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The Stuart Highway:  Road Trains, 'Roos, and Roadhouses

(Reprint from News: March 11, 2002)

March 9, 2002

 

I left the lovely and very cozy Mud Hut Motel in Coober Pedy the next morning and filled my 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.

 

Speaking 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.

 

2-2711_Camry_on_Stuart_Hwy.jpg (30557 bytes)    2-2717_Road_Train_at_Marla.jpg (37046 bytes)    2-2713_Passing_a_Road_Train.jpg (27739 bytes)

Above left:  Stopping my Camry to have breakfast 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.

 

The 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 more here. 

 

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.

 

I really 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.

 

2-2729_Kulgera_Roadhouse.jpg (54985 bytes)    2-2728_Kulgera_Sign.jpg (62566 bytes)    2-2726_Kulgera_Road_Sign.jpg (56999 bytes)

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.

 

2-2723_Kulgera_Motel.jpg (58793 bytes)    2-2735_Car_on_Stuart_Hwy.jpg (38096 bytes)    2-2737_Erldunda.jpg (43263 bytes)

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.

 

 

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