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    For this article I’ll just deal with planning a destination & the time needed. Hopefully as you read this you will learn that time is the major factor in every trip you do. Australia is a very large place and the distances involved require great amounts of time to cover by road. Might explain the sentiment that folks will see Australia when they retire......

    Without doing a full count, Connie & I have probably done more than 100 long range desert trips in the Australian outback, both private & commercial. The vast majority obviously have been in our major deserts which mostly fall into Western Australia. Over many years we have learnt a few basic things about working out an outback trip. I thought I would just put some things down on paper to explain how we go about putting a remote trip together. I don’t know if it will be useful, I hope so. I’ll add here that writing this spawned a great deal of extra subject matter, so I’ll try and get that all written up as well.

    It is here I need to say people should get a decent large paper map of Australia and stick it up on the wall, (sounds a bit old fashioned but please trust me it’s worth it). Then get a cup of your favourite beverage, a chair and look at that map. Over a period of time you will spend hours looking at that thing, particularly if you haven’t paid much attention to our little island so far. After hearing about places in the media or whatever you’ll be able to find them on that map and see how far away they are! If you can get a laminated map, then you can draw your ideas on it then wipe them off later. At the very least you can show your friends where you have been, then watch their eyes glaze over in about 30 seconds......

    A big map will also give you an immediate appreciation of how far it is by road to the various places and areas you have thought about seeing. It is then that you realise that it will take a lot of time & effort to "see" Australia. Always remember that most of the population will never see the outback up close. A TV or computer screen will be the closest they ever get. If you decide to really do some real outback travelling & get hooked on it you will have joined a very small group of people, at a guess, way less than 1% of our 26 million citizens. If it gets into your blood even a little bit, welcome to the club. Some folks will only do one big trip or maybe a big trip every few years. Others will do a trip or trips every year. The addicts will be away every chance they get.......

    A word of warning that I alluded to above, you’ll be better off not talking in detail about your outback trips to your friends. We have found over the years that about 1-2 minutes are about as much as "normal" people can handle talking about your trip. You can literally see them switch off when you hit the 2 minute mark, sometimes even earlier. It’s best to mention it in passing then change the subject. If they want to know more they will ask about where you have been lately. Remember that old Aunty that did that river cruise in Europe and you sat for about an hour looking at her photos of churches & castles. She went crook at you when you fell asleep through boredom..... This is exactly what happens to your friends if you subject them to endless images of red sand hills and Desert Oak trees. You have been warned. It is just like a secret society, the only people you can talk to about this outback stuff are other outback travellers.

    I’ll run through some of the process of how Connie & I would plan for an iconic outback 4WD trip. For the purpose of this article let’s assume our trip is the Gunbarrel Highway and we live in Sydney NSW. Remember this is just an example, how you choose to do things is up to you.


#1 - Distance - Gunbarrel Highway

    So you have decided to "do" the Gunbarrel Highway, a magazine article, something on TV or maybe you have just read a Len Beadell book, who knows. Firstly, where is the Gunbarrel? A quick search online and you find out that the original Gunbarrel Highway is in both South Australia & Western Australia, with just a smidge in the Northern Territory. You knew it was a long way away but how far is it really and how long will it take to get there, do the road and get back home?

    So what about some distances; with a quick online search or adding up the miles on a map you quickly work out the following.


Map of Australia

This is what your Gunbarrel trip looks like on a map of Australia – it’s a fair drive (apologies to FNQ, N.T. & Tasmania for
cutting you off the map).


    On the above map the vast bulk of the blue line is highway bitumen, the only exception being the 350 kms between Carnegie Station & Wiluna. That bit is still a dirt road but much improved on what it was even 10 years ago.

    OK, so now you know what type of road miles are involved. If you are not used to doing "big miles", or it is your first big adventure, then this will seem very daunting. You may decide it is too much and opt for a shorter trip, now worries at all, it’s all part of working out what you can and can’t do with your time.

    The next question is just that. How long will it take?

    Before I get to that I would like to point out that the Gunbarrel route in the above map is not entirely correct. I’ll add another map below to indicate where the original road goes (in black). Now you may wonder why you can’t just travel the old roadway. Well, welcome to the newest version of Australia where you have to get permission to travel roads and the owners have legal permission to deny you access. If this raises your eyebrows then I can only suggest you do some research. Suffice to say most Australian citizens do not realise they are not allowed to drive on many desert roads without a permit.

    I’ll add here that if you travel without a permit your insurance company will very likely void your insurance much the same as driving on an officially closed road will do.


