Outback Australia Road Trip – Part 1 – Sydney to Port Augusta (Full Article)

There is no shortage of great outback adventures in Australia. To get a good taste of the outback, without needing a four-wheel drive, the trip from Port Augusta via Uluru and Alice Springs, all the way to Darwin, is an unforgettable experience through the heart of the red continent.

This Part 1 of the trip describes a route from Sydney via Wagga Wagga, Canberra, Burra to Port Augusta. The description of Part 2 of the route (See the LINK) can also be found under articles in the menu bar. The second Part of the trip covers the route from Port Augusta to Coober Pedy and the sites around Uluru, and continues via Watarrka to Alice Springs. Part 3 of this road trip will describes the route from Alice Springs to Darwin, and will be published soon.

The Blue Mountains at Kotoomba (Photo: Jan Haenraets).

There are several options to drive from Sydney to Port Augusta, and this is only one of them. It offers a good flavor of the Australian nature, history and culture. This description is intended to be of help to anyone wanting to plan or undertake this trip, and for those who just want to get a visual impression of the landscape and sites that you pass along the way. It’s written in a manner that hopefully is useful to find your way and spot some of the interesting features along the way. Some may be interested in covering the whole journey, others maybe only a part of it. Lots of people fly directly to Alice Springs or Yulura to visit the red heart of Australia. If you have the time and energy, it certainly is worthwhile to drive all the way. It gives an idea of the scale of Australia, the distances and the subtle changes in the landscape.

If you make a start in Sydney in the morning, than you will head south towards Goulburn, a good place for brunch and fueling up if you left early in Sydney. As an option you could make a detour via the Greater Blue Mountains, just east of Sydney, and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If you just have a couple hours to get a general impression of the Blue Mountains, than the town of Kotoomba is a good place to head to. A walk along the ridge walk will offer good views and you can see Echo Point and the Three Sisters. For those with plenty of time, the Blue Mountains are excellent terrain for hikes of several days.

Back to the road southwards, where in Goulbourn you will continue to Wagga Wagga via the Hume Highway. As an option you can make a detour via ‘Bush-Capital’ Canberra and the National Capitol Territory, about 280 kilometers southwest of Sydney. Earlier settlements existed in the Canberra area, but the site was only selected as the location for the new Australian Capitol Territory in 1908.

A view over Canberra to the Burley Griffin Lake, with the vista from the the War Memorial over Anzac Boulevard to Capitol Hill (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Canberra was developed as a completely new planned city, with design influences from the Garden City Movement. Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin from Chicago were selected after an international competition to develop the plan. The on-site construction of the strong geometric Griffin Plan commenced in 1913. Canberra has a high number of government facilities and buildings, such as the Parliament House. It has a number of excellent museums including the Australian War Memorial, Australian Gallery and Australian Museum.

The Australian National Botanic Garden is also worth a visit and a walk along, or drive around, the planned Lake Burley Griffin gives a good impression of the wider landscape of the city. Canberra has a general pleasant green feel with good urban open spaces, and a beautiful forest and bush countryside setting. It is one of those new planned cities about which you will hear many non-Canberra residents say that it is not a success, while the locals in general say they love it. Similar opinions exist for instance about capital cities like Brasilia in Brazil or Chandigarh in India.

Emus in the Hay Plains (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012)
Emus in the Hay Plains (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012)

After Wagga Wagga you continue to Hay via the Sturt Highway. Hay is a good place for an overnight stay and a beautiful ‘outback’ town by the Murrumbidgee River. If you think this is the outback, than wait until you get up to Coober Pedy and Glendambo later on in the journey. Hay is again a good place to fuel up. Making sure that you always have plenty of fuel is the key to a successful trip into the outback.

From Hay make your way to Balranald and keep an eye out for the emus on the edges of the road from about fifty kilometers before Balranald. This stretch of road is called the Hay Plains and is largely devoid of trees and you’ll easily spot some Emus along the road. If you look carefully in the most barren stretch along the way you will see a sign to a sheep station called ‘Hell’s Gate’.

Hell's Gate Sheep Station in the Hay Plains (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Hell’s Gate Sheep Station in the Hay Plains (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Continue through to Mildura, which is just over the New South Wales border in Victoria. There are some good examples of art deco in this large country town. Again do not forget to fuel up here. To give you an idea of distance, from the outskirts of Sydney it would take about fourteen hours non-stop driving to Mildura.

Quarantine restrictions when crossing the state border to South Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Quarantine restrictions when crossing the state border to South Australia (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Soon you will be heading towards South Australia. Keep in mind that on your journey into South Australia it is illegal to take fresh fruit and vegetables across the border. Vehicles will be checked at the border, so make sure that you do not have apples, lettuce, and so on. There are plenty warning sites along the road and places to dispose of fresh fruits and vegetables. Many tourists have a good healthy eating frenzy near the border before they ditch the surplus.

