Crisscrossing The Continent: I Drove My 1961 Land Rover Across Australia, And Back
Story by Louis Wyatt, photography by Louis Wyatt, David Cyngler, Ruby Mansell
Two years ago, I became the lucky owner of a 1961 Land Rover SWB named “Little John” whose green charm I could not resist. After many months ironing the inevitable foibles from the vehicle, a plan was formed to embark on a road trip of the adventurous sort: 8000km through central Australia, traveling from the vehicle’s home in coffee-loving Melbourne, Victoria, to the hot and sticky surrounds of Cairns, Queensland. Taking the inland Stuart Highway, as opposed to the more leisurely eastern coast, the conditions would test any vehicle, let alone a 57-year-old Land Rover with no air conditioning, no modern brakes, and a top speed of around 52mph (going downhill on a good day).
Any serious road trip requires a name, and so soon the Trans-Australian Expedition was born, the name hoping to give an air of professionalism, which a group of early 20 year olds would otherwise have lacked. A second car was found (a 2002 Holden Jackeroo nicknamed Jeff), along with a group of friends who were willing to battle central Australia during its wet season. Six months after the trip’s conception, the two vehicles, laden to the brim with gear and six eager souls, finally rolled out of Melbourne on an overcast day hoping to return again approximately six weeks later.
As the convoy rolled out of the city and onto the open highway, it soon became clear to our crew what the coming weeks would entail. Having removed the windows from the car, the wind in our face was constant, billowing our cheeks. The only onboard entertainment in an electronic sense came from a pair of speakers powered by a solar panel which we’d ratchet-strapped to the canvas roof.
A number of hours later, the two vehicles rolled over the Victorian border, entering South Australia. With the customary photos secured, we ventured further down the highway, aiming for our first night stop in Robe, the port town situated about 500km from Melbourne. Day One was complete, and camp was set up for Night One—a routine which certainly got quicker as the days rolled by—and soon we were all settled down for the evening.
Two days later, and having crossed through Adelaide in the interim, we pulled into Port Augusta, the southernmost town on the Stuart Highway, and the point we really thought the road trip began. In front of us lay the 2834-kilometer stretch of road running through the centre of Australia, which we would follow for the next two weeks.
Having sourced a strip of metal to replace the broken mirror arm on the car, the tires rolled onto the highway again, and enthusiasm and expectations were back to their previous highs. By the evening, we had pulled into our camp for the night, Lake Hart. The massive salt lake for which the site was named was visible below us, and as the desert sun set it cast an array of blues, reds, and golds across its otherwise stark white surface. Once again, further tinkering with the car followed, as we considered the great distances we had already covered in the previous three days.
Day four brought with it the promise of the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. The climate around the town is so harsh that many locals live underground, protecting themselves from the extreme sun. The sun did not disappoint, and as the mercury climbed to 44°C (over 111°F), the Land Rover and its lack of air conditioning became particularly unbearable. Forceful winds and the extreme heat further exacerbated the already slow progress of the vehicle, reducing the maximum speed to 40 mph. Only when the massive road trains would overtake the little car, creating a windbreak, did it give us an opportunity to regain some momentum.
Over the next two days we would cross the Northern Territory border, and survive our first tropical storm, which in turn forced us to sleep in our cars. Then finally, after six days on the road, we caught a glimpse of a large, red arkose rock over the horizon. We had arrived at Uluru. The sheer awe of Uluru is breathtaking, it’s red rock face rising out of an otherwise flat landscape like something out of a surrealist work than a vision of reality. The wet season’s tropical storms encouraged mass growth of vegetation, creating an undergrowth of pure green in contrast to the red sand which had defined our view for the last few days. We spent the day walking around Uluru, before returning at sunset, to watch as the sun cast its final rays over the iconic Australian landmark.
Sadly, our original plan to enter Alice Springs via Kings Canyon and Hermannsburg were derailed by the storm from the previous days which had flooded the roads and made them impassable. So we ventured back to the Stuart Highway, and into the second city of the Northern Territory. Alice Springs was to be our first multi-day rest area, providing much needed relief to both the weary travelers and their vehicles. We located some watering holes, and spent the next day cooling off in the water or lying under the eucalyptus trees keeping cool. When the fellow campers at our campsite discovered we were all musically inclined they requested we put on a small concert. Luckily for them we had carried our instruments all the way from Melbourne, and so the evening passed with renditions of jazz standards and tap dancing. Alas, after three very comfortable days in Alice Springs, having met some wonderful people in between servicing the Land Rover, we once again pulled out of the town, the cars heading further north into increasing humidity.
Over the next 1500km between Alice Springs and Darwin we spent our first (and what would be our only) night in a quintessential Australian Road House. We also spent an afternoon frolicking in the naturally occurring Mataranka Springs. After almost two weeks on the road, it was certainly a delight to be able to soak in the warm water.
