Top 4x4 tracks in Australia

4X4 Australia’s long-standing off-road experts reveal their all-time favourite four-wheel drive tracks in Oz.

The fourby trundles to the top of a blood-red dune at sunset. You turn the ignition off, ears buzzing in the shocking silence that follows – once the tinkling of the hard-working engine fades. 

Crimson desert extends to the horizon in every direction, the sky awash with the type of fleeting sunset only possible out here. In the back of your mind are the words of explorer Cecil Madigan, who may have stood in this very spot over half a century earlier – one of the first Europeans to do so.

“There were no ranges hidden behind sandridge ramparts, no water, nothing to record from the air but some slight changes in the relative sparseness of the vegetation. The whole expanse below was like a pink and gigantic circular gridiron, ribbed with close straight sandridges from horizon to horizon.”

This assessment led Madigan to conclude that there “seemed to be nothing to warrant the expenditure of any further effort in the exploration of this desert…” Clearly, something changed his mind, a fact to which the off-road challenge that is the Madigan Line now stands testament.

Beneath your feet you sense a legacy much more enduring, a relationship with the land spanning tens of thousands of years – a period of time only comprehensible when standing in an environment equally vast. The mind-boggling grandeur is made even more alien by the sense of being utterly alone – a sensation that is unsettling for some, a keenly sought high for others.

Such experiences are the reason we choose to leave behind not only the stresses and monotonies, but also the routine and security of everyday life in the city and the ’burbs. And opportunities to do so in this country abound, provided you equip yourself with a sense of adventure, and these days a working 4X4 helps, too.

Since it started in 1979, 4X4 Australia has travelled almost every dedicated off-road track in Australia, with some of the country’s most experienced off-road journalists concocting great yarns alongside stunning photography, and hopefully whetting your appetite for off-road adventure in the process.

However, unless you’ve managed to con someone into paying you for it, chances are trivial details such as time and budget limit your choice of track. That’s why we’ve got those very same nomadic journos together by the virtual campfire (read: emails and phone) to discuss the best major off-road touring tracks in Australia, and hopefully come up with a favourite few.

Established tracks are not only safer than simply heading bush and following your nose, many also provide fascinating historical insights as they follow the footsteps of colonial settlers and explorers of the likes of John McDouall Stuart and Cecil Madigan. They also offer the chance to become immersed in the country’s rich indigenous culture and history, not to mention its wildlife and stunning scenery.

There are hundreds of dedicated tracks all over Australia. They range from 1000km-plus desert epics like the Canning Stock Route to leafy High Country weekend getaways and tropical sand oases such as Cape York and Fraser Island, but it came as no surprise that the red sands and blue skies of the Aussie outback fared best among this authoritative crew’s personal favourites.

Remoteness and isolation arose again and again as crucial track features, and it was these very factors that led to the Simpson Desert’s Madigan Line winning top track for three of the six off-roaders in this group.

“You wouldn’t rank it as one of the hardest tracks, but it’s certainly up there in terms of isolation,” said former editor Dean Mellor of the Madigan. “On one of the best trips I did across the Madigan Line, we left from Mount Dare with the owners of Mt Dare Hotel, Dave and Melissa Cox, and we didn’t see another vehicle for 11 days, all the way to Birdsville.”

Deano chose the Madigan Line not just for the remote desert backdrop, but also for its history. The track follows the footsteps of explorer Cecil Madigan across the northern Simpson Desert from Mount Dare to Birdsville. It is more of a join-the-dots exercise than a track, as such, divided into 25 GPS points which signify the camping spots that Madigan and his crew stopped at during their 1939 expedition, as chronicled in his book, Crossing the Dead Heart, first published in 1946.

“You can read about Madigan’s experiences and directly relate them to where you are and how much easier it is to do the same trip these days, compared to what he went through. It’s a pretty amazing story,” Dean said. Due to the very nature of the Madigan Line as a route, rather than a formed track, it is difficult to calculate an exact distance. According to Deano, being the first of the season to travel it can add 50 or so kilometres to the trip as you roam between GPS points, with no previous travellers’ tyre marks as a guide – a factor which undoubtedly contributes to the track’s appeal!

Brad Newham was the second to choose the Madigan Line as his favourite, and he picked the very same 2005 trip as Deano (see 4X4 Australia, November and December 2005 issues) as number one on his list of prized recollections. “Deano and I had an absolute ball on that trip,” he said. “You could go on some great tracks, but if you haven’t got the right crew with you, then it’s no fun at all.”

