Once we had finished our spell picking grapes in the Barossa Valley, just outside Adelaide, Marc and I had two choices: head west to Perth or head north to Darwin via Alice Springs. Since it was coming into the dry season we decided Darwin was the best option.
There is really only one way to drive from Adelaide to Darwin and that’s via the Stuart Highway. Known as the Explorer’s Way, the Stuart Highway covers over 2700 km and is named after John McDouall Stuart (the first known european to cross Australia from north to south and back again.)
The highway runs from Port Augusta, South Australia to Darwin, Northern Territory and passes through many different landscapes: the arid south; the dusty red centre and the tropical north; with very few towns in between. It’s probably one of the best-known and easiest outback road trips to do as the road is completely sealed; so there’s no need for a 4×4.
This was my first venture into the outback and I was so excited to finally see what it was really like. After seeing Sydney, Melbourne, the Great Ocean Road and Adelaide, this was the Aussie experience I had been missing so far.
I’ll just tell you about the first half of the highway from Adelaide to Alice Springs, since we stopped in Alice Springs for a bit and, well, the second leg of the trip didn’t quite go according to plan, but that’s a whole other story.
How we did it: A camper van would be ideal for this road trip, but we already had a sedan so we stayed in hostels wherever we could, but most nights we had to camp out in our tent.
We left Adelaide for Port Augusta via Port Pirie and even though we were still on the coast I felt like we were really starting to see the outback, well rural Australia at least. Because we had to say some goodbyes in Adelaide, we only made it as far as Port Augusta.Three and a half hours of driving and technically we weren’t even on the Stuart Highway yet!
Once we left Port Augusta we were officially on the Stuart Highway. Once on the Stuart Highway, the landscape slowly changes and you begin to see the real outback. The land becomes flat and the rugged mountains between Port Pirie and Port Augusta soon fade into the eastern horizon to make way for huge salt lakes.
The first place we passed through was Pimba. There’s not much to Pimba except that it’s home to the famous Spuds Roadhouse. A roadhouse is basically an all-in-one shop, pub and service station, usually with an adjoining campsite/caravan park. They’re usually very over-priced and sell mostly fried food. The Stuart Highway has very few towns along it, and the rest of it is sparsely dotted with little roadhouses like this one, with just enough space between them so that you don’t run out of fuel.
Our first pit stop was Glendambo. There’s not much to do in Glendambo; all it has to offer is a roadhouse and hotel/motel, and a funny sign (see below). But, it is a pretty good place to stop and rest.
Between Glendambo and Coober Pedy (our next stop) we passed through the Woomera Prohibited Area. This is a huge area where the RAAF test rockets, long range missiles and the likes. Sounds exciting right? Well, not exactly no, all you will see is dust, plenty of spinifex and loads of signs telling you not to turn off the Stuart Highway as it’s against the law to enter the prohibited area. There’s also a massive fine if you do enter for any reason.
Because of the prohibitied area, this part of the highway is the longest without a service station (over two and a half hours!) and is probably the most boring, as there’s not much to see.
If you need to take a toilet break during this part of the journey, you’re probably going to have to come to terms with peeing outside. Unfortunately, there’s literally nowhere to hide for most of it and you’ll have to be pee with 360 degree views of the horizon. It’s highly unlikey that anyone will see you, but it is quite strange!
After travelling for what seemed like forever, we finally got to Coober Pedy. It has to be said, Coober Pedy is a strange little town. It is Australia’s opal mining capital, but it also relies heavily on tourism. Why do tourists come here? Because many of Coober Pedy’s residents live underground to escape the intense desert heat. Tourists can also escape the heat, as the town has many underground hotels/motels and hostels. We decided to forget the tent this time and stay in Radeka Down Under 6.5 metres underground.
Before leaving Coober Pedy we decided to try to find a nice look-out where we could see the whole town in all of it’s weirdness. We saw a sign for one look-out and without even thinking drove up the little road. We soon realised that this was actually just some guy’s house.
Cleverly enough, he had put the sign outside his house to try to get tourists in to buy his opal jewellery. Before I knew what was happening, this little old Asian man was bringing me over to a hole out the back of his house where he apparently mined for opals. He then brought me inside and tried to get me to buy a necklace, particularly the one with the “hooooshey” on it. I must look like one of those horsey kind of people!? I kindly refused a couple of times and eventually he realised that me and $95 were not parting ways over a hideous necklace.
Not long after leaving Coober Pedy, we came across a small herd of wild horses on the highway. It was amazing to see these majestic animals living amongst the dust and spinifex completely untamed. It was also a reminder to keep any eye out for wandering animals. There are a lot of wandering animals on the Stuart Highway from horses to cattle to kangaroos; and they all just love to wander out in front of you.
