Do you want to experience the vast wilderness of Outback Australia, but feel a little unsure of what exactly to expect?
I went out with very few expectations, other than the picture that I suppose has always been painted in my mind through TV shows and films. A large, deserted area coloured in bright, dusty orange hues, filled with kangaroos, snakes and men in cork hats. The real, classic Australia, right?!
Maybe… It’s definitely a HUGE part of Australia that is so unique to any other area of the country. It is where I learnt the most about Australia’s indigenous history and where I felt the most disconnected (in phone service and other factors) from the rest of the world. And it is an experience that – after a whole year travelling Australia – has stayed with me as some of my most fun, surprising and adventurous memories.
In this guide, I will endeavour to detail all the ways in which you can expect to prepare yourself for touring Australia’s Outback. Please note, I’ll be focusing on travelling as part of an organised group tour, as opposed to driving the Outback on your own.
This area of Australia – consuming most of the Northern Territory as well as a large part of South Australia – is an enormous, wild and remote piece of land that I personally would never even think to tackle alone unless I was experienced or travelling with a very experienced native.
So, why travel to Australia’s Outback?
There are a lot of beautiful parts of Australia that are very popular with travellers, like the cool coastal towns and buzzing cities along the East Coast or the rainforests and islands in tropical Queensland, perfect for diving in the Great Barrier Reef.
The Outback is a far cry from all the mod-con’s, hipster brunch joints and surfer towns. If you find a bar in the Outback, the likelihood is it’s in a very small township, or it’s a roadhouse (service station-cum-café) plonked in the middle of woop woop (Aussie slang for ‘in the middle of nowhere’).
My point is, Outback Australia is on a completely different level to the rest of modern, civilised Australia. More than just being a remote, mysterious land – half the reason traveller’s come to the Outback is to sample what they feel is the ‘classic Australia’ and to stumble upon the various national parks, nature reserves, waterfalls, lakes, gorges and crazy rock formations that inhabit this land – all of which you can be certain have a fascinating Aboriginal tale to tell.
Don’t just stop at the popular backpacker towns and cities, but venture deep into the Northern Territory, and I promise you’ll see a totally different side to Australia.
Read on to find out more about popular tours of the Outback, the best time of year to visit, packing essentials, what sort of things you can expect to see and do + heaps more!
How do I travel the Outback?
There are a whole bunch of travel companies offering tours throughout the Outback. Here’s a brief list of a few companies that came out top when researching or that I personally heard about through word-of-mouth when in Australia…
- The Rock – based in Alice Springs, The Rock Tour operates a range of 1 – 4 day tours taking you between either Uluru or Alice Springs and back, with visits and hikes to Kings Canyon and Kata Tjuta included. A good option for traveller’s low on time/budget who desperately want a glimpse at some Northern Territory highlights!
- Way Outback – tours ranging from anywhere between 1 and 10 days, with options for budget, private/comfortable and 4WD adventure tours.
- Contiki – organising tours since 1962, Contiki is up there with the most popular travel companies specializing in tours for the 18-35 age range. They operate an 8-day tour covering a great amount of Outback highlights.
- Intrepid – another reputable tour company with a range of short tours (from 2 to 8 days). Intrepid’s 8-day tour is a little more expensive than Contiki’s and includes mostly camping as accommodation. There is also no age limit with Intrepid Tours.
Personally, after having a great experience previously, I booked my Outback tour with Contiki. At the time (Feb 2018), it was a 10-day tour starting in Darwin and ending in Alice Springs. My group size was around 20 and we were all mid-late twenties from parts of the UK, America, Canada and actually we had just one Aussie! We also had one amazing tour leader and a driver who took care of us, provided a memorable experience and even hung out with us just like good friends!
What can I expect to see/do on a tour of the Outback?
Depending on the tour company you opt to travel with, the experience may differ based on itineraries and trip durations but I will try my best to give you a small insight in to what you can expect.
First of all, think: long bus journeys most days, anywhere between 2 and 5 hours before reaching a stop. It’s very possible to drive for miles and miles in the Outback, look out of your window and witness nothing. Nothing, besides red dusty roads and crisp fauna burning under the sizzling Aussie sun. Our guide would usually give us daily breakdowns of how far we’d be traveling, as well as other things worth noting like stocking up on essentials and snacks at the supermarket because we weren’t due to pass one for another 1 to 2 days!
