Feral camels, deadly crashes: Can Australia tame its remote Outback Way?
NEAR JERVOIS STATION, Australia — The cross is easy to miss amid the desert dust and scrub. Only in the evening, when a string of small lights illuminates a toy bulldozer and a few other sun-bleached mementos, is it clear that something terrible happened here.
Steven Connolly died of a severed artery suffered in a horrific car crash. As with so much in this lonely stretch of Australia, the 12-year-old’s fate was determined by the dirt.
The dirt road that caused his mother’s car to flip. The dirt that blinded her as she lay injured next to him. The dirt — 90 miles of it to the nearest town — that meant an ambulance couldn’t arrive in time.
The cross marking where the boy died sits on the side of a series of roads known as the Outback Way. Called “Australia’s longest shortcut,” the route carves a rugged 1,700-mile path across the heart of the continent, from the sheep farms of Queensland to the gold mines of Western Australia.
It’s an iconic drive that each year draws thousands of enthusiasts eager to escape crowded coastal cities for one of the most remote and least inhabited parts of the planet, home to Indigenous Australians for 50,000 years.
Yet with almost 750 miles still unpaved, some portions are so rough that trucks travel days out of their way to avoid them. Summer rains often turn the dirt into impassable muck, stranding communities for weeks. And the road can be perilous even when dry, as evidenced by the scores of ruined vehicles that line it.
In February, as Australia prepared for a federal election, the conservative government then in power pledged almost a half-billion dollars to finish paving the Outback Way after more than a decade of starts and stops. On Oct. 25, the center-left Labor administration that won the May election released its first budget and, despite inheriting a serious deficit, revealed it will uphold that commitment to completing the project.
To understand what a fully paved road would mean for Australia, journalists from The Washington Post spent two weeks driving it, past bush fires and feral camels, struggling towns and booming resorts, abandoned mines and bustling cattle stations.
What we found was a mixture of hope, fear and anger: hope that the Outback Way will bring tourists, jobs and safety; fear that it will flood Aboriginal communities with alcohol or tame one of the world’s last wild places; and anger that in such a prosperous country, something as simple as asphalt has taken so long to span the Outback.
“This is old road, never changed,” said Benedict Bird, an Aboriginal man, as he patched a tire punctured by a jagged section a few hours west of Jervois Station in the Northern Territory.
“The government,” he said, “isn’t going to do anything about remote areas.”
A ‘new frontier’
The Outback Way begins in the east in Winton, Queensland, a quaint town of about 850 people with an outsize role in Australian history. On a warm afternoon in August, a man recited the unofficial national anthem, “Waltzing Matilda,” before a few dozen retirees whose camper vans crowded the gravel parking lot of the North Gregory Hotel. The poem, about an itinerant worker who steals a sheep and kills himself to avoid being caught, was written near Winton and first performed here.
The Outback looms large in the country’s psyche, as evidenced by the kangaroo and emu on its coat of arms. But many communities here collapsed along with the price of wool 30 years ago, and fewer than 5 percent of Australians now live in this vast expanse.
Winton is one of the few on the rebound.
“It’s a booming little town,” said the hotel’s owner, Chris Moore. “We now run 90 percent on the tourism dollar.”
A dozen towns farther west hope to follow that lead. But first, they need bitumen, as Aussies call asphalt.
It was a politician at the other end of the route who came up with the paving idea in the mid-1990s. He wanted to connect the Western Australia mining town of Laverton with Uluru, the massive sandstone monolith in the center of the country that is sacred to many Aboriginal people and also an international attraction. Soon, towns in the Northern Territory and Queensland also signed on, and the Outback Way became a means of linking east, west and middle.
February’s funding announcement came at an opportune moment after two years of border closures because of covid. As rural Australia enjoyed a resurgence, tourists began flocking to places like Winton. So did some new residents.
“People had to look in their own backyard instead of overseas,” said Kerry Patch, 43, who moved to the town with her family in early 2022. “Then they get here and love it.”
Winton may be isolated, but it’s practically suburban compared with other spots. We headed west from a water hole where Patch’s three children were fishing and soon were surrounded by nothing but sunbaked earth and the occasional dead kangaroo.
After two hours we arrived in Middleton, a town with a single commercial establishment. It once was one of nine stops where stagecoach drivers swapped horses. Now it’s an oasis: the only place to get a meal or rent a room for 100 miles.
“Outside of tourist season, we’ll see the mail lady twice a week and that’s about it,” said Clara Fisher, as she served beers to a few motorcyclists. She and her husband bought the 156-year-old Middleton Hotel from his parents, who were considering closing it. The road from Winton to Boulia is already paved, but extending the asphalt to Uluru would make their business more viable. She planned to level out the sagging wooden structure, redo the wiring and install solar panels.
