In April of 2006, I took one of those trips that leaves you with mental images and memories permanently etched in your mind. I traversed the Australian Outback, from Adelaide northward to Darwin, in 10 days. Wide open space, big orange rocks, and star-filled skies – that’s what I see when I recall my time in Outback Australia 8 years ago.
Look, I know it’s most renowned for its Great Barrier Reef – but if you can only see one thing in Australia, let it be the Outback. There are plenty of other (inferior) reefs you can dive and snorkel in around the world, but there is only one Outback. And it is INCREDIBLE.
During my mid-semester break from Sydney Uni, I traveled to the Outback with two fellow international friends: Melvin (from the Netherlands) and Mike (from California). Our trip divided neatly into 3 parts: 1). Adelaide to Alice Springs, via the Ghan train; 2). The Red Centre; 3). Alice Springs to Darwin. I will sing the praises of independent travel to my dying day, but there are certain scenarios where it makes more sense to travel in a group. The remoteness and extreme conditions in the Outback, coupled with my lack of comfort in driving on the opposite side of the road, made traversing central Australia in a tour group the most sensible option.
Adelaide to Alice Springs
Our priority on this trip was to get to the Centre, so we whizzed through this region in under a day. I’d have loved to have explored it and visited the mining town of Coober Pedy, but alas – there will never be enough time to see everything.
The first leg of our Outback Australia journey covered nearly 1000 miles on a 19-hour train ride: The Ghan. We departed Adelaide in the evening and ended up in Alice Springs by early afternoon the next day. We had booked Day-Nighter seats on the train, i.e. the cheap seats, which reclined slightly but not nearly enough to get a quality night’s sleep. I spent little, if any, time in my seat, though. The three of us hung out in the lounge car and entertained ourselves with games and banter all evening; then, when it came time to sleep, I brought my sleeping bag in there and sprawled out on one of the cushioned benches at the table.
I woke up early the next morning to an attendant tapping me on the shoulder – a subtle request to get the hell up and remove my sleeping quarters from the common area before other passengers woke up and trickled in. I obliged, but remained sitting in the lounge car all morning, completely mesmerized by the scenery out the window. I’ll never forget waking up in middle-of-nowhere, Australia to my first sight of the Outback. A gorgeous sunrise soon revealed an expanse of orange sand, with the occasional bush or tumbleweed careening past the tracks. And so began my love affair with the Australian Outback.
The 3 of us shared a triple room at the Desert Rose Inn before our Outback tour began and had a day to explore Alice Springs. I’d categorize it as a sleepy town: fine enough to use as a launch point for Outback excursions, but not necessarily a place I’d seek out to visit on its own.
My biggest takeaway had to do with the people here. I was somewhat taken aback to see the aboriginal population perpetually hanging out on streets. I remember Mike and Melvin coming back to our room later that day in dismay after witnessing an aborigine peeing on a car in a nearby parking lot. I’ve since seen far more astonishing acts while traveling (ahem, India) and even while living in New York City – but it did seem quite out of place in Australia, at the time. I later learned about the poor conditions in the aboriginal camps outside of Alice Springs, subject to overcrowding, alcoholism, and violence; what we saw in town was just the tip of the troubled iceberg.
The Red Centre
Behold, the impetus for our trip through Outback Australia: The Red Centre. I just wanted to see that big orange rock in the desert; anything else would be an added bonus.
We joined a 3.5 day camping trip with Wayward Bus, which took us on a tour through the area surrounding Alice Springs. It was gratifying to see Ayer’s Rock (Uluru), and downright magical experiencing the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) – but what stays with me to this day is the seemingly mundane motion of going to bed each night. Laying out my swag in the dirt, tucking myself in, staring up at the stars until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I’ve never seen so many stars in my life as I did in the Australian Outback.
Kings Canyon is unrightfully overshadowed, but if you’re already in the area visiting Uluru, you should definitely make a point to check it out. We did an enjoyable day hike around the rim of the canyon, though I think I was too eager to get to the main attraction to fully enjoy it.