We were actually particularly lucky that the springs were open, as during the wet season the area is a favorite spot for crocodiles. Eventually, however, and after twelve days on the road, we arrived in Darwin, the northernmost point of our trip. On the afternoon of our arrival, Darwin was certainly living up to the expectations of the wet season, with the rain coming down so hard that it was coming in through the air vents under the windscreen. The single speed wipers certainly struggled, and the conditions added a new element to our idea of “low visibility.” Though other times were sublimely clear.
A pleasant few days were spent in Darwin, enjoying the wave pool (because you are not allowed to swim in the beach due to the crocodiles and stingrays), before we once again filled the cars, and headed on back down the Stuart Highway once again. Spending the entire day on the road, we finally pulled in for the night at the Daly Waters Pub, a historic pub and landmark. The interior of the pub is adorned with t-shirts, number plates, licenses and any other item that people have left behind over the many years of operation. In keeping with this tradition, we all signed one of our Trans-Australian Expedition shirts, and had it pinned up, our road trip firmly cemented in the fabric of the pub.
To avoid further backtracking down roads we had already travelled, the next morning we veered off the Stuart Highway, heading east across the Carpentaria Highway towards Borroloola, a town of around 900 people. The publican had forewarned us that the roads would be wet due to the 126mm of rain the town had coped with the previous night, and that if we were to get stuck that we would most likely have to abandon the vehicles as it was very difficult to have cars towed out. With this warning in mind, we turned off the highway and began the 390km journey along sodden roads to Borroloola. The first 50km proved a breeze, and we all wondered what the concern was all about, although as soon as these thoughts had radioed between the cars, the road become covered in large mud-sucking puddles, which required immense concentration to negotiate. Reaching the Heartbreak Hotel after about four hours of this careful crawl, and with over 100km still to go, we refueled and headed back out. The road become even worse, greeting us with sections of immense flooding—roads covered in water for 30m stretches—making us very glad to have the Land Rover’s high ground clearance. Wading through in this fashion certainly slowed the journey, and by the late evening a weary crew rolled into town.
The next morning, we woke and prepared for the single most isolated road of the trip, the Tablelands Highway, a stretch of 377km of single-lane highway, running from the isolated Heartbreak Hotel heading south to the Barkly Homestead and Barkly Highway, with no towns, petrol stations, or homesteads between. The cars full of fuel, we began this southerly route through what would become the most dramatic and mesmerizing scenery of the trip. Seeing only three other vehicles over the course of the drive on the highway, the immense vastness of the continent was put on visual display. As far as the eye could see, the expanse of land was almost fully devoid of vegetation, the only company being the odd lizard or kangaroo, and the hundreds of cows who roam the highway (the highway running through unfenced farming land). So vast was the distance between petrol stations, that having carried the full jerrycans all the way from Adelaide, at lunch the cars were refilled, and the empty cans repacked. By the mid afternoon, we rejoined the main Barkly Highway, and headed on the vastly less impressive highway east towards the coast.
Crossing into Queensland the next morning, the excitement began to pick up again as we realized we were getting ever closer to our destination. By that evening we had reached the mining town of Mount Isa, where once again the car was checked and serviced. The following day, we woke early, and continued our journey eastward, planning to drive as close to the coast as we could, before finishing the journey the next day. Removing the canvas roof from the car, in an attempt to improve the “air-conditioning” on the 39°C day, we soon realized that fuel economy had plummeted, and that heat stroke was setting in. At lunch we stopped, refitted the hood, remounted the solar panel, and once again headed eastward. We were running low on food at this point, and so decided it was best to buy lunch in a local pub rather than a bunch of groceries that would bake and melt in the backseat. Being Australia Day however, a public holiday, we struggled to find anywhere that was open. Finally, we located a small pub, and ordered lunch for the seven of us. It transpired that the pub only had seven sandwiches, so we bought the lot—talk about a small town.
As the day wore on, many kilometers slowly drifted by and as the sun began to set, we thought it time to find a place to camp. Pulling into a small rest area, the prospects looked grim, and so at 9:30pm, it was decided that we would press on to Townsville and the coast that evening. As we entered the mountains of the Great Dividing Range, the cool air brought a welcome relief, the smell of salt creating tantalizing glimpses of what lay ahead of us. By 2:00am, and with 980km covered in the Land Rover in one day, we arrived in Townsville (what a name), and made our way to a campsite. What had been planned as a two-day drive had been completed in one, and after 2800km from Darwin we had once again crossed the country. We later learnt that the stretch of road between Mount Isa and Townsville is known as “Death Road” due to the high number of unsolved murders, and were thus glad that we hadn’t stopped for the evening.
A lazy morning followed, with departure set for around midday. With a tropical storm beginning to set in, we headed north for the final time, traveling along the coastal highway until finally we caught a glimpse of Cairns. It had taken twenty days of hard, slow, hot driving, yet 7000km had been covered, and a continent had been sufficiently crisscrossed. Both cars had survived, and what many had deemed unlikely had been accomplished in full. Our Trans-Australian Expedition had been completed, and all that was left was to turn around, head south, and drive the 3500km back to Melbourne…