One epic Australian road trip that every caravan and camping enthusiast wants to experience is to drive through the centre of the country on the Stuart Highway. Seeing the rugged scenery, roaming wildlife, and experiencing outback hospitality, is unlike anything else you’ll encounter in Australia.
The Explorers Way is the name given to this journey, as the highway follows the route of the original Overland Telegraph Route. The highway was named after the explorer John McDouall Stuart who was the first European explorer to cross Australia from south to north and live to tell the tale.
The more than 3000 kilometre (one way) journey is much easier for travellers these days on a bitumen highway, and with a few tips and using the handy CamperMate app, you can enjoy it every step of the way.
Outback Landscape and Towns
Starting from Port Augusta in South Australia, around 300 kilometres north of Adelaide, you get a taste of the rugged scenery you’ll experience along the way when passing by the Flinders Ranges. As you venture further north the landscape gets flatter and more barren and eventually becomes desert-like with temperatures also becoming warmer during the day and dipping at night. The landscape of Coober Pedy in the far north of South Australia is another unusual sight, with the human-made dirt mounds dominating the surroundings and giving an otherworldly look to the landscape.
When you cross the border into the Northern Territory you can take a detour off the highway to visit Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, but it is a big detour. The near 500 kilometre return trip is absolutely worth it though with the sandstone monolith of Uluru and domes of Kata Tjuta taking your breath away with their sheer dominance on the plains. Sunrises and sunsets are not to be missed and during the day there are plenty of options to keep you busy as you discover these imposing natural formations close up.
From here onwards the deep red dirt is the standout feature as you rejoin the highway travelling towards Alice Springs. The brilliant red Sturt Desert Peas also start making an appearance. Fittingly you enter the Alice through Heavitree Gap which is considered the gateway to the Red Centre. This spot known as Ntaripe to the local indigenous people, is a sacred site for the Arrente people of the area.
Either side of this desert city are the East and West MacDonnell Ranges where you can spend days exploring in both directions. Spectacular gorges and waterholes are iconic sights and walking through them gives you a closer look at these spectacular ranges and the Aboriginal art that lies within.
At Alice Springs you are around halfway to the top end and you can spend much more time discovering the towns and localities along the way after you cross the Tropic of Capricorn. Places like Aileron and Wycliffe Well (look out for aliens), and just a short distance on, the Devils Marbles or Karlu Karlu Conservation Reserve, Tennant Creek, Elliot and Dunmurra, before arriving at Daly Waters, and detouring here just a short distance off the highway.
For a full dose of the quirkiness of the Aussie outback personalities, a stay here is a must with accommodation options for everyone. There are plenty of sites for caravans, tents and swags and the hospitality is very friendly, right up to the horse wandering through the establishment daily.
The next major town along the highway from here is Katherine and the landscape begins to change again with giant termite mounds becoming more obvious in the more tropical-looking scrub. Katherine has gorges, waterfalls and thermal springs to discover and relax in and you can spend days exploring this region. From here it is only a little over 300 kilometres to reach the end of your journey in Darwin, but this is one trip not to rush.
The Northern Territory and Darwin in particular is a popular destination now that it is dry season. From now through to October the daily temperature is often in the low 30s and humidity is low, making for warm and comfortable days and tropical nights.
Highway Travel Etiquette
A common sight along the highway which you have to get used to, are the behemoths known as road trains which take important freight through the centre, continually running up and down the highway.
These prime movers towing trailers can be as long as 53 metres and deserve respect at all times. It pays to have a UHF radio with you so that you can communicate with the drivers if need be, and make travelling the highway together safe. For instance we were able to speak with a road train following us, using the general channel 40 used in Australia by road travellers, and let him know that if he wanted to pass us we would reduce our speed and he would be good to go. The driver was grateful for the communication and safely passed us to continue on his way. You know you’ve done the right thing when you get the truckies’ thanks, a blink left and right with the indicators after passing you as a way to say thank you.
Another safety tip is to always drive with the car headlights on. Headlights make vehicles easy to see from a long distance and help when vehicles are deciding whether it’s safe to overtake or not.
