The Barkly Highway, or the East-West Road, was named after the Barkly Tablelands through which it traversed. It followed the existing beef trail, often 10 to 15 inches deep in bull dust, from Mount Isa to Camooweal. The road continued west through to Avon Downs and Soudan stations, next bending north-west to continue for some 390 miles to connect with the North-South road north of Tennant Creek.
The road took just 18 months to construct, from surveying to the final layer of bitumen. Originally a military link road, it was little used before the bombing of Darwin. Increased traffic meant the road, approximately 450 miles (725 kilometres) long, needed to be bituminised to provide year-round access. Incredibly, it took just 57 days from the arrival of the first bulldozer until completion in July 1942.
The arrival of American soldiers saw increased activity in the region. From mid-May 1942, 5000 soldiers, including 3500 African American soldiers, camped at Mount Isa, with an operating fleet of 1482 vehicles.
Twenty-three bores were sunk along the route to provide the necessary water. Night camps were set up for convoys, consisting of a water bore, a radio station and a gas supply detachment, which pumped fuel with hand pumps from barrels of petrol carried by the convoy itself.
Convoys of up to 50 trucks travelled on the road seven days a week. They carried everything needed, including the bitumen for sealing the roads. Many convoys carried just bitumen; with each 44 gallon drum costing between ₤12 and ₤14; it is not surprising that the East-West road cost $3.23 million dollars, (in 1944 prices) to build. Convoys left at 4.30am to avoid the heat, which often soared to 102°F (39°C). The extreme conditions and the monotony of driving affected a soldier’s health; constant jolting shook loose kidneys and intestines, irritated joints and muscles, and the dust affected eyes. Drivers sometimes drove standing outside the cab on the running board, steering through the open window!