The Red Centre is Green and Smells of Cabbage

The Stuart Highway is super boring. 20km between bends in the road is totally common and a curve can easily take up one or two kilometres. There is heaps of space, so why have tight corners? The landscape is red sand and rocks with green brush for mile after mile.


There is so much space, people can drive an entire house to a new home.



There are probably thousands of vehicles on the Stuart Highway at any one time. But because it spans the entire Australian continent south to north, you often go along for quite a while without seeing a soul. It is quite safe to stop in the middle of the road for a chat when you do see a fellow traveler.


Aside from the music on our iPods the roadhouses became the only source of entertainment. We decided to stay the night at Spuds Roadhouse as it promised a much needed hot shower and some ice cold beers. They let us charge our gadgets too. Overnight all sorts of vehicles turn up. There are the road trains of course. A girl rocked up in a 4WD with a dirt bike on the back. She rolled out her swag for the night and was off at dawn, her two dogs in tow.

Interesting as it is, it is also noisy and we were craving the loneliness and the freedom of the outback. So instead of heading directly up the highway a plan was hatched to take the unsealed Odnadatta Track, which runs north as well parallel but east to the highway. We’d heard news that after the recent rains it was open again.

At the start a giant sign warns that it is illegal to ride the track when it is closed subject to large fines. But an orange sign announced it open to 4WDs so we decided that included us. It started out as hard packed dirt and gravel and we were soon used to the uneven road. Signs on the fences to the side declared much of the land as licensed for mining.




Once the fences disappeared, we stopped for lunch at a little pond which was only here, in the middle of the desert, because it had rained so easily. It was already drying up fast leaving little crystalised mineral deposits everywhere.


In the afternoon we spotted another salt lake with a track sporting fresh tire marks leading onto it. Exited at the prospect of getting some salt lake photos after all, Aidan raced down the track and onto the promising white. But long before he reached the pristinely glittering pinkish white, Pippa started sinking in, mud flying everywhere as the tire dug in. I’d been a little more cautious and was left to watch and giggle.



Aidan came back in a big loop and stopped to remove thick clumps of salty mud from the chain guard and brakes.


Riding on we came across the Lake Eyre view point. Turns out this salt lake was also a National Park and driving onto it or camping here was forbidden subject to huge fines. Just as well we hadn’t actually managed to drive onto it! From here we could see the surprisingly vast expanse of the lake.


It was all a bit far away and impersonal though. Add to that the persistent pestilence of a million flies and you can imagine we didn’t hang around long. An information board told us that the salt lakes are is 12m below sea level, having rivers drain into it. This was the reason the early explorers took boats on their expeditions. Even when they shed all sorts of other unnecessary things, they kept the boats in an anticipation of having to cross an inland sea. When our chocolate ran out we hopped back on the bikes and headed off.


We found the perfect spot for that night’s cam in an almost dried out riverbed.  Aidan set about cheffing up while I repaired another casualty of the rough roads. One of the canvas bags holding the fuel canisters had bounced against the exhaust guard and chafed a hole. So I chopped a piece out of my jeans and sewed it on. Priorities! Can’t go far without fuel…

There were lots more smaller salt lakes along the track all dried up and glistening in the sun.

And quite a few rusty car wrecks, completely burned out; a stark reminder of the warnings never to leave your vehicle unattended out here if you can help it. I can’t quite figure it out. Someone actually went to the trouble of fetching petrol from hundreds of kilometres away to make sure the cars burn up good ‘n’ proper. The big empty canister gives it away. Vandalism or just the owner deciding it’s not with the thousands of dollars getting towed from out here?

Of course we spotted the famous pink safe. Everyone who drove along this track knows it. Maybe it’s a supplies drop off point?


