In Northern South Australia, desolate plains await. Dead-straight roads and a horizon that never seems to end. The emptiness is what makes the northern part of South Australia so special. The space between the cities is like a gap of eternity. A gap filled with a scorching sun, fine-grained dust and annoying flies. Signs welcoming you to the communities, proudly telling you that the population is just over the thousands. Here, the land is dry and extremely hot. Only the toughest dare defying the laws of nature, calling the northern part of South Australia their home. It truly is the Outback. The journey is not for those who find it difficult to cope without a shower and a soft bed. It is a solitary and deserted place that requires determination and patience of its visitors. But such a different and strange landscape do invite you to epic car journeys and discoveries. A trip of over one-thousand kilometres can take you from Port Augusta on the southern coast through the opal town of Coober Pedy, to the wide Simpson desert before reaching the next state, the Northern Territory. Secluded, desolate, and bare. This is what most of the journey would look like. But then suddenly, something pops up that makes the long journey worthwhile. Small oases lie hidden in the most unexpected of places. Without warning, the amphitheatre shaped mountains of Flinders Ranges pop up and the vegetation return, colouring the ground in a welcoming green. In Flinders Ranges, there are deep ravines and lukewarm lakes among mountain gorges with Wilpena Pound as the National Park’s main attraction.
To the east, the gigantic Simpson Desert spreads across three states. Loose, red burning-hot sand in rolling dunes, trodden on by wild camels. Large parts of the desert have long been forbidden to visit. American NASA has used certain areas for its space activities and the United Kingdom was responsible for testing atomic bombs in the desert during the 1950s. Most of the area is deserted. Coober Pedy is the only town worth stopping for. During the summers, the temperature rises so high that the population chose to build and live below the surface. Houses, cafés and even churches are located several meters below the surface which help keep the oppressive heat at bay. The town is no more than a main street next to deep shafts. Here and there lie high piles of soil, testifying of the hard-working opal hunters hoping to find their luck. Coober Pedy is an untamed small town that is struggling with its own problems. Alcohol and isolation have for long been known issues. Many eccentrics and oddballs live here.
Many roads meet in Port Augusta. The city, with about 15,000 inhabitants, is located at the Spencer Gulf estuary, 300 km north of Adelaide, South Australia, and is a hub in the Australian road network. From here you can travel to almost anywhere in the country. It’s just patience and time that are your biggest obstacles. Drive north towards Alice Springs and Uluru, or northeast towards Queensland. Eastwards towards Victoria, south towards Adelaide and westward towards Western Australia. The classic trains, The Ghan and The Pacific, stop here during their long journey through the country.
Port Augusta is an old harbour city with an industrial feel. The city is located on the outskirts of the desert and is the last main stop before the country goes from green to brown. Although Port Augusta is not particularly beautiful, the city has nice surroundings with the Flinders Ranges in the distance. It is easy to get tricked by the city’s green vegetation, but the region is dominated by desert. It is a magnificent and dramatic desert landscape that spreads out to the west and north of Port Augusta. Dry, inhospitable and desolate. A strong contrast to the lush vineyards located around Adelaide.
South Australia is the driest and hottest state in Australia. Almost two-thirds are desert. Drive a few hours north and you reach the opal town of Coober Pedy. The ground is completely flat and the temperature excruciating. It feels like a different world. In the west, even more desert is waiting. Nullarbor Plain. Crossing the eternity-long plain is a challenge worthy of its name. Eyre Highway follows the coast. Nullarbor is Latin for no trees. The plain, however, is not completely treeless, but almost. Instead, it is mainly low shrubs that grow at the roadside. In addition to the sandy desert, there are several salt lakes. Lake Eyre is the largest in the state, but Lake Torrens is closer to Port Augusta. The lakes dry out in the sun and leave a layer of salt left behind. Dry and crackled by the harsh climate.
In the southwest, the reality is another. Here lies the Eyre Peninsula. It is an appreciated holiday destination for Australians who want to relax amid nature. Port Lincoln is the area’s main city. The city is famous for its fishing and there is an extensive selection of seafood restaurants and other dining options here. Port Lincoln offers many exciting activities to try at sea. You can go fishing, scuba diving with great whites or snorkel with sea lions. You can discover nature on your own in one of the nearby nature reserves and national parks.
