Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Gunbarrel Highway – Brief History


The Gunbarrel Highway was the first road built as part of Australia's role in the British weapons research facility called Woomera in South Australia. The area of land designated between Woomera and 80 Mile Beach near Port Hedland in West Australia was chosen as the most suitable area in the world for a rocket range, but it was an uninhabited desert waste-land in the most remote part of Australia.  Well not actually uninhabited because nomadic aborigines still wandered around this vast area.

This weapons research project did not just involve the launching of rockets into waste-land, but complex missile tracking instruments had to be placed in position throughout this vast region and so a massive ground survey was required to determine the earth's shape and optimum locations for the instruments.


The first task was to construct a road running east-west across the centre of Australia to provide a major service access for the construction of all other linking roads. The Gunbarrel Highway was the first of the Len Beadell roads and so is a very historical journey for people taking the trip today.

Len Beadell was an army surveyor who was given the task of completing the survey for the project.  Len admitted he was " a surveyor who liked to draw neat lines on maps", so he decided to site his roads in areas where long straight tracks could be built. It was Len himself, who light-heartedly named his road gang the "Gunbarrel Highway Construction Party". This was done for distance, fuel and maintenance efficiencies for both his construction team and future users. 

The survey method Len Beadell employed was to “bush bash” in his Land Rover using a magnetic compass and the vehicle odometer.  When he had found a suitable route he’d stand on top of the Land Rover and either flash a mirror of fire a flare to Doug Stoneham who was operating the D8 bulldozer.  Doug would cut a straight path to Len checking his alignment by looking back at the cut he’d made.   Scotty Boord would follow the bulldozer in the grader and form the road. The grader was followed by Willy Appleton who cleared the track of any remaining sticks, roots or stones.

The other members of the construction team were Rec Flatman, mechanic Paul Christensen, cook and Bill Lloyd, supply driver.

The road was constructed in four stages commencing in 1955 and finishing in 1958.  At the conclusion of the rocket tests maintenance of the eastern end of the road ceased and today only hardy adventurers attempt the four day crossing.  I guess that makes us hardy adventurers! Smile

2 comments :

Marilyn McDonald said...

I'd be interested to know how much damage was done to flora and fauna useful/importnat to the aboriginal population, given that construction occurred back when the aborigines had even less of an influence than they do now, and that is still minimal!
Cheers, Marilyn

Tom and Jan said...

Hi Marilyn,

Do you mean damage as a result of the road construction or the rocket testing?