“You don’t want to change it so it looks brand-new,” Fisher said, gazing around a rustic interior adorned with a cow skull and a poster for a rum-and-emu-egg cocktail. Chickens clucked in and out.
The terrain past Middleton erupted into small mesas of red earth and patches of pink mulla mulla flowers, then flattened out again as we neared Boulia — the last stop before the bitumen ends. Local mayor Rick Britton met us on his 200,000-acre cattle ranch.
The dirt road that lay ahead, he explained, is so jarring that the animals lose 10 percent of their body weight as they’re being transported to market, badly cutting into ranchers’ profits. Truck drivers who brave it — in massive multi-trailer vehicles called “road trains” — sometimes suffer half a dozen flat tires a day. Having pavement beyond Boulia would triple traffic and swell the population, Britton estimates. But it would be worth it.
“You’re opening up a whole new frontier,” he said.
Into the vastness
A sign in Boulia cautions travelers that the “vast Simpson Desert” awaits them and that they will need “ample food, water and fuel.” Fliers at the grocery store are blunter.
“Beware,” one reads. “Death awaits close at hand.”
“For God’s sake and the welfare of your wife and kids,” warns another, “don’t even think of driving [this road] in a little car or van.”
From behind the grocery counter, Geoffrey Rankin sighed and shook his head. “There are a fair few idiots who try to do it in a hatchback,” he said.
The warnings made sense when the asphalt ended a few miles outside Boulia and we found ourselves driving on gravel, then dirt. We quickly came across a crumpled silver sedan, the first of hundreds of wrecks we’d see on the Outback Way. We encountered the likely culprit a few miles later: hulking cattle that graze huge tracts of unfenced land. Wild horses and camels, both imported in the 1800s and now flourishing, are also a danger.
Just across the border in the Northern Territory, we stopped at Tobermorey Station — a ranch occupying almost 1.5 million acres, so big its cattle are herded by helicopter — where Warwick Turner and Wendy Johnson were filling up on gas before heading east. The New Zealand couple had spent the past 15 months meandering across Australia, camping in the back of a customized four-wheel-drive vehicle. They had first driven the Outback Way in April, a trek that typically takes almost a week. Now they were doing part of it again in the opposite direction before flying home.
“It would be a bit of a pity if they sealed it,” Turner said. “It’s the sheer isolation and vastness and distance. I’ve seen quite a few Europeans freak out here.”
Merlin Zener wasn’t European, but the exhausted Australian ate a meat pie nearby with a sense of awe on his dusty face. The 61-year-old had ridden his Royal Enfield motorcycle from a gathering in Alice Springs. The bitumen “couldn’t happen soon enough,” he said; 165 miles of corrugated road had taken him five hours. “I was not prepared for just how rough that dirt would be,” he said.
Rough indeed. Two hours later, bodies sore from the constant jarring, we turned off the Outback Way and drove through a ghost town of abandoned mines before ending in a small but bustling camp where Australian company KGL is preparing to open a new copper mine.
“Where we are is 1.7 billion years old,” geologist Zoe Morgan said during a tour of the area. “Sometimes people ask, ‘Do you ever find fossils out here?’ And it’s like, nah, everything here is basically older than most kinds of life on Earth.”
Australia is geologically the oldest continent. Aside from Antarctica, it’s also the driest. When European colonizers first set foot on its lush eastern shores, they thought they had found a fertile paradise. Instead, the Outback covers nearly three-quarters of the country — over 2 million square miles, the equivalent of more than half the United States. Unsuitable for most agriculture, it has largely been left alone even as humans have transformed the rest of the planet.
“The Outback is one of the last large and largely natural places on Earth,” noted John Woinarski, an expert in conservation biology at Charles Darwin University in Darwin, who groups it with the Amazon, the Sahara and Siberia. But it’s not invulnerable. “As transport and infrastructure hubs become more developed, there is a severe risk of losing that wildness, that intactness, that integrity,” he said.
Paving the Outback Way would be a boon for mining projects like KGL’s. In an area already scarred with old mine sites, it plans to create two open-pit mines and three underground ones and eventually send about eight road trains of copper along the route each day. Much of the metal would go into electric vehicles, solar panels or other “green” technology, according to the company.
If the road project is managed carefully, Woinarski believes the benefits will outweigh the costs: “We can increase the number of people in the Outback, either visitors or residents, without necessarily sullying the values of that landscape. It’s not a binary choice.”
Dangers of the road
A few miles from the KGL mine sits the small Aboriginal community of Bonya. As in other Aboriginal towns along the Outback Way, its 80 or so residents hope asphalt will help close the huge gap in living standards that plagues the country.
The challenge is immense. From here, the closest town is two hours away. Heavy rains turn the road into mud. Strong storms knock out the electricity. There is no cellular reception, and the sole phone booth also fails occasionally. There is an emergency call box at Bonya’s health clinic. But a nurse only comes to town once a week.
