TOURING OUTBACK DOWN UNDER
Advice for overseas visitors to Australia.
Outback Australia is one of the last remaining frontiers on this over-populated planet. Those who enjoy remote-area beauty will love it, but there are pitfalls that need to be avoided.
First up, the basics. Australian vehicles have right-hand-side steering wheels and Aussies drive on the left-hand side of the road. This
is pretty obvious when you’re driving in traffic on lane-marked highways, but on narrow roads or dirt roads where there are no markings and fewer vehicles
it’s easy to forget. Write a reminder note and stick it on the steering wheel!
You can drive with a foreign (English language) licence for three months, but beyond that period you need to get a licence from an Australian state. If
your licence is not in English, you need to get an International Driving Permit before you leave home.
Australia is as large as greater Europe and the same size as the USA, but most of the 24 million Aussies live east of the north-south mountain range that runs from North Queensland to Victoria and around the coasts, so the inland road network is not well developed. There are bitumen major roads around the coast and through Central Australia, but many ‘Outback’ roads are gravel.
For trip planning purposes it’s important to note that Highway One in its various guises is a bitumen road that runs right around Australia. The bitumen Stuart Highway runs north-south from Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory.
There’s bitumen from Sydney, Brisbane, Rockhampton, Townsville and Cairns through western Queensland to the Northern Territory.
There’s bitumen from Darwin to Kakadu National Park and to Broome in Western Australia.
Most of the major tourist sites around Alice Springs can be reached on bitumen roads.
However, even on bitumen roads there are often very long distances between towns that have fuel, water and food. Most Outback food stores and fuel stations
aren’t open at night.
Rental vehicles usually have restrictions on where they can be driven. Check that the vehicle you’re hiring can be driven on gravel roads, before you plan
your trip. Permits are necessary to travel through Aboriginal Tribal Lands in certain remote areas.
If you have limited or no experience of driving on gravel roads think of driving on icy roads: grip is poor and you don’t want to get the vehicle sliding.
All gravel roads in Australia are ‘corrugated’ with a series of ruts that are caused by the action of tyres passing over the loose surface. Some corrugations
are mild and others are severe.
The best speed for most gravel roads is around 70-80km/h and at that speed the corrugations smooth out somewhat. However, severe corrugations may be better
travelled at speeds as low as 40km/h. Find a speed that’s kind to the vehicle and don’t rush!
Major gravel roads are the Gibb River Road in northern Western Australia; the Great Central Road that links the Western Australian goldfields with Uluru
(Ayers Rock); the Tanami Road from Alice Springs to Halls Creek in Western Australia; the Birdsville Track that’s a major part of the link between
Port August in South Australia and Mount Isa in western Queensland; the Savannah Way between Mataranka in the Northern Territory and Normanton in northern
Queensland and the Oodnadatta Track that connects Marree and Marla in South Australia.
Distances and speed limits are in kilometres and km/h. Speed limits are generally lower than in Europe and Aussie police don’t allow any over-speed margin.
Fines are heavy and driving at 30km/h over the speed limit may see you headed for jail, so beware!
Don’t drive if you’ve been drinking alcohol: that’s another jail offence.
Everyone in a vehicle must wear a seat belt at all times, or the driver will be fined.
The kangaroo and the emu are Australia’s two national symbols, but they’re a huge problem for drivers.
Kangaroos leap across rural roads – particularly around dawn, sunset and during the night – and are killed in large numbers. They’re heavy and they do
a great deal of damage to a vehicle if you hit one. 'Roos have also ended up inside vehicles after smashing through windscreens!
Avoid driving in the early evening and at night. If you must travel at night, drive slowly – 60km/h maximum – so you have some chance of avoiding kangaroos.
Travel at 100km/h at night and you’ll hit one sooner or later.
Emus are active during the day and behave unpredictably. If you see emus at the edge of the road, slow down to walking speed as you pass them.
Other animal hazards are sheep and cattle, on roads that have no fences. Slow down to walking speed when approaching them.
Safety and self sufficiency
Visitors from most countries are accustomed to towns every few kilometres, with mechanical and medical help readily available 24/7, via mobile or cell
phone. Visitors are also used to seeing other vehicles all the time. That’s not what it’s like in Outback Australia.
