The wilderness around us slowly disappeared and more houses were showing up along the road. Places such as Humpty Doo and Palmerston passed our window. If you ever have been to Australia you probably know where I am. We found ourselves in the Northern Territory’s Top End, Darwin. A sign doomed up in the distance: 10 kilometres to go.
It had been a good 2 month from Melbourne until we had reached this part of the country. Of course, there was a quicker way which might have taken half the time we took, but that would have been less enjoyable. The easiest way to get to Darwin is via the famous Stuart Highway, also known as “The Track”. The sealed road starts in Adelaide and is 3500 km long. It leads you through the Red Centre of Australia, along cities like Coober Pedy and Alice Springs. The Track is travelled by many locals and backpackers all year round. You will not be left alone when you get a flat tyre and rest areas along the way are designed for overnight stays. Often they fill up around the hour of 3 o’clock.
It would have been indeed a faster way to get to Darwin. However, we had the luxury to kill some time before we would hit the city. And to be fairly honest, avoiding the Stuart Highway is the best you can do. Yes, The Track is one of those roads you should drive when you are in Australia. In my opinion you should do it because you can say you have done it and to visit Ayers Rock, a 460 km drive from Alice Springs. Part from that, there is nothing to do or to see, between the few roadhouses which form the only opportunity to fill up your car and your tummy with a counter meal. The landscape stays more or less the same, the whole way through. The road is straight, no turns, roundabouts, curves or double lanes. Perhaps a turn off, once in a while. No, the Stuart Highway is not the most scenic or interesting route that exists. Merely, it is just a road.
Knowing this from previous experience, we took a rough 2000 km detour via dirt roads and 4 wheel drive tracks (4WD) . After crossing the boarder with the states New South Wales and South Australia, we drove up to Innamincka via he Strzelecki Track, and several non-touristic national parks. The 4WD road is not the most scenic one, and maybe even more boring than the Stuart Highway. Nevertheless, it was an experience and a challenge to drive after a week of rainfall, like we had. The track leads to Innamincka, a small settlement close to the boarder of Queensland. It has that romantic touch of a remote cattle station with dust tornadoes created by triple trailer roadtrains, rushing by. Not to forget to mention the incredible amount of flies swirling around your head, trying to get in your eyes, ears and mounth.
From here you can crossover to the Birdsville Track via Walkers Crossing, another 600 km of four wheel driving. The Birdsville track is a popular drive, bringing you from Birdsville to a little place called Marree. You will drive along the edges of the Simpson Desert, Australia’s own Sahara.
Marree marks the end of the Birdsville track but also the beginning of a new off-road: the fascinating Oodnadatta Track, leading via Oodnadatta to Marla, follows the old Ghan railway. The rail service was originally designed to transport goods from Port Augusta in South Australia to Alice Springs, but it got shut down after sixty years because of poor maintenance, which led to financial losses and extreme delays up to three months (Australia, The Rough Guide, 1999).
Despite of the relics and desolated sidings you can find on the way, it is again, not the most spectacular drive of all. The badly corrugated 620 kms road shows you nothing else than endless bushland and dust clouds.
However, this might as well be the most scenic and special experience of the outback. Australia, after all, is a big country and distances are often underestimated by us, spoiled Europeans who demand a sort of attraction every 50 kms. In my believe, the big fat nothing is the most scenic attraction and is unique compared to the European continent. This country is not filled with ancient towns or 4 lane highways. Instead, there might be 1 main route to get to another place. In that sense, we are very spoiled with our cultural heritage. With a 3 hour drive you could be in Germany or France. A three hour drive here means you are not even half way.
And although therre is not much on the way and there not many cities, it does not mean you are alone. Australians like driving and are used to the long distances. The 3 tracks, Strzelecki-Birdsville-Ooodnadatte, are therefor the most popular dirt roads in the country and are frequently travelled by locals. It is a pain if you want to be alone but a bless if you get stuck, knowing that there will always be someone to pull you out.
In that sense, driving off the beaten track might not be so much different than the sealed main roads. But if you looking for a more adventurous way to experience the outback, than this is something you should do. No smooth sealed road, but dust and corrugation. No road trains and backpackers, but locals and 4WD enthusiasts. No busy rest ares, but a whole campsite for yourself and no one else around you. Complete remoteness. Well that is an experience.