Gunbarrel Highway map

Gunbarrel Highway – the red route is possible today with various permits.
The black route is the original line of the Gunbarrel but permits will be
rejected if lodged for the South Australian section as of the last few years.


#2 - Time - Gunbarrel Highway (this is a big subject)

    The most restrictive thing with travel of any description is time. It is the one constant that cannot be changed. Money can be saved, gear can be adapted, bought or borrowed but weeks, days & hours are the first handbrake for anyone planning a long trip. So, the first job after deciding on a destination is to work out how much time you have, then figure out how you will spend that time – very simple or so you would think!

    Once you have the number of weeks/days you have available the next decision is whether your trip will be hard work or a holiday? By that I mean how many miles per day you are going to have to drive to get this trip done successfully. Let’s do some simple calculations with different amounts of time and see what things look like in regard to how many miles you will need to do daily. I’ll make a comment about each from the viewpoint of experience doing exactly this sort of thing. [I’ll get to this next but you have to realise that bitumen travel is easy for covering big distances, outback roads like the Gunbarrel are not. This is where planning becomes more difficult.] The comments will become much more understandable as the article progresses.

8400 kms divided by 7 days = 1200 kms per day average

    Not possible for any sane person, you see diddly squat & fatigue may kill you & others, lots of night driving as well. Pretty good chance your vehicle or gear will break on the Gunbarrel as you will be in a hurry.

8400 kms divided by 14 days = 600 kms per day average

    Possible but not really enjoyable, you’ll need to do 1000 kms a day (12-13hrs) on the bitumen so you have time to drive the Gunbarrel sensibly. Not the worst plan ever if you’re time poor but hard work nonetheless.

8400 kms divided by 21 days = 400 kms per day average

    This sounds pretty good, at least a reasonable start. 600 kms per day (8hrs) on the highway will give you about 10 days to do the Gunbarrel drive. This would work and allow for some time off and most of your photos won’t be taken through the windscreen.

8400 kms divided by 28 days = 300 kms per day average

    If you did 400-500 kms per day (6hrs) on the highway you would have enough time to spend on other sites along the way such as Woomera, Ayers Rock, Olgas, Kalgoorlie etc. However 28 days is more like Long Service Leave for anyone still working full time so not an option for most apart from those that have retired from full time work.


Rate of Travel - Bitumen / Highway

    How do you work out & plan your bitumen distances for your big outback trip. I’m sorry, only you & your family can answer that question. However, we can offer some advice and with any advice it is up to you whether you take it on board or ignore it. If you are not used to driving for hours at a time I would suggest planning to cover 300-600 kms per day. This should take into account your fatigue management, rest stops, sight-seeing etc. Of course, it might be more or less than that, but we can only make suggestions. The following are bitumen distances and how much time it takes to normally cover that mileage when you include towns, roadworks, slow vehicles, smoko, dinner (lunch) and comfort stops. Connie & I often travel with less time than below but we are not on holiday, we are actually working so to speak. In any case it is just a bit of a rough guide.


Bitumen Distance Driving time @ 100 kms/hr Time spent stopped Total Hrs
400 kms 4.5 0.5 5.0
600 kms 7.0 1.0 8.0
800 kms 9.25 1.25 10.5
1000 kms 11.5 1.5 13.0
1200 kms 13.75 1.75 15.5


    If you are new to this sort of thing then the above may be of help in regard to working out how long a day you want to spend "working". If you don’t think driving is a job I’m sure the transport industry would disagree. If you are a regular long hauler then you will know what you can do already so any suggestion in this article is largely a waste of time. All we can say is be careful and know your limits.

    The next couple of subjects are more applicable to bitumen travelling than the outback dirt roads so I have included them in the bitumen travel rate chapter. Normally when folks are on the dirt they are far more conscious of the sun in regard to camp timing than when on the black top. Just one of those kinks you notice when travelling with people


Daylight Hours

    Sunlight hours for the time of year must be taken into account with this planning if you wish to avoid driving at night. Winter has much shorter days than summer so when travelling in the cooler months it is best to understand how much "sun time" you have during the day if you are intending to get into camp with some light left.

    Also keep in mind where the sun will be during your highway stints. East/west travel you will always be dealing with the sun in your eyes at some stage. If you are lucky enough to be running north/south then it is much easier, except in the summer when going north the sun will bake you all day even with air conditioning. Those long sloping windscreens on modern vehicles are not a good idea in those conditions.

