Australia has hundreds of thousands of kilometres of roads that are nowhere near settlements. Unlike in, for example, the UK, where almost all the roads will have some kind of asphalt, here it can be anything from cloying mud through to fine bulldust with ruts, washouts and corrugations.
This article covers the majority of unique rural and outback driving situations that a new driver should be aware of, plus useful information for tourists to Australia who are considering driving. Driving in rural Australia will put the maximum stress on your vehicle – in fact, most rental companies won’t let their cars on unsealed roads. If you’ve never driven in rural and outback Australia, here are all the scenarios you might find.
Agricultural machinery, such as tractors, are often slow-moving and wider than other vehicles. As many roads in the outback are very straight, all you have to worry about is whether the road surface is safe to pass on, and whether you can see past any dust that’s being kicked up. Often, the drivers will indicate to you when it’s safe to pass.
If you’re in an area with a lot of livestock then you can expect stock trucks to be operating, or container trucks for milk.
Road trains can mean 53.5m of truck to pass if it’s an AB-Quad (four trailers), or 36.5m if it’s a double road train. Most drivers are courteous and will indicate when it’s safe to pass. If you have a CB radio you can sometimes communicate directly with them. Again, you can experience problems with dust if you are on an unsealed road.
Road trains can weigh up to 200 tonnes and therefore cannot stop quickly or make sharp manoeuvres. Don’t do anything that would cause them to have to brake heavily as they might not be able to stop in time.
Certain areas will have mining traffic or logging trucks. Often there are signs indicating this.
If you are heading up to Northern Queensland then you will occasionally share the roads with the cane railway as it trundles through the centre of small towns. There will also be innumerable railway crossings. Check out our article on rules for railway level crossings by clicking here
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Some roads will effectively be a one-lane road with a verge that may or may not be possible to drive on. For example in the image you can see it would be impossible for an oncoming vehicle to pull over, and there’s limited space up ahead for you to pull over. It’s also a blind corner on a narrow road.
If you are driving on roads that have many blind corners, be extra aware that you might meet something heavier and wider than your vehicle and you should be prepared to stop and assess whether you can pull over to let them by, or in some cases you may have to reverse for a short distance to find a safe spot to pull over.
In lusher areas, roadside vegetation can restrict your view around corners, so position your vehicle so you can see further around the corner. This means moving to the left of the road for the entrance of a right-hand bend, and moving towards the centre line for the entrance of a left-hand bend.
Mud on asphalt roads can be extremely slippery if it has just rained. Mud will be more likely to occur at ploughing and harvest times as that’s when the most vehicle movements will be. Watch for farm gates.
Also, there are thousands of places where unsealed roads join main highways, and when it’s wet, the dirt can be dragged onto the main highway (though usually in less volume than if several agricultural vehicles have come out of a field onto an asphalt road).
There may also be times where you run through a short stretch of wet tarmac where an irrigation unit is spraying part of the road. This will mean slightly reduced grip.
Less street lighting and road markings
While junctions from main roads into minor roads mostly have at least one street light marking them, junctions from minor roads into other minor roads often don’t, and it’s unlikely there will be any street lights down the length of the road.
Road markings are often absent, too, including lines marking the edge of the road. This means you have to be more careful at night as sometimes the verge will merge with the road.
Washouts, ruts, corrugations and subsidence
After a storm, creeks can get washed out and become impassable to two-wheel drive vehicles that ride lower to the ground.
Ruts can also form where vehicle tyres remove dirt from the road in their tyre tracks and leave a raised section in the middle. In extreme cases your vehicle can become stranded on these, and in even minor cases you can damage the underside of your vehicle. Motorcyclists must be extremely careful.
Corrugations will happen naturally on dirt roads due to the action of tyres, wind and water. This creates a washboard effect which is uncomfortable to drive on.
Subsidence is where parts of the road subside (drop away). This can be common along the banks of rivers, or where a road is cut into the side of a hill. It’s more likely to happen catastrophically after heavy rain, however, general low-level subsidence is happening all the time and can cause large undulations in the road surface that can affect the trajectory of your vehicle.
Creeks (crocodile infested)
Creeks on well-used rural roads will have a causeway. However, flooding can deposit sand on the causeway, and this can bog a vehicle down. Add crocodiles into the mix if you’re further north, and you’ll probably not want to get out of your vehicle unless you have a weapon to fend them off.
The water level in creeks can also rise rapidly due to storms further upstream. If you are unsure whether you can cross a creek in your vehicle the only way to be sure is to walk the causeway and find the shallowest path through.
Emus have to be the single most stupid animal on our roads, but we do have an abundance of other wildlife that is so heavy that it becomes dangerous to the vehicle occupants. It’s often more dangerous to swerve at high speed than it is just to hit the animal. Motorcyclists will need to pay special attention and slow down.
Anywhere where there’s a regular water source such as a lake or river, you will find animals, especially during the drier months. Watch out for areas where there are multiple skid marks on the road as that might indicate a natural animal crossing point.
Roos and wallabies are well camouflaged in roadside vegetation and can be startled easily, jumping out in front of you.
Emus will tend to run along the road not realising that by running off it they will be safe. The trick here is to try to drive on the opposite side of the road to where the emu is running and attempt to corral it off the road by edging up on it.
