Day 1: Adelaide to Parachilna
If you want a point where you can say the Outback physically begins, Goyder's Line, which we cross 400 miles north of Adelaide, is as good as any. Beyond this line the rainfall averages 10 inches a year or less. South Australia's early settlers came up here in search of land in the late 1830s, planted their crops...and waited for rains that rarely came. The road to the Flinders Ranges National Park is dotted with ghost towns -- Willochra, Gordon, Kanyaka -- some little more than a sign and the crumbled ruin of what was once a sturdy family farmhouse.

By U.S. standards, the Flinders is a bijou mountain range. The Australian landscape is so ancient it has been eroded flat; the average elevation is just over 1000 feet, and the tallest peak in the country, Mt. Kosciuszko, 800 miles to the east, barely tops 7300 feet. We turn off the blacktop just north of Wilpena Pound, onto a little road I know that will take us through some of the most scenic parts of the park to our destination tonight, Parachilna.

The heavy rains, which have swept unusually far north over the past few weeks, have left the road a sloppy mess. The three Outbacks in our convoy scrabble for grip as thick, gluey mud flings off the tires. It's fingertip stuff through here; caress the steering, squeeze the brakes, and breathe on the gas, because even with AWD, it's so slippery we could be off the road in a heartbeat.

There's wildlife everywhere. Gray kangaroos bound through the brush, mother emus herd broods of chicks, rock wallabies eye us warily. We descend off the hills, the Outbacks splashing through water and crawling over rocks as we wind along riverbeds between red rock walls and towering red gum trees.

The Prairie Hotel in Parachilna was built in 1905 and looks like a classic bush pub: red brick, corrugated-iron roof, and a verandah out front. But there's a disco ball over the entrance, Frank Sinatra croons in the cold desert night, and a cappuccino machine whirrs in the front bar. Outback pubs ain't what they used to be.