What could have been better for celebrating my reporting partner’s 39th birthday than a feast of two microwaveable “pub-sized” meals at a lonely Australian roadhouse some 150 miles from nowhere?
So goes life on the loneliest stretch of the 1,700-mile Outback Way, the grueling route, often unpaved, that cuts across the country’s arid interior.
I was teamed with Michael Miller, The Washington Post’s Sydney bureau chief, to document what finally paving the entirety of the road would mean for the people who live along it. Much like endless expanses of highway in the American West, the Outback Way seems to go on forever, heading to a horizon you can never reach. Some travel websites describe it as “Australia’s Route 66.”
It has a notorious reputation: Drivers stranded in brutal heat with not enough water. “Bull dust” hiding rocks that can rip a tire to shreds. Accident hazards in the form of kangaroos and feral camels.
Australians are passionate off-road enthusiasts, and their “utes,” a local abbreviation for a utility or four-wheel-drive vehicle, are straight out of a Mad Max film. They get loaded up with supplies — off-road lights, five-gallon jugs of water and plenty of freeze-dried food, extra fluids for the engine, tow ropes, winches, multiple jacks, pop-up camping tents and of course “swags.”
Everyone we met along the Outback Way had one of these traditional Aussie bed rolls, usually canvas, with a mattress inside. They’re essential for a night when the road has surprised you with blown tires, an overheating engine or a roadhouse that was a lot farther than expected. Michael and I had done detailed planning, but we learned too late about swags.
Road trippers crossing the Outback don’t mess around. We met one gentleman who has lived in the Outback for years and who, in the middle of the desert, can remove a tire from its rim and put on a new one. He did that for a guy who had blown a tire between the Northern Territory border and Warburton, and as we talked with him, he scoffed at anyone risking the drive without at least two spare tires.
I glanced nervously at our one and only spare. At least it was full size. But had we made sure our jack included all its parts and worked right?
Michael had rented a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Pajero in Alice Springs for our two-week trip. A regular sedan doesn’t have the bottom clearance for some portions of the road, and the miles of corrugated surface can rattle a vehicle to the point where the screws start falling out. (Savvy drivers carry a screwdriver.) I’d flown into Mount Isa, a mining town in Queensland, to meet Michael and make our way to Winton, the road’s easternmost point and the start of our journey.
We traveled the length of the road going east to west, then turned around and drove halfway back again to return to where we needed to drop our rental. We’d purposely picked the height of the dry season; during the southern hemisphere summer, rains can make much of the road impassable. We talked to people in some of the Aboriginal communities along the unpaved parts of the route, who said they often are stuck for weeks when those rains turn the road’s red-hued dirt surface into thick and merciless mud.
One of the rules about driving in the Outback is the same one that I often hear in Latin America: Never drive at night. The cattle ranches Down Under — they’re known as stations — are massive, often sprawling over a million-plus acres. Many are not fenced, and the cattle are known to congregate on the roads, especially after dark.
Along with those kangaroos and camels, the animals pose a real danger. We passed dozens of carcasses abandoned on the side of the road. We also passed the carcasses of dozens of cars, many showing major front-end damage that suggested a collision with some sort of beast.
Most travelers are ready to just camp anywhere they pull off. We could manage only one night. We had stocked up on plenty of water, and Michael had purchased some high-calorie camping food. We hedged our bets on the few places that offer accommodations along the way. Like most isolated parts of the world, you pay a lot for what you get. The roadhouses, with names like Warburton (complete with a Beware of Snakes sign), Tobermorey, Warakurna and Curtin Springs, typically have modular units converted into hotel rooms with shared bathrooms.
Availability is tricky. Many people book well in advance because there are so few options. A 150-mile stretch of the Outback Way may have but a single roadhouse or motel. And be on time for dinner. Meals are served on a strict schedule, and if you arrive late, no food!
We had some particularly memorable encounters. In Queensland, it was with the flies. Millions of flies, as though a squadron of them had been assigned to bombard us. Locals say you get used to them. We took no chances and wore netted hats to keep our faces fly-free. That meant no one mistook us for locals.
A constant along the road is the dust. It settles everywhere. Its quality varies as you move west, and by the time you get into the Northern Territory and Western Australia regions it is like a fine red powder. Keeping my cameras clean was a challenge. I spent numerous evenings wiping down the bodies and lenses with a soft cloth.
Many of the farmers we met were rejoicing over the bountiful rains that had fallen during the summer season, a relief considering the last several years of drought. What followed was perhaps our biggest surprise. We had been expecting to see a desolate and parched desert landscape the whole distance. Instead, throughout the journey, we were treated to blooming wildflowers, tall, vibrant grasses and full watering holes.
The difficulties of traversing the Outback Way today are myriad, but I imagine how tough it was to survive there a century ago. I’m still finding red dust in crevices of my cameras. It serves as a fond reminder of an ancient land that Aboriginal communities have called home for at least 50,000 years. Their perseverance and dignity — and the Outback’s stunning vastness — will stay with me well after the dust has lifted.