Story By Bill Bachman

The Tanami Road is referred to with varying degrees of nostalgia as the Tanami Track, and in reality varies considerably between those states, depending on its wear and tear and recent weather. At just over 1000 kilometres, it angles across Australia’s third-largest desert and is the most direct route between Alice Springs and the Kimberley. As an exercise in remote arid-area travel, it’s not the most fearsome Australia has to offer, and most of the time it is a relatively easy drive, even for two-wheel-drive vehicles when the going is good.
But the road is often out of action after heavy rains, which is an inconvenience for travellers and a serious problem for the pastoral and mining interests that rely on it for access to the outside world. In April the NT government announced it would spend $10 million upgrading the road over the next five years.
Troublesome as the track may be, it passes through a fascinating chunk of Australian heartland – though not much of its inner life is on display. What the average traveller sees are endless spinifex plains covered in low wattle scrub and termite mounds. The countryside is often startlingly lush, not surprising given the Tanami’s annual rainfall of over 400 millimetres.
The pulse of civilisation is weak along the track itself, which offers only a couple lonely roadhouses and passing views of Aboriginal communities and distant mining operations. Mostly the cattle stations and gold-mining settlements that constitute the Tanami’s lifeblood are hidden well away at the end of long driveways and behind high fences. But if you are lucky enough to enter those worlds for even a day or two, the desert will truly come alive.
I have been up and down the track several times in the past 15 years. Between my first visit in 1990 and my most recent, a couple years ago, not much seemed to have changed. While it is easy to imagine myself back among all those primary colours under the immense desert sky, my abiding memories are of the Tanami’s people – station owners and their families, miners, mustering teams, native artists, grader drivers, roo shooters, roadhouse operators and the like. They’re not likely to change any time soon either, $10 million worth of road improvements or not.

This story excerpt is from Issue #54

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2007