A rough unsealed red dirt road stretching more than one thousand kilometres through the Australian outback. Full of dust, potholes and corrugations. Wild horses and camels crossing your path. Dingos (wild dogs) lurking in the bushes tracking your movements. Fuel stops hundreds of kilometres apart, with no guarantee there will be any supplies when you reach one!
The Great Central Road is one of the last challenging outback routes in Australia, stretching between the remote northern goldfields of Western Australia and the mighty sandstone monolith Uluru in the Northern Territory. You need a permit to travel this road as it passes through aboriginal land and communities which are off limits unless you are invited in. The permit is free and can be obtained easily online from https://www.ngaanyatjarra.org.au/permits/getting-permit
The Great Central road is an adventure that will not suit the fainthearted. Preparation and good planning are essential, even more so than I advocate usually for holiday travel. Because without it, this trip may not end well. Along the way are roadhouses that supply fuel, food, basic accommodation, caravan and camping spots. You should book well ahead, and double check your booking before you start your trip.
I set off from the tiny West Australian town of Laverton with my hubby and a couple of friends who travelled in tandem with us in July – winter in Australia. July to October is the ideal time to do this trip with temperatures usually in the mid to high 20’s celsius. Though take a jacket, because evenings and early mornings can be chilly. You can go from a warm fleece top to shorts and t shirt in one day!
We took advice to travel with at least one other car for support in case of a breakdown or any other emergency. Before we set out, we also checked road conditions with the Shire of Laverton online site which issues regular reports online. Help en route is not easily at hand!
Laverton is close to a thousand kilometres from the WA capital, Perth. So we had already travelled a long way on sealed highways before we reached the start of the Great Central road.
Laverton’s Great Beyond Visitor Centre and Explorers Hall of Fame is worth stopping at. They have a small cafe and gift shop. During 2020 with the pandemic, they closed up to expand and renovate. Reopening was due in March 2021.
Ideally, your vehicle should be a 4WD. I did see regular cars en route – usually broken down or rusting by the side of the road. No tow trucks out here! Apparently 2W cars can make it through by going very slowly. Not something I’d try though. It was rough , difficult and slow enough in our Toyota Landcruiser.
The road’s condition depends a lot on whether road graders have been through just ahead of you and have smoothed the way a bit. Be prepared for plenty of bumps and so much dust that if another car is oncoming, it’ll simply look like a massive dust storm approaching! It is quite eerie seeing a vehicle emerge from it.
Driving the Great Central road can be very challenging. You can be on a hard surface of loose pebbles one minute, and into swathes of red sand the next.
The Royal Automobile Club recommends that if you haul a caravan, it should be suitable for off road.
Some people driving the Great Central road free camp at night in the bush – an evening campfire in the Australian outback under a star lit pollution free sky is magic. I’ve enjoyed it in the Kimberley region of Western Australia.
But for this trip, we chose roadhouse accommodation. Basic, but satisfactory. However, we did pack a tent and sleeping bags, along with food, drink and other emergency supplies, in case we failed to reach a roadhouse.
Our first overnight stop was at the Tjukayirla roadhouse, 306 kilometres from our start. With no stops, that will take you just over 5 hours to complete – an indication of how difficult this road is. En route we spotted our first wild camels by the side of the road. We would see more camel mobs before our journey was over, including their footprints on the road.
The Tjukayirla roadhouse is deep within the Great Victoria desert, providing accommodation from backpackers and basic ensuite clean rooms through to caravan and camping sites – all within a gated area for security. Their shop sells takeaway food such as burgers. We had booked accommodation, but somehow the booking had gone astray. Fortunately, they had units for us. There’s nowhere else to go!
Our units were provided with an outdoor barbecue which we put to good use for our evening meal!
We were a bit shocked to find the Tjukayirla roadhouse was out of diesel because the fuel truck hadn’t come through on time. Luckily, it arrived early the next morning, or we would have had to stay longer than planned. This is something that apparently happens from time to time, especially in school holidays when fuel demand is high.
The Great Central Road can seem fairly monotonous until you approach the Northern Territory border. It’s flat and fairly straight. But in fact there are plenty of interesting sights en route if you’ve researched and know where to look.
Our travelling companions brought along a detailed Hema map which alerted us to places of interest coming up. Usually there were no signs, just a small track going off the road which you could easily miss if you didn’t know about it. Without a map, we would have missed out on so much.