    Roughly speaking, this is the difference in daylight hours between winter & summer

    So you can see from the above rate of travel tables if you want to travel in the cooler months and intend to do some big miles you have no choice but drive at night. That should be food for thought, particularly if you are new to the whole travelling in the outback thing.


Accommodation Instead of Camping

    If you are pushed for time while travelling particularly on the bitumen and can afford it Motels & Caravan Park cabins can be a major advantage over camping. You can leave early in the morning and arrive late in the afternoon knowing you don’t have to pack up your camping gear which takes time particularly if you are just getting into a routine. If the weather is awful you’ll likely splurge on a room anyway but be aware everyone will think the same so make sure you book as early as possible.

    Doing this now & again will bump up your daily rate of travel substantially if you need to get more miles done. Connie & I often will chase a shower and a sit down meal every so often. Whoever invented civilisation was a genius.


Night Driving

    I did start writing up a night driving section but it is huge so I have made it into a separate article. I’ll include the link when completed and you can look that over if you are interested.

    Apart from that I would just say that if you are not used to night driving in remote country then try not to. Of course you can’t gain experience if you don’t do a bit of it. All I can say is keep your eyes peeled at all times if you do have to drive at night on any road.


Rate of Travel – Off-Road/gravel/dirt (this is a big one)

    Real outback travel is on gravel & dirt roads. Australia is famous for this and in pretty much all of our states we have endless miles of this sort of track. Some of it is well kept, some sees a grader now & again and for a few bits there has been no maintenance for decades or since the track was put in. The Gunbarrel Highway falls into all of these categories. For the people of rural and regional Australia gravel roads are no surprise at all and barely rate a second thought. For our suburban cousins it is generally a brand new world riddled with danger & adventure..... or so the fairy tales would have you believe. The crux of it being in most cases you will not travel at the same rate on outback roads as you will on a bitumen highway. So what is the difference? Remember I mentioned above somewhere this article had many subjects....... I’ll just list a few with a comment or two, you’ll get the drift.



    A fact of life in rural & outback Australia but dust does have some advantages, you can see which way the wind is blowing and sometimes you can see oncoming traffic long before you see the vehicle. I’m struggling to think of anything else.

    On the downside I can think of a few more things,


Blowing out air filter



Oncoming truck


    Something I’ll mention here as trivia that most will not realise. Narrow tyres bring up less dust. With vehicles trending towards wider & wider tyres it has been noticeable to me over the years that vehicle dust is getting larger, not smaller.


Road Width

    Most of the less travelled gravel & dirt roads are not very wide, normally about 1.5 lanes in width not the normal 2 lanes. Most of the true desert roads are only a single lane or wheel track. Any oncoming traffic or passing traffic has to usually find a slightly wider bit to get the job done or one vehicle has to pull over and stop. This requires a bit of thought and consideration from both drivers. I have to say these days that doesn’t happen all of the time. Bush etiquette in regard to roads doesn’t appear to be taught this century.


Narrow scrub

How do you pass someone in this stuff?


Rough Road Surface

    Everyone knows that dirt roads are rough which nearly always means that you have to slow down at least a little. Of course, the rougher it gets the slower you will travel, you don’t need any sort of experience to come to this conclusion. Wash-outs, soft sand, tight corners, narrow scrub, rocks, water crossings and the list goes on.


Deep washouts

Best to drive a bit slower in these conditions!


Rocky high track

This sort of thing does reduce your daily mileage.......


    Corrugations are a different animal altogether and are worthy of an article on their own. Corrugations are about the only exception to the go slower rule. Under normal circumstances corrugations are "better" with a bit of speed. I’ll leave it at that.


Corrugations on the detour

Even the track to avoid the corrugations is corrugated!


Tyres & Weight

    I won’t spend ages telling you all about this, I reckon I have written this up elsewhere more than once. I’ll just say here that if you are on an outback or rural road loaded up for your big trip, the first thing you should be doing is dropping your tyre pressures. Once you do this then you should be reducing your speed as well. How much you drop your pressures & speed will depend on the road surface and your itinerary, apart from any previous experience or whatever the latest article in your favourite 4WD magazine says. In simple terms your trusty 4WD tyres are carrying more weight and have to put up with much harsher road surfaces once on the dirt, give those tyres the chance to operate safely by reducing the stress they are under. Lower pressures equal lower speeds.


Spinifex & Grasses in the Middle of the Track

    On the less travelled tracks there will be grass growing in the middle of the wheel tracks. In a great deal of our desert country that grass will be spinifex. Spinifex appears to be very flammable, more so than the other grasses we know of. There are several reasons for this.

