The Future of Remote Area Travel

Saturday, Mar 01, 1986 at 17:30



Sometimes we travel of necessity; to school, to work, to the shops, but what about optional travel. Why do we seek to travel? Travel brings us new experiences in unfamiliar places and in meeting different people. It takes the sameness out of our lives and allows us a fresh view of ourselves from outside the humdrum of familiarity.

What’s special about remote area travel? The urban environment relies on interdependence, even in such primary needs as food, water and shelter. When we travel to remote places we assume far more responsibility for meeting our own needs. We seek the liberation of self reliance.

So what’s changing?

Sit beside a dusty outback track for a day and watch the passing traffic. There might be the occasional local going about his business, but there are also lots of 4WDs and other cars, many looking as though they shouldn’t have left the bitumen. Caravans and expensive looking camper trailers, the occasional motorbike, even a European back packer in a hire van or on a push bike who couldn’t comprehend the distances printed on the map. That the track is horribly corrugated isn’t mentioned on his map either.

The back packers are a minority; they are sunburned, young and fit. Many of the drivers are of mature years, their remaining hair greying at the temples. There are family groups; the young kids have been taken out of school to travel, to learn to be observant, self reliant, to experience their country. Some drivers have seen friends and colleagues die prematurely before retirement when they’d planned to travel.

It’s easy to forget that a decade ago you couldn’t sit beside this track and watch the traffic. There wasn’t enough traffic to watch then.

Over the past decade when we’ve embarked on big trips we’ve noticed the increase in “remote area” traffic. It’s a common topic of conversation when travelers camp for the night and share a campfire. “Never used to be like this”. A traveler to the Cape recently described the adventure as “a dusty traffic jam interspersed with idiots”. Even the ultimate iconic trip, the Canning Stock Route (CSR), is fast succumbing to the traffic onslaught. The track has never known maintenance but on a recent trip we encountered lengthy sections damaged by tourists driving at dangerously high speeds with high tyre pressures, and a general lack of regard for the territory and other travelers. Too many simply want to “do” the Canning rather than savouring the experience.

When, quite some years ago, we first traveled the Gibb River Road (GRR) through the centre of the Kimberley, it was a serious undertaking. It called for careful preparation, plenty of fuel and spares, and especially extra tyres and tyre repair gear. There was very little traffic. It was one of the iconic tracks; to come out the other end without replacing a tyre or two and with the vehicle largely intact was an achievement. On a recent trip though, much of the GRR had been upgraded to 100 kph standard and appeared in readiness for bituminizing. Some of the more difficult stretches had already been sealed. Parts of the once iconic Tanami Track leading northwest from Alice Springs, and of the Plenty Highway running from western Queensland to the centre of the Territory are being sealed. More travelers calls for better roads leading to more travelers traveling even faster.

The opportunity to appreciate and experience our remote areas, the landscape, the solitude, even the unpolluted night sky, is becoming increasingly rare. It is becoming harder to have a truly remote experience. A core factor is the popularizing through the mass media of areas of outstanding natural beauty, majestic scenery or rich heritage such as the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu, the deserts, the gorges of northern WA, the forests of the south west, …… Increasing numbers are drawn to “see” these wonders. Increasing affluence, more intense marketing of more capable vehicles and after-market add-ons, better roads, better communications, all contribute to the allure of remote travel. In the process they destroy its remoteness.

And it’s not just the numbers of people involved. It’s the uncaring self absorbed people who have a disproportionate impact on the environment and those around them. Escaping this mindless minority and their leavings is becoming harder. At Lake Eyre and at Lake Disappointment in the centre of the CSR the scars carved by their vehicles on the salt pans will show for many years to evidence an offensive lack of regard for the splendour that lies around. Elsewhere on the Canning we came upon some travelers who were engaged in some “real” four wheel driving, up and over the rugged hills at suicide speed scattering rocks in all directions and leaving scars that will last for decades. Such foolhardy behaviour deserves censure at any time, but when the nearest mechanical workshop or medical assistance is 1000 km away?

