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

I left the lovely and cozy Mud Hut Motel in Coober Pedy around 9 a.m. 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 than in the towns.  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 in Australia).


The Aussie group Savage Garden is pretty popular here and I hear their music often on the radio.  Here's Truly, Madly, Deeply.


Although the Stuart Highway is the only paved road within a thousand miles on either side of it, there isn't a whole lot of traffic on the road.  Sometimes you'll pass a car that's heading in the opposite direction every five minutes or so, 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 desolate Outback while carrying just about anything you can possibly imagine.  They're triple-trailers (sometimes quadruples) that are much longer than the triples in the U.S., sometimes stretching well into the next Time Zone. 


Above:  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.

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 out loud "Whoaaa," awestruck at how long these behemoths 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 Jekyll-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:  Watch out for those roos!

Above center:  Stopping my Camry to have breakfast on the empty Stuart Highway.  O.K., I'm kidding.  But I probably could've parked it here and had breakfast, given how few cars I've seen.

Above right:  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.


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.


Above:  A typical roadhouse on the Stuart Highway.  Roadhouses are located about every 100 miles and along with fuel, most have a cafe, pub, gift shop, and basic lodging.  Oh, as you can tell, beer is a popular drink in the Outback.

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 Denny'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 stop at every roadhouse and poke around because, if nothing else, it gives me a chance to get out of the car and stretch my legs, and it gives me something to think about until I see the next roadhouse, a hundred miles down the highway.  Traveling is more fun when your mind is totally vacant, like mine.


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 north of Coober Pedy, the paved shoulder suddenly widened out 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 in emergency medical situations although I'm not sure who would need 911 service way out here, except maybe an emu.


I really enjoy 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:  Most roadhouses have basic accommodations, such as these trailers that have been converted into motel rooms.  It's not the Hilton but it'll do in a pinch.  These at Kulgera are in the middle of the roadhouse spectrum.  I've seen worse much worse.

Above right:  A roadhouse "mud map," this one created by the nice folks at Oodnadatta.



Above left:  Mud maps are fun to read.

Above center:  Stopping for lunch on the Stuart Highway. (I'm 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.

Camping in the Bush

Although most people would consider the drive between Coober Pedy and Ayers Rock to be boring, I enjoyed 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 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.  My, what a concept!


When I travel, I usually prefer to camp if I can find a decent place rather than stay in a motel, 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 here is privately owned, but 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:  I hiked up Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park the next morning.  With all the red sandstone, this area reminded me of Zion National Park in Utah.

The Big Rock Called Uluru

I drove on the next day to one of Australia's most popular tourist sites:  Ayers Rock, also known as Uluru, also known as 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.  Some tourists think they'll fly from Sydney to Alice Springs and then walk over to see Ayers Rock.  But that's hard to do because the rock is 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, which is located about 10 miles from Ayers Rock and is the only semblance of civilization in this vast area.



Here's another classic Aussie tune.  This is Lazy Harry, once again, singing Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport.


Because there isn't any competition here, 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 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 including folks like me 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.


Ayers 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 several miles in circumference.  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 outside, so apparently this was still the off-season. 


Above:  This is one of the few sunrise pictures you'll ever see on my website.

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, though, is that a half-hour later, you develop a strange urge to jump up and down.


For most 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, four-wheel drives and rental cars through the darkness and parked at a place called "Sunrise Photo Point."  Through my incredible talent for logic and deduction, I figured this would be a good place to take a photo of the sunrise. 



Sure enough, it was and I think the 200 other 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:  Just like in Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," shutters clicked to the left of me.  Shutters clicked to the right of me.  Shutters clicked in front of me.


Then suddenly, as if on cue, 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 starting to get 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, and then watching the sunset seem to be the three main activities for most folks here.

Above center:  Watch out for those kangaroos, mate.

Above right:   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 interesting.



Above left:  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 bought a magnet in the Cultural Center that says, "I Didn't Climb Ayers Rock."

Above right:  Instead of hiking to the top, I decided to hike around the rock.  It's six miles around and, in the 100-degree heat, took me about three hours.  I was ready for another cold shower afterwards.


After 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 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, 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 respect for their wishes (I also didn't want to get my camera bashed in).


Above:  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.

There are 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.  As with an iceberg, you can only see the very top of Ayers Rock.


A 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 six 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.


Ayers Rock is a fascinating place and there's a lot to do here.  I felt 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, 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:  Lunchtime at Yulara Resort.  The folks here are taking a break between their Sunrise and Sunset photo sessions.

Above right:  Viewpoint of the Olgas, a beautiful though lesser-known mountain range located about 30 miles west of 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 with me.

Above right:  An Outback sunset.



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