Driving in the Australian Outback Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Driving in the Australian Outback

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A dusty outback road.

As mentioned in the Australian Driving Etiquette entry, waving to every other vehicle when driving in the outback is common practise, but there is also a whole other lot of knowledge that will make the 'outback experience' a lot easier for first timers. Seeing as most of Australia consists of bugger all with a road running through it, this is a subject that needs an entry to itself.

Some of this entry applies to sealed roads (ie, blacktop); all of it applies if you intend to hit the unsealed roads, which you should if you want to really see Australia at its uninhabited finest. Don't bother going on the tracks though unless you have a four-wheel drive, or you will kill your car.

Essential Knowledge about the Outback Way of Driving

  • If you're used to driving in the city, forget everything you ever learned. Here are a few things you need to remember:

    • You can't use the rear view mirrors, as there is no rear view, due to the dust.

    • You will spend time in low gears, so get used to starting in third and going straight to fifth.

    • There is no lane etiquette as there are no lanes. So just drive on whichever side of the track has least lumps, but be aware that oncoming traffic will be doing the same.

    • Remember, there are no roundabouts or traffic lights.

    • If you're used to four-wheel driving, all that guff you learnt about handling mud, sand, steep drops, hill climbs, and so on is merely incidental to a full-on outback trip. But it'll probably come in handy.

  • Take lots of spare water. Everyone will give you this advice and they're not joking. Jerry-cans for extra fuel are also a good idea, as are plenty of spare wheels, at least two.

  • If you see a road train1 coming towards you, get out of its way at all costs. They will drive over your shiny Land Rover as if it were a Dinky toy, and not even notice. Also be careful if attempting to overtake one, it always requires more road than you think.

  • Don't drive past a roadhouse (fuel station/shop/camp site/pub) unless you're sure you have enough juice to reach the next one. This may be four or five hundred kilometres away, and that's a long way to push. The pastoralists2 will go out of their way to help if you have a genuine breakdown, but if you've just run out of fuel they'll be most upset that you've interrupted their day's fishing.

  • Beware of the wildlife. Kangaroos will pretend they are going the other way until the last moment, when they will hurl themselves in front of your vehicle, as will dingos and emus. Even if you have big chunky roo bars fitted (which of course you will), some of the roos are big enough to properly spoil your day, especially if they bounce through your windscreen. Be particularly careful if you're in the vicinity of a bushfire, as everything with legs will be running, and forgetting to look both ways before they cross.

  • Beware of the metal warping ability of a lazy cow contemplating life in the middle of a road. Unlikely you might think, but when you're in cattle country there are, unsurprisingly, cows (or if you're really unlucky herds of cows). Unlike other unfortunate wildlife you might scrape of your bumper in Oz, cows have distinctly more bodywork crumpling potential and like all the other wildlife you will encounter, cows haven't been introduced to the concept of right of way.

    Also watch out for the larger bulls, as they are not scared of a couple of tons of moving metal and will make as if to charge at you à la Crocodile Dundee. However, don't be tempted to follow the great man's example and get out of the car; this will always end in tears and more likely than not, stitches. In the Researcher's experience the best way to make them shift is to sing Max Bygraves songs out of a partially opened window, causing them to leg it at high speed into the bush. (No really, it works.)

  • When normal people think of roads, they have a mental picture of something above water level. Not so. The track that you are driving down will often metamorphose into a creek or river. Even during the dry3 many of these will still have enough water in to flood your air intake. Most four wheel drives have a snorkel fitted to stop this, but water in many other important bits of engine will have the same effect.

  • Most of the unsealed roads and tracks are badly affected by corrugations. These innocuous looking ripples in the surface will give you the impression that you're driving a pneumatic drill. Bad luck, you're just going to have to get used to it. Besides, after the first couple of thousand kilometres you almost don't notice. The locals will tell you that once you get above 70km/h the shaking doesn't feel so bad, and this is true. However at this speed you will be unable to avoid the sharp bends, dust patches that make you skid, large rocks that will take out your sump, wildlife, cows in the road, oncoming traffic, creek and river crossings that will bend your chassis, etc, etc. The locals only drive at this speed because firstly they know the roads very well, and secondly, they just don't care.

  • Never, ever drive at night. Many tourists die each year trying, as they've no idea what they're letting themselves in for.

  • Okay, so you're going to ignore this nugget of sound advice and drive at night anyway, well here are some top tips to consider:

    • Right, to start with all the above advice applies, only everything is doubled in danger. This is because all the hazards are going to be harder to spot, and it will be harder to judge river crossings, etc. So tip number one is to go slow.

    • Next, remember the road train drivers mentioned above? Well they have an extra funny little habit at night. In fact, this habit seems to belong to all other motorists; they don't seem to have been shown how to dip their lights. This renders all approaching drivers totally blind to most of the hazards mentioned, and wildlife in particular. Which is far more of a problem at night as many of the critters are nocturnal. This means you can multiply the number you are likely to see bouncing of your bonnet by a factor of about ten.

    • Finally be aware that most roadhouses shut at night, so you may find yourself having to sleep outside one to wait for fuel, which makes the whole night driving thing grind to a halt.

  • Bushfires are a common occurrence, and vary in intensity from gently smouldering underbrush to raging firestorm. The roads and tracks tend to act as natural firebreaks, so you can normally just drive past, but if there's a breeze or stronger wind the fire may jump the gap. Driving through these can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience, and they do kill people, so try not to get caught in one. If you do the official advice is to try and find an already burned area to wait it out on, and if you can't, lie on the floor of your car with as much clothing and stuff over you as possible to minimise the smoke effect. Yeah, right...

  • Expect punctures. Lots.

  • Everything is a very long way from everywhere else. Driving thousands of kilometres is normal. Although this is meant to be the adventure of a lifetime, sheer boredom can soon become a factor:

    8am - Wow, isn't this bush landscape incredible!
    9am - Gosh, isn't the bush a vast place!
    11am - Are we nearly there yet?
    1pm - It all looks the bloody same!
    4pm - How much longer before we get out of the bloody bush? (Answer - about four days)

    So remember to bear the mind-numbing boredom in mind when choosing your travelling companions. After many hours cramped together the tiny oven that your car has become, idiosyncrasies that initially seemed endearing, such as a fondness for the album Elaine Page sings Queen, can be a motive for murder.

Final Point

Well, hopefully you've been put off driving in the outback forever, so that it'll remain devoid of seething humanity. If not, all the above advice notwithstanding, enjoy!

1For the uninitiated, these are huge trucks towing two or three trailers full of fuel, cattle, food, beer, and all the other essentials of outback life. They can be up to 53.5 metres long, (if you can't picture that, it's big, especially when one passes you doing silly km/h.) And yes, they do take them down the dirt tracks.2The lovely folk who run the cattle stations (probably the only locals for hundreds of kilometres in any direction). Generally they are the nicest people you'll ever meet, but be aware that living in some of the most isolated spots on Earth for most of their lives can bring out eccentricities in people.3Northern areas of Australia are in the Tropics. Instead of the four seasons as we know and love them, they have the wet, when it rains, and the dry, when it doesn't. During the wet, all the above advice will be superfluous, as you will be stranded somewhere by a flood that has made all the roads disappear, along with most of the rest of the land.

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