Australia is home to many difficult 4x4 tracks, but these five stand above the rest in terms of technical difficulty and sheer brutality.
Carson River Track, WA
Home Valley to Kalumburu Road - 420km
The Kimberley is perhaps Australia’s most visually striking off-road destination, with its rich red gorges, eroded pindan cliffs and sculpted ranges. However, with its growing popularity and much of the Gibb River Road now sealed, its accessibility has changed the region from a wild frontier to a legitimate touring destination for off-roaders, caravanners and overseas travellers alike.
One track that remains truly wild is the little-known Carson River Track. The biggest sign of its difficulty is the time it takes to complete: trip reports and recommendations range anywhere from a week to 12 days to complete the seemingly small distance of 420km from Home Valley (found along the Gibb River Road) to the Kalumburu Road.
What makes the Carson so tough is its relentless ruts, washouts and boulders that litter the trip almost from start to finish. These obstacles make the going slow and require a stern level of off-road ability, but those who brave the wilderness are rewarded with a level of isolation rarely experienced – even in Australia – and panoramic views of Kimberley plains (not to mention a unique viewing angle on the iconic Pentecost Range).
Old Coach Road, QLD
Maytown to Laura – 76km
The Old Telegraph Track grabs all the headlines when it comes to Cape York, but one track that consistently challenges any four-wheel driver is the Old Coach Road. Bucking the Far North Queensland trend of tropical rainforest, flooded plains and deep creek crossings, the Old Coach Road straddles the Great Dividing Range and cuts through gold rush country from a bygone era.
Its placement along the GDR means that the drive between Maytown and Laura is a dusty, rise-and-fall journey that delivers countless white-knuckle moments (particularly as you descend from the top of the range). Completing it requires a competent driver, multiple vehicles with winches and recovery gear fitted, while diff lockers will almost certainly get some use too. The remains of the late nineteenth-century gold rush litter the Palmer River Goldfields region and many can be found along the track, with old mining camps and rusted-out pieces of equipment visible along this epic drive.
Gunbarrel Highway, WA
Wiluna to Yulara – 1420km
Filled with desert landscapes and largely devoid of supply points, the Gunbarrel Highway is a rough-as-guts drive that makes you earn every kilometre you travel. Few tracks capture the ‘middle of nowhere’ vibe that oozes from every bend in the track of the Gunbarrel. In fact, you might not see another soul for days on end.
For this reason, preparedness is key along the Gunbarrel. Ensure that you have enough spare tyres, spare parts and concentration to burn as you bump along the journey, because otherwise you might end up like the long-abandoned vehicle husks that sit alongside the track – another casualty of the Gunbarrel’s notoriously rough terrain.
Speaking of the drive, the track encounters a true Greatest Hits of Outback Australia landscapes over its 1420km length: seemingly endless corrugations, soft sand dunes, gibber flats, cracked flood plains and eye-popping washouts. For lovers of remote travel who want a yarn to spin at the end of the journey, the Gunbarrel is your destiny.
Madigan Line, NT, QLD & SA
Alice Springs to Birdsville – Approx. 1000km
For dyed-in-the-wool off-roaders, the Simpson Desert has become somewhat tame over the past two decades. The French Line is called a highway at the Birdsville Hotel and each season the track becomes more crowded with off-roaders ready to try their hand at crossing the world’s largest parallel dune desert. While it should be admired that modern vehicles, touring setups and a better understanding of remote area travel have made a Simmo crossing more achievable than ever before, this makes finding a true 4WD test harder to come by.
Enter the Madigan Line: pioneered by Cecil Madigan and a bunch of camels in 1939, the Simpson’s northernmost crossing is still little more than a light set of wheel tracks cutting through the desert. The track’s tall dunes (1136 dunes in total), soft red sand and lack of vegetation off of which you can winch means it’s essential to travel with a group; if not to avoid getting stuck, then at least to stave off the loneliness of this remote trail. After all, Cecil Madigan’s book about his expedition was called Crossing the Dead Heart.
Canning Stock Route, WA
Wiluna to Halls Creek - 1850km
An epic journey among epic peers, the Canning Stock Route’s length and difficulty is the stuff of legend. Known as the world’s longest historic stock route, the CSR is also a real contender for the title of the world’s most difficult vehicular track.
The drive pushes through no less than three Western Australia deserts – the Great Sandy, the Little Sandy and the Gibson – and with that comes a range of landscapes to challenge even the most experienced four-wheel driver. The track intersects with more than 50 wells and waterholes along the way (to sustain the men and the cattle the route was originally used for), a fact which brings us to the track’s horrific beginnings.
Alfred Canning surveyed the track at the start of the twentieth century as a means of bringing cattle from the Kimberley to the goldfields around Wiluna, however he apparently had trouble locating water sources to turn into wells along the track. To solve this problem, it’s said Canning captured a handful of tribesmen, forced them to eat salt and waited for them to lead his party to known water sources. If true, the history behind this iconic track is darker than any casual observer would guess. However, this story also points out a fact about the CSR that remains completely true today: this is an ambitious journey to undertake through some of Australia’s most desolate (and beautiful) desert country.