When it comes to activities in the northern part of South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park is on most people’s to-do list. Approximately 300 km north of Adelaide, the Flinders Ranges forms a circle, shaped like nature’s own amphitheatre with sharp rocks and high peaks. Wilpena Pound is the name of the giant grass-covered bowl, located inside the ridges. Several hiking trails start from the Visitor Information Centre (wilpenapound.com.au/do/visitor-Information-centre/). Among other things, you can follow the easier route to the Wangarra Lookout which provides a nice view of the mountains. At Flinders Ranges’ southern end, not far from Port Augusta is the green oasis of Mount Remarkable National Park. Come here and climb the park’s highest mountain peak, Mount Remarkable with its 960 meters above sea level. The hiking trail is classed as intermediate (parks.sa.gov.au) and you get a lovely view of the sea at the Spencer Gulf.
Take a walk down to Alligator Gorge (environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/flinders-ranges-outback/mount-remarkable-national-park). A trail of a few kilometres takes you down to the bottom of the gorge, then continues for a bit through the narrow red cliff walls. If you prefer, you can get around via guided tours around Flinders Ranges (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Flinders%20Ranges,%20South%20Australia,%20Australia).
Port Augusta is not the most charming city you come across in Australia, or in South Australia either for that matter. As an old port, it has more of an industrial heart. This is the last stop before you reach the outback. Port Augusta contributes with some lush vegetation before the desert takes over northward. The city is in a beautiful surrounding. In the distance are Flinders Ranges peaks, 170 km away. If you are planning a car trip it is a good idea to make a stop in Port Augusta. Here you will find most things you would need for a trip going in any one direction. A few kilometres to the north are the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden (aalbg.sa.gov.au). The area is on 250 hectares and here you will see thousands of indigenous plant species that thrive in a desert landscape. Spend an afternoon here by following a walking trail. Among other things, you can see one of the state’s most iconic flowers, the Sturt’s desert pea, Swaisona Formosa.
There are several spectacular salt lakes in South Australia. North from Port Augusta is Lake Torrens National Park (environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/flinders-ranges-outback/lake-torrens-national-park#about). Lake Torrens is a is 250 km long Salt Lake. During the dry season, the lake dries out and leaves a white layer of salt behind. During the rainy season the lake is filled with water. Birds in the thousands are attracted to the lake during this season. Permission is required for a visit, but you can also see the lake by joining in on a camel tour.
About 540 km north of Port Augusta is Coober Pedy. It can best be described as a remarkable mining town, where the high temperatures forces people to dwell beneath the ground. The town is known for its opals and its special people (cooberpedy.net). Make a stop here if you are heading north towards Alice Springs. Westwards from Port Augusta awaits a great adventure. Nullarbor Plain is a vast, dry and almost treeless plain that stretches thousand and hundreds of kilometres, all the way into Western Australia. Crossing the Nullarbor is nothing one do casually. There are only a few small towns along the way, so if something happens to the car or the passengers, things might turn ugly. Driving from Ceduna to Perth is a journey of 1,900 km and takes at least 20 hours just to drive. The Eyre Highway is mostly straight and extremely monotonous.
A more varied landscape can be found at Eyre Peninsula, a few hours southwest of Port Augusta. The peninsula is cone-shaped and far south lies the main city Port Lincoln. The city with about as many inhabitants as Port Augusta was previously an important port for export of wool and wheat. Today, the city is recognized for its fishing, mainly tuna but also shellfish. There is an abundance of excursions and daytrips where you can try your fishing luck. Around the waters of Eyre Peninsula are lots of great white sharks and sea lions. Two popular activities are to dive into an underwater cage to see the great white and to snorkel with sea lions. Both activities can be organized from Port Lincoln. You can see more of the peninsula’s nature with a four-wheel drive vehicle. Within the national parks of Lincoln and Coffin Bay are plenty of wildlife and beautiful viewpoints (environment.sa.gov.au/parks).
For more adventure, try Gawler Ranges National Park (environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/Eyre_Peninsula/gawler-ranges-national-park) in the northern part of Eyre Peninsula. The park’s red speckled cliffs look like organ pipes. They are a type of volcanic rock. The area was created by volcanic activity millions of years ago. You can for example join in on a guided tour with a four-wheel drive here. Many photo opportunities await on this place where nature offers a surface in contrasts of rusty red and off-white.
