Fill'er Up, Mate: Australian Road Trips
Three quintessential Australian road trips.
What you'll find in this story: Australia travel, Australia culture, Australia attractions, Australia itineraries, Australia lodging, Australian dining
Our intrepid reporter takes us into the red centre, down the great ocean road, and to the remote southwest corner.
1. Into the Red Centre
If Australia were folded in half like a book, the Stuart Highway would be its spine, forging through emptiness for 2,000 miles. Driving half of it is plenty, so I've flown to the dead center: the desert town of Alice Springs. North of "the Alice" there's barely a stoplight for 1,000 miles--about the distance from Dallas to Chicago--until the asphalt meets Darwin, on the Timor Sea.
Like Germany's autobahn, the Stuart has no speed limit; unlike the autobahn, it's virtually barren. Every 45 minutes or so, a roadhouse appears mirage-like on the horizon, offering gas, beer, motel-style lodging, and a little "Where ya from, mate?" Aside from that, the land presents itself the way God made it. Hour by hour, sandy red earth gives way to spindly trees, brown escarpments, termite mounds as tall as kindergartners, and not much else. No cell phone coverage, no radio stations. There's nowhere else on earth to be so isolated while on good roads in your average rental car.
A drive on the Stuart Highway evolves slowly, with developments marked by the odometer. Kilometer 36 north of Alice Springs: cross the Tropic of Capricorn. At 54: spot two wedge-tailed eagles feeding on kangaroo roadkill. At 83, 443, 906, and 1,222: nearly hit a kangaroo myself. At 142: tank up beside a "road train," Australia's superlong tractor trailers that pull three or four long trailers. At 202: Ti Tree, "the most central pub in Oz." No one blinks when truckers drain their beers and get right back in their cabs.
Periodically, I pull over and cut the engine, just to feel the nothingness. I consider walking deep into the scrub but never make it more than 20 feet without worrying about snakebites--and being picked clean by wedge-tailed eagles.
The pleasure of a Stuart drive is partly in stumbling across artifacts from man's attempts to make use of the bush. Beside the gas station in Barrow Creek (kilometer 294), a wooden telegraph repeater station from the early 1870s stands abandoned but perfectly preserved by the dry desert air. There's another in the expanse north of Tennant Creek (541). Barely rusted bits of telegraph wire and antique bottles still litter the grounds of both. The eerie ruins at Gorrie Airfield (1,103) once housed 6,500 personnel in World War II. Today, there are ghostly scraps of gray bitumen leading to an old fighter runway that's over a mile long.
The walls inside most of the bush pubs along the highway are stapled over with bras, underwear, foreign currency, and business cards--a few of mine included--left by visitors from around the world. Basic rooms cost about $35; given the volume of cold Victoria Bitter on tap, by bedtime most customers aren't in a state to quibble over thread counts. Just about every pit stop is run by someone who could pass as the main character in a novel. The proprietor of the roadhouse at Wycliffe Well (393) has lined the walls with newspaper reports of local UFO sightings. The owner of the Wauchope Hotel (411) abandoned a 35-year career as a firefighter in Adelaide. The night before I arrive, 40 guys from a remote cattle station drove two hours over a dirt track to have a birthday party there; it lasted until dawn. At the pub inside the Daly Waters Historic Hotel (986), road-trippers gather nightly to be entertained by 14-year-old singer Patrick Webster, who brazenly flirts with waitresses 10 years his senior, and by Frank the Chook Man, who does renditions of folk songs as live chickens roost on his hat.
Even the highway's banner sights seem like something a science-fiction writer might have cooked up. The two big ones are the rock that looks like Winston Churchill's head (652) and the Devil's Marbles, huge, rounded boulders jumbled together improbably in the desert (422).
The wildlife is similarly otherworldly. Some visitors think, at first, that the stirring in the cabbage tree palms and paperbarks above the turquoise Mataranka Thermal Springs (1,220) comes from a bird of some sort. In fact, it's the squabbling of hundreds of thousands of flying foxes, big as beagles and hanging upside down while flailing their leathery wings. The gassy creatures poop everywhere, but that doesn't stop people from jumping in the water beneath them (750 miles of desert scrub will make anyone desperate for a soak).
Around kilometer 1,575, the world comes sufficiently alive enough to drizzle. By the time the Stuart Highway terminates in Darwin (1,646), the humidity edges toward 100 percent, and I'm confronted with Internet cafés, traffic lights, and too many people for my Zenned-out brain to handle.