To be honest, seeing Uluru was slightly anticlimactic. We were sure to view both a sunrise and a sunset at Uluru from afar, then had some time up close to the rock when we could amble around its perimeter. You are technically allowed to climb it, but the aboriginals discourage it and request that visitors refrain from doing so. I respected that; for me, it was enough just to be there in its presence.
You don’t hear much about Uluru’s little sister, Kata Tjuta, but she’s a stunner. I had no idea how beautiful it was there, perhaps because no commercial photography is allowed on the grounds. We walked through the Valley of the Winds one morning and all I kept thinking was how heavenly this place was. I could just envision the indigenous folk way back in the day, frolicking around the hills, grabbing water at the streams and watering holes, living in the rocks. I never wanted to leave.
To this day, Kata Tjuta ranks as one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life.
Alice Springs to Darwin
The last leg of our Outback journey took on a different tone as we switched tours. Instead of continuing north to Darwin with Wayward Bus, they cancelled the trip and booked us on a similar 3-day tour with Adventure Tours. We went from having a small group dynamic to traveling as part of a large group of 3 tour buses (~50-60 people total). Not exactly my style, but I reminded myself to keep perspective: I WAS IN THE AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK. Therefore, I forfeit my right to complain about anything.
Another note about the tour companies: Wayward Bus was more of a budget tour outlet, while Adventure Tours was a slight step up (in both luxury and price). With Wayward Bus, we slept in swags and tents and helped cook and clean; with Adventure Tours, we slept in bunkhouses and had our meals taken care of. In the end, I’d give excellent reviews to both companies, but I preferred the simplicity and back-to-basics of Wayward Bus.
The area between Alice Springs and Darwin contains a hodge podge of sights, none of which are particularly remarkable on their own but collectively make for an enjoyable multi-day Outback jaunt. We made stops at the Devil’s Marbles (a collection of big rocks scattered about) and Katherine Gorge, where we opted to take a cruise down the river.
After the tour ended, we had a free day in Darwin before flying back to Sydney. Since Adventure Tours didn’t stop at Litchfield National Park like Wayward Bus was originally scheduled to, 4 of us rented a car for the day and drove there ourselves. It was a fun day of swimming in waterfalls and gawking at massive termite mounds – though I should never again be behind the wheel of a car that’s meant to drive on the left side of the road.
As of April 2006 —
Even 8 years ago, I was keeping diligent track of my travel expenses. Here’s what I spent on my 10-day Outback trip:
- Flight from Sydney to Adelaide: $237 AU
- A Day-Nighter seat on the Ghan train (Adelaide-Alice Springs): $150 AU
- 2 nights at a hostel in Alice Springs: $50 AU (my portion of a triple room)
- 7-day tour with Wayward Bus: $686 AU
- 1 night at a hostel in Darwin: $16 AU
- 1 day car rental from Darwin: $41 AU (my portion after being split between 4 people)
- Flight from Darwin to Sydney: $272 AU
Total Cost: ~$1100 US ($1452 AU)
As of April 2014 —
Prices for most things have increased, while the exchange rate has worsened, since I traveled Outback Australia 8 years ago.
- A Day-Nighter seat on The Ghan now costs $269 AU.
- A 5-day tour from Darwin to Alice Springs with Adventure Tours costs $875 AU (note: the one I did was about 7 days total). A 9-day tour with Adventure Tours costs $1175 AU.
One cost that has not significantly risen in the past 8 years, though, is transportation:
- A car rental from Darwin is about $100 AU per day, less than what we paid in 2006.
- Flights between Sydney and Adelaide can be found for less than $100 US (much less than what I paid), and between Darwin and Sydney for $210 US (about what I paid). My dates had been fairly inflexible, so I had to pay more than desired.
Total Approximate Cost: If one were to replicate my original journey through Outback Australia in 2014, it would cost ~$1400-1500 US.