Top 5 Central Australia 4WD Tracks
With a rich Indigenous culture and a wonderous landscape that ranges from desert to dramatic gorges, Central Australia is a bounty of raw natural beauty. And the extreme isolation of many of its best routes are just part of the attraction.
Many of the outback’s most sacred sites, such as the spectacular Uluru and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), are iconic bucket-list items for visitors to Central Australia. And these are just the tip of the sand dune when it comes to what you can discover in this beautiful part of the country. Rock art dating back thousands of years has been found at sites such as N’Dhala Gorge, Rainbow Valley and Wallace Rock Hole, each giving a valuable insight into the rich culture of the land and the Traditional Owners that inhabited it long before the early European explorers set out into Central Australia in hopes of discovering new pastoral lands.
Rainbow Valley. Credit: Emma-Warren, Sam-Richards
There are many unique natural phenomena and ecosystems in Central Australia that can’t be found anywhere else in the world, including horizontal strata such as Chambers Pillar, the Flinders Ranges — which were formed by the forming of sedimentary rock around 540 million years ago, and the meteorite craters at Henbury, Wolfe Creek Crater and Gosse Bluff.
No matter how vast the outback may seem, the land belongs to someone and it’s important to ask the landowner’s permission if you want to cross private property. Leave gates as you find them — whether that means open or closed. And remember, while you might be enjoying a 4WD adventure at your leisure, the locals will be going about their lives and if you treat them and their properties with respect, you’ll most likely receive true outback hospitality in return.
While you might be all geared up to explore Central Australia in your 4WD, don’t forget to throw in some good hiking shoes, as many of the best destinations can only be reached on foot. Finke River Gorge, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Ormiston Pound, Wilpena Pound, Uluru and many other popular hotspots in the region have well-maintained day walks that cater to a range of abilities.
If you’re itching for a proper hike, the Larapinta Trail is one of Australia’s most demanding walks, stretching 223km from east to west, ascending ridges of the West MacDonnell Ranges and Mount Sonder and then meandering across the plains below.
The best time to visit Central Australia is during the dry season, which runs from April to October. Rain is more likely during the hotter months — November to March — and may cut roads or make them impassable for extended periods. And with many of the 4WD routes trekking through extremely isolated areas, you don’t want to be trapped on your own.
A key to safe outback travelling is water; always carry a sufficient amount when heading into remote areas. An adult can consume 6–8L a day in hot weather, so make sure you have more than you think you’ll need. It’s important to have plenty spare in the case of a breakdown or other emergency situation.
Avoid travelling at dusk, dawn and nighttime; these are the times of day when animals are more active and harder to spot, meaning the risk of an animal strike is greatly increased.
Do your travel research and route planning ahead of time, factoring in the distances you’ll have to travel and your fuel consumption. Make sure you know where the nearest point of assistance is, and if you’re unable to get there, how to call for help.
Alongside your usual 4WD travel gear, carry spare parts for your vehicle, such as belts, hoses, oil, brake fluid, coolant and so on.
And before you head off, always check the weather and road conditions, and let someone know your travel plans so they can sound the alarm if you go AWOL.
Now that we’ve got all the basics covered, let’s dig into some of the best 4WD tracks Central Australia has to offer.
Length: 475km, Lyndhurst to Innamincka, SA
Longest leg without fuel: 475km, Lyndhurst to Innamincka
Permits required: Desert Parks Pass if camping in Innamincka Regional Reserve, P: 1800 816 078
Facilities available in Lyndhurst and Innamincka
The Strzelecki Track dates to 1870, when the route was created by Harry Readford — ‘Captain Starlight’ — a cattle rustler who stole 1000 cattle from the Longreach area and drove them down into South Australia and sold them. Despite eventually being caught, Readford wasn’t convicted for the offence as the jury was impressed by his feat.
