Stuart Highway: Road Trains, 'Roos, and Roadhouses
I left the lovely and very cozy Mud Hut Motel in Coober Pedy the next morning and
Camry's tank with gas at a dingy BP station in the 90 degree heat before I left town. When you travel across the
Outback, you need to fill your tank in every sizable town. Although there
are gas stations at roadhouses at least every 100 miles or so, you can't be sure
if they're going to have fuel -- and even if they do, they'll charge quite a bit
more for it. It's also a good idea to carry an emergency fuel can, which I
have in the trunk (or the "boot," as they call it here).
Although the Stuart Highway is the only paved road within about 1,000 miles
on either side, there isn't a whole lot of traffic on it. Sometimes you'll
pass a car every five minutes but other times
you won't see another car for a half-hour or more. You're just as likely to
see a car as a "Road Train," another interesting Australian adaptation
to the Outback.
Road Trains are very, very long trucks that rumble across
the Outback carrying just about anything you can imagine. They're triple-trailers (sometimes quadruples) that are much longer
than the triples in the U.S., sometimes stretching into the next Time Zone.
Every time a Road Train rushes past me on the two-lane Stuart Highway going 65
miles an hour in
the opposite direction, I mutter "Whoaaa," awestruck at how
long these things are. Before coming over here, I'd heard that Road Train
drivers were rude and enjoyed hogging the road, but I've passed several dozen
Road Trains on
the highway now and every driver so far has been courteous and was driving at a
reasonable speed, so no worries.
of that, the speed limit on the Stuart Highway in South Australia is 110 k.p.h.
(about 66 miles an hour) but the Northern Territory, where I am now, doesn't
have a speed limit on open highways. Fortunately, most drivers
here use common sense and don't drive more than about 120 k.p.h. Despite
what you may have seen in "Mad Max," most Australian drivers have been pretty
courteous and are as good as American drivers, perhaps even better. While the folks in
New Zealand are very friendly, they seem to undergo a Jeckyll-and-Hyde
metamorphosis when they get behind the wheel of an automobile. Several
Kiwis warned me about this transformation before I got to New Zealand and I didn't believe
them, but after driving around New Zealand for two months, I heartily concurred.
Most Aussies, though, are pretty darn good drivers.
Above left: Stopping my Camry to
on the empty Stuart Highway. (I'm kidding, O.K.?).
Above center: Here's a "Road Train," a common sight on Outback
highways. These are usually triple-trailers about 150 feet long, but I've
seen quadruples that are over 200 feet long.
Above right: Passing a road train on the Stuart Highway. You
need at least a half-mile to pass these things. Most road train drivers
are pretty courteous, though.
monotony of the Stuart Highway is broken about every hundred miles or so by a
"roadhouse." I mentioned the Oodnadatta Roadhouse (now with a
dented wall) in my last entry from Coober Pedy, but I'll describe them a bit
If you look at a map of central Australia, you'll
notice what appear to be several large towns between Port Augusta in the south and
Darwin in the north. In fact, most of these are simply roadhouses, kind of like a Stuckey's-in-the-Outback, each of which has fuel, a
cafe, a pub, and usually some sort of accommodation, the quality of which varies
widely, from acceptable to "yuuuck." I like to stop at every roadhouse and poke
around because, if nothing
else, it gives me a chance to get out of the car and gives me something to think about
until I see the next roadhouse, a hundred miles down the highway.
During the month
that I've been in Australia, I've been continually impressed by Aussie
ingenuity. As I was driving north on the empty Stuart Highway, the
paved shoulder suddenly widened a hundred feet on either side, then I
passed over several large white stripes painted on the highway, parallel
to the road. I suddenly felt like I was driving on an airplane
runway... and, as I found out later, that's exactly what it was. As
I discovered, planes from the Royal Flying Doctor Service occasionally
land on the highway here in emergency medical situations -- although I'm
not sure who would need 911 service way out here, except maybe an emu.
enjoyed driving on the Stuart Highway because I like wide-open spaces, looking at
changing landscapes, and wondering about the history, vegetation, and wildlife
of the places I travel through without worrying about the traffic... which
certainly isn't a problem out here. However, I wouldn't recommend this
drive to everyone. In fact, I probably wouldn't recommend it to most
people, especially those who are reasonably sane. It takes a special kind of monotonous person (like me) to enjoy
this monotonous drive.
