Australia’s Outback is a place of almost mythical status. There’s a kind of reverence in Australian voices when they talk about it, a warmth and a sense of awe. It’s where the country’s icons have been born, legends forged and ‘yarns’ spun. The stories of Australia are in many cases irrevocably linked to the Outback.
Look at a map of Australia and you’ll soon see that the cities and towns cluster along the coast. That’s because much of the continent – yes, it’s a continent – is harsh uninhabitable desert, explored by few. About 90 per cent of Australia’s population lives on only 2.6 per cent of the land.
The Outback is many things: saltbush plains, arid brown rocky crags, shifting sands and salt lakes. It’s the brackish taste of bore water, the circling of eagles in cloudless skies, kangaroos and emus bounding through the landscape, long unbroken stretches of highway, massive cattle and sheep stations, lonely pubs. It’s also extraordinarily beautiful, a landscape you’re unlikely to forget, with people who you’ll remember for their great character.
Much of inland New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory is classed “Outback”. This means that seeing the Outback is pretty easy from any state you visit. And the good news is that you can do it in comfort, without the need (unless you really want to) to don your explorer’s hat and head for the deserts.
The most recognizable feature of the Outback is probably the massive monolith that is Uluru (or, as it is less commonly referred to, Ayers Rock). Uluru sits at the heart of the Red Centre, one of two Outback regions in the Northern Territory. The other is known as the Top End. Apart from Darwin and Alice Springs, most of the Territory is sparsely inhabited but some easy road trips in and around those cities will give you a real Outback experience.
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The “Top End” is also sometimes used to describe part of Western Australia, taking in the vast sweep of barely inhabited country from Broome on the west coast to Arnhemland in the Northern Territory and eastern Queensland. It is a place of wild, rugged beauty and, sometimes, hardship.You’ll find a wealth of experiences: Visit an Aboriginal community, canoe along lonely rivers, and soak in thermal pools.
Allow several days to take in the Centre—visit the magnificent domes of Kata Tjuta (“the Olgas”) near Uluru, walk the rim of Kings Canyon, ride a camel down a dry riverbed, marvel at the intricacies of Aboriginal paintings (either on rock or canvas), or swim in water holes.
A visit to Queensland would not be complete without at least one trip into the Outback. You can head west from Rockhampton, to discover the country towns of Longreach, Barcaldine, and Winton, or from Townsville to the mining town of Mount Isa. From Cairns, the Gulf Savannah region is rich in welcoming communities. Spread over 3,000km (1,875 miles), the Queensland Outback is a land of clear blue skies, burnished sunsets, rolling plains, rugged ranges, and eccentric characters.
Outback New South Wales encompasses the mining towns of Broken Hill – called “Silver City” for its wealth – and Lightning Ridge, which boasts the largest deposit of black opals in the world. For those with time, there are fascinating National Parks to explore.
South Australia’s dry landscape is home to another of Australia’s quirkiest towns, the opal mining centre of Coober Pedy, where some lives are lived – partially at least – underground. The South Australian desert is cut by the Sturt Highway, which runs north to Alice Springs, and the Oodnadatta Track. Don’t miss exploring the Flinders Ranges National Park.
The Nullabor Plain – traversed by road and rail – cuts across the continent from South Australia to Western Australia. Before you reach the coastal capital of Perth, you’ll pass through the mining town of Kalgoorlie, still one of Australia’s largest gold producers.
In the rugged north of Western Australia lies The Kimberley, a vast empty region of stunning red earth, rocky escarpments, beautiful boab (or “bottle”) trees. Broome is the main coastal town, but you don’t need to drive far to be in the Outback.
Fly, take the train or drive. The Australian Outback offers a completely different perspective on this vast country than you will get on the coast. It is definitely worth the effort. The Outback is the heart and soul of Australia.
The best time to visit the Outback is from mid-April to late August—Australia’s autumn and winter – when the temperatures are not baking. Be warned, however, that the desert can get very cold at night, so pack warm clothing as well as your t-shirts.
The peak travel season in the most parts of Australia is winter. In the northern half of the country, the best time to visit is April to September, when daytime temperatures are 66F to 88F (19C–31C) and it seldom rains. June, July, and August are the busiest months, so plan ahead by booking hotels and tours well in advance – and expect to pay higher rates at this time too.
