Great Victoria Desert, Australia
The Largest Desert In Australia
Great Victoria Desert
About the Great Victoria Desert
The Great Victoria is the largest Australian desert. Its size is 424,400 km2 (163,900 miles2) according to most sources (though I've seen anything between 348,750 km2/134,655 miles2 and 250,000 miles2).
If the last number is correct then the Great Victoria Desert in Australia is the third largest desert in the world, after the Sahara and the Arabian Desert. If the first number is correct it would still make it to number eight on the list, followed by the Great Sandy Desert. Two Western Australian deserts in the top ten...
I didn't go out and measure. Either way the Great Victoria Desert is the largest desert in Australia. It spans over 700 km/435 miles from west to east, with the western part of it belonging to Western Australia, and the eastern part extending into South Australia. It can take several days to cross this desert, but more about that later.
On the borders of the Great Victoria Desert you find... more deserts. The Gibson in the north, the Little Sandy Desert to the north-west, the Nullarbor Plain in the South, and the Tirary and the Sturt Stony Desert to the east. Australia is a dry country once you leave the coasts. No wonder people always talk about "the Outback desert" (which I guess sums up all the Australian deserts...).
The Great Victoria Desert in Australia was first crossed by the European explorer Ernest Giles in 1875 and named after Queen Victoria.
David Lindsey's expedition crossed the area from north to south in 1891. Lime Juice Camp is named to remind us of one of their mishaps: it was there that the party decided to have a celebration and open their supply of lime juice. It was mixed with whiskey and water in a galvanized tin, with the result that everybody became rather sick with zinc poisoning. Ah well...
The next explorer to leave his mark was Frank Hann, who was looking for pastoral lands and for gold in the area between 1903 and 1908. He named a few more places and features.
And last but not least there is the famous Len Beadell. He worked as a surveyor for the Australian army, and surveyed and build roads in the 1960s. If you read any of the many books he wrote about his time in the Great Victoria Desert then you can guess that the Anne Beadell Highway (named after his wife) is not exactly a highway...
The Great Victoria Desert receives only little rain, though not as little as one might suspect for a desert. The rainfall range is 200 - 250 mm a year, but the rain is unreliable. Southern parts receive some winter rainfall, further north the only water source are thunderstorms. And they are isolated and unpredictable.
The days in summer are hot, anything between 30 and 40°C (90 - 105F), but the dry heat is not as uncomfortable as the humid swelter of tropical Australia.
Winter temperatures range from a comfortable 20 to 25°C, but the nights can be freezing. And I do mean freezing, frosts are common.
Many people hear the word desert and expect endless sand dunes, or barren stony plains without vegetation. The Great Victoria Desert looks nothing like that. It's called a desert because there is little rain, not because it is dead or boring.
The amount of vegetation may surprise you. Australia has always been a dry continent, and the plants are well adapted to living with very little water. Not only marble gums, mulga and spinifex grass thrive here. You will find a huge variety of shrubs and smaller plants.
When it does rain the transformation is total. The desert bursts into bloom seemingly over night. Fields of wildflowers, accentuated with flowering grevilleas and acacias, yellows, whites and mauves against the red sands... I was lucky enough to cross the Great Victoria Desert after a big rain. The sight of the blooming desert is something I will never forget. (And the fact that I didn't have a camera on the trip is something I will never forgive myself...)
But even without any rain the Great Victoria Desert is a sight to behold. Rocks and ranges, caves and gorges, bluffs and breakaways... and wildlife, wildlife, wildlife.
But there are concerns also. Increasing tourist traffic may lead to habitat degeneration. And introduced feral animals are already impacting negatively. Donkeys, camels, rabbits... Chances are you'll see them, and they don't belong here.
Travel in the Great Victoria Desert
If you want to travel in a remote area like this you need to be thoroughly prepared. Have your four wheel drive vehicle checked over, make sure you carry adequate supplies of fuel, water, spare parts, recovery gear and tools, and a satellite phone or HF radio in case something goes very wrong. Get a very detailed map, and find out about the condition of the roads before you leave.
Having said that, just crossing the Great Victoria Desert is not that difficult, provided you stick to the main road. If you are prepared and have some common sense you shouldn't have any problems. It can even be done in a two wheel drive. With great care! (But there are several alternative tracks, side tracks and round tracks that are well worth exploring, and they require a bit more experience and preparation...)
The most common route simply follows the Great Central Road from Leonora via Laverton and Warburton to Ayers Rock (map). This road is sometimes referred to as the "new" Gunbarrel Highway. Len Beadell's original Gunbarrel Highway starts further north in Wiluna and most of it is no longer maintained. It was realigned, and the new road renamed, in the seventies.
(There are even plans to upgrade this road as a part of the "Outback Highway", an all weather road through the centre of Australia that connects the east coast with the west coast.)
You will be passing through Aboriginal lands. If you want to leave the main route you need to organize the required permits in time.
Fuel and supplies are available in Leonora, Laverton, Warburton, Warrakurna, Docker River, and of course at Yulara/Ayers Rock. The longest stretch between supply points is between Laverton and Warburton: 560 km.
Make sure you carry enough fuel to allow for whatever may happen. It's amazing how much more you use in deep sand, or when you try to get yourself out of a bog, or when you check out that little side track up that hill, to that cave someone mentioned... It doesn't hurt to have extra.
That should be it. Have a great trip :)
I'm sure there are tour operators taking people into the Great Victoria Desert, along the Gunbarrel Highway etc. I'll find out more and let you know.