Riding the Outback Way: Australia’s Longest Short Cut

SIMON AND LISA THOMAS travel through the heart of Australia along the unforgiving Outback Way on one of the toughest yet enthralling rides of their lives

I want to do a big ride,” I commented to Lisa. “I need some dirt, sand, raw beauty, and a little danger. Just enough to shake me up a little,” I continued naively. I should have known better. We’re perched on the north-east coast of the world’s sixth largest nation and biggest island, Australia. At a petrol station in the small town of Mackay, Lisa tops off the fuel tanks while I check the bikes over. Nearby, the Coral Sea pounds the beach as a stream of boats head out to the Great Barrier Reef. At $250 (£137) per person, the excursion is beyond our budget.

The air carries a salty tang. A warm dry breeze lulls our senses, but it does little to distract me from the knot of anxious excitement growing in my stomach. Ahead is a long and unforgiving route called The Outback Way. It’s known as the world’s longest short cut because it takes you on a direct route across the heart of the country, rather than following the main roads closer to the coast.

Our journey will see us ride more than 3,000 miles, taking in vast, uninhabited desert and extremely challenging terrain, as we traverse this mammoth country from coast to coast diagonally. We’re here to motorcycle the real Australia, the primeval interior where walkabout legends take root in the blood-red earth, and the land whispers to those who listen. We’re headed into the outback.

As we ride away from Mackay, Lisa’s BMW F 650 GS belts out a hefty blat, blat, blat as she eases off the gas, applies the brakes, and pulls to a stop. Six large kangaroos leap in unison across the Peak Downs Highway. The large male at the rear throws us a suspicious stare before disappearing into the tall grass on the other side. “We’re going to have to be very careful of this particular hazard,” I yell to Lisa.

We’re looking at a straight piece of tar that stretches out of sight. Fields of sun-bleached brush grass stretch out under a cloudless sky. After heading west for five hours, we meet the Gregory Development Road and turn south, grateful for the interruption. In the small town of Clermont, we cruise the short main street and stop to refill our water packs. We’re already parched.

The quaint, wooden-decked provisions store looks like it hasn’t changed in decades. Inside, the beaten ‘50’s Coca-Cola fridge is overflowing with chilled bottled water. Handing over our cash, we quickly fill our water sacks.

Jim, a long-distance trucker sporting a thick dusty beard, ancient jeans, and a faded orange safety shirt, is hanging around in the heat outside.

“Struth mate. You’re ready for an adventure, eh?” asks the inquisitive truckie pointing to the motorcycles.

“We’re riding down to Perth across the outback,” Lisa answers.

“You be careful out there. That place wants ya dead. Ah, heck, young fella, good on ya. Mind the roos. Ya’ll be right,” Jim adds with a dry chuckle.

“I think we’ve just met Crocodile Dundee’s dad,” Lisa comments to me with a smile.

The Outback Has Teeth

West of town, the tar ends abruptly with a thump as we drop down to the loose gravel track. With our tyre pressures lowered, we pick up speed. Stood on the pegs, I squeeze the throttle and my rear wheel drifts out before I straighten for the next long left.

For two hours we ride glass gravel, which looks like millions of shiny ball-bearings, and the air becomes pungent as we speed through a grove of silver-barked eucalyptus trees. Clearing the trees, I plough into a deep wash of dust and rocks and instantly shift my weight to compensate. In my mirror, I can see Lisa’s bike is sideways, her rear wheel sliding out violently. In a split second, she’s thrown forward as her 650 GS high sides before smacking the ground hard and flipping. Lisa’s pinned under the front left fuel tank. Adrenaline pumps as I spin around and rush back to her.

Lisa’s yelling as fuel erupts from a split line, drowning her helmet, goggles, and eyes in burning gasoline. She kicks herself free, yanks off her helmet, and pours our recently bought water over her face and into her bloodshot eyes. We lift the bike upright and instantly spot that the punctured rear tyre is partially peeled off the rim.

While Lisa continues to flush out her eyes, I straighten her bent gear shifter and reattach her broken hand guard with a zip tie. She’s shaken but otherwise OK. It’s another 50 minutes before we’re clicking through the gears and once again cruising west.

Later, camped near the tiny outback settlement of Alpha, the embers from our small campfire glow red and we’re witnessing one of the most brilliant star-filled skies we can remember. The Aussie outback has given us fair warning of both the danger and natural wonders to come on this journey.

Patches, Potholes, And Parks

We joined the Landsborough Highway, a long, worn stretch of asphalt, three hours ago. As we cruise northwest, we form a new plan. We’ll aim to reach the Central West Queensland town of Winton where we can get a new tyre for Lisa. We only hope the three heavy patches holding it together will last until then.

On the north of town, we set up camp at the Matilda Country Tourist Park. Across the road, Steve, the local tyre guy, pulls out a very used but rideable Conti TKC 80. Lisa’s grin is a sure sign of her approval and Steve jokes about my repair as he mounts the new rubber to the rim.

For two days we rub shoulders with Winton’s locals. Sitting at the rustic wooden bar in the Men’s Room (yep, men only) at the Tattersalls Hotel, known to everyone as the Tatt. They’ve made an exception for Lisa and we enjoy easy conversation with the regulars. Bill and Murray, two weather-beaten cattlemen, nightly sip on cold amber beer after a 12-hour shift of sun-baked ranching. We learn that Winton has a rich history as the birthplace of both the folklore tune Waltzing Matilda, and Qantas, the second oldest airline in the world.

Soon enough it’s time to leave and by 6am we’re loading the bikes in a swarm of black flies. Back on the dry, flat Kennedy Development Road, our day is long and hot. Roadkill is a sad fact of outback life but the carnage is shocking. We’ve also been warned about the road trains which are trucks that pull up to five trailers behind them. Someone should have also warned the roos. East of Middleton, we slow and carefully skirt the carcasses of 12 kangaroos killed domino style when a train must have torn through the group.

Slowing, we peel off the tar and our wheels spin on the rocky dirt tracks. We negotiate a steep incline to the top of Cawnpore Lookout where we set up camp near a tin-roofed sun shelter. Our rocky vista glows orange as the sun sets and we prepare our evening meal. Tomorrow, the real dirt begins.

Unwelcome Neighbours

At sunrise, in the small hamlet of Boulia, we fill our fuel tanks to the brim. The jolt of handing over £155 for petrol wakes us both up. The fuel here in Australia has been some of the most expensive we’ve found in the world. The remoteness of the outback pushes that cost up even further. With our fuel tanks full, we need to take care of our other fluid necessity, water, and pack a whopping 51l. We’re going to feel that extra weight.

We pass the metal sign for Fence Creek and 4.5 miles outside Boulia we stop by the large faded wooden sign that reads ‘Welcome to the Donohue Highway’. The motorcycles squirm in the soft, ploughed sand track that is the Donohue. Pulling over, we deflate the tyres and rush to get moving again before we roast. My bike’s thermometer reads 50C. We’re keeping a good speed in fourth and fifth gear but dehydrating fast and we’re struggling to ride and drink simultaneously.

“I’m done,” I yell to Lisa. Amid a shrub-strewn landscape, a small copse of trees to my right will provide some shade and a good camping spot for the night. Within 20 minutes we’ve unloaded and set up camp. “F**k me!” I blurt out as I stare beyond Lisa to the 10ft snake slithering its way through the grass toward us. A few pokes with a stick chase it away. Back at our campfire, we are both now keeping our eyes peeled for other unwanted visitors.

The Plenty

Refreshed from a great night’s sleep, a full breakfast, and a pot of strong coffee, we are back on the Donohue and instantly up on the pegs to deal with long washes of very deep sand. Lisa’s controlled application of the throttle keeps her straight and upright as her bike’s back end snakes and weaves. It’s two hours before we cross the border from Queensland into the Northern Territory and start our leg on Australia’s notorious Plenty Highway.

The guidebooks list the Plenty as suitable for 4x4s only. The track tugs on our concentration as it transitions from rock and bull dust, a super fine red dust, to formed earth. We’ve only passed two vehicles in the last three days but we’re forced to swerve into the verge to avoid a truck now steaming toward us. We barrel into the dense cloud created by our recent road-hogging visitor. With zero visibility, we hope there is nothing in our path. Twenty seconds later, we emerge safely.

This country is mind-boggling. The federal Australian Territory of the Northern Territory (NT) is a staggering 520,902 square miles in size, but it is only the third largest territory in Australia. NT is, however, home to some of the most iconic locations in Australia. Think Alice Springs, Ayers Rock, (Uluru is its indigenous name), and the Olgas to name but a few.

The first sign for fuel since we left Boulia 280 miles ago has us detouring right. We hand over £129 and we’re not even empty. By late afternoon, we’ve been motoring for eight hours on a corrugated and sandy track through a barren landscape. Feeling exhausted, we pull over near the dry Arthur Creek to camp, eat, sleep, and dream of green pastures. We repeat this pattern of all-day riding and camping for the next two days until we reach Alice Springs.

Welcome to Alice?

We spend the next three days exploring Alice Springs’ malls, aboriginal galleries, and air-conditioned cafés, which are a nice interlude but not what we’re here for. Restocked, we’re back on the move. South of Alice, we pull over and gulp down water. My thermometer reads 53.3C.

This has been the longest time Alice Spring’s has ever gone without rainfall, not a drop for 157 days. Mark, the owner of the Stuart Caravan and Cabin Tourist Park, where we’d stayed, suggests we camp at a place called Rainbow Valley. Some 46 miles south we turn off the Stuart Highway and within seconds we’re battling to negotiate the deep sand of this narrow track down to the valley.