Apart from the loss of remoteness due to numbers of travelers and the human evidence they leave in their wake, what else is changing?

Access to remote places is increasingly restricted by artificial factors. Suites of permits from various bureaucracies are required to venture into many areas. Many of the iconic tracks established by Len Beadell not so very long ago are now entangled with red tape. And these permits are restricted to the track; to venture off the track by more than a few metres is not on. The permits restrict travel to particular times and deny the traveler the flexibility needed to do anything more than traverse the track. To camp overnight beside the Gibb River Road is now unacceptable. To leave the tracks in the Simpson to camp is now unacceptable. To travel outside the three day permit window for the Great Central Road is unacceptable. Where tracks cross state borders and two sets of permits are required the problem compounds. Permit issue is haphazard, often slow and unreliable, sometimes expensive. It can become simply too hard to do “the right thing”, especially in remote areas where phone and internet access simply don’t exist.

And in the future?

At present, the permit system is mainly used to evidence control by traditional owners over access to vast areas of Australia. It could be readily expanded to protect areas deemed by vocal minorities to need protection on environmental, cultural or other grounds. There can only be more, rather than less, of these restrictions in the future.

The rising price of fuel will probably have some impact, though a tax on km traveled (as in the Netherlands) might have a greater effect. A vocal conservation movement may cause further indiscriminate closures. Vandalism may lead to access being restricted to only accredited operators, such as commercial tours and 4WD associations. Restrictions may be placed on access to special places such as Fraser Island to prevent them being “loved to death”.

Who will be traveling?

Certainly the Grey Nomads. This group is set to expand over the next decade as the baby boomer bubble enters retirement. This part of the population tends to be cashed up, past the house repayment phase and past educating the kids. Some sell the family home and downsize, or take permanently to the road, creating a cash surplus. They’ve had the dream of doing the big lap around the big island, have bought the big 4WD, the big caravan and lots of maps. They are hitting the road. The most recent census in 2006 showed there were close to twice as many people aged 40 to 50 years as there were aged 60 to 70 years, the Grey Nomad age. So, in around ten years time, we can expect to see twice as many of them on the road. Remote tracks will resemble caravan parks!

Speaking of caravan parks - They aren’t really a part of the remote experience, but an essential when the traveler must check into civilisation – to shop, service their vehicle, maintain contact with family, etc. In the northwest many are filled with mining company employees; some have been bought outright by the mining companies. The number of travelers is increasing while accommodation is decreasing. Roadside stopping areas are being created to help alleviate the shortage.

Who else will be traveling? Probably the most important group will be families. Kids will benefit for the rest of their lives from a remote experience, while retirees benefit from the intellectual stimulation and physical exercise of climbing hills and exploring gorges. It is the kids who will benefit most with memories, experiences and life skills long after the retirees have moved on.

A few final thoughts

We are faced with a dilemma when accessing these special places. On the one hand we need our special vehicles and a well developed ability to use and maintain them. We need self reliance, a well founded belief in our own abilities. But, on the other hand we must recognize our limitations and how accustomed we are to relying on outside support. There are places it isn’t prudent to travel without a backup vehicle, an alternative driver, good communications equipment, mechanical expertise,…. We need self reliance, but paradoxically we also need backup resources for when self reliance isn’t enough. The company of like minded friends and their sturdy vehicles enhances our experiences and provides a safety net when things go pear shaped.

Those 4WD clubs with a good training program play a vital role in developing self reliance and understanding of the abilities and limitations of our vehicles and our selves. The camaraderie and mutual supportiveness of club membership can be very special and can be quite overwhelming. We, like others, have benefited and valued it in remote places, on the Canning, in the Simpson, the Kimberley….

These remote places though are becoming less remote and more congested.

Don’t wait until the kids leave school. Don’t wait for retirement. Don’t wait until illness or injury take remote travel out of reach. Go now!!!

This article first appeared in Southern Trails, magazine of the Southern Tablelands 4WD Club. It incorporates the opinions of many seasoned travellers who contribute to the ExplorOz forum. We acknowledge their input with gratitude..

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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