Just left of the Red Centre, a remote ribbon of dirt cuts through Australia’s largest red sand desert, luring adventurous travellers west of Uluru on a thousand kilometre-long journey into WA.
Across this surprisingly colourful landscape where camels roam and dingoes howl, you’ll discover crumbling painted canyons, Iost caves and rock art, and kick back at starry night camps on waterholes where Major Mitchells and budgies congregate after annual rains.
There’s nothing difficult about this outback adventure, except perhaps turning your back on magical Uluru and getting started on the Outback Way.
The Adventure Begins
In the late afternoon near Uluru, we climb a lofty path beneath Kata Tjuta’s weathered red rock domes to watch soaring sandstone walls set ablaze by the day’s final burst of light. This 500-million-year-old landscape that takes as its name the Pitjantjatjara word meaning “many heads”, rises from sand and spinifex to tower up to 200m above Uluru, where at this hour, tourists are chinking champagne glasses as Australia’s most famous rock glows crimson.
We turn our gaze west, away from the camera-clicking crowds and begin our descent. Within minutes of exiting Kata Tjuta’s congested carpark our tyres hit red dirt and rumble over corrugations that won’t let up entirely until we reach Laverton, more than 1000km away.
As darkness falls we pull into a deserted bush camp, get a campfire going to ward off the sub-zero overnight temperatures, and open our own bottle of champagne to celebrate the start of our adventure across one of the country’s most accessible, albeit remote deserts.
Luring self-sufficient, off-road adventurers chasing solitude on the road less travelled, the Outback Way provides an incredibly scenic shortcut between Alice Springs and Kalgoorlie that shaves more than 1000km off the sealed alternative via South Australia.
This 4-5 day journey provides the chance to set up camp on the edge of crumbling sandstone mesas and beneath steep ranges, discover Indigenous rock art and eyeball herds of camels on the Great Central Road.
Lasseter’s Last Cave
All that lies ahead of us as we watch the dancing embers of a dying campfire, 120km east of Lasseter’s Lost Cave. Signposted off Tjukaruru Road, 40km east of Docker River, the cave brings to life the story of Lewis Harold Bell Lasseter, a controversial character of some renown who’s claim to fame concerns an elusive reef of gold that he discovered in 1897.
More than three decades later on a mission to re-find his lost gold, Lasseter’s luck ran out at a small cave near the Hull River when his camels bolted, taking his food supplies with them. Starving and weakened, he remained in the cave for 25 days before setting out to reach Kata Tjuta, but died just 55km into his journey.
The location of Lasseter’s gold reef – if it exists at all – remains a mystery that continues to ignite the imaginations of outback wanderers and more than a few prospectors. The small picnic area near the cave isn’t worth a stop, but on our visit, screeching flocks of lurid pink Major Mitchells drawn to still pools on the Hull River created a memorable sight.
Bumping along towards the NT border on one of the roughest patches of the entire trip, we pulled into Docker River and ironically, scored our only puncture thanks to some stray flotsam on the community’s sealed road. The bad stroke of luck was soon forgotten once we found ourselves officially west and on the Great Central Road, curving north beneath the rusty red peaks of Schwerin Mural Crescent and the Rawlinson Range.
A detour down a dirt track towards the rock brought us to a flat camp at the base of Schwerin Mural Crescent, where we collected a mound of fallen timber and kicked back beside the crackling campfire as an outback orchestra of dingo howls and bird calls warmed up the night. Except for the stealthy dingo whose footprints revealed a nighttime visit, we were blissfully alone under a starry sky.
Harsh desert conditions ensure that only the hardiest wildlife survives in the Great Victoria Desert. Yet habitats undisturbed by human intervention support a number of rare desert dwellers: the sandhill dunnart, lizards such as the perentie, sand goanna and the vulnerable great desert skink, the water-holding frog that burrows into the sand, and the endangered southern marsupial mole – one of the most unusual looking creatures you’ll ever hope to see in Australia.
Far more commonly spotted during daylight hours are the camels: solitary souls that stop to stare, and large herds that cross casually across the track, females following big bucks that were never bothered by our camera-clicking antics on the verge.
It has been estimated that more than a million camels roam throughout Central Australia, and for days they easily outnumbered the handful of cars we passed by, which, coupled with our silent bush camps, helped create a sense of outback solitude that tuned us into our surprisingly undulating desert surrounds.
The Great Victoria Desert balances its sandhills, stony gibber plains and ancient salt lakes on bedrock of Yilgarn Block – granite, gneiss and greenstone – that at 2500-2900 million years old, rate as some of the oldest rocks on earth. Over 700km wide and covering an amazing 424,400 square kilometres across three states, these desert sands stretch from WA’s eastern goldfields to SA’s Gawler Ranges, separated from the Southern Ocean by the Nullarbor Plain.
When British explorer Ernest Giles became the first European to cross this desert in 1875, he named it to remember the then-reigning monarch Queen Victoria. Far from being a flat, featureless landscape, the northern fringe of the Great Victoria Desert ignites the imagination of travellers who marvel at its colourfully painted breakaways and isolated mesas that rise steeply and suddenly above endless spinifex plains.
