David Whitley braves the foul food and pricey petrol to discover glorious slices of Outback absurdity in the Northern Territory.



One thing that will become unavoidable if you decide to take on a big driving adventure through Australia is the roadhouse. These lonely outposts of expensive fuel, culinary horrors, country music CDs and porn mags in plastic wrappers quickly become something of an institution. They keep truckers in energy drinks, bacon rolls and staple-adorned libido appeasers - and tourists in reminders of how while remote Australia is great to visit, you wouldn’t want to live there.



You soon develop tactics to deal with the roadhouses. Filling up with petrol in towns is usually cheaper, and if using the roadhouse is unavoidable for refuelling, pick the one that is closest to a major population centre. Also, if you see a herd of caravans parked outside, you want to get out of there quickly before you’re trapped behind them. Much is made of the road trains being the slow-moving menace of the Stuart Highway, but they’re mere pussycats compared to the plague of old gimmers pottering around the country, towing their worldly belongings behind them. On numerous occasions, we have seen frustrated road train drivers working out how they’re going to overtake the caravan dawdling along at 75km/h in a 130km/h zone. 


As for the food, any attempts to do as the Romans do will be gradually beaten out of you. The burgers, chicken schnitzels, meat pies and vile monstrosities made of batter/ meat of unknown providence are tolerable once or twice. But when they’re bad, they’re really bad. After the burger at Curtin Springs, I gave serious thought to either vegetarianism or a starvation diet. It gets to a point when you start drawing up a list of your top five vomit-inducing lunches.


The smart alternative, incidentally, is to have an enormous fry-up breakfast. This at least has to be cooked from scratch, rather being produced from its four week, bubbling bain marie hibernation. From there on, a Cornetto will more than do the trick for lunch. Did I mention that you’re probably going to put on weight if you attempt to drive from Melbourne to Darwin?


Eventually, however, you begin to develop a begrudging love for the roadhouses. Once you get to the Northern Territory, in particular, they all seem to try so hard to win your affection. Kulgera boasts that it is the first and last stop in the Territory, and has an enormous map outside pointing out the distances to just about everywhere else in Australia. Erldunda, at the junction that branches off to Uluru, has a few emus strutting around in a pen outside. Mt Ebenezer sells aboriginal art, Stuarts Well offers camel rides and a singing dingo, while Larrimah has everything painted pink.


Aileron is particularly good. On the hilltop above the roadhouse is a 12m high man wearing a loin cloth, while a sculpture of a lizard in a bikini sits outside a petrol station and a coffin doubles as the spirits cabinet (geddit?) in the pub. Aileron also has its own pet wedge-tailed eagle, which struts around on a perch outside trying to look threatening, even though it’s clearly injured and can no longer fly. He may as well be squawking “come on then, I’ll nut you.”


But the undoubted king of the novelty roadhouses is Wycliffe Well. And for its unswerving dedication to novelty, we decided to grace it with our presence for the night. The motel rooms may be a little, er, prisony, but the schtick is great. Over the years, Wycliffe Well has carved itself a reputation as ‘The UFO Capital of Australia’. Numerous sightings have been reported at Wycliffe Well – a fact entirely unrelated to the amount of beer consumed there, of course. Owner Lew Farkas has developed a knack for marketing, and has thus covered his euphemistically-monickered ‘holiday park’ with little green men, Blue Peter-esque spaceships and cosmically-themed murals. 


The walls of the ‘restaurant’ are filled with newspaper cuttings about sightings in the area, and there is a sightings book on the reception desk where guests can make notes about their own close encounters. If that wasn’t gimmicky enough, the grounds have been filled with life-sized Incredible Hulks, Elvises and bizarre spotty animals that don’t really bear a resemblance to any real living creature. Oh yes, there’s also the world’s most half-arsed aviary and a paddock with vaguely psychotic emus running around and staring out anyone who cares to look over the fence. It’s beautifully desperate. But at the same time, if all of Australia’s roadhouses pulled off such ridiculous nonsense off so well, they’d end up as destinations in their own right.


More photos here



By David Whitley