What to See and Do in South Australia’s Outback
The state of South Australia is jam-packed with off-the-beaten-path delights. Here are a few to put on your bucket list.
South Australia sits in the southern center of the country, giving way to the Great Australian Bight in the south and Northern Territory and Queensland in the north. Though the capital, Adelaide, is home to the majority of the state’s population, most of SA is made up of rugged land known as the “outback.”
In fact, the outback stretches across most of the Australian continent: Though you’ll get some argument as to exactly which areas fall under the term outback, what defines the vast territory is simply its remoteness.
Traveling here feels like stepping into a time machine. You can drive for miles without seeing another human. This trip isn’t for people whose travel plans usually include “winging it.” You’ll need to pack in the essentials — food, water, and extra gasoline — and tell someone where you plan to be, and when you plan to get back. You can also book one of the many tours available, from backpacking adventures to luxury escapes.
Whether you book a tour or plan it yourself, the payoff is incredible. There’s simply nowhere else on Earth like it. Here are some of the top destinations to visit in Outback South Australia.
If Coober Pedy isn’t the world’s most unusual place, it’s certainly South Australia’s. The town is based around opal mining, but that’s not what makes it stand apart — that would be the fact that much of the town is built below ground.
Coober Pedy, which translates roughly to “white man in a hole,” is located about halfway between Adelaide and the center-point of Australia, Alice Springs. You can get here by driving or flying (about a two-hour flight from Adelaide), or as part of a package on The Ghan, a train line that runs the length of the country.
Stay in an underground hotel (like the aptly named Desert Cave), take a tour of some of the subterranean homes and visit a surprisingly varied number of below-ground churches. Your trip won’t be complete without learning about the stone that’s brought people from around the world to live here, so take a tour of a working opal mine and then swing by the visitor centre to learn how to search for a treasure of your own.
Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park
One of South Australia’s most remote and most striking landscapes is Kati Thanda, also known as Lake Eyre. The lake claims both the title of Australia’s largest salt lake, and also the country’s lowest point. Don’t be surprised if you show up and there’s no water: Kati Thanda is usually a dry salt pan. It floods only about once every eight years.
When the lake does flood, it turns into a rainbow of orange, purple and pink, but regardless of how much water there is (or isn’t) when you visit, you’re in for a treat. Even the dry bed is a breathtaking site, with a pattern of salt ridges as far as the eye can see.
You can drive to Kati Thanda, but will need a four-wheel drive and to take precautions like traveling with other vehicles. The most popular way of getting here is to take a scenic flight from Coober Pedy.
Nullarbor National Park
The Nullarbor is a dry, flat plain dotted with sinkholes where the land has given way to underground caverns. “Crossing the Nullarbor” refers to a 781-mile trip along a straight highway from Western Australia to South Australia, but you can take in the Nullarbor without a week-long drive. There are tours of the Nullarbor out of Ceduna, in the western part of the state, about a 45-minute flight from Adelaide.
The name Nullarbor comes from the Latin for “no“ (nullus) “trees” (arbor), but there’s plenty else to see along this stretch of highway, including kangaroos, wombats and wild camels. For a rustic experience, the Nullarbor Roadhouse sits just inside the national park, and you can rent a room or a spot in the caravan park. For a relatively quick trip, the limestone Murrawijinie Caves are about seven miles north, along a gravel road.
“Outback” doesn't mean inland. One of the highlights of the area is the dramatic Bunda Cliffs along the southern coast, where you’re likely to spot whales if you visit between June and September. (It's the best place in Australia to spot whales from the land.)
Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park
A five-hour drive north of Adelaide is Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park. Wilpena Pound — an amphitheater formed naturally by a ring of eroded mountains — is the main attraction here. For easy access, stay at the Wilpena Pound Resort. Visitors are welcomed in Yura Ngawarla, the language of the local Adnyamathanha people. The resort has rooms, but for a treat, stay in one of the “glamping” sites to sleep under the stars, but in a king-sized bed with air conditioning.
You’ll want to check out Arkaroo Rock to see ancient rock paintings on sandstone walls. Guided bush walks are also popular, and for something truly extraordinary, try an overnight stay in Chace Range, complete with a helicopter ride from Rawnsley Park Station.
Don’t leave the area without visiting the Prairie Hotel, where you can try local fare including kangaroo sausage and emu pate.