Getting Around the Outback
There’s no doubt that getting around the outback, along with accommodation, is going to be your greatest cost.
If you travel between Adelaide and Darwin, you’re looking at a distance of 3000km alone.
That’s like travelling from Los Angeles to Cincinnati or from Paris to Ankara (Turkey) by road! And that’s with no side trips!
Another reason is that there’s no real public transport network.
Sure, there’s planes and trains and buses, but these aren’t really comparable to the kinds of public transport systems you find in big cities all around the world.
They run much less frequently and the costs are higher because the distances are so big.
So to help you with trip planning, we’ve put together some practical, budget-minded tips about getting around the outback in cars, planes, trains, buses and even motorcycles.
In our opinion, a car or 4WD is THE BEST way for getting around the outback. Why?
That’s really easy: you can choose to go wherever you want, whenever you want.
What’s more, if you share fuel costs with someone else (or several other people), then getting around the outback in a car is the cheapest ways for getting around the outback.
You’ve got two real options with cars in Australia: hire a car or buy a car.
Our tip: if you’re looking to do this as cheaply as possible and you’re going to be here for more than 2 months, BUY a car.
Renting a car to see the outback is a better option if you’re only here for a short amount of time.
However, there are quite a few hidden costs and traps to be aware of when renting a car to see the outback. Costs like the ‘premium location charge’ and restrictions on where you can drive are very common.
Check out our car hire Alice Springs and car hire Ayers Rock pages to learn more about these added costs and traps.
Driving in the outback is generally safe but it’s VERY different to driving in the city or in Europe or America, so there’s some things you need to know.
Although there’s a lot fewer cars on the road out here, and the roads are often straight for hundreds of kilometres, the distances between places are HUUUUGE!
Like Coober Pedy to Alice Springs, which is 680km of almost straight road and not a single traffic light or town.
There are four things you really need to be careful of when driving on these roads:
- driver fatigue
- speed (the speed limit is now 130 km/h in the Northern Territory)
- road trains
- and animals
Our Driving in Australia page gives you tips on how to deal with all of these hazards.
In the last 10 years or so, we’ve noticed that campervans have become popular with many tourists for getting around the outback.
It’s easy to understand why, as they sleep anywhere from 2-6 people and are a home on wheels which lets you pull up anywhere you fancy. You can also get 4WD models, usually based around the Toyota Troop Carrier, an outback icon itself.
Most campervans come with a basic kitchen, so the only thing you’ll need to worry about is where to find a shower and a loo (although with 1000s of kilometres of bush, finding a tree to pee behind is never a problem!)
Campervans cost between $90 to $200 a day.
The following companies are a good place to start, as they offer a choice of 4WDs or vans and offer one-way rental. Even better, all companies have offices in every major Australian city, as well as in Alice Springs:
- Backpacker Campervans (1800 670 232; www.backpackercampervans.com.au)
- Britz (1800 331 454; www.britz.com.au) Synonymous with 4WD bush campers in Australia!
- Jucy Rentals 1800 150 850 http://www.jucy.com.au/)
- Kea (1800 252 555; www.keacampers.com )
- Maui (1300 363 800; www.maui.com.au)
- Wicked Campers (1800 246 869; www.wickedcampers.com.au) The fully fitted out, brightly pained hippy-style vans that look so much fun. Priced from $60/50 per day for one to eight weeks’ rental.
Flying is one way of getting around the outback that will suit some people but not others.
Unfortunately, there isn’t huge choice of airlines flying to the Alice Springs or Ayers Rock, which are both at the heart of the outback.
This means that flights to these places are more expensive than elsewhere in Australia.
Qantas (13 1313; www.qantas.com.au) is now the only airline that flies to Alice Springs (about $260 each way from Sydney)
Virgin Australia (13 67 89; www.virginaustralia.com.au) and Qantas fly to Uluru.
