Road to the Red Heartland

Australia has quite a small population for its size, which comes down to the fact that in its centre, there’s just red desert where living conditions can be harsh. There’s really not much in the middle and when crossing from West to East on land, there’s only three options: 

  • along the Southern Coast via the Nullarbor Road featuring Australia’s longest straight road of somewhat 146 kms
  • along the Northern Coast and via Darwin
  • straight through the centre via the Great Central Road (roughly 1100 km of gravel road to reach Yulara, the town at Ayers Rock). The road then continues as tarmac via Alice Springs and the unsealed Plenty Highway towards the East Coast and is known as the “World’s Longest Shortcut”

The latter option — cutting straight through to come out in the centre and to the Uluru, the Ayers Rock — sounded like an adventure. Most Australians I talked to advised me to not do it this time of the year since it would be too hot. Others said if I would be well-prepared and bring some off-road riding skills, I could do it. I kept checking temperatures which were said to rise above 40 degrees Celsius in the middle of December. I realised I was all too tempted to go to Australia’s Red Heartland.

While enjoying my last few days at the coast in Esperance in the South-West, I did do some research and stacked up with some more gear. I bought two jerry cans — one for water and one for fuel — a camping stove, some electrolyte powder to make up for the heat, spare engine oil and made sure my bike is in overall good condition. And finally I felt I was ready to go. 

Leaving the Coast

In Esperance, I had stayed with some Germans who were working there and stayed in a house together. “You’re sure you don’t want to stay another day? We could go surfing together!” It was the weekend and it sounded all too tempting to stay with them, however as the heat in the centre would keep rising and if I really wanted to take on the Great Central Road, it was time to head out very soon. “If it gets too hot, just come back! You look like you really want to go there though.” I did. I left the coast and after 30 kms or so, the cool sea breeze was gone and it sure was getting hot. It was still before noon and it was already 38 degrees and sunny. Was I taking on too much? I didn’t see any other motorcycle, however an overland cyclist, fully packed, travelling in the sun as well, which eased my mind a bit. 

Most Australian highways warn of Kangaroos (and other animals such as Emus) crossing. When it’s hot outside, however, you probably won’t see any before dusk.

Remainders of the Gold-Rush era

In the afternoon, I reached Kalgoorlie and Boulder, two settlements made during the gold-mining era. Kalgoorlie’s “Super Pit” sure is impressive and entering a remote colonial city after riding through the desert for hours felt surreal.

Lots of bores for assessing for further mineral resources
Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit is a giant pit that still delivers 20 tons of gold every year
Giant haul trucks and graders look tiny seen from above.
Boulder’s Burt Street featuring colonial buildings and a Christmas tree.

Day 1 on the Great Central Road

The next morning and after a first camp night out in the bush, I proceed towards Laverton, the town where the adventure should begin. I have a last coffee and fill my tank as well as my spare water and fuel, which should get me 305 km to the next roadhouse. I do feel a bit nervous as there’s not much traffic or people out here any more. There’s a short but hefty shower which I am grateful for as it makes me cool down a bit. I take it slow on the last bit of sealed road as a lot of kangaroos are hanging around the road after the rain. It’s just as if the Road was greeting me. And then, finally, the tarmac ends with the road leading into beautiful, red gravel. GREAT CENTRAL ROAD — OPEN TO ALL VEHICLES sounds reassuring and I am aware that there will be nothing for the next 300 kilometres. I bury my phone deep into the tank bag and feel a bit like Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, as he is throwing his watch into the ditch when starting off the journey. It’s on! I am feeling poised at the anticipation of isolation and serenity of this epic road leading straight to Australia’s heart.

Very soon, I realise that this is more than just a long gravel road, it definitely comes with some challenges in the form of severe corrugations and sandy patches that slip my front wheel aside making the whole machine shake, almost throwing me off a few times. Easy! I am used to the secure feeling of on-road riding where this feels more like sailing which, at first, can be nerve-wrecking. There’s strong wind gusts and occasional showers (which are welcome at nearly 40 degrees). Out here, you surely are subject to the elements. How should I sustain this for the next 1100 kilometres? Am I attempting too much? Throughout the drive, there‘s some wrecked cars ditched at the side of the road, which, compared to the few actual driving cars that I see throughout this day, is not exactly encouraging.

