Anyone Can Outback

If It Don’t Stick You, It’ll Sting You

Joe GreshPhotographer, Writer

Everyone gets older, but not everyone gets old, you know? I guess that's the big idea behind this Australian 4x4 trip. You can wait on the perfect situation or wish for more money or make grand plans to do X, Y, and Z when you retire, but the truth is the whole damn thing's a crapshoot from the get-go. It's a crapshoot, and the house always wins, so we're cashing out while the getting's good.

When I say "we," I mean me and my wife, Colleen. I'm not positive she's really into this adventure. Like George Thorogood's wife, "She kinda funny." She has never done any off-road driving—intentionally, that is. Sure, she has spun her Mustang into the toolies a few times, but that's because she likes to drift. She has never even engaged low-range. Turns out she's going because I'm going, which took me by surprise.

First we need a rig. The market over here is crazy for used Nissan Patrols. If you find one in clean condition you better put down earnest money right then or the thing will be gone tomorrow. For something newish, budget at least $20,000 Australian, but remember that resale value on a 4x4 is high so as long as you don't roll the thing or blow an engine you'll get most of that money back when you sell. Our 2008 ST Patrol has all the options: DVD player in the ceiling, power windows, childproof locks, air conditioning, all that mommy-junk that shakes loose off road.

Crossing the Pentecost, the last big obstacle before the Gibb returns to civilization. The Pentecost is tidal, with the water level changing throughout the day. We crossed during the dry season. During the wet, you'll need a ferry. This is why descriptions of road conditions vary so much.

Do any research on traveling the Australian Outback and it's easy to get spooked. You'll read about German tourists getting stuck in the sand and dying of thirst in the hot sun. "Never go alone!" "Hook up with a convoy for safety!" You'll read about dingoes taking babies and, less frequently, babies taking dingoes. The snakes slithering around are so poisonous one drop of venom can kill 10 men. There are saltwater crocodiles big enough to swallow a Suzuki LJ. And flies. Oh, the flies!

All that stuff happens, but the worst part is the flies. Anyway, like I said, my wife has never had anything to do with off-roading. Under duress, she'll drive my smelly old YJ around but only uses the Jeep in 2WD mode. Attempting to teach her dirt skills, with so much emotional capital invested, is a mugs game. My training method is to yell so loud the student absorbs information directly into the brain via sonic waves, bypassing the hippocampus altogether. Kind of like how water can boil in a microwave without the cup getting hot. I managed to get her boiling all right, but not with knowledge.

Long-haul truckers, miners, and cattle station crews use these remote tracks, so someone will come along eventually

I'm just not believable either. My instructions, delivered in a wavering bellow, are met with a skeptical eye. "You expect me to drive over that rock? Yeah, right." We need someone else, someone with command presence and authority. We need someone who understands women.

Ricky Esser, the owner of Adelaide's Follow Me 4WD, has command presence. Follow Me 4WD provides several 4x4 courses. There's a required-certificate off-roading class for mining employees or anyone who needs to go bush in their work, a multiday Outback trek where you learn the ways of the desert, and the course we took, recreational 4-wheel driving.

For two days Esser teaches us about winching, tire pressures, recovery methods, snatching, and shoveling. He plays Colleen like a Stradivarius. I watch her go from questioning the very need to go off-road to laughing and blasting over sand dunes screaming, "Go! Go! Go! Give it the berries!" She's picking up that Aussie lingo from Ricky. I got to say, it makes me a little jealous. Maybe I should yell louder?

Classroom training took most of our first day at the Follow Me 4WD school. The second day was the "Applied Traction" class at Jak'em Farms, a 4-wheel drive park near Adelaide.

Chockfull of Esser's seven Ps (Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance), it's time to go. The Oodnadatta Track mostly follows the path of the old camel drivers to Alice Springs. Later, a telegraph to Darwin, and a railroad followed this same camel route. Called the Ghan, the railroad suffered multiple washouts over the years until the Aussies got tired of rebuilding the thing and moved the tracks west, leaving rusting bridges and abandoned train stations to lure American tourists like us.

Except for the endless washboard trying to rattle our truck apart, the track itself is a well-maintained dirt superhighway veering from the original camel path at the Pink Roadhouse to Marla. You can't take it lightly though. True to its flood-prone past, this superhighway can change into a super mud hole with a little rain.

