Rumor has it (at least in Europe) that Australian roads are straight as if drawn with a ruler. That’s not true. What is true however, is that the roads are long and you can drive literally hundreds of kilometers without turning or stopping.
From Darwin to Alice Springs
You don’t need a GPS on the Stuart Highway between Darwin and Alice Springs. It’s almost impossible to get lost if you just stick to the highway. And it’s easy to recognize: It’s the only paved road. Which means that, unless you hire a 4WD, you’re strictly not allowed to leave the highway with a rental car. That’s a shame, really, because there are some great sights off the Stuart Highway which are only accessible by 4WD.
Along the Stuart Highway there aren’t that many places of interest, so we ended up driving the road in much less time than expected. However, there are still some worthwhile stops others than the necessary petrol station stops. Daly Waters is a very small town (population somewhere between 25 and 50, depending on the source) with a very famous pub. The pub is decorated with all kinds of things from business cards to banknotes to bras to number plates – everything neatly arranged. Even if you’re not hungry or thirsty, the place is worth a stop.
Opposite the pub there used to be a small book exchange, now closed and up for sale (one less inhabitant?). Too bad: I still carry a book around with me, for ages now, that I want to leave in a decent book exchange (because you can’t leave a good book in bad company) and I guess that would’ve been the place.
Further south there’s Newcastle Waters, once a small settlement inside a large cattle station and now a ghost town. Some houses seem to be (again?) inhabited – although we didn’t see any people – but most of the buildings have been empty for years. One of them is an old hotel, the Junction Hotel, where you can walk through the empty reception area and the rooms beyond and read old newspaper clippings on the walls.
Last but not least, there are the Devils Marbles (read our post about this place here), which also make for a good overnight stop.
Despite it being a highway and the only paved road through Australia’s center, traffic on the Stuart Highway is light. Very light. People greet each other when passing; imagine that!
Pretty unpleasant are the road trains: trailers of up to 53 meters long. They’re huge, heavy, and fast. I don’t even want to know what their stopping distance is. Although there’d be enough room for wider roads, the roads in Australia are generally quite narrow. The Stuart Highway is no exception and the first few times you pass a road train is a nerve-racking experience. Then, it’s just, you know, business as usual (why don’t they build wider roads?!). Just don’t ever try to overtake one.
The long and windy road
It can get windy in the outback. Really, really windy. With a high-top campervan, like the one we had, you feel the wind even more and sometimes we had to reduce our speed to a mere 80 km/h – very slow if you look at the 500 or so kilometers ahead of you. But definitely much safer; you never know when a kangaroo or a sheep decides to jump or walk on the road. Judging by the amount of dead animals on the roadside, they do that a lot. And unless you’re driving a road train and can easily run over a cow, it’s very dangerous (the rental companies don’t offer roll-over insurance for nothing). So you better drive slowly because if something happens, you might have to wait a long time for help. Mobile coverage is very bad (read: non-existent) along the Stuart Highway so either you wait for someone with a satellite phone or walk to the next rest area with an emergency phone (the first option is probably the better one).
Although it’s not a busy road, the Stuart Highway is still a highway and there are quite a few petrol stations; there’s no need for carrying cans of fuel with you. However, it’s good to fill up whenever you can and whenever the price is reasonable. Fuel in Australia is generally cheap (compared to Europe at least); in the cities it’s about 1 to 1.20 AUD. On the Stuart Highway, expect to pay up to 1.80 per liter. The most expensive petrol station was at one of the Kings Canyon campsites: almost 2.10 Dollars per liter. They’re a long way from anywhere there!
Unforgettable road trip
Driving the Stuart Highway is an experience. It may seem boring at times, the landscape doesn’t change much – but that’s the interesting thing, isn’t it? Like this you can feel and see the vastness of this country and the greatness of its landscape. And it’s not only beautiful at day time; at night you can see the whole universe, it seems. The air is so clear and dry and usually there are no clouds. Nowhere else did we see night skies like here.
In order to get somewhere, to Uluru, to Kata Tjuta, or the Kings Canyon, you have to drive for hours and hours on end, traveling there is not easy nor fast and that’s what makes it interesting. Sure, you could take a plane but come on… take the opportunity to drive the outback, it’s worth it!