Four-wheeling the Australian Outback

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Queensland & the Northern Territory, Australia
By Kate Cypcar

Do you ever feel the urge to get behind the wheel of a heavy, fuel-guzzling 4WD? Well, if you do this article is for you! It doesn’t matter if you have little four-wheeling experience or are an expert – Australia’s outback has an adventure track for you. To help you prepare for that unforgettable vacation in the dirt, here is a listing of some 4WD destinations you won’t want to pass up.

Tropical Queensland
Cape York Peninsula
The journey to the northernmost point of Australia is one of the continent’s great adventures. Cape York Peninsula combines tropical climates, remote wilderness, abundant wildlife and a challenging four wheel drive experience. If 4WD is your thing, then tackling the rugged tracks and wild river crossings on the ‘Trip to the Tip’ is an adventure you won’t want to miss.

Southeast Queensland
Fraser Island
Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world, measuring 85 miles in length and 16 miles across. It is also one of Queensland’s most well-known national parks. Fraser Island offers a unique 4WD adventure, as the island is a landscape of hills and valleys, rain forest, and crystal clear lakes. The island is simply too large and varied to appreciate fully on a day-trip, but competition in Hervey Bay keeps rental prices to a minimum so you’ll be able to indulge your adventure-lust a little more. Fraser Island is also a great opportunity to practice handling a 4WD for later, more technical excursions. The east beach serves as the main highway, with roads running inland to popular island attractions. Additional tracks crisscross the interior. Main tracks are often rough from heavy use, but minor roads tend to be in better shape.

Northern Territory
Finke River Route
This route is a great way to put some quality 4WD practice under your belt (or merely jog your memory by hopping on that old ‘bike’ again – a refresher course, if you will) because minimal prior experience with a 4WD vehicle is required. Following the Finke riverbed from Hermannsburg down to the Ernest Giles, the Finke River Route offers an adventurous alternative to the highway and saves some backtracking from Kings Canyon. The scenery, a reliable waterhole, and the likelihood that you’ll have it all to yourself are just a few of the reasons you should check out this spot. The 62-mile track begins just south of Hermannsburg, descending into the riverbed after approximately 6 miles of corrugated road. Boggy Hole is the only campsite (about 2.5 hours from Hermannsburg) and is host to permanent reed-fringed waterholes. Beyond the campsite, the track crisscrosses instead of following the riverbed. The going is 40 miles from Boggy Hole to the Giles Road, and it’s a good idea to allow three hours or more to travel the distance. Remember to deflate your tires to the suggested pressure and keep in the ruts so as to reduce the risk of getting stuck. The Palm Valley Ranger Station has info on the state of the track and hands out a map that clarifies all the junctions along the road. When in doubt, follow signs to ‘Kings Canyon’ (that is, if you can find them!).

Arltunga to Ruby Gap
The very scenic, yet bumpy 33-mile drive from Arltunga to Ruby Gap consists of 2 hours through the beautiful MacDonnell Ranges. Be ready for some steep creek crossings, but once you reach the sandy riverbed of the Hale and Ruby Gap Nature Park you can breathe again. From here it is advisable to keep to the sandy ruts and inch carefully over the rocks for the 4 or so miles to Glen Annie Gorge. The track dead-ends at picturesque views of maroon red cliffs, bright green reeds, and off-white sand. See the ranger at the Arltunga Visitor’s Center for the latest track conditions.

Cattlewater Pass and Harts Ranges
This is a less difficult route heading north from Arltunga past Claraville Station, and up over the Harts Ranges through the Cattlewater Pass to the Plenty Highway. The way is 42 miles (plus or minus three hours) from Arltunga, and it is worthwhile to return to Alice Springs from Ruby Gap via this different route. Keep your eyes peeled for hopping marsupials along the way – you’re bound to see some (there I go with the puns again)! Once you turn onto Plenty Highway, the dirt road via Gemtree to the Stuart Highway and Alice Springs is an easy 93 miles away.

The Finke and Old Andado Tracks
More ambitious than the above 4WD destinations, the Finke and Old Andado Tracks make up a 466-mile loop that delves into the outer edges of the Simpson Desert. The Finke’s and Old Andado’s routes diverge at Alice Springs’ airport and rejoin at Mount Date Station just over the South Australian border. At Alice Airport, the Finke branches west toward the old Ghan railway, past Ewaninga Rock Carvings and Maryvale (it’s a good idea to fuel up here). You can take a 55-mile return diversion to Chambers Pillar from this point. After Maryvale the road takes you straight to Finke (another much needed fueling spot) via a sandy and sometimes corrugated track. The driving through this section is mostly 2WD. On the way, keep a look out for stands of desert oak, shrubs, and claypans; you might even see some feral camels. The track tends to get sandier soon after Charlotte Waters on the track heading towards Mount Dare. Mount Dare is the place to load up on fuel and provisions, and to take the time to down a refreshing beer at the bar. The trip back to Alice via Old Andado requires a little advance planning, as it is 269 miles with no stops for fuel. Again, prepare for sandy roadways, although the going gets easier as you cross the low ranges that travel past the Saint Teresa Community Road and back to the airport.

As always, remember to exercise extreme caution when operating a 4WD vehicle. Just because it claims to be 4WD doesn’t mean that it is invincible. Trust me, getting stuck in the middle of nowhere is just as fun as breaking down on the freeway during rush hour traffic (insert sarcasm). The only difference is that help comes along a little less frequently in the bush. It is also important to be aware that there are many established outfits that will jump at the opportunity to rent you a 4WD vehicle. My advice is to take time to check out the condition of the vehicle and to inquire about the rental specifics (i.e., are spare tires, tools, or recovery gear included?). After all, it is in your own interest to make sure you are safely equipped. It’s more fun when you have less to worry about.

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