What it’s really like to drive the Outback

The Australian Outback is a deceptive place. The roads are arrow-straight, the rust-red landscapes epic, other vehicles few and far between. It’s not for the faint-hearted – but then again, neither are many of the adventures we now find ourselves longing for.

The temptation is to stare at the majesty about you, tapping the steering wheel to some upbeat road tune, attention lapsing from the job in hand. But that could be a big mistake – as Jamie Dornan discovers in the BBC’s new Sunday-night thriller series The Tourist. He is driven off the road by a truck, and wakes up in hospital not knowing who he is or why he was crossing some of the most inhospitable yet magnificent driving country in the world.

That’s not a fate likely to befall you in real life, but the jeopardy – and rewards – of Outback driving are real enough, as I discovered for myself during a 994-mile road trip from Adelaide to Uluru. Back in 2019, when we could freely travel to Australia, the route took me through the mountainous region known as the Flinders Ranges, where some of The Tourist was filmed.  It’s not as intrepid as it may sound.

Accommodation is basic but clean, the road is sealed all the way, they drive on the same side of the road and if you limit how far you intend to travel in a day, the driving is not too onerous. Almost anyone in search of adventure can do it – as long as you take sensible precautions. Not only are the temperatures dangerously high, but   the sight up ahead of a “road train” (a truck hauling up to three trailers, which can be 164ft long) will concentrate the mind – you need to be sure there’s enough clear road in front before you start overtaking.

Kangaroos, camels and emus are other reasons to keep your eyes peeled. It is not a Sunday afternoon potter around the Mendips. But boy, is it exhilarating. 

The Flinders Ranges were used as a filming locationCredit: John Montesi

The drama builds slowly on the route north.

Through the wine region around Clare Valley the hills are not so far from England’s rolling acres. They soon give way to semi-arid scrubland and the red soil begins to show through. The run-off of meagre rainfall irrigates the verges, creating an avenue of flowering shrubs.

Dotted about are remnants of settler times – ruined buildings, rusting farm machinery, an old wooden cart. A roofless house marked a settlement called Wilson, finally abandoned in 1954. “Despite drought after drought, intense mouse plagues and a sizable earthquake, the Wilson community remained resilient,” says the roadside information panel. While I was reading this, and imagining mice running up my legs, a flock of skinny sheep appeared from nowhere, piloted by an equally skinny dog and a shepherd on a trail bike. “Alright mate, how ya goin’?” he called companionably.

0801 Austrailia – Travel

My next overnight stop, Woomera, had, in comparison to this friendly greeting, an air of sinister desolation; as if some apocalyptic weapon had vaporised the people but left the buildings.

I parked in the main “square”, an open-air museum of missiles from the Cold War era, and wandered alone among the deathly darts. They included Blue Streak, the missile designed as the delivery system for Britain’s nuclear deterrent in the 1960s. Woomera is attached to the Woomera Prohibited Area, a blank on the map as big as England where classified military research is carried out.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Britain tested its weapons of mass destruction at a place called Maralinga. Woomera town, the nerve-centre of these operations, was off-limits to civilians until 1982 and remains a military base. The name of Woomera’s only hotel, the Eldo, is an acronym for European Launcher Development Organisation. 

So far, so Dr Strangelove. But where were all the people? “Game’s on upstairs,” said a resident, hurrying past. It turned out everyone was bunkered in Eldo’s first-floor bar, watching an Aussie Rules game on TV.

A blast of weapons-grade jollity hit me when I opened the door and the rest of the evening was a bit of a blur. 

Where the wild things are: watch out for kangaroosCredit: Richard Field/Wild Bush Walks

The BBC’s promotional blurb for The Tourist promises an Outback world of “quirky, enigmatic characters” and there were plenty of those along my route – not least in the old mining town of Coober Pedy. Spoil heaps are everywhere, the daytime temperatures extreme – up to 50C. For this reason, 70 per cent of the population live underground, in hollowed-out houses. 

The town’s population of about 2,000 comprises nearly 50 nationalities who rocked up decades ago, hoping to find priceless opals in the sandstone. Most didn’t but stayed anyway, forging a unique and eccentric desert community. Among them was Dimitrius “Jimmy” Nikoloudis, who arrived “direct from Greece” in the 1960s and worked for decades as a miner. “There is no science to opal mining,” he told me, “just luck or, more likely, the lack of it.

Just throw a rock and, where it lands, dig a hole.”  Luck had rarely been a lady to Nikoloudis, but he seemed a contented soul who had found a place to belong. Having been a volunteer ambulance driver, an English-Cantonese and sign language interpreter, and the president of the Coober Pedy Shooting Club, he now worked as a tour guide. 

When you’re living in an environment that looks like a vision of a hellish future – and indeed the surrounding desert has provided backdrops to films such as Mad Max 3 and Pitch Black – it’s natural to want to humanise it. The hills of Coober Pedy are overlaid with a surreal veneer of suburban amenities that Nikoloudis drove me around in his van. 