In more recent years, the Strzelecki Track has undergone significant improvements and realigned to cope with the constant flow of road trains servicing the extensive Moomba oil and gas fields. Beginning north-east of Lyndhurst, the Strzelecki traverses a featureless, barren landscape north of the Flinders Ranges before reaching the open sand-driven country of the Strzelecki Desert. If the more direct route to Innamincka isn’t your style, you can try the longer, more meandering Old Strzelecki Track.
Innamincka is an extremely isolated town, but visitors can enjoy the character-filled hotel and well-stocked store. And don’t miss the historic ranger station, which was once the local hospital. Set up camp at the nearby Cooper Creek and enjoy the quiet waterholes and local birdlife. Or if you’ve got a bit more time up your adventuring sleeve, Coongie Lake, north of Innamincka, is another great spot to camp.
A must-visit historic landmark is the famous Burke and Wills Dig Tree; located over the Queensland border, it is around a 70km/1-hour drive from Innamincka. Both Burke and Wills’ grave sites can also be found along Cooper Creek near Innamincka.
Length: 618km, Marla to Marree, SA
Longest leg without fuel: 211km, Marla to Oodnadatta
Facilities available at Marla, Oodnadatta, William Creek and Marree
The Oodnadatta is one of Australia’s famous outback tracks and enjoys a reasonably good gravel road that links the remote communities of Marree, William Creek, Oodnadatta and Marla.
The track follows much of the same route as the Old Ghan Railway and was developed along a trail of natural artesian springs and semi-permanent waterholes, which are still a popular feature to experience — the natural spa at Coward Springs (between William Creek and Marree) is a fan favourite.
There are plenty of remnants of both the Old Ghan Railway and Overland Telegraph Line to spot as you travel the Oodnadatta Track. The best examples of these connections are the historic grave and large railway maintenance worker’s cottage at Mount Dutton Siding and the Peak Telegraph station ruins, south-east of Oodnadatta (free camping is also available at this destination). Other attractions to add to the must-see list include the William Creek Hotel and Oodnadatta’s Pink Roadhouse — one of Australia’s most famous and definitely most colourful roadhouses — both of which are great sources of local information.
Old Ghan line Bridge, Oodnadatta
Halfway between Marree and Oodnadatta, there is a 57km track leading to the east that allows access to Lake Eyre’s western shore. Although frequently dry, Lake Eyre is Australia’s largest lake with a catchment area roughly twice the size of Victoria. If you have a chance to see the lake in flood, try your best to see it, as it comes alive with fish and birdlife.
Length: 521km, Marree, SA, to Birdsville, Qld
Longest leg without fuel: 315km, Mungerannie Hotel to Birdsville
Facilities available at Marree, Mungerannie Hotel and Birdsville
The Birdsville Track was established in 1880 by EA Burt as a stock route, and quickly replaced the Strzelecki Track as the preferred route due to its better water supply. It remains a popular outback track through the Sturt Stony Desert, which links Marree in South Australia with the iconic Birdsville in south-west Queensland.
This red desert track is a wide and often-graded dirt road and enjoys a variety of landscapes such as dune country, gibber plains and dusty clay floodplains. If you’re looking for a fuel and food stop, Mungerannie Roadhouse is a good halfway pitstop. Or enjoy some fantastic, secluded camping along the shady banks of Warburton Creek at Kalamurina Homestead, which can be found 54km west of Mungerannie.
Length: 561km, Plenty Highway to NT/Qld border
Longest leg without fuel: 392km, Arlparra to Alpurrurulam, NT
Permits required: A NT Parks Pass is required for all non-NT residents to enter the Iytwelepenty/Davenport Ranges National Park
Facilities available at Urapuntja, Arlparra and Alpurrurulam
The Sandover Highway is a quiet outback road that connects a string of remote cattle stations and Aboriginal communities found between the Stuart Highway and the Northern Territory/Queensland border. For the most part, you’ll have much of the road to yourself and it’s unlikely you’ll be stuck behind a dust-billowing road train (unlike the Sandover Highway’s better-maintained cousin, the Plenty Highway). And while it may not enjoy the same maintenance, the isolation of the Sandover is what makes it special.
