THE BOUNDARIES OF THE outback are hard to define but you’ll certainly know it when you see it. It’s the mythical Australia of red dust, empty tracks, strange wildlife, endless vistas, tall tales and big thirsts – and it’s ready to be explored by anyone with a sense of adventure and suitable transport.
Some of the routes that take you through the outback are major, sealed highways, such as the north-south Stuart Highway and the east-west Eyre Highway (“the Nullarbor”), but many are not. Some of these should only be attempted by experienced drivers with dedicated offroad rigs – if they should be towing at all – but such destinations are beyond the scope of this article.
Instead, we present a selection of ‘classic’ outback tracks, be they bitumen or gravel, that most sensible drivers should be able to handle even with an on-road setup, which will go further than you might expect if it’s well prepared and driven with care – and, we should perhaps add in all fairness, if you don’t mind it losing some bits along the way.
Ground clearance is often the limiting factor and many exhaust systems have been lost due to gravel ridges in the centre of the road, so the higher your tow vehicle and van are off the ground, the better – but for heaven’s sake don’t go modifying suspensions without expert advice. Apart from that, pay close attention to tyres (the more plies the better, and don’t use low-profile designs), tyre pressures (drop them a bit on rough roads, and slow down), and spares (carry two if possible).
Bear in mind that the only fuels you can get on Aboriginal lands are likely to be diesel and Opal – the ‘non-sniffable’ regular unleaded developed by BP that is perhaps less suitable for older vehicles or those requiring premium unleaded.
Most of the routes we discuss below should be explored in the southern winter months between March and November. In the central deserts, for instance, good conditions and agreeable temperatures prevail from April/May to October – which is also the main travel season when there are likely to be other people about if something goes wrong. June, July and August are ideal for both the deserts and the tropics.
THE CENTRAL DESERTS
When people think of the outback, the central deserts usually spring to mind – diverse landscapes and ecosystems that tend to be more heavily vegetated than deserts elsewhere in the world. The region includes some of the most remote country on earth but it’s easily explored along the north-south Stuart Highway, the last bits of which were finally sealed in 1987.
Adventurous travellers can ease their conventional rigs along the Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Strzelecki tracks so long as it doesn’t rain. The Great Central Road and Tanami Track are also passable for conventional rigs driven with (extreme) care, and can even be classed as good if the graders have just been through, but they’re rough and sandy in places and are very remote.
The Plenty and Sandover highways are interesting short-cuts between Alice Springs and Qld that can be suitable for conventional vehicles if conditions are perfect, but the conditions seldom are. In any case, these tracks are not recommended for caravans, and rain can close them for days or weeks on end. With the ongoing development of the Outback Way, however, the Plenty Highway could improve markedly in the not-too-distant future.
Other ‘classic’ tracks in the central deserts, such as the Gunbarrel Highway, the Simpson Desert crossings and the Bomb Roads, are strictly 4WD and not really suitable for towing – in fact, towing anything across the Simpson is strongly discouraged by authorities.
The 2700km Stuart Highway, also referred to as “the Track”, runs through the centre of the continent between Port Augusta and Darwin. It’s one of the easiest ways to experience the grandeur of the outback as it’s fully sealed and well served by roadhouses (the longest stretch without fuel is 252km between Glendambo and Coober Pedy). During the southern winter months it can seem as if every second caravan in Australia is heading up the Track.
Major towns along the way include the opal-mining centre of Coober Pedy (an Aboriginal term for “whitefella’s hole in the ground”), the outback capital of Alice Springs (worth at least a few days in its own right), and the regional centres of Tennant Creek and Katherine. At Erldunda Roadhouse, turn west onto the Lasseter Highway for the obligatory pilgrimage to Uluru (Ayers Rock, 250km), Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Watarrka (Kings Canyon).
The roadhouses serve meals and have motel rooms and camping areas (locate the diesel generator and check the wind direction before setting up camp!). Many caravanners and motorhomers also camp in the roadside rest areas.
This historic track, which runs 618km from Marree in central SA to Marla Roadhouse on the Stuart Highway in northern SA, follows the Old Ghan railway and telegraph line. It skirts the southern edge of Lake Eyre and passes through the settlements of William Creek and “Oodna-bloody-datta”.
Attractions include the strong outback ‘feel’; the vastness of Lake Eyre (actually Lake Eyre South); the abandoned railway sidings and other Ghan relics; the intriguing mound springs, where hot water rises of the ground at the edge of the Great Artesian Basin; William Creek, where Lake Eyre sightseeing aircraft taxi out the front of the hotel; and Oodnadatta, which used to be the transshipment terminal between steam and camel trains before the Ghan opened in 1927, and where the famous Pink Roadhouse provides a focus for travellers.
