As we heading north from Alice Springs my mind returned to 1957 - the first time I had traversed the Stuart Highway between The Alice and Tennant Creek.
Then, the remote Northern Territory was much more remote. The “highway” was slightly wider than a large vehicle and trees, shrubs and spinifex lined each side providing a high potential for road surprises - that instant when a kangaroo or cow walks onto the road in front of you. Many a vehicle had arrived at its destination with damage resulting from an animal strike. The worst cases were, of course, towed in or transported home on the backs of trucks. On rare occasions, there would be a fatality - no seat belts in 1957.
When two vehicles approached, both had to put their outside wheels off the bitumen so they could pass. This presented an additional hazard given that much of the road edge was badly broken and pot-holed. However, I can recall occasions when we had done the then eight hour trip from Tennant Creek to The Alice and never pass another vehicle.
Today was much different. Although there is always the potential for a road surprise, the Stuart Highway is now a real highway with wide cleared edges, defined lanes and with a general speed limit of 130 km/hr. In some places the speed limit is unrestricted - drivers can drive as fast as they wish, and many brave souls do.
With two tonnes of caravan behind my car, I chose to drive at a steady 100 km/hr along that stretch I had travelled perhaps hundreds of times. Although the scenery is very ordinary, there is a meditative aspect to sitting looking out the front window for hours on end. There are many more fellow travellers on the road today too, which provides at least some intermittent break from the tedium.
We stopped at Prowse Gap rest stop overnight as it has toilets and ample parking space for larger caravans. After a busy few weeks and under the clear, sparkling Central Australian sky, we had the best night’s sleep for weeks. As I dozed off, I thought of my long lost parents and brother and the good times we had had living here when it was like Australia’s Wild West.