Stuart HighwayThe Litchfield Shire area is intersected by two major highways - the Stuart Highway which connects Darwin with Alice Springs and ultimately Adelaide, and the Arnhem Highway which branches off the Stuart Highway at Wishart and runs east to Kakadu National Park and Jabiru. There is a fascinating story behind both roads.
Like so much else in the Territory, the Stuart Highway was a legacy of World War Two. The first "road" to the south began at Southport and followed the Overland Telegraph Line to Rum Jungle, Stapleton and Adelaide River. That route was well to the west of the present Stuart Highway.
Construction of the telegraph line had required the development of a track along the line's route, to enable wagons and other vehicles to travel with loads of posts, wire, and other materials. An area of approximately two chains width (about 40 metres) was cleared on either side of the line and this became "the track" - the only transport route south.
For the whole length of "the track" there were frequent deviations. Detours were made to reach watering places and wet season detours were developed to avoid low and boggy ground. Tracks were continually deviated and altered by "self-help" travellers. There was no formal development or maintenance of the road, beyond the Two and a Half Mile (Parap) in Darwin, until the late 1920s.
From 1936 a low standard dry weather road was developed from Darwin to Adelaide River, roughly along the present route of the Stuart Highway. From Adelaide River a similar low standard road was developed southward to the railhead at Larrimah. However, construction and maintenance of these roads was given a very low priority because the same route was served by the North Australia Railway line.
When war loomed it became apparent that the railway could not meet all defence requirements. Planners saw a need for an all weather road to service dispersed military installations, particularly airfields, in the immediate Darwin hinterland. So, from May 1941, the Darwin Adelaide River section (115km) was upgraded to an all weather gravel road standard. The work was done by the New South Wales Department of Main Roads - contrary to common belief that "the Yanks built the Stuart Highway".
By early 1943 traffic between Darwin and Adelaide River had reached 2000 vehicles per day, mostly heavy lorries. The gravel surface disintegrated under this traffic and so it was decided to provide a bitumen seal - 6.2m wide to Adelaide river and 4.8m wide from there to Larrimah.
Similar work was done by interstate Main Roads teams on southern sections of the Stuart Highway and the Barkly Highway, with the result that by 1944 both highways were bitumen sealed, although some sections were very narrow.
Elsewhere in the Territory the road system was not nearly so well developed, or was non-existent. For example, vehicular access to the area we now call Kakadu was via Pine Creek, thence in a north easterly direction on high ground, skirting the tidal reaches of the big rivers. And that was dry season access only - in the wet season packhorses were the order of the day, or luggers which sailed up the big rivers to deliver goods to landings along the banks.
In the 1950s a road had been opened to serve the rice growing area around Humpty Doo, but the Adelaide River was a barrier to any extension eastwards. In 1964 a dry season road (the "old Darwin road") was opened from Annaburroo to Jim Jim. In 1969 the road was sealed as afar as Beatrice Hill. Then uranium discoveries brought more people into the area and stimulated the decision to build the Arnhem Highway to all-weather standard.
This work was done from 1974, and now the Litchfield Shire is traversed by the two major roads of the Top End.