Cars and road trains are scare out here and the latter ones pull a lot of dust.
Corrugations can either heavily shake the vehicle or make it float, depending on the speed traveled.

As I continue on the road, I notice the bike sounding different than usual, slightly louder. My silencer starts to break as the road is taking its tolls. I have to take the silencer off, but I can keep going. There’s no one around who would care about the noise of the bike anyway. 

It is already evening when I roll into Tjukayirla Roadhouse. Sometimes, I am astonished at the randomness you experience while traveling. It’s late in the year and I’m the only tourist at this remote roadhouse, which has already closed but has a night bell. In this moment, I find a whole film crew who came to shoot at the roadhouse in quietude. Straight ahead, they interview me about my journey and pay for my fuel in return (which is even more appreciated since it’s expensive in the centre). They do seem impressed by seeing a road bike coming in while they have been coming here in a small plane and landing on a sealed patch right in front of the roadhouse.

Still being filmed, I am ringing the bell and meeting Al and his wife, the incredibly likeable owners of the Roadhouse and I’m asking myself what it does to one when you’re physically isolated from the rest of the World most of the time. The only connection to the “outside World” is a TV and travellers coming through. Al seems deeply relaxed and very positive — what a great guy. After filling my tank, he gives me some tips about the further road while showing me around the camp site. “Tomorrow, there will be some rough parts. Just take it slow. You’re not in a rush, are ya?”

In the middle of nowhere, the silencer came loose and I had to take it off
The many wrecked cars on the roadside are like pieces of art.

Day 2 on the Great Central Road

This will be the longest day and I plan to proceed 500 kilometres to Warakurna, with only one town and fuel stop in between. I am starting off at sunrise to hopefully skip some of the heat — the temperature max is forecast around 40 °C — and to make up for the upcoming time shift of 1.5 hours when approaching Australia’s Northern Territory. Leaving the camp ground, I’m pretty certain to have woken everyone else in the roadhouse and I hope they appreciate some unfiltered boxer sound in the early morning. 

I have been wearing earplugs because of my missing silencer, which paradoxically gave me more confidence for the road. Maybe the feeling sense is enhanced when blinding out one of the other senses. I am trying to feel the road, I can feel the shift of awareness towards the contact point of tyre and road, which somehow makes the ever-wandering front wheel less intimidating. It’s just like using a hammer and a chisel — you don’t feel your hand touching the hammer, but you seem to feel the point where the hammer hits the chisel and the chisel hits the stone.

Everybody is talking about mindfulness these days. What is it, anyway? In the core, rather than listening to the stories and the angst made up by your mind, you just stay in the present, see and feel what is actually happening, right now. And this is yet another example of how mindfulness helps. I am staying in the present and now, it’s just me, my roaring bike and the road. The ever-idling stories of the mind stop for a moment and I’m just here, aware, which is fantastic. No place I’d rather be. 

The ride to Warburton turns out rather pleasant, with freshly graded roads and even sealed patches in between. It’s relatively cool and mostly overcast in the morning and the serenity of only me and the long, red road is mesmerising. I see one or two cars and apart from that I have all the road to myself. As I come into Warburton, a former missionary town, I get my first impression of Aboriginal people. There’s whole families roaming around in a little market and I think it’s partly because this is one of the few air-conditioned places in town. I am looking for a piece of wire to hold up my exhaust, with some Aboriginal kids interested in what I’m doing and making some conversation. “You’re from Germany? Where is it? On the upper side of the World?” 

I put back the tools into the side pannier and as I strap back the fuel canister to it, it feels looser than it should. I am looking underneath the bench and see one of the mounts cracked off. It’s very hot out there on the road — how fortunate I’d realise it here in the shade! There’s no way in continuing like this. I’m carrying quite some weight in the panniers and that’s yet another tribute to the road’s corrugations. I am lucky to find a welder who was just headed out of town for some other job but decides to stay to help me out. He’s from the East Coast but comes to Warburton to do all kinds of work for the Roadhouse and on vehicles. “There’s good money around here, you know.” He tells me about the tourists coming through on “off-road” caravans where all sorts of things come loose, which gives him an ever-flowing stream of work coming in during the season. These days are rather quiet. He welds my rack and also my exhaust and therefore saves the rest of my day. As usual in Australia, he does charge a bit of a rate, which in context is more than fair for being two days away from any bigger city. 

