Best 4WD trips in Australia – Central Deserts of the Outback

Earlier this year I spent a week in Perth with my eldest  daughter.  It was a wonderful opportunity to spend time together, exploring a place neither of us had seen, and I realised that I’d never done anything similar with either of my parents.

Around the same time Dad mentioned he was planning a 5-6 week  trip to Outback Australia, but was lamenting the difficulty in finding someone to accompany him.  My time living in Western Qld had given me a taste for the outback, but I had always been hungry to see more.  Dad had the vehicle prepared, had done all the necessary pre-trip prep work (maps, permits, equipment etc).  All I had to do was organise time off work and show up!  The father and son trip was born!

Pre-trip preparation is important, and should be taken seriously when planning to take your 4wd in Central and Outback Australia.  This is a memo to self so that next time I don’t again make the same 2 decisions I’d later regret.

  1. Won’t need low temp sleeping bag or thick blanket, just some warm clothes, won’t be that cold!
  2. Won’t need raincoat, we’ll be in the desert during the dry season, won’t rain!

Best 4wd trips in Australia



The journey begins with a late start and 2 hour drive to Nanango to catch up with old friends!  From here the driving begins proper.  Great spot found on the riverbank for our first night camped out in the swags, no tents to block the view of the starry night sky…or the light rain that had us up at 5.00am.  At Cunnamulla we experience a cold wet and windy day….not our last!

Our western journey includes visits to Noccundra, Jackson Oil Fields, Burke & Wills dig tree and Innamincka before embarking on the Strzelecki Track across the Strzelecki Desert to Maree in Central SA.  From Innamincka we get our first look at the flowing Coopers Creek inching its way towards Lake Eyre.




William Creek is the closet settlement to Lake Eyre and the local aerodrome is operating to capacity with sightseeing flights over Lake Eyre.  Lake Eyre is Australia’s largest lake, at 15m below sea level is Australia’s lowest point and fills only a few times each century…..this was one of those times!  I seized the opportunity of a spare seat on a one hour flight over the southern section of the Lake.

The flight from William Creek to the Lake takes you over one of this country’s largest cattle stations and to see the sparse desert terrain below, one wonders how it could support any life let alone livestock.  The vastness of the Lake even from a few thousand feet is astounding…water stretching onwards towards the horizon.  We circled over large colony’s of breeding pelicans on their own private islands.  The magnificence of this desert oasis is compounded with its brief and rare appearances.

Dad took his chance to see the same with a two hour flight over the whole lake including the Coopers Creek inflow.

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

View of Lake Eyre from the air

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Not satisfied with the fly over, we camped behind a sand dune on the lake edge for the night.  The water is very cold (lost feeling in my feet after a minute or so) and very salty, but it’s the water’s edge that is most surprising.  Millions of tiny fish, shrimp and grasshoppers washed down possibly hundreds or even thousands of kilometres from the north.

Cooper Pedy is our last chance to stock up with fuel, food and water before crossing the desert.  We arrived late afternoon, found a caravan park and slept as normal on the ground next to the vehicle.  It was possibly the coldest night of my life with a minimum temp of -5c wearing virtually every item of clothing I had in my possession.

Cooper Pedy’s uniqueness is partly attributed to the ‘dugouts’, these being the majority of houses, hotels, motels, shops, churches etc all underground.  We ourselves spent our 2nd night in the caravan park underground and the most comfortable night’s sleep of the trip, 20+ degree temp, no noise, no rain, no fire…luxury!

What makes the underground world here possible is a combination of sandstone (stable yet easy to excavate/dig) and nominal history of seismic activity.  We took a look through one of these ‘dugouts’…a 3 bedroom house no different to what you see anywhere else, except the wall, floor and roof is sandstone.  If you need a new bedroom, built in closet or even bookshelf…just start digging, but make sure you don’t go through into the neighbours place!