Top tips for driving the Outback

They include, along with various cultural centres and churches, a cemetery called Boot Hill, a drive-in movie screen, a speedway track, an eight-furlong race course and an 18-hole golf course. “It is affiliated with St Andrews in Scotland,” said Nikoloudis solemnly, and though I took this to be a joke it is sort of true (St Andrews having gone along with the joke).  He also drove me out of town, along the highway towards Uluru.

Stretching from the roadside were pyramidal spoil heaps and mine shafts 98ft deep marked by warning signs: “Beware! Deep shafts. Don’t walk backwards.

Unmarked holes.” Nikoloudis had mined out here, in some of these very holes. “No luck there,” he said, pointing at one spoil heap after another.  He then turned off the highway and onto a dirt road, following signs for the Breakaway Hills. This range of “painted” mesas is the Outback dweller’s Outback, where even an old hand like Nikoloudis is struck dumb by the desolate beauty. “Outback” is the single-word equivalent of “back of beyond” or “middle of nowhere” – a place where humans barely belong, and venture on sufferance of nature.

Looking across the valley of the Breakaways, Nikoloudis remarked that “the temperature down there in the summertime can reach 70C”.

The Breakaway Hills are the ‘Outback dweller’s Outback’Credit: Adam Bruzzone/South Australian Tourism Commission

As the sun set, illuminating the strata of coloured minerals, we fell silent. It is no surprise that Indigenous Australians revere this spot and send their young men here to discover themselves. They have an expression for this learning process: “feeling country”.

I had a word for my momentary immersion: awesome.

How to do it

  • Abercrombie & Kent (01242 547760; abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers a 10-night Adelaide-Uluru road trip from GBP4,500pp including flights and accommodation with breakfast and car hire.
  • After the Adelaide-Uluru leg (SA, NT), linger in the Clare Valley (don’t forget to try the rieslings) before hitting the wilderness trail up through the Flinders Ranges. Above Port Augusta the route is named the Stuart Highway after a Scottish surveyor, John McDouall Stuart, who in 1862 became the first European to cross Australia from the south to the north coast.
  • The Tourist airs on BBC1 at 9pm on Sunday evenings and can be found on BBC iPlayer (bbc.co.uk/iplayer).
  • Overseas holidays are currently subject to restrictions.

Five outstanding Outback drives

Coral Coast Highway (WA)

Here, the Outback meets the beach. Journey along the dazzling Indian Ocean from Perth to Exmouth via the Unesco World Heritage Site of Ningaloo Coast (one of the few places in the world where you can swim with the “big three” – humpback whales, manta rays and whale sharks).

Freedom Destinations (0333 234 2889; freedomdestinations.co.uk) offers a 10-day, circular self-drive from Perth to Exmouth along the Coral Coast from GBP1,985pp, including flights, hotels and car hire

Great Ocean Road (VIC)

A spellbinding 174-mile drive from surf capital Torquay, past the limestone pillars known as the Twelve Apostles, to the town of Allansford, the Great Ocean Road was built by soldiers just returned from the First World War as a memorial to their fallen comrades. 

For a real sense of freedom, drive the Great Ocean RoadCredit: Alamy

Audley (01993 838810; audleytravel.com) includes the Great Ocean Road in its 21-day Discover Southeast Australia Tour which also takes in Adelaide, Barossa Valley, Grampians National Park, Port Fairy, Apollo Bay, Melbourne, Sydney and the Blue Mountains. From GBP4,425pp including flights, accommodation, car hire and excursions

Gibb River Road (WA)

Cross the rugged heart of the Kimberley, a vast wilderness dotted with Aboriginal communities and cattle stations, from Broome to Kununurra. Unlike the route to Uluru, the roads here are mostly unsealed, making the Outback experience as rugged and exhilarating as it comes.

The Ultimate Travel Company (0203 733 5715; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) offers a 19-day itinerary that covers the Gibb River Road and continues to Darwin. From GBP4,850pp including flights, 4×4 hire, accommodation and some meals

Savannah Way (QLD, WA)

From Cairns in Tropical North Queensland, drive 2,019 miles west to the pearling town of Broome in WA, taking in the immense tunnels of the world’s longest lava-tube system at Undara. You can also canoe through the glorious Cobbold Gorge and immerse yourself in gold rush history around Normanton. 

Leave the car and enjoy the beauty of Cobbold Creek GorgeCredit: Alamy

Freedom Destinations (0333 234 2889; freedomdestinations.co.uk) offers a 14-day, 4×4 campervan trip from Cairns to Darwin along the Savannah Way from GBP2,775pp, including flights and vehicle hire

Sydney to Broken Hill (NSW)

From Sydney head into the red expanses of north-west New South Wales, through classic Australian Outback, to the mining town of Broken Hill, Australia’s first heritage-listed city.

Nearby is Silverton, a town so steeped in Outback atmosphere it has featured in countless commercials, as well as films such as Mad Max 2 and A Town Like Alice.

Abercrombie & Kent (01242 547 760; abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers a seven-night self-drive trip from Sydney to Broken Hill from GBP3,699pp including flights, accommodation and car hire