DUNCAN HIGHWAY (Decommissioned)
One of the most remote highways in Australia!


Service sign at the beginning of the Duncan Highway in Halls Creek. Note that Duncan Highway itself has no services, travellers are advised to take spare fuel in order to reach the service centres on connecting highways. Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.

Length: 441km

Northern Terminus: Victoria Highway, 20km east of the NT/WA Border, NT

Southern Terminus: Great Northern Highway, Halls Creek

Focal Points: Kununurra, Nicholson, Halls Creek

Named: 1961

Decommissioned: July 1976

The Duncan Highway (now road, but from now on referred to as Highway) is probably the most remote highway in Australia. For 441km a motorist battles the bulldust without a single service facility along the first road built specifically to aid the beef cattle industry. The section of the highway from Nicholson nothwards services remote cattle stations along the Ord River, while the southern section of the highway forms part of an important, but unsealed, link between WA and NT via the Buntine Highway. Since July 1976 the Duncan Highway has no longer had official highway status (in fact was transferred to the ownership of Halls Creek Shire Council in 1995), however I still continue to refer to it as a highway so not to lose its character and historical significance.

The Duncan Highway began life as an unmade track between the remote cattle stations along the Ord River. Cattle was the primary industry of the northwest region with sprawling stations of up to one million hectares. It often took weeks of droving to get cattle from the stations to the ports or the meatworks and it was acknowledged that if stock could be transported more efficiently, much greater profits could be made by the industry. In 1949 the State Government asked the Commonwealth to help develop the beef industry in the Kimberley. One of the proposals was it made was for the construction of a road from Wyndham to Nicholson, 282 miles, so that stations along the Ord River could take their cattle by truck to the meatworks at Wyndham. The Commonwealth passed the State Grants (Encouragement of Beef Production) Act 1949 in October and work began on the road in July 1950, completed in 1956 (costing £713,677.)

Upgrading the road from Wyndham to Nicholson was a slow and difficult process and while the improved road rugged by city standards it was a vast improvement on anything seen before in the region. One feature of construction was a new concrete crossing of the Ord River at Ivanhoe, built in 1953. The 16-foot roadway was built using 104 old petrol drums, with the tops and bottoms cut out, which were welded together, acting as culvert pipes for the water to flow through. Initial construction of the road was completed by the end of 1956 and after that it was maintained with sections damaged in the wet season repaired. Initially, the Duncan Highway was known simply as the Wyndham-Nicholson Road, however, in 1961, the Duncan Highway was named in honour of Ron Duncan (see snapshot below) - extending not only along the current route but northwest along what is now the Victoria Highway to the Gt Northern Highway near Wyndham. Also in 1961, the Commonwealth Government decided to extend the life of the Beefs Roads program, one of the new projects being the upgrading of the Duncan Highway from Halls Creek to Nicholson.

A comprehensive review of Main Roads classifications in Western Australia was undertaken in July 1976, the first in fifty years, bringing about some changes to an outdated system. One such change was the categories of classification. Previously, only "Main Roads" and "Developmental Roads" existed, but the new system abolished the "developmental roads" category and introduced "state highways" and "Secondary roads". The Duncan was not proclaimed a State Highway under the new system and thus, was renamed Duncan Road. In 1995, another review of the Main Roads system in WA resulted in the ownership of Duncan Road being trasnferred to Halls Creek Shire Council - as it remains to this day.

I have no knowledge of any proposal to give a route number to the section of the Duncan Highway between Nicholson and the Victoria Highway. However, NAASRA plans saw the Halls Creek-Buntine Hwy section of the Duncan Highway gaining the National Route 80 shield. In April 1994 National Route 80 was re-routed to the Victoria Highway near Timber Creek and thus National Route 96 was proclaimed (within NT at least) to run from the Victoria Hwy at Willeroo via Top Springs and Wave Hill to the NT/WA Border near Nicholson. The logical thing would to have the route extended to Halls Creek but it seems Main Roads WA have no intention of doing such a thing.

Snapshot: Ron Duncan

The Duncan Highway was named after Ron Ducan a legendary Main Roads WA employee. The Main Roads Department first "established a permanent presence in the region in 1940 when it appointed Ron Duncan…to the position of Assistant Engineer of the North West, basing him in Carnarvon…Duncan became responsible for the main roads in the region stretching from Shark Bay to Wyndham. Being the only roads engineer there, he was almost a one-man band. At least twice a year he drove from Carnarvon to Wyndham and back, often camping overnight in creek beds or staying with Main Roads workers. This was down-to-earth pioneering work."1 Through to the mid 1950s Duncan carried the entire load on his shoulders, however it was realised that the North West was too big for one man. In 1959 Duncan was forced to retire with throat cancer and Main Roads decided to establish a new district office in the region, at Derby. Work at the new office was commenced in January 1960. Following the passing away of Duncan in 1961 the Duncan Highway received its name to honour the great man who pioneered the roads in the North West.

Photos of the Duncan Highway
Advance Direction sign on the Great Northern Highway southbound for the start of the Duncan Highway in Halls Creek. Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.
Fingerboard signage at the intersection of Great Northern Highway and Duncan Highway in Halls Creek. Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.
The distance sign heading east from Halls Creek. Note the "No Service" patch underneath Nicholson. This is something I have only seen used on this particular road. Presumably because no other road would have a focal point that has no services :p Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.
Very antiquated black signage at the Duncan Hwy/Buntine Hwy intersection near Nicholson. Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.
Distance sign heading west from the Buntine Hwy. Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.
Southbound AD sign on Duncan Rd approaching Buntine Hwy near Nicholson. Note the quaint 200m plate. Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.
Heading north from Buntine Hwy. Nicholson still rates a mention despite the lack of services (i think it is a private homestead). Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.
Looking south from the Victoria Highway, just inside the Northern Territory Border. Note: "To Buchanan Highway" as a focal point - this is a Northern Territory trait. Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.
ID sign for the Duncan Highway that has been coverplated to say Road. Thanks to Main Roads WA for providing this photo, taken May 1992.
The westbound AD sign on Victoria Highway for Duncan Highway. Note the lack of a route marker straight (should be NH1). Thanks to the Nt Government for providing this photo. Taken October 2004.
This photo shows the causeway across the Ord River near Ivanhoe that was constructed using 104 old petrol drums with the tops and bottoms cut out. This section of road is now part of the Victoria Highway (changed in July 1976). Main Roads WA c.1953.
Another view of the causeway. This section of road is now part of the Victoria Highway (changed in July 1976). Main Roads WA c.1953.

1. Edmonds, L.; The Vital Link: A History of Main Roads Western Australia 1926-1996; 1997; p. 109

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