Above left: A typical roadhouse on
the Stuart Highway. Roadhouses are found every 100 miles or so on the
highway and they usually have fuel, a cafe, pub, gift shop, and basic lodging.
And yes, as you can tell, beer is a popular drink in the Outback.
Above center: A roadhouse "mud map."
Above right: Mud maps are fun to read.
Above left: Most roadhouses have basic
accommodations, such as these trailers converted to motel rooms. Not the
Hilton, but it'll do. These at Kulgera are about in the middle of the roadhouse
accommodation spectrum... I've seen much worse.
Above center: Stopping for lunch on the Stuart Highway. (Kidding again --
don't take me so seriously).
Above right: Fueling up at Erldunda, a little oasis at the Stuart
Highway turn-off to Ayers Rock. This place had the most expensive gas of
anyplace I've seen so far in Australia: about US$2 per gallon.
in the Bush
most people would consider the drive between Coober Pedy and Ayers Rock to be boring, I
had a good time watching the vegetation and landscapes gradually change while listening to my stereo. As I drove north from Coober Pedy, the average rainfall increased
from about 5 inches a year to 10 inches a year as I moved closer to the tropics.
That doesn't sound like much but it makes a big difference in
terms of the vegetation, because there were actually trees and grass here...
what a concept!
travel, I prefer to camp if I can find a decent place, so I pulled off the
highway that evening about two hours from Ayers Rock and looked for a spot to camp in the bush. I'd read
some literature saying never to do this in Australia because much of the land
privately owned... but hey, I figured who's going to care out here? It was
nice to camp under the stars that night, if for no other reason than I could
play my harmonica, which I hadn't done yet on this entire trip. In fact, I
hadn't played my harmonica for a couple of years. "Dixie" never
sounded as bad as it did that night in the Outback.
Above left: Looking for a campsite
that afternoon in the bush. Please don't show Hertz this picture.
Above center: Camping near Watarrka National Park. The
bushflies here were happy to see me.
Above right: Hiking up Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park, which
of like Zion National Park in Utah.
on the next day to one of Australia's most popular tourist sites, Ayers Rock, the big rock that you've seen splashed across almost any poster printed by the
Australian Tourism Commission. The first thing you learn about Ayers Rock
is that it's a long way from anywhere. A lot of tourists think they'll fly
from Sydney to Alice Springs and walk over to see Ayers Rock, but that's kind of
hard to do because it's still 250 miles away. The second thing you learn
about Ayers Rock is that if you want to spend the night there, you have to stay at the Yulara
village complex, about 10 miles from Ayers Rock and the only semblance of
civilization in this area.
Here's a good Outback
song. This is Lazy Harry singing My Boomerang Won't Come
RealPlayer. If problems, see
there isn't any competition there, Yulara has got you by the... um, throat.
As I was planning my trip to Ayers Rock the night before, I looked at the
lodging situation in Yulara and I just about gagged on my nachos when I
discovered that the cheapest hotel room there costs US$100 a night.
However, for the poor and indigent -- and for those folks who've been traveling around for 12
months without drawing a paycheck -- there's a private campground in Yulara where you can pitch your tent
for six bucks. Yep, Option #2 was the winner.
Rock is at the end of a very long, dead-end highway, perhaps the longest
dead-end highway in the world. That afternoon, and without having seen the
rock yet, I pulled into Yulara, a self-contained resort village complete with
several hotels, a grocery store, gas station, police station and much more, all
of which is set around a big looped road. I drove past the hotels of the
Rich and Famous and checked into the campground of the Poor and
Insignificant, and was surprised to discover that I
was one of the few people there. Well yes, I suppose it was 102 degrees
apparently this was still the off-season.