“If someone is having a heart attack, it takes you two hours to get out here,” nurse Katie Singh said as she opened the clinic one morning.
Singh, who is Aboriginal, started the day by checking in with her usual patients. A few months earlier, a 4-year-old girl had fallen seriously ill late at night. Doctors wouldn’t evacuate her by plane, and Alice Springs — the nearest city, four hours away — couldn’t spare one of its few ambulances. So Singh and her husband drove to Bonya, stabilized the child and then took her to a hospital in Alice, where she spent several days.
Few in town can afford the four-wheel-drive vehicles necessary to safely travel the road. Even those who can have disaster stories. Della George was taking her SUV to the mechanic in Alice when the wheel came off. She had little water and no food with her, and it was seven hours before someone from Jervois happened by just before sunset.
“I nearly spent the night on the road,” the 28-year-old said. “I was scared.”
The road puts a heavy burden on cattle stations.
“If something happens out front of your property, you’re the first responder,” said Kiya Gill, who owns Jervois cattle station with her husband. Many tourists simply plug “Alice Springs” into Google Maps and take the quickest route, assuming it’s paved, she said. But locals have a saying about this section of the Outback Way, which is called the Plenty Highway.
“Plenty of rocks, plenty of cows, plenty of camels and plenty of bull dust,” she said, referring to the soft and treacherous red dirt.
Any journey can become a life-or-death risk. For Jade Connolly, it happened on Jan. 5, 2019, as she drove near Jervois with her two youngest children. The family had only been in the Northern Territory for a few months but knew how bad the roads were because they had a contract for maintaining them. The next day, Jade’s husband was supposed to grade this stretch.
She heard a strange sound and felt the SUV shudder. A few seconds later, she remembers, the steering wheel locked in her hands and suddenly the car flipped. She’d been going about 50 miles per hour. Both she and her son were ejected.
“I woke up thinking I hit a camel,” she said. As she drifted in and out of consciousness, she could hear Steven calling out for her from a few feet away.
A family from Bonya stopped and tried to help, as did her 9-year-old daughter, who had been in the back seat and was not seriously injured. The ambulance that ultimately arrived took them to Jervois, where Connolly was put on a pool table and given blood infusions. It was there, shortly before she was flown to a hospital, that her husband told her: “We lost Stevie.”
The sweet boy with Asperger’s syndrome, who loved the army so much he thanked strangers for their service, died of internal bleeding. Connolly suffered a broken back, pelvis, arm, leg, sternum and eye socket. She spent seven weeks in the hospital and attended her son’s funeral on a stretcher.
She later learned that the rough road had snapped the studs on one of the SUV’s wheels, causing it to come off. Investigators, however, accused her of speeding and failing to put a seat belt on her son. They charged her with culpable driving causing death, punishable by up to a decade in prison, despite her insistence that the seat belts both she and Steven were wearing malfunctioned. Nearly two years later, authorities dropped all charges. The Northern Territory government declined to provide a copy of the crash report.
We visited Connolly at her mother-in-law’s house near Alice Springs. The former barrel racer now walks with a pronounced limp. At 42, her body is a collection of titanium rods and scars, one of which is tattooed with an “S” for Steven.
Her husband finds it too difficult to say their son’s name, let alone talk about the tragedy. She blames it on the seat belts that didn’t work and the air bags that didn’t inflate and the steering wheel that locked.
And the road.
A monolithic magnet
As the sun set on Uluru, the pop of a champagne cork rang out. Never mind the “no alcohol” sign nearby. This was a festive occasion for the few dozen tourists gathered on a resort hillside overlooking the magnificent Aboriginal site.
“It’s all about the ’gram,” said a middle-aged man with a beer bottle as he squeezed into a selfie.
“Your head is blocking the rock,” a woman complained.
There are two roads from Alice Springs to Uluru — also known as Ayers Rock and, despite its location in the middle of the desert, among Australia’s most popular tourist destinations. One unpaved road goes through a valley inhabited by wild horses and camels; the other offers 300 miles of smooth asphalt, the longest such stretch on the Outback Way. For the people living near each, Uluru represents economic opportunity — with caveats.
At the Erldunda Roadhouse, halfway along the paved route, droves of visitors paused for gas, a pie, a pint or a glimpse of the 22 emus in an enclosure behind the building. Sherie Nikolai was at the cash register, frantically trying to get up to speed. It was her first day after flying from Tasmania to South Australia, then taking a 17-hour bus ride to work at the rest stop.
“I was up for a change and — hello!” the 51-year-old said, laughing and gesturing to her surroundings.
More than six months after Australia’s international borders opened fully, Outback roadhouses, resorts and cattle stations are still struggling to replace the foreign workers who stopped coming during the pandemic. A fully paved road would increase business but also could exacerbate the labor crunch.
