The Great Central Road has given itself the tagline – ‘the longest shortcut in Australia’. It runs from Laverton in Western Australia to Winton in Queensland.
We did the section from Laverton in Western Australia to Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort) as the first leg of our big trip around Australia.
We found it very difficult to get information on the Great Central Road before we did it, so I have written this post to get a bit more information out there. This is based on our experience but you need to be aware that conditions are changing all the time, and it is my subjective opinion.
Great Central Road Permits
You must have a permit to travel through the Western Australia and Northern Territory sections of the Great Central Road (I am not sure about the Queensland section as we didn’t do that part).
The permits are free but are compulsory as you are travelling through Aboriginal Land.
Apparently, you can get the permits yourself online but we found the easiest way was to get them through the Laverton Visitor Centre. They are open until 1pm on a Saturday and Sunday and normal business hours during the week.
We just filled in an application form and the lady at the Visitor centre did the rest for us, providing us with the 2 printed permits within 10 minutes.
The WA permit is valid for 3 days, and the NT permit is valid for 3 weeks. We took 4 days to travel the WA side and believe that the 3 day permit is a bit short on time. You can do it, but 4 or 5 days is a lot more achievable. When she gave us the permit, she told us that it would be ok to go over by a day or two.
We tried to get the permit at the Leonora Visitor Centre but apparently there is only 1 lady there who does them and it was her day off. You could try and get your permit there though if it is more convenient for you.
The Outback Way
While you are at the Visitor Centres pick up your guide to the Outback way which outlines all the towns, fuel stops, including opening times and advises you of some of the free camps. You can also download it via the link here.
There is 1 error in the brochure, which states that the Warakurna roadhouse is open until 6pm NT time Monday to Friday. It is not. It is open until 5pm, as we found out when we arrived at 5.20pm.
Great Central Road Conditions
Road conditions are changing all the time so the actual conditions may be different from what is outlined here. You can check on the road conditions for the WA side here and the NT side here. These sites will only tell you if there are any major events like flooding or road closures.
The best way to get an update on road conditions at the time you are travelling is to ask other travellers. When we stopped to get our permits at Laverton we spoke to some travellers who gave us an idea of what to expect. We also met some others at a rest area who told us where the roughest spots were (and they weren’t wrong!).
In general, you hear people say that the WA side is not too bad but it gets rough as soon as you cross the NT border. In our experience the WA side was fine until we got just past Warburton, then it got really rough and it didn’t stop until we hit the bitumen near Yulara.
The Great Central Road will eventually be sealed and small sections of it have been sealed already. The sealed sections are generally located around the communities. There is one long patch of about 60km that is sealed between Tjukayirla and Warburton.
We dropped our tyre pressure to around 35psi cold which helped the rougher bits feel a little less rough but wasn’t too low that we had to inflate the tyres when we got to the sealed sections.
Great Central Road Camping
If you keep an eye on Wikicamps there are heaps of camps to choose from on the side of the road for the entire length of the road. None of them has any facilities except for the ones at the roadhouses (which are paid). We chose to free camp the whole way and only stopped at the roadhouses to top up on fuel.
Behind The Ranges Free Camp
This was our favourite of all the free camps. Located only 50km from Docker River on the WA side of the border, it was a beautiful camp with views of the surrounding ranges. It is in the middle of a particularly rough patch of the road so we were relieved to stop here and have a break.
We didn’t end up staying at this camp but it was recommended to us by some other travellers we met passing through who have travelled the Great Central 3 other times in the past.
Desert Surf Central
This was on ok free camp. We had a lone dingo come up to our camp looking for food. He looked very hungry. This was a better option than Paradise Camp which we stopped in to stay at but decided to move on once we saw it.
Is marked on the Outback Way brochure as a designated campsite. We drove in there and drove straight back out again. The place gave us the heebee jeebees and just looked like one big gravel pit. I think it would be fine if you were in a fully contained caravan, but as we are in a camper trailer we spend most of our time outdoors, so this site was not going to suit us.
