Six of Australia's best outback drives

DARLING RIVER RUN, NSW

This route follows the Darling River for 940 kilometres diagonally across NSW, starting at Walgett and finishing at Wentworth where the Darling meets the Murray. Indigenous heritage is astonishing: Brewarrina's fish traps are among the world's first human structures, Mutawintji National Park has superb rock art, and Lake Mungo has archaeological sites 42,000 years old. This route also showcases the early European inland settlements that helped define modern Australia, such as wool towns Bourke and Wilcannia. Time your journey for the middle-of-nowhere horseraces at Louth in August and you're in for a classic outback experience. See visitnsw.com

STUART HIGHWAY, NT

xx6outback Six Best Outback Drives  ; text by Brian Johnston ;
cr: Tourism NT (handout image supplied via journalist, no syndication) Devils Marbles Conservation Reserve (Karlu Karlu)

Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles). Photo: Peter Eve

You could hardly experience the outback more easily than on this sealed transcontinental highway that runs 2720 kilometres from Port Augusta to Darwin via Alice Springs, and whose detours tempt you to national parks such as Litchfield, Kakadu, Nitmiluk and Elsey, where you can float in hot springs. The route has all the outback road-trip elements, from gold-rush towns to characterful pubs and striking landscapes such as the MacDonnell Ranges and Karlu Karlu (Devils Marbles). Coober Pedy has quintessential quirkiness where you can get underground and listen to the improbable hopes of eccentric opal-hunting characters. See discovercentralaustralia.com

SAVANNAH HIGHWAY, QLD/NT

This epic 3700-kilometre journey links damp Cairns to sun-baked Broome. Its western half is all sealed road, making the Cairns-to-Katherine section the most adventurous as, skirting the Gulf of Carpentaria, it swings across tablelands, grasslands and rust-red outback. Among highlights are volcanic landscapes and lava tubes at Undara, a cruise through Cobbold Gorge (though this requires a slight detour) and Nitmiluk (Katherine) Gorge. Former gold-mining towns, barramundi fishing, eccentric bush pubs, cattle stations, waterfalls and wetlands filled with bird life are other incentives. You'll need a four-wheel drive; stick to the May-October dry season. See queensland.com, northernterritory.com

KIDMAN WAY, NSW

This 820-kilometre south-north route cleaves straight through the middle of NSW along the divide between outback and agricultural land and is a varied, easy drive for those who don't want red dust every day. Start off in Albury on the Murray River and head to Jerilderie, which is central to the Ned Kelly story, and then Riverina foodie hub Griffith. At mining town Cobar the outback takes over. In Bourke, the Back O'Bourke Exhibition Centre gives an excellent overview of regional outback history and the importance of the Darling River to modern Australian development. See visitnsw.com

RED CENTRE WAY, NT

Although this is a tourism construct rather than historical outback route, you can't beat the thumping great rocks and glowing orange gorges that dot this 658-kilometre loop from Alice Springs around the Red Centre. All the icons are here – Kings Canyon, Uluru, Kata Tjuta – but equally flamboyant are the West MacDonnell Ranges and Rainbow Valley. Remote cattle stations, refreshing waterholes, salt lakes and unexpected remnants of ancient tropical forest are more subtle distractions. Artilla or Mt Conner looks disconcertingly like Uluru from a distance. If you don't have a four-wheel drive, a longer sealed-road alternative requires some backtracking. See northernterritory.com

GIBB RIVER ROAD, WA

xx6outback Six Best Outback Drives  ; text by Brian Johnston ;
cr: Tourism WA (handout image supplied via journalist, no syndication) Gibb River Road at the Pentecost River

Photo: Tourism WA

This long, bone-jolting track through the Kimberley links remote cattle stations over 700 kilometres of unsealed road between Kununurra and Fitzroy Crossing. You'll need a four-wheel drive, outback savvy and several days; the only luxuries are at El Questro and Home stations at the road's eastern end. The route is studded with giant boab trees and splendid red gorges fed by waterfalls; pools scattered with purple water lilies are a cool antidote to the heat and dust. The immense cavern at Tunnel Creek is associated with Jundumurra, one of the great figures of Aboriginal rebellion against European settlement. See australiasnorthwest.com