The Long Journey
From red river rums through the mulga lands to the rolling spinifex grasslands surrounding Alice Springs, the Stuart Highway crosses the Tropic of Capricorn and then heads up on through the central desert to the tropical Top End.
Mavis Sweetman, a nurse with the Australian Women’s Army Service recalls the start of her long journey north. Letty Cuttahey was also a nurse on her way to Adelaide River in April 1943. Letty recalls her convoy journey alongside the troops.
Road conditions for the convoys were poor, and adequate water supplies along the track were vital. Connors Well was one of the first lunch stops for the convoys, Ti Tree was another and its small store sold beer for three shillings a bottle. When drunk in the coolness of the underground dining room, it was said to be worth every penny. Harry Cranz was one of thousands of troops who made the long journey north.
You left the bitumen just shortly after Alice Springs. The trucks had a limit of 20 miles an hour. The trucks stopped, the old army rule of 10 minutes every 2 hours. It was very, very hot and terribly dusty. The first night was at Barrow Creek, the second night at Banker. You got a shower at these places, water was scarce, it was hot, you’d go in for the meal and it’d be eight o’clock at night. Meat and a big spud in its jacket, and probably cabbage.
The original overnight staging camp at Barrow Creek was moved to a site 30km north at Taylors Creek in 1942 and named New Barrow Staging Camp. With 1,000 personnel permanently based there it was by far the largest staging camp which included a detachment of signals, refrigeration, a field bakery and a canteen service. Jim Gaten was a leading hand carpenter with the Allied Works Council, responsible for constructing many of the camps. Jim gives an insight into the kind of structures built to accommodate the thousands of service personnel.
At Wycliffe Well Army Farm the military took advantage of a fresh water bore that had been sunk in 1937 as part of the general upgrading of the North-South stock route. It was from this supply that a 2-hectare Army Farm operated from 1941. Army farms were established all along the track to supplement dried and tinned food supplies.
Tennant Creek was declared out of bounds to military personnel in late 1941 and in September 1942 all licensed premises along the highway were made out of bounds to service personnel. Most convoys passed through Tennant Creek without officially stopping, though the town’s branch of the Country Women’s Association became famous for providing free tea and sandwiches to the convoys on their way through!
North of Three Ways on the second day of a convoy trip, was a large rock formation in the shape of a head. A solider placed a pole in the mouth – it was a remarkable likeness of Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and the rock became known ever after as Churchill’s Head. A visit to Churchill’s Head, located on a bypass off the Stuart Highway takes the traveller briefly along the wartime alignment of the North-South road.
Banka Banka Staging Camp was the second nights stopping point of the four day run from Alice Springs to Larrimah providing an oasis in the desert. There were over 50 buildings at the staging camp including stores, workshops, sleeping huts and a bakery. There was also an outdoor cinema that showed movies once a week. If your convoy arrived on a night without a movie there was little to do but sleep.
Next was Elliott Staging Camp, named after the Lieutenant who established the camp in 1940. This was the luncheon point of the northbound convoy on their third day out of Alice Springs. For southbound travellers it was their first overnight stop from Larrimah. Due to the heavy traffic through Elliott, a salvage section and workshops were established to repair broken down vehicles. Refueling facilities were also built to supply the convoys. The convoys had reached journey’s end at Larrimah Railway Siding where military goods and personnel were transported direct to Darwin on the North Australia Railway Line.
A journey north on the Stuart Highway follows in the footsteps of a quarter of a million servicemen and women who travelled through this arid terrain to defend Australia in World War II.