Kath Swinbourne is a Australian photographer based in Wollongong, New South Wales. So far she has undertaken solo drives in her 4WD through The Flinders Ranges and The Simpson Desert. Enjoying the solitude and spectacular scenery of her homeland, she travels with her swag, camera and good coffee. Currently planning her next trip, which will take her east to west, from New South Wales across to Western Australia, and then back home via Uluru and the Red Centre. A distance of over 10,000km. I caught up with Kath to asks her what exactly it is that she loves about life on the road in the outback.
You've already solo driven through the Simpson Desert in South Australia. What made you choose that area and why did you want to go solo?
I had already done one solo trip in 2016 to the Flinders Ranges and up the Birdsville Track, and loved it. I’ve always been a bit of a loner. When I was younger I spent 18 months backpacking around south east Asia on my own.
This time I started travelling alone because my partner couldn’t take time off work. In 2011 we travelled to Cape York together along the Old Telegraph Track. When we got back we said we would take a long trip at least every second year. But life gets in the way. Things happened with his work and it was always “next year”. I decided that I was not going to wait until next year any more, bought myself a 4WD (my Suzuki Vitara), fitted it out, and went to the Flinders Ranges. I decided that was a good way to start as its not too isolated so I could ease into travelling solo, and there are enough things to challenge me. I drove up the Birdsville Track, which is an iconic outback track.
As soon as I got back from that trip I said “next year I’m doing the Simpson Desert. If you want to come along that would be great, but if not, I’m going on my own.” He felt he couldn’t take time off work.
Why the Simpson? It was somewhere I’d never been so a completely new experience and because of its isolation it would give me time to really be on my own away from all ‘civilisation’, and really challenge myself. Usually even when you travel alone there are other people there for company, or if something goes wrong. In the Simpson I had a few days where I didn’t even see another soul.
Can you tell me about your route for your next trip?
I’m in the early stages of planning my next trip. I will drive to Adelaide via Cobar and Broken Hill, then drive across the Nullabor Plain, stopping to explore different places along the way. The coast along the Nullabor is amazing, and that should take me a week or so. Then the south-west corner of Western Australia (including the Margaret River wine region) where if I get really lucky I might be able to see the Southern Lights. From there I’ll drive to Kalgoorlie, and up to Laverton. From there I’ll drive along the Great Central Road, arriving at Kata Tjuta and Uluru from the west.
Or from Laverton I might take the Anne Beadell Highway to Coober Pedy and then through the Painted Desert to Oodnadatta. Either of those roads will take me through the Great Victoria Desert. I try to stay on back roads as much as possible because they tend to be more scenic drives, and there are more interesting things to see and experience along the way.
What kind of preparation does it take to do a solo drive through the Australian desert, and was there anything that caught you out on your previous trip?
Obviously there is a lot of preparation to make sure the car is very well serviced and capable of making the trip. I’ve also been learning more and more about the mechanics of the vehicle and how to fix it if something goes wrong. Some of that has been learned from experience!
I think the biggest preparation is mental. You have to be confident not only that you are capable of doing the trip, but that you are capable of spending that time alone, and being able to handle it if something goes wrong.
Nobody can fix everything, but you do need to know the basics of what is more likely to happen, particularly to the car but also first aid in case of injury or even snake bite, and – importantly – don’t panic if something does happen. As I said, in the Simpson Desert I spent a few days where I didn’t even see another person, and a week where my only conversation was on the UHF as I passed another car going up or down a sand dune. Every second day I rang Doc (my partner) on the sat phone to say “I’m still alive, I’ll call you when I get to Birdsville to chat”. We didn’t talk beyond that on the sat phone as I needed to maintain enough credit to be able to call somebody if something did go wrong.
You need good communications equipment. Outside major areas there is no mobile phone access, and I have a UHF and a satellite phone. I also have a personal locating beacon which I keep with me at all times in case I get lost or injured.
You also need to know something about the area you are visiting. I pore over maps, read about major scenic spots, and research the climate, driving conditions and stress that will put on the car, accessibility of fuel and other supplies, and I try to learn the indigenous history and culture of the area.
