Tough Country, Tough Man

Alfred Wernam Canning was a tough man. He needed to be to accomplish the feats he did. Feats that contributed greatly to the development of Western Australia at the time. Feats whose legacies today are iconic.

He worked in tough country. Tamed slightly today by powerful and reliable 4WD vehicles, good communications, refrigeration and hi-tech navigation systems but still tough country.

Phil Bianchi’s all encompassing work about the Canning Stock Route, ‘Work Completed, Canning’ records just how tough this man was and some of the individual feats he performed during his surveys.

Canning’s 1833 kilometre survey of the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence took four years to complete and nearly took his life.

Several years later Canning was asked about his difficulties during the Survey – the longest single survey ever completed in the world:

Alf Canning (1860-1936)

Alf Canning (1860-1936)

After going about thirty miles [50 kilometres], I found the camel was too sick and I walked back and followed my companion’s tracks up the river, where I found them with the camels.

I had great difficulty when approaching Wallal with regard to water. I had several of my camels poisoned some distance east of Gregory’s Range and I had finally to get over to Wallal. I was afraid to take the
camels there on account of their condition and I sent Trotman [2IC] and an Afghan named Hassan up the [Oakover] river to try and find a place where the camels could spell and recover. I then started out, taking one camel with me with the intention of getting to Wallal. The camel was sick, but I thought he would carry me there.

What distance was that?

About 70 miles [112 kilometres].

How long did that take you?

I started one morning and walked all day and one night until I picked up the tracks and got to the camp about 10 o’clock the next day. Next morning I started with another camel from the junction of the De Grey and the Oakover, where they had got to. I rode the second camel out 36 miles [58 kilometres]. He did not appear to be well, so I tied him up and cooked a damper, which I gave him to eat, to keep him from eating anything else. I got him up in the morning and took him another six miles, making 42 [68], in all when he went down. He did not die while I was with him but I waited with him for a while and when I saw he would not get better, I took everything off him so that he would have a chance to track back. I then walked to Wallal.

That was another walk of eighty miles [129 kilometres] from where you left the party?

Yes. After leaving the camel I walked on to Wallal, starting the next morning after having slept in the spinifex near him. I happened to strike the telegraph repairing station absolutely straight. I got something to eat, stayed there that night and started back next morning to pick up Trotman and Hassan. I walked back to the camel, picked 70 lbs of instruments and walked 42 miles [68 kilometres], to where Trotman was camped.

The camel had previously carried the instruments?


Was the camel dead?


On arrival at camp Canning had to lie down. He said to Trotman:

“Had a bit of a walk.”

and then passed out from exhaustion and dehydration.

In 1929, at the age of 68, Canning returned to the Stock Route to carry out an 18 month Well Restoration Project. He walked the whole distance of the Route twice. He would lead the men to a well and while they were cleaning it out he would walk ahead 24 kilometres to locate the next well. And then repeat the process.

When Canning was being interviewed by The West Australian in 1931 his wife said that she had learned from his men that he had walked the whole 1600 kilometres, from well to well, over sandhills and all manner of rough country and had swung the axe with the youngest at halts.

“Don’t drag those things in”, said Canning.

“But people should know,” replied his wife.

“People should know nothing,” was his reply.

“I went out there to do a little job and it’s done. Why make a fuss about it?”

The 700 page 'Work Completed, Canning’: A Comprehensive History of the Canning Stock Route is the ninth in the Western Australian Exploration series and is available from the publisher, Hesperian Press.


Kim Epton
Series Editor

Posted by Kim Epton

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