A few kilometres of tedious corrugations with soft sand edges had us worry about the bikes. It was possible to avoid them riding I the soft sand on the side, but I wasn’t very good at that. Very deep sand or loose gravel would sneak up on me and surprise me as soon as I dared speed up. There was nothing to it but to close my eyes and pray the front tire wouldn’t slip away from underneath me. Then I’d slow to a crawl again and hobble along the corrugations. Until the worry about shaking Lea to bits had me dare ride the sand again.


By the time we reached William Creek, we definitely deserved the cold beer it had to offer. Petrol was at a premium. But we relied on it and they knew it.

We chatted to the traveler crown for a bit and shared stories. One guy showed us a few photos of the must see places he’d been that we should go to. Then it was time to hit the road again before we were seduced by their amazing looking pricy burgers or the showers we’d have to sink coins into.


We spotted some jackaroos herding cows with motorcycles true Aussie style.

After about 80km or so the track got real bad. It started with a few creeks crossing the road. They were dried up presenting us with deep sand and loose pebbles. That was fun for a while and the landscape was pretty awesome. Due to the recent rains the Red Centre was pretty green and for some reason smells of cabbage!

But then the road in between began to twist and turn with deep sand and heavy, unavoidable corrugations. I’d had enough! To top things off the bottle holder on the fork that held a can of lighter fuel wrapped itself around the spokes and tore the speedo cable. So once again I had no way of telling how fast I was going or how far and when the fuel would run out.


The map had promised a river that would have water in it. But when we got there, the camping spot was taken, so we headed off road along the bank, through a side stream, up the other side and into the lush greenery for an idyllic place to spend the night. Or so we thought. The place was infested with mozzies. We were eaten alive as we wolfed down a quick dinner, trying to avoid swallowing too many mosquitos in the process. Instead of sitting on the river bank, taking in the views and enjoying the sunset, we fled into the tent and shut the door.

In the morning, while packing up in a hurry to avoid the mozzies that went after us with renewed vigour I noticed that Lea was about to lose her tail light. The last screw had broken off. Nothing that a ton of duck tape wouldn’t fix though.


The road improved somewhat. Or maybe it was the fact that I’d had some sleep and revived a little. The bends in the road became fewer and the stretches between corrugated bits longer.

Not for long though. As seems to be the case every time, a few dozen kilometres before town the corrugations become a constant. And this time there were a few puddles just to make it fun.



We rattled into Oodnadatta and had to laugh. All along the track there had been signs like “watch for Pink”. There was no way you could possibly miss the bright pink road house with the bright pink petrol station. Everything was painted pink!



The shop was too pricey to top up our supplies so we would just make do with what we had. The ice cold beer was an absolute must of course, Skunk insisted.


To our surprise Sarah, the girl we’d met on the other salt lake track, rolled into town. The Simpson Desert track had reopened and she had loaded up four days’ worth of supplies to ride across the desert by herself. I was mighty jealous. But I also realised that my skills and our equipment would need updating before we could attempt that challenge. The $100 desert pass the authorities require you to purchase put a definitive end to that pipe dream. It’s gonna have to be another addition to the bucket list in case I ever come back to Australia.

Sarah was in a hurry to have lunch as she wanted to get going and camp out in the wild but she still found time for a quick chat. Having been traumatized by them I of course started moaning about the corrugations and how hard it is riding in the sand on the side to avoid them. She mentioned something that still rings in my ears:  Always remember to look up and ahead. That way the deep stuff can’t catch you off guard. Really obvious and very true but I needed reminding. I’d been so worried about riding in sand, I’d never looked more than one metre ahead and had been tossed this way and that by some nasty surface surprises!

Sarah was going to try and ride her original route and still make it home by the end of her holiday. We wished each other safe and happy travels and were on our way in opposite directions. I don’t know what I’d been moaning about. This wasn’t nearly as hard as what she was doing. And anyways, it was heaps more fun than the booooooring highway!




One response to “The Red Centre is Green and Smells of Cabbage

  1. Pingback: What goes around comes around | followingtarmac·

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