Can you give me an example of what a typical day might involve?
I usually wake up with the first of the birds, which is just before sunrise. I’ll lie there a while just listening and watching the sky get lighter, or if I want to watch or photograph the sunrise I’ll get up. If I’ve planned to take photos I will have worked out where I want to get the photos the night before and will have all the camera gear ready to go.
I get up and relight the campfire to make coffee, then I’ll sit with my coffee just taking in the world coming to life around me. When it’s time to get moving. I roll up my swag, wash up the coffee things (I don’t usually eat breakfast) and pack up the car. If I’m in a desert ‘washing up’ consists of wiping everything out with a paper towel so as not to waste water.
Then I’ll check over the car again to make sure nothing’s changed since the day before, and tighten my fan belt. I’ll burn all rubbish, and cover the fire and make sure it’s out.
Then I’ll drive. How far I drive depends on the driving and weather conditions, how much I stop to take photos, or to have a look at things or walk around somewhere, if I decide to stop for lunch or a cup of tea. When I find somewhere I want to stop, I’ll pull up and set up camp. I like to set up well before it gets dark, and with enough time for me to explore the area.
Setting up my camp is simple. Pick a spot and roll out the swag. Get out my chair, and pull out the awning on the side of the car. Once that’s set up I thoroughly check over the car. Perhaps the best piece of advice Doc gave me was “Check everything on the car every day. You might not know what you’re looking at, but you’ll notice when something changes. That’s when you fix it or get help.”
If I’m having a campfire I’ll collect some firewood. Then I might go for a walk. In somewhere like the Simpson Desert, my rule for myself is always not to lose sight of the car. But sometimes I just sit with a book and listen to and watch the world around me. I also do a lot of writing while I’m away and that’s usually when I write.
I’ll cook dinner on the fire, then sit by the fire to eat. All food and dishes have to be cleaned up and put away before I go to bed because otherwise they might attract wildlife, and sounds of animals digging around in your rubbish or looking for scraps of food in your campsite can be quite frightening in the middle of the night when you’re on your own!
Before I go to bed I’ll burn all burnable rubbish then let the fire burn down, and cover it with sand so that no sparks escape. Brush my teeth and hop into the swag where I can lie and look at the stars above.
What lessons did you learn from your time in the Simpson Desert that you will take with you on your next trip?
The biggest lesson I learned is that I can do it. The other important lesson is more about my car, what to look for, and how to fix it if it goes wrong. That’s something I am always learning more about.
Do you take any home comforts with you?
I usually take wine with me – nice sauvignon blanc and sparkling wine, which I drink out of good glasses, including flutes for the bubbly. I don’t like drinking wine out of plastic. I didn’t take wine across the Simpson because of the difficulty of the drive itself (lots of sand dunes), and because I knew I’d be completely alone. I wanted to keep my wits about me at all times.
And I always take good coffee, which I make in a stove top coffee maker on the fire, and also have a milk frother. I drink my coffee out of a china mug.
In my swag I have 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets (or flanalette if it’s cold), and a doona. I like to be comfortable when I sleep and don’t find sleeping bags at all comfortable. If it’s extra cold I also have a hot water bottle.
If I’m going to be away for more than 3 weeks I’ll also take a pedicure kit, hair treatment, and deep moisturising face mask. Having adventures and camping are not incompatible with being female!
What advice would you give to anyone considering a long distance road trip through Australia?
Do it. And take your time to really enjoy it. Before you decide to take a trip like that, understand how vast the distances between places are, and allow yourself plenty of time. The landscape changes constantly, so take your time to experience it. Make sure you have good communications, and an emergency plan.
If you break down DO NOT LEAVE YOUR VEHICLE! Make sure you have enough food and water to keep you going for a few days, and stay with your car. People die not because they broke down, but because they left their vehicle and got lost, or died of thirst or exposure. Your car will always be found before you.
Huge thanks to Kath for such an inspirational story. Follow her progress and read all about her outback adventures over on her blog. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
All photographs © Kathleen Swinbourne, reproduced with kind permission.