Farina, an old cattle mustering station just a few kilometers up the Oodnadatta is a ghost town on the move. There are volunteers repairing abandoned buildings, beautiful grassy camping spots, and a guy driving a $65,000 Toyota who comes to our campsite selling fresh bread. The flies are ferocious but must belong to some sort of insect labor union because they knock off after dark, leaving us gazing at an incredible Milky Way so bright it looks like smoke from an interstellar wildfire.

Three days and 617 km later, we leave the dirt at Marla, circling back south to Coober Pedy on pavement. A good friend once told me you can get your wife to do anything as long as you buy her jewelry, and turns out it's true. Coober is the opal capitol of the world and one of the few places you can sleep in an underground motel. For us, Coober is also the beginning of the Kemper Track.

Ricky Esser of Follow Me 4WD (also known as Don't Follow Me If You Want to Stay Unstuck) took us out to some sand dunes for recovery training. We learned which end of a shovel to use in this exercise.

The Kemper takes us back north along another relatively easy dirt road where we turn off into the Painted Desert. This is more like it. On those other tracks, traffic was horrific; we'd see a truck coming the other way every hour or so. In the Painted Desert things are much quieter. The road drops into a riverbed for a few kilometers and we encounter long sandy sections for the first time.

It's really not difficult traveling out here. Long-haul truckers, miners, and cattle station crews use these tracks frequently so someone will come along. Eventually. The secret to the Outback is to choose a nice weather window. Don't pick fights with Mother Nature. Unless there's been a freak storm, the central or northern desert roads should be in good shape by Australia's winter: June, July, and August. Any river crossings will be low and dropping. Temperatures are warm in the day and cool at night, resulting in perfect camping conditions.

We stop in Alice Springs to strap 35 extra liters of diesel to our roof rack. We'll need it for the Tanami, a historic hodgepodge of road works running west for 1,100 km, 770 of them without a fuel stop. The Tanami is flat and remote and, except for two mining sites, devoid of civilization. The weird thing about the Tanami is you'll drive miles and miles of rough dirt road only to come upon short sections of perfectly smooth pavement surrounded by desert.

Beautifully striped, the paved sections do not correspond to any nearby infrastructure. They're just plopped in the middle of nowhere, and when they end after a few miles you're back on the rough stuff. What must have gone through the truck driver's mind as he rumbled his load of hot asphalt over hundreds of miles of corrugated dirt? Wiping his sweaty brow, did he squint into the dusty windshield and wonder if the whole thing wasn't a cruel joke played by that jerk Henderson in dispatch?

My wife, Colleen, exploring a grotto. Take the time to wander off the main dirt roads. If you drive a 4x4 you can have the secret spots all to yourself.

The Tanami ends at Hall's Creek, where we turn west to Derby and the start of the 660km Gibb River Road. Cutting through the heart of the Kimberly region, the Gibb is the Route 66 of iconic Australian adventure. I'm worried. I've read how tough the Gibb can be. Websites I've visited recommend going in a convoy so that you have backup in case one vehicle breaks down. Chat forums suggest as long as two weeks for the journey.

And it can be tough, even impassible, in the wet season. In the dry season the road is beautiful. The Gibb's fame has led to a dirt traffic jam. Huge numbers of RVs, tow-behind trailers as long as a whale, and plain old sedans ply the dusty Gibb. Campgrounds are crowded, televisions flicker blue and red, and the night sky is obliterated by bright LEDs.

You still must go. Sure, the Gibb is slammed during dry season, but there's a way out: any one of a hundred side-tracks will lead you to fantastic waterfalls, tiny rain forest grottos, and gnarly 4-wheel-drive paths through lonely canyons. On the Gibb there's lots of places only a 4x4 can get to, and the sound of those RV generators will fade into the background with every pound-per-square-inch you bleed from your tires.

I'm finally using low-range, and it feels good. Boulders, sharp rocks, deep sand, and water crossings up to our doorsills. This is the lower-case adventure we've been seeking. Adventure anyone can do. You don't need to break the bank or cheat death to enjoy this kind of travel, and it's cheaper than staying in motel rooms and riding the bus.

