“General rule of how much water you need in the outback is three litres per day, per person, per man, per degree over 25 degrees, per kilometre if on foot. In the winter months divide by 2 plus...another litre.”
– Russell Coight
As budgies swarm in their thousands across the Mitchell grass plains of Western Queensland, and the afternoon sun lights up the brilliant greens and yellows of these quintessentially Australian birds, the heat and flies of the Outback are quickly forgotten. For most, travelling around in The Outback in the hottest part of the year is not high on the list of priorities, but heat and flies and long distance driving are part of our business as Outback photographers. With adequate preparation and safety precautions, you too can head to The Outback where, surprisingly, you will be rewarded with scenery and wildlife that the majority of Australians will never see.
One particular trip that always sticks out in my mind took place over thirty years ago and sparked a love for the New South Wales Outback, which has stayed strong all these years. It was late November and I travelled from Broken Hill to Innamincka is an old tray back Landcruiser with no air conditioning. We travelled via Tibooburra and stayed at the Family Hotel, with the famous Clifton Pugh mural by the bar, and eventually made it to Innamincka. The temperature soared to over 500 during that trip, but I met some interesting characters, learnt a lot and developed a true love for Outback travel.
This past summer I found myself again headed into the heart of The Outback, this time on photographic assignment. In the middle of one of the worst droughts in living memory, and with temperatures hovering in the mid 40s, the likelihood of coming back with much good material seemed somewhat unlikely. In fact I was rewarded with some amazing shots as wildlife came from far and wide to gather around the few available water sources.
Year after year, more people are visiting the outback, all with their own personal goals and ambitions. Outback travel is about heading off in search of the unknown, and maybe finding out something about yourself on the way. Most people who venture into the vastness of Australia’s red interior are well prepared and travel safely, yet a few are not and pay the price. Proper preparation is integral to any trip into the Outback. For most of us, that’s what it’s all about, heading off on an adventure, whilst being prepared for whatever we may encounter, being self-sufficient and not having to rely upon others to come to our rescue.
Mid-winter is the most popular time to travel The Outback, but it shouldn’t be regarded as the only option. While temperatures may be more comfortable, some of the more popular areas do tend to get somewhat crowded. Travelling The Outback during the shoulder season and even during summer itself can be a great option, as can heading north to the Top End during the wet season.
Seasoned Outback traveller or not, 500 weather is no fun at all, and even temperatures in the high 40s definitely stretch one’s ability to cope. But when temperatures are in the early 40s or less, there’s absolutely no reason that an Outback trip can’t be enjoyable, particularly if this is your only chance to head west. Warmer temperatures mean fewer crowds, no footprints on the sand dunes, no one camping near you or getting in your way.
Distances between Outback towns are often long, and the distances between fuel stops are equally vast. Probably the last thing you want to do in the middle of a hot summer Outback day is to find you don’t have enough fuel to make it to your destination.
We always top up our tanks when we pass through the small towns, ensuring that we have plenty of range in case of unexpected road closures, which do occur, or if we encounter wet weather, which can happen sometimes with little warning. Muddy roads and hard long slogs in the wet will increase your fuel consumption dramatically. You also need to be prepared for high fuel prices, with $1.99 per litre not unusual in the more remote locations.
Tip - carry more fuel than you think you need, and the same goes for water - 10 litres per person per day minimum.
Driving The Outback in summer presents its own problems for vehicles and their occupants. Most are caused through inadequate preparation or not carrying essential spare parts. Before heading to The Outback, a proper service is mandatory. Air, oil and fuel filters should be replaced along with oil and coolants. Your service should check and, replace if necessary, transmission fluids, transfer cases and diff oil, and tyres need to be in top-notch condition before leaving home.
Winter or the middle of summer, I never travel into The Outback without a full replacement set of hoses, hose clamps, belts and filters. The most likely cause of catastrophic engine failure is the loss of coolant. Even a minor leak can lead to overheating and cracked cylinder heads which will put a serious damper on your travel plans. Fan belts and hoses are cheap, and great insurance against engine failure. Replacement in the bush can be fiddly, but almost anyone can replace hoses and belts if the need arises but without them, you are going nowhere.
There is plenty of advice out there about the correct tyre pressures for differing road surfaces – 25psi is the norm for gravel roads, and normal tyre pressure for bitumen. Believe it or not, most tyre failures occur on bitumen after travelling for some time on gravel roads. With lower tyre pressures on gravel to reduce the likelihood of punctures, travelling on the bitumen with lower than optimum tyre pressures will cause overheating leading to failure.