Binns Track, Davenport Ranges
Travel preparation is key, as facilities of any kind are scarce; there are two isolated rest areas for overnight camping next to very basic picnic shelters.
Key attractions in the area worth a detour include the remote Iytwelepenty/Davenport Ranges National Park, which offers wonderful stony tracks through red rocky ranges and shady campsites along the waterholes. Old Police Station Waterhole is a popular spot for swimming. There’s also an old mine at Hatches Creek with many old relics to check out.
Along the Stuart
Length: 1587km, Woomera, SA, to Tennant Creek, NT
Longest leg without fuel: 252km, Glendambo to Coober Pedy
Facilities available at Woomera, Glendambo, Coober Pedy, Cadney Park, Marla, Kulgera, Stuarts Well, Alice Springs, Aileron, Ti Tree, Barrow Creek, Wycliffe Well and Wauchope
This route follows the rough footsteps of explorer John McDouall Stuart, who crossed the continent from south to north in 1862. It begins in South Australia’s Woomera and continues north up the sealed Explorer Highway, through the Red Centre, before finishing in Tennant Creek, NT.
Woomera is a southern entrance to Central Australia and is well-known for its ties to military testing and rocket launching, with the deep space tracking station operating near the town only closing in 1999. Visitors can experience reminders of this involvement in the space age at the Missile Park and Heritage Centre. You won’t need a permit to cross the Woomera Prohibited Area on the Stuart Highway or William Creek Road, but don’t deviate off these roads.
On your way north, make sure you stop and check out Coober Pedy, which is famous for its opals, not to mention its many underground homes, shops and hotels. The area’s lunar-like landscape is constantly a lodestone for film crews and tourists alike, with approximately 10 movies filmed in the area. Off the Highway you’ll find The Breakaways, a group of soft sandstone outcrops that are best viewed at sunrise and sunset, when the colours come alive. Another side quest well worth the detour is Mt Arckaringa and the Painted Desert.
Between Coober Pedy and Alice Springs there are plenty of rural towns to rest and stock up on food, fuel or local sights. Or detour to the big-ticket attractions such as Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
The stretch from Alice Springs to Tennant Creek covers more than 500km, with little phone reception but a handful of roadhouses to stop in at. And before you hit Tennant Creek, don’t miss seeing Devils Marbles, huge red boulders that make a perfect photo op. Tennant Creek itself has a large Indigenous population and the art galleries and museum are great spots to learn more about the Traditional Owners’ culture and history in the area.
For more information, check out Hema Maps’ Central Australia, Great Desert Tracks Central Sheet and Great Desert Tracks Eastern Sheet maps.
The latest Central Australia news from Hema Maps
Always ready to hit the road for a fresh adventure, a team from Hema Maps is currently undertaking a tag-along tour through the Simpson Desert, led by Adrenalin Offroad.
The seven-day adventure (17–24 June 2023) will begin in Birdsville, Qld, before heading through the sand dunes of the Simpson Desert, where the team will enjoy a swim at Dalhousie Hot Springs before continuing onto the Oodnadatta Track and then through the Flinders Ranges.
The team will get to enjoy some of the best outback experiences Central Australia has to offer — from remote roads, sand dunes, gorges and natural hot springs fed by the Great Artesian Basin to exploring the history of the Old Ghan line — led by the experienced guides, Ben and Hayley from Adrenalin Offroad.
Hema Maps’ National Retail Sales Manager Justin Gill, currently on this trip, says the desert landscape is extraordinary, especially following the rain event last month. “It’s just so lush and green, not what I expected. Many were able to see this for themselves at Thursday’s Hema University session via the magic of Starlink.”
At Hema Maps, we strive to provide the most comprehensive and accurate maps and guides for outdoor enthusiasts looking to explore Australia's natural wonders.
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