The gravel track tends to be in good condition and is a popular tourist route during the winter months, though the slightest hint of rain will impede access through the mudflats near the southern end. Up until the late 1980s, when the last unsealed section of the Stuart Highway in northern SA became horribly corrugated, it was a smoother alternative to the Stuart for those in the know.
There’s fuel and accommodation at Marree, William Creek, Oodnadatta and Marla.
This 521km route through the Sturt Stony Desert between Birdsville in south-west Qld and Marree in central SA used to be a droving route for Qld cattle to the railhead at Marree. Road trains now do the ‘droving’ and the track is usually in good condition, though on the very rare occasions that the Diamantina River floods properly, it’s impassable south of Birdsville. You’d be crazy to travel the route in the summer months, when daytime temperatures above 50°C are common.
There’s less to see and do here than along the Oodnadatta Track, but for many that’s part of the appeal: the desolation of the Sturt Stony Desert with its polished stones has to be seen to be believed. North-west of here lies the Simpson Desert with its endless dune ridges.
The only fuel is at Mungerannie, 205km from Marree and 315km from Birdsville. Birdsville (population 300) attracts 10,000 visitors to its famous horse races on the first weekend in September, when many punters arrive in small aircraft and camp under the wings. Thirty-five km west of town is Big Red, the final and biggest sand dune of the Simpson Desert crossing along the QAA Line.
Another former stock route, the 474km Strzelecki Track through the gibber plains between Lyndhurst in the northern Flinders Ranges and Innamincka in north-east SA is possibly even more desolate than the Birdsville Track. There’s no fuel between either town, although as if to make up for it, the road is usually in very good condition thanks to the Moomba oil/gas operations south-west of Innamincka (visit the viewing platform along the track).
The original stock route followed the normally dry Strzelecki Creek, named by explorer Charles Sturt in 1845 after the Polish count who had recently ‘discovered’ and named Mount Kosciuszko after the Polish-Lithuanian freedom fighter. It didn’t become a stock route until the 1870s, when the cattle rustler Harry Redford used it to drove stolen livestock from Longreach in central Qld to the Flinders, but the route was normally too dry and barren to be of much use.
In wet years, the Strzelecki Creek is fed by the Cooper Creek at Innamincka, near where the foolhardy explorers Burke and Wills perished in 1860 on their crossing of the continent.
The only real appeal of the Strzelecki is the extreme sense of isolation – or as a transit route to/from Innamincka and/or Cameron Corner where NSW, Qld and SA meet. The gum-lined billabongs at Innamincka offer good bush camping, fishing and bird-watching, and the famous Burke & Wills Dig Tree is some 50km east of town at Nappa Merrie (Qld). Coongie Lake, 105km north-west of town, becomes a spectacular wetland when it fills. The Innamincka races on the last weekend in August draw punters in droves.
This 1035km track through the Tanami Desert is a popular ‘short-cut’ between Alice Springs in the Red Centre and Halls Creek in northern WA on the southern edge of the Kimberley. Not surprisingly, it’s a major route for road trains ferrying goods and livestock between the two regions, and the corrugations can be fierce even though the road is fairly well maintained. It also has more than its share of rocks and stones, so a sturdy tow vehicle and van are essential.
Sections of the track near Sturt Creek at the northern end can become impassable with rain.
Despite the popularity of the track, it’s extremely remote and you don’t want to break down or run out of fuel. Two spare tyres are a good idea too. Fuel is available at Tilmouth Roadhouse (136km from Alice, great burgers!), Yuendumu (at the 288km mark, limited hours/availability), Rabbit Flat (602km mark), Billiluna (885km mark, limited hours/availability), and finally Halls Creek (1050km from Alice).
Highlights include the expanse of the landscape and sense of achievement at the other end; the endless plains full of termite mounds; the repeater towers that punctuate the journey every 50km or so; and last but certainly not least, the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater. This involves a 46km round-trip detour that can be badly corrugated but is worth it for the awe-inspiring experience of standing on the rim of the 850m-wide crater – the second-largest impact crater in the world – and imagining a rock of several thousand tonnes slamming into the earth at 15km per second.
GREAT CENTRAL ROAD
This 880km route between Laverton in WA and the NT border west of Uluru is the shortest link between South-West WA and the Red Centre. It forms part of the Outback Way, a tourism marketing concept (“Australia’s longest shortcut”) that aims to link the Goldfields in WA and Winton in central Qld with a 2800km route suitable for conventional vehicles.
The road is relatively well maintained and sees some 10,000 vehicles a year, many of them tourists. There are a few sandy bits and dry creek crossings where ground clearance can be a problem, but sections of the road are being realigned to bypass such obstacles and it’s usually okay for conventional rigs driven with care (rain permitting). However, it’s still very remote and you need to be well prepared.
It’s worth the effort because it’s a fascinating journey along the boundary between the Gibson and Great Victoria deserts, culminating in the striking central Australian landscape of red sand dunes, spinifex, mulga and desert oaks – the slow-growing she-oak species that begin life as thin ‘pencils’ and eventually transform into wide, shady trees.
Apart from the interesting range of landscapes (and endless carpets of wildflowers after rain), highlights include the Tjulyuru Cultural & Civic Centre in Warburton with the best collection of Western Desert art in Australia; and the Giles weather station near Warakurna, where you can watch the balloon launch at 8.30am and learn about the station’s significance to global weather monitoring.
There’s a fair bit of European explorer history tied up in the road, which forms part of a network of Bomb Roads pushed through the central-west of the continent in the 1950s and ’60s by the surveyor Len Beadell to service Giles and the atomic bomb tests, and to retrieve rockets fired from Woomera. One of Beadell’s roads is the famous Gunbarrel Highway, which the Great Central Road follows for a while.
Beadell is known as our last great explorer and many went before him in this neck of the bush. None, however, failed so sadly in their endeavours as the prospector Harold Lasseter, who died in 1931 while returning from a massive gold reef he claimed to have found, perhaps somewhere in the Rawlinson Range north-west of Warakurna. You can visit the cave where he waited in vain for a relief party about 20km east of Kaltukatjara/Docker River.
From Laverton, fuel is available at Cosmo Newberry, Tjukayirla Roadhouse (“the most isolated roadhouse in Australia”), Warburton, Warakurna Roadhouse, Kaltukatjara/Docker River just over the border in the NT, and finally Yulara/Uluru about 1160km from Laverton. There’s accommodation and camping at these places except at Cosmo Newberry, and basic camping only at Docker River. The road passes through Aboriginal lands but it’s a public thoroughfare, so you don’t need permits so long as you stick to the road. If you’re heading west from Yulara, explain to the staff at the Uluru toll booth that you’re in transit to Laverton so you don’t have to pay the Uluru entry fee.
The south of the continent, from western NSW to South-West WA, takes in a vast sweep of very flat, semi-arid saltbush and scrub plain with long, straight roads and distant horizons. The main exception occurs some 400km north of Adelaide, where the spectacular Flinders Ranges provide fodder for countless coffee-table books.
Much of this region is pastoral country, except for the Eyre Highway between SA and WA where the Great Victoria Desert meets the sea. In western NSW, major rivers such as the Darling, Lachlan and Murrumbidgee drive cycles of boom and bust for the land and for those who live off it.
The journey “across the Nullarbor” from SA to WA isn’t the adventure it used to be now that it’s fully sealed. A vast army of caravanners and long-distance passenger buses mingles with convoys of trucks and B-doubles to create a situation where overtaking is sometimes impossible even on the 90 Mile Straight – which, at 146.6km, is the longest straight stretch of sealed road in Australia and possibly the world.
But that doesn’t mean the route is boring, far from it. Yes, it’s very much a transport stage but there’s enough to break the 1220km drive from Ceduna in SA to Norseman in WA. If you have an eye for flora you’ll notice constant changes in the abundant vegetation – the actual treeless plain with no scrub at all (“nullus arbor” is Latin for “no tree”) only lasts for 100km or so.
If you’re into fishing and lazing among white sand dunes, check into the pleasant little caravan park at Fowlers Bay. There’s excellent whale-watching in season at the Head of Bight lookout near the Nullarbor Roadhouse. West of here, the coastline consists of the 80m-high Bunda Cliffs that continue all the way to the WA border – quite a sight!
At Eucla on the border (beware of the radar speed traps around here, and the quarantine station if you’re carrying fruit and veges), visit the old telegraph station that’s getting buried under the shifting dunes. If bird-watching is your thing, check into the Eyre Bird Observatory near Cocklebiddy (solo 4WD access only). On the far side of Cocklebiddy is the largest of many caves along the Nullarbor, and another cave where French speleologists made the deepest cave dive in the world.
Believe it or not, the road even caters for golfers: the 18-hole Nullarbor Links is the longest golf course in the world and lets you break the drive by hitting a ball at holes some 140km apart.
Fuel is available at the many roadhouses (though you pay for the privilege) and the longest distance between them is 182km. Accommodation and camping are on offer here too, and most do an acceptable meal.
Ensure that your tow vehicle and tyres are well sorted because mechanical help is scarce and frightfully expensive. Also, if you have a choice of crossing the Nullarbor in a westerly or easterly direction (for instance, if you’re still planning your trip round the block), check the wind roses at www.bom.gov.au/climate/averages/wind for your relevant month or season, as the wind along here can make a huge difference to the fuel bill.