Summer bitumen road temperatures can soar to well over 700. Combine this with low tyre pressures and you will eventually see tyre failure. Keep your tyre pump handy and make tyre pressure adjustments as necessary. The publican at Marree in South Australia reported recently of a tourist who blew four tyres after driving in 500 heat with under inflated tyres.
Whatever you do, chances are you will blow a tyre at some point, and possibly more than one. We always carry two spare wheels and tyres. Note wheels and tyres. Unless you are particularly well equipped, you will probably not be able to change a tyre on a tubeless rim out bush, and two spare wheels and tyres are essential. Take plugs and applicators to repair minor punctures for sure, but you can’t rely on being able to repair all tyre failures – some are just beyond repair, so take two.
One thing you will find out very quickly in the outback is that the mobile phone that is now so much a part of our daily lives, becomes only really useful as an alarm clock. A bare minimum for any trip to the bush, and especially out west, is a good UHF radio, and a basic knowledge of how to use it. That said, UHF radios have a range of 10 to 15 kilometres, and with travel distances often involving hundreds of kilometres, combined with very few people travelling during summer, you really should think of some alternatives.
Although we monitor Channel 40, most of the properties and stations have their own working channels. In some parts, visitor information centres can supply you with a list of station channels, which can be very useful in contacting the stations in times of emergency. You need to be aware of where you are and make note of the station names as you pass by.
We take our SPOT. Regular readers might recall our article in the June 2013 edition of 4WD Touring Australia about these amazing little devices. With the ability to send SOS, help messages, a custom message and tracking sent every 10 minutes for our family to follow our progress via a web site, this is the best insurance we have seen for Outback travel. Police and National Parks rangers carry these as a matter of course and we would never travel without it.
If you are planning more remote travel, a satellite phone is a great standby (you can rent these from some Outback Visitor Information centres), as is an EPIRB, but absolutely critical is letting someone know where you will be, particularly if you plan to head off the main roads. Travel with another vehicle if possible when away from well-travelled roads, and take sufficient recovery gear to get yourself out of trouble.
I generally camp when travelling The Outback, in order to be outdoors at dawn and dusk, when the light is best for photography. There are plenty of great camping options available, all of which have their own specific benefits.
Swags are pretty hard to beat for shear simplicity and convenience, and are generally the go-to option for quick overnight trips. Touring tents are another great option for overnight stops, and are better suited to couples and small families. Rooftop tents are popular with those travelling up north during the wet season – they get you up away from the ground, water, crocs and any creepy crawlies.
Camper trailers are the best option for families, particularly if you value a little comfort, or you plan to be on the road for an extended time – sleeping in swags or the back of your car is all well and good for quick trips, but not when you’re on the road for weeks at a time or you’ve got the family in tow!
For most, travelling outback involves mainly well-made roads, and offroad excursions are generally to well known locations. But during summer, these excursions should be taken with other travellers or at the very least it is essential to let someone know where you are travelling and when you are due back. In the event of trouble, you need to be able to get yourself unstuck. Channels and creeks can run in The Outback even with no rain, with water travelling hundreds of kilometres from where it rained months earlier. Our recent trip in the west saw channels running where rain had not fallen for two years.
If heading offroad, even for a few kilometres, you need your basic safety and recovery gear – it’s all about being self sufficient out in the west. The best recovery gear we have come across is a set of MaxTrax and a long handled shovel. Winches are great if you have something to hook onto, and snatch straps great if there is another vehicle, but with MaxTrax you can, with some of effort, get yourself out of most situations. A high lift jack is next on your list - these can get you out lots of trouble if you know how to use them and take care.
If you don’t need to camp, or the weather is extremely hot, staying in an air-conditioned room in an Outback pub can be a great option. Some of your most memorable experiences when travelling The Outback are the people you will meet, and the pubs are really great places to connect to the locals and to get a feel of what life is really like in the west.
The Outback has so much to offer. It is the stuff of Australian legend and folklore, of magic landscapes and amazingly kind and welcoming people. It is a part of the world where time seems to have little significance, where days are marked by colour and solitude, and where you can find a place in yourself that connects to the landscape in a particularly special way. A trip to the Outback doesn’t need to be dangerous or uncomfortable, so long as you’re well prepared and self reliant, the rewards will be immeasurable.