Late in the afternoon, I continue my journey towards Warakurna. The corrugations get more severe and I’m checking on my rack which seems to hold tight now. I see quite a lot of camels today, including a camel skeleton on the side of the road. Camels, as I find out, haven’t been in Australia by default, but were brought in from the Middle East and India to help the early settlers carry their goods across the country, perfectly equipped for this kind of environment, for this desert. 

Camel sighting between Warburton and Warakurna.
As the road gets more sandy, I drop the tire pressure. The key is to have a loose grip on the handles and keep your momentum as high as you comfortably can. The bike is built to stay upright, so it’s mostly a mental thing.

As the sun starts setting, I have still around 50 kms left and it gets more sandy than before. This is a really rough drive, corrugations with bits of deep sand in between. I drop the tire pressure to around 25 psi which helps a lot. The fact that it’s dawning might even help in this case as I don’t hesitate in front of deep sand patches — I only realise them when the road-induced vibrations stop for a moment and everything feels so soft. The only way to get through this is to stay above the corrugations and to keep the momentum in the sand. Rowing my way through, I travel between 80 and 100 kph. I feel relieved as I roll into Warakurna Roadhouse. I’ve made it for this day and find yet another incredibly welcoming landlady. “You’re the only one today, feel free to pitch your tent in the kitchen, fire up the barbecue and get a good rest, you’ve earned it!” 

Day 3 on the Great Central Road

Today, there’s just another 330 kms between me and the Ayers Rock. Not a big deal, I thought and thanks to my phone switching back and forth between time zones, I realise it’s already past 9 am as I roll out of the Roadhouse. The first stretch will take me to Docker River, another Aboriginal community, and will be the last fuel stop. It’s very sandy but the ride is pleasant as there is still some clouds in the sky. As I roll into Docker River, everyone in the Roadhouse seems to have an early lunch break, which I find out will last until 2 pm! There’s no point in getting annoyed by this and I park in the shade to wait. It seems to be getting hotter every few minutes. This is the hottest day so far, forecast at 43 degrees. 

Trying to make sense of Docker River Roadhouse’s opening hours.
Once again, I am astonished at the stoicism of my bike. She is 25 years old and has done near to 120’000 kms by now and still takes a real desert ride without any complaint. What a bike. 
Conditions out here are harsh.

After finally fueling up and a cool drink, I head out to what will be the hardest part of the road. Think Paris-Dakar like road conditions with deep sand, hefty corrugations and humps with heat and sun. The landscape becomes even more surreal with orange sand and black trees, but I don’t even stop for taking pictures any more as the heat both from above and from the ground is fierce. I drink plenty of water from my camelbag and it still feels not enough. When I open the visor, the air flow feels more like a hairdryer. I just want to get through this and I keep the momentum high. It’s a bit of a paradox — if I would take it slow, the ride would be much more physical, so I keep the speed up. The front wheel is shaking a lot and I can only save it by pounding on the rear brake a few times. As the bike lifts both wheels when going over crests, I really feel more like on a desert rally rather than an outback road. This is the limit for both myself and the machine.

The first formation to be seen when approaching the Uluru from the West is not the rock itself. Its an even bigger formation called “the Olgas” or Kata Tjuta which literally means “many heads”. I don’t know which one was more impressive to me. Catching sight of both these massive, massive deep-red rock formations after three days of gravel road surely adds to the experience. The feeling of first seeing the Olgas while approaching them from afar is simply indescribable. There is a certain energy to these places that can’t be expressed in a picture. You have to see it to believe it.

Approaching the Olgas as they grow bigger and bigger is kind of magical.
Reaching at the magnificent Uluru, the Ayers Rock. Finally reaching it felt like a milestone, in a way like when reaching India’s Taj Mahal.

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