“There simply aren’t as many workers in the country,” said Lyndee Severin, who owns Curtin Springs station near Uluru with her husband, Ashley.
Ashley’s parents established the cattle station in 1956. That year, only six people drove down the road. When we arrived, the inn and campground were full of mostly Australian tourists on their way to or from Uluru. But he claimed business was better in the ’60s and ’70s, before the road was sealed, when there were private resorts at the rock.
The resorts were moved away in the 1980s, when the Australian government transferred title of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to its traditional owners, the Anangu. Three years ago, the park banned climbing on the rock.
The Severins, who are White, grumble about the changes even as they try to woo tourists going toward Uluru with walking tours and other activities. Finishing the Outback Way would bring more people and road trains, plus enable the station to send cattle west for export to the Middle East, Lyndee said. Yet the influx would test the station’s already strapped generator and water supplies.
We drove into the national park — where Uluru rises out of the earth like a half-sunk meteor — and then continued on, reluctantly leaving it and asphalt behind. Over the next three hours, we encountered only four cars before arriving in Kaltukatjara, also known as Docker River, a town of about 300 people just before the border with Western Australia. A group of Aboriginal women sat on the ground in the rear of the town’s art center, chewing bush herbs and making the elaborate dot paintings for which the community is known.
Some paintings are sold in the resorts near Uluru or at big-city galleries and art fairs. Despite the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit Uluru each year, very few travel here. The reason: the road.
“If they fix it,” Leonie Bennett said as she added white dots to a black canvas, “they’ll come here and buy, buy, buy.”
The uncertain future
We drove across dry creek beds and through a sparse forest before emerging in the Gibson Desert, an arid plain the size of the state of Georgia. We passed a wrecked car every few minutes for hours on end, some spray-painted with messages: “Slow Down,” “4Sale,” “Run.” We also saw the occasional camel, either moving through the mulga trees, its guttural bellows audible a mile away, or lying dead, limbs akimbo, where it had been hit by a car.
Two hundred miles into Western Australia brought us to Warburton, a predominantly Aboriginal town of 600. There we talked to Angelica McLean, an Aboriginal woman and community leader who is torn over the road’s future. Many young people like McLean leave distant towns like this one. She had moved back after high school in Perth because Warburton was home, even if home was a hard place.
That very morning she’d gone to help someone who had broken down on the Outback Way, only to get a flat tire herself. Her car needed a new taillight, which would require a 350-mile drive to Laverton to get it fixed.
Like many Aboriginal towns, Warburton is a dry community. But as the road has improved in recent years, more and more outside “grog,” or alcohol, has made its way in. Her best friend lost her husband in an alcohol-involved accident on the Outback Way, McLean said. She fears paving the road would bring more tragedies.
Just a few days earlier, a grog run had gone terribly wrong on the road. A group went to Laverton for alcohol, crashing on the way back in a small town called Cosmo Newberry. Two people died.
“This place is struggling with alcohol madness,” said Debbie Watson, another worried Warburton resident. “It’s going right through the lands.”
We drove to Cosmo, past an “Alcohol Is Not Allowed” sign, and found a cluster of flowers at the base of a tree where the accident had occurred. Town elder Harvey Murray, whose cousin was one of those killed, is conflicted over the booze and tourists that he expects to follow bitumen. Some already ignore the “no photo” signs, taking pictures of residents “like we’re in a zoo.”
Still, he knows that the Aboriginal community — which actually owns a swath of the road, according to a 2017 court ruling — can’t escape change. He is in negotiations with state and local officials over compensation for such future needs as training Aboriginal rangers to keep tourists on the road and away from sacred sites.
“This land is still pristine,” Murray said. “We want to keep it that way forever.”
We at last reached the end of the Outback Way in the quiet town of Laverton, where the population hovers around 900. There, at the sole pub, we met the man who a quarter-century earlier had proposed the idea that sent us on our odyssey.
“The road was like a goat track,” said Pat Hill, the top local official, as he drank a pint and recalled devising the plan to revitalize the community after its copper mine closed. Other Outback towns quickly signed on, but the federal government was hesitant. “They kept telling us to put money into it, but we didn’t have any,” he said.
The goal is to finish paving the Outback Way within five years, but that depends on what happens this month. The government’s nearly $500 million promise was part of a bigger surge in rural infrastructure spending that the last administration hoped would help keep it in power, said Marion Terrill, a transportation expert at the Grattan Institute in Melbourne. “It was a massive injection of money into a road that is not nationally significant, five minutes before an election,” she said. “It was pork-barreling.”
For Hill, the issue remains one of fairness. “Why shouldn’t people out here have what they’ve got in Sydney, Melbourne or Perth?” he asked.
Outside, a golden sunset bathed the asphalt that begins near Laverton and goes west all the way to Perth and the Indian Ocean. In the east, darkness was already descending on the dirt.