The opal nest Coober Pedy is in the middle of South Australia. Getting here feels like entering a completely different world, especially if you first visited the state capital, Adelaide. Coober Pedy is a small town whose livelihood is the opal industry and tourism. Visit the church located below Earths’ surface at Catacomb Road. A great way to discover the area is with Arid Area Tours (aridareastours.com). They offer a wide variety of options and showcase the best of the region. Choose between day trips or several-day trips. You can also search for other tour operators and activities and get an idea of current prices on wotif’s website (wotif.com/things-to-do/search?location=Coober+Pedy).
Lake Eyre is considered to be the largest lake in the country, but it is seldom filled with water. It is usually as good as empty, looking like a bed of salt, glistening in white. But when the water returns, so does life. Birds flock here and plants bloom. Lake Eyre is within the National park Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park; therefore, you must pay an entrance fee when you arrive here. Only four-wheel drive vehicles can enter the area.
The Simpson Desert offers the ultimate desert experience. The vast desert runs through a sizeable part of Australia’s hinterland. In the wilderness you have a great chance to see bobbing camel backs as the animals slowly wandering through the desert with the sunset as a backdrop. The Simpson desert is magical beautiful but dangerous. Travel with for example Tag Along Tour (tagalongtours.com.au/tours.htm) to get the best of both worlds. The guide Paul Stafford knows a lot about the country and will happily show you the best parts as you follow him in a four-wheel drive car. In the northern part of the Flinders Range you will find the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary (arkaroola.com.au). A gigantic nature reserve 600 km north of Adelaide.
Set amidst dramatic mountain ridges, it is a great place to explore the beautiful surroundings. Here, an eco-friendly tourist company arranges several day trips in the area (arkaroola.com.au/ridgetop.php). Join in, all the way up to the top of Sillers Lookout to get a panoramic view of the landscape. There are also three observatories here where you can study the starry skies without being disturbed by flashing cities.
Birdsville Track, Oodnadatta Track and Strzelecki Track are all three iconic tracks in the true Outback spirit. Of the three, the Oodnadatta Track will take the price as a the one first on the list worth seeing (traveloutbackaustralia.com/oodnadatta-track.html). A wide, dusty and bumpy road goes between Oodnadatta and Marree. Under the right conditions it is possible to drive a normal two-wheel drive car on the road, but it is not recommended. Downpours can make the journey lethally dangerous for even the most experienced driver. Check what the road looks like before departing (transport.sa.gov.au). Old parts from The Ghan train are scattered out along this stretch and small empty villages are popping up here and there. Oodnadatta Track is for those who want to experience total isolation and a raw desert. North of Oodnadatta is Witjira National Park (environment.sa.gov.au/parks/Find_a_Park/Browse_by_region/flinders-ranges-outback/witjira-national-park) within the Simpson Desert. There is a simpler campsite near Dalhousie Hot Springs, which is made up of a variety of small bath-friendly lakes. The water temperature is just over lukewarm 37 degrees Celsius.
Planning and preparation
If you are planning to visit many different parts of the desert during a longer stay in South Australia, it is well worth investing in a Desert Park Pass (parks.sa.gov.au/book-and-pay/parks-passes). It gives you and your vehicle access to all the state’s national parks that lie around the desert, valid for a whole year. In addition, you get the right to camp up to 21 nights in the parks. The ticket is required if you are travelling through the Simpson desert. It costs a lot, but it might soon pay off. If you are travelling on a longer journey with your own vehicle, planning way ahead is a must. Service stations are often far apart, and water is scarce. Buy as much as possible before leaving larger cities and always respect instructions and warning signs.
In Port Augusta lies a good Visitor Information Centre where you can get help planning a trip. Wadlata Outback Centre (wadlata.sa.gov.au/site/pages/visitor_information.php) is one of the state’s largest and has won several prizes in tourism. The northern part of the state has two separate seasons, a rainy season and a dry period. Summers are warm and rainy. It is therefore better to visit this area between April and September when the temperature is lower, and the rain has decreased. The dry season is peak season, which means more tourists. South around Ceduna have four seasons. Winter is the coldest and wettest while summer equals peak season.
As always, having your own car is the best way to get around. There are heaps of different car rentals to choose from in Adelaide. But you can also rent a vehicle in Port Augusta (wotif.com/Car-Hire), including Budget and Avis.
