Roads of Australia series - Stuart Highway a journey through Australia

It’s one of Australia’s longest and loneliest stretches of road and it runs right through the heart of the country for almost 3000 kilometres, separating the west of the continent from the east.

The Stuart Highway, which reaches from Darwin to Port Augusta commemorates the journey of John McDouall Stuart, the first European explorer to travel from south to north through central Australia, though it doesn’t exactly follow the route he took.

Today’s smooth sealed road is a long way from the track of days gone by, which was an endurance test for driver and machine, complete with salt pans, washouts, rocks, sandy ridges and other hazards.

First car crossing

The first motorists to brave the conditions were Harry Dutton and Murray Aunger who ventured out in their 24 horsepower Talbot, “Angelina”, in 1907 following the overland telegraph. The Talbot got hopelessly bogged in the wet season’s torrential rain and was abandoned near Tennant Creek.

Undeterred they returned the following year in another Talbot vehicle, rescued and repaired “Angelina” then set off again in two cars, eventually reaching Darwin and returning to Adelaide.

It’s all a long, long way from today’s Stuart Highway, which is a two-lane bitumen highway linking the Timor Sea to the Southern Ocean.

War brought improvements

The threat of Japanese invasion in WW2 made improving the road an imperative so that troops and supplies could be transported to Darwin.

Upgrading the original overland telegraph track required great endurance and considerable engineering nous to overcome everything from searing desert to tropical wilderness. By 1944 the highway was bitumen sealed, though some sections were narrow.

Emergency runway

Like the Eyre Highway stretching from east to west, some remote sections of the Stuart Highway serve as runways for the Royal Flying Doctor during emergencies when police close the road so the plane can land safely.

Open speed limits

With its vast distances today’s wide-open Stuart Highway has Australia’s highest speed limits at 130kmh. The section north of Alice Springs and south of Barrow Creek has had no limits at all since February 2014.

The Stuart Highway’s reputation for speed led to the tragically ill-conceived Cannonball Run, a road race on the Stuart Highway from Darwin to Alice Springs and back. It resulted in the death of four people when a Ferrari F40 driven by Japanese millionaire orthodontist slammed into a control point. The race was never run again.

World Solar Challenge

One motoring race, however, is still run along the Stuart Highway, though it stands in marked contrast to the petrol-headed hoonery of the Cannonball Run. It’s the World Solar Challenge, a race for solar powered cars which has run 12 times since 1987 promoting research on solar power.

Curiously enough, one entrant, the University of New South Wales’ Sunswift V, needs those open speed limits when it races to its maximum speed of 132kmh along the sun-soaked Stuart Highway.

 
Length
Runs from...
Year completed
Interesting fact
Stuart Highway
2834km
Port Augusta to Darwin
The highway was sealed in 1944
The Stuart Highway has Australia’s only open speed limits.
 
Stuart Highway
Length
2834km
Runs from...
Port Augusta to Darwin
Year completed
The highway was sealed in 1994
Interseting fact
The Stuart Highway has Australia’s only open speed limits.

Check out our other blogs in the series, Roads of Australia series - Gibb River Road Is A Spectacular Northern AdventureRoads of Australia series - Eyre Highway a long and not-so-winding roadRoads of Australia series - Hume Highway's History Reaches Back To Governor Macquarie.

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