Driving Australia’s desolate Stuart Highway
North of Wycliffe Well, the Devil’s Marbles is a mysterious outcrop of near-spherical granite boulders. (David Whitley)
From Port Augusta, on Australia’s southern coast, it does not take long for the ocean to give way to the barren landscapes of the country’s stark interior. To the east and west stretch the major routes connecting Sydney and Perth; to the south, the Southern Ocean stretches to Antarctica; and to the north of this frontier town -- known as the Crossroads of Australia -- the Stuart Highway begins its lonely, 2,834km route across the heart of the Australian continent.
The Stuart Highway is named in honour of John McDouall Stuart who, in 1862, became the first man to successfully cross Australia from south to north and make it back alive. Considering he did it on foot without a permanent source of running water for 2,415km between Port Augusta and the Katherine River in the far north, Stuart’s journey remains one of the most incredible achievements in the history of exploration; his expedition took nine months going north and another five months getting back to Adelaide. Today -- 150 years later -- even driving along the paved road that roughly follows his route feels like an epic challenge.
The drive north is one through spectacular nothing. The landscapes are bleak and rugged, punctuated by vast salt lakes. The sky looks intimidatingly large and the touch of humanity is light. Two hours at the wheel can go by between the isolated roadhouses -- fuel stops that masquerade as towns.
Where the settlements are more than a pub and a petrol pump, they are often very strange. Woomera, 181km north of Port Augusta, was set up in 1947 as a military town. Vast swathes of the land around it – including the stretch that the Stuart Highway passes through – are still used for weapons testing and space research by the Australian government and private companies. The small Heritage Museum inside the town’s Visitor Centre presents an airbrushed overview of an often murky history, alongside what might be one of the world’s most remote bowling alleys. The Woomera Missile Park outside the local primary school contains many of the decommissioned tanks, rocket launchers and weapons of mass destruction that the town was built around.
The only other settlement of any size before reaching the Northern Territory border is Coober Pedy. It is a mining town – an estimated 70% of the world’s opals come from the Coober Pedy area – and it has a somewhat post-apocalyptic look to it. The desert heat is so ferocious that the majority of the town’s population live underground. Homes are blasted out of the hillsides then furnished to standards the Flintstones would be proud of. The Umoona Opal Mine combines work and pleasure, offering tours of a show home and the mine that is dug underneath it.
The biggest town on the route, however, is the rough-and-ready desert outpost of Alice Springs. Here the outdoor Desert Park, a combination of botanic gardens and wildlife reserve, explores how wildlife adapted to the harsh Outback conditions, while the Royal Flying Doctor Service medical base and attached museum show how humans have. It is from here that medical care is given to the remote Aboriginal communities and the people living in Outback cattle stations, some of which are larger than many European countries. The tales of emergency evacuations by air and the everyday efforts of the staff to keep the Outback from being totally isolated offer a great insight into how this alien part of the world works.
The further north you go, the more bizarre the roadhouses get. Camel rides are on offer at Stuart’s Well, a roadhouse that like many others on the route masquerades as a settlement; Aileron has installed giant statues on the hillside above the roadhouse’s pub and the Wycliffe Well roadhouse/holiday park plays up to its self-styled billing as Australia’s UFO capital by adorning the grounds with plastic little green men.
But the landscape also changes. Hardy desert plants such as the ubiquitous saltbush and spinifex give way to tufts of grass as the Stuart Highway approaches the Tropic of Capricorn, one of the five major circles of latitude that divides the Earth. The dry heat turns stickier and the circling wedge-tailed eagles overhead become more numerous, knowing there is more food to be found.