As you continue towards South Australia you will drive through a town called Paringa. This is a nice small town with a couple good reasons for taking a short rest stop there. There is the Paringa Bakery in the main street, which is on a right turn off the Sturt Highway. They serve excellent bakery and good coffee. Across the road and square there is a large stump of a River Red Gum. Interpretation describes its history and the efforts that went into getting it in situ.

Paringa Bakery (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012)
Paringa Bakery (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012)

From here, travel towards Berri, which is in the Riverland region of South Australia. Most of Australia’s fruit comes from this region. You might like to have lunch at Banrock Station, a famous winery and wetland at Kingston-on-Murray, just off the Sturt Highway.

From here, get back onto the Sturt Highway to Waikerie. Waikerie is not a bad place for an overnight stay and it is only about one hour from the vineyards of the famed Barossa Valley.

River Red Gum stump in Paringa (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
River Red Gum stump in Paringa (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Leaving Paringa you will head towards Renmark, a town with some good Art Deco, like Mildura. Renmark was once a critical transport node on the Murray River. It is a very large country town and a good place to stock up on supplies for the next section of your trip.

In Waikerie, take the road to Cadell, via Ramco, which is a very pleasant scenic drive along the river. At Cadell you will have to cross the Murray River on the free ferry and continue to Morgan. The ferry is just a few minutes, perfect to stretch your legs and enjoy the river scenery.

Morgan is where the Murray River takes a sharp turn southwards towards the ocean. From a historical standpoint, this town is significant in that it serviced nearby Burra during the mining years. You will notice that the hillsides are denuded, as they were cut to power the copper mines in the 1800s. From Morgan, you will take the road to Burra.

Ferry across the Murray River in Cadell (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
Ferry across the Murray River in Cadell (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

Burra started as a single company mining township, after copper deposit was discovered in 1845. It worthwhile to take at least several hours out to tour the historic sites in Burra or even stay overnight. Miners were mainly immigrants from Scotland, Wales, Cornwall in England, and Germany.

The Burra Burra mine or ‘Monster Mine’ was named after the Burra Burra Creek that flows through the town, and was until 1860 the largest metal mine in Australia.

The historic mining town of Burra (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

The original inhabitants of the area were the Ngadjuri Aboriginal people. In 1839 there was first Western contact and by 1878 their population was reported as extinct, much due to the introduction of European diseases. At the tourist centre you can pick up the ‘key’ to the Redruth Gaol. Also make sure you visit the ‘dug outs’ and the old mines to see how they were worked. Walk the small town centre to see the different architecture by the Cornish and Scots, as there are some amazing buildings.

Leaving Burra you will take the road to Crystal Brook. This is at the beginning of the beautiful Flinders’ Ranges and depending on your schedule it is a good place to camp and stay overnight. From here you take the highway to Port Augusta. Before you get to Port Augusta you may wish to take a short detour and visit Port Pirie, where they smelt lead. For those of you with lots of spare time, you could also pass via Adelaide. Many travelers that are on a return trip Sydney-Uluru-Sydney will on the return route go via Adelaide, Great Ocean Road and Melbourne.

At Port Pirie you will get your first real glimpse of the Spencer Gulf and another look of the Flinders Ranges.

As you drive northwards towards Port Augusta it is certainly worth the time to visit Port Germein to see the historic jetty. Port Germein is a small seaside town with a population of a couple hundred. A long jetty was built in 1881 because of very shallow water along the coast. This made it momentarily a significant transport hub.

A dive of the historic jetty at Port Germein (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
A dive of the historic jetty at Port Germein (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

The jetty was at that time the largest jetty in the Southern Hemisphere. In 1883 the jetty was extended to a length of 1,680m and a lighthouse was erected at the its end in 1894. Now a more recent lighthouse, from 1975, stands at the beginning of the jetty on land. Storm damage caused the jetty to be reduced to its present length of 1,532m. It is still a good to the end of the jetty, but you will be rewarded with an unusual spot for a picnic, swim and plunge from the jetty.

In Port Germein make your way back to the highway. If you take a right hand turn along the way at Mambray Creek you will find a campground at the base of the Flinders Ranges, which is another good picnic spot. You will see lots of wildlife here amongst the gum trees. Look out for the yellow-footed rock wallaby, a rare kangaroo, which can be seen amongst the rocks.

Text by Jan Haenraets and Scott A. Heyes. Photographs by Jan Haenraets. 

Jan Haenraets is a Director of Atelier Anonymous Landscapes Inc., Vancouver, BC, Canada

Scott A. Heyes
 is Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture
 at the Faculty of Arts and Design of the University of Canberra 

A view towards the Flinders Ranges (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).
A view towards the Flinders Ranges (Photo: Jan Haenraets, 2012).

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