Cassowaries are endangered. You should always slow down when you are in cassowary territory. They are also fairly ponderous and slow-moving. While it’s unlikely you’ll ever see one, even if you are in Northern Queensland (I’ve only seen one in the wild once), we can’t afford to lose any more of them.
Camels, feral horses and cattle will create significant damage to your vehicle. With camels, there is the risk that your bonnet will take their legs from under them and the body of them will impact your windscreen.
Be aware that in livestock farming areas you may come around a corner to find a flock of sheep with a farmer directing them where to go. Follow the instructions of the farmer. This usually means stopping your car and allowing the livestock to pass around it.
Sheep, dingoes, wombats and other smaller animals will still create damage to your vehicle if you hit them at speed, but it’s not as dangerous as hitting a larger animal like a cow.
Be careful of hitting someone else’s road kill, too, particularly as a large kangaroo even when lying dead, is still a significant obstacle to a small car.
Most of the animals you will find on the road are herbivores and have eyes on the side of their head. While they have good overall awareness of what’s around them (e.g. a cow can see 330 degrees around itself), their eyes often aren’t good at quick focusing. Also, if you are travelling at night with high beam headlights and you spot an animal on the road, flick your headlights to low beam. This is because high beam lights will dazzle animals and make it more difficult for them to find an escape route.
Local drivers will have excellent knowledge of the road and may be used to travelling them quickly – quicker than you are comfortable with. Don’t get lulled into a false sense of security following a local that is going fast as you might come across a road situation, such as a sharp bend, that you are not ready for. This is particularly apparent where there are good quality gravel roads – locals will often drive them as fast as on sealed roads.
Infrequent facilities and services
Especially in the outback you can be several hundred kilometres from fuel and other services. Plan your journeys, keep your fuel tank full, and always carry water in your vehicle if you are heading into the hotter inland regions.
Outside of the main centres fuel might only be available in business hours – don’t assume it’ll be 24/7. Roadhouses also might not be open late.
If you are travelling through very inhospitable territory there might be a chance you have to turn around and go back. Therefore you should always carry enough fuel, food and water so you can make it.
Because of the lack of road markings and street lights, fog will seem worse in rural areas. It also can be extremely dense, so slow down, put your dipped headlights on, watch for other drivers without their lights on, put your fog lights on, don’t brake suddenly, and if you do have to stop, pull as far over to the left as possible and keep your lights on.
Diurnal range (temperature variations)
In the outback, temperatures can range from over 45 degrees Celsius during the day down to almost freezing at night. During the day you could die of dehydration if you are stranded, and at night you could die of hypothermia. It’s best to stay with your vehicle if you break down, even if you are on a fairly deserted road. Ensure you have 8-10 litres of water per day per person if you are travelling through central Australia.
In some mountain and tableland areas of NSW, frosty nights might cause your diesel engine some problems when starting. As the atmosphere warms during the day, you will be able to start your vehicle normally.
Carry blankets in your vehicle in case you break down.
No cellphone reception
Outside of the main centres mobile phone coverage can be intermittent. If you’re driving in rural areas regularly you can get a car kit with an external antenna. You can estimate whether you’ll have coverage by looking at these Telstra coverage maps.
If you plan to be in the middle of nowhere for a while, hire a satellite phone or a personal distress beacon.
Gates and cattle grids
If you are travelling through some of the inland farming areas, stock is often controlled by grids on the road. If the grid is damaged it can cause punctures or suspension damage, so slow down when you drive over them. Also, as vehicles will be braking coming up to the grid, this creates more wear on the road surface leading to potholes.
With the poorer road surface it’s not unusual for stones to be flicked up and crack your windscreen. If you are approaching a vehicle coming towards you, slowing down will minimise the impact of a stone.
Endless straight roads
Let’s say you want to drive from Perth to Melbourne. It’s 3500km, and 2000km of it is long straights separated by infrequent shallow bends crossing the Nullarbor Plain using the Eyre Highway. There’s the occasional roadhouse. Driving in these conditions can cause fatigue very quickly, and in the worst case scenario, hallucinations. Stop every couple of hours to reset your mind and get some circulation going to your extremities.
4WD doesn’t mean ‘soft-roaders’
Some roads are marked as four-wheel drive only. This doesn’t mean SUVs on road tyres; this means proper 4WD vehicles preferably with a winch, snorkel and safety equipment as a backup.
Bulldust is common in some areas. It’s a fine talcum powder-like dust which gets into everything and can clog your wheels and air filter. It also sits in potholes making potholes look like they’re not there…until you hit them.
Dust will be an issue on unsealed roads. Also, some sealed minor roads are only one paved lane down the middle. To overtake or if another vehicle is coming the other direction you will need to move off the bitumen.
The wet season
If you’re in the north of Australia between October and March there is an increased risk of flooding, and many communities become isolated for days (sometimes weeks) as rivers rise and roads become impassable.
Even though there’s not a whole lot of snow in Australia in relation to our land mass, if you’re driving in the high country of Vic, NSW, ACT or Tasmania, then you’ll find out snow fields are extensive. Rural roads don’t get cleared as frequently (if at all) from snow. You may need snow chains to pass some roads.
Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists