I dreamed of seeing herds of the fabled wild camels. When I drove along the Stuart Highway, Australia’s only 2,834 kilometer route connecting Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin in Northern Territory, I watched the highway shift from the deep-red sand of the center of the country to the lush crocodile-rich Top End without a single camel in sight. But it didn’t disappoint. Instead, I savored an unforgettable appreciation for how insignificant we humans are on this millions-of-year-old landmass we call home.
Rumors abound about 1 million feral camels in the outback before the culling campaigns in the 2000s. Originally imported from India and Afghanistan in the early 20th century, the camels transported supplies in Australia’s harsh climate. I’ve heard about 300,000 feral camels still wander here, and my goal was to try and spot one.
Roughly the size of the United States, with only 23 million people and over 80% living within 50 kilometers of the coast, Australia is far less populated. The highway that crosses some of the most scarcely populated areas is named after John McDouall Stuart, the first person to complete the trip in 1862 and set the stage for the Australian Overland Telegraph line, connecting remote Australia with the rest of the world.
The 2,834 kilometer route exposes Australia’s industries, peculiarities and complications, from the colonization of the aboriginal land to the opal mining industry. What was once a treacherous route has now become a quintessential Australian road trip, perfect for families, retired folk and even solo travelers. With some careful planning, you can make it a journey of a lifetime.
Come curious and come prepared: experience what the Stuart Highway has to offer, whether it’s the shadow of a shy kangaroo around your tent, the sky swallowing the endless road in front of you, or the storytelling legends of local pubs.
You can read more about what the Stuart Highway has to offer on the Northern Territory government, South Australian government and the Australian Tourism website. There are great guidebooks, some even available online, to accompany you throughout your journey.
Getting to the Stuart Highway Australia
Start at either Port Augusta, just three and a half hours from Adelaide in South Australia, or at Darwin, in the Northern Territory. The cheapest way to arrive in Australia from overseas is through Melbourne or Sydney. From there, you buy a flight (try JetStar) to Adelaide or Darwin, where you’ll pick up your mode of travel.
Campervan, four-wheel drive or car?
Rental companies (try Wicked Campers, Apollo and Traveller’s Autobarn) rent campervans or four-wheel drives with a built in beds and kitchen (portable stoves, cooking equipment and utensils). Some even sport rooftop tents. Other cheap outdoor gear can be purchased before you start at Kmart, among other outdoor outfitters.
Alternatively, standard cars can make good for traditional campers or for those who wish to sleep in hotels. If you’re seeking adventure, a four-wheel drive is recommended as cars don’t handle the rough terrain very well.
Where to sleep
Campers should download the smart phone application WikiCamps, a free directory of campgrounds in Australia. This comprehensive resource summarizes all of the campsites along Explorers’ Way and gives information on cost and ammenties. Travelers can also review sites and offer helpful information. Some campsites includes toilets and showers while others make due with only a gravel lot with a picnic table.
Planning your trip
If you wish to spend time in Darwin and the Top End, it’s best to plan for a trip in the dry season (May-October). At that time, the weather is still hot (76-89 degrees Fahrenheit) without the torrential downpours and high humidity. Adelaide will still be in winter then, around 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit.
Also, decide how long you plan to drive per day. To put the journey in perspective, if you drove straight from Darwin to Port Augusta, it will take 30 hours (driving further to Adelaide will be around 33.5 hours). To drive around 500 kilometers per day (that’s almost 7 hours), budget around three days for Darwin to Alice Springs and an additional three days from Alice Springs to Port Augusta or Adelaide. Then, budget additional days for stops along the way. This will give you a sense of how long your trip will be.
Nervous about driving? If you’ve never driven on the left side of the road before, don’t worry! It might be uncomfortable at first, but it only takes a few hours to get used to. Try an empty parking lot or a calm area of Darwin or Adelaide to practice.
The Red Center Way is a must-see. The Way’s loop starts and ends in Alice Springs and passes through West MacDonnell Range National Park, Finke Gorge National Park, Watarrka National Park and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Tourism Australia recommends at least five days to explore those areas. Taking time to learn about the Top End (watch jumping crocodiles at Adelaide River, hike through Kakadu National Park and swim in natural pools in Litchfield National Park) will also set you back a few days.
