There is one over-riding reason why many caravanners take the unsealed Tanami Track from Alice Springs to Halls Creek in the southern Kimberley: it’s about 1000km shorter than the all-bitumen alternative via Katherine and nearly 650km shorter to Kununurra, the gateway to the famous Gibb River Road.
But to simply brand the Tanami a ‘short-cut’ is to do one of Australia’s signature outback ‘highways’ a disservice. If you are already planning to do the Gibb, you might as well save all that time and travel and add the Tanami to your trip – up or back.
If you are intending to skirt around the Kimberley to the south on the fully-sealed Great Northern Highway on your way to Broome in an on-road caravan or camper, then it’s a more problematic decision. However, if you take the plunge, one thing is certain: as well as the experience of traversing the remote185,000-square-kilometre Tanami Desert, you will have an adventure guaranteed to impress your friends and family.
BULLDUST AND LOOSE SAND
Also known as the Tanami Road, it used to be a horrific trip, known to break caravans and camper trailers and guaranteed to test the springs and shock absorbers of often-overloaded and over-driven tow vehicles.
These days it is in somewhat better condition, but it can become rough and very corrugated, as it is the main supply route for some of the still-active gold mines in the area as well as by road trains bringing livestock from the Kimberley to the southern states and is infrequently graded.
You could encounter plenty of bulldust and loose sand, especially on bends in the road and despite the track’s ‘bucket list’ status, it carries surprisingly little traffic at times, and so you could be stranded for several hours if something goes wrong.
Accessing the Tanami is the easy bit. From the south, simply turn left off the Stuart Highway 20km north of Alice Springs. You then have 187km of relative serenity until you reach the modern Tilmouth Crossing roadhouse and caravan park.
You definitely should stop here, not just for a break and to admire the indigenous art from the nearby Papunya Aboriginal Community, but to top up with enough fuel to get you the remaining 787km to Halls Creek, unless you are prepare to pay some of Australia’s highest fuel prices at the Aboriginal settlements en route.
The other essential reason to stop at Tilmouth is to lower tyre pressures (if travelling to the Kimberley), or raise them (if heading south to Alice). We’ll come to this shortly.
From the Kimberley, take the Tanami turn-off 16km west of Halls Creek, and then stay left 171km later at Billiluna, when the infamous Canning Stock Route peels off to the right.
Are you still wavering? Okay – let’s do it, but first here are some tips to ensure you and your rig survive the experience richer, rather than poorer…
INSPECT YOUR CARAVAN
This sounds obvious but it applies even more to the Tanami than the Gibb River Road. Travelling days and distances on the Gibb are usually relatively short, and travelling speeds comparatively low, because there are so many places to visit and so much to see.
But without denigrating the Tanami too much, it’s mostly a very flat, lifeless and featureless desert that is home to spinifex and saltbush. So without many places of interest worth stopping for, most travellers want to get on and get off quickly, which means they go too fast on a road that can – and will – bite back.
The track itself can take some of the blame here. Some sections can lull you into a false sense of security that will encourage you to travel faster, only to be let down with a crash when you strike bulldust or severe corrugations around the corner.
Travelling particularly slowly isn’t the answer, either, and when we did it we found that any speed below 45km/h and above 65km/h was uncomfortable. The best speed for you will depend on your rig, its suspension system and tyre pressures.
Doing the Tanami at the end of a tough Kimberley trip could be a problem if your suspension and tyres aren’t in top nick.
LOWER YOUR TYRE PRESSURES
How many times do you hear this? Plenty, I’m sure, but many travellers don’t listen. One of the issues is that many of the latest pop-top single-axle caravans weigh in at close to 2.5 tonnes loaded. This means that their two tyres are usually quite highly inflated to stop them overheating while it’s being towed (often too fast) on bitumen.
If you leave them at 40-45psi on the Tanami, they will simply jack-hammer your rig apart in quick time, so get them down well under 30psi and drop your speed to compensate.
Same with your tow car – think mid-20s for the front tyres and about 28psi for the rear tyres.
If you have a tandem-axle caravan of similar weight, you can safely drop your pressures down to around 25psi.
Dropping your pressures will give your RV a much easier time; cupboards, doors and microwaves will be less inclined to fly open and travelling slower will also reduce the likelihood of a tyre or suspension failure.
Don’t forget to Don’t forget to re-set your tyres to their bitumen pressures once you leave the Tanami behind.
CARRY PLENTY OF FUEL
It used to be fairly easy to do the Tanami between fuel fills when the famous Rabbit Flat Roadhouse was open, but since Bruce Farrands and his wife, Jackie, closed Australia’s most remote roadhouse at the end of 2010, the distance between reasonably priced fuel at Halls Creek and Tilmouth Crossing has grown to nearly 800km.
For most travellers, this means carrying at least two spare 20-litre jerry cans of fuel unless they are prepared to pay the high fuel prices charged at the two major Aboriginal settlements on the Tanami of Yuendumu and Billiluna.
DUST-PROOF YOUR RIG
It doesn’t rain much on the Tanami and with travelling speeds of around 65km/h you’ll really test the dust-sealing of your caravan or camper. All on-road vans and even many offroad vans leak dust like, partially due to gas regulations that stipulate a set degree of ventilation in case someone leaves a gas cylinder on and, simultaneously, a gas jet open.
Nonetheless, investigate all other potential areas for dust leaks. A dust or ‘scupper’ hatch can help and indeed are fitted by some experienced offroad caravan manufacturers to the forward roof section of their rigs. This forces relatively dust-free air into the van, pressurising it and stopping dust entering. They really do work.
BE PREPARED FOR FREE-CAMPING
You’ll need to be prepared for remote or free-camping on the Tanami, as there is little other option.
There’s a camping area at Wolfe Creek and a roadside free-camp at the halfway point, but otherwise you are better following a grader scrape and going bush for a few metres.
Here’s a tip: check the wind direction and head for the side of the road where the dust from the road trains won’t swamp you!
If you are planning to free-camp, ensure your water tanks are full before you hit the track, that you are carrying something to get a fire going, and that you have a good torch.
Be wary of spinifex. Many a vehicle has been lost to fire over the years after spinifex has collected around the exhaust and then set alight by the heat.
ENJOY THE SERENITY
Don’t watch the film Wolf Creek before you visit Wolfe Creek National Park, 123km south of Halls Creek, and enjoy the view of his huge meteorite crater given a really bad name by actor John Jarratt.
Otherwise, just kick back and marvel at the vast expanse of nothingness in the Tanami Desert. As a well-travelled friend once told me, it might be monotonous, but it’s never boring.
Take note of these tips and enjoy your unique Tanami experience!
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