Safe Outback Travel

Flying over remote Australia gives travellers a good overview, but you can’t beat driving from one side to the other at your own pace, to get a real feel for the country.   With careful driving at a speed adjusted to suit to the specific road conditions, standard suburban 2wd cars will get to most places without difficulty.  A 4wd is only required to drive through water deeper than around 20cm, soft sand/mud or very steep sided gullies.  None of which are found on main bitumen or dirt roads (apart from during heavy rain – unusual during the dry season).  Where can you go? 

Local tourist bureaus usually have good maps showing interesting local places accessible to visitors.  Unfortunately very few of Australia’s remote cattle stations are open to visitors. The reasons are basically the same as for any other business operation, plus the added complications associated with being located in isolated areas (a long way from medical help, for example).

In any case, for most of the year the ‘action’ (mustering) is taking place quite a distance from the main homestead, often in areas that are hard to find and/or difficult to drive to, so it’s pointless for tourists to call in to homesteads expecting to see some action on the mustering front.

Public roads pass through some stations however venturing off these main roads (for any reason) is trespassing in the same way that an uninvited stranger would be trespassing if they were poking around in your backyard.

The resident property owner or manager is not only responsible for running a very large business, they are also responsible for the residents on the station and the welfare of the surrounding environment and animals.

However cattle stations are situated on either side of main public roads, so travellers can get lucky and find them driving through the midst of a muster near the road, during the dry season.

Travellers in remote areas will find their travels much more enjoyable if they are well prepared. The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) has an exceedingly practical and comprehensive list of advice on safe outback travel, as well as interesting information about the service provided by the RFDS.

Other organisations such as four wheel drive and motoring clubs have good information on safe outback travel.

Recommendations for Outback Travel

1. Avoid driving at night

People on the job such as truck and bus drivers obviously have good reason to be driving at odd times but I cannot understand why any visitor would want to drive around after sunset. What is the point of driving through a place you’ve never been to before if you can’t see the countryside?

It’s a lot more difficult to avoid colliding with livestock or native animals when driving in the dark. Peak roadside feeding times for roos are around sunrise and sunset and they are disoriented by headlights.

In the tropics the sun rises and sets quickly and twilight is relatively brief. Many roads in flat country align with the rising and setting sun, so it’s a good idea to avoid driving until the sun has been up for 30 minutes or so and stop 30 minutes before it sets. If the sun is behind you it won’t be in your eyes but it will be shining in the eyes of anyone driving towards you.

2. Slow down straight away if you spot animals or wildlife up ahead, don’t leave it until the last minute.

Wallabies and kangaroos will often sit indecisively until you’re almost level with them then decide to hop across the road at the last minute. However at least they tend to hop in a straight line, unlike emus, which can be best described as erratic. Their behaviour is totally unpredictable.

Wedgetailed eagles often feed on roadkill and they take a while to get airborne (running along on their feathery pantaloons), so if you spot one up ahead start slowing down immediately. They are majestic birds and usually perch as close to the tucker as possible. You may be fortunate enough to get a really good look if you pull up quietly and don’t scare them off by opening the doors of your car.

3. Trucks/Roadtrains

Never camp in truck stops. Drivers are on the job and need these large parking spots to have a well-earned sleep. For safety reasons, stay in camping grounds. Police in western Queensland and the Northern Territory have been telling travellers this for decades. Be aware that if you camp overnight anywhere you like along the road you’re taking a risk. Just as you would be if you camped beside the road in the middle of a town.

There aren’t more dangerous people running around the bush than in town, but because visitors particularly can presume ‘we’re in the outback now, we can trust everyone and everything’, sometimes people get slap-happy about security and leave themselves open to trouble.

Give roadtrains plenty of room when passing or when they’re turning because the third trailer might flick you off the road. If the road is single-lane bitumen trucks ALWAYS have right of way. If they are towing trailers, they risk overturning if they put their wheels off the bitumen. Roadtrains carting mining ore with tip trailers usually carry 30 tonnes per trailer – 90 tonnes all up. They cannot possibly move off the road. In any case, you’ll be less likely to get a cracked windscreen if you get right off the road, and stop if possible. On a dirt road roadtrains kick up a lot of dust, and often there’s more than one truck or another vehicle travelling behind, so put your headlights on low beam and stay well off the road until the dust clears.