We operated two way radios for communication between our two vehicles. Because of the dust, we kept a reasonable distance from each other and the radios enabled us to keep in touch. No point in one vehicle barrelling on towards Uluru unaware that the car behind had broken down!
Our next overnight stop was at Warburton roadhouse, another 4 hour plus drive to reach. Here the gated accommodation fences were topped with barbed wire.
Walking distance from the roadhouse is the Tjulyura Cultural and Civic Centre, housing a large collection of aboriginal arts, crafts and publications. It’s well worth visiting. There’s plenty of room to park – after-all, you are in the middle of the Great Victoria Desert. So I thought the parking sign below showed someone had a sense of Aussie humour!
We were looking forward to our next overnight stop at Warakurna, with the famous Giles Weather Station close by to see. It’s said to be the loneliest weather station in mainland Australia, and dates back to the 1950’s, with staff working there on lengthy rotations. One of Australia’s most famous surveyors and road builders Len Beadell worked here, and his road grader, which travelled more than 30 thousand kilometres on outback roads, is preserved at the station. Some of his drawings also are on display here too. They are wonderfully done, but not politically correct in these modern times. You can see weather balloons being sent up while visiting. Tours of the weather station also are offered occasionally. But it’s down to your luck and good timing for both of these events.
Giles provided support for rocket testing programmes at Woomera in the 1960’s, and wreckage from the first Blue Streak missile launched from Woomera (in South Australia) is on display at Giles. I was surprised to see hose connections inside it still intact!
The accommodation at the Warakurna roadhouse was the best we found along the Great Central road. We went for the ‘upmarket’ self contained units, which were quite new. The surrounding countryside was also quite lovely, especially at dawn and dusk when sunrise and sunset cast wonderful light hues across the landscape. I was out very early in the morning with my camera, blissfully unaware of the dangers of wandering around by myself until I spotted a wild dingo watching me from the scrub and following in my wake. I very slowly back tracked towards the roadhouse, trying to avoid eye contact. If he had attacked me, I would not have fared well! Fortunately my husband appeared from the roadhouse looking for me and this seemed to frighten the dingo off. Message there .. don’t go walking in the outback scrub by yourself!
From Warakurna, we headed to the end of the Great Central road and onto Uluru. But not before stopping off en route to see the famous Lasseter’s Cave, about 42 kilometres past the tiny Docker River settlement. In 1929, gold prospector Harold Lasseter famously claimed to have discovered a rich reef of gold in this region. but later couldn’t locate it again in 1931 when he returned with an expedition. He separated from the expedition and became stranded in the bush when deserted by his camels. Lasseter’s diary details how he took refuge in a cave for around 25 days. Assisted by local aborigines, he was given food and water. But he decided to try to walk to safety, dying three days later.
The reef was never found. Whether it really existed, no one knows. But the path to the cave is well sign posted from the road, and it’s quite a tranquil spot. Well worth visiting.
From Lasseter’s Cave we pushed on to teach the end of the Great Central Road and move on to a stay at Uluru in the Northern Territory. As we approached the border of Western Australia with the Northern Territory, the scenery became a lot more interesting and colourful with the changing topography that was of particular interest to the geology fans amongst us.
We did come across several small patches of bitumen along our route. They never lasted long. Just as you began breathing a sigh of relief to be back on a sealed road, it was over and your wheels hit the dirt again!
But on the border of the two States, we encountered a beautiful run of bitumen that seemed to stretch ahead as far as the eye could see. It appeared freshly sealed and we were thrilled! We’d made it! We’d reached the end of the Great Central Road.
You can’t imagine the joy you feel as your vehicle slides onto a smooth sealed tarmac after so much dirt road! Hubby and our companions laid down on its surface and enjoyed the moment! Unfortunately, this sealed tarmac also disappeared pretty quickly as we moved into the Northern Territory. It was a little like giving you a lick of a delicious ice cream and then taking it away!
Uluru wasn’t too far off though. Before we knew it, we were amongst thousands of tourists there. A stark contrast to the quiet isolation of the Great Central road.
Thinking back, it was the fact that the road was still unsealed that provided the adventure of this outback trip. There are plans to completely seal it, and work is already underway. The opportunity to travel the Great Central road in its raw adventurous state will slip away over the coming years. We’re glad we did it!