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Australia’s Highway 1: The Longest National Highway in the World

Legendary American musician and iconic stoner Willie Nelson once said, “I believe that all roads lead to the same place—and that is wherever all roads lead to” – whether he was high as a kite when he said it we aren’t quite sure, but for today’s Megaproject, it seemed entirely appropriate.      

Australia’s spectacularly long Highway 1 is the longest national highway in the world and covers a mind-boggling 14,500 km (9,000 mi) – to put that number in perspective, it’s also the distance between London and Perth. Also known as the ‘the Big Lap’, Highway 1, which is a combination of various existing routes, circumnavigates the country passing through every state and almost every major Australian city – and even manages to appear on the island of Tasmania. 

This is a length of paved road that is colossal in size and certainly sees plenty of traffic – although that’s certainly dependent on where you are – but on average the road sees over a million users every day. In terms of great road trip routes, you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere better on the planet.  

A Vast Land

Like the Americans, the Australians are rather partial to their cars, but when you look at the size of Australia, you can certainly see why. Australia is the sixth-largest country on the planet, with a size of 7,692,024 km2 (2,969,907 sq mi). It’s also by far the largest island on Earth, but it’s so big it’s classed as a continent so doesn’t hold that particular record.  

The distances between major cities are enough to give you a sore bum before you even step into the car. As the crow flies, Perth and Brisbane are separated by 3,606 km (2241 miles) – even Sydney and Melbourne, which basically look right next to each other on a map, lie 713 km (443 miles) apart.  

These distances are usually made even longer because roads rarely run direct, so the driving distance between Perth and Brisbane works out at 4,338 km (2,695 miles). If you put it into Google maps it will tell you that this particular journey can be completed in 46 hours of constant driving. And that’s just half over Highway 1. 

Today Australia has 800,000 km (49,700 miles) worth of roads dotted around the country, ranging from Highways linking cities to smaller access roads out in the outback. That’s a distance that would comfortably get you to the moon and back. 

Early Australian Roads

With such immense distances between locations, the need for such roads is fairly obvious, though it’s taken generations to build up Australia’s network. Even today, roughly 45% of the country’s roads remain unsealed, with around half being natural earth surface. 

The first roads began appearing in Australia in 1788 after the founding of the European settlement in New South Wales, though the aborigines, who predated the settlers by over 50,000 years, had been using narrow bush tracks for as long as anybody could remember. 

While there were certainly some road construction projects during the 19th Century, they were fairly small in scale – certainly when compared to the size of the country. The country’s young rail network, which had experienced early problems mainly for financial reasons, became the most popular form of travel, spurred on by the discovery of gold in 1851. 

The invention of the automobile at the start of the 20th Century added some extra impetus as these new mechanical chariots needed at least some semi-decent roads to travel on. State road authorities were established across each Australian state between 1913 and 1926 with the main arterial roads controlled and maintained by the federal government, with local governments responsible for smaller roads. 

The Public Works Act of 1922, the Main Roads Development Act of 1923 and the Federal Aid Roads Act of 1926, all gradually added Federal funding to improve Australian roads, while also creating jobs across the country. The depression of the 1930s knocked back progress but as the Second World War got underway, many roads around the country were suddenly deemed vital for heavy military use, and once again funding came pouring in. Nearly 1,000 km (621 miles) of dirt track was transformed into all-weather roads capable of transporting huge amounts of military hardware during the war years. 

The National Route Numbering System

The National Route Numbering System

The decades following the end of World War II saw plenty of work on Australia’s road network, but Highway 1 didn’t officially come into being until 1955 when the National Route Numbering system was adopted. Essentially this was when routes were first marked and numbered, in particular through routes that ran between different states. 

The National Route Numbers were marked by white shields on signs and the general rule, which does come with the odd exception, was that odd-numbered highways travel in a north-south direction and even-numbered highways in an east-west direction. 

It was here that National Route 1 was designated as the circular route which circumnavigated Australia. This was a combination of existing highways and routes which linked almost all of the nation’s state capitals.

In 1974, jurisdiction of the county’s most important roads, mostly those that linked major cities, was assumed by the federal government and shortly after the National Highways came into being, with green shields and yellow writing, and National Route 1 fell into this category. 

Now, here’s where things get a little complicated – and quite frankly a little confusing. You see, Australian states like to play by their own rules and they will be damned if they are forced to bow to federal pressure to conform. Depending on where you are in Australia, Highway 1 can be marked in several ways. Western Australia is the major odd one out as it still marks the Highway with a white shield and a number 1 – signifying National Route 1. Across the other mainland states, it is marked as either M1, A1 or B1, depending on the route’s quality and importance – though there also stretches where it’s marked as National Highway 1 or National Route 1. Tasmania seems to be the only state that appears to be trying to simplify things as it uses National Highway 1 – and only National Highway 1.   

National Highway 1 

Map of Australia’s Highway 1 by Evad37 is licensed under CC-BY-SA

With so much road, it would be impossible for us to tell you about it all and 14 hour Youtube videos about tarmac tend to not do too well. Instead, we’ll give you a broad overview of the route, then cherry-pick a few of the most notable sections along the way. 

As I mentioned at the start of the video, National Highway 1 is also known as the Big Lap in Australia, for the quite obvious reason that if you continue driving you will eventually end up back in the same spot – which no doubt would be infuriating if you were supposed to stop somewhere along the way. 

Western Australia and the Northern Territories 

Let’s begin in Western Australia at the state’s capital city Perth – which by the way is closer to the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta, than to the Australian capital Canberra. From there Highway 1 (I know they call it National Route 1 in Western Australia, but for everybody’s sanity I’m just going to use Highway 1 wherever we go), travels north, then north-east and between Geraldton and Port Hedland, it shares the road with the North West Coastal Highway, a 1,300 kilometre-long (808 mi) stretch of 2 lane road. 

The southern stretch of this road wasn’t paved until 1962 and the northern section needed to be moved further inland because of the impact of cyclones and seasonal flooding. This new road, between Carnarvon and Port Hedland, was constructed and sealed between 1966 and 1973 and included 30 new bridges. From here, Highway 1 heads due east and joins the Great Northern Highway all the way to Wyndham, before hopping onto the Victoria Highway to Katherine. It’s here where the one exception to the Big Lap occurs because Darwin lies 317 km (196 miles) north of Katherine on a Highway 1 offshoot – but still called Highway 1 

Queensland and New South Wales

The route connecting Darwin and Brisbane takes you first along the Stuart Highway, then Carpentaria Highway before joining the Savannah Way to Cairns on the eastern seaboard. Part of this final route is slightly quirky in that despite being part of the 3,501 kilometres (2,175 mi) Savannah Way – a tourist self-drive route – it doesn’t have its own unique highway name. 

Two final highways take you into Cairns, namely the Gulf Developmental Road – which surely wins the award for least imaginative name along the entire route – and the Kennedy Highway, which is a little more interesting, despite part of it being known as the Kennedy Development Road. Here the road passes through an odd circular zone measuring some 130 km (81 mi), referred to as the Diamantina River ring feature, which is thought to have been created by an asteroid strike 300 million years ago.  

Cairns and Brisbane are connected via the 1,679 kilometres (1,043 mi) Bruce Highway. The northern section of the highway is particularly prone to cyclone flooding and was devastated by the 2010–11 Queensland floods which killed 33 people (with a further 3 missing presumed dead). Following the disaster, the government commissioned a study to look at flood-proofing the highway and 77 separate projects have been tabled to take place over the next two decades at a cost of A$2 billion. 

The route down to Sydney encompasses the Pacific Motorway, Pacific Highway, Pacific Motorway, Gore Hill Freeway, Warringah Freeway, and the Cahill Expressway – while also passing through the Sydney Harbour Tunnel.

Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales 

The drive between Sydney and Melbourne along National Route 1 will take you roughly 13 hours – and if you’re already starting to wonder about the speed record around Australia, I’m going to keep that little gem until later. The route includes 11 separate roads, most fairly small so I’m not going to go through them all, but the longest is the 1,941 kilometres (1,206 mi) Princes Highway that continues all the way to Adelaide. 

But before we get to Adelaide – which by the way is the only capital city in Australia that wasn’t settled by convicts – we need to make a little detour. 600 kilometres (372 miles) south of Melbourne is the island of Tasmania – home to some of the oldest trees in the world and apparently the cleanest air on the planet – which is ironic to mention in a video all about roads and cars. 

It’s also here that Highway 1 manages to vault to the Bass Strait and connects Burnie on the north coast, with the capital Hobert in the south. A 336-kilometre (209 mi) route that includes the Brooker Highway, Midland Highway and the Bass Highway. The Midland Highway was first marked out in 1807 and in 1832, the first regular coach service began operating between Launceston and Hobart. Most of the roads that we see today were constructed during the 1980s. 

Ok, back on the mainland in the city of Adelaide – and believe it or not, we’re about two-thirds of our way around this mammoth road trip. The final stretch is a long, desolate road, mainly using the 1,660-kilometre (1,030 mi) Eyre Highway which connects Adelaide and Perth and passes through the Nullarbor Plain, the world’s largest single exposure of limestone bedrock, occupying an area of about 200,000 square kilometres (77,000 sq mi). 

This was a road that had long been requested, but the national government didn’t see it as of any great importance until the outbreak of World War II. A rough trail had been in place long before, but the hazardous conditions meant it was only used by the truly hardy or foolhardy. Even when the road was built in 1942, it remained little more than a dusty track. During the 1950s, water was even left at points along the route for those who might have needed it and the road wasn’t fully paved until 1969. Major upgrades occurred during the 1980s and 1990s after increased traffic began wearing away the road installed just a couple of decades before and this was finished in October 1994. 

Back at the Beginning      

And so, after 14,500 km (9,000 mi) we arrived back in Perth to complete the Big Lap. As promised, the speed record around Australia, always using Highway 1 but excluding Tasmania, was achieved on 18th June 2017 by a team with the wonderful name, Highway 1 to Hell. They completed the 14,280 km (8,873.181 mi)] in 5 days, 13 hours and 43 minutes – and I’m going to stick my neck out and say a few jars were filled with amber liquid along the way because that is astonishingly fast. 

Highway 1 isn’t a single road, but rather a vast collaboration of high-speed highways, city freeways and dusty roads that combine to create the longest national highway in the world. They pass through just about every major city, every kind of environment on offer, and some of the most incredible sights of this vast land down under. Some roads and routes really come to define a country – and this is Australia’s road.    

How Long Does it Take to Travel Around Australia? (outbackcrossing.com.au)

Highway 1 (Australia) – Wikipedia

World’s longest highways: Australia’s Highway 1 | Geotab

Highway 1: Australia’s road for everyone, before it started breaking up (smh.com.au)

Highway 1 Australia: Adelaide to Melbourne – South Australia, Australia | AllTrails 

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