The Pines Rest Area
This rest area is also designated as a camp spot on the Outback Way brochure and was our first camp spot. It is over a large area and is set amongst trees and bushes and is very picturesque.
Giles Breakaway Campsite
We stopped here for a lunch break. It is a beautiful spot and we would have been happy to camp here but had to get a few more k’s behind us.
Things to See on the Great Central Road
For a road through the middle of nowhere there is still plenty to hold your interest.
The Great Central Road is still a wild and remote area. There is not a lot to see except for nature. The scenery changes every few hundred kilometres and I am always happy to just look out the window and watch it all pass by.
I love to see the colours change. In general, it all looks like one muted brown-yellow sort of colour, but when you look closely it is a rainbow of desert colours: yellow, orange, rusted red, green-brown occasionally changing in patches to a grey-blue, red and green. To me, it all looks like a magnificent painting.
Rusted old wrecked cars line the highway for the entire length. It is a great game for kids to play to count the number of wrecked cars on the side of the road. It is almost a car museum (or graveyard is probably more apt), some of the cars you pass are really old, obviously been there for decades and some look like they are still fresh. Almost all of them have had their wheels removed and been tipped upside down.
Keep your eyes open for Camels and Dingoes as there are plenty of them to spot.
One of the guys that worked at one of roadhouses told us that there are now more camels in Australia than humans! Really? 21 million camels you reckon mate? And most of them live in this section of Australia? We saw about 15 in total, but every time we saw one, we would say, there is 1 of 21 million – haha. As if.
(We later found an exhibit on Camels at the Museum of Central Australia in Alice Springs that told us there are approximately 20 000 wild camels in Australia. Turns out, he was only adding a few extra 0’s!).
Aboriginal Art Centres
Are found at Warburton and Docker River. We didn’t stop in at them as we were on a mission but the art centres are right next door to the roadhouses if you are interested in having a look.
Other Points of Interest
Giles Meteorological Weather Station is located in Warakurna and by all reports is an interesting stop. There are also a number of other markers like the Len Beadell Ghost Gum plaque if you want to stop and acknowledge Len Beadell who first created most of the outback roads. Lasseter’s Cave is also in the Warakurna vicinity.
Great Central Roadhouses
Petrol is available in Laverton, Tjukayirla, Warburton, Warakurna, Docker River and Yulara. The Outback way brochure outlines all of these and their opening hours WITH ONE ERROR as I mentioned above.
Warakurna operates on NT time and the brochure states that they are open until 6pm NT time on weekdays. We got there at 5.20pm and they were closed. They actually close at 5pm NT time. They will charge you a $20 call out fee outside of this time if you do want fuel. We decided to push on and refill at Docker river the next day, relying on our reserve if we needed it.
Is it worth doing?
Eventually the Great Central Road will be completely sealed. Are you the kind of person who is happy to wait for an easier drive? Or do you love a driving challenge? We are glad that we have done it, but are not in a hurry to do it again. For us, it was too tiring and stressful to drive on such a rough road for such a long time.
We had a few small injuries to the car like a punctured tyre, our CB radio ariel snapped, the bash bar fell off the bottom of the car and we lost a spotlight. The car definitely rattles a bit more now than it did before we did the drive.
At the end of the drive, we considered the time and cost that it took us to do the road and we believe it would have taken less time and cost us less to travel from Perth along the Nullabor to Adelaide and up the Sturt Highway to Yulara. It would have been more kms but would have been easier.
We did enjoy being surrounded by one of the few areas of true wilderness left in the world and as I said, we are glad we have done it because you will never know what it is like until you do it yourself.
If you would like some more information on some of the adjoining towns I also have posts on Kalgoorlie, and Menzies on the WA side. Keep your eyes on the blog for Yulara, Uluru and a comprehensive Red Centre article to come.
You can read more of the story of our Big Lap travels on the weekly updates series.