Outback adventures without even leaving your own state? Yes please! Outback NSW is red, magical and full of ancient culture and local histories. But this trip comes with a lesson about being prepared and not underestimating the danger of a thunderstorm….
Two years ago I bought my first ever car; a white Volkswagen Tiguan. Ever since moving to Australia the car I really wanted was a Toyota FJ40, but I was advised that my penchant for inner-city living wasn’t conducive to owning one of those beasts, especially since it wouldn’t actually fit in my 1.9m high carpark. So the Tiguan it was – mid size, German, reliable, an AWD with an average clearance that can fit neatly into the majority of Sydney parking bays.
But I digress; this article is actually nothing about cars (a subject I know very little about). This whole preamble was to explain that I don’t own a 4WD but sometimes I forget this small fact. Which is why Tiguan ended up on a 4000km road trip, from Sydney to outback NSW and back again, driving some very questionable roads. If you do want to know more about cars, this article is a lot more informative than I will ever be.
Now before you judge me for being a fool, I’ve lived in Australia long enough to know that if you’re going to do something marginally risky, at least be prepared for the risk. So before leaving Sydney I was equipped with all the essentials: satellite phone, jerry can, jump leads and a Spotify playlist. The first few hours of driving (and by few I mean 8 hours 43 minutes) are all bitumen, and you can relax, especially once you leave the hustle and terrible drivers of greater Sydney. I mean, obviously still watch out for the road trains and prolific wildlife, but mostly, you’ll have the long straight road to yourself.
If you have more time, there are some great places to stop along the way (Orange for wineries, Dubbo for the zoo, Parkes for The Dish) but I was on a mission. Get. To. The. Outback.
Gundabooka National Park
Arriving in Gundabooka National Park just before dusk, it was hard to believe we were still in NSW because that is some red earth. I find nothing quite beats the first night out bush – readjusting to the total silence, the smell of a cool evening after a hot day, and gazing up at the infinite number of stars.
At the heart of Gundabooka is the Mulgowan (Yappa) Aboriginal Art site. The next morning, after a strong coffee and an early start to beat the outback heat, we hiked through unspoilt bushland, negotiating large boulders and rocky bluffs, eventually arriving at a large overhang covered in paintings by the Ngemba and Paakandji people. Experiencing rock art at such close proximity is an amazing experience and strong reminder of this ancient culture that can be felt in so much of outback NSW.
Rising 500m above the floodplain is Mount Gundabooka. We hiked this rugged peak just before sunset, trying to ignore the flies sticking to our sweaty faces. But as the sun disappeared, so did the flies, and suddenly the glowing surrounds were filled with birdlife and we just sat and watched the skies darken and the stars appear.
Back On The Road
I got used to the same chat every time we arrived at a campground, ‘Oh wow, how’s your car coping with these roads?’ (mostly accompanied by a half-laugh), but to be honest Tiguan was doing great. More than great! She was handling the roads like an absolute champ. But the roads were in pretty good condition, minimal corrugations and very dry; plenty of dust. That is, until the drive to Mutawintji National Park.
I popped into the General Store at White Cliffs to pick up the last-minute essentials (chocolate) and got chatting to a very intimidating outback lady behind the till. ‘Erm hi, so how is the road into Mutawintji?’ ‘Shit.’ ‘Oh, right…so I shouldn’t attempt it?’ (I point to Tiguan outside). I can see her looking me up and down, trying to assess if this blonde girl with a British accent knows what she’s doing with her (relatively) tiny car in the outback. ‘The road’s corrugated as all f*ck but it will get you there.’
Well with those words of encouragement, off we went.
Beware Flash Flooding
One thing I didn’t know about the outback – it’s thunderstorm country. They’re localised, unpredictable, and when they strike, terrifying. On the road to Mutawintji, we learnt a very good lesson as to why all the roads have signs which say ‘DRY ROAD ONLY’. As the sky got darker and the lightning got closer, the dry red dirt turned to mulch under Tiguan’s wheels, and the sound of mud flicking over the car soon accompanied the distant rumbles of thunder.
I’d like to point out that never at one point did it actually rain where we were. This adds to the deceptive feeling of safety because as long as it’s not raining where you are, the roads will be okay, right? WRONG. Turns out, all those storms 100km away were causing the floodways to fill up on our road and turning them into creeks. The first creek we crossed wasn’t by choice, but there wasn’t enough traction for the brakes to work, through it we ploughed, water spraying up over Tiguan’s bonnet.
We took with more care with the second creek, crossing at a slower pace, but the water was powerful enough to push Tiguan off-course. Half floating, wheels still turning and with teeth gritted, we managed to manoeuvre enough for Tiguan to crawl out of the creek. We parked up on the sodden earth. 70km from nowhere and with daylight fading fast, it was time to admit defeat, looks like we were sleeping there for the night.
Mutawintji National Park
The next morning Tiguan finally made it to Mutawintji National Park. Another great thing about the outback is the comradery of fellow road trippers. As Tiguan crawled into the campground, covered in mud and slightly worse for wear (as were we after the most uncomfortable sleep I’ve ever had), our camp neighbour Phil the stonemason came over to check we’re okay. After relaying our ordeal, we’re quickly ushered to seats beside a raging fire and poured glasses of Baileys by his wife to ‘Take the edge off’. Turns out Phil also writes poetry and is a repeat Mutawintji visitor so we got a detailed guide to the park’s hikes and history in iambic pentameter.
Mutawintji is like the ‘Great Valley’ in The Land Before Time. Giant colourful gorges rise up above rock pools and creeks, sprinkled with caves, engravings and rock art. If you have a head for heights, the Bynguano Range walking track is a must. We climbed high up over the rocky ridges for 360° views over the network of gorges and valleys below. The wildlife here is meant to be abundant due to the permanent water source, but the only animal we saw was one giant brown snake warming itself on the rocky track.
Outback NSW is an incredible place to experience; the historic towns, ancient landscapes and Aboriginal culture make for a truly memorable trip. But this trip was a lesson in being prepared. Thunderstorms can spring out of nowhere and flash-flooding is common and dangerous. Road closures can last for days so being fully stocked with food, fuel and water at all times is a must, especially in remote areas. We spent the majority of our trip out of range, so the satellite phone was essential, but for emergencies, an EPIRB would be better.
Oh, and even if you do have a proper 4WD which can handle outback terrain in all weathers, the fine for driving on a closed road is $1000 PER TYRE. That’s an expensive risk to take.
Gundabooka can be accessed from the town of Bourke on an unsealed road. Mutawintji can be accessed via Wilcannia and White Cliffs, or from Broken Hill. Both involve a substantial drive on unsealed roads. Neither national park has running water or phone reception, so stock up on essentials before leaving town and double-check the road conditions with the local visitor centre or national parks office for the most up-to-date information.
Sydney to Mutawintji via Gundabooka National Park – 1400km one way
- Solid playlist
- Satellite phone
- Jump leads
- First aid kit
- Jerry cans for fuel + containers for water
- Detailed road map
- Spare tyre + general tool kit
- Lots of driving