After setting up my tent that afternoon, I took a nice, cold shower
(please, no jokes). Feeling much refreshed, I drove around Yulara to
check it out, got some ice at the grocery store, then stopped at a
take-out stand at a lodge where I bought a kangaroo burger for five bucks,
definitely the best dinner deal in town. As I discovered while
eating my dinner at a outdoor picnic table that evening, kangaroo meat is
leaner than ground beef and is actually quite tasty. The only
problem with eating it is that a half-hour later, you develop
a strange urge to jump up and down.
tourists, there seem to be two main things to do at Yulara: 1). Drive out
to Ayers Rock an hour before sunrise to take a picture and, 2). Drive out to
Ayers Rock an hour before sunSET to take a picture. Early the next morning
before sunrise, I
chose Option #1 along with several dozen other folks, and we all drove several
times around Yulara's big looped road in the dark trying to figure out where the exit
was. We finally found it and, although I still hadn't seen the rock, I
followed a large caravan of tour buses, 4-wheel drives and rental cars through
the darkness and parked at a place called Sunrise Photo Point, which I figured
would be a good place to take a photo of the sunrise.
Sure enough, it was
-- and I think the 200 or so folks out there would agree. For the next few minutes as the sun peeked above the horizon,
Ayers Rock turned from gray to a deep crimson, and then the onslaught
began: Shutters clicked to the left of me. Shutters clicked to the
right of me. Shutters clicked in front of me.
suddenly, as if on cue, nearly everyone packed up their weary cameras, got in
their vehicles and drove back into Yulara -- and, surprisingly, just as the light on the rock was getting good. For the next
half-hour, I stood alone in the desert and watched Ayers Rock brighten and change
texture, and that's when it struck me: this rock is REALLY big.
Ayers Rock is much larger than I ever envisioned and, with all the canyons,
waterholes, and undulations, it's also a lot more interesting.
Above left: Here's the morning crowd with their cameras ready. Watching
the sunrise, hiking to the top, then watching the sunset seem to be the
three main activities for
most folks here.
Above center: This is one of the few sunrise pictures that you'll see on
Above right: Watch out for those kangaroos, mate.
Above left: The other side (the
"sunset" side) of Ayers Rock. The rock is a lot bigger than I
imagined and, with all the crevasses and potholes, it's also a lot more
Above center: You can climb to the top of Ayers Rock at this point (note
the chain railing). The Aborigines prefer that you don't climb it though,
so I didn't (besides, it was closed that day due to high winds). I proudly
a magnet in the Cultural Center that says, "I Didn't Climb Ayers
Above right: Instead of hiking to the top, I decided to hike around
the rock. It's 6 miles around and, in the 100-degree heat, took me about 3
hours. I was ready for another cold shower afterwards.
watching the beautiful sunrise, I spent a couple of hours at the Aboriginal Cultural Center,
which is located at the base of Ayers Rock, or "Uluru" as the Aborigines
call it, and I learned quite a bit about this place. Ayers Rock and the
nearby Olga Mountains have been sacred to the Aborigines for thousands of years
and this area is now a National Park, which is managed jointly by the Aborigines
and the Australian Park Service, with the Aborigines having the upper hand.