As we reach a clearing at the valley entrance our mouths drop. Rising from the cracked and salt-encrusted claypan, the multi-coloured sandstone bluffs rise like ancient battlements in shades of ochre, orange, and purple. We set up camp as dark low clouds eerily form. The natural colour and light show we’re privy to for the next two hours is glorious. To our delight, a gentle shower creates a rainbow over the valley and in the distance bolts of lightning crackle through the air.

Monoliths In The Desert

We skirt the southerly flanks of the West MacDonnell National Park before we pick the smaller outback tracks south and again join the Stuart Highway. Orange, Maloney, and Five Mile Creek are in our rear-view mirrors. With more than 1,300 miles to Perth, we have to pick up speed. We scoff a couple of burgers and cold cokes at the Mount Ebenezer Roadhouse before throwing our tired bodies back onto the bikes.

Flying through 140 miles, we’re cruising easily in the mid-afternoon. Our fatigue is replaced with a childlike excitement. In the distance, the hulking shape of Australia’s bestknown landmark begins to dominate the horizon.

Ayers Rock, or Uluru, rises 1,141ft into the sky from the flat desert surface. It also pushes down approximately 1.9 miles below. We spend two days walking and exploring this colossal UNESCO World Heritage site. For the past 10,000 years, Aborigines have considered themselves protectors of this ancient, sacred, coarse, orange sandstone monolith.

On the eastern corner of Uluru, we rest in the shade of trees and photograph the ancient aboriginal hand paintings that adorn the rock. At 2.2 miles long and 1.2 miles wide, Uluru emits an otherworldly charm. We fall easily under the spell of serenity and timelessness here.

Pushing on toward Perth, we spend an afternoon on the new asphalt that snakes among the Kata Tjuta, which is the indigenous name for The Olgas. The domes, a set of 36 gigantic rock formations, are believed to have formed at a similar time to Uluru. Cruising among these incredible and ancient orange rocks, we feel but tiny specks passing through time.

A Blanket Of Stars

We push hard through four days of long, sandy washboard roads and come to our last night in the outback. Camping near the Malcolm Dam Nature Reserve, we prepare a meal as a family of pelicans breeze in and set about their evening chores. A cool breeze gives us a few hours of respite from the punishing arid heat of the last few weeks.

As daylight disappears, we marvel silently at one of the most spectacular night skies either of us has ever seen. It’s the outback’s swan song for us. We listened for the real Australia and now and then we heard the land whisper. We’ll see you again. Tomorrow we’ll be in Perth and the end of the world’s longest short cut. What an incredible adventure.

Want To Ride Australia

The official route of The Outback Way runs for 1,677 miles, from Winton to Laverton through the heart of Australia’s harsh and unforgiving landscape. However, we chose to start on the east coast at Mackay and end on the west coast in Perth.

Australia is the world’s smallest continent and its population density is among the lowest on Earth. Most Australians live along the south-eastern coastline as desert (the outback) covers most of the land. It’s an expensive country to visit with fuel costs ranging from £1.30 per litre in the cities to £2 per litre in more remote areas.

The Outback is home to venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, and hungry crocodiles so take precautions if you plan on camping in the great outdoors. English is mainly spoken and the majority of the population is Christian. The Australian dollar is worth approximately 55p. When traveling in the outback, cash is king. Many roadhouses, which also provide fuel, do not have cash machines and cannot accept credit cards.

Despite plenty of climatic variation, ‘The Dry’ lasts roughly from April to September and ‘The Wet’ runs from October to March. The best time to travel in the outback is during the winter, June to August.

HOW TO GET THERE

UK citizens must pay £15 to apply for an Electronic Travel Authority (ETA) at www.eta.immi.gov.au. For visits longer than three months, you’ll need a visa.

Most flights to Australia from the UK are from Heathrow Airport. A carnet de passage is required if you plan to take your own motorcycle which will be subjected to a very strict quarantine inspection upon arrival.

Moto Freight currently offers sea freight of a BMW R 1200 GS-size motorcycle from London to Brisbane for £880, including clearance, handling, and arrival charges in Australia. Visit www.motofreight.com for more information.

FOOD AND LODGING

There is no need to eat bush tucker during your time in the outback. Roadhouses providing fuel, rooms, basic food, water, and camping are found (albeit infrequently) along the route. Costs are generally higher in the outback. A basic double room cost between £76 to £114, a meal is £11 to £15, and camping is £19. There are many places to wild camp.

ROADS AND BIKING

Traffic drives on the left side of well-maintained, high-quality pavement near population centres. Outback routes are usually dirt, gravel, and sand roads or tracks. They are not regularly maintained. Be aware of kangaroos that suddenly bound out in front of you. Make sure you check road conditions and distances between fuel and water supplies before heading off. Permits are required to travel through Aboriginal land.