If you got the time, plan for at least two weeks. To do the trip in fewer days, consider flying to Alice Springs and driving one way (either to Adelaide or Darwin).
Expect extreme temperatures. The climate of the Red Center is said to be most similar to that of the Sahara Desert, so imagine dressing for that. Pack lightly. The heavier your car, the more you’ll pay in fuel.
Bring toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and plastic bags for trash. If your car is equipped with an auxiliary plug, bring a cable to play your digital music. Alternatively, bring portable speakers. Kindles are ideal for reading in the dark.
Make sure to have extra fuel and backup water beyond the standard 10 liters per person per day.
If you’re buying your own camping equipment
You’ll want to make sure to have a warm sleeping bag (for up to -20 degree weather), an air mattress for comfort, and extra blankets and pillows. A gas stove is a must, as are headlamp flashlights, Tupperware, a small shovel (we had to dig our 4WD out of a sand dune once), a thermos for hot water (you can heat it on the stove before you leave your campsite in the morning), and if you can afford it, a small refrigerator for the car.
Expect to see some Australian classics along the way. Local favorites include sausage rolls, meat pieces, chicken schnitzels, dim sims, ham and cheese toasties, as well as other packaged snack foods similar to what you’d find in the U.S. However, the cost of buying roadhouse food adds up.
If you’re on a budget, buy nonperishables in Darwin or Adelaide and only top up at grocery stores (such as Coles and Woolworth’s, two of Australia’s biggest supermarket chains) in larger towns. Avoid buying supplies at petrol stations. If you have a portable gas stove, there are many options for cheap and healthy foods.
Filling and cheap foods ideal for travel are canned beans, vegetables and lentils, oatmeal, Weet-Bix (Australia’s favorite cereal that comes in biscuit form and breaks apart in milk), and apples, oranges and bananas (the cheapest fruits to purchase in Australia).
Let’s talk about being a woman: hygiene and safety
Free campsites don’t always include showers. Keep dry shampoo, extra deodorant, facial cleansing wipes, and feminine wipes on hand.
Budget tip: Ask hostels if you can pay to shower there. Some truck stops have showers as do community pools – just ask if you can use them.
Women menstruating, should bring pads and tampons ahead of time as they’ll be expensive and sometimes difficult to find along the highway. Many women who camp prefer the Diva Cup.
Driving long distances with low bladder control means you’ll have to go more frequently than the once-in-a-while rest areas. If you are uncomfortable going to bathroom exposed in the bush, consider buying a pop-up shower tent, which you can also use as a shower or for privacy to go to the bathroom.
Buy a water tank to put on the top of your car and fill up reusable water bottles, saving money and wasting less plastic. Always carry extra. Even if you have international cell phone service, many areas of the highway are out of range. Consider buying a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) to alert rescue teams in case of an emergency. More cautious travelers may want a satellite tracker, such as this one, to be able to send emails and messages regardless of mobile phone coverage.
Only drive during the day if possible to avoid hitting wildlife. Many cattle stations in the Outback are not fenced, and cows roam freely.
Northern Territory roads are notorious for fast drivers, so watch out for road trains (extra-long semi-trucks) and speeders.
Be dingo safe at your campsites: bury organic waste – that means your poo and your food!
Petrol stations are few and far between. A good rule of thumb is to always top up your tank when you see a petrol station, that way you won’t fear running out of gas and being stranded. Here is a list of fuel stops.
Other helpful tips
Learning about locals and history: Those interested in focusing on aboriginal culture and history can plan their trip to coincide with one of the many indigenous festivals throughout Northern Territory’s (NT) dry season (April – October). The NT also has many other music and film festivals. Along the route, ask locals around town if there are any interesting events going on. You might find there’s a rodeo or dance night you can stay a bit longer for.
World War II history buffs will enjoy A Wartime Journey: Stuart Highway Heritage Guide.
Logistics of the trip: Bring cash. Some establishments don’t accept credit cards and ATMs are infrequent. Keep yourself occupied with already downloaded podcasts and books on tape.
