Hardship and isolation are deeply ingrained themes in Outback Australia, but these conditions are also behind the undeniable kookiness of everyone you meet out there. In the Outback, things don’t get done for you, you suck it up and do it yourself. The Outback Way wasn’t some big government stimulus project sent up from Canberra; it was the result of the hard work of a few individuals, and it ties the Outback community together.
We’re generally used to roads being pretty old. Many major European roads date back to Roman times and the road system of the Incan Empire lays the foundation for many modern roads. Even some Australian routes have a history that runs deep into the past, as they find their origins in the songlines of the First Peoples.
So how old do you reckon the Outback Way is? Is it a dreaming route that extends back before our calendars and dates? Or a road commissioned by the Brits to turn the centre of Australia into rich and productive agricultural lands?
Nah, it was dreamed up in 1996.
How To Save A Town
In an interview with Helen Lewis, the General Manager of the Outback Way, the Chairman Patrick Hill speaks about the road’s history, and a little town on the brink:
“When we moved down to Laverton it had 25 people, then in 1969 there was a nickel boom and between 1972-74 there was a lot of development. In the mid 80s the town was up to around 2000 people.”
But in 1993 the mine shut down. For Patrick, whose family had lived in the area for generations and had seen Laverton flourish into a vibrant West Australian Outback town, this was bloody bad news.
Without any compensation from Western Mining, like some other towns, Laverton dwindled to around 200 people. Whole blocks became vacant, having been occupied by impermanent housing, and fly-in fly-out mining culture ensured that miners coming from as far as Singapore never set foot in the town.
“That’s where the idea for the Outback Way came from,” Patrick recalls. “We tried to focus on upgrading the road through to Uluru, but the Shire didn’t have the money to maintain that road up there, it was graded once a year. It was a 2-blade goat track, it really was.”
By 1996 they were down in Canberra, requesting the Australian Local Government Association to put a road through all the way to Brisbane. To their surprise, it passed, but given that an amendment to the motion included a bridge from Melbourne to Tasmania, confidence wasn’t too high!
So Why’s The Outback Way Where It Is?
Other towns were also feeling the pinch, so Patrick wasn’t surprised when the Mayors of Boulia and Winton asked if they could bring the road up north to swing by them on the way to Brisbane. The plan to seal the entire 2800km from Laverton in WA to Winton in Queensland began to take shape. Building roads takes time and money though and at present, about half of the route is sealed.
In the late 90s though, nothing was happening, despite money in the Shire budget and the threat of a roadhouse being built 4km out of town. The proposed alternative route into Laverton was stuck as a rough dirt track.
So in a move that’s sure to tear at the core of environmental engineers everywhere, Patrick took things into his own hands:
“I thought, the only way we’re gonna do it (‘cause I had this earth moving business with a dozer and a grader) is ourselves. Between Christmas and New Year we put it through! We graded the road straight out of Laverton to connect up to the Great Central Road but left about 10m before the end… so council would have to join it up.”
You can almost hear Patrick giggle as he talks about denying having anything to do with it at the next council meeting, before saying: “Well the road’s in now, so we should probably put some money into it!”
Humans Of The Outback
Patrick’s just one of the characters you might meet on a road trip along the Outback Way.
In Middleton, Queensland, Lester Cain is the owner of the Middleton Hotel. The 141 year-old building is actually in the middle of nowhere–it’s the most remote pub in Queensland–and it’s the only building in town.
Another publican, who goes simply by the name of Ben, runs the North Gregory Hotel. The pub, located at the start (or end) of the Outback Way in Winton is wildly wacky and famous for its charity chicken races, daily playings of Waltzing Matilda and its hydroponics farm out the back.
No trip through the Outback would be complete without connecting with the Aboriginal culture that’s been there for thousands of years.
Experiencing Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park is a must of course, but a particularly special connection can be found through Indigenous artists and their artwork. The Outback Way was created to bring tourism to remote parts of Australia, but it’s also helped locals to connect with each other and ultra-remote members of Indigenous communities to journey into town to sell their artworks.
The women pictured are members of the Warakurna Artist Collective, an Aboriginally owned group that supports the local community through sales from the Yurilya Gallery, located at the Warakurna Roadhouse.
There are many more opportunities to explore Indigenous artworks and culture by following the Outback Way Art and Artisan trail and timing your journey to catch the events and festivals.
From saving fledgling Outback towns from the boom and bust nature of mining to opening up and connecting remote communities, the Outback Way is fast becoming a major artery for Australia’s beating heart. But there’s another benefit we haven’t mentioned yet.
When Patrick Hill was up near Warburton, proposing the road and asking a group of 40 elders whether their Native Title claim could accommodate it, he overheard two older men up the back:
“What’s he saying?”
“That whitefella, he wants to fix the road to Laverton and make it straight, so us old people don’t fall off the ute when we head into town to go to the store!”