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Vulture South distills the World Solar Challenge into a bush communications guide
The Vulture South team has just driven from Darwin to Adelaide to cover the World Solar Challenge, the biennial car race that aims to accelerate the development of solar technology.
Getting stories out wasn't easy, because while telcos claim they reach 90-something per cent of Australia they're talking about the Australian population, not its land mass. And precious little of Australia's population lives on or around the Stuart Highway.
Here's how we survived in the desert – for water and connectivity - and how you can too if you decide to venture into Australia's dead heart.
1. Consider, but don't rush for, a Telstra SIM
Yes, Telstra is more expensive than any other Australian mobile network. Yes, Telstra's customer service can be dire. Yes, Telstra is the carrier Australia loves to hate and hates to love.
But if you want coverage beyond the Stuart Highway's most obvious stops, you'll need Telstra.
Our Optus-over-Amaysim SIM worked fine in Tenant Creek, Alice Springs, Coober Pedy and Port Augusta, the most obvious stops on a five-day Darwin-to-Adelaide itinerary. Outside those towns there was nothing.
Telstra has more coverage between Darwin and Katherine and more coverage at smaller road houses and towns in-between the big settlements mentioned above. Having said that, even Telstra has no coverage at Stuart Highway stops like Pine Creek and Wauchope, so if you can do without midday email checks you can also do without a Telstra SIM.
A glance at coverage maps for other isolated highways suggests this story is played out around Australia. If a town gets to a population of a few thousand, carriers other that Telstra make the effort and you'll get connectivity once or twice a day if you're on a 600km-800km a day pace.
2. Hills are your friend
Some remote communities have Telstra cells, but they're not near the Stuart Highway. Yet if you can climb a few metres, you'll get signal from those far-off cells.
An example: about 50km south of The Devil's Marbles the Stuart Highway passes over a railway bridge. You'll get signal at the top, but nowhere else for miles around.
We even got signal here at -21° 51' 28.8" S, 133° 14' 16.8" E, a spot well and truly off the highway but rather higher than the surrounding plain. We didn't even have to go looking for coverage: my phone started to throb with incoming SMSes.
3. Tourist traps are coverage magnets
It can be worth a quick diversion to a tourist trap to get some coverage. Elsey National Park, the easiest place from which to access the swimming hole at Mataranka Springs, has better coverage than in downtown Mataranka.
The swimming's better but the coverage is worse at nearby Bitter Springs.
4. Roadhouses are also your friend
Every 200km or so, there's a roadhouse by the Stuart Highway. They sell petrol and food, offer simple hotel facilities and a caravan park. Most also have a pub. A few have WiFi or internet-connected PCs to rent. Prices aren't cheap, but if you need a fix you'll get it. One roadhouse's proprietor even offered to let me slurp their private WiFi for a bit.
5. Be careful with USB in the car
If you travel the outback in your own car you'll know if you have a USB port. If not, a cigarette-lighter-to-USB adapter can now be had for a tenner at convenience stores and are also becoming a common trade show giveaway.
You might also want to consider an inverter that offers a 240v outlet as well as USB. Those come in the same size and shape as a soft drink can, so you can tuck them away in a cup holder easily.
Whatever you chose for USB on wheels, don't expect stellar performance. We found that using a Galaxy S4 to play audio books over Bluetooth through our rented car's stereo used enough power that the mobe could stay plugged in all day without actually charging: energy in and out just about evened out.
If you're going to need your phone for tethering once you roll into town, carrying a spare battery or battery pack is a smart idea.
6. Keep your gadgets in the shade
We copped a couple of 40 degree days on my trip and quickly learned to keep my laptop out of the sun. Vulture South Editor Simon's MacBook Air may have decided it had nine hours of battery life when used under direct sunlight, but soon made some rather scary noises, became uncomfortably hot to the touch and blew its pathetic little fan even once shut down. We suspect it was pushed to the very edge of its working parameters. It was only used in the shade thereafter.
If you can afford rugged kit, it seems a sane investment. If not, Alice Springs has an electronics shop or two, so it looks like a spare laptop could be had there in an emergency. But it's 1500km from Darwin and 1200km from Port Augusta, which would mean a day or two without a computer if you let your machine fry.
7. GPS? Fuggedaboutit!
You won't need a GPS on the Stuart Highway. We'd go so far to say that if you can't navigate from Darwin to Adelaide yourself, you lack the basic skills and common sense needed to make the attempt. From Darwin, just follow the signs out of town. There's only one road. Adelaide's a little trickier, but the signs to Port Augusta will get you headed in the right direction.
8. Satellites are nice, not necessary
Renting a satellite phones or modem are quite affordable. The kind folk at Inmarsat loaned us one and while it did not play nicely with our Macs and could not establish a data connection, getting a signal and sending TXTs was easy. We should really have given ourselves more time to test before we left Sydney, if only because when mobile phone coverage zones are hours apart it's hard to get tech support on the line.
The bottom line is that if you need constant contact, the option is there.
9. Take your trip seriously
There's enough traffic on the Stuart Highway that if something goes wrong with your car, you'll survive. But relying on a mobile phone as your sole lifeline is madness
Do yourself a favour and lay in some supplies. Darwin supermarkets sell ten litre casks of drinking water for under $5.00. Carry a little food, just in case. And try not to drive at night: plenty of the Stuart Highway passes through unfenced cattle farms. Some of the cows are black and locals fear them more than they fear the 'roos. ®