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Australia: The Stuart Highway

The cafe looks like a good bet for a rumbling stomach, but bad news is in store. “We don’t serve food, mate.”

Australia: The Stuart Highway
Stuart Highway, South Australia. Image: FROSAT / Singing Bowl Media

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“But you’re a cafe.”

“Nah, we just do coffee.”

“OK. Where’s the best place in Coober Pedy to get food?”

“Hmmmmmm. The Mobil service station?”

It’s fair to say that no one tackles the Stuart Highway as a foodie odyssey. In fact, no one ends up in Coober Pedy at all unless they’re at least slightly unhinged. The biggest town between Port Augusta and Alice Springs is the self-styled opal mining capital of the world, and most people here have blasted their own homes out of the rock.

The Flintstones-style abodes aren’t a fashion statement, however – the ferocious summer heat in this outback outpost means that temperatures regular soar above 40C. Living underground is simply the easiest way to keep cool.

Unsurprisingly, the town is deeply weird. Visitors can tour showhomes, wander around mines, check out an underground Serbian Orthodox church or scrabble around in a rubble heap trying to find opals of their own.

But after a while ploughing along the Stuart Highway, you begin to accept that weird is the default setting here. The road is a monster, stretching 1,760 miles between Port Augusta on the Southern Ocean and Darwin on the Timor Sea.

It largely follows the path of John McDouall Stuart, who was born 200 years ago on 7 September 1815. The very definition of a doughty Scot, Stuart had six cracks at crossing the Australian continent from south to north, finally succeeding at terrible cost to his personal health. He died two years after finally completing his mission.

It was a brute of a task. Early settlers held out hope to find an inland sea, but Australia’s interior turned out to be horrifically stark and dry. There is no permanent source of running water between Port Augusta and Katherine – a distance of 1,500 miles. It was only Stuart’s methods – travelling light and relatively fast, constantly scouting ahead for the next source of food or water – that allowed him to succeed. Bigger, rival expeditions failed catastrophically due to the impossibilities of keeping up a supply chain.

It doesn’t take long to realise the scale of the task that Stuart faced. The South Australian desert is mesmerisingly barren. Scrub, salt lakes and rugged nothingness sprawl across the horizon for hours behind the wheel.

The expectation beforehand is that this will be tedious, but it’s not. It’s magnificent, and truly puts you in your place. The feeling of being very small continues through weapons testing ranges and Mad Max filming country until the Northern Territory border.

Once inside the Northern Territory, roadhouses start to spring up closer together. The gimmicks – giant statues, camel rides, the UFO capital of Australia – get sillier and the landscape gradually inches away from desert towards the tropics.

The final stop before completing the mammoth drive is Daly Waters, around 370 miles from Darwin. It’s a long way to go for a drink, but you’d be hard pushed to find a better example of the classic Aussie pub. Banknotes from around the world line the walls, underwear left by previous guests dangles down above the pool table, the barbecue is fired up and the denizens of the beer garden are wonderfully committed to getting very drunk indeed.

Upon seeing the giant cobwebs inside the cabins, heavy alcohol intake doesn’t seem quite such an idiotic idea. But Mr Stuart would have been more than happy if this was the biggest problem he’d encountered en route…

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