The Cultural Center was pretty interesting, but I didn't take a picture of it
because the Aborigines request that you don't do so, so I can't show you what it
looks like. Besides, I don't think you'd like to see pictures of the movie
they showed in the tiny theatre, with lots of very heavy, topless Aborigine
woman bouncing up and down in the desert. Actually, I haven't taken ANY
pictures of Aborigines out of sensitive respect for their wishes (I also didn't want to get my camera
plenty of ways to see Ayers Rock. You can drive around it, hike around it,
ride a camel around it, and hike to the top of it. You can balloon over
it, take an aborigine-guided tour around it, fly over it, and if you're feeling
like Peter Fonda, rent a Harley-Davidson in Yulara and ride around it. And
even if you don't know how to ride a Harley, you can still hop on the back of a Harley and, for an extra fee, they'll drive you around it. Just about the only thing you can't
do is go under it and that's because it's about five miles deep -- like an
iceberg, you can only see the very top of Ayers Rock.
popular option with many tourists is to hike to the top of Ayers Rock, but Aborigines ask that people
refrain from doing that because it's a sacred monument. I decided not to
hike to the top out of respect for the Aborigines (well O.K., it was also pretty damn
hot). Instead, I decided to put on my Australian bush hat and hike all the
way around it. It was a looooong hike... about 6 miles, in fact, and it took me about three hours in the desert
heat. However, I'm glad I
did it because hiking around Ayers Rock makes you appreciate its size and, for
lack of a better word, its personality.
Rock is a pretty interesting place and there's a lot to do here. I feel a
bit sorry for the folks who fly into the Yulara airport, drive out to the rock
and snap a few pictures and then fly back to Sydney, because it's hard to appreciate Ayers
Rock if you're on a flight schedule. If you ever come here, spend at
least a few days exploring this area and trying to understand it like I did
because, as some of the crusty old Aussies here say, "There's just somethin'
spiritual about it."
Above left: Hotel rooms at Yulara
are among the most expensive in Australia, starting at about US$100 a
night. The campground is the only affordable accommodation within a
hundred miles of Ayers Rock, so that's, of course, where I stayed.
Above center: Lunchtime at Yulara Resort. The folks here are
taking a break between their Sunrise and Sunset pictures.
Above right: Viewpoint of the Olgas, a beautiful though lesser-known
mountain range that's about 30 miles from Ayers Rock.
Above left: Hiking in the Olgas.
Above center: Sunset over the Olgas. I was the only person here
enjoying this view -- everyone else was over at Ayers Rock, and that was fine
Above right: Looking west.
13, 2002 (Alice Springs, Australia)
8, 2002 (Coober Pedy, Australia)
5, 2002 (Port Augusta, Australia)
1, 2002 -- Part 2 (Robe, Australia)
1, 2002 -- Part 1 (Robe, Australia)
18, 2002 (Bega, Australia)
7, 2002 (Auckland, New Zealand)
2, 2002 -- Part 2 (Taupo, New Zealand)
2, 2002 -- Part 1 (Taupo, New Zealand)
25, 2002 (Hokitika, New Zealand)
20, 2002 (Geraldine, New Zealand)
16, 2002 (Te Anau, New Zealand)
12, 2002 -- Part 2 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
12, 2002 -- Part 1 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
1, 2002 -- Part 2 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
1, 2002 -- Part 1 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
24, 2001 (Wellington, New Zealand)
20, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
16, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
14, 2001 (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)
10, 2001 (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)
3, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bellingham, Washington)
3, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bellingham, Washington)
18, 2001 -- Part 3 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
18, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
18, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
6, 2001 (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
September 15, 2001 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 (Webster, South Dakota)
18, 2001 (Watertown South Dakota)
17, 2001 (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)
14, 2001 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)
6, 2001 (Manlius, New York)
23, 2001 (Middleton, Massachusetts)
22, 2001 (Boston, Massachusetts)
20, 2001 (Pomfret, Connecticut)
18, 2001 (Denton, Maryland)
16, 2001 (Cumberland, Virginia)
14, 2001 (Roanoke, Virginia)
9, 2001 (Sevierville, Tennessee)
8, 2001 (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)
5, 2001 (Manchester, Tennessee)
30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
29, 2001 (Corinth, Mississippi)
27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
19, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
* * * * * * *
Travels (2001-02) >
Australia Trip >
March 11, 2002