Our Off Beat Australian Outback Road Trip

The moment I fell in love with Australia: Our off beat Australian Outback Road Trip through New South Wales and Queensland

The Outback is a strange and surprising place. Australia can seem very familiar in the comfort of the modern East Coast cities that are so easily set up for travellers, but out here you can really see how different this ancient country is and get a taste for how Australia would have appeared to the first pioneers, a wild and lawless frontier the domain of bush rangers.

The outback is where I fell in love with Australia, this is where Australia is unique and if you haven’t seen the outback then you really haven’t seen Australia.

red dirt outback australia roads southern cross windmill

Red dirt roads cut across the vast expanses of the Australian Outback.

I spent a year working in Australia and traveling around by campervan. It’s an amazing country with so much to do but this off beat outback road trip was the highlight of my time in Australia.

Most travelers experience of the Australian Outback is a trip to Ayers Rock/ Uluru but my favourite road trip was through the New South Wales and Queensland Outback where we discovered towns like Broken Hill and Silverton, Bourke, Lighting Ridge and Carnarvon Gorge.

Contrary to popular opinion, there’s actually a lot to see in the Australia Outback; natural colours are more vibrant, the scenery changes every 50kms or so; the soil goes from a dusty brown to a rich orange, the vegetation changes from bright lime green, to scorched yellow to burnt brown to a greyish blue haze or sometimes nothing at all. At the end of the day the vibrant orange earth and impossibly cobalt blue skies fade into night with the last hurrah of a magical pinky sunset.

Outback Broken Hill Desert Sculpture

Sunsets in the Outback are incredible, especially at the sculptures at Broken Hill

Vast and Remote

Sometimes such vast and remote stretches of land mostly untouched and uninhabitable for humans feels intimidating, the sheer distance that we have to drive to reach any civilization, to be at the mercy of the harsh elements out here. 

A phone signal or any signs of human life are even rarer than the sight of other vehicles save for the occasion loud rumble of a road train that stops for nothing. Gaps of over 200km between towns and gas stops are common and only increase as we go further in land in this enormous ancient continent. We make an agreement to fill up at every opportunity, both with gas for the car and water for ourselves. “What if we break down” is always playing on my mind . People have been known to die in the heat of the outback, there’s no one to call and no telling how long we will have to wait for help.

But despite the daunting remoteness the vastness of the landscape feels exhilarating, the freedom intoxicating and the nothingness that goes on and on becomes almost hypnotic.

The feeling of space and freedom out here is intoxicating. You could stand in the middle of the road like this for hours and not see another vehicle

The feeling of space and freedom out here is exhilarating. You could stand in the middle of the road like this for hours and not see another vehicle

There’s life out here

But the Outback is full of life, vegetation and colour. Emus parade through long, dry, yellow fields of grass, birds soar on thermals in the air, foxes and rabbits scurry about, cows, pigs, camels and sheep wander unconcerned across the road as goats frolic on the verge. 

Kangaroos hop through the scrub and as night draws near the kangaroos gather at the side of the road, munching delicately on the grass then suddenly springing in front of the car. 

australian outback animals collage

The outback is full of life – watch out for wild animals on the roads

As the sun sets the roos become ever more lively making driving down the road more like running a gauntlet of dodging kangaroos until it just becomes to dangerous to continue and we have to stop both for our sanity and to keep the campervan in one piece.

 As night closes in we light a small stove and cook up some pasta, awed by the silence around us and the clear, bright, twinkling blanket of a million stars overhead is the only entertainment we need before turning into bed early.

A million stars in the clear Outback skies. Photo credit Kevin Brown www.vagabondimpulse.com

outback stars

A desolate landscape

Dawn brings a dewy glow over the stark beauty of the Outback and a delicious chill. As well as being beautiful this landscape is also desolate and at times depressing. The road is littered with carcasses and skeletons of hundreds of dead kangaroos in different states of decomposition mown down by the huge road trains that thunder through with their massive bull bars.

outback road train

Road trains barrell along the outback roads stopping for nothing

The history and heart of Australia

Sometimes the Outback feels like you are on the moon, or on another planet but driving the 2,500 km through the red centre of this dry land is rarely boring. Along the way through the outback of New South Wales we discover ghost like historic old mining towns that give an insight into how Australia’s fortunes were founded.

Broken Hill

History still dominates towns like Broken Hill as the silver skimp dumps from the line of lode loom over the town in the very far south west corner of New South Wales. The silver discovered in Broken Hill in 1885 and formation of the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (now BHP Billiton) took Australia from an agricultural country to an industrial nation, the company became Australia’s largest corporation and mining is still the biggest source of the nation’s wealth.

broken hill outback NSW collage

Broken Hill, an important mining town in outback New South Wales

Broken Hill still has an impressive line up of old colonial buildings that showcase its former glory, wealth and importance. The town is experiencing a revival in tourism and also has several interesting museums and art galleries, so it seems I am not the only one inspired by the stark beauty of the unforgiving outback.

The ghost town of Silverton

25kms away from Broken Hill is the ghost town of Silverton, an old, deserted silver mining town. A couple of buildings along the old dusty streets still remain, along with a few artists workshops and the famous Silverton Hotel, that has been used in many adverts and films like Mad Max II is open again and displaying memorabilia.

silverton hotel outback nsw australia

The famous Silverton Hotel has been used in several films and is now open again for business

There is also a couple of museums and tourist facilities, including a mine, around Silverton but these where not open when we visited in January, as no one else is mad enough to visit the Outback in the middle of the summer heat. So Silverton was once again a ghost town that was ours to explore alone.

