One road, one Country, one people

The Canning Stock Route in outback Western Australia is the world’s longest historical stock route.

Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route (#12)

Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route (#12)
Photographer: Ross Swanborough © Ross Swanborough, FORM

Now 100 years old, the true story behind the road can be told.

Traversing 1850 kilometres of desert country in Western Australia, the Canning Stock Route was mapped by government surveyor Alfred Canning in 1906.

The road was intended to bring cattle from the rich Kimberley in the north to Wiluna in the south, meeting the demand for beef on the Western Australian goldfields and in the capital, Perth. But it also brought conflict, death and desecration to Aboriginal people, their Country and their communities.


‘When I was growing up there was a road there, but there was a story behind it that we didn’t know . . . only the old people know the story of the stock route.’

Hayley Atkins, 29, is a Putijarra woman from Jigalong, some 1000 kilometres northeast of Perth. She lives in the town of Newman where she works with Martumili Artists, one of nine Aboriginal art collectives represented in the exhibition Yiwarra Kuju: the Canning Stock Route.

‘Before the road, life was normal’, Haley said. ‘There were different kinds of tribes but they’re all connected to the land, connected as family.When white people came, it was not just empty land, it was our homes. The road was cutting through, not just the waterholes, but also Country, destroying homes. People scattered east and north and west. There was killing, and digging the wells destroyed the waterholes.’

Back to Country

One hundred years after Canning completed his task, an independent cultural organisation, FORM, set about exploring the connections between Aboriginal communities and the stock route. Project organisers invited artists from nine art communities to join a ‘Back to Country’ travelling celebration of culture and storytelling. The Aboriginal name Yiwarra Kuju means ‘one road’.

Hayley became involved with the project in 2007 as its first Aboriginal co-curator, eventually picking up a brush to collaborate with her grandmother, Pukarlyi Milly Kelly, on one of the paintings in the collection. ‘We organised for people to meet at Well 33. People flew in from different places: the Northern Territory, Kimberley and Western Desert’, said Hayley.

‘People stayed, camped out, doing art and telling stories . . . we went all the way to Billiluna, people coming and going.’ These bush workshops resulted in a significant collection of contemporary Aboriginal art acquired by the National Museum.


But perhaps the real legacy of the project will be the bringing together of people to discover forgotten family ties, to remake connections to Country and to tell their stories. ‘The project identified family, connected Country. That was in 2007, but people are still getting together and telling stories.’

Hayley began to find out about her own family ties to artists from many other Western Desert art centres.
‘I didn’t know my family were bush people 'til I did that painting with Milly. I’m just glad to know where my grandmother and grandfather are from.’

And Hayley’s message for visitors to the exhibition? ‘To understand about Aboriginal culture and art, don’t just look at the paintings – really hear the story behind the paintings . . . ‘ With more than 90 artworks, interactives and artists' voices in the exhibition, this is a Museum experience not to be missed.

Brendan Atkins, Editor, Explore magazine


Brendan Atkins , Publications Coordinator
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