Surviving the Stuart was one of the most memorable adventures of my life and one that ultimately changed the trajectory of my life…
The Stuart Highway runs 2711 kilometers from Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory. With the town of Port Augusta is some 305 kilometers from Adelaide.
Before I began, I had to buy a vehicle that could handle the long-distance drive and that would accommodate all of my worldly possessions…
I opted for a Toyota delivery van with a bull bar.
By mid-January with the harvest complete my excitement began to grow as I packed the van and gathered the subsequent supplies required – spare tire, extra water and an additional jerry can of fuel…
I was going to have to survive the Stuart alone.
Today, this is a comparatively easy drive, but when I made the drive it was a much more arduous journey.
At least this part of the road was fully paved and had all the regular highway amenities along the way. I was soon to learn that this was the only part of the drive that would be normal.
The first night I camped just outside North Adelaide pulling into a rest stop and sleeping in the van.
I woke to an exceedingly bright sunny sky, which literally was blinding me as I sat in the front seat of the van.
Day two would take me north along the Gulf of St Vincent through Port Pirie to Port Augusta, before heading inland toward the center of Australia and my next major stop – Alice Springs.
Once I turned onto the Stuart Highway just outside Port Augusta it was a single paved road all the way through the heart of Australia to Darwin.
As I rolled into Port Augusta that afternoon, I realized that I would have to spend the night here before striking out for Alice Springs some 1250 km distant.
I’d been warned that it wasn’t safe to drive this road at night because of the livestock and other assorted animals (camels, cows, and kangaroo), which wandered this desert landscape.
I rose early the next morning and hit the road knowing that I had at least a 12 hour journey ahead of me for the day.
The tricky thing was trying to predict when I should stop and fill the van with petrol.
Being unfamiliar with this part of the world, I was just a little paranoid about running out of petrol or breaking down and in those days with no cell phone or easy way to communicate.
Particularly, given that I was driving through a desert in the middle of summer.
If you broke down out here, you just had to wait it out for another vehicle to pass.
Fortunately, this part of the road was mostly paved and reasonably well travelled.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the road trains that flew by me at over 140 kph plus thus creating a impenetrable dust cloud which made it impossible to see the road.
Quickly slowing to a crawl until the dust had somewhat cleared it had frightened the shit out of me as I lost complete visibility to the road and surroundings.
Each day was another scorcher (well over 39C or 102F). What made it more relentless was that I didn’t have AC and and so drove with the windows down to try and keep cool.
Trying to keep at a steady 110 – 130 kph (65 to 70 mph) I realized that I was too slow for the assorted trucks and road-trains that made me look as though I was standing still.
With each passing truck passed I was quickly enveloped in yet another red dust cloud, even with the windows up dust seemed to somehow seep into every nook and cranny in the van…
I made it into Alice Springs late in the day with one very sunburned “truck driver arm” and was exhausted from having to concentrate for every moment of my journey but happy that I’d made it without incident so far.
I was almost unrecognizable in the motel bathroom mirror as I was completely covered in a combination of dust and sweat that made me look as though I had just stepped out of mud puddle.
Friday morning found me calculating my route north, and again I was stuck in a bit of a quandary.
Darwin was almost 20 hours’ drive north, and impossible to make during sunlight hours so I decided that I would spend the morning taking in the sights of Alice Springs before heading to Tennant Creek where I would spend the night.
Then Saturday I would drive the final leg (13+ hours) to Darwin.
Unfortunately, I had a flat tire just outside of Alice Springs, which set me back and put me in jeopardy of arriving at Tennant Creek after dark…
This was the situation I’d been warned about over and over “not to drive on the Stuart after sunset”.
It happened exactly as they said it would…rounding a corner on the crest of a hill just after sunset, with the lights of Tennant Creek shining on the horizon (I was starting to relax as I thought I was going to make it okay).
I realized almost too late that there were two large cattle standing smack in the middle of the road.
In an instant I swerved to miss them but now found myself on the wrong side of the road just in time to see a set of truck lights looming in front of me, with his air horns blaring.
My mind raced and I tried to correct my swerve and get back onto my side of the road…I held my breath for the impact, but somehow the road-train had missed me – it must have been by centimeters.
He hadn’t stopped as he was too big and going too fast.
I pulled over and got out, squatting down beside the van, and shaking violently from my near miss all I could do was take some deep breaths and shake my head at how fast it had all happened.
Regaining my composure, I slowly drove the last 20 or so kilometers into Tennant Creek.
Saturday dawned with yet another cloudless blue sky, the thermometer already approaching 40 C as I headed out on the last leg of my journey from Tennant Creek to Darwin (1000+ km’s).
However, calling this a highway was a complete misnomer, because in those days there were large stretches of the Stuart highway that were still large portions that were unpaved – just hard baked dirt and red dust.
Now couple that with the many cattle grids, road-trains, the choking red dust and the heat made this one of the most inhospitable roads in the world.
The further I ventured north the hotter, and more humid it became, the terrain transforming from arid desert to scrubby low bush.
Late in the afternoon just out of Katherine I was hit by a severe monsoonal rain storm.
I had watched it build all day with ever darkening thunderheads looming on the horizon.
This was my first wet season storm…
It’s hard to describe or imagine the volume of water that fell from the sky during that storm – it was as if someone was pouring buckets of water on the windscreen it was so heavy.
Everyday I thought I had survived the most challenging day on the Stuart, yet only to be confronted with a different sort of challenge the next.
On the last leg from Katherine to Darwin I drove in what you might consider a trance.
I was exhausted from having to concentrate for such a long period of time on the road.
My adventure had lost its appeal!
I eventually made it into Darwin around 6:00 pm on Saturday night, some five days, (53 hours of driving), and 3700 km’s on the odometer later.
Somehow I had made it mostly unscathed and with a new appreciation for the long-distance truck drivers that drove the Stuart Highway for a living.
Clearly they are a tough breed!
Until next week