Cooper Pedy is a melting pot of cultures, especially East Europeans and they come here for the areas greatest attraction….the world’s largest known opal fields.   Surrounding the town for many kilometres in any direction are thousands upon thousands of ‘mullock heaps’…essentially piles of dirt from which the prospector has dug a mine shaft on their mining claim.  As a result there are numerous signs around the town stating ‘don’t run’ and ‘don’t walk backwards’ warning of the hazards from these uncovered deep mine shafts.  The summer heat would make this an unpleasant occupation to say the least.

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Mullock heaps outside Cooper Pedy

On first glance with its absence of topsoil and consequent lack of vegetation, giving it a barren and rather uninviting appearance, Cooper Pedy seems to offer little to the passing visitor.  However 2 days to check out the mine tours, opal shops and the hidden underground world was not enough …but it was time to press on.




The Great Victoria Desert is Australia’s largest and traversing it east to west is the Anne Beadell Highway crisscrossed with the Connie Sue Highway both surveyed and built in the 1950’s by Len Beadell and named after his wife and daughter.  The ‘highway’ tag was tongue in cheek, in reality it is anything but and the sign beside the road soon after leaving Cooper Pedy confirms:

‘NO settlements, water, fuel or services of any type exist next 1289 kilometres!

Those travelling westwards from this point should note that they are entering one of the most waterless
and remote regions of outback Australia. 
The track known as the “Anne Beadell Highway” ….is not a highway or road; it is an extremely arduous and rough track.’

After the bare barren moonscape landscape surrounding Lake Eyre and Cooper Pedy, we took the opportunity to load up with some firewood; which days later we looked back on with amusement as the Great Victoria Desert is virtually covered with mulga forest….no shortage of firewood to ward off the freezing nights.

Our first night on the Anne Beadell had us sleeping under cover in the back of the ute due to the arrival of a storm so violent, the vehicle shook from the force of the wind and driving rain.  Not necessarily an unusual event, but in a desert during the dry season?!

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Anne Beadell Highway

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

The track is considered ‘recreational’ and therefore has not been maintained since its creation many decades ago; and it shows.  In places were deep washouts and erosion, numerous detours, at times so narrow trees scratched down the side of the vehicle, soft and sandy amongst the dunes, hard and rocky on the plains….and corrugations!

Near Emu Plains the corrugations were that bad we spent a whole day driving to cover 100 kilometres!  Emu Plains is also the site where the first atomic tests were conducted and the catalyst for the roads construction.  Looking at the site I wondered if they knew what we now know about radiation fallout, whether they would have participated in the testing?

Amongst the thick mulga scrub and occasional eucalypt; the other predominate flora species is spinifex. Growing in clumps a foot high and thanks to recent rains now sporting a bright green coat it often groups together in large donut like shapes.  The green outer foliage gives it a lush soft appearance….looks can be deceiving.  It’s like thousands of needles, painful to touch, sit on, walk on…it’s a brave man that’s wears thongs on his feet out here!

The fauna has its own surprises.  To hear the chilling howl of a dingo that’s far too close to the campsite whilst you’re lying on the ground in a swag is very disconcerting….kept the fire going that night!

The evidence of camels is numerous and with Australia said to have the world’s largest population of wild camels, not to be unexpected.  We had been told by others that if encountered on the road they will run ahead of the vehicle refusing to move off to let you pass even though there is nothing impeding them from leaving the road!  Much to our amusement we had such an experience and took some video footage as a memento of the occasion.  After several kilometres of chasing and with froth coming out of its mouth and down its side, started to feel sympathy towards our not so clever friend and opted to explore a side track to give it an opportunity to wander off.

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Camel on the Connie Sue Highway

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

The corrugations are at times brutal and starting to wear a little thin.  Even the vehicle is showing discomfort with duct tape becoming a useful tool in holding things together.  We come across others who have fared worse; broken springs a common complaint.

After seven days on the Anne Beadell and Connie Sue we reach the Great Central Highway which will lead us to back east to Ayers Rock.  The roadhouse owner stated he had never seen the road so busy, yet in the last week we have encountered no more than 30 vehicles!

It’s rough its uncomfortable its remote; and it is truly a beautiful place!  If you’re not able to experience the vast serenity that is Central Australia then get a copy of ‘Too long in the bush’ published by Leonard Beadell OAM BEM or any of his other books.  An inspirational Australian.




