On a recent trip to Australia, I had the opportunity to relocate a rental car from Adelaide in the south to Alice Springs, which is in the remote center of the country, otherwise known as “The Outback.” According to the terms of the relocation, I had five days to travel between the cities, which was enough time to stop off at quite a few places along the way, since driving nonstop only takes 16 hours or so.
After driving the car out of the Adelaide airport, my first course of action was to buy supplies for the trip. I headed to Woolworths, a large Australian supermarket, and picked up five days’ worth of food and water, plus some extra, for a mere 40 Australian Dollars (AUD). I also invested in a warm blanket for the trip for comfort, since it was late Autumn and the nights were beginning to get quite cold. It proved to be a nice addition to the camping gear I had brought.
Before leaving Adelaide, I made a couple quick stops at the beach and in the city center to look around, and then started the long journey northward. The first part of the trip was through farmland and small villages. Since I had started driving rather late in the day, it was already getting dark after a few hours. I hadn’t quite made it away from civilization yet and didn’t feel like searching for a suitable campsite, so decided just to spend the night in my car, which was fortunately an SUV and large enough for me to form a nice bed after putting the rear seats down.
Day two was when things started to get a bit more interesting. In the morning I took some time to explore Mt. Remarkable National Park, which is in the southern Flinders Range. Rolling, mountainous terrain as well as a variety of flora and fauna native to South Australia are the highlights of the park. In addition, there are ruins of an abandoned homestead in the park. Historically, it is interesting to note that a surveyor named Goyder drew a line across South Australia dividing areas not suitable for farming from those that were suitable, based on climatological rainfall. This particular homestead was close to the line and must have not quite made the cut. Note that to enter the park you have to pay a 10 AUD entry fee which is only payable online.
A half hour’s drive up the road from Mt. Remarkable is the town of Port Augusta, gateway to the outback and start of the Stuart Highway, which runs all the way north through Alice Springs to Darwin. The main highway continues westward towards Perth. I stocked up on gas and took advantage of my last chance to get take out Chinese food before taking the plunge and heading down the Stuart Highway. Just outside of town there is a nice desert botanical garden worth stopping at. And then…nothing.
An important thing to know about the Stuart Highway is that there is either a roadhouse or cattle station every 100-200 kilometers so it is possible to get by without bringing jerry cans for fuel. Besides selling gas these stations also sell very basic groceries (like a gas station mini-mart would) at a huge mark up because of the costs of getting supplies into the middle of nowhere. Expect to pay two to four times as much as you normally would for any item. On the bright side, some roadhouses also have nice pubs, and if you get lucky you might stumble across an aboriginal art gallery or an enclosure full of native birds or other wildlife.
After driving by some salt flats, I arrived at the “town” of Pimba (consisting of Spud’s Roadhouse and not much else), the first sign of life since Port Augusta, 174 kilometers away. Besides being a roadhouse, Pimba is also the turnoff for Woomera, an actual town about 6 kilometers off the Stuart Highway. I took the turnoff and drove into the town, which turned out to be a Australian (and former US) military base. In the center of the town there are lots of missiles on display along with other military equipment. Woomera is also an important site for the Australian space program, and it has plenty of amenities such as a local radio station and a bowling alley. Definitely worth a look.
I continued down the Stuart Highway for a few more hours and reached the town of Coober Pedy just after dusk. Tip: if you plan on driving in the outback after dusk, drive slowly and very carefully. There are plenty of dead kangaroos along the side of the highway, sadly, because they tend to jump out in front of cars. In fact, I had one jump out in front of me as I was driving and it was getting dark, but fortunately I had lowered my speed and was able to stop quite easily, so this kangaroo did not experience the same fate as many others, and my car also survived.
Coober Pedy was one of the highlights of my trip. Probably the best decision I made during my entire journey was to camp underground at an abandoned opal mine at Riba’s Underground Camping, just outside town. It only cost me 15 AUD and the experience was priceless. Riba’s is owned and operated by a local couple who host campers on their property. I also thoroughly enjoyed the showers and kitchen after having slept in my car the previous night. While in the kitchen, I met a couple from Germany and Argentina who were traveling with two other friends from Germany. They had spent some time working in Queensland on a working holiday visa and then bought an SUV and were traveling and camping around Australia. They were also headed northward on the Stuart Highway, so we exchanged contact information in case we had cell phone service and wanted to meet up later on.
The next morning I drove into the center of Coober Pedy, which mostly consisted of restaurants and opal shops. I found out that 90% of the opal production of the world comes from the Coober Pedy region. I went into an opal shop to take a look and the owner mentioned to me that if I wanted raw opals I could collect them off the ground nearly anywhere around town. Not a very good selling point for buying opals in his shop if you ask me- but I took his advice and looked around for some nice ones to bring back home as souvenirs. Unfortunately I did not have a chance to visit the kangaroo sanctuary in the town where you can apparently feed orphaned kangaroos for free. I also did not get a chance to visit Crocodile Harry’s Underground Nest, which I heard was quite eccentric.
On my way out of town, I picked up a Japanese hitchhiker named Mori who decided to join me for the rest of my journey. It was really nice to have some good company after driving alone for so long, and some new soundtracks to listen to in the car (radio reception was nonexistent most of the drive)!
After a days worth of driving, stopping at a few roadhouses along the way, we arrived at Erldunda, a cattle station at the junction of the Stuart and Lasseter Highways. We had now crossed from South Australia into the Northern Territory, as evidenced by a giant sign and a rest area in the middle of nowhere along the route. Erldunda dubs itself “the center of the center” as it is smack dab in the middle of Australia. The cattle station is worth a look for its old school arcade games, and emu enclosure, if nothing else.
While fueling up, I ran into the four travelers who I had met back in Coober Pedy. We all decided (at this point three Germans, one Argentinian, one Japanese guy, and myself – a very multicultural group I should say) to drive into the desert a ways and set up camp, as it was almost dusk. They had some nice camp chairs and a guitar, so we gathered firewood from around some of the larger bushes and made a campfire. It was a great night of singing and stargazing in the middle of the outback.
The next morning we all woke up bright and early and headed west along the Lasseter highway towards Uluru, previously known as Ayers’ Rock. Mori and I stopped along the way at the Mt. Ebenezer Roadhouse, which had quite a bit of Aboriginal artwork on display in a gallery, along with profiles of the artists. We also stopped at the Mount Conner Lookout, a spot along the highway which overlooks a large, isolated mesa in the distance. Uluru has its own airport and a large tourist resort about 20 kilometers away (with a full size supermarket!) so there are lots more visitors than many other places in the outback.
The rock itself is huge and stands out from a good distance away. It is one giant stone with a bunch of giant cuts in different areas. According to Aboriginal legend, many of the cuts are from battles that went on in the area a long time before. Since the stone is a sacred site for the Aboriginals, they ask visitors to not climb it, even though many still do. We all chose to spend the day walking around it instead. Viewing the rock from a distance at sunset gives a spectacular array of different shades of red – I would recommend it. I would also recommend visiting the cultural center which gives a good sense of Aboriginal customs and their interpretation of the rock.
Leaving Uluru was a bit of a sad note because it meant Mori and I would be leaving our German and Argentinian friends for good as we parted ways. We drove back along the Lasseter Highway to Curtin Springs, a cattle station about an hour from Uluru with a free campground. I paid 3 AUD for a shower which was well worth it. Curtin Springs also has a cage with a bunch of loud, squawking native birds and they make paper from the local desert grasses.
From Curtin Springs, we made the decision to take a more scenic route to Alice Springs, rather than driving the Lasseter and Stuart Highways. We followed the Red Centre Way, a series of winding roads through remote areas of the center of Australia. Our first stop was Kings Canyon, a remote gorge with a trickling stream flowing through it, and a good place to find local lizards, birds, and other fauna. After a good rain, a spectacular waterfall occurs in the gorge, but unfortunately we did not get to see it.
The road after Kings Canyon consisted of around 300 kms of unpaved road with no services, the longest stretch we had seen. Make sure to fill up on gas if you drive this route!
Eventually the pavement started again and the road split. We took the northern route via Glen Helen Homestead. The road wound up through the hills to a lookout above Gosse Bluff, a spectacular meteorite impact crater in the desert. Then it turned east and passed by another lookout with views of the surrounding mountains and watering holes. Eventually we made it to Glen Helen Homestead, where I was eager to fill my fuel tank in order to make it to Alice Springs. While we were at the homestead, a motorcyclist crashed and an ambulance was called in to bring him to Alice Springs for medical treatment. After making sure everything was alright with the motorcyclist, we asked the homestead owner where she recommended we go in the area in the little time we had before dusk. She advised we head over to Ormiston Gorge, a local watering hole, and we took her advice. It was very green, in stark contrast to the desert colors we had been accustomed to over the past several days.
We continued on to Alice Springs as the sun set behind us, lighting up the rocks in front of us with a warm red glow.
Alice Springs is the hub of central Australia and its only modern city. Downtown is full of tourist shops, bars, and restaurants. Upon arriving, I dropped off Mori in the city center, exchanging goodbyes, and then checked into an artsy hostel with a swimming pool. For dinner I tried some kangaroo and a couple shots of whiskey at a local bar with a German from my hostel, and then called it a night.
I had to return the rental car to the airport and fly out the next morning, but before doing so I made a quick stop at Anzac Hill to get a view of the city, and then walked around the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, a few minutes outside of town. The telegraph line through Alice Springs provided the first communications between England and South Australia when it was built, and was the first non-native settlement in the area.
I hope that you enjoyed reading this account of my trip through the outback and may it inspire you to do the same!