Just as you’d be unwise to be cavalier about driving from Manchester to Moscow, you’d be crazy to underestimate an Adelaide-to-Darwin road trip. Both journeys are a little under 2,000 miles, but where the trans-European odyssey crosses borders, the trans-Australian trek pushes boundaries.
Traversing the driest continent on Earth has never been easy, but it was especially hard for the first man to do it. On 24 July 1862, nine months after setting out from Adelaide, John McDouall Stuart emerged from a croc-infested wetland to be confronted by the Arafura Sea. It’d taken him six attempts to push through the Australian interior, frequently thwarted by the twin torments of fearsome droughts and flooding rains. The tough Scot never recovered from his final journey. And even though he mapped a safe passage for the pastoralists, surveyors, railway engineers and telegraphers who were to follow, on his return to Britain his achievement went largely unrecognised and he died in obscurity.
Today, however, it’s the Stuart Highway that links the north and the south coasts of Australia, a ribbon of bitumen just two lanes wide. And the truth is it’s still not easy. For contemporary travellers, who want to viscerally understand the island continent, it’s a rite of passage — a journey that slices through Australia’s heart. You’ll move through entire climatic zones — from the Mediterranean olive-and-vine belt and the parched Red Centre to the steamy wetland tropics. You’ll swap gleaming cities for Outback townships, and encounter sacred sites where the world’s oldest living culture endures.
I did the journey alone in 13 days, in the height of summer. As well as riding the highway, I did three unmissable detours: the Oodnadatta Track, Uluru/Kata Tjuta, and Darwin-Kakadu. This extended my trip to 2,700 miles. Some days, I drove 500 miles.
Companies like Britz, in Adelaide, offer excellent fully kitted 4WD vehicles complete with camping gear, a fridge and emergency contingencies. Driving is little different from the UK, your home licence will suffice and fuel is very affordable.
Ideal travel times are spring and autumn, offering ‘Goldilocks weather’ plus some relief from the flies. The downside is there are more people on the road, especially at big attractions like Uluru.
Published in the Australia 2017 guide, distributed with the May 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).