However one way to cut down on costs is to grab a bargain fare to Darwin or Adelaide and either start a road trip or buy a ticket on the Ghan. Cheap flights to Adelaide and Darwin are much more easy to find.
Qantas, Virgin Australia and Jetstar (13 15 38; www.jetstar.com.au) all fly to Adelaide and Darwin.
For much more information, including tips for getting cheap tickets, check out our Cheap Airfares in Australia page.
Getting around the outback by bus is something that you might want to think about if you’re not in a hurry.
Are they one of the best ways to really appreciate how big the outback is? Absolutely!
We’ll warn you: it’s a BIG, slow day from somewhere like Adelaide to Alice Springs – a full 21 hours on the bus, so make sure you charge your iPod before you get on. And pack a book or two.
They show movies and have an on board toilet, and they do have comfy seats so you can save at least one night’s accommodation costs by sleeping whilst travelling
The bus stops frequently for meals (some would say TOO frequently!), and you can also hop on and hop off if you have the right kind of ticket.
Greyhound Australia: 1300 473 946; www.greyhound.com.au
The Ghan departs Adelaide for Alice Springs on Sunday and Wednesday (18 hours), continuing on to Darwin on Tuesday and Friday (another 24 hours).
It returns from Darwin to Alice Springs on Wednesday and Saturday, continuing to Adelaide on Thursday and Sunday.
We were critics of the expensive tickets on the Ghan until recently, when friends took it up to Darwin and then down to Adelaide.
The ‘Daynighter’ seats have been turned into full recliners so that you can actually sleep in them and the food has improved 1000%. We can’t wait to try a trip to Darwin on the Ghan.
If you’re an overseas visitor, you can get some amazing deals on sleepers on the Ghan (you’ll need to show your passport).
Bookings and further information for the Ghan:
Great Southern Railway: ph 13 21 47; http://www.gsr.com.au/
Getting around the outback on a motorcycle is something we’ve can recommend.
One of the best things about this is travelling as part of a group, as the group camaraderie really makes the trip.
However, riding in the outback is not for the faint-hearted or inexperienced rider. You’ll need to be prepared for the long distances, changing road conditions, fatigue and hazards like road trains, animals and other road users!
Yet, riding a motorcycle in the outback brings you much more in touch with the passing environment as you’re not sitting in a car, separated from the elements. So you not only get a sense of freedom, you also feel intimately connected to the surrounding landscape.
You’re also a bit of an oddity on the road, and other travellers will pull up and talk to you a lot about where you’re going and what you’re doing.
You’ll need to be well-prepared if you’re getting around the outback on a motorbike. In my recent trips to from Ayers Rock to Darwin and then beck to Alice Springs, I found that trip planning was absolutely critical.
My biggest lesson was that you’ve got very limited carrying space on a bike, so you need to be quite ruthless and careful with what you bring along.
In fact, for some people staying in motels or cabins might be a much better option rather than riding with an overloaded bike.
It’s also much more of a challenge to ride long distances than it is to drive them, so fatigue is a big issue.
If you’re planning on motorcycling the outback, then buying your own bike (or bringing your own) is probably the best choice. You can hire motorcycles in capital cities, but once you leave the cities, the costs of hire skyrocket.
We haven’t done it (yet), but lots of people do: travel the Stuart Highway and other outback roads on a bicycle.
If you’re thinking about getting around the outback on a bicycle, then there’s a new book called Cycling the Outback by Craig Bagnall and Nikki Brown.
Unfortunately, the title is a bit misleading. It should be called ‘Cycling the Top End, Western Australia’s coastline and Queensland’s Tropics’ as there’s no mention of the real outback -the Red Centre- in there at all. And South Australia doesn’t even get a mention!
I guess the term ‘outback’ is a good marketing term, though. Which is why you places like Broome and Cairns are hilariously marketed at ‘the outback’ when they’re on the coast!
However, the book looks as if it would give you come very good practical advice on trip preparation and planning. You can buy the book directly from the authors: here.