The outback is a land of fiery colours, stunning sunsets and eerie quiet, where you can sleep under the stars – or even try staying underground at Coober Pedy.
You can explore Australia’s beautiful outback in a variety of ways. Following in the footsteps of John McDouall Stuart, the doughty Scot who in 1862 was the first to cross Australia from Adelaide to Darwin, will show you some of the country’s best landscapes. This route is known as the Explorer’s Way.
The Flinders Ranges, north of Adelaide, make up SouthAustralia’s oldest mountain range. It’s one of the accessible outback spots and is a fabulous drive which passes through the Clare Valley (try Sevenhill Cellars, established in 1851), before the landscape becomes the famous red that the outback is known for.
The must-see natural wonder there is Wilpena Pound, an amazing ‘amphitheatre’ of mountains, where you can see how layers of red rock have been built up over time, and which looks spectacular when the sun sets. Taking a flight feels like looking down at another planet.
If you’re in the mood for activities, there’s hiking, mountain biking, off-road driving; and astonishing starry skies at Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary. You can stay in a jackeroo’s cottage, shearer’s quarters or a working sheep station such as Rawnsley Park.
Take a scenic flight over Lake Eyre: an enormous shallow desert salt lake, and Australia’s lowest point. From the air, you can see how vast and white it is, and if you’re lucky enough to see it full of water (a very rare event), you’ll see a huge variety of migratory birds. Alternatively, if you have a four-wheel drive, take an adventurous side trip, tracking up past Lake Eyre and William Creek to Coober Pedy.
The opal mining town of Coober Pedy, Just south of the Northern Territory border, is still the world’s biggest producer of opals with 70 mines and known for its underground homes, hotels and even a cathedral.
Around 150 million years ago, the town was under water, and when it receded the sandy silica materials flowed into the rocky cracks and cavities and solidified over time into multi-coloured opals. You have to visit Coober Pedy to believe it. Half of its 4,000-strong population live underground in dugouts: holes that had been dug in search for opal to escape the summer’s high temperatures.
Try your luck at ‘noodling’ or fossicking for the gem stone and chart the town’s history at the Old Timers Mine and Museum or Umoona Opal Mine and Museum. And if your mining efforts are fruitless, stock up at one of the 30+ opal shops scattered across the town.
If you’re a Mad Max fan, head out of town to the Painted Desert, the Moon Plain and the Breakaways – desert locations immortalised in the movies Beyond Thunderdome, Ground Zero, and Val Kilmer’s Red Planet.
The Gawler Ranges, on the Eyre Peninsula, are also a fantastic way to see the outback, and are easily accessible via a 45 minute flight from Adelaide. A real off-the-beaten-track adventure (that Stuart himself didn’t tackle, but you should), the landscape is a magical realm of desert, mountains, salt lakes, and sleeping under the stars. If you go in springtime (September to November) you’ll get to see wildflowers covering the landscape.
South Australia’s Outback Must-Sees
- Take a scenic flight over magnificent Wilpena Pound, the vast mountainous amphitheatre in the Flinders Ranges
- Noodle for opals at Coober Pedy and stay in one of its underground hotels, then visit the amazing landscape above ground including the Painted Desert, Breakaways and the Moon Plain
- Put on your hiking boots and enjoy one of the Flinders Ranges many walking trails, or join the Arkaba Walk for a four day safari with a touch of luxury.
- Sleep in a luxury tented camp under the stars at Kangaluna Camp in the Gawler Ranges National Park. During the day visit Lake Gairdner, a vast and impressive salt lake, spot abundant wildlife and visit the natural organ pipe rock formations of the region
- Take a scenic flight over Lake Eyre, a vast salt lake 15m below sea level: Australia’s lowest point and largest lake