Staring towards the horizon looking for that first glimpse, but not knowing when it will appear.  The road goes over a little rise…there it is….Kata Tjuta better known as the ‘The Olgas’!

The Olgas could be described as 36 mountain islands closely grouped together and some 200m higher than Ayers Rock some 50 klms to the east.  High school geology classes tell us that most rock formations/mountains etc are formed from volcanoes or erosion, but to see the Olgas sitting out in this flat barren landscape you’d think they were just placed there.  Several hours spent walking in and around them only emphasised the awe even more.

The icon of the region….Uluru!  We joined the hordes of visitors for the must have sunset photos and leave there content that I have that one ‘postcard’ picture….and its true: the rock really does change colour with the setting sun.

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

The Olgas

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Ayers Rock / Uluru

On our return the following day we find the climb to the top closed due to high winds, so we instead opt for the 10 klm circuit walk around Uluru which gives you a wonderful opportunity to see it up close.  The impressive and informative information
centre is well worth a visit.  Uluru is this country’s iconic landmark and despite its remote location it would be un-Australian not to visit, but for mine the Olgas was its equal.

As we leave the resort caravan park, feel a tinge of sadness and wonder if I will ever return, not aware of the unexpected gems that awaited us down the road.  Funny how we associate and connect Alice Springs with Uluru even though 450 klms separate the two!

One of these aforementioned gems is Kings Canyon.  The canyon is a long narrow V shape and the walk up the centre of the canyon gives you an amazing perspective of the sheer walls rising on either side and enhanced with the creek beside you and the accompanying flowering fauna it supports.

This walk is a poor cousin however to the hike up and around the entire rim of the canyon including the aptly named Garden of Eden with its clear enticing waterhole ideal for swimming…if it wasn’t so cold!  It was refreshing to see that at no point was the top of the canyon roped off in any way (so as to save people from the own stupidity) enabling one to look over the cliff edge into the depths below.  3 plus hours in duration and plenty to explore, admire and photograph.  One of the best day walks I’ve done.

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Kings Canyon

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Starting in the vicinity of Gosses Bluff (a meteor crater worth checking out) and Mt Zeil (NT’s highest mountain), we spend a couple of days driving adjacent to the West Macdonnell Ranges until it’s conclusion near Alice Springs.  In hiking circles the 223 klm Larapinta Trail along the backbone of the West Macdonnell ranges is considered one of this country’s most spectacular walks and recognised worldwide.

From Redbank Gorge in the west, the trail encompasses Mt Sonder, Simpsons Gap, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen and Standley Chasm to name just a few of the many popular sightseeing opportunities we stopped to explore.  So many high narrow gorges, incredible views from the various high points climbed, the clear inviting (again if it wasn’t so cold) waterholes with sandy beaches, the slow flowing Finke River with the white rivergums within it’s floodplain….at around 17 days, the Larapinta Trail is no stroll, but I’ve seen enough to come back and accept it’s challenges in the near future.

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Standley Chasm

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

We roll into Alice Springs and set up camp in the Caravan Park for a couple of days of sightseeing and counter meals and keg beer.  Truck fans will love the National Transport Museum!

All reports are the Simpson Desert crossing is closed due to recent rains, so not sure which way we’ll head back to Qld.

Sleeping in the swag on the ground has now evolved to sleeping in the back of the ute….I’ve all but raised a white flag to the cold nights!  It hasn’t helped that the daytime temps have been unseasonably low robbing us of our daylight respite from the nightly chills.

Dad came running across from the other side of the Caravan Park….

”the desert is open, we’re going!”





Dad has run into someone in the caravan park who has just come across the Simpson!  Between the wet weather and discovering one of the front hubs on the ute is leaking oil, had all but resigned to the fact it was not possible.  There wouldn’t be many 4wd enthusiasts who have not yearned for the opportunity to attempt the Simpson and we were not going to let ours pass by!