Low season in the Northern Territory and northern Queensland is December to March (the Australian summer), when it is hot, humid and wet. This is called “The Wet” (and the other season is – unsurprisingly – “The Dry”), and is avoided by many. However, prices are cheaper and there is – in my opinion – one great reason for visiting. Everything is green and lush, and if you can stand some wonderful thunderstorms in the afternoon, it’s quite an experience.
National Holidays include:
January (1st): New Year’s Day
January (26): Australia Day
March/April: Good Friday and Easter Monday
April (25): Anzac Day
December (25th): Christmas Day
December (26th): Boxing Day
On national public holidays, banks, post offices and liquor outlets may be closed or open for limited hours. There are also be additional holidays in each state or territory.
Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) covers Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria, and Tasmania. Central Standard Time (CST) is used in the Northern Territory and South Australia, and Western Standard Time (WST) is the standard in Western Australia. When it’s noon in New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria, Queensland, and Tasmania, it’s 11:30am in South Australia and the Northern Territory, and 10am in Western Australia.
All states except Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia observe Daylight Saving Time (DST) during spring and summer. At 2AM on the first Sunday in October clocks are advanced one hour. On the first Sunday in April at 2AM, clocks shift back one hour to standard time. However, not all states switch over to daylight saving on the same day or in the same week, so it pays to check if you are travelling at these times.
The Outback is even more casual than the rest of Australia, so there’s no need for anything too dressy in these areas. A sturdy pair of pull-on boots is a good idea, if you’re getting out into the desert or doing some walking. And a hat to protect you from the sun. In many regions, you can also buy a fly-net to put over your head – they come in colours including green or a sophisticated black. They may look silly, but you’ll be glad of one some days!
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity,
seasonality and deals. We donât want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices
that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning
purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of
Price ranges are quoted in $AU.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $20 per
$$ => Tickets $21-70 per person
$$$ => Tickets $70 per person
$ => Rooms less than $200 for a
$$ => Rooms $201-300 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $301 for a double
$ => $1-$35 per person for a meal
(without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $36-$80 per person for a
meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $81 per person for a meal
(without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $20 per
$$ => Tickets $21-$50 per person
$$$ => Tickets $51 per person
Hopefully, your trip to Australia goes without a glitch. But what if an unexpected situation arises? Will you lose the
money you invested in the trip? Will you need quick cash to cover sudden costs?
Travel insurance policies are meant to cover these unexpected costs and assist you when problems arise. The fee is
typically based on the cost of the trip and the age of the traveler.
Most travel insurance providers offer comprehensive coverage that usually includes protection for the following
Trip Cancellation About 40 percent of all claims fall in this category.
Medical Whether you break a leg or need a blood transfusion, you will likely incur costs far higher than you might pay in other nations. And what if you have an accident that requires transport to a major medical center? Air
ambulances alone could set you back $15,000 to $30,000.
Trip Interruption For example, if you become ill during your trip or if someone at home gets sick, and you have to abandon a tour. The insurer will often pay up to 150% of the cost of your trip to get you home.
Travel Delay Insurance usually covers incidentals like meals and overnight lodging while you wait to travel home.
Baggage Insurance will typically cover lost and mishandled baggage.
Some insurance companies allow you to purchase a policy that allows you to cancel for any reason. This may cost more (often 10% or more), but it is worthwhile for certain travelers.
Do I need travel insurance?
If your trip costs $4,000 to $6,000 (or more), it’s probably a good idea. Your age and health are important factors. Standard medical and travel insurance is advisable for travel to Australia.
How do I choose an insurance provider?
Do your homework – check around.
The largest insurers in the U.S. include Travel Guard, Allianz and CSA Travel Protection. Smaller reputable companies
include Berkley, Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection, Travel Insured International and Travelex. You may also find deals through aggregates like Squaremouth and InsureMyTrip.
Many airlines and travel companies also offer travel insurance when you book your flight (often contracted with the
above major players).
If you have pre-existing health conditions Many policies have exclusion policies if you have a pre-existing medical condition. But companies also offer waivers that overwrite the exclusion if you purchase the policy within a certain time frame of paying for your trip (e.g., within 24 hours of buying your cruise package). Again, it’s best to check the fine print.