One experience that stands out from that trip, for Newham, was setting up camp and sleeping at the top of one of the Simpson’s enormous, red dunes. “We had a fire going at the very top of the dune, and you could see for miles. That was a really different experience,” he said.

“Also, chasing wild camels – or maybe they were chasing us? – along the side of the track, those sorts of things stick with you, and you get those experiences all over that area.”

However, technical editor Allan Whiting said he likes to go one step further when it comes to isolation. While Al, when pressed, did choose the Madigan Line and the adjacent Plenty Lakes region as his favoured off-road adventures (“I wouldn’t pick a favourite, there’s so much to see there”), true isolation, for him, means leaving any beaten track behind – a pursuit best left to the experts. After all, what’s one car every 11 days?

“On one trip I took to the Plenty Lakes, the Madigan looked like a highway when we got to it, because we’d spent weeks in trackless desert. We didn’t see a single car for three weeks – that’s bloody great. That’s perfect,” he said. Al is referring to an epic 2008 jaunt in which he and his partner, Keryn, joined a Direct 4WD Awareness and Central Lands Council expedition into the desert.

The fabled middle-of-nowhere isn’t necessarily at the top of everyone’s must-see list when it comes to off-road touring, as freelance motoring journalist, Matt Raudonikis, points out.

“I prefer not to have to drive so far to get somewhere,” he said. “If that’s what you have to do to get the place to yourself, it’s not a problem, but you’ve got places like the Flinders Ranges and the Victorian High Country, where you can be in half a day’s drive from Adelaide or Melbourne, and if you pick the time of year, you can still get those places to yourself.”

Matt put Davies Plain Track, in the Victorian High Country, in pride of place at the top of his list. Davies Plain is a 160km loop track best accessed through Omeo and Benambra, but it can also be reached via Tom Groggin from the north and Corryong or Tallangatta in the north-west.

“For ease of use and getting to, plus that real outback experience, it’s one of the best,” he said. “It’s just the quintessential Victorian High Country track. You’ll see wild brumbies all over the place, and there are some beautiful campsites by the old cattlemen’s huts, and it’s only half a day from Melbourne or a day’s drive from Sydney. If you go in the middle of the week you’ll get the campsites to yourself. It’s beautiful.”

“I love doing the High Country, but that’s a different type of touring,” desert-seeker Whiting said in response. “The things that stick in my memory are not the short trips; they’re the big expeditions away from everything. Trips where you’ve got to be completely self-sufficient; where you have to do a water audit because there’s no water out there and all you can have is baby-wipe washes for three weeks – that’s great.”

Matt Raudonikis also chose the Hay River Track, which follows the river’s course south from the Plenty Highway to meet with the Madigan Line at Camp 15, as one of his top three. While this is another remote Simpson Desert track, Matt singled it out for being comparably user-friendly.

“Yes, that is a couple of days drive just getting there, but, unlike other tracks in the Simpson, it runs parallel to the sand dunes, so you’re not crossing dunes all day,” he said. “The dunes and the sand are also a lot redder up on the north Simpson than they are on the more traditional tracks through the middle. Once you’ve been through the middle of the Simpson Desert, you probably don’t want to do it again, but finding these other little tracks is a real bonus.”

In a similar vein, former editor Mick Matheson chose the Simpson Desert’s French Line as one of his top tracks to recommend to aspiring adventurers. Like the Madigan Line, the French Line connects Mount Dare to Birdsville. At a distance of approximately 550km, it is the most direct route across the Simpson – but not the easiest. The French Petroleum Company constructed the track during a seismic survey in 1964.

“While the others say Madigan Line, I’d say the French Line because it’s more accessible, but still a proper Simpson experience,” Matho said. Like most of 4X4 Australia’s veteran off-roaders, Matho favours desert solitude over myriad other off-road experiences available.

“I like being out in that open-space and big-skies country; you don’t get that up and down the eastern seaboard and in the ranges and stuff,” he said. “The routine of getting up at the crack of dawn, travelling, sight seeing, and then setting up camp before dark and being in bed not long after; you don’t get that on short trips – you’ve got to get away for a decent amount of time to get that.”

Number one for Matho, though, was the Anne Beadell Highway, which he travelled back in 2008. The Anne Beadell Highway runs for around 1300km from Cooper Pedy, SA, across the Great Victoria Desert and all the way to Laverton, WA.

