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We spent the Easter school holidays driving from Melbourne to Uluru, through the Red Centre, to Alice Springs. It was an amazing journey into Australia’s Outback and a wonderful chance to see and experience the geographic and cultural diversity of Australia.
You can fly direct from Melbourne to Uluru or Alice Springs, but this epic road trip allows you to get off the beaten path and observe the gradual changes in terrain. It also allows you to see what life is like for people living in this remote part of Australia. And it is one heck of an adventure!
Related Read: Family Campervan Holiday in Australia
You can cover the distance in two very long days, but if you take your time, there are numerous interesting places along the way. We did the journey from Melbourne to Uluru in four days and then spent a week exploring the Red Centre. If you have time to slow it down even further as there are lots of great places to visit. Doing it in four days allowed us to make some longer stops in the Barossa Valley and Coober Pedy, with shorter stops whenever we saw something interesting.
- 1 The Stats:
- 2 Planning your Journey
- 3 Driving Safety
- 4 Our Route
- 5 Accommodation
- 6 Day 1 – Melbourne to South Australia
- 7 Day 2 – South Australia to the Stuart Highway
- 8 Day 3 – Stuart Highway to Coober Pedy
- 9 Day 4 – Coober Pedy to Yulara (Uluru)
- 10 After Uluru
- 11 Our Outback Video
Distance Covered: 2,300 km (Melbourne to Uluru)
L of Petrol: 325 L ($500 AUD) in a 4WD Landcruiser (approx)
Roadkill: too numerous to count
Planning your Journey
Although the highways between Melbourne and Uluru are all excellent sealed roads, you definitely want to be prepared before embarking on an Outback road trip. A 2WD vehicle is sufficient for this trip, although we loved having our Britz 4WD Landcruiser rental.
Once you get north of Port Augusta in South Australia, you should be fairly self sufficient as services are few and far between. Make sure your vehicle has been serviced recently, carry spare drinking water and food and ensure you take frequent fatigue breaks. We had good Telestra mobile reception until north of Glendambo on the Stuart Highway. After that we only had reception near Coober Pedy and the odd road house further north.
There is zero radio reception so make sure you have tunes or podcasts downloaded to break the monotony of the drive. If you are traveling with kids, check out our ideas for unplugged travel activities for kids.
Australians know about the risks of kangaroos and other wildlife and stock on the roads, but visitors need to remember that it is not safe to drive in the Outback after dark. Driving the Stuart highway you will continually come across kangaroo road kill from the road trains that travel this route. We always made sure to only travel during daylight hours.
You will also be travelling through some very large sheep and cattle stations with free-ranging animals and no fences along the road. In addition to the kangaroo roadkill, we saw quite a few dead cows on the side of the road too. You will cross numerous cattle grates as you move between various stations.
Additionally, you will pass the odd wrecked vehicle off of the road which acts as a further reminder to drive carefully.
While some may describe this drive as boring and monotonous, we found it fascinating. Once you hit the Stuart highway north of Port Augusta you really feel like you are in the Outback. The barren land, red rocks and lack of anything for hundreds of miles is actually quite mesmerizing. We found it so interesting to learn about the massive sheep and cattle stations in the Outback, watch the three and four container long road trains go by and experience the road houses that are the lifeline along the highway.
Day 1 – Melbourne to Tintinara, SA
Day 2 – Tintinara to north of Port Augusta/south of Woomera
Day 3 – Stuart Highway to Coober Pedy
Day 4 – Coober Pedy to Yulara (Uluru)
We like having the flexibility to stop as we like and didn’t want to be constrained to a formal schedule. So while we had researched lots of options, we did not book any accommodation for the drive to Uluru in advance.
We were camping with a roof top tent on our Britz vehicle and there were lots of camping options from free road side stops to caravan parks and then the road houses once we were on the Stuart highway. We used the Wiki Camps app to locate camping areas each night as we were getting close to sunset. This app is a must for any road trip as its shows all the points of interest, accommodation options, and campsites on an easy to use map with user reviews.
If you require hotels, I would recommend spending your nights in Murray Bridge, Port Augusta or Pimba (Spud’s Roadhouse) or Woomera and then Coober Pedy.
Day 1 – Melbourne to South Australia
Drive Distance: 540 km
We picked up our rental vehicle from Britz on the west side of Melbourne as soon as they opened to get a good start on the day. We were on the road by 9 am and were aiming to spend the night in Murray Bridge, SA. Unfortunately we lost a bag off the roof of our vehicle (which we can laugh about now!) which slowed us down and we ended up spending the night at Tintinara, South Australia instead.
