birds Australia Atlas project
(2002 A Harper & K Kelly 'Beyond the Sunset: The Central Australian Expedition' -- further south; Tanami: on foot across Australia's desert heart by Kieran Kelly, Pan Australia, 2004)
2004 Allworth
2005 D & J Olsen almost visited 19S 132E
2009 helicopter burning
2010 helicopter burning
2012 helicopter burning
2015 helicopter burning: June (including and September

Karlantijpa home page
Created 31 August 2001
Modifed 11 December 2021
2021 David Nash