Nowhere in Australia is the “red center” as immediately accessible as from Adelaide. A few hours north of the city, the greenery of the southeast gives way to desert landscapes, vast salt pans, and rugged ranges. The highway to Coober Pedy and Alice Springs gives a taste of the outback, but to truly experience the vastness, isolation, and grandeur of the outback, head off-road on the tracks that opened up this harsh country.
Though not to be taken lightly—or in the blistering summer months—a four-wheel drive adventure into the heart of Australia is an unforgettable experience. The north of the state has some wonderful desert tracks through country where early European explorers struggled in their quest to be the first to cross the continent. The front-runners were Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills, immortalized in Australian history books after their ill-fated expedition ended in tragedy, and John McDouall Stuart, who finally reached the north coast in 1862 after a series of expeditions.
Today, the 385-mile Oodnadatta Track follows in Stuart’s footsteps, from Marree to Marla, and is one of the great outback adventures. The track is regularly graded and can even be negotiated by regular vehicle, though a four-wheel drive vehicle is strongly recommended and essential if venturing off the track. Traffic is light but steady, and this historic journey is the ideal introduction to off-road driving in the outback.
Stuart’s route followed ancient Aboriginal trade trails through artesian mound springs that provided him with water in the desert. The Overland Telegraph line, completed in 1872, largely followed the route, as did the old Ghan rail line that opened up the center of the country.
The track starts at Marree, north of the Flinders Ranges, and follows the old Ghan line past rusting abandoned sidings at Curdimurka and unique mound springs like the Bubbler and Blanche Cup. You can swim at Coward Springs, a popular camping spot, or head on past the southern end of Australia’s largest salt lake, Lake Eyre, to William Creek and its classic outback pub. You might meet a stockman in the bar from nearby Anna Creek, the world’s largest cattle station.
From William Creek, the track continues on to the settlement of Oodnadatta, which has a pub and the Pink Roadhouse, a popular tourist pit stop. From Oodnadatta to Marla on the main highway is another 130 miles, or an alternative four-wheel drive road goes via the scenic Painted Desert.
Birdsville Track and Simpson Desert
Marree is also the start for the iconic 325-mile Birdsville Track, which follows an old cattle stock route to the remote Queensland town of Birdsville, famous for its hotel and raucous horse races in September. This remote road has only one fuel stop at the Mungerannie Hotel.
West of Birdsville lies the Simpson Desert, a mecca for off-road driving enthusiasts. Crossing over hundreds of red sand dunes in one of the most remote parts of the country, this trip is not for novices and requires experience, planning, and proper equipment. That said, scores of modern-day explorers tackle it in the winter months.
The remote Strzelecki Track branches off to Innamincka on Cooper Creek before you hit Marree, near where both Burke and Wills died. The trading post and pub at Innamincka buzzes in the winter tourist season. You can visit the explorers’ graves and the Dig Tree, a poignant national monument. It marks where Burke and Wills’ expedition divided, leaving four men behind with supplies, while Burke, Wills, and two others pressed on through the searing heat and monsoons to the north coast. It took four long months to complete the journey, only for the desperate explorers to return to the camp just hours after the others had departed. A message carved on the tree told them to dig for a cache of buried supplies left behind. Weak and dazed, they pressed on, but only one survived, John King, after Aboriginals took him in.
Practical Tip: Thorough research and planning is essential before heading off. ExplorOz is a good starting point.
Four-Wheel Drive Hire: The main car hire companies do not allow off-road travel, but motor home hirers like Britz or Wicked also rent four-wheel drive camper vans that can be taken on the Oodnadatta and some other tracks. Advance notice is required and outback surcharges often apply. Smaller four-wheel drive specialists in Adelaide, or Alice Springs or Darwin in the Northern Territory, may be better. Australian 4WD hire has offices in all three locations.
Outback Safety: The outback is not as lonely as it used to be, with a steady trickle of tourist traffic on all the tracks mentioned here, especially in winter. A GPS with good off-road maps is essential. It is a good idea to hire an emergency position indicating radio beacon or satellite phone if venturing off the tracks or crossing the Simpson Desert. Adequate food, water, camping gear, fuel, spares, and tools must be carried. Always check road conditions and closures and seek local knowledge.