I did an interview with ABC radio while I was in Broken Hill on my last trip. They asked me what advice I’d give to other women wanting to travel through the outback. My response at the time was “go for it”. While this still stands, following are the top tips for new travellers based on my own experience:
Be prepared ….
Like a good boy scout, you should always be prepared for all circumstances. This doesn’t mean planning an itinerary down to the last details, but it does mean knowing your options.
There are some things that are not negotiable. We drove through the outback, in some very remote areas. To do that you need to make sure that your vehicle is fully serviced with no leaks and all worn parts replaced, that you have tyres appropriate to the conditions (I have Roadstone All Terrains for off-road travel), and that you know something about the car and the engine before you go. As Doc is a mechanic I normally leave anything to do with the car to him, but this time I was travelling with a girlfriend who is even less mechanically minded than I am. Prior to going Doc showed me the basics of the engine and how to change a tyre. He also gave me a piece of advice that everybody should follow, whether you know about cars or not:
“Check under the bonnet and around the car every day. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you’re looking at, if you look at it every day you’ll notice when something changes. That’s when you go for help.”
We also took an emergency kit with spare parts and tools to fix things that might go wrong. It was nowhere near as extensive as the one that Doc travels with, but contained spare fan belts, oil, jump leads, snatch strap, radiator hoses, fuses, wire, hose clamps, sockets, screw drivers, spanners, pliers, and of course the ubiquitous cable ties. Even though I didn’t know exactly what to do with most it, if we broke a fan belt out in the middle of nowhere I might have been able to rig something up to get us somewhere we could get help. Or somebody may have come along who could fix it for us, but only because we had the parts in the first place.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Life is a journey, not a destination”. This is also true of outback travel.
When planning this trip we started with one premise “stay off the main highways as much as possible”. We had some places we wanted to go to, and a time when we had to be back, but everything else was flexible. This meant that when we saw a sign by the road that said “Underground motel” we could easily make the 100km detour to go and spend the night. If we’d planned our trip to the last detail, we might have missed what was a great experience, and perhaps the best photo of the whole journey (always a consideration for a photographer!).
Have a contingency plan
Outback Australia can be a dangerous place, it is also extremely beautiful which makes it easy to forget how dangerous it can be at times. And even if you’re in NSW rather than the Northern Territory, don’t get complacent. We drove 240km from White Cliffs to Broken Hill via Mutawintji National Park and didn’t see another soul. Even if you stay on the road that’s too far to walk to get help. People (still) die of thirst out there, not to mention snakes, feral pigs, even emus. This means you need to know what to do if something goes wrong.
If you breakdown in the middle of nowhere you’re often out of mobile phone range. Roadside assistance probably wouldn’t help even if you could call. Our contingency plan was that recommended by emergency services – stay with your vehicle. People die when they wander off, get lost and run out of water. We had a tent, food and water and could have set up camp for a week or more if necessary. That’s probably enough time for somebody else to come along and, at the very least, drive somewhere they can send back help.
We also had a very good first aid kit, easily accessible in the car at all times, and information on what to do for snake bites. That might not save your life if you’re bitten in the middle of nowhere, but it will give you a better chance of getting to real help.
And as much as I hate to give them any positive publicity – you need to have a mobile phone connected with Telstra. Any other provider doesn’t have the coverage you need. Or have a satellite phone.
Know something about the places you’re going to
Do some basic research on the places you’re going to, or might go to – their history, places of interest, weather, festivals, etc. The internet is really useful for this type of research, particularly for keeping up to date with recent changes. But supplement it with books which you can take with you and consult regularly even when you’re out of internet range. I wouldn’t go anywhere in northern Queensland without taking Les Hiddens’ books and maps. That’s The Bush Tucker Man for all of you under 40.
If you know what’s on and when, you can arrange your trip to take advantage of (or avoid) celebrations, weather conditions, or peak periods. And if you show that you know something about their home town, locals are can be friendlier and more helpful and might even tell you things that aren’t in guidebooks.
Use social media
Social media such as twitter is instant, and can help to get immediate information. When driving into Broken Hill I tweeted that I was dying for a cup of coffee and got an instant response recommending a café -and it was great coffee. You can also find out the best places to stay and where there are vacancies, which can save you lots of time driving around looking for somewhere if you’re travelling in peak periods and haven’t made bookings.
A really useful function of social media that many businesses forget is that people will also tell you where NOT to go. Where staff or owners are rude, where they rip you off, or advertise things that they don’t provide. After all, nobody wants those bad experiences when they’re on holidays.
Then there’s apps for smart phones and tablets which can give you up to date information on weather and road conditions wherever you’re travelling. Invaluable.
Despite what you might think, outback scenery is not all the same. Red dirt, tea tree scrub, eucalypt/rain forest, channel country, jump ups, creeks, rivers and dams – it changes constantly and it’s all interesting. Then there’s the wildlife. I’ve seen kangaroos, emus, echidnas, pigs, goats, even wombats during the day, not to mention the birds – a flock of red-tailed black cockatoos flying overhead on Cape York was a magic sight. I also like to drive with the windows down so I can hear, smell and feel the countryside as well. Then when we pull up and set camp we just sit, watch the sunset and soak it all up. It’s magic, and if you sit with your head in a computer game you’ll miss it all.
It’s a beautiful country and you’re on holidays. Have a good time!