Road tripping through central Australia for Esquire

Mining towns, missile sites and some fine art, Australia's outback is a lot more than long straight roads... but the roads are pretty fun too. By Tom Pattinson

The heat haze gives the impression that the road is about to go over a dip any second. But it doesn’t dip. Or stop, bend or turn. This road goes on for 2,834 kilometres, and mostly in a straight line.

The speedometer is creeping up at an astonishing rate. It took only a few seconds to reach 160kph and only at around 260kph does the pace of its assent slow… 261, 262, 263… second by second another kilometre-an-hour faster. At 300kph it feels a bit like we should be pulling back the throttle and waiting for wheels up, but the Bentley Continental GT Speed is stuck flat to the road as it reaches its top speed.

You’d probably assume from the above description that we’re on a race circuit, but you’d be wrong. This is the Stuart Highway, which cuts through Australia’s isolated Northern Territory, and we’re on a 200-kilometre stretch between Alice Springs and Barrow Creek that recently became a de-restricted speed zone.

This is one of three countries that have highways with no speed limit — the busy German Autobahns and the winding, hilly roads of the Isle of Man are the other ones. But nothing compares to the long, straight roads of Australia’s Outback, and it means we have probably just made our way into the record books. There are few four-seat, unmodified cars that can cruise at over 300kph on public roads, and even fewer that have hit 338kph on one.

Government authorities are keen to emphasise the need for caution, and they are right to do so. However, it is an undeniable pleasure to test a car to its limits. And it also gets you to some of Australia’s isolated tourist gems a lot quicker in the process.

Alice Springs is a small city of 25,000 people, located in the dead centre of the country and the mid-point of the Stuart Highway. Although known to most as the jumping-off point to Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock), it has a vibrant cultural scene, as we discovered while talking to local residents.

Elliat Rich is a designer based in Alice Springs. She explains that it was an easy decision to settle in central Australia. “Alice Springs has got a sense of adventure, it’s still something of a frontier town, it captures your attention, and provides interesting and engaging opportunities,” she says. “There’s a really complex inter-cultural conversation going on, which is really poignant to where Australia is now.”

She is talking, of course, about the relationship between indigenous Australians and the country’s later settlers. Rich devotes her time to enabling communication in a region that has often felt the cultural divide. She talks with pride about the groups she works with, which includes furniture and productdesign, as well as fine-art projects. “Indigenous culture has a totally different way of thinking, so to be able to create two-way resources that allow for communication is really important,” she says. “Both cultures have something to offer the other.”

Her husband is James B Young, who divides his time between making saddles for camels and crafting bespoke boots for gentlemen. His kangaroo leather monk-boots show the story of the animal’s life. Young points out scars on the side of the shoe, explaining that this was where the animal had injured itself — most likely from pushing itself under a barbed wire fence.

“As a long-time cameleer, there are few places in the world where there are both camels and business opportunities,” he says in his slow Australian drawl. “Alice Springs is a good place to produce work that speaks to an Australian identity.”

The following morning we leave our new friends and climb back into the Bentley for another day on the Stuart Highway.

Over the next five hours there is hardly another vehicle in sight, apart from the odd lorry-led road train. Stretching out in every direction, the baron red earth has almost no bush; just wide horizons and blue, blue skies. Little changes for 700 kilometres, until something resembling huge white molehills appears on the horizon. Tens of thousands of oversized piles of rubble mark our entrance to the opal mining capital of the world.

Coober Pedy has a unique old-world charm mixed with a pastits- best feel. Rusting drills and trucks speckle the landscape as we drive into town. Bizarrely, wrecks of a spaceships — one a prop from Vin Diesel sci-fi caper Pitch Black — can also be spotted beside dusty backstreets. It’s exactly this run-down vibe that make this place such an attraction. There are no modern buildings or hipster cafés; this is as raw and as real as you can find in 21st century Australia.

It also has an interesting backstory as the unofficial “opal capital of the world” and is full of boom-bust tales. “It’s where people come to try and get rich,” says Peter Rowe, a local I meet who came to Coober Pedy in 1967 to find fortune. “It’s one of those places you can go to work broke one day and come home a millionaire,” he says, before confessing that he “made a lot of money but it all went back in the ground. I got caught up in the hype of trying to find opal.”

Rowe now runs Desert Diversity Tours, guiding visitors around the old mines. “In the Seventies, the town was exciting, there was so much money; it was a proper Wild West town,” he says. Opal was discovered in Coober Pedy in 1915 when the 14-year-old son of a gold prospector stumbled across lumps of the gemstone on the surface while looking for water. Following the introduction of the transcontinental railway in 1917 and the end of World War One, eager prospectors flooded in. “Coober Pedy” comes from the Aboriginal kupa piti, commonly assumed to mean “white man in a hole”.

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This inventive name doesn’t just come from the men who worked down mines but the dug-outs in which they sheltered from the heat. Donna Goulter, a bush nurse who lives in a luxury version on the outskirts of town, takes us on a tour of her home. With panoramic views spreading hundreds of miles to the east, her “cave”, as she likes to call it, is far from being a nomadic dwelling. “About 100 years ago, when miners dug in to look for opal, those huts became houses and now that concept has grown so that they are created to house people, not to find opal,” she says.