Credit card insurance If you buy your airfare or trip with a credit card, you may be partially covered by the credit card’s issuing bank. Check directly with the company to find out exactly what’s covered, as many have “stripped down” coverage and restrictions.
The travel insurance business is expanding and evolving rapidly. As “shared space” lodging options like VRBO, Airbnb and Homeaway become more popular in the travel and leisure market, so does the need for insurance for both property owners and travelers.
For more information, visit the US Travel Insurance Association.
Australian dollars come in $1 and $ coins, and $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100 notes. Each is a different colour, so they are easy to tell apart. Other coins are 5 cents, 10 cents, 20 cents and 50 cents. The $1 and $2 coins are gold, all the others are silver.
Prices sometimes end in a variant of 1 or 2 cents (for example, 52 cents or $1.78), a relic from the days before 1-cent and 2-cent pieces were phased out. In these cases, prices are rounded to the nearest 5 cents, so 52 cents rounds down to 50 cents, and 78 cents rounds up to 80 cents.
If you get money from an ATM, you may incur charges (often $2 or $3 per transaction). Check with your bank before you leave home to find out which, if any, Australian banks will allow you to get cash without an extra charge. Many grocery stores, gas stations and major retail outlets let you get a limited amount of “cash out” when paying for your goods – this is an easy way to get cash while on the go.
ATMs might be harder to find in Outback regions, but most pubs and service stations will have one. It pays to carry a bit of cash with you, but most Outback traders will accept credit cards.
Credit and debit cards are accepted widely throughout Australia. Visa and MasterCard are universally accepted in Australia; American Express and Diners Club are less commonly accepted, so it pays to check first. Always carry some cash, because some traders won’t take cards for purchases under $10 or $15.
Don’ t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary.
If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. The numbers to call are usually on
the back of the card – which doesn’t make sense if they are lost or stolen. So make a note of them and store them where you’ll have easy access.
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
Driving is the best way to see the Outback – and a 4WD vehicle is your best mode of transport. While many places can be accessed on sealed roads, you may still encounter rough and/or flooded sections of road where a 4WD is going to be safest and easiest. And having a 4WD will also allow you to get off the beaten track in ways that a conventional vehicle won’t (just be sure to check that the hire car company allows you to drive off-road).
Many tour companies also run Outback adventures, often heading into remote regions that you wouldn’t want to drive yourself. This is a great way of seeing these places in comfort – often, in style – and without needing to worry about the safety issues that need to be considered when driving yourself.
In the Outback – particularly in Central Australia – you may hear indigenous people speaking their own language. Around 600 Aboriginal languages once existed in Australia, but many have died out. However, a revival of some languages means that around Alice Springs and Uluru you are likely to hear them being spoken.
Early Australian literature was largely based around the “bush poets” A. B. “Banjo” Paterson and Henry Lawson, who penned long odes to the Outback way of life. Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow and The Man from Snowy River (written in 1895) are among the most famous. Many Australian classics have the Outback at their heart.
We of the Never Never (1902), by Mrs Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn, tells the story of a young woman who leaves the comfort of her Melbourne home to live on a cattle station in the Northern Territory; Walkabout (1959), by James V. Marshall, explores the friendship between an Aboriginal man and two lost children in the bush; the late Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds (1977) is a romantic saga about forbidden love between a Catholic priest and a young woman (made into a television miniseries in 1983).
From an Aboriginal perspective, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (1997), by Doris Pilkington, is the true story of three young girls (the author was one of them) from the “stolen generation”, who ran away from a mission school to return to their families.
For travellers – especially those undertaking a road trip – there are many useful and entertaining books available. Among them are:
The Discovery Guide to Outback Queensland, published by the Queensland Museum
Outback Highways, by Len Beadell
The Big Lap, by Lee Atkinson (one of our Bindu authors!)
Explore Australia’s Outback (Australian Geographic)
Australia’s Great Desert Tracks Atlas & Guide, by Ian Glover and Len Zell
Australian Wildlife Roadkill, by Len Zell
A history of the Aboriginal people lies partly in the rock paintings they have left behind all over Australia, and today some of that is translated onto canvas by artists in remote communities.
