The Stuart Highway
This is Mike’s latest report from the 2014 Trans-Oceania cycling expedition
One of the world’s most famous roads, the Stuart Highway, crosses the continent of Australia over 3,020 km between Darwin in the country’s Northern Territory on the Timor Sea and Port Augusta in South Australia on the Southern Ocean. By the time I joined the cyclists of the 2014 Trans-Oceania, they had already covered almost 1,500 km of this historic route.
Named after the early explorer John McDougall Stuart, the road was only paved in the 1980’s and until 2006 there was no speed limit. Vehicles, including the justifiably famous road trains (up to 4 trailers long), are now limited to 130 km an hour although the Northern Territory’s government is experimenting with another ‘no speed limit zone’ north of Alice Springs. While planning the route of this tour we were concerned about these transport Giants but they have turned out to be the most courteous of drivers.
As we left Alice and began to cross into South Australia, the red sand and rocky outcrops that characterized the area soon began to turn to low scrub and stony soil. Signs warned of wandering animals – cattle, sheep, emus, camels, kangaroos. Cattle grids appeared on the highway.
Every now and then a burned-out car would appear on the side of the road. It turns out that some outback kids like to steal cars, drive them as far and as fast as the fuel they have in them will allow and then use the remaining fumes to set the vehicles alight.
At the border between The Northern Territory and South Australia the state crests had been stolen off the roadside monument leaving behind ghostly outlines and a sign indicated to us that we would not be allowed to transport any fruit or vegetables from one state to another. But this being Australia, it would be about 120 km until we reached the actual quarantine bin at the Marla Roadhouse.
Considering the amount of sunshine this route receives, it makes sense that every second year it hosts the World Solar Challenge where vehicles race along the highway using only the power of the sun’s rays. Occasionally, the highway will widen and appear covered with odd markings. These are the designated emergency landing strips for the Royal Flying Doctor Service which provides a back-up to the National Health Service in remote communities.
Just 15 km north of our rest day in the opal mining town of Coober Pedy, the Stuart Highway passes through the world’s longest fence, the Great Australian Dog (or Dingo) Fence. At 5300 km long and 1.8 m high it is twice as long as the Great Wall of China and Australia’s other long fence, the Rabbit Fence in Western Australia (see my previous thoughts on this country’s obsession with size). It was built to protect the country’s sheep population from the Dingo, Australia’s native canine. It is patrolled along its length by 4WDs and when the Stuart Highway crosses it, there are extra wide cattle grids designed to keep the Dingo out. In contrast to the modern Australian depiction of this animal as a predator, to the Aboriginals the Dingo was more of a companion, living with them and helping in the hunt.
The highway is long and straight and the driving can be tedious, hypnotic and potentially dangerous. Both states have placed rest areas at regular intervals and signs (‘Drowsy Drivers Die’) encourage drivers to make use of them and pull off to take a break. I just wish more of them would include porto-potties as many beautiful sites are lined with piles of toilet paper and desiccated feces.
Paralleling the road for most of the distance is the railway line from Darwin to Adelaide. One of Australia’s classic train rides, ‘The Ghan’ – named after the legendary Afghan cameleers who explored much of the route – gives riders a chance to sit back, relax and watch as the vastness of some of Australia’s deserts, such as the Simpson and the Great Victoria, pass by their windows.
Of course, one of the main attractions of cycling the Stuart are the unique and quirky roadhouses that break up the journey. From pubs that offer beer as the ‘soup of the day’ to others that advertise wives and husbands for sale to others that features Parrots with cans of open Red Bull in their cages, these are places to meet the colorful locals and enjoy a cold beer.
Our own Trans-Oceania Stuart Highway adventure seems appropriate given that this is the 100th anniversary of the first north-south crossing of Australia by bicycle and we look forward to more riders taking up the challenge of cycling this remarkable road with us in 2016.