The Great Central Road lives up to every element of its name. It’s a great adventure. It takes us to the centre of Australia, and the heart of WA’s inland and ancient and contemporary story. And it is, indeed, a road — a big road.
It starts at Laverton, 400km north of Kalgoorlie, and cuts through the Great Victoria Desert to the WA border and then Uluru.
It takes us through largely unfenced, ungrazed landscapes, and yet it’s easy to do.
I see a couple in a Nissan X-Trail, another in a Hyundai SUV, some travellers in a Prado towing with caravan, another with a camper trailer, a solo cyclist and a bloke on a Taylor tractor, his head wrapped against the dry desert air.
This is raw, interesting, but accessible adventure. This is a deep immersion into our old, red continent.
FIRST CONSIDER THIS
Uluru is closer to Perth than Broome is.
After an easy 800km first day on bitumen, we’re more than a third of the way there.
It’s just another 240km to Laverton, mostly on another great bitumen road — so, by “morning tea” on day two, you’re right in it.
The Great Central Road itself is unsealed, dusty, with many parts corrugated, but well maintained.
There’s fuel about every 250km to 300km apart on Great Central Road — at Laverton, Cosmo Newberry, Tjukayirla Roadhouse, Warburton, Warakurna Roadhouse and Docker River.
There are camp spots, and there’s accommodation along the way. (You don’t even need to camp.)
Great Central Road is easy to navigate. And it’s easy to plan the trip, as it is also promoted as the Outback Way, and there’s The Outback Way Atlas and Guide, with detailed maps and planning aids (outbackway.org.au).
DAY BY DAY
From Perth to Kookynie is 800km, along Great Eastern Highway to Kalgoorlie, then north. The day is on great bitumen roads apart from the last few kilometres to the Kookynie Grand Hotel, which is a newly worked but unsealed road. We leave at 7am, stop a fair bit, don’t rush it, and arrive at 5pm.
From Kookynie to Tjukayirla Roadhouse, on the Great Central Road, is 580km — a full day. But the first bit of this is 240km to Laverton, with just a few kilometres on unsealed roads, the rest on bitumen.
From Tjukayirla Roadhouse to the WA border is about 580km on the unsealed, but big, all-weather Great Central Road.
From the border to Uluru is about 240km.
The overall route is Kalgoorlie, Kookynie, Laverton, Warburton, Warakurna (and nearby Giles Weather Station), Docker River and finishing at Yulara.
Distances east from Laverton: Cosmo Newberry, 85km; Tjukayirla Roadhouse, 300km; Warburton, 560km; Warakurna Roadhouse, 786km; Docker River, 890km.
A final odometer reading shows that Voyages Ayers Rock Resort is 2150km from my home in Perth — closer than Broome. Rather more remote; much less travelled; rather more exciting.
Travellers need a permit, which gives three days to drive the Great Central Road. For the WA stretch, apply for a permit through the WA Government’s Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage (dplh.wa.gov.au and search for “travel permits”).
PLANNING & APPROACH
There are plenty of vehicles on the Great Central Road which are not hardcore four-wheel-drives. But preparation is necessary, of course — have the vehicle serviced, carry two spare wheels and a tyre plug set if they’re tubeless tyres, and some tools, and know how to use it all.
Tyres are probably the biggest issue, and a board to put under a jack on a dusty road (even a wooden chopping board) is a big help. Another good accessory is one of the new generation of small but high-powered lithium backup batteries — but make sure it has enough output to start your car.
This is not an issue, as fuel is available at roughly 300km intervals, but I still like to carry a jerry can with some spare fuel.
Some of the road is quite severely corrugated, which is hard on shock absorbers. Don’t push the vehicle so it feels like it’s going to shake to pieces — “feel your way through it” — every vehicle has a speed that it will settle at. There are some soft, sandy patches, too, so don’t be fooled by this big road. It’s not a highway. Drive at a safe speed — 75km/h to 80km/h is safe, with both hands on the wheel, always engaged and alert, and don’t worry if someone belts past you with one finger on the wheel at 110. I run the Goodrich tyres on my LandCruiser at 50psi — always have, always will, and didn’t have a flat.
Comms & safety
You can’t rely on mobile phone coverage. There will be patches, it will come and go, but it certainly won’t be there all the time. It’s possible to hire satellite phones (satellitephonesales.com.au), and a SPOT communicator allows friends and family to track you, and you to send a preset message (“All’s well”) or send an SOS.
But, though the Great Central Road is remote, you aren’t alone. Someone will come along, and you won’t be far from help. RAC Road Assist has four levels — travellers need to look at Ultimate Plus for this type of travel (rac.com.au).
Let me start by saying that I’ve driven more than three-quarters of a million kilometres on the roads and tracks of WA and never had a fridge. I like to keep things simple. Raw food lasts (root vegetables, hard fruits). Salads washed and wrapped in tea towels last. Some breads, like Lawley’s traditional white, lasts very well. Ryvita, Vegemite, avocados hard enough to ripen during the trip. It’s really not that hard, is it. Just take a couple of hardy plates, mugs and a bit of cutlery from home. My luxury: The Sodastream. My go-to for cooking: A simple single butane burner.
A simple tent, inflatable mattress and sleeping bag. Or take bedding from home — yes, we use doonas and a wool blanket. It can get cold at night. Luxuries: An inflatable pillow and a long-handled shovel, to keep me away from the fire’s heat.
ALONG THE WAY
There are gnammas — waterholes with clouds of zebra finches “meep-meeping” in the bushes and rushing in and out in mobs. There are great, green and yellow flags of budgerigars. There’s a gallery of discarded car bodies (dating back to the 70s), including some Holden and Ford classics.
There’s chat and coffee in the roadhouses at Tjukayirla, Warburton and Warakurna. There’s the lunar landscape of Lake Throssell and the living history of Giles Weather Station. There, the beautiful Schwerin Mural Crescent Range and the Petermann Ranges, close to the NT border, in soft, pastel colours in the rosy late-afternoon light.
ARRIVING AT ULURU
It is, indeed, like a big, red heart, rising from the desert.
Uluru does, indeed, feel like the heart of Australia.
It rises nearly 350m from the flat central desert, the land around it eroded away over hundreds of millions of years.
From October 26, the climb up the rock is closed, but the beauty of visiting the rock, for me, has been the walk around its base — seeing it in context, in its environment. Seeing the heart within the body of the desert.