An interesting way to travel between the Red Centre and the WA Goldfields.
The great east-west challenge is the Gunbarrel ‘Highway’, but years of neglect make it a severe 4WD vehicle test. The Great Central Road used to be an easier run from Uluru to The West, but the NT section has always been in worse condition than the WA part.
Since reliable fuel became available at the Warakurna Roadhouse and the Tjukayirla Roadhouse, the 1200-kilometre Tjukururu Road and Great Central Road route has become quite popular.
Although the WA section of the Great Central Road is reasonably well maintained it’s no super-highway and should be attempted only by high ground clearance vehicles with a touring range of at least 600km.
As with any Outback road, the conditions you’ll find depend on how far you are behind the grader, but don’t expect much in the way of smooth dirt sections in the first 200km of the Great Central Road and you won’t be disappointed.
We’ve done this run five times, over the past 18 years, and always found the NT section in poor condition. Deep bulldust holes – often on the other side of blind crests – and rough, stony sections are the name of the game and the broke NT Government has no money to maintain it.
The NT section was in appalling condition when we drove it in July 2019, with severe corrugations that slowed road trains to 15-20km/h, with low tyre pressures.
Our most recent trip down this road was in March 2022 and it had received some upgrades. We’ve summarised this report, by Outback Travel Australia contributor, Phil Aynsely, at the end of this story.
The east-west trek from Central Australia to WA starts at the Uluru/ Kata Tjuta resort township of Yulara, where it’s possible to have your vehicle serviced, get the tyres checked over and top up fuel, water and food supply stocks.
However, be warned that the camping ground at Yulara, run by Voyages, is one of the worst in Australia, with ridiculously long check-in times, ridiculously high camping fees and totally insufficient real camping space. All our recent pre-booked visits have seen us held up well over an hour to check in and then get put on a vast, bare dirt paddock that backs onto the generator sheds.
After our 2022 visit we vowed we’d never stay there again. The trick is to camp outside the National Park.
The Central Road trek proper begins when you turn right out of the Kata Tjuta access road, rather than taking the bitumen run back to relative civilisation at Yulara.
The early visual highlights are the Petermann Ranges on the left hand side of the road and Bloods Range in the distance, on the right.
By the time you’re ready for a stroll and a cuppa you’ll be able to pull over into the rubbish-filled parking area that’s close by Lasseter’s Cave. (We think that the locals could use some of the permit money they get to clean the area more frequently.)
From the Cave to Warakurna Roadhouse it’s only a 140-kilometre drive, over a road surface that’s much better maintained. The Roadhouse has fuel, cabin
accommodation and camping facilities, but very limited food supplies.
A visit to the meteorological station at Giles is a must and if you time your visit for 8:30am you should be able to tour the facility and witness a weather balloon launching. (Don’t forget that Warakurna runs on Central Time – WA time plus 1.5 hours.)
Len Beadell’s famous Gunbarrel Construction Company grader is on display at Giles and there are remnants of rockets that were launched from Woomera and didn’t quite achieve the distance expected of them.
From Warakurna the road conditions are generally quite good, but there are numerous bulldust stretches and stony sections.
About 90 kilometres from Warakurna there are some rockholes on the left side of the road, just after a new deviation fork. Some 40km further on there’s a signposted picnic spot, with a toilet and water.
From there, it’s about 220km to some roadside rockholes and then a 120km run into Tjukayirla Roadhouse.
The Roadhouse has water, fuel, cabins, an excellent camping area, toilets and showers and limited food supplies.
The road from Tjukayirla Roadhouse to Leonora is well maintained dirt, with some soft, sandy sections. Highlights are some low, rocky hills about 80km from Tjukayirla Roadhouse and caves at 270km. Make sure you’ve eaten all your fruit and honey before you get to the quarantine bin at 285km.
From this point to Leonora the road runs through progressively changing country, as the desert gives way to scrubby grazing land and then to pastoral and mining leases.
In theory, you could run the great Central Road in a softroader, but tyres and ground clearance are the major weaknesses of these vehicles.
We’d recommend using a high ground clearance vehicle – preferably diesel powered – and you should also carry two spare wheels with mounted tyres.
Trailers should be OK on this route, but it’s extremely rough in the northern sections, so a caravan is risky.
Outback Travel Australia contributor Phil Aynsley ran the Great Central Road from west to east in March 2022. Here’s his report:
After all the bad news stories of late 2021 about how poor the Great Central Road conditions were, I was somewhat apprehensive as I began the trip north from Laverton.
Things got off to an excellent start with five kilometres of old bitumen followed by 50km of fresh new tar! After that the gravel began, but it was in very good condition.
My Earthcruiser weighs a healthy six tonnes and runs Black Bear 37-inch MTs at 58/62psi on the bitumen. I left them at that to start with, intending to drop the pressures as required.
Also, I decided to provide a scale of road surface conditions from 0 to 10: 0 – smooth as a baby’s bum bitumen and 10 – you’re going to loose fillings, no matter what pressures and speeds you choose.
