Alex O'Brien

International Travel

Driving the spectacular Stuart Highway

Driving the spectacular Stuart Highway

The Stuart Highway is one of Australia's major highways. It runs from Darwin, Northern Territory, in the north, via Tennant Creek and Alice Springs,

Spud Murphy must have been a great bloke.

In 1969, he opened Spud's Roadhouse at a place called Pimba, which is close to 500km north of Adelaide on a famous stretch of tarmac known as the Stuart Highway.

Spud's quickly became a very popular stop for motorists travelling along the 2834km Stuart, the longest highway in Australia, which runs straight up the middle of the giant continent.

But look out if anyone walked into the place wearing a tie.  Legend has it that Spud would promptly confiscate the tie - and if its owner objected, he'd throw him out.  Into the blazing hot sun.

Mind you, it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to wear a tie while motoring along the Stuart Highway.  Popularly regarded as one of the world's great long-distance drives, it can also easily be described as uncompromising and excruciatingly boring.  Seriously, you can drive tens of kilometres without encountering a curve of any sort, and the only time you need to negotiate anything is to swerve past roadkill such as dead kangaroos, and the birds feeding on them.

Stuart Highway

So when places such as Spud's Roadhouse do loom up in front of you as you trundle down the Stuart Highway at the South Australian state's legal speed limit of 110kmh, it's a relief to turn off the road and stop for a while.

But if you're bare-footed and not wearing a shirt, don't try to get into the premises - because you're not allowed to.  "No shoes, No shirt, No entry," states a sign outside the front door.  "As we are a licensed premises, it is a legal requirement that shoes and shirts are worn."

It is worth getting dressed and going in.  The walls are covered with dozens of vehicle licence plates from all parts of Australia, and of all things there's a surfboard on the ceiling. Yes, a surfboard - in the middle of the Aussie desert, hundreds of kilometres from any surf.

Pimba was originally a workers camp during construction of the transcontential railway to Western Australia at the end of World War 1, and it was retained as a railway siding once the track became operational.

Shortly after World War II, a village called Woomera was established about 6km away, to provide accommodation for those involved in missile, rocket, and weapons testing by the Australian and British defence forces.  But because it was a military establishment it was a "closed" town, forcing civilian labourers and contractors to live in tents and shanties in Pimba - and people have chosen to call the place home ever since.

What's interesting about the Stuart Highway at this stage of its long route from Port Augusta to Darwin, is that it is red, obviously because the raw material used to build and maintain the highway is also red.  Australia's interior isn't called the red centre for nothing - over millions of years, chemical weathering of the area has so oxidised the soil and rocks that everything has a Mars-like hue.

But in the middle of all this red there are giant lakes that are pure white.  These are salt lakes that are part of the Lake Eyre Basin, a drainage basin so big that it covers 1.2 million square kilometres, or one-sixth of the whole of Australia, or - put another way - the combined land area of France, Germany, and Italy.

When you're following the long red road north of Pimba, you soon notice these lakes all around.  They're blindingly white, the result of massive and unrelenting evaporation of whatever water flows into them, leaving behind a build-up of the white salt on the dry lake beds.

About 100km further along the Stuart Highway there's another roadhouse at a place called Glendambo, and it's a popular stop for food, drink, and to refuel.  It also features one of the best road signs of the entire highway. It tells everyone that it has an elevation of just 150 metres above sea level, and a population of 30 humans, 22,500 sheep, and 2 million flies.

Wonder if the 30 humans counted the flies?  No matter - step outside in this part of Aussie and the flies appear out of nowhere, buzzing their way into your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.  They buzz their way into your vehicle too, which means that once you have resumed your journey you'll probably spend some time shooing them out of the way.

From Glendambo, it is another 254km to Coober Pedy, the first big town along the Stuart Highway.  Actually the term big town is relative, because its population is less than 1700.  But Coober Pedy also has an estimated 250,000 mine shaft entrances as part the opal mining operations that are the reason for its existence - little wonder the town's name is based on the aboriginal word kupa-piti, which translates to "white man's hole".

The existence of all those mine shafts is also the reason behind danger signs posted all over the place, which warn visitors not to walk backwards.  The unmarked mine shafts can be as much as 30 metres deep, so you wouldn't want to fall into one.  And the place is so sparsely populated that even if you did survive the fall, you may not be found again.

Here's a fun fact about Coober Pedy - despite the fact there's not a blade of grass to be seen, it has a golf course complete with oiled sand greens.  Not only that, but the Opal Fields Golf Club is the only course in the world to enjoy reciprocal playing rights with the home of golf, St Andrews in Scotland.

It all happened in 2003, when in a television interview the St Andrews management told the Coober Pedy golf officials that if they gave them an opal mine, they would give them reciprocal rights.  The golf club promptly staked a claim, and the St Andrews management in turn gave the club reciprocal playing rights on their Belgrove nine-hole layout - each January, the month in the middle of the scorching hot central Aussie outback summer and the very cold southern Scotland winter.  Some reciprocal right!

As you depart Coober Pedy and drive through what are called mullocks, the anthill-like mounds of dirt left beside every opal mine, you might contemplate why the highway is called Stuart.

The Australians seem to like giving their highways human names - there's the Bruce in Queensland, another in that state called Gregory, the Arthur in Tasmania, and the Philip in South Australia.  And around Coober Pedy there's also the Anne Beadell Highway, which is named after the wife of Len Beadell whose Gunbarrell Road Construction Party surveyed and built it.  Nearby there's also the Connie Sue Highway, which is named after Len Beadell's daughter, and the Gary Highway, which is named after his son.

In the case of the Stuart Highway, it is named after Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart, who was the first European to cross Australia from south to north.

The next major stop is Alice Springs 684km away, and it isn't long before the highway crosses the border into the Northern Territory.  But nothing changes, apart from one thing: the road surface stops being red and instead becomes the more familiar black.

Oh - and there's one other significant change.  The speed limit increases to 130kmh, and in some sections there is no speed limit at all.

Is this dangerous?  The statistics say no.  In the past 10 years there have been no fatalities on the Stuart Highway in Northern Territory.  Alice Springs locals say this is because when you are ticking along at speeds of 130kmh or more, you are concentrating on your driving.  Not only that, but the very pace of individual journeys mean motorists get from point to point faster so are actually on the highway for less time.  Obviously a lack of curves and bendy bits, and massive visibility ahead, also helps.

What happens is that you end up motoring along at a speed you feel most comfortable with.  And it is fun - and an escape from the tedium of following the very long red road. 

Written by Rob Maetzig. First appeared on

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