In the tropical north, for example, a wide-ranging body of prehistoric art decorates sandstone gorges near the tiny township of Laura on the rugged Cape York Peninsula. Depictions on rock-shelter sites range from spirit figures of men and women to eels, fish, wide-winged brolga birds, crocodiles, kangaroos, snakes, and stencilled hands. One wall, the “Magnificent Gallery,” stretches more than 40m (131 ft.) and is adorned with hundreds of Quinkan figures —Quinkans being the Aboriginal spirits associated with this region.
Much Aboriginal rock art is preserved in national parks. Examples readily accessible on day trips from major Australian cities include Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, and the Royal National Park near Sydney, Grampians National Park west of Melbourne, and the fabulous hand stencils at Mutawintji National park near Broken Hill in New South Wales. There are also ancient paintings near Uluru in Australia’s Red Centre. In Queensland, Carnarvon National Park (about 400km/249 miles west of Brisbane) offers a wonderful display of rock paintings.
Seek out galleries in Outback regions; they aren’t hard to find. Some of the best are at Uluru, in Broome and Darwin. Original art is a great souvenir, and can take the form of paintings or carvings.
If you are spending a lot on Aboriginal artwork, ask for a certificate of authenticity. Fakes have been an issue since the popularity (and prices) of indigenous art started to rise about 15 years ago. Check whether the artist has signed the work, and ask for details about them, such as where they come from, and if they are part of a co-operative. For crafts and souvenirs such as didgeridoos and boomerangs, ask what kind of wood it is made of; fakes are often bamboo or teak.
Some regions – not only in the Outback – have codes of practice that cover trading in indigenous art. To make sure that you are buying art that is produced and sold in an ethical manner, it’s worth checking them out, because the principles apply everywhere. This buyer’s checklist, produced by the City of Melbourne, is worth studying before making any purchase (in the city or the Outback).
Australia’s movie industry is as obsessed by the Outback as everyone else. Consequently, there are many movies set in the dusty red parts of Australia for you to choose from ranging from the fabulous to the awful.
One of the earliest is the 1971 film Walkabout, starring Jenny Agutter and one of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal actors, David Gulpilul. It tells the story of two white Australian children who get lost in the desert and survive with the help of Gulpilul’s heroic figure.
Mad Max is set in and around the New South Wales Outback town of Broken Hill, ideal for the post-apocalyptic plot. The original 1979 movie was so popular there have since been three more: The Road Warrior (1981), Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015).
Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee (1986) was the ultimate Outback hero in the first movie of the series, but you might not want to bother with the other two, Crocodile Dundee II (1988) and Crocodile Dundee in L.A. (2001).
Broken Hill stars again in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), in which a Sydney transsexual travels through the desert in a big pink bus with two drag queens. The hotel where they stayed – the Palace Hotel – is still there, and you can even stay in the Priscilla Suite.
Mixed reviews greeted the release of Baz Lurhmann’s epic movie Australia (in 2008). Nicole Kidman plays an English aristocrat who arrives in northern Australia in the 1930s. After travelling through the Outback with a cattle-droving Hugh Jackman, she is caught in the bombing of Darwin during World War II.
Several movies set in the Outback address issues affecting Australiaâs indigenous people. Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) is a fictionalized account of the historical government policy of taking Aboriginal children from their homes and placing them in white foster families or – as is the case in this true story of three young Aboriginal girls – to train them to work as domestic servants. Too close to reality for comfort for many people, Samson and Delilah(2009) is a confronting movie depicting life for two indigenous Australian teenagers in a remote Aboriginal community. Stealing a car, they head to Alice Springs, where things aren’t necessarily better.
On a lighter note, Bran Nue Dae (2009) is a musical comedy-drama set in Broome, Western Australia, that tells the story of an Aboriginal teenager on a road trip in the late 1960s. Full of great songs and performances by a mostly Aboriginal cast.
If you’re into tear-jerkers, don’t miss Red Dog (2011). This family flick about a kelpie looking for his master in a Western Australian Outback mining town was adapted from the novel by Louis de Bernieres and based on a true story.
Another great road trip movie is the 2015 film Last Cab to Darwin, in which veteran Aussie actor Michael Caton plays Rex, a cab driver with a terminal illness who heads north (from Broken Hill, again) to take advantage of new euthanasia laws. It goes without saying that Rex has a few adventures along the way.