As I was in no tearing hurry my first overnight camp was at Nullye Soak, 297km up the road. The turnoff was reasonably easy to spot – no signs however – and there were probably a dozen or more spots to choose from.
I went right to the end of the track, next to a low mound and there was no one else there.
On the way I had two vehicles pass me and four go the other way. I was travelling at between 75-80km/h, due to my weight and the eye-watering diesel prices! I had filled both the 90lt standard tank and the 200lt auxiliary tank in Laverton and was over $400 poorer for the experience, even with 120lt already on board.
The road surface was between 2-3 with a few short stretches of 4, so to say I was very pleasantly surprised would be understating things!
Day two was only a short drive to Desert Surf Central, as it’s marked in Wikicamps! This was only 119km east of the Tjukayirla Roadhouse, which in turn was only nine kilometres up the road from Nullye Soak.
The turn off was much harder to discern as there wasn’t an actual track to spot. However, I did see some tyre tracks off to the left as I drove slowly past, so after a U-turn, I found the entrance pretty easily. It is opposite the eastern end of the low escarpment that runs for a couple of kilometres, about one kilometre off the left hand side of the road.
As a further guide, a noticeable track enters the main road about two kilometres north of the campsite entrance on the left hand side (heading north).
This is an excellent place to spend a few hours exploring the caves in the base of the escarpment and the view from the top.
There are at least 20 spots to camp along the track that leads to the eastern end of the escarpment. All are large spaces and well spread out, so even if it was fullish you aren’t going to be on top of your neighbour. As it was, I had the place to myself.
A track at the end leads up onto the top of the escarpment, so not only does that make it easy to walk up with a chair and a drink to view the sunset, but there are also a few camping spots up there as well. There’s also a spot about halfway along the escarpment where it is possible to climb up.
Traffic on this stretch comprised of two roadtrains heading south. The road continued to be a 2 to 3. There had obviously been a decent amount of rain recently as the vegetation was green as far as the eye could see – and you can see quite a distance from up in the Earthcruiser’s seat!
Day three saw me do the 350km to Warakurna/Giles Roadhouse. I didn’t need to stop at Warburton for fuel or food, but I did take advantage of the Telstra coverage available.
While the country wasn’t quite as green as the day before there were a few areas, several hectares in extent, that had shallow water almost lapping up to the road – and plenty of birds.
The road wasn’t quite up to the standards of the previous days averaging about a 4, with a few short sections of 6 – far, far better than I had been expecting!
I saw my first herd of camels in the afternoon. Going by the amount of their droppings, along the entire length of the road, there must be thousands of them out there!
The other thing there was no shortage of is overturned, burnt-out sedans littering the sides of the road. In the 700km to Warakuna I’d say there would have been around 200! Plus two 8-tonne trucks, a minibus and four 4WDs.
The final day of the drive to Yulara started with watching the balloon release at the Giles Weather Station, just a couple of kilometres outside Warakurna.
Shortly after leaving Warakurna, at the intersection of the GCR and the Giles-Mulga Park Rd, was what must the loneliest Covid check point in WA: a small demountable, some lights and a police 4WD evidence that at least at this point in time WA was still guarding its border!
The countryside becomes much more scenic as you approach the border and the Len Beadell monument – a plate mounted in a large white gum tree, on the left – 68km from Warakuna, is worth a stop.
The Peterson Ranges provide some much desired topographical relief along this section of the road.
While not quite as good a surface the stretch to the NT border is still about a 4, so quite enjoyable. All that changes however after the border is crossed (and the name of the road changes to Tjukaruru Road).
You are soon on a much sandier surface east of Docker River with the occasional bulldust hole, sand covered floodways and lots of bad corrugations.
While varying along the 190 odd kilometres until you reach the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, this part of the road is definitely nowhere near as enjoyable as the WA sections: an average of 6-7 with stretches of 8.
I passed one road train – why is it you always feel like a wee-wee stop five minutes after eventually being able to make such an overtake, but you have to hold on until you are far enough up the road to do you business before the overtaken vehicle catches you up – and four cars heading south. My average fuel consumption over the 1200km was 17.2l/100km.
The National Park at Uluru is one of a few in the NT that require a pass that’s best purchased on-line beforehand. A three-day – extendable by two days for free at the entrance gate – for $38.00 or $50.00 for an annual pass are the two main options. Note that if you enter the NP from the west you don’t encounter the entrance station until you have passed Kata Tjuta and exit the park on the way to Yulara.
Hema’s Great Desert Tracks, South West and South Central Maps are ideal for this trek.
You need a permit to travel the Tjukururu Road and the Great Central Road, available from the Ngaanyatjarra Council (08) 8950 1711.
Late autumn, winter and early spring are the only safe times to travel this route. Summer temperatures regularly exceed 50 degrees, there’s no reliable water and there’s very little traffic on the road.
Camping and supplies
Opal unleaded and diesel are available at Warakurna and Tjukayirla Roadhouses, along with water and limited food supplies. Emergency fuel is available at Docker River and Warburton. Leonora has a motel (expensive), camping and supplies.
You need to be self-sufficient to attempt this trek, so carry reserve food, water and fuel.