Our next stop was Erldunda, about 5 hours from Coober Pedy. On the way to Erldunda we drove through more little settlements/roadhouse stops, namely Cadney Park, Marla and Kulgera. All of these places are good to stop and have a rest, but probably more so Marla as it seems to have a lot more facilities. While they are good pit-stops, Erldunda is definitely a nicer place to stay the night, and the food wasn’t too bad.
Just before we got to Erldunda we passed the border from South Australia into Northern Territory. There’s not much to do at the border; there’s an information board, toilets and of course you can take a photo of the “welcome” signs. You could also try that old tradition of standing on one side of the border and peeing onto the other side – if you’re into that kind of thing!
Even though we were relatively close to Alice Springs we stopped off at Erldunda for the night because, we had to make a very large detour the next day to see Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas).
Day four was marked by excitement, we were on our way down the Lasseter Highway to see Uluru. Driving towards Curtins Springs, Mt Connor came into view. I’ve heard a few travellers say that if you go to Uluru with a tour, your tour guide will probably try trick you into thinking that Mt Connor is actually Uluru, which will probably lead you think “hmm it looks different in real life.” Well now you can be the smug one on the bus that knows better – your welcome!
Three and a half hours after leaving Erldunda we arrived at Yulara, a small town just outside the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. This is where all of the hotels and campsites for tourists visiting Uluru are. Driving around the national park we found some camels wandering about. Yes wild camels in Australia, I couldn’t believe it either! In fact, I once met an Aussie bloke who used to shoot them for a living as they have become a bit of a nuisance. Despite the fact that people don’t want them around, you might be lucky enough to see some along the Stuart Highway, particularly around Alice Springs.
We spent most of day five doing the Uluru base walk, but that evening we decided to head back up the Lasseter Highway and stay at the free campsite in Curtin Springs. There’s not much to tell about this campsite. It was badly lit, the toilets weren’t too pleasant and the ground was bumpy, but hey it was free!
As we were putting up our tent (which we had become pros at doing at this stage), a woman in a caravan next to us told about the plague of field mice they had been having lately. Lovely! Walks to the toilet were fun with little mice hopping up at my torch and all through the night we could hear them scurrying over out tent.
That night there was a wedding at the little restaurant beside the roadhouse. Now this, I thought, was strange. There seemed to be nothing around for miles, but people are getting married here!? We considered putting on our best clothes and trying to join in, but figured we would have been spotted a mile off since there were only about 20 people at the wedding.
Oh well, it was probably for the best since we had another long drive in the morning.
We packed up our tent for what would be, unbeknownst to us at the time, the last ever time. (more about that soon!). Two hours later we got back onto the Stuart Highway and yet another 2 and a half hour trip later we were finally in Alice Springs.
I really did love doing the Stuart Highway, sure it was long and boring most of the time, but it was those little surprises along the way that made the trip.
My trip along the Stuart Highway will be remembered for…
- The wedge-tailed eagles, which can be found the closer you get to central Australia. Watching them soar high above is just spectacular.
- The camels and wild horses roaming freely.
- The overwhelming feeling of having 360 degree views of the horizon. There are only a few things that can make you feel physically small, and this has to be one of them.
- The great salt lakes: it was bizarre that, in the desert you can come across massive salt lakes.
- The strange little ‘towns’/settlements like Coober Pedy.
If you’re thinking of doing a trip on the Stuart Highway, here is some info that may help you plan your trip.
- Port Augusta to Pimba: 174km; 1hr 50 mins approx. Just before Port Augusta is the turn-off point for the Flinders Ranges. If you really need to stop at Pimba you could also swing a right up Pimba Road to Woomera which has more facilities and is only ten minutes away.
- Pimba to Glendambo: 112km; 1hr approx. Glendambo is also a good place to stop for a rest as it’s got some trees for shade and a nice roadhouse. Don’t forget to take a photo of the sign!
- Glendambo to Coober Pedy: 254km; 2hrs 40mins approx. This is a long stretch of road without any service stations, so make sure you fill up before leaving Glendambo. Coober Pedy is also the best turn off point for the Oonadatta track if you’re heading north. This track will eventually bring you to Marla, but via Oonadatta. However, keep in mind that this is a dirt track and impassable after heavy rain.
- Coober Pedy to Cadney Park: 154km; 1hr 40 mins approx. Cadney Park is another fuel stop, but there’s not much to see here. I would suggest that you keep driving for another 50 minutes to Marla, unless you really need to stop.
- Cadney Park to Marla: 80.9km; 50mins approx. Around this point you may start to see some wedge-tailed eagles. Marla is also the best turn off point for Oodnadatta if you’re heading south.
- Marla to Kulgera: 193km; 2hrs 22mins approx. Kulgera is another small roadhouse. In between these two is the Northern Territory/ South Australia border.
- Kulgera to Erldunda: 87.7km; 1hr 30mins approx. Erldunda is the turn off point for the Lasseter Highway, which brings you to Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park.
- Erldunda to Alice Springs: 200km; 2hrs 30mins approx via Stuarts Well.