Offroading in Australia: 5 great outback tracks
THE remotest swathes of the sunburned country are still places where another car might not pass for days. There’s little fuel or water and corrugations and washouts rip the road to pieces. Despite the lack of civilization and some of the most difficult conditions you’ll find in the nation, they are also some of the most beautiful, with quiet waterholes, dunes, desert, wildlife, gorges, historic relics and the odd outback pub to visit along the way, which makes offroading in Australia an unforgettable experience.
While these old stock routes and trade routes of the pioneering era once formed the lifeline for outback communities, and to some degree still do, they now call to travellers seeking a degree of adventure and isolation in a modernising world. Today tracks once used by horse and cart, camels and remote train routes are now driven by 4WD enthusiasts, the odd die-hard motor biker and some masochistic cyclists – those of us that have been out there would not recommend the latter.
Here are 5 of the best offroading tracks in Australia:
Oodnadatta Track, South Australia
From Marree to Marla (620km)
The Oodnadatta Track was once an aboriginal trading route linking the Kimberley and Cape York to the south coast. Numerous springs along the way sustained them, and later explorers, as they travelled through the desert. Later routes nearby were used for the original Overland Telegraph Line and the famous Ghan railway. Both have been long since been dismantled but you can still see old poles, sleepers and rail pegs.
Today the Oodnadatta track forms a triangle of desert offroading options including the Birdsville and nearby Strzelecki tracks (see below). It crosses desert sand ridges, gibber plains and artesian mound springs. It’s a fascinating track for its desert life, access to Lake Eyre, the interesting Ghan/telegraph history and testament to aboriginal people.
Birdsville Track, South Australia and Queensland
From Marree (SA) to Birdsville (Qld) (517 km)
The Birdsville track follows an old stock route across two deserts – the Tirari and Sturt Stony Desert. So to answer your question, yes it’s one of the driest parts of the country but flooding can and does make it impassable at times.
The track dates back to the 1860s when it was used to transport cattle from Queensland to rail heads in South Australia. It was a long and harsh way to travel and cattle didn’t always survive. The route still causes mechanical problems for its modern day travellers in 4WDs – you need your own water, fuel, supplies and spare parts for this track.
The Birdsville Track takes you deep into Lake Eyre country – the world’s largest salt lake – and some of Australia’s most remote and interesting towns. Time it for September and you can also catch the iconic Birdsville Races at the Queensland end of the track.
Strzelecki Track, South Australia
From Lyndhurst to Innamincka (459 km)
This popular track is a bit of a swansong for an age past in Australia when cattle thieves and droving were part of life. Harry Redford forged the track in the 1870s when he drove 1000 stolen cattle from central Queensland to Adelaide. While he was caught, his efforts helped create the route which was later cemented further in history when famous Australian explorers Burke and Wills died near Innamincka.
The track is not as rough as others but a 4WD is still advised. There is no fuel supply along the route.
Gibb River Road, Western Australia
From Pentecost River near Kununurra to Derby (660km)
The Gibb River Road is a former cattle route and still one of only two major roads in the Kimberly. November through to March the road can be flooded in the wet season but if you make it through at other times – not always a given – expect to see some of the most rugged and beautiful country on the continent. There are numerous gorges in this area, unique flora and fauna including the unusual boab tree, some fantastic rock formations and various vestiges of aboriginal and pastoral history.
Gunbarrel Highway, Northern Territory and Western Australia
From Wiluna to Yulara (1400km)
We’ve saved the best ’til last. This track is as notorious as it sounds and recommended for experienced travellers only. Expect to come across washouts, heavy corrugations, stone, sand and flood plains on your journey along the Gunbarrel which traverses some of Australia’s most remotest parts. There are Aboriginal communities along the way but you should come equipped with all your own water, food and fuel – the latter meaning a long range fuel tank.
The track was named for its intention to be as straight as a gun barrel. You’ll certainly have to be as tough as one!