The classic train, The Ghan (greatsouthernrail.com.au/trains/the-ghan), runs between Adelaide in the south and Darwin in the north via Alice Springs. Depending on which trip you choose, the stops differ in length in the different cities. For example, you can get a full day in Coober Pedy before the trip continues.
The bus giant Greyhound buses runs through the state. You can travel from Adelaide and make a stop in Coober Pedy. Then choose on continuing north or travel further on your own. Whichever way you choose, count on a long journey and numbing seat muscles. Amongst other, Regional Express flies between Adelaide and Coober Pedy (wotif.com/Flights).
The trains called The Ghan and The Pacific are crisscrossing their way through South Australia and stop in, amongst other, Port Augusta. The Ghan drive north towards Darwin while The Pacific runs between Sydney in the east and Perth in the west. Read more on the Great Southern Rails website (greatsouthernrail.com.au).
Pichi Richi Railway is another nice train to take east towards Quorn, operated by steam locomotives (pichirichirailway.org.au). The bus company Premier Stateliner (premierstateliner.com.au) operates the area and stops among other places in Ceduna, Streaky Bay, Whyalla, Port Lincoln and Port Augusta. If you want to get to Nullarbor Plain, your own car is the way. And a reliable one too.
The first stop after leaving Adelaide behind is Port Augusta. Don’t let the name fool you. This is no longer a traditional seaport. Make the most of being in one of the region’s major cities. Order some good coffee, check out the view from the water tower and visit the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden. Port Augusta leaves much to be desired and is no place you want to dwell on for too long. After a day or two you will be ready for something else. If you want to experience a different landscape, drive north towards one of the salt lakes, Lake Torrens or Lake Gairdner. It takes several hours to drive here, so consider whether it is worth a detour or not. Otherwise, drive west towards Eyre Peninsula.
Set your sights on Port Lincoln. Choose the coastal route. Along the way you can stop at Whyalla Conservation Park and Tumby Bay.
In Port Lincoln you can crisscross between cosy cafes and good restaurants. You will find fresh seafood here. Take advantage of the possibilities. In the east lies Lincoln National Park and to the west is Coffin Bay National Park. In the two national parks you can, for example, hike, go kayaking, or swim in the crystal-clear waters. You can spend the night in tents. There are great opportunities to get fresh oysters in Coffin Bay. In Port Lincoln you can also try fishing or diving amongst sharks.
Pay a visit to Gawler Range National Park in the north. The spectacular landscape was shaped by volcanic activity millions of years ago. If you do not have your own four-wheel drive, the safest thing to do is to join in on a guided tour to see the rusty red cliffs, shaped like organ pipes. If you have time and want to continue your journey, drive west to see more of the state. Nullarbor Plains’ flat ground spreads out as far as the eye reaches. And far, far away, Western Australia awaits.
You should make sure to take advantage of Port Augusta’s range of shops before heading north. Purchase food, water and other supplies in high quantities and top fill the fuel tank. Next stop is made at the magnificent mountain range Flinders Ranges. Marvel at Wilpena Pound, a naturally formed formation resembling an amphitheatre. From above, Wilpena looks almost like a meteorite crater. Wherever you turn, you will be surrounded by a sharp ridge and thriving vegetation. Visit the Visitor Information Centre (wilpenapound.com.au/contact/) that can give you lots of tips for the hike. One of the most common trails goes to the Wangarra Lookout from where you get a magnificent view of the surroundings. Spend the night at Wilpena Pound Resort (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Wilpena_Pound_Resort.htm).
If you feel like having an unrivalled desert adventure, head toward Oodnadatta Track. Drive towards Roxby Downs and turn off towards Oodnadatta Track. Expect desolation and challenges. The road is not paved and can be tough on both vehicles and passengers. Soon you will see the southern part of the massive salt-filled Lake Eyre. Turn off to get a look closer. Along the water’s edge, salt crusts are formed, and they can become remarkably thick. If you are lucky, you arrive when the water has returned, filling up the entire lake. In the last 150 years, it has only happened a few times. You should also make a visit westward to the opal town of Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is a treeless and almost ghostly town emerging behind the desert’s heat shimmer among swarms of small flies. It is an interesting place to visit, to say the least, with its holes in the ground and underground buildings. So why not stay a night at an underground motel or check if you can find some opals on your own.