4. Be kind to the locals

Don’t whinge if there’s not much grass to park the van on, instead imagine what it’s like to live in a hot dry climate where water is very precious. Don’t whine about the prices – many small businesses in remote areas have trouble carving out a living and work very long hours. The surrounding population is often insufficient to make their business viable and the tourist season is short, so be pleased that there is a shop there at all. Their freight bills are massive – whatever they’re selling probably came from hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. Hearing their tenth person for the day complaining because the price is more than what they paid in Paddington a couple of months ago will not improve their sense of humour and a complaining attitude will not endear you to the locals, whereas you will be well received if you show a bit of empathy. In addition to which, if you need a hand, you’ll be depending on locals to help you. They can spot a patronising blow-in from 100 yards and helpfulness will be subtly downscaled accordingly.

5. Banks

Your brand of bank might have a branch in every suburb in your city and all over your state, but it might be as scarce as chook’s teeth elsewhere. Good idea to check up on this before you go and have accounts with more than one bank. And of course there’s plenty of little rural towns that no longer have any bank at all, so don’t get down to your last five cents before refilling the wallet, unless you know for certain where your next bank is. Power outages due to storms or other headaches sometimes mean Eftpos isn’t available, so it pays to have a bit of cash handy to pay for fuel in remoter areas.

6. The Heat

It is hot most of the year in the northern inland. Adjusting the way you operate is a smart way to have a stress-free holiday. Start early, take it easy during the heat of the day and get out and about again when the sun is about to retire. Do too much running around in the middle of the day and you won’t have a fun time. Shopping, driving in air conditioning or having a siesta are ideal ways to spend the hottest hours of the day. The secret of success is putting a bit of thought into planning your days, so that you aren’t trying to do too much or drive too far in one day.

Darwin often gets a burst of humidity in August. A lot of people panic and hitch up their caravans immediately and point them south. If you sit out this premature burst of humidity you’ll often get a few particularly enjoyable, peaceful weeks after the masses have headed home.

7. Dirt Roads

If travelling on dirt roads in remote areas, the golden rules are: ensure your vehicle is in good condition, tell reliable people (family members) of your travel plans and take plenty of water. If your vehicle breaks down stay with it. People are exceedingly difficult to spot from the air but vehicles are very easy by comparison. The last but most important golden rule is slow down. Firstly because it might save you from a fatal crash, and secondly because you’ll knock your vehicle around too much if you speed. You might have a top-drawer four-wheel-drive but nothing is indestructible. Suburban sedans can go most places if driven carefully (our cars go everywhere), while the toughest 4WD will fall to bits if treated like its unbreakable.

8. Private Property

Remember that if you’re more than a few metres from the edge of the road, you’re probably standing on property that is privately owned and they’re responsible for looking after it. If you are wandering around without permission, you’re trespassing. And if you’re camping on a station that runs a camping ground, you should be paying the fee they ask rather than sneaking a few hundred yards away. Remember these locals are the people you’d have to turn to for medical or mechanical help if you’d need it.

9. Water

Australia is the driest continent on earth so water should not be wasted anywhere – but particularly where rainfall is low and unreliable.

Soap, detergent, sunscreen and insect repellent are all chemicals that should never be put into any water than animals (either native birds and animals or domestic stock) are relying on. Small amounts may not poison the animals however it could put them off drinking, for example cattle may refuse to drink from a trough that has strong smelling soap in the water.

10. Litter

This would seem blindingly obvious, but judging by the amount of roadside rubbish in some areas, it is clearly not obvious to everyone. If you can take it out of town you can take it back – don’t leave your rubbish lying around in the bush. Not even cigarette butts or paper. Don’t think it’s ok to bury it, either – take it away with you.

In fact if you can pick up a bit of someone else’s rubbish then please do – once there is a bit of rubbish left lying around many people seem to think it’s then ok to add to it.

When visiting creeks and waterfalls we take spare plastic bags with us which we can usually fill with broken glass and cans that have been left lying around.

If everyone took a little bit of rubbish away then the world would be a lot cleaner. Encourage others to do likewise as they travel around – you can make a significant difference, a little bit at a time.

11. Road Rules

The road rules vary between states and these differences are worth checking up on if you’re travelling around Australia, particularly if you are towing a trailer or caravan.

If you are from another country, the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) of New South Wales has produced information booklets on Australian road rules in different languages.

The Australian Automobile Association (AAA) has information on subjects such as International Driving Permits as well as a list of links to other motoring information websites and a complete list of the main motoring organisations in Australia.

12. Take more than one Map

GPS systems and maps are often inaccurate in remote areas.  So always take more than one map, have a good idea of where you’re headed, and always allow a margin of extra time to complete travel before dark.