About Tennant Creek & Barkly Region

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The town of Tenant Creek is on the Stuart Highway (page to come), around 1,000 km south of Darwin and 500 km north of Alice Springs. It is a little south of Threeways where the Barkly Highway heads east all the way to Cloncurry in Queensland. The Barkly Tableland Region encompasses most of the north-eastern corner of the Northern Territory. It includes parts of the Barkly Tablelands, the Mitchell Grasslands, the Davenport Murchison Ranges and the Stuart Plateau. The first European explorer to pass through this region from western Queensland was William Landsborough. He named the Barkly Tableland after Sir Henry Barkly (Governor of Victoria) in 1861.

The Barkly Tableland Region covers the area from the Queensland border westwards through to the Tanami Desert and north-south from Elliot down to Barrow Creek. The elevated plains cover an area of around 240,000 km2 which is roughly equal to the area of New Zealand or the UK. The band of Mitchell Grassland is flat and mostly treeless with scrubby grass on black soil. It extends from Camooweal in Queensland to Elliot in the Northern Territory. The Barkly Highway follows its path from the border westwards for around 120 km.

The Barkly Roadhouse is on the Barkly Highway, around 250 km from the Queensland border. From here travellers can opt to continue west to Threeways or head north and follow the Tablelands and Carpentaria Highways to Katherine. The Barkly region is vast and has few sealed roads or townships. Travellers should be prepared to carry lots of spare fuel and supplies.

Being near the southern limit of the monsoonal weather region, the climate starts to change. The area still has a clear wet season (November to April) and dry season (May to October). The wet season regularly produces heavy downpours due to hot low-pressure systems and northern cyclones, but due to the large land mass, overall rainfall for the period is limited. This period is generally hot and humid. The hottest month is December with average temperatures of around 37°. During the dry season the average temperatures drop below 30° with lots of sunshine and cool overnight temperatures. The best months to visit are from May to August.

At Newcastle Waters, on the Stuart Highway north of Elliot, a road sign marks the transition point from the Top End tropics to the low scrub and desert landscape of the Red Centre.

The population of the entire region is around 5,900 while the Tenant Creek population is around 3,100 with around 1,200 identifying as Indigenous. The other notable town is Renner Springs. The Julalikari Council plays a major role in Tenant Creek. It provides training and employment services for Aboriginal people and contracts services such as construction and recycling to the Town Council. In addition, it provides community services including aged care and a night patrol.

Aboriginal heritage

For more than 40,000 years as many as nine Aboriginal groups have lived harmoniously with the land in this region. Stories from the Dreamtime tell of how the land was formed and many of these have been passed down through music, rock art and other craft forms and are still being told today. You can discover more about this rich and vibrant heritage at the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre and various museums, galleries and historic sites in the region.

Overland ventures

In 1860 John Stuart attempted to cross Australia from end to end but he was forced to turn back after an encounter with hostile Warumungu Aboriginal people. He did reach the Barky Tablelands and named Tenant Creek after John Tenant, one of the financial backers of the expedition.

In 1862 he returned and successfully completed the crossing with the aim of finding a route that would allow for the Overland Telegraph to be built. This would have significant benefits for the Colony of South Australia (of which the Northern Territory was part) and created the opportunity for the colonies to finally be linked via telegraph to London and the rest of the world.

In 1872, a temporary telegraph station was built at Tenant Creek and the stone buildings that are still standing today were built in 1874. The Tenant Creek Overland Telegraph Station is one of few remaining Australian telegraph stations. Near Newcastle Waters an obelisk on the Stuart Highway marks the spot where the northern and southern sections of the line were joined in 1872.

At the end of the century Darwin was recognized as having huge potential as a trading port not only to other colonies but to the islands of South-East Asia and, through them, to countries far and wide. The golden Mitchell Grasslands were ideal for cattle grazing. Early stock routes formed from the Kimberley region in Western Australia to the east coast of the continent. Over subsequent decades, pioneering settlers came to establish enormous outback cattle stations and the stock routes from the eastern and southern states became well-trodden.

Today the region’s economy is dominated by the cattle industry but mining, agriculture, fishing, defence and a growing tourism sector also provide significant income and employment.

Gold

Before 1926, Tenant Creek was still an isolated outpost but the discovery of gold by J Smith Roberts in that year and by Charles Windley in 1927 sparked much interest. The early 1930’s saw Australia’s last gold rush and the population quickly grew to around 600. Around that time Tenant Creek became the third largest gold producer in Australia. Battery Hill houses a museum and the Tennant Creek Information Centre.

There is still gold in the region and mining is an important contributor to the region’s economy. Other minerals currently being exported include silver, copper, manganese and bauxite.

Rail

Although there were plans for an overland rail link to follow the path of the telegraph line from the late 1800’s the line was not completed until 2004. Until then The Old Ghan Railway (page to come) travelled through South Australia and stopped at Alice Springs while the North Australian Railway (link to About Darwin page) only came as far south as Birdam. Transport through this missing link was by road – originally with the aid of horses and camels and later by cars, buses and massive road trains. The current railway station is an important stop on the new Ghan Railway (page to come) that runs from Adelaide to Darwin. The Australian Government are also considering proposals to build a new line from Tenant Creek to Mount Isa in Queensland.

Tourism

Thanks to its proximity to famous natural wonders such as the Devil’s Marbles (link to Parks page) and also to its position near the juncture of the Barkly and Stuart Highways, Tenant Creek draws large numbers of tourists each year.

Visitors can visit the historic settlement sites such as the telegraph station and also stay at one of the giant cattle stations. The world-class Nyinkka Nyunyu Culture Centre (link to Arts page) features many displays of Aboriginal art, music and dance and is run by members of the local Aboriginal community.

During the dry season, the region comes alive with events seemingly on every week. You can have a flutter on one of the county races, join in the cultural celebrations during the Desert Harmony Festival, feel the buzz of the Barkly Goldrush Campdraft Challenge and much more.

There are also numerous hiking trails and camping grounds (link to Parks page). Some with facilities and others for those with a 4WD or a stout pair of walking boots and a backpack.