Tips for driving in outback Australia
Tips for driving in outback Australia

Tips for driving in outback Australia

Birdsville-trackOn this trip I’ve driven the Birdsville Track, unnamed dirt roads between main roads, gorges and canyons in the Flinders ranges, the Strzelecki Track, and the Old Strzelecki Track. I’ve gone through sand, gravel, clay, and water.

And I still don’t know if I’m doing it right.

One of the things about travelling on your own is you have to make it up as you go. There’s nobody to bounce ideas off, or to give you advice. So many times I would have appreciated having Doc next to me to tell me what gear, or what speed is best.

But I didn’t. So I had to make a best guess and if that didn’t work, try something else. And you know what?

I made it.

On the dirt leaving YuntaAnd just as importantly, so did the car

I’m lucky. I’ve had a lot of time to watch Doc drive, and see what he does where, so that’s given me some knowledge, if not experience. What is it they say about a little bit of knowledge?

I’ve also watched the stupid things some people do (Big Red anyone???).

When I was in Birdsville I took a drive out to Big Red, to watch. Everybody trying this ascent had a big 4WD vehicle, with all the bells and whistles. I wasn’t game to try it in my little Vitara, and with my limited 4WDing experience. It was a bit overawing.

But as I watched, I realised something.

Most of them were idiots.

Driving on wide open spacesThere they were, making these big run ups and hitting this big sandhill fast, in top gear. Fishtailing all over the place through the ruts made by others trying exactly the same thing, and not making it even half way up. Then they’d roll down and start again. With the same result. One of then hadn’t even locked his hubs.

And if idiots can drive through the Australian outback, so can I. I’m not sure if that came out quite as I meant it.

Driving through the Australian outback you can experience some very harsh conditions. There are long distances between towns, and fuel stops. In some places unless you are carrying spare fuel or have a long distance fuel tank you won’t make it. I changed plans a couple of times because the leg I wanted to drive would put me right at the limits of my fuel, and it’s not a good idea to tempt fate and run out of fuel in the outback.

Road closedIn the end that didn’t really matter, because many of the roads I was considering were closed anyway. If there’s one thing you don’t do out here, it’s drive on a closed road. Not only is it a big fine, but the roads are closed for a reason. It doesn’t take much rain for them to become impassable. Even if it hasn’t been raining on the road, rain further up the channels and creeks can cause flash floods as the creeks fill and flowing water washes away crossings downstream. Some of these creeks in flood can be many kilometres across.

There are some basic rules to outback driving:

  • Read all road signs – if it’s closed, it’s closed. Don’t attempt it.
  • Talk with and listen to other people, particularly locals who know the roads. Ask about the roads at the pub or service station in town before you head off. They get a road report every day. They also know if there’s a better, or prettier, way.
  • Drive to the conditions. If you’re unsure, stop and look at the situation. Assess what you’re about to do, whether it’s water, sand, or gravel, and act appropriately. It’s better to be over cautious than reckless.
  • If it’s water – WALK IT. Then walk it again. Test how deep it is, how fast it’s flowing, and the best place to cross. Then, if necessary, wait. Don’t cross anything you think is too dangerous.
  • Top up your fuel every chance you get. You don’t want to run out anywhere, or miss going along a track because you don’t have enough fuel to get you there and back.
  • Always let somebody know where you are, where you’re expected to be, and when. If there is no mobile phone coverage, all places have pay phones. Get a phonecard in case they don’t take coins.
  • Don’t drive off marked tracks. It’s not just because of the environment that you are asked to stay on the tracks. If something happens that’s the first place people will look for you. Safety is not just about not getting lost, it’s about making sure you can be found again if something happens.
  • DO NOT LET ANYBODY ELSE HURRY YOU. If you want to drive slowly, do so. I find stopping to take photos is a good excuse to let people pass me. Even caravans seem to drive faster than I do, and pass me along the way.
  • Don’t panic. If you get stuck, or something happens, have a look at it. See what you need to do, and if you don’t think you can fix it. Wait. Somebody will be along.
  • Carry emergency communications equipment – UHF, satellite phone, epirb.

Give way - even in the outbackMost importantly, if something happens, do not leave your car. People have died wandering off from their broken down car to try to get help. The only way their bodies have been found is following the tracks from the cars –which are always found first.

Your car gives you shelter from the elements, there is water and food, and it’s much easier to find a car on a road than it is to find a person who might be unconscious somewhere in that big outback.

Remember – if you’re out there, the odds are somebody else will be sooner or later too.

Follow these simple rules and you can do it too. Even if you are a woman on her own.