When I first ventured into the outback, I wanted to discover the real Australia. I wanted to see the red earth, the corrugated roads, and the billion-year-old rock formations. Having travelled to many remote places before, I thought I was well-prepared for a few weeks travelling through the great Australian outback. Oh, how wrong I was! To save you repeating my mistakes, here are a few pointers to make your first foray into the outback hassle-free.
1. Driving distances are much longer than they look on the map
The notion you can “just drive” from A to B is laughable. Australia is vast and the only way to get a real sense of the size of the country is to fly from one side to the other. From the window of a plane, once you leave the coastal areas and start to head inland there is very little to see but red earth and rust coloured rocks, interspersed with the odd spattering of green. This is “the Outback”. A journey that looks like it will only take a few hours from glancing at the map may actually take three or four days, and there will be nothing much to visit in between. Apart from a pub. There will always be a pub.
2. Pack enough water for the trip
However much water you decide to bring on your trip into the outback, triple it. If it’s super hot, you will be drinking much more than you normally do at home. While you can buy slabs of bottled water, it’s best to head to Bunnings and invest in a large water container that you can easily fill along the way. It’s a long way between filling stations so you need to have enough to last you a day or two in some areas. Pack a few reusable bottles to fill from this container to carry with you if you go exploring for the day.
3. Remember to Slip, Slop, Slap
If you think you’re prepared for the intense heat of the outback, think again. The thin ozone layer over Australia means more UV radiation and intense heat. Not many people can stick it long without protection. Make sure you pack lots of suncream and stay out of the midday sun. Invest in long sleeve shirts and a wide-brimmed hat for those times that you will be exposed with nowhere to hide. The mantra “Slip, slop, slap” is ingrained into Aussie children now so everyone grows up knowing how to survive the hot sun – slip on a shirt, slop on the suncream and slap on a hat.
4. Pack for all weather
You’d think packing for a trip to the outback would be easy; you only need thongs, shorts and a few t-shirts, right? Not quite. While it may be hot during the day, night-time temperatures often fall to freezing. Along with the obvious attire, if you’re going to be spending time in the outback at night you’ll need to pack thermals, warm long trousers, a beanie and boots. If you’re travelling alone – not with a company – it’s advisable to check night-time temperatures and the quality of your accommodation. Tour companies will always provide packing list, which is invaluable if you’ve never experienced the outback before. One packing top tip for the outback – forget your white clothes. The red dust will turn them a lovely orange colour that is nigh on impossible to get out in the wash.
5. Research Outback accommodation options
While you may be bursting with excitement to throw yourself headlong into the outback it would be unwise to think you can just hop in your 4WD and find a sweet camping spot at your chosen destination. There are many places in the outback you’re not allowed to pitch up camp. You need to have a permit in some places and have applied for this before camp. Check with the Department of National Parks for the state you’re planning to travel to and get a permit in advance. Fees are nominal. There are a handful of Aboriginal camps that are set up to receive visitors. Staying at one of these is great way to get a true taste of the outback.
6. Visiting Aboriginal communities
As I discovered when travelling along the Cape Leveque Road on the Dampier Peninsula, although there are some lovely townships to explore and visitors are very welcome, no guidebook warned me you have to pay to enter these communities. Many of them are only open to visitors on a certain day and visits need to be pre-arranged. Don’t do as I did and park up, swan around for a good nosey and start taking photographs. It was slightly mortifying to be told the community wasn’t open that day. Still, they allowed me to pay the fee and had a (very reserved) chat about their home. Better to join a tour group that supports local indigenous populations.
7. Swim safe
When the sun is too hot to handle, seek out a nearby waterhole, but always be aware that you may not be the only creature cooling off. Crocs are common place in the north of Australia and are known to nip from time-to-time. It’s not advisable to swim in many of the rivers or beaches in northern WA or the Top End. Shark Bay at the Gynlamarung community on the Dampier Peninsula is a good safe beach, despite the name.
8. Prepare to be blown away by the landscape
There really is nowhere else like Australia. It’s barren, it’s beautiful and intriguing. It’s an ancient landscape with lush rainforests and great sandy deserts. It has communities that still practice old traditions and tell stories of The Dreaming. It’s a place to get lost in the land and spend some time exploring it. Book a trek or hiking trip led by guides indigenous to the area. Enjoy the bright sunsets and chilly nights. Take your camera, but be sure to put it down and study the land with your own eyes. Look up to the southern stars and see the Milky Way like you’ve never seen it before. This is the real Australia.
Want to see a slice of the real Australia? Check out our Outback small group tours.