Here’s the fun part. Long bus journeys aside, when you do hop off at a stop, you can be certain it’s going to be an amazing landscape or a cool activity like cruising the smooth waters of Katherine Gorge or Yellow River while looking out for croc’s and other wildlife. Or, you might head to one of many waterfalls to cool off, like Florence Falls in Litchfield National Park or Edith Falls in Nitmiluk National Park. You may even take a dip in the little tropical oasis that is the Mataranka Thermal Pools.
There’s also a chance there will be a few hikes, like the time we trekked to Kings Canyon for sunrise. And of course, no tour of the Outback should be without sunset drinks and photo opp’s at Uluru (a.k.a Ayers Rock, a.k.a the big, red rock).
Every night you’ll reach your accommodation and get together for a group meal, sometimes even around a campfire before sleeping under the stars in swags! Although mostly you’ll probably sleep in fairly basic country motels in shared dorms.
Is it safe?
Part of the reason I think it’s so crucial to join a group tour to travel the Outback is for safety. Particularly as a solo traveller, now that I’ve spent 10 days travelling the emptiness of Stuart Highway, it would never have entered my brain to think about driving the Outback on my own. Even if I was with a group of friends, I’d still question it due to the sheer vastness of the land and how disconnected you are from pretty much everything that’s vital: food, water, petrol, pharmacies, hospitals etc…
People do it of course, but I just feel that there’s several more factors to consider in the Outback than in other, less-remote parts of Australia.
Will I really see any deadly animals?
Hopefully not, hey?!
In all seriousness, enduring a 10-day tour of the Outback is nowhere near enough experience to give you a straight answer to that. But I can tell you that I didn’t have any nasty run-in’s with spiders, snakes, croc’s or any other scary animals that we all associate with Australia. However I did have a chance to see baby croc’s on a river cruise and I did go for a swim in a waterfall which is sometimes known to be home to crocs. I also came across one particular roadhouse that was pretty much keeping a crocodile as some kind of pet/tourist attraction. You see all kinds of strange things in remote areas…
Honestly (and on a nicer note), the animal I witnessed the most in the Outback was the wallaby, which are super cute and usually spotted hopping around campsites or along the roadsides.
How hot is the Outback?
In the Summer (anywhere between November and April)… insanely hot, think anywhere between 30 and 40 degrees most days. Depending on how much of the Outback you travel, the climate can also vary between being very humid and very dry heat. Drinking a lot of water is very essential.
Is there anything specific I should pack?
Some handy items to pack include:
- a good quality insect repellent (Bushman is one of the best in Australia),
- a decent, easy-to-pack fan (I found one in a store called Daiso with a built-in water spray!),
- a good amount of painkillers to last your entire trip, plus more to be on the safe side,
- a refillable water bottle (even better if its insulated and keeps your water nice and cold!),
- also consider buying some electrolyte tablets or at least settle for some energy drinks like Gatorade/Lucozade if you know you’re likely to spend some time hiking,
- a high SPF sun lotion,
- hat and sunglasses,
- trousers (for protecting legs when walking through long, grassy areas),
- loose, cool clothes but 1-2 warmer layers as evenings do get cooler in parts of the Outback especially outside of Summer,
- bite/sting cream,
- portable device charger,
- baby wipes (for a quick wash on very hot, dusty days).
And finally, when is the best time of the year to visit?
Careful planning is essential for this one. If you want to visit the Outback, the chances are you’re already travelling other parts of Australia… and if you want to experience the Australia that most people do (non-stop sunshine, hot weather, beach days), then you’re going to want to visit in peak Summer season. It’s just important to remember that in those months (November – April), temperatures in the Outback are much higher, as well as the likelihood of heatstroke and dehydration if you’re not careful. Oh, and the swarms of flies!
If you want to experience the Outback in a more comfortable climate, then May to September is considered the best time to visit.
Hopefully this guide has given you a much clearer idea of the kind of things you should expect to see and do on a tour of the Outback, and that you feel all the more prepared to get out there and see it for yourself!