With Covid-19 lockdowns easing across Oz and international travel off the cards for the foreseeable future, my girlfriend and I bit the bullet, bought a 4WD and picked a route we would never have imagined: Brisbane to Adelaide via the Birdsville Track.
Armed with no four-wheel driving experience, we set off on the 3000km trip in mid-October (which in hindsight is probably the latest I’d go, given the heat and flies – so many flies!) with no plans other than the end destination.
On day one we drove over the Toowoomba range with a quick stop to admire the view at the top, through Dalby and Roma and on to Mitchell. At Mitchell we camped for free at Fisherman’s Rest Campground. Fisherman’s Rest Campground is perfect for an overnight stop. It backs onto the Maranoa River and the sunset was stunning. There’s toilets and water available too. The highlight of Mitchell (and a lot of small, outback towns in this region) was a swim at the Great Artesian Spa. Nothing beats swapping between the hot and cold pools after a big day of driving and this was one of the nicer paid spas that we’ve been to in our travels.
Day two saw us cruising from Mitchell to Quilpie, stopping to walk around and grab a coffee at Charleville. Quilpie was an unexpected gem. It was stinking hot but we couldn’t resist a walk up Baldy Top. It’s not hard, but the heat made it more of an effort. Baldy Top drives home how vast the Australian outback is, with the tiny town of Quilpie the only sign of humans nearby. A bonus in Quilpie is the community pool which opens in the afternoon and is free – a perfect place to cool off from the heat. That night we free camped just outside town by the river. There were no facilities there, but it was a lovely, quiet spot for the night.
Well, if I thought Quilpie started to show Australia’s remoteness I quickly realised I hadn’t seen anything yet. From Quilpie it was mostly well-maintained dirt highways to Birdsville. This was a drive with the only fuel and coffee stop at Windorah. Quilpie onwards was where the adventure really started to kick in; we hardly saw any cars and only a few trucks the whole way. The Birdsville Development Road was good fun with some spectacular views, undulating hills and a really cool Dreamtime Serpent artwork on a hill near Betoota, which was well worth a stop.
Finally, we arrived ready to tackle the Birdsville Track and cross into South Australia. There seems to be plenty of things to do around Birdsville, including Big Red, but we had a keen eye on the weather and being lucky enough to miss storms and rain heading out there we decided to get going on the Birdsville Track early the next day.
The Birdsville track is 517km long and our brief research before heading off told us to be ready for flat tyres from the infamous gibbers (large, sharp rocks) that are all over this patch of Earth. Luckily for us (depends on what sort of adventure you’re after) the track had only just been graded after the heavy rain the week before, so we actually found it very easy driving. I’ve spoken to a few people since who have done this trip and they had totally different experiences, talking about how rutted and rough the track was because of rain or heavy traffic, so I would still recommend being prepared for flat tyres and not being over-confident. It certainly seems luck of the draw for how easy or hard this track is.
The Birdsville Track has one roadhouse about halfway where you can get fuel, food, beers, or coffee, as well as several free or cheap spots to camp at different points along the track. Keep your eyes peeled for campsites with Artesian spas as it’s a brilliant end to a day on the track. We spent the night at Clayton’s Wetlands Campground.
There was no water in the creek but it was still a beautiful spot with lots of gums and of course, an Artesian spa. Granted, it was a corrugated tin tub that you fill yourself and was pretty full of slime, but there’s not a much better way to finish off your day than sitting in the warm water and watching the stars come out over the seemingly endless landscape.
The second day of driving on the track had some interesting sights including some old ruins and the dog fence. It was only a couple of hours and we were in Marree by mid-morning.
If your plan extends only as far as the Birdsville Track like ours did, then once you get to Marree you’ll have a choice to make: head to Adelaide via the Flinders Ranges or head via the Oodnadatta Track and Lake Eyre. At the last minute we chose the latter, and it did not disappoint.