From Broken Hill a long drive took us to Wilcannia, apparently a historic town and the site of the second largest port in New South Wales after Sydney but now just another decrepit, tin roofed, paintwork peeling, boarded and shuttered up small town, desolate save for a few aboriginals hanging out drinking and where the liveliest resident was a emu that strolled confidently down the middle of the main street.

tin roofed Australian outback desolate towns

Some outback towns in Australia are pretty derelict

Back O’ Bourke

The next ‘civilisation’ was Bourke, immortalised by Australians by the expression ‘Back O’ Bourke‘ meaning in the middle of nowhere. Bourke is the last frontier before the great expanse of nothingness. From here it is nearly 800 km to Sydney or 1000’s of km on dirt roads the other way to the next town.

Bourke was also a historic port town, thriving as paddle steamer’s took wool down the Darling River but now a metal, shuttered ghost of it’s former spirit where the river now stands still and shallow.

Lightning Ridge

Another day’s drive takes us up to the north of New South Wales to Lightning Ridge – an eccentric Opal mining town. The opal is Australia’s national precious stone and Lighting Ridge is one of the world’s only sources of black opals. This place is really unique and you can feel the frontier spirit while exploring this town where touring routes around the opal mining areas have been mapped out by locals using old car doors.

lightning ridge outback australia collage

The weird, wonderful and somewhat surreal opal mining town of Lightning Ridge

The going through this moon like environment is pretty rough and rugged, passing plots where miners staked their claims, built a camp or house from whatever they could find and started digging erratically.

The result is a rather surreal, somewhat apocalyptic scene, it’s hard to tell if they are still mining the opals or if they have just abandoned 1950’s cars, trucks and caravans, mining equipment and slapdash houses to rust among the pinkish white stoney ground that is peppered with mine shafts, holes and a huge open cut mine. In tourist season there are many museums and quirky things to do in Lightning Ridge but I loved the ghost town, frontier atmosphere of being the only tourists around.

Carnarvon Gorge   

Another 1,000 km through the remote, endless Outback roads until our next destination of Carnarvon Gorge. Instead of heading straight up towards Charleville we headed inland and as we speed toward to border with Queensland the scenery started to gradually get greener until we were up into the rugged hills of the Great Dividing Range and the among rolling pastures, and jungle like greenery again.

A long, rutted track eventually led us to the Takkaraka Bush Resort where we camped for the night in an trendy, eco friendly resort in an idyllic clearing where kangaroos and wallabies nibbled peacefully around us, cute gilders gracefully glide from one gum tree to the next and platypus splashed in the surrounding creek.

wallabies carnarvon gorge

Wallabies nibbling peacefully at Carnarvon Gorge

Carnarvon Gorge reminded me of prehistoric land where dinosaurs walked among the towering cliff walls of the gorge, sculpted millions of years in the making by Carnarvon Creek, winding its way through a warren of high-sided chasms, the sandy base of the river filled with prehistoric palms, ferns and rainforest.

Carnarvon Creek Queensland

The gorgeous Carnarvon Gorge, Queensland, Australia

I skipped over across the stones into the entrance of the chasm and walked, entranced for over 5 hours through the ancient, luscious scenery discovering 3,500 year old ancient Indigenous art on the rocks, caves and waterfalls, canyons and moss gardens along the way.

carnarvon gorge aboriginal art gallery

3, 500 year old Aboriginal art gallery on the rocks of Carnarvon Gorge

Back to the modern world

Despite a week of driving through the Outback it seemed that all too soon we had reached the large Queensland town of Emerald, famous for the southern hemispheres largest gem fields of Rubies and Sapphires ironically rather than Emeralds

All too soon we were speeding along highways clogged with mine traffic from Queensland’s coalfields, the magic of the desolate stark beauty and frontier spirit of the open expanses of the Outback faded the closer we got back to the modern world of East Coast Australia.

broken hill outback sunset

Missing the serenity of the space and emptiness of the outback already

How to do it

We had a 1 year Australia working holiday visa and after working in a country Queensland pub near Mackay I saved up and bought a campervan and drove down the East Coast.  

From Melbourne we drove the Great Ocean Road, and headed to went inland to Berri to do regional work via the UNESCO site of Naracoorte Caves. There wasn’t much work in Berri ( but lots of bush fires) so we decided to drive back to our job near Mackay across the Australian Outback. It was a distance of over 3,500 km and took us about 2 weeks as we stopped to see as much as we could along the way.

Most of the time we found free campsites with the Camps Australia Wide book and also navigated with the maps and found points of interest and things to do. That book is a bible as there was often no reception out there. We stocked up on food in the supermarkets in the big towns (because food and supplies are more expensive in the outback) and cooked our own food making it a very low budget trip. We probably spent about AUD$500 on fuel.

There’s still so much more of the Australia Outback that I want to see. This is the route we took:

For more tips on traveling Australia by campervan see these posts:

The Ultimate Backpacker’s Guide to Buying a Campervan in Australia

A Backpacker’s Guide to a Working Holiday in Australia

Tips for Traveling Australia by Campervan

Campervan Relocation Deals – How to hire a campervan in Australia for $1 a day

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Australia on a Budget

The Perfect East Coast Australia Road Trip Itinerary 

Things to do in Australia – 30 Epic Australian Experiences

A Backpacker’s Guide to a Working Holiday in Australia

The Ultimate Backpacker’s Guide to Buying a Campervan in Australia

The Ultimate Guide to Backpacking Australia on a Budget

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