A drone shot of the Outback Way
A drone shot of the Outback Way
10 min read

It's 'Australia's longest shortcut', but when will the Outback Way be finished?

SBS News takes a bumpy road trip in the Australian desert to see if we’re close to finally being able to cross the country in a hatchback.

Published 12 September 2021 at 8:56am
By Anna Henderson
Source: SBS News
Near the base of Harts Range, the newly laid bitumen trailing off into the sandhills smells like fresh opportunity.

The rocks of the range seem to explode out of the huge flat Northern Territory expanse in a remote part of the nation that holds deep spiritual significance to the Traditional Owners.

It’s the living canvas of First Nations Dreamtime stories. But another mark on the landscape is carving out an emerging tale.

Road sign telling tourists when they’re driving on part of the Outback Way road network.
Sign of the times: These road signs tell tourists when they’re driving on part of the Outback Way road network. Source: Anna Henderson/SBS News

The slow process of paving a path through the centre of the nation is looking increasingly promising after it was namechecked a 29-hour drive away in Canberra by one of the nation’s most senior politicians.

“It’s high time we do this,” declared Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce in his prepared speech to the National Press Club last week.

Mr Joyce said it was time for the people who live on the road network to get the “basic article of 21st-century living; a sealed road”.

The Outback Way

He was talking about the Outback Way, a network of highways and roads in various states of repair and disrepair that cut through the middle of the country.

It starts in Winton in Queensland and snakes through the Northern Territory past Harts Range and on to Alice Springs, before dipping down through Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park and on to Laverton in Western Australia.

Despite years of promises and projections, 1,200 kilometres of the 2,700-kilometre stretch is still gravel.

It leaves heavy industry only two options to cross the continent east to west on bitumen, via the circuitous southerly route along the cliff faces of the Great Australian Bight, or up to the very top via the Great Northern Highway past Broome and Port Hedland.

In the lead up to the next federal election, the fact that the leader of the Nationals is making unprompted and strategic references to the infrastructure project is well received by those who’ve been pushing for it.

Various levels of government have funded more roadworks, but those campaigning for the entirety to be completed estimate about 900 kilometres are still looking for a financial commitment to put the tar down.

It’s no accident that the Outback Way is being promoted by the federal government. All those little Northern Territory communities (and polling booths) make up part of a potentially crucial federal electorate that could be in play this time around.

World-class: The Outback Way is a road trip that takes in Australia’s most famous natural icon, Uluru. Source: Daniel Stephenson

Labor MP Warren Snowdon, a long-standing popular local member, is “rolling up his swag” and retiring at the end of this term. The Country Liberal Party has preselected former Alice Springs mayor and longstanding backer of the Outback Way effort, Damien Ryan, as its candidate to try and claw back the seat for the Coalition.

The massive seat covers the entire Territory landmass except for Darwin, but this kind of focus on bush infrastructure could play well in the fight against well-known candidate Marion Scrymgour, the first Indigenous woman elected to the Northern Territory parliament who’s been charged with retaining the seat for Labor.

Not to be outdone, Labor is also looking favourably on progress here.

“I think the Outback Way is a fantastic project,” shadow infrastructure minister Catherine King told SBS News from a cold Canberra courtyard.

But it’s not the only inland project to consider. Strong lobbying is also being made for the Tanami Road which is unsealed between Alice Springs and Halls Creek in Western Australia.

“Labor’s looking at both of those projects at the moment,” she said.

Ms King has firsthand experience of the Outback Way, travelling along parts when she was in her 20s. She notes its beauty and the huge benefits to local communities if it’s improved.

“It’s a project that should be treated very seriously.”

Cultural recognition

Traditional Owner Anthony Patrick is standing on the side of the Plenty Highway near his community of Atitjere, talking about his hopes for the Outback Way.

Already there’s been substantial work on parts of the road between the community of about 200 residents and Alice Springs. That has helped to ensure older and sick community members don’t have to relocate to a potentially lonely existence in an Alice Springs health facility when they need more treatment.

Traditional Owner Anthony Patrick
Two ways: Traditional Owner Anthony Patrick wants tourists to get more opportunities to understand Indigenous culture. Source: Anna Henderson/SBS News

But Mr Patrick can see that when the road improves in the other direction into Queensland there will be more tourists, cheaper fresh food and supplies coming in, and he hopes fewer distressing phone calls about relatives and friends in car accidents on the dodgy surfaces to the east.

There’s also an opportunity for cultural understanding. 

“When tourists come through we would like them to come, be welcomed, and have two-way respect of culture,” he says.

The area also maps a rich network of Indigenous artists and galleries.

Now some of those works are on display, with a 70-kilometre outdoor art gallery along this section of the highway.

A QR code on the billboards means you can drive through and purchase art you like.

A billboard with curated art on display
En plein air: Dotted along part of the Outback Way are billboards with curated art on display. Source: Anna Henderson/SBS News

But, like most things out here, the local reaction is complicated. The searing sun on the billboards means there are some parts of the day when it’s nearly impossible to make out the details.

And within the Atitjere community, where a number of the paintings have been erected, there are a few concerns raised about art being displayed that wasn’t painted on their traditional land. 

Tourist trap

The idea is widely embraced by passing tourists though, as another way to break up what some feel are monotonous stretches of the outback.

Atitjere is hoping a safer surface will bring more grey nomads and travelling families. The community has its own campsite and there are nearby Indigenous tourism projects that rely on passing trade. 

It’s the same for Alex Chalmers, further down the Plenty Highway towards Alice Springs. He is one of the owners of camping and caravan spot Gemtree, which also runs fossicking tours at the nearby zircon and garnet gem fields. He says getting blacktop on the road to Queensland would be a gamechanger for the business.

“It would be transformative.”

Alex Chalmers in the kitchen at Gemtree Caravan Park
Transformative: Alex Chalmers in the kitchen at Gemtree Caravan Park believes sealing the Outback Way will bolster tourism. Source: Daniel Stephenson

He notes the slow progress over decades to get an upgrade, recalling when the Outback Way campaign was focused on “rock to reef” and was about paving a road between Uluru and the premium snorkelling havens in North Queensland. 

With international borders still closed, he’s hopeful more people will turn to their own backyard.

“I would not be surprised if next year is a bumper tourism season.”

But the federal government has its sights on sleeping riches beneath the surface. This is the vision laid out by Mr Joyce:

“We will connect the critical (rare) earth precincts north of Alice Springs to the gold precincts around Laverton.”

He and Agriculture Minister David Littleproud also are both excited about the potential for the Nationals’ touchstone industry; beef.

“It will create greater transport capacity for the massive beef industry along the new corridor,” Mr Joyce told the National Press Club.

Blacktop: More of the Outback Way is being sealed in the Northern Territory. Source: Anna Henderson/SBS News

While travelling the road, you do come across the very occasional B-triple truck roaring off the gravel. The idea of being in the other lane as they bear down on you is cause to grip the steering wheel much tighter.

The government is hoping that providing basic services to the communities dotted along the tracks will encourage more people to consider a bush adventure permanently.

“Currently opportunity, expertise and population has proportionately moved little to where it was planted as colonial capitals over 200 years ago,” Mr Joyce said.

“It won’t change unless we provide a similar infrastructure impetus to the same seeds as we planted here in Canberra early last century.” 

The potholes are famous

Some parts of the Outback Way road network boast a world-class road surface, so smooth you can sip a Territory delicacy - ice coffee in a carton - right out of the triangular opening without any spillage. But there are other parts that have gained infamy - their treacherous edges sometimes marked with abandoned vehicles minus a functional tyre.

While the surfaces do get graded, the biggest problems come with large rainfall. The top layer of gravel can get washed away revealing the corrugated skeleton of the road. Some sections are notorious for the kind of continuous bone-shaking bumps that can loosen a filling or two.

Surfaces on the Plenty Highway
Old and New: Surfaces on the Plenty Highway where work is being done to seal the gravel road. Source: Daniel Stephenson

Nowhere is that patchwork starker than the edge of Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park. The world-famous park itself boasts a lovingly tended bitumen surface, but once you take the turnoff to the west things change rapidly. Two-wheel drivers attempt at their own risk and in wet conditions it’s a potentially perilous decision.

With international travel on an extended pandemic hiatus, the usual trickle of adventurous thrill-seekers in bashed up second-hand vans and sedans has dried up.

Communities along the stretch to the west know that with tar roads comes better produce, better services and a better chance of doctors, pharmacists, teachers and other specialists who can help teach and treat the population will be more likely to come.

There are 1,200 kilometres of Outback Way pavement to complete - that’s about 40 per cent of the road network.

The Outback Way Highway Development Council Incorporated is the group driving the continued lobbying efforts to the state, territory and federal governments. They’ve been pushing since 1997.

By their reckoning, there’s enough fuel in the financial tank to get to the point where only 900 kilometres still needs to be paid for. The group set themselves a target of getting the money to finish the job by the 2025-26 financial year. The arguments for extra funding range from pandemic infrastructure stimulus to national security. 

Traveller Annette Maunder
Adventure travel: Annette Maunder is among the travellers with 4WD caravans who sail across these surfaces with ease. Source: Daniel Stephenson

But for travellers such as Annette Maunder, who had the road on her bucket list, it’s about encouraging more Australians to step out of their motoring comfort zone.

“Accessibility would open it up to so many more oldies like us, and to more families,” says Annette, who is perched in the doorway of a kitted-out 4WD caravan.

“To see a sunrise and sunset and see the magnificent colours, and the magnificent stars at night; people just need to come and see this.” 

“We are sitting on an absolute gem in our own backyard.” 

Anna Henderson produced this story as part of the Michael Gordon Fellowship, a national initiative to enable social justice journalism.