You need to love the Outback to fully appreciate it. Many people have asked me: how can you enjoy driving through remote nothingness for days on end? There is nothing out there!
Well, let me assure you that there are a lot of things out there, and that the Australian Outback is probably one of the most exotic things you will ever encounter. It’s not just the world-renown geological features of the continent such as Uluru or the Pinnacles, but its also the remote communities that breed a very special type of people.
It’s the endless horizons with the most spectacular light shows and sunsets, the little specks of life in the harsh desert environment and the millennia old connection between Aboriginal people and their lands which make a trip to the Outback so special.
The term Outback is truly Australian and cannot really applied to any other place on the planet.
It roughly defines anything that is not urban in Australia – so basically 97% of the landmass which is only sparsely populated by people. Australians love their cities, and most of Australians will be found on the fertile Boomerang coast in the South-East from Brisbane to Adelaide as well as in other urban centres such as Perth, Hobart and Darwin. Everything else is considered the Outback.
More strictly speaking, Outback defines the extreme remoteness of the Australian desert. It’s the place where Aboriginal culture is still alive (although unfortunately deeply corrupted in many cases), where people live on vast cattle ranches the size of small kingdoms, and where social life, supermarkets, hospitals, mobile reception and schools are all but non-existent.
It is because of this lack of population and infrastructure that a trip through the Outback can be considered one of the last big adventures of our time. In the relative safety of our vehicles we can today travel long distances within short timeframes, enabling us to conquer even the remotest corners of the Australian continent. However, there are a couple of safety precautions that still apply even to this day: always carry enough water, in case of a breakdown do not leave your car, get up-to-date information on road conditions, don’t underestimate distances, etc.
Despite all these challenges, road trips through the Outback are deeply satisfying and memorable, and they can even be achieved when travelling with small children, as I have been able to prove myself.
Great Outback destinations include Uluru (aka Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (aka The Olgas) and King Canyon in the Red Centre, the Devils Marbles, the Pinnacles, a number of opal mining towns such as Coober Pedy, the Simpson Desert, the West Macdonnell Ranges, and Lake Eyre.
But it’s not so much the destination but rather the journey that makes the Outback so special.
Facts at a glance:
What to eat: The Outback is not exactly a gourmet destination. In roadhouses, stick to the usual quick-and-dirty fare of chips and chicken schnitzel, pies, and microwave pizza. When travelling with a camper van with fridge enjoy lovely barbecues on remote camping sites under the stars – an unforgettable experience! Only cook in designated areas to avoid starting bush fires.
What to buy: Not much to buy in the Outback, you might think. At least in museums, cultural centres and tourism offices you should get the chance to buy a souvenir or two. My most favourite Outback souvenir is a virgin piece of rock with a faint line of opal mineral cutting through it.
Best beaches: That’s a tough one! The Outback is not exactly what you would associate with beaches, but if you include the tropical North then you will find lots of nice beaches everywhere. Swimming is an issue though due to saltwater crocodiles (salties), lethal jellyfish (stingers) and sharks. Alternatively, waterholes can offer some refreshment, but check for crocs here, too.
What to pack: You need to prepare for an arid climate, so sun protection including sunnies and a sun hat is an absolute must. Flies can be a pest, so anything that will keep these buggers at bay will be a lifesaver. Travel with good hiking boots if you want to explore the geological formations of the Australian centre, and take enough water with you at all times. A satellite phone is a great idea if you can afford it, and a print-out of all maps is essential as you will be in and out of mobile reception all the time. In winter, prepare for freezing night temperatures (we also found that beanies, scarves and gloves were useful in windy winter conditions).
When to go: The best time to travel the Australian Outback is actually winter. First of all, because there are less flies around (Aussie flies are a terrible pest – they go straight for your eyes, nostrils and mouth), but also because it is not as hot during the day as in summer. Beware though that days will be shorter and that nights will be freezing cold, so outdoor camping might only be for the very experienced.
Good to know: Do not take alcohol through or into Aboriginal lands and communities. If travelling with a fridge, make sure you don’t take fresh fruit and vegetables into zones with agriculture – road signs will warn you about this and there will be opportunities to dispose of fresh fruit and veggies on the roadside where you can dispose the items before entering the zone. Always, always fill up your car when you have the opportunity, and carry extra fuel just in case. Prepare for the unexpected.
What I like most about the Outback: Travelling in such a remote location means that even the slightest hint of an attraction can become the highlight of your day. And I mean this is a good way: when there is a lot of distraction around, you very often fail to appreciate the details. In the Outback we have explored abandoned telegraph stations, visited the underground cave house of an opal miner, spend half a day in a ghost town and studied the walls of a pub that was plastered with license plates, stickers, bank notes and graffitis from travellers from around the world. You really won’t find these things anywhere else.
What I don’t like about the Outback: I still need more time to understand the relationship between Aboriginal communities and the local white communities. Sadly, many places seem to confirm the prejudices that you hear in Australia about Aboriginal social welfare abuse, domestic violence, substance abuse, crime and so on. I want to believe that this is not a reflection of reality and that Australia is a better place than this, but I am yet to find proof.
Must-do’s: Australia is a vast country, in fact a continent, and there is only so much you can do in a lifetime. I really loved watching the sun set on both Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Our helicopter flight over Kings Canyon was another highlight, and so was any stay on any of the remote camping grounds along the great highways connecting the regional centres.