After 2 straight years circumnavigating the globe on his BMW F800GS, Pat Harris knows a thing or two about traveling the world on a motorcycle. Join him as he takes us on a journey across the vast, remote Australian Outback in Part 8 of his World Traveling Series!
Many people that travel outside of the US return home with a greater understanding and appreciation for the vast open spaces that our country has to offer. We can get deep into the wilderness and really isolate ourselves from civilization. Having travelled quite a bit through the western US, I thought that I had experienced and understood this idea of vast open spaces…that is until I arrived in Australia.
Compare a population of about 320 million living in 3.1 million square miles (this is the Lower 48) to a population of 24 million people in 3 million square miles. Then also factor in that 85% of Australia’s population lives within 30 miles of the coast. This should give an idea of how empty the interior and non-metropolitan areas of the country are. So if you tour throughout the US, you can find some fairly isolated areas…you’re just going to have to very specifically seek them out. Whereas on a trip throughout Australia, extreme isolation is your only option. And this isolation leads to an introverted adventure rider’s dream – dirt roads, nature, river crossings, bush camping, and a seemingly infinite number of views that are uninterrupted by civilization.
When I left Darwin (my point of entry) and headed into the outback, I was a bit more heavily loaded than normal. I only had a thousand miles or so left on my front tire, so I needed to carry a new one. I also knew that there would be a couple long gaps between gas stations (roadhouses, as they’re called in the outback) that would test my range, even with the extra gallon of fuel I was already carrying, so I picked up another five liter jerry can. And I also carried a few days worth of food. You can find some food at the roadhouses, so if you run out, you’re not going to starve, but if you want something reasonably priced and are at all health conscious, load up at a grocery store, as you’ll otherwise be living off of burgers, canned soup, and chips (and even if you aren’t health conscious, you be spending $12+ for a burger and $6 for a can of soup, so you still might want to hit up that grocery store).
I wasn’t far outside of the city, and this was the first river crossing that I saw, which seemed pretty mild.
I mean, it’s just a road with a little water running over it, and based on the signs (and the fact it wasn’t the rainy season in the Northern Territory) it can clearly get much deeper than this. I’ve ridden on city streets in a bad rainstorm that have this much water accumulation on them. So what makes this an interesting river crossing? When you look fifty feet to your left or right and see ten or so saltwater crocodiles.
These things regularly grow to 15 feet and 2000 pounds. The only thing making me feel slightly more comfortable was the crazy people fishing, as I’m sure they’d be any croc’s first target.
A little further along, I hit my first proper river crossing, which also was my biggest one in Australia.
The Pentecost River is not far into the Gibb River Road, a fairly popular (for motorcyclists) 660 kilometer dirt road that starts shortly after crossing the border from the Northern Territory into Western Australia. I was told (after the crossing) that here are sometimes crocs there as well, and being that I’m still alive, I’m glad that I heard that after the fact.
This was a more typical crossing on the Gibb – a bit shorter and shallower…and able to be crossed with a bit more speed.
The Gibb River Road gave me my first taste of the vast emptiness that soon became normal.
Despite sometimes being a rough and rutted dirt road, some of the low points (which would be river crossings during a more wet time of year) and sharper curves had been paved. I’m sure the average enduro rider curses this change, but I bet the small handful of locals that regularly drive this road love the upgrade.
Here’s an example of an outback roadhouse…a few trucks, motorcycles, and well equipped campers gathered around a couple very expensive gas pumps.
Another great bit of road was the Oodnadatta Track, which I took while heading from Uluru (right in the center of Australia) south, towards the coast.
The Oodnadatta Track was also very isolated, except that the occasional roadhouse sometimes had a few houses around it (you could even find the odd restaurant or pub), and there were plenty of signs of people having tried to settle here in the past.
Another interesting site along the way was the Mutonia Sculpture Park, a collection of obscure sculptures along the side of the road, built by local Robin Cooke, a retired mechanic who tries to build a new sculpture every year.
At the southern end of the Oodnadatta Track, as I got closer to the coast, I traded straight, dirt roads and the occasional roadhouse for windy paved roads and the occasional small town as I entered the Flinder’s Mountain Range – an incredible contrast from the landscape I’d been riding through for the previous few days.
When riding through these empty areas, bush camping is your best – and oftentimes only – option. There’s something very liberating about ending your day at the exact moment you want by just pulling off the road, parking your bike behind some trees or bushes (or amongst some junked cars), pitching your tent, and enjoying a campfire and a beautiful clear view of the stars.
Even when you’re not on Australia’s wonderful dirt roads that crisscross the country, you can still find yourself in some fairly remote areas. Road trains will become your primary indication that you’re not the only person left on the planet (and you’ll swear that their primary goal is to blow every passing motorcyclist off the road).
And you’ll still be amazed with the wonderful variety of landscapes and access to wildlife that are afforded to you when you get this far away from civilization.