It was a day and a half driving on and alongside the old Ghan Railway and the track used for the annual Finke Desert Race before reaching Dalhousie Hot Springs on the western edge of the Simpson Desert.  Hot Springs in a desert probably not ideal, but when it’s this cold…..perfect!

The Simpson Desert is said to have some 1100 of the world’s longest sand dunes, spaced a few hundred metres to a few kilometres apart running in a north to south direction.  In crossing the desert from either the east or the west as we were, one has to traverse each dune, seemingly with its own characteristics, its own outlook from atop and for the driver, its own method of approach to cross over.  Demanding on driver and vehicle, but definitely more fun!

Rather than travel alone, we have joined up with two other vehicles.  We leave mid-morning and within 2 hours we hit the first of the sand dunes.  Our rear vision mirrors are filled with a very dark and ominous looking storm bearing down from the west.  By lunchtime it has caught us and after a quick downpour, continues its march on ahead in the direction we are travelling.  The rain is becoming a concern.  It won’t take much for the track to be closed again and leaving us stranded for a number of days.

In a complete contrast to the Great Victoria Desert, the Simpson is probably the closest desert we have to the vision you see of the never ending sand dunes of the Sahara.  Whilst the Simpson has considerably more vegetation than these images of the Sahara, the sand here is far more in evidence than anywhere else I’ve seen in Central Australia.

It was the aforementioned vegetation that would leave its lasting impression of this vast desolate expanse.  Incredible in its abundance, but equally breathtaking for the colours shooting forth from the wildflowers.  Everywhere it seemed was the yellow and white of the ‘poached egg’ flower.  The bright green foliage mixed with vivid purples and blues all against the backdrop of the burnt orange sands of the Simpson. The late afternoon sun and storm offering perfect light alongside the occasional rainbow, gifting us many photo opportunities.

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Simpson Desert

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

The bird life is prolific. Predominately budgerigars and finches.  It’s rare that you don’t hear them, especially the budgies taking to the air in flocks of seemingly hundreds.

In between photo taking, dingo or camel spotting and talking to other travellers, the wet sand enabled us to make good progress….until the salt lake pans!

It was here that the normally highway hard salt pans slowed progress and had we not been travelling with others to assist us in need, possibly even stopped us in our tracks.  They had now turned to deep mud with the largest being up to a kilometre across.  Method seemed simple enough (from the passenger seat), start with silent prayer, high range 2nd gear, aim for the already made deep wheel tracks of others and just hit it and hang on!  Stressful but fun.

It was three days in crossing the Simpson culminating with ‘Big Red’ virtually the last sand dune to be crossed and also said to be the largest!  A temporary lake before the dune resulted in a detour down to ‘Little Red’, which is an easier crossing of the dune before coming back to stand on top to watch others try and get over the infamous Big Red crossing.  Goodbyes were said to our travelling companions of the previous few days, before a detour around another temporary lake on the eastern side and late afternoon arrival and welcome hot shower in Birdsville.

With all roads out of Birdsville closed the next day due to flooding, took the opportunity to sightsee, repair and clean the vehicle (dump truck couldn’t carry that much mud) and look back on our trip across the ‘Simpson’.  Ideally would have liked to take an extra night in crossing, but the ever present threat of rain meant our priority was to get to Birdsville to avoid being stranded for any length of time.




Near Windorah we again meet the bitumen that signals our trip is nearing an end and our last look at the Qld outback which after recent rains was wearing its ‘Sunday best’.

These final few days on the bitumen seemed at times almost monotonous, what with there being no sand dunes to climb, no washouts, no corrugations, no mud, no route finding…highway driving will never be the same!

 Best 4wd trips in Australia

Trip Route

8,400 klms and 5 ½ weeks exploring what most would consider a desert wasteland, but in my eyes was a desert wonderland.  Not one single flat tyre, no major disagreements between the two of us and I will never again take the doona for granted on a cold winter’s night.  The Father and Son trip had reached its conclusion, but the memories will always


Link to my photo site:

THANK YOU FOR READING. COULD I ASK A FAVOUR? If you found this story interesting or useful enough for others to see, please share our love of the great outdoors and this beautiful planet via your social media - it all helps: