Plenty Highway, NT/Qld
Like the Great Central Road, a back country mostly dirt road shortcut, in this case between Alice Springs and Central Queensland that’s primary virtue may well be the avoidance of the Stuart, Barkly and Flinders Highways.
There are few supply points for food but the water situation may not be as bad as you might assume: those cattle require water and for ease of service there are well spaced bores adjacent to the road.
Generally fair riding conditions but there can be the occasional painful stretch where the road has been smashed by roadtrains, that bulldust is a whole new biking experience: slip into the granny cog and just grit your teeth.
Another Central Australian “highway” that hardly deserves the appellation this one is only for the well prepared, it gets way remote.
where – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
Alice Springs, Northern Territory to Winton, Queensland via the East MacDonnell Ranges and Lark Quarry.
distance – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
About 1325 km with the detours, unsealed except for about 250 km near each end.
maps – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
The Hema Great Desert Tracks North East Sheet, scale 1: 1,250,000, is essential for indicating the water points.
time – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
18 days riding to average about 75 km a day: on these standard Outback unsealed roads you might find that is enough. Allow an extra day at Trephina Gorge to walk the Ridgetop Walk, or any rest day, no other compelling spot except maybe Georgina River.
when – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
April to October inclusive. It’s way to hot in summer, eg, around here it can be 40ºC+ in January.
Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland route in yellow. Permanent water points shown.
bike shops – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
The nearest bike shops are Pennyfarthing, recommended despite the unglamorous nature of the place and Ultimate Ride, not, in Alice Springs, NT, and, err, Townsville or somewhere a long, long, way away in Queensland, ie, be prepared with a reliable bike and sufficient spares.
road – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
You can go direct to the Plenty Highway, yawn, but heading up through the East Macs is well worth it.
The Ross Highway is sealed for the first 80 km to the Ross River Resort turnoff. The roads in the East Macs are generally firm enough. Now the Cattlewater Pass road has been closed, use the reasonably good Pinnacles Road to cut through to the Plenty Highway. There are just a few kilometres of the narrow, in fact one lane, sealed road before you hit the dirt which then lasts until 30km out of Boulia.
The dirt can be variable depending on when the grader has gone through, there’s several passes each year. There are some softish stretches but it’s nothing like the hard work needed on the Great Central Road for instance, at least on the Territory side.
Despite the warning signs at the border and Boulia, the Queensland side is generally considerably better, ie, harder road surface although the limestone surface can be tough on tyres. The last 30km into Boulia is sealed although there are also longish stretches of seal at various intervals that make you think the seal has been extended.
The cross country detour directly to Lark Quarry improves dramatically after Mackunda Creek, it would need to. The last 40 km into Winton is sealed.
water – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
Water is not as large a problem as you might think on this route as long as you are prepared to carry plenty and/or don’t mind the high salt content of the local drop, ie, bore water.
The road is through cattle country for the most part and there are bores with water of varying quality spaced along the highway, including in Queensland where the Hema map omits them, visible from the highway. Some discharge into “turkey mounds”, ie, open ponds, generally a little salty due to evaporation, but drinkable after filtering to remove the bird contamination; others have open topped tanks, ditto; or occasionally sealed tanks where access to the water can be awkward. The windmills have all been decommissioned, replaced by diesel pumps but the general indicator of the presence of water is the sign of recent cattle activity, ie, footprints.
The cattle stations that host campers, Ambalindum and Jervois, and Tobermorey, which since October 2011 under new owners does not, all have acceptable bore water.
The roadside tank opposite Jervois homestead turnoff seems no longer maintained. The bore at the Pinnacle turnoff seems marked incorrectly, it is in fact at the northern end opposite the junction with the Plenty.
There is town water, or rainwater, supply in Alice Springs, Trephina Gorge Conservation Park at the two campgrounds, Arltunga Visitor Centre, Atitjere at the community store, Boulia, Lark Quarry and Winton.
There is good bore water and a “hot” shower at the Hamilton Hotel ruins. For the desparate there are permanent murky waterholes a k or two upstream at Georgina River and at the crossing of the Diamantina River. There’s no water in any of the sandy creeks.
Otherwise this is the type of road where you are likely to be offered water from other travellers from their camping trailer supply that lacks the salt content of the local drops.
- 78 km Alice Springs to Trephina Gorge
- 46 km Trephina Gorge to Arltunga Visitor Centre
- 20 km Arltunga to Ambalindum homestead
- 160 km Ambalindum to Atitjere community
- 126 km Atitjere to Jervois Station
- 219 km Jervois to Tobermorey Station (also various bores near road)
- 258 km Tobermorey to Boulia (also various bores near road)
- 78 km Boulia to Hamilton Hotel ruins
- 230 km Hamilton Hotel to Lark Quarry
- 110 km Lark Quarry to Winton
food – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
Alice Springs has a Woollies and Coles with national pricing, open 7 to 10 pm weekdays but closing earlier over the weekend.
Atitjere has a reasonably stocked community store for a few treats. Jervois Station sells a few basic items for the desparate. Boulia has an OK store considering the population of 200 and the roadhouse makes huge, if slightly unhealthy takeaways.
Winton has 3 small IGA style supermarkets, Spar on the Hughenden Road is the biggest.
Basically you have to load up at either end for the Alice to Boulia stretch.
camping – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
Alice Springs has a few caravan parks, most convenient to town and bike friendly is Stuart CP on Larapinta Drive, but at $27 for an unpowered site it ain’t exactly a bargain. For the solo traveller a backpackers is cheaper than that and you get a bed: Annies Place ($22 with breakfast and decent free internet) is handy, big and rowdy with a bar; Toddys; Alices Secret, etc, are alternatives.
Trephina Gorge Conservation Park has 3 camping areas, the Bluff the obvious one, no generators, gas burner and bbq, water tap, toilet at $3.30pp. Just up the road is the sporadically opened campsite at Arltunga for $8pp, ask if it isn’t officially open, but the owner works in Alice.
Ambalindum and Jervois Stations have paid camping but ain’t you doing this to get away from the continual thump of those big generators. Camping near those bores/waterholes/creekbeds is one of the best parts of this trip, massive quantities of raucous birdlife in the early morning and evenings. Otherwise unlikely to have company.
Georgina River has a few undistinguished but shady campsites near a murky series of waterholes.
$20 for a site at Boulia CP seems way overpriced but the grass is green and it’s clean. Hamilton Hotel ruins has free dusty spots with a toilet and cold shower if you need one.
There’s a free campsite without even toilets, water, etc, at Long Waterhole 4km south of Winton but you might prefer the $10pp hospitality at the bike friendly Pelican CP. There are another 2 CPs but, well, you’ll see.
other sights – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
Trephina Gorge is short but there are dramatic views from the well named Panorama Walk, the Ridgetop walk is worth the effort for views all the way back to Alice and a whole heap of curious landforms closer at hand. The Arltunga Historic Reserve is extensive best to drop in to the Visitors Centre telling of the story of Australia’s most remote, and least prosperous gold rush. Overall the East Macs are the most “scenic” section of the trip.
The Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede is a hugely interesting and worthwhile detour, 3 tours a day, 10am, 12 and 2pm for $12 to see 1000s of smaller dinosaur footprints pointing one way with some T Rex style prints stalking at speed the other. This site was used to choreograph the dinosaur scenes in the film Jurassic Park.
permits – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
warnings – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
Not much traffic out there, maybe 8 4WDs a day around the border region. Best to just get completely off the road when the roadtrains come through. Muster time is the months following May and you may see more of them than cars, sometimes with a few in a convoy.
Bike parts aren’t so easy to come by so be prepared with spare tyre, tubes, etc, the limestone based road can be harsh on the wheels.
Food is a major issue. Stock up before you leave.
The Cattlewater Pass road marked on maps no longer exists, having been closed and fenced off by the landholders.
There are some stretches of corrugations and bulldust, ie, softish road, on the NT side but riding on the periphery of the “highway” can help and they generally can be traversed in an hour or two.
download 29 more images – Plenty + Donohue Highways, Northern Territory/Queensland
These 29 images give a general impression of the road conditions and water sources you are likely to encounter out there. And just a few pretty pictures too.
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