If you are visiting Australia and haven’t visited the Great Ocean Road, spend a few days making your way along this amazing drive towards Adelaide. Otherwise, you will want to take the inland, quicker route along the A8. Alternatively you can go via Mildura on the A79 through Bendigo.
Along the A8, there are a few highlights to stop and see:
- The Grampians National Park is one of our favourite Parks in Victoria. If you have an extra few days or even an extra day, spend some time in the Park. We love the Pinnacles, Balconies, and the MacKenzie Falls hikes and can recommend staying at the Jimmy Creek campground, where you are guaranteed to see wild emus.
- The Giant Koala, located near Dadswells Bridge. While you can climb the giant koala, we just pulled over for a quick photo.
- Pink Lake – this salt lake is located just past Dimboola and makes for a great 20 minute stop. There are toilets and picnic shelters here. There are great views of the Pink Lake from the car park or you can walk 5 minutes down to the dried up lake.
We camped at the Tintinara Lake Indawarra Council park which is right off the A8 (check Wiki Camps for the exact location). The Council provides a nice grassy area with a flush toilet. There is water available from the sink. A $5 donation to cover costs is greatly appreciated. There were about 5 other vehicles there the night we were there.
Day 2 – South Australia to the Stuart Highway
Drive Distance: 580 km
The next day we were back on the road and headed further into South Australia. The road features a steady stream of traffic as you pass through quiet, rural towns.
I didn’t know silo art was even a thing, but in a country that loves their street art, it works. The grain silos at Coonalpyn along the A8 have been transformed by artist Guido van Helten into a gorgeous childhood mural. Definitely pull over here to stretch your legs and take a photo of this beautiful piece of work.
We wanted to spend a few hours in the beautiful Barossa Valley wine region and while it was so tempting to stop and visit every cellar door we drove past, we only made one stop at Seppelsfield for lunch. If you have longer, it would be lovely to spend a few days in the Valley. Seppelsfield is one of the giants of Barossa and the oldest vineyard in the Valley. It’s impressive grounds of heritage buildings, gardens, tasting room and top notch restaurant make it a great choice if you can only choose one.
With Paul driving, it was up to me to do the tastings. I sampled some lovely wines and their famous tawny port and purchased a few bottles for the rest of our trip. Since we were traveling with kids, we opted to eat lunch at Benno’s Kiosk instead of the popular Fino restaurant, which looked quite lovely. There are also BBQs and picnic areas if you want to enjoy the grounds with your own lunch. Alternatively you can purchase a gourmet lunch basket on weekends (order in advance).
Also Read: Best Barossa Wineries with Kids
From the Barossa Valley, we started heading north to enter the Stuart highway at Port Augusta. You start to understand why Australia is nicknamed “a sunburned country” as the terrain becomes noticeably drier. This is the point in the trip that the excitement really started to build. It was also the time that we sadly started to see lots of roadkill on the highway.
The three and four container long road trains are a famous Outback sight in their own right and while driving the Stuart highway, you need to give them plenty of space and remember that they have limited leverage.
Ideally we would have liked to have spent our second night at Pemba (Spud’s Roadhouse) or Woomera, but we ended up staying 1 hour north of Port Augusta at a roadside rest area called Ranges View (free). It had a drop toilet, small water tank, rubbish bins, picnic benches and Telestra reception. It gave us our first incredible Outback sunset but the wind roared through the night shaking our tents.
Day 3 – Stuart Highway to Coober Pedy
Drive Distance: 440 km
Since we were only spending one night in Coober Pedy, we wanted to have a shorter drive day on day three to ensure some time to look around Coober Pedy. There are also some interesting places along this stretch of road to stop and explore.
For the drive along the Stuart Highway and throughout the Northern Territory, we really appreciated the great resources at Travel Outback Australia. They have lots of great detailed guides on the Northern Territory, with lots of really detailed and helpful information.
Our first stop for the day was our first road house, Spud’s Roadhouse in Pemba. The roadhouses throughout the Outback serve a vital role in providing services to travelers and locals. The distances between them can he hundreds of kms and each has their own feel. Spud’s provides meals, lodging, groceries, camp gear and has lots of character.
Our next stop was in Woomera, an important Australian-British rocket launching test base. During the height of the Cold War, Woomera had a Defence population of over 7,000, but the town feels like a ghost of its former self now with only 150 residents. It is a 7 km detour off the Stuart Highway and worth a quick look around. At the rocket park in the centre of town you can see some of the rockets that were launched from Woomera. There isn’t much else to do in Woomera. Most of the houses sit vacant and we didn’t see a single person in our drive through town, although we did read that the school has a current population of 11.