We scale a flattop rise above our protected camp at Yarla Kutjarra Rest Area, 136km west of Warakurna, climbing past the kind of caves that dingos call home. Walking easily across the top, our hike affords us grand sunset views of distant ranges beyond the mulga scrub and it’s here than we stumble upon a pair of camel resting places, unusual cleared patches on the rocky ground.
At the edge of the mesa where a cairn overlooks the Great Central Road, we unearth by accident a tiny, geocache, one of 34 hidden along the Outback Way Geocache Trail, the world’s longest. Armed with GPS locations and some clues, travellers seek out these geocaches that might contain a small memento and a logbook that successful hunters proudly add their names to.
Bush camps, rock art & gnamma holes
Pushing west through the mulga and spinifex scrub, there are plenty of starry-night bush camping areas on the road to Laverton, 637km west, and a trio of well-spaced roadhouses that welcome travellers with power and showers. The campsites at Warburton Roadhouse are a fair deal at $15 per person (no pets), but the price of fuel here will take your breath away! My advice is to fill a few jerry cans before you set out.
As our pace settles and the bone-rattling corrugations calm a little, we set out sights on the auspiciously named Camp Paradise, 163km from the roadhouse. En route, we are sidetracked by the Desert Breakaway, one of a few, easily accessed lookouts on the edge of the steep desert plateau that provides views south over a sea of colourful crumbling sandstone.
Sunset on this stretch is amazing so if you’re ready to end the day, push 7km on to the free bush camp at Manunda Rockhole or if you are chasing amenities, head for Tjukayirla Roadhouse where campsites start from $15 a night.
There are more roadside freebies at spacious Minnie Creek Road and Limestone Well rest areas that offer nothing but shade, solitude and great sunsets. On this well-groomed end of the Great Central Road, you can’t miss the enormous white cross on a hillside west of Tjukayirla Roadhouse, erected by Aboriginal Christians in 1991. Beneath the ridge, tucked under the edge of the escarpment, caves protecting rock art are easily accessed via short pathways through the razor-sharp spinifex.
If you approach Laverton at sunset, plan a stop at Giles (Jindalee) Breakaway 56km to the east, to teeter on the edge of a deep, wide canyon and take in the mind-blowing panorama of freestanding mesas striped yellow and white with soft clay sandstone and rusty red lateritic soils.
Painting the desert in earthy ochre tones, these steep eroded walls dazzle under the shifting spectrum of a setting sun, brilliant enough that you’ll want to set up camp and the tripod.
Even as Laverton looms on the horizon, the attractions continue. Signposted to the north of the road in the Adam Ranges is Deba Gnamma Hole. Walk mere metres from the carpark to discover these rock depressions or gnammas that hold water throughout the dry season, luring and sustaining wildlife that includes dingoes, kangaroos and vast, colourful flocks of iridescent green budgies.
The End of the Outback Way
From Deba Gnamma Hole the rumble of corrugations is suddenly replaced by an eerie silence as you glide onto the bitumen and cruise into Laverton at the end of the Outback Way. The shock of civilisation, even one as small as Laverton, is keenly felt, despite the likely yearning for fresh food, clean sheets and affordable fuel.
While not terribly scenic, Laverton’s caravan park provides a slice of comfort, but if another night in the bush is called for, continue 120km west to Malcolm Dam where you can swim away the dust, wet a line, watch the birds and enjoy being back at the water’s edge for a while.
Being deeper than surrounding waterholes, Malcolm Dam stays full much longer into the dry season, attracting the region’s black swans, grey herons and pelicans and offering catches of bream, carp and spangled perch. Beyond Malcolm Dam it’s a 250km drive to Kalgoorlie and another 600km on to Perth. But there’s no rush. After so many quiet days and nights crossing the country on the Outback Way, you might just find that the city can wait.
The Outback Way encompasses the unsealed Great Central (WA) and Tjukaruru (NT) Roads, covering 1126km from Laverton to the western boundary of Uluru National Park (allow 4-5 days). The route is mostly unsealed and although passable by conventional vehicles, 4WD vehicles and high-clearance rigs are recommended due to corrugations and causeway crossings. The best time to travel is from April to September.
Roadside rest areas that allow free camping at located at Yarla Kutjarra (toilets), Manunda Rockhole, Camp Paradise, Minnie Creek Road, Limestone Well and Giles Breakaway. Diesel and unleaded/opal fuel is available at Kaltukatjara/Docker River, Warakurna, Warburton, Tjukayirla, Cosmo Newberry and Laverton.
Transit permits to cross Indigenous lands on the Outback Way are free but mandatory and available instantly online: visit www.daa.wa.gov.au for the Great Central Road and www.clc.org.au for the NT’s Tjukaruru Road. For road conditions and weather reports visit www.warburtonroadhouse.com.au; for trip planning head to www.parksaustralia.gov.au or www.outbackway.org.au.