Not really an outback track as such (though there are several interesting short ones), the Flinders Ranges 400km north of Adelaide are the easiest and quickest ‘real outback’ destination for those who live in the south-eastern parts of the country. The rugged geology provides a varied environment in which the red rocks and the desert flora and fauna put on displays that, once witnessed, are never forgotten.
Most people head for the southern Flinders around Wilpena and the famous Pound, but the northern Flinders around Arkaroola are just as spectacular and perhaps even more of an adventure.
DARLING RIVER RUN
The 730km Darling River Run follows the Darling River from Bourke in the north of NSW to where it flows into the Murray at Wentworth in the south-west of the state. Along the way, the river nourishes outback blacksoil and red clay plains that would be desolate if it weren’t for the life-giving waters and rare floods that rejuvenate the land for many tens of kilometres to either side.
It’s the perfect route along which to immerse yourself in outback NSW’s natural wonders and its Aboriginal and colonial history.
Aboriginal people in western NSW have traditionally favoured the Darling, which offered plentiful opportunities to hunt, fish, gather plants and fruits, and trade. In the late 1800s, European pastoralists carved out massive cattle and sheep stations here, supplying wool to the mills in England through the river ports of Bourke, Wilcannia and Wentworth (in the 1880s, Wilcannia was the third-busiest port in Australia). These days the Darling catchment supports sheep and cattle, with vast amounts of water going towards irrigated cotton – much criticised now that the river is dying. (The paddlesteamers of the past would only be able to navigate a few isolated fragments of the river these days.)
There are roads along the north (known as “west”) and south (“east”) sides of the river. Both are unsealed and dusty, though they’re generally in good condition and perfectly feasible for well set-up, conventional rigs. The east road tends to run closer to the river and is a bit more scenic at times; the west road is often wider and better maintained. However, both roads turn to slippery, sticky muck as soon as it rains – don’t even think about proceeding then, even with a 4WD.
Most of the land along the river is fenced off, and beyond the towns there aren’t many places where you can get to the river itself.Where you can, however, the campsites are very pleasant and the fishing can be good too. Just beware that all those river redgums are notorious for dropping massive limbs without warning – preferably on still, hot days.
The towns (e.g., Bourke, Louth, Tilpa, Wilcannia, Menindee and Pooncarie) are steeped in history and full of interesting characters – just pop into the pubs.
The national parks (e.g., Paroo-Darling, Kinchega and Mungo) are world class – seek out the ranger-guided tours where possible.
For more about the route, visit www.darlingriverrun.com.au.
SILVER CITY HIGHWAY
This 660km route runs from Wentworth at the confluence of the Darling and Murray in south-west NSW all the way up along the western border of NSW. It takes its name from the main city you’ll encounter: Broken Hill, also known as the Silver City. The road is sealed to the Hill and intermittently north of that but is easy going all the way to Tibooburra and Warri Gate on the Qld border. It provides an accessible introduction to the NSW outback, culminating in the semidesert ecosystems of Sturt National Park between Tibooburra and the Qld and SA borders.
From Tibooburra you can make a day trip to Cameron Corner where the three states meet, or continue into Qld over a lesser but still reasonable dirt road to the bitumen at Noccundra. In this case, consider detouring to Nappa Merrie on Cooper Creek for the famous Burke & Wills Dig Tree (see the earlier Strzelecki Track section) and pop into Innamincka while you’re at it.
At the southern end of the route, detours to Mungo National Park and the Menindee Lakes are well worth the effort, and a two- or three-day stay in Broken Hill is a must.
The longest distance without fuel is 176km between Broken Hill and Packsaddle, and if you’re heading to/from Qld, it’s 243km between Tibooburra and Noccundra. If you’re going to/from Innamincka, you’ll need fuel for 314km.
The quickest route between Vic and Far North Qld includes the 800km, all-bitumen Kidman Way through the heart of NSW, which links up with the Matilda Highway at the Qld border. Both routes epitomise the European pioneering spirit in the sheep and cattle industries, and the areas they traverse have been immortalised by our greatest bush poets and balladeers.
The Kidman Way begins in Jerilderie on the Newell Highway and heads north to Griffith, Hillston, Cobar and Bourke, where it joins the Mitchell Highway north to the Qld border. Along the way it crosses NSW’s major rivers – the Murrumbidgee, Lachlan and Darling – and runs along the Warrego north of Bourke. The riverbanks offer wonderful picnic and camping spots (Darlington Point on the Murrumbidgee springs to mind), but as always, beware of camping under river redgums, tempting as their shade may be.
The southern section of the route traverses flat pastoral and farming land, but north of Hillston the country becomes more remote and develops an ‘edge-of-the-outback’ feel. Since the demise of the bowser in Mount Hope (population 6), there’s no fuel along the 255km between Hillston and Cobar.
Source: Caravan World Mar 2010