Wandering stock is something to watch for so believe the signs that you see as you pass cattle stations along the way. It’s not unusual for large cattle to be seen grazing on the roadsides and sheep darting across the road at any time. Have regular rest stops to ensure you keep alert when driving long distances.
Phone reception is very scant. For most of the Stuart Highway, phone reception will waver in and out and in a lot of places there is no service until you are either side of towns. Signs along the highway will let you know the distances between rest stops, towns and other services. The most reliable section for coverage is between Katherine and Darwin.
Free Camping, Station Stays & Caravan parks
The CamperMate app is a handy tool to use when looking for caravan parks or free camps and at the moment in Australia, with many caravanners hitting the road, it is especially useful. The popularity of caravanning now means you are unlikely to be alone at any of the free camps along the highway.
Many travellers like to head north in the southern winter months and with overseas travel non-existant at the moment, there are a lot of caravanners taking up this option. There are many free camps and overnight rest options along the highway, but some are very popular and well-known, so it pays to have a backup plan in case your first option is already full.
Campfires are permitted at many of the free camp areas if you bring your own receptacle and firewood. This is a terrific way to enjoy a star-filled, dark desert sky with no light pollution around.
Some of the sheep and cattle stations along the way also provide accommodation options and can be especially enjoyable with entertainment catering for the whole family. If you have your heart set on staying at a particular caravan park it pays to book ahead as the busy season for Northern Territory holidays is right now and places are booking out.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the dry, scrub like scenery is devoid of wildlife. Being a passenger has the added benefit of being able to spot all sorts of wildlife along the way. Aside from the stock grazing, you can also spot kangaroos, emus, and dingos, along with a host of birdlife from finches, budgerigars, kites and eagles. Lizards can also be spotted scurrying over the road.
Some wildlife that isn’t very welcome include flies and bitey insects so be prepared and carry a personal fly net and a bug spray to keep mosquitoes and sand flies at bay. There are a number of natural products on the market that are very good at repelling insects without the use of nasty chemicals.
A Long Long Trip
The Tyranny of Distance in Australia is what makes it so attractive to travel by road but it also means there are times when the scenery just blends together and the journey can be monotonous. This is when having a slight distraction is very welcome and with radio reception also being sporadic, it pays to have your favourite music, books or podcasts downloaded and ready to go to when needed. Printed maps and information are also a handy resource to have as back ups.
To ensure you can have adequate rest stops along the way, plan how many kilometres you intend to travel each day and look at what caravan or camping options are available at your destination on each leg of the journey. It can help to mix up the distances each day making, some days longer or shorter than others to keep the days interesting.
Sometimes Things Go Wrong
As with most highways there will be roadworks along the way and some sections can be a little rough. These can take their toll on cars and caravans and sometimes things just decide to rattle free and in worst cases, completely shake off. In these circumstances, having some reinforcement tape (also known as 100 mile an hour tape) is a handy general fix it. Speaking from experience it can solve a lot of issues and enable you to safely fix loose parts until you can repair or replace them at a town with services.
Make sure you carry drinking water, and obviously spare tyres for both car and vans on long distance trips.
Some Interesting Facts
Did you know that on part of the Stuart Highway in South Australia, you will be driving on a two kilometre strip of road which is also a designated landing strip for the Royal Flying Doctor Service? It is easily distinguished by a wider section of road which has been cleared on either side to form a runway for this important emergency service if it is needed. Sign posts and road markings indicate this section of the highway.
The speed limit in the Northern Territory is 130 KPH where marked, and this is the highest speed limit on Australian roads.
Don’t miss a stop at Adelaide River, around 110 kilometres south of Darwin to see the historic significance the town had during WWII and the bombing of Darwin. Take time to visit the War Cemetery, the only one in Australia, and learn more about the conflict that came to Australian soil.
The Stuart Highway is an iconic drive in Australia and is one you will want to do more than once. There is always more to see than you can achieve in one journey but the beauty of that is, that if you make the return journey you can stay at different locations on the way back down the highway.