Into the desert, South Australia

Delve into Australia's spectacular Outback on this desert self-drive route

3 mins
DURATION: 1 week
BEST FOR: Widescreen landscapes, Mad Max scenery, Outback trails
ROUTE: Port Augusta • Marree • William Creek • Lake Eyre • Coober Pedy
WHY DO IT: Make strides into the Simpson Desert, hitting the offroad Oodnadatta Track and passing salt lakes and subterranean towns

The waterfront town of Port Augusta is nothing if not well connected. From here, railways and highways spill off to all four compass points. It’s worth lingering briefly to enjoy the Wadlata Outback Centre, which traces the region’s history and displays superb Aboriginal art. However, you’ll mainly be using Port Augusta as a springboard to head north into Australia’s vast desert heartland.

On the first stretch of the journey you’ll drive right between two mighty natural spectacles: the towering, 540-million-year-old Flinders Ranges to the east and 155 mile-long Lake Torrens to the west. The lake is usually dry but, when wet, can draw large numbers of birds such as red-capped plovers and banded stilts.

Crocodile Harry's Underground Nest, Coober Pedy (SATC)
Crocodile Harry's Underground Nest, Coober Pedy (SATC)

Continuing north you’ll reach the small settlement of Marree, notable chiefly as the starting point of one of the great Outback driving routes: the Oodnadatta Track. Around 385 miles of unsealed road lie ahead, slicing through wild desert country. You’ll need a 4WD to tackle it, but you’ll enjoy a tangible sense of adventure as you pass the remote hamlet of William Creek (current population: six people and a dog) before steering off towards huge Lake Eyre. Again, this lake is nearly always dry, but a thick salt crust gives the expanse an otherworldly atmosphere – not to mention real sparkle.

Passing back through William Creek, the route eventually arrives at the extraordinary opal-mining desert outpost of Coober Pedy. The town is renowned for its underground houses – the Outback heat is too fierce for overground living, and even churches are subterranean. The town is a fascinating, if slightly unsettling, place to explore. But fear not: you’ll still find plenty of kangaroo pizza and cold beer.

Top tip
Continue north from Coober Pedy to the sloping ancient seabed known as the Painted Desert – as mesmerising as it sounds.

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