Opal mounds make way for red dust as the Stuart Highway continues its journey south. Although we haven’t seen one police car or speed camera, most Australians seem to be conservative drivers, which offers a great chance to test the car’s torque. As vehicles come into view on the horizon, the Bentley is upon them in no time. Lining up beside them at around 130kph, all it takes is just a gentle touch of the accelerator for the gears to switch from eighth to fourth gear and the 6.0-litre twin turbocharged W12 engine to burst into life. Within seconds the speedometer reads 200kph and only a dot of a car remains in the rear-view mirror.

Several hundred kilometres later, the landscape changes from the deep red to a glacial white glare. Dry salt lakes stretch as far as the eye can see, as Lake Eyre and Lake Hart flank the highway.

Skeletons of camels and kangaroos litter the roadside; grim reminders that even the hardiest of animals struggle to survive in one the most inhospitable environments on the planet.

It is little surprise that the Royal Australian Air Force selected this desolate location as a testing range for long-range missiles shortly after World War Two. Named after the Aboriginal word for “object to throw spears”, Woomera became one of the most important military locations throughout the Cold War. And today, although somewhat smaller, it’s still a fully functioning test site.

The actual launch spots are still closed to the public but the town itself sees over 60,000 visitors per year. The only public hotel is the Eldo — named after the headquarters of the European

Launcher Development Organisation — a failed European space research organisation from the Fifties and Sixties. The rooms are former barracks and are given names that sound like poses from Zoolander. But Black Night, Blue Steel and Red Stone are actually the names of the rockets that were developed at this remote site.

Although the accommodation is very basic, the adjoining bar and restaurant is surprisingly well supplied. I tuck into a plate of kangaroo fillet (not bad), emu sausage (gamey), wallaby porterhouse (best avoided), saltbush lamb chop (pleasant) and all the trimmings. That might be the explanation as to why here everyone seemed larger than life. In stature as well as personality.

The Eldo bar is the only watering hole in town and hosts an array of people that would make up the cast of a wonderful Hollywood B movie. Paranoid conspiracy theorists attempt to chat up overweight waitresses who are looking to meet one of the many lonely electronic technicians who have been posted 500 kilometres from the nearest strip joint. Local miners turn up in their pick-ups trying to start fights with visiting foreign forces — in this instance, the BAE systems staff who are testing the next-generation intercontinental stealth drone Taranis, coming to skies near you in 2030.

Woomera is a weird place. It’s basically Australia’s Area 51 where secrecy and mystery are mixed with a little conspiracy.

The town’s 150 permanent residents live in concrete barracks, amid rockets, missiles and other military equipment that is dotted around the place. The museum offers a decent historical overview of the place but armed military keep overly keen visitors away from the testing ranges and other juicy stuff.

A few hours south of Woomera and the radio crackles into life. After several days without internet, phone or even radio reception it feels comforting to reach the first major town since Alice Springs. The Stuart Highway ends at Port Augusta, but from here, a short three hours east, are the jaw-dropping Flinders Ranges.

This mountain range and national park, 200km north of Adelaide, is dotted with tiny picture-postcard towns in the foothills. Some of them don’t appear to have changed in a century. Wilpena Pound is the more famous natural landmark at its centre, and hosts a resort named after the town. Tucked into the mountains and surrounded by wooded hiking trails, it offers a perfect rest stop for weary travellers. From the higher peaks on the range, the incredible landscape spans hundreds of miles, and it seems even the wildlife is in awe of this magnificent vista.

Kangaroos, emus and cattle pause from their grazing to stop and admire the sky turn to dirty orange as dusk becomes night.

The final 430-kilometre stretch into Adelaide is the most enjoyable as a driver. Winding roads, undulating hills and the varied landscape of the Clare Valley wine region keep all the senses stimulated. The land is now entirely agricultural and villages turn into smaller towns as Adelaide nears.

Adelaide is a vibrant city. Often overlooked in favour of its south-coast rival, Melbourne, the city has had a serious makeover in recent years. Empty shop fronts in the downtown area have been turned into boutiques, bars and cafés, thanks in part to an offer by the authorities of six-month free rental leases and a relaxation to restrictions on alcohol licenses. One venue taking advantage of this initiative is a bar called Clever Little Tailor. All exposed brick and leather booths, this speakeasy mixes excellent whisky cocktails and is a fine example of how to do it right.

The city has also become a real cultural centre with a booming art scene, in no small part due to The Jam Factory.

Established in 1973, the studio runs two-year courses and is a production line for talented artists. In 2013 it expanded, with new shops and galleries opening in South Australia. “Many of the artists come from an art-school background, but they come here to learn how to make what they do viable,” explains CEO Brian Parkes. “All of that on-the-job stuff is important. When they leave here they should be fully formed, small-business people.”

Not only are the works created by the artists on display and for sale, the studios are also open to the public, meaning visitors can watch them work and ask them what they’re doing. And what they’re doing is creating something uniquely Australian.

“One of the hallmarks of design in Australia is the ‘make do’ ethos,” says Parkes. “Whether it comes out of tinkering in sheds or scarceness of resource, there is a great dexterity of doing things with the hands that informs a lot of the best design practices,” he says. “It’s not so much an aesthetic but at an attitude — having a go at things that are a little bit unusual.”

A trip across central Australia is certainly hands-on and in no small part unusual, and that’s what makes it unique. It’s one of the only great untouched wildernesses in the world, where even the majority of Australians have never been. It’s where history is brought alive, the ancient landscape juxtaposes with luxury resorts, fine art and indigenous culture. And, of course, it’s hard to get lost with just one long straight road to navigate.