    Anyway, whatever grass grows in the middle of the track it’s just another reason that you can’t travel in those conditions like you travel on the bitumen. You have to go slower.


Track with spinifex

Typical desert track in Spinifex country


Clearing spinifex from under vehicle

Make sure you check for grass caught under your vehicle.


Various Rates of Travel

    With all of that information, here is another small table of off-road travel rates from our experience. This is travelling with a few stops to have a look around, which is why you are there I presume. There is a wide range in the travel rate because sometimes there just isn’t much to see according to your map......and then sometimes there is.


Road Condition Rate of Travel per day
Big & wide
Freshly maintained gravel nearly as good as bitumen
300 - 600 kms
Big & wide
Hasn’t seen a grader for a while
200 - 500 kms
Has seen maintenance in the last 12 months
200 - 400 kms
No recent maintenance and a bit weather beaten
100 - 300 kms
Rough as guts
Wheel tracks or no maintenance at all
10 - 150 kms


    The above will give you some idea that your rate of travel off-road will be quite different to your on-road or bitumen progress. Now in regard to our example trip of the Gunbarrel Highway, as I have said the Gunbarrel contains sections of each of the above road condition. This means you need to decide on some sort of average travel rate, now if you are unfamiliar with the Gunbarrel how can you do this? Here are a couple of tips that may help.


Ask for Advice

    There are a number of forums and other online things that may be able to answer your questions. If you have internet capability and you are comfortable doing so throw out a few queries and see how you get on. Most likely you may get a number of responses and then have to decide what may suit you best. In our case we get quite a number of emails about trips every year from travellers wanting information. We answer them but sometimes wish they would do some basic research themselves. At this point you might want to have a look at the next tip.


Images of Roads

    Once again back to the internet and do searches for images of the Gunbarrel Highway. Or search for stories about the Gunbarrel, either one should provide a hint about the various road surfaces. Have a good look at your map and see if you can get images from between all the major towns & communities. Look up tag-a-long tour mobs. They should have images from the areas you are looking at if they run trips through that country. Remember photos don’t really have opinions.



    So out of all of that outback road stuff we can easily conclude that for travelling the Gunbarrel Highway you won’t be doing the same daily travel as the bitumen. Of the scenarios in the off-road table the 100-300 kms per day seems about the best covering most possibilities as the Gunbarrel has sections of every different road type.

    Connie & I travel the Gunbarrel regularly and I couldn’t tell you how many times we have driven it. Looking back through our trip summaries, which includes travel data, is quite interesting. I’ll include some of our travel data from four trips to illustrate all we have been talking about so far.

** our trips include a lot of detours so figures are not just the Gunbarrel


GPS Odometer = 2421.48 kms
Engine hours for entire trip = 64.18
Average daily travel = 135 kms
Average daily engine hours = 3.57
Average speed = 37.7 kms/hr
Most distance travelled in one day = 231.2 kms
Least distance travelled in one day = 71.5 kms


GPS Odometer = 1983.56 kms
Engine hours for entire trip = 49.2
Average daily travel = 132 kms
Average daily engine hours = 3.28
Average speed = 40.3 kms/hr
Most distance travelled in one day = 201.1 kms
Least distance travelled in one day = 66.2 kms


GPS Odometer = 2187 kms
Engine hours for entire trip = 53.8 hours
Average daily travel = 121.5 kms
Average daily engine hours = 2.99 hrs/day
Average speed = 40.6 kms/hr
Most distance travelled in one day = 242 kms
Least distance travelled in one day = 39.5 kms


GPS Odometer = 2621.1 kms
Engine time for entire trip = 70.18 hours
Average daily travel = 145.6 kms
Average daily engine hours = 4.21 hrs/day
Average speed = 37.35 kms/hr
Most distance travelled in one day = 203.2 kms
Least distance travelled in one day = 68.8 kms

    To finalise all of this in simple terms we have the following planning for doing a trip to travel the Gunbarrel Highway from Sydney & return.


8400 kms in 21 days

Sydney NSW to Kulgera NT = 2500 kms

Gunbarrel Highway, Kulgera NT to Carnegie Station WA = 1600 kms

Carnegie Station WA to Sydney NSW = 4300 kms


End of Gunbarrel Hwy sign


   Well, that is the example trip planned for destination & time. Now what else is there to consider? There is a lot more to be done to get a large trip off the ground. I won’t go through all of them in this article but will note most of them below in point form and in time I may write them up. In many cases you will find some of this already on our website so get browsing if you are at all interested.


Good luck & travel safely
Mick Hutton
Copyright: June 2021



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