The Gibb ends at Kununurra and so does this off-road journey. We're going on, but the road is paved and that's a different kind of adventure. Seems tame after we've we knocked off three classic Outback routes. You know, after thousands of miles of dirt driving, Colleen is making noises about getting a Land Cruiser when we get back to Florida. Lifted, of course.

I guess we have to go home eventually, but we're not done with Australia. As soon as we make more money we'll be back. There's the Canning Stock Route, the Simpson Desert, the Great Central Road, and hundreds of other trails crisscrossing Australia's empty Red Center. We hope to see them all before we roll snake eyes.

The ruins at Farina have been heavily photographed. A group of gray-haired volunteers is restoring several of the old buildings. Don't miss out on the fresh-baked bread!

Our home away from home for two months. The ARB camping gear worked great except for a few substandard hook-and-loop straps that were later replaced under warranty.

If I was a better shooter you'd see the bright Milky Way. Try to imagine a watery cloud of silt drifting across the sky.

The Outback is littered with broken cars. Spare parts are everywhere if you're willing to put in a little elbow grease. OK, maybe a lot of elbow grease.

Another thing you'll see is huge roadside art projects. The farther north you go, the less art. Like survival itself gets harder and people have less disposable time.

This pretty much covers it. It's not uncommon for a storm to close the roads for long periods of time. In case of rain, bring plenty of water and food to last a week, and make sure your rig is in top shape. Or just go in the dry season.

You don't often get to be there at the start of a large public artwork. This is the first 5-degree arc for a future Plane Henge.

An old stock pen at Strangeway Springs. Ruins like this make traveling along the Old Ghan railway route exciting if you're a ghost town nut like I am. If not, you may find the road boring.

The Old Ghan last crossed this bridge in 1982. Further west an all-weather track was laid, leaving the towns and stations along the Oodnadatta Track to the desert's peaceful embrace.

The Mac Muncher has munched its last Mac. Find a couple axles lying alongside the road, pop in an engine from another wreck, and you'll have a DED ride in no time.

The Old Peake telegraph repeater station, accessed via a 15km roughish track. Nearby are mound springs and an abandoned mining operation. Well worth the detour.

"Plenty Cows." And there are! Car hoods are used extensively throughout Australia for both billboards and political soapboxes.

The Coober Pedy opal tunnel. Most of the area's underground homes are made by boring through the hills. A year-round 72 degrees inside the tunnels beats 130 degrees in the summer and freezing in the winter.

What I like about the Outback is that the dry desert air preserves everything. Nothing ever really goes away. Here we have the wreckage of a spaceship that crashed into a parking lot over 2,500 years ago.

In some places the Outback tracks are graded to highway smoothness. Other spots will rattle the fillings out of your teeth.

Patsie left her car unattended for just a moment. Now it's a fixer-upper.

It's kind of nice having Colleen along to load the car while I shoot photos. Actually she's doing most of the driving, leaving me to hang my head out of the window and jaw the air.

Reds and ochers, with an unusual hint of green due to lots of rain a month earlier, painted the desert in colors that may not be seen for many years.

Our ARB suspension mods improved the Patrol's ride dramatically. The difference was how frequently we bottomed out in dry water crossings.

No need to worry about breaking down if you travel during the busy season. You're never alone long in the Outback. These guys showed up about an hour after we had stopped to watch the sunset.

This well-fed dingo looks like he's had a steady diet of American tourists. Our ARB Simpson-3 rooftop tent keeps us high above the gnashing teeth.

Belle's Falls in the Kimberly region. We ran up against gorge fatigue long before we run out of beautiful gorges to explore on the Gibb River Road.

Custom vanity modifications. Nothing but the best for my baby.

Boab trees found in the northwest of Australia can live for hundreds of years, maybe thousands. The Aboriginals call them upside-down trees because their dreamtime gods found them too beautiful to be seen.

Get off the main Gibb River Road and you'll be puttering down cool little trails like this. Remember to air down. These rocks can be sharp.

Not exactly a PETERSEN'S 4-WHEEL & OFF-ROAD level of twist, but it's cute in a stiff, sway-barred kind of way.

Long, lonely, dusty, and dry. Most any track showing on a road map will be safe to drive. Unless it's raining.

A high-volume 12-volt air compressor is invaluable if you plan on going bush. We ran 20-25 psi in the dirt and 34-36 on pavement. Depending on the route, we might raise and lower pressures twice a day.