It’s possible to be on an Outback road and not see more than a few vehicles all day. On some roads there may be no passing vehicles at all.
There is very limited mobile or cell phone coverage once you’re away from cities and four-lane highways, and many small towns have no mobile coverage.
You cannot rely on mobile phone coverage on highways and gravel roads unless you’re within a few kilometres of a mid-sized town.
If you’re planning to be in remote areas for some weeks you should hire a satellite phone. Most vehicle rental companies can organise one for you.
Nearly all people travelling in the Australian Outback are doing what you intend to do: enjoy the vast landscape. However, there are ‘weirdos’ in every
country, including Australia, so take some precautions if you stop beside the road overnight.
If you camp away from a town camping area the best choice is a designated roadside parking area, where there are normally some other vehicles parked for
the night as well. The alternative is getting right away from the road, where no passing vehicles can see your vehicle lights or your campfire.
If you have a medical emergency or vehicle breakdown you need to be as self-sufficient as possible. A first aid kit and ample water and food for several
days are necessities.
If you’re planning to travel into remote areas you need to let someone know where you’re travelling to and what day you expect to be there. Tell the police
in the town you’re leaving and check in with police at your destination.
That way, if you don’t arrive within a day or two of your planned arrival, the police can start a search for you. Country police in Australia are very
friendly (unless you’re speeding) and they’re used to looking after travellers.
No matter what happens DO NOT LEAVE YOUR VEHICLE. Many people have died of thirst, wandering along hot Outback roads in search of help.
Exposed to the sun and without water, you can be dead in a day.
Flag down any passing vehicles and let them know about your problem.
Help will arrive, but you and your vehicle may be stranded at the roadside for several days.
We’re sorry if this information sounds frightening, but we’ve visited the roadside graves of travellers who have died in arid country. You need to be Outback Aware.
Snakes and spiders
Australia is home to the most venomous snakes and spiders on the planet, but they don’t like us any more than we like them. If you stay
away from snakes and spiders they’ll leave you alone.
Precautions include not walking through long grass, where snakes may be hiding and not picking up campfire wood without looking carefully.
If you do encounter a snake, stop walking and retreat slowly, so that the snake doesn’t feel threatened by your proximity. Under no circumstances should
you chase a snake, or try to kill it, because they’re protected creatures and the chances of the snake winning are high!
In the unlikely event that you get bitten by a snake or a spider here’s what to do.
Sharks, crocs and stingers
Australia is famous for having dangerous sea creatures. Sharks swim in all Australian coastal waters and crocodiles are common in coastal
and inland waters in tropical zones.
Unlike Europe nearly all Australian beaches have free entry.
The safest place to swim in the ocean is at a beach that has surf lifesaving patrols. Life savers monitor the water for sharks and an alarm sounds if a
shark is sighted. You can recognise a beach that’s patrolled by a pair of prominent red and yellow flags: always swim between these flags.
Swimming outside the flags or at unpatrolled beaches is risky: several people are drowned every year when caught in currents and others are killed or wounded
by shark attacks.
In tropical areas there are fewer sharks, but crocodiles are a threat. They swim in the ocean and they also inhabit creeks, waterholes and river mouths.
The only safe place to swim in crocodile-infested areas is in a town or resort swimming pool!
Don’t camp on beaches, creek banks or the edges of ‘billabongs’ (land-locked natural pools) in crocodile areas, because the crocodile’s
favourite hunting tactic is to rush from an unseen, underwater position onto land and drag its prey into the water and drown it. The whole process
happens in a few seconds and there’s usually no escape possible.
Other dangerous ocean-going creatures are ‘stingers’. These jellyfish float in the ocean and trail stinging threads around them. Some stingers have painful,
but relatively harmless stings while others have fatal stinging power.
It’s common to wear a so-called ‘stinger suit’ when snorkelling in coral reef areas. This thin, lightweight clothing stops stinging cells contacting your
On patrolled beaches there is up-to-date information about stingers, but on unpatrolled beaches there isn’t.
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