Just north of Woomera you will come to Lake Hart, a massive white salt lake that is beautiful. While you can see the Lake from the car park, it is fun to walk down onto the dry Lake. The train line runs right beside the Lake and the red sand juxtaposed with the white salt is stunning.
A further 75 km will take you to Glendambo, where you have two Roadhouses to choose from. This is the last roadhouse until Coober Pedy so a good place to fuel up. The kids loved their massive burgers with the lot and we were happy to see they even had veggie burgers at the Glendambo Roadhouse. After Glendambo, we only had Telestra reception at Coober Pedy.
The next 250 km to Coober Pedy was probably one of the most boring stretches of the drive. You see lots of kangaroo road kill, with the benefit that you get to see wedge-tailed eagles feasting on them. Our son had seen the Kangaroo Dundee BBC episodes and wanted to check each of them for live joeys still in the pouch. But we couldn’t bring ourselves to get that close to the poor dead animals.
We arrived into Coober Pedy at 2pm in the afternoon and decided to treat ourselves to a night in one of the underground hotels that are so popular in Coober Pedy. We stayed at the Comfort Inn, which was fabulous. There are lots of underground hotels to choose from, but the Comfort Inn was clean, modern and run by the very friendly, Debbie.
Coober Pedy is a town based on opal mining and increasingly tourism. There are lots of really interesting attractions to experience this unique town. We only had half of a day, but were still able to visit some of the top Coober Pedy sites. A full post on our time in Coober Pedy is coming shortly.
Coober Pedy has an IGA with limited fresh fruit and vegetables, a paid water fill-up station and lots of restaurants and opal shops.
Day 4 – Coober Pedy to Yulara (Uluru)
Drive Distance: 735 km
We got an early start on day 4 since we had a long driving day ahead of us and wanted to reach Uluru for sunset that night. Even though we took 4 days to drive to Uluru, by day 4 every one was a bit tired and fatigued from our long days in the car. But the excitement of reaching our destination kept our spirits high.
50 km north of Coober Pedy you cross the famous dingo fence that stretches 5,000 km across much of Australia. It is not well sign posted, so keep an eye out for it. Use the Wiki Camps app to see upcoming points of interest on the map as you drive so you don’t miss it. The fence was built in the 1880s with the purpose of keeping the wild dingos north, away from the sheep stations in the south of Australia. It is questionable how effective the fence has been, but it was a great discussion topic with the kids. This is also the point where the sheep stations switch to massive cattle stations.
As you head north along this stretch of the Stuart Highway, the Outback surprisingly becomes more lush. This was one of the things we loved the most about driving to the Outback – you get to experience the change of terrain. You see more acacia trees, grasses and shrub bushes and the greens and yellows now contrast with the red earth. You have about 400 km to take in these changes as you head north towards the Northern Territory border. There are roadhouses at Cadney Park and Marla to stop in along the way.
You will definitely want to stretch your legs and take the obligatory photo at the Northern Territory sign, 20 km south of Kulgera. The anticipation in our car was building and even the onslaught of flies couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm to be in the NT. From here the speed limit changes to 130 km/hr and you really get the feeling you are far, far, away from anything.
We had lunch at the Kulgera roadhouse, another roadhouse with lots of character. From Kulgera, it is 85 km to Erldunda and the turnoff for the Lasseter Highway to Uluru.
We were struck my how little traffic there was on the Lasseter Highway as we traveled the 250 km to Uluru. About halfway you might think you have spotted Uluru when you see the large rock formation that is Mt Connor, leading many to nickname it “Fuluru”. There is a nice viewpoint rest area with drop toilets for a quick break and photo.
As we cruised into Yulara, the purpose-built tourism town of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, we felt a huge sense of accomplishment to have driven 2,300 km to reach this very special place. After checking into the Ayers Rock Campground, we headed to the Sunset viewing area to witness this amazing sight. There is nothing that prepares you for seeing Uluru in person; it is incredible. As we enjoyed some snacks and refreshments and watched the colours change on Uluru as the sun set, we savored the beginning of our Outback adventure.
You will need to purchase a 3-day Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park pass at the Park gate for $65/family (2 adults, 2+ children). For lots more great ideas on what to do at Uluru, read our full guide to visiting Uluru.
If you are returning to Melbourne, make sure to give yourself a few days to really take in Uluru before the Uluru to Melbourne return trip. Alternatively, on your return trip you can take the unsealed Oodnadatta track, which starts in Marla, SA and heads south through the Outback.
For us, this was just the beginning of our trip as we continued on from Uluru to King’s Canyon, the Mereenie loop, the West MacDonnell Ranges and Alice Springs.
Our Outback Video
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