The 2770k Stuart Highway, named after the first European to cross the continent from south to north (John McDouall Stuart, in 1862), is on most people’s to-do list. Here are 10 tips for touring the southern half of ‘The Track’, from Port Augusta to Alice Springs (via Uluru).
‘The Track’, as locals call the Stuart Highway, goes from Port Augusta (SA) to Darwin straight through the heart of the central Australian outback, with Alice Springs more or less at the halfway mark.
Port Augusta is some 360km north of Adelaide and is also the start/end of the Eyre Highway (the Nullabor) across to WA. The junction of these two ‘classic’ outback routes is a nondescript fork in the road at the north-western end of town that’s easily missed if you’re heading north to Alice.
Stock up in Port Augusta. It’s your last opportunity to find a wide range of goods and services at reasonable prices before you get to Alice Springs. Prepare to pay through the nose for anything along The Track because of transport, staff and generator costs. Shops and supermarkets in towns such as Woomera, Coober Pedy and Yulara, and the larger roadhouses such as Marla, have a reasonable but usually expensive range of goods.
2. PETROL AND DIESEL
The longest distance without fuel is 253km between Glendambo and Coober Pedy. From Port Augusta, fuel is available at the following intervals: Pimba (172km), Glendambo (113km), Coober Pedy (253km), Cadney Park (155km), Marla (84km), Kulgera (180km), Erldunda (74km), Stuarts Well (108km) and Alice Springs (92km).
All fuel outlets except Stuarts Well sell LPG, though the value-for-money aspect can be dubious depending on your tow vehicle. The LPG pump may say ‘out of order’ too, so dual fuel is definitely the way to go.
4. PREVAILING WINDS
The wind direction here is generally south-easterly or easterly, so it could make sense to plan your trip to travel from south to north in order to save a bit of fuel, especially on the barren, windswept plains near the southern end of The Track. Then again, the savings may be negligible in the grand scheme of things, and during the ideal travel season in winter it may mean driving into the sun to some extent.
The roadhouses have motel rooms or cabins or some description and all have caravan/camping areas, some (far) more pleasant than others. Glendambo and Erldunda are probably the pick of the crop; Kulgera isn’t bad either, while Marla has a wide range of facilities including a supermarket, post office, medical centre and bank (CBA). The quality of showers and toilets can be hit and miss, so look first. Also check the location of the roadhouse diesel generator (and wind direction!) before setting up camp. The ‘proper’ towns of Woomera and (especially) Coober Pedy are also an option of course, as is the town of Yulara at the Rock, though prices there are steep. That said Yulara’s caravan park is quite acceptable – arrive early for better spots.
6. ROADSIDE REST AREAS
Many people pull over into roadside rest areas for the night, some of which may seem like small caravan parks filled to capacity late in the afternoon during the high season. If you’re reasonably self-contained, it’s not a bad idea (free, safety in numbers, etc), but you do have to wonder why some people choose those terribly exposed, windswept gravel pads when there are other rest areas with short tracks leading into the scrub where you can set up among the trees. Start looking at 3pm or so and you should be able to find something pleasant. Some people travel the full length of The Track this way and shower at roadhouses for a small fee, like truckies do.
All the roadhouses do take-away as well as sit-down meals. Experience range from excellent to awful, but roadhouses have a high turnover of staff, including cooks, and quality can change quickly either way. The Outback Pioneer Hotel & Lodge in Yulara has a self-cook barbecue and salad-bar setup that’s good value for the region, with a food/bar area that’s lively with backpackers, families, grey nomads, live music, etc.
8. COOBER PEDY
Spend a day in and around Coober Pedy, the opal-mining capital of Australia, a bit of a sleepy place now the easy opal has run out and production has dropped to a quarter of what it was in the 1970s. The heavily touted underground shops and accommodation are interesting enough if you haven’t experienced them before, and the underground Serbian Orthodox Church on St Elijah Drive at the eastern end of town is definitely worth a visit. Take a mine tour to learn about opals and how they’re won, and compare opal jewellery in some of the many shops before buying.
9. AYERS ROCK AND THE OLGAS
Also known as Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the latter meaning ‘many heads’), you’ll need at least a couple of days to even begin to do them justice. At the Rock, apart from the obligatory sunset and more subtle sunrise viewings, be sure to take in the Cultural Centre, the Mutitjulu Waterhole and the leisurely Mala Walk. On your way to Kata Tjuta, visit the Dune Viewing Area, and at Kata Tjuta itself, do the Walpa Gorge Walk to marvel at the majesty of 550m Mount Olga (200m taller than Uluru). If you’re reasonably fit, get an even more breathtaking experience by doing the Valley of the Winds Walk at least to Karingana (the second lookout) and back, or complete the three-hour loop to really get away from the crowds.
10. KINGS CANYON
Another must-see. Many people bypass this highlight in Watarrka National Park on their way to/from Uluru-KataTjuta, either because they’re unaware of it or because it’s a bit of a detour (all bitumen, though if your rig can handle corrugated roads you can complete the trip to Alice via the Mereenie Loop Road and take in Hermannsburg plus many other attractions in the West MacDonnells). Those who do go to Kings Canyon, however, are invariably impressed and some even call it the most spectacular of central Australia’s three major sights. Indeed, if you’re reasonably fit, the 6km Rim Walk (three to four hours) will blow you away. The steep climb at the start to the top of the canyon looks daunting, but take it easy with plenty of rest stops and you’ll be fine. Once at the top, the remainder of the walk is fairly straightforward and utterly fascinating. Unlike at Uluru-Kata Tjuta, where each visitor aged over 16 is charged $25 for a three-day pass, Watarrka is free to visit.