The Australian outback is typically portrayed as sparse eucalypt forest with the occasional waterhole or rocky outcrop. Although this is an accurate description of certain areas, the outback is a term applied to an incredibly diverse range of landscapes.
The South Australian outback is generally a very desolate and arid landscape and usually applies to the far north of the State. Travelling to this part of the country is something that is taken far too lightly by a number of tourists and it has, in the past, even proven fatal.
Popular routes for travellers include the Oodnadatta Track, the Birdsville Track, the Strzelecki Track, Witjira National Park and the Simpson Desert Regional Reserve. The townships of Marree and Lyndhurst (start of the Strzelecki Track) are the starting points for many visiting the area.
Travelling along these routes should be avoided altogether in the summer months of December, January and February, The Simpson Desert Regional Reserve and the Witjira National Park are in fact closed to travellers from 1st November until 1st April every year. This is purely for safety reasons as daytime temperatures at this time of the year can reach 50 degrees Celsius.
From April to September is the optimum time for outback travel in South Australia. The weather is much cooler and it should be mentioned that night time temperatures can drop below zero.
Even in the cooler months, travellers need to be prepared as all the above mentioned areas are extremely isolated. If possible, a 4wd vehicle should be used. It is possible to travel the Oodnadatta, Strzelecki and Birdsville Tracks in good weather in a conventional 2wd vehicle, but the roads are unsealed and it will be far more comfortable negotiating the inevitable corrugations in a 4wd vehicle.
4wd is absolutely essential if contemplating visiting the Witjira National Park or the Simpson Desert Regional Reserve. The vehicle should have low range as well as high range 4wd, especially if tackling the Simpson Desert. There are hundreds of sand dunes to climb if crossing this desert.
Communications are very important. A UHF radio is a bare minimum. There are repeater towers situated along the tracks, so you will probably be in contact with someone most times. An HF radio is better, but of course more expensive. An HF radio allows for extremely long range communication and is used by emergency services including the Flying Doctor Service.
A satellite phone is a great alternative to the UHF or HF radios and an EPIRB is an emergency positioning beacon that will allow authorities to pinpoint your location if you get into real trouble.
One of the most important considerations, if not the most important, is water. It is very dry out there, with precious little water. You will need water for washing, drinking and bathing. Work out how many days you will be travelling and camping then plan accordingly. You can never have too much water. Some well-equipped 4wds have water tanks fitted inside the rear cargo hold which can hold up to 60 litres.
Having a basic knowledge of you vehicles mechanics can also prove helpful. If you can change simple things like a fan belt, a tyre or a split hose then you will feel more confident and could potentially save yourself a long wait. Even having the spare parts with you can be beneficial as they might not be readily available and someone may be able to assist you in repairing your vehicle.
Adequate food and suitable clothing is essential. Be mindful of the cold temperatures during the night in the cooler months, so warm clothes and bedding will be required. Avoid travelling in the summer months and even spring - September, October and November – can be uncomfortably warm at times.
Be wary of other road users, especially the large trucks that regularly use the Oodnadatta Track. These are the ‘road trains’; very long vehicles that kick up a large amount of dust and stones. Often, it is much safer to pull over and let them pass, and in doing so, avoiding the dust and the possibility of a broken windscreen.
Occasionally heavy rains fall across the outback regions and flood huge tracts of land. If this happens, the Oodnadatta, Birdsville and Strezlecki Tracks are likely to be closed to travellers. It is simply impossible to get through, the usually dry creeks flood and water covers the land for miles around. If you are fortunate enough to time your trip a month or two after the floodwaters have receded, you will experience this arid land at its best. There is a green tinge to the otherwise red earth and wildflowers pop up everywhere.
If you do manage to bog your vehicle, don’t panic. The tragic death of a tourist a few years ago in an area near the Oodnadatta Track could have been avoided. She and her partner managed to get their hired 4wd vehicle stuck in some sand in a very remote location, about 60 kilometres from the nearest town. It was very hot and, after numerous failed attempts at freeing their vehicle, the young lady attempted to walk back along the route travelled to the township. She did not have adequate water and was found dead by the side of the track a few days later. Her travelling companion who had remained with the vehicle, survived. When a local policeman saw the bogged vehicle, he simply released air from the tyres and drove it out. If driving in sandy or muddy conditions, it is essential to reduce your tyre pressure to somewhere around 18psi. This increases the vehicle’s traction and you are far less likely to become bogged.
Basic recovery equipment should also be carried. A high lift jack, a snatch strap, a long handled shovel and a suitable tow rope are essential items. Desirable items would include a winch, a ground anchor (trees are few and far between and the ground anchor can be used as an anchor point for the winch) and a set of sand tracks or an exhaust bag.
Lastly, the most important rule to remember is, if your vehicle does break down; do not attempt to walk for help. Remain with the vehicle until help arrives.
Outback South Australia is becoming a very popular winter destination for 4wd enthusiasts and travellers. There are more people visiting these areas now than ever before. It is subsequently safer to visit these days than it ever has been. However, the above basic precautions should still be taken. It is a massive area and if you do run into trouble, help can be a long time coming. The more self- sufficient you are, the more you are likely to enjoy this desolate but beautiful region.