The Big Lap – Part 4 The Red Highway

The sun, dust and red roads go forever as we cross outback south Australia

The main roads bifurcate on the northern outskirts of Port Augusta, the Eyre Highway branching west and the Stuart Highway veering northward for 2,700km, all the way to Darwin. The latter approximates the route that John McDouall Stuart took when he became the first European to cross the centre of the continent from south to north (and back) in 1861-62. This was to be our route to Coober Pedy, only 550km away, a journey that we expected would take us the best part of a day.

The Stuart Highway began its life as a series of rough tracks, often obliterated by sand drifts or heavy rain, linking pioneer homesteads and outback stations along the Overland Telegraph Line. In 1908, two Englishmen, Harry Dutton and Murray Aunger, were the first motorists to successfully traverse it from Adelaide to Darwin. During World War 2, the road was upgraded from an often impassable track to an all-weather sealed highway as a vital supply link for heavy military traffic. In a construction program spanning seven years, at a cost of $140 million funded by the Federal Government, the modern highway was completed and opened in 1987 as National Highway 87. We found it to be in excellent condition and one of the best roads we have travelled in the country.

Being fully loaded, we cruised along at a leisurely 90kph, enjoying the diverse landscape that sailed past on both sides – treeless spinifex plains, dense mulga scrub and coral-hued sand dunes. The first 170km passed quickly to the Pimba Roadhouse and the turn-off to Woomera, our morning tea stop.

Aptly named after the Aboriginal weapon used to hurl a spear with great force, Woomera holds a unique place in our national heritage, for it was here, in 1967, that Australia launched its own satellite into space – only the fourth country in the world to do so up to that time. The town lies in the southeast corner of a stony, treeless plateau that is the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA). At 124,000 (about the size of England), the WPA is the largest land testing area in the world. The Woomera Rocket Range was established in 1947 as a joint British-Australian project to develop and test weapons, rockets and missiles and, because of its highly secret activities, the village was a “no go” zone for many years, except for staff and defence personnel who, in its heyday, numbered some 7,000.

After 1982, the town was opened to travellers but is still administered by the Department of Defence as an RAAF base forming part of the Woomera Range Complex. Today, up to 200 people reside here, with between 5000 and 6000 transit personnel annually deploying to Woomera for Defence activities in support of about 100 trials and other activities. There are no secrets any more (at least none that we know of) but plenty to enjoy, including a small museum, an outdoor display area at Missile Park and a heritage centre showcasing some of the impressive projects that were conducted here over a 50-year span.

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