A natural, safe and cheap solution to combat pesky mosquitos is to combine baby oil with eucalyptus oil (buy it at Australian pharmacies, called ‘chemists’).
Throw away fruit on border crossings between SA and NT
Be respectful: Throughout the trip, you’ll have the opportunity to see many sacred aboriginal sites, such as Devil’s Marbles near Tennant Creek in the NT and Uluru in the Red Center. Respect the wishes of the local tribes. Sometimes, this means no video or photography. Although climbing Uluru is still permitted in Australian law, local indigenous Australians request that you don’t climb it.
More information on cost and budget tricks
The more people you travel with, the cheaper the trip. If you don’t know anyone who can join you, connect with other travelers on various “Backpackers in Australia” Facebook groups, or post an advertisement on Gumtree, Australia’s version of Craigslist.
Petrol ranges between $1.40-2.00 per liter AUD (around $1.16-1.50 USD). Use a petrol cost calculator to estimate how much you’ll spend on fuel depending on your vehicle.
As previously mentioned, food in the Outback is quite costly. A dinner can run you between $20-30 AUD ($15- 23 USD). A small espresso coffee is around $5 AUD ($3.80 USD) and other packaged snacks similarly priced to the U.S., but more in the Outback (around $5 USD for chips, cookies and packaged desserts).
As long as you have a water tank above your car, there is no need to buy expensive bottled water. There are many campsites where you may refill your water tank. My travel mates and I carried a 20 liter water tank, which we refilled every few days.
If you go sidebar/Things not to miss on the Stuart Highway Australia
Barrow Creek Pub
Stuart Highway, Barrow Creek, Northern Territory 0872, Australia
+61 8 8956 9753
Alice Springs School of the Air
80 Head St, Alice Springs NT 0870, Australia
Monday to Saturday 8.30am – 4.30pm
Sunday & Public Holidays 1.30pm – 4.30pm
T. +61 8 8951 6834
Wycliffe Well, the UFO Capital of Australia
Stuart Hwy, Tennant Creek NT 0862, Australia [80 miles south of Tennant Creek]
Open 7:00am- 10:00pm
+61 8 8964 1966
Kakadu National Park
Kakadu Hwy, Jabiru NT 0886, Australia
Open 24 hours
+61 8 8938 1120
The Red Center Way
Alice Springs, NT
Open 24 hours
Read before you go
- Bill Bryson, In a Sunburnt Country: Although not a woman, Bryson wrote a hilariously entertaining account of stumbling through Australia, meeting locals and encountering painful history about indigenous Australians. This memoir gives an overview of Australian culture, geology, and trips to inspire yours.
- John McDouall Stuart, Explorations of Australia: The Journals of John McDouall Stewart: Read the words of the man the highway is named after.
- Robyn Davidson, Tracks: A Woman’s Solo Trek Across 1700 Miles of Australian Outback: Also a feature film, this book is Davidson’s original account of her journey. It’s the reason I wanted to see the Outback.
- Sue Williams, Women of the Outback: If you think you have it rough, read about these fourteen fearless women.
- Jeannie Gunn, We of the Never Never: An autobiographical novel by a woman who lived at Elsey Station in Mataranka, one of the town along the Stuart Highway, in the early 1900s. You can still visit Elsey Station.
- Julie Janson, The Crocodile Hotel: Australian novelist and playwright Julie Janson tells the story of a half-indigenous, half-white teacher from Sydney who moves to teach indigenous children on a cattle ranch several hundred kilometers from Katherine. The character is a strong woman who defies social norms and the rough NT outback climate.
- Susanna De Vries, Great Pioneer Women: Tales of women who moved with their husbands to the Outback in the late 1800s. Women are mainly left out of the pioneer narrative, but they played an important role.
- Anne Crawford, Women of Spirit: Stories of women who grew up in the bush and lived closed to country. Read about their struggles and triumphs.
- Rosemary Kerr, “Beyond the Bitumen: Australia’s Stuart Highway and the Cultural Construction of a Road”: An academic article of the history, folklore and cultural meanings behind the Stuart Highway.