In our experience the Oodnadatta Track felt rougher than the Birdsville, but both were similar dry tracks with large gibbers everywhere. The Oodnadatta track was incredible – it follows the old Ghan railway line and has several historical sites and lookouts for Lake Eyre South. A great campsite to stay on the Oodnadatta track is Coward Springs: it’s a paid site but has toilets and showers and a fantastic little Artesian spa too! We couldn’t get enough of the Artesian spas on this trip. The campsites are sheltered and well separated and we easily could have spent another night here.
Following Coward Springs we camped the next night at Halligans Bay on Lake Eyre North. This landscape feels and looks like the love-child of the American Wild West meets Space Invaders: craters, rolling hills and a huge variation of colours and salt. Lots and lots of salt. Pick your time right and you might be lucky enough to have the Halligan’s campsite to yourself. There’s not a lot to do apart from walk (no designated tracks) and admire the salt plains, but it’s a site I think few would find underwhelming.
The track out to Halligan’s Bay is a dry-weather only track. So again, we were lucky to get out here without much trouble but some spots looked like they would have been almost impassable very recently. You’ll find the turn off just before the rather charming town of William Creek, which is worth a visit in itself just to experience the lovely hospitality of the William Creek Hotel. There is also phone reception, toilets and fuel here so it’s a good place to stock up if you’re heading out to the lake.
The best part of this adventure was just how much outback Queensland and South Australia had to offer. Thinking we’d seen it all after the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks and Lake Eyre, we set our sights on Coober Pedy: opal mining capital of Australia, home to a wide range of film sets and genuinely the strangest, most unbelievable town I have ever seen.
Where else in the world do you get to set up camp in an underground campsite? That’s where Riba’s Underground Camping and Caravan Park comes in. It’s a family-owned park on an old opal mine and Riba’s husband, an opal miner, also runs tours at night. This campsite was just outside the town which we preferred, but there seemed no shortage of accommodation to meet your needs throughout Coober Pedy.
Aside from scrap metal galore, piles of dirt marking man’s never ending quest for the golden egg, and a main street lined with opal stores, just outside Coober Pedy is the Kanku-Breakaways Conservation Park. Once again, the landscape just blew us away with jagged mountains, valleys and rocks layered with different colours. There is also some amazing Indigenous history here with stories of the two dogs (different coloured hills side by side), and their owner. Driving through the park is fascinating but the best views are from the three lookout points along the way. Make sure to get your parks pass from the information centre in town before making the drive out here.
Coober Pedy marked the end of our gravel roads as we headed south for the coastline. Once there, there’s plenty of places to visit and even after spending a few weeks exploring South Australia’s coastline following this trip we still feel like we barely covered any ground there.
Needless to say, Brisbane to Adelaide via the Birdsville track has upturned what you might imagine when you think of Australian landscapes. Think gravel, heat, large rocks, small rocks, red, white, grey, brown, flat, undulating, boulders and hills and you’re starting to get on the right track, but I dare say the only way to know for sure is to throw caution to the wind and set off on your own adventure!
Top tips from our experience:
- If coming from Brisbane then Quilpie marks where you need to decide between the Birdsville Track or the Strezlecki Track. Both tracks are similar lengths with interesting history and a sense of adventure. We had a keen eye on the weather and would have been equally happy to choose the Strezlecki; luckily for us, the night we arrived in Birdsville a storm hit just east which would have made the Strezlecki treacherous if not closed.
- Not a mechanic? Me neither. I would, however, practice changing a tyre (completely) and consider taking two spares. We didn’t get a flat on the Birdsville but the strewn tyres on the side are a constant reminder of what could be. Don’t rely on others to help if possible – the time of year we went encountered less than a dozen cars.
- Take a sat phone if you’re really worried. We borrowed a friend’s and it was awesome peace of mind.
- Be flexible! We made loads of last-minute decisions about which way we would go, including Oodnadatta and Coober Pedy and they ended up being highlights on our trip.