“It’s long and it’s remote. You get the fun of getting right away from everything, and having to be self-reliant and self-sufficient. Even dealing with problems when you’re away from help is fun. It creates a challenge and adds something to the experience. You get a lot more reward out of trips like that.”

One such challenge was when a vehicle on his 2008 trip broke both rear suspension springs. “Basically it drove for about 500 kays on broken springs that were just jerry-rigged together. Being able to achieve that sort of thing is really fun,” he said.

The Gunbarrel Road Construction Party, led by Len Beadell, built the Anne Beadell Highway between 1953 and 1962. The purpose of the remote track, named after Len’s wife, was to access the Emu Atomic Test Site – the location of the first atomic test explosion on the Australian mainland, which travellers on the Anne Beadell Highway can still visit.

“You can actually stand where the atomic bombs went off; you can even see the stumps of the four feet where the stand was,” Matho said. “There are no two-headed rabbits or anything out there, but you wouldn’t want to hang around for too long.”

Former long-term 4X4 editor Ron Moon also named isolation and history as the two factors which really make a track for him (with driving challenge a little further down the list), but he agreed with Matt that remoteness isn’t always everything.

“I can see his point,” Ron said. “The Flinders, for example, is easily accessible from Adelaide, but that doesn’t take away from the trip at all. It’s still a great outback experience.”

In the end, though, Ron’s choice of favourite track – the Old Telegraph Line (OTL) in far-north Queensland – came down to the one he’s travelled most (“It’s a big question to ask someone, you know,” he said. So I’m finding!) In fact, Ron has travelled north to the Tip via the OTL almost 40 times since the 1980s, and as far as isolation and history goes, it’s got plenty.

John Bradford surveyed the OTL (originally called the Peninsula Telegraph Line) in 1883, after three unsuccessful attempts by various parties. It took three years to construct the telegraph line, which remained in use for a century until being replaced by broadband in 1987.

The OTL runs for 280km from Bramwell Junction in the south to Bamaga in the north. It is fairly narrow and windy, with some corrugations and sandy sections, but its major challenge comes in the form of numerous river crossings.

“The first thing I’d say to anyone wanting to travel the OTL is to get a snorkel – it’s one of the cheapest insurance policies going around,” Ron said. “The OTL doesn’t necessarily demand mud-terrain tyres or anything, but it does demand respect for all the river crossings you’ll need to do. Last year alone Nolan’s Brook claimed 19 engines and about 50 radiators.”

While the OTL itself hasn’t changed much over the years, Ron says that one major difference is that nowadays you can bypass it altogether, whereas it used to be the only route north. As a result, travellers can choose to spend more time in Cape York, rather than getting there, and in this way Ron says the Tip has, for the most part, changed for the better, with improved facilities and more to see and do.

This seems to be the case with most off-road destinations, as the population grows and more and more people are getting out and enjoying Oz. The Flinders Ranges, for example, are becoming more developed as more people make the pilgrimage from Adelaide to experience this off-road Mecca – but most here agreed the result isn’t necessarily a bad one.

“The Flinders is such a massive place that you could go back time after time and explore more and more,” Deano said. “It is becoming more developed, but that development is happening in a way that’s actually quite good for travel.” As Ron points out, your attitude towards inevitable change depends on how you look at it: “There are more people, so you need to search harder to find isolation, but then there are more people enjoying it, and of course that’s a good thing,” he said.

However, while it may be good that more people are appreciating the great outdoors (no one wants to sound selfish, do they?), the real question is whether they do so with respect. A few from this group lament that this often isn’t the case.

“Most of the tracks have changed for the worse over the years, unfortunately,” said Brad. “A lot of people are going out there and not letting their tyres down to correct pressures, or towing trailers in places where you really shouldn’t, or driving through places that should be closed due to rain. So the driving side of things can become less fun, and a bit more dangerous. It also gets harder to find campsites, and there are people that leave rubbish around, and it just takes away from it, I guess.”

So, while the Madigan Line may have come out as top track for this bunch, perhaps more important is to remember that wherever you choose to take your next epic trip (or not-so-epic, if that’s what you prefer), do so with the increasing number of other travellers in mind. Chances are you’ll enjoy yourself – whether camped at the top of a dune in the Simpson Desert, or crossing a creek in Cape York.

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