Day 3: Coober Pedy to Uluru
When Mum and Dad came this way in 1955, the Stuart Highway was a meandering track through the scrub, and heavy rains meant it took eight days to cover the 1020 miles between Adelaide and Alice Springs, their 1937 Dodge Coupe frequently getting stuck in the mud. When I last came this way, on a family holiday in 1973, the Highway was still dirt, albeit a broad, well-defined grader cut through the bush. It rained that year, too, and although we were in a short-wheelbase Series II Land Rover, at one point it took us two days to cover 77 miles. I think about that as we roll along the bitumen toward the Northern Territory border at 80 mph, the Outback's 3.6-liter flat-six humming along at a relaxed 2450 rpm.

Just over the border, we turn left off the bitumen and back onto the dirt, heading west into red sand country. The wide, sandy Mulga Park road is the Outback track from central casting: a vivid red gash through green scrub and yellow spinifex, set against a peerless blue sky, with soft violet hills in the background. There's still plenty of water around- every so often we have to slow and skirt around large pools in the center of the road, sometimes with cattle standing around them-but the rain has tamped down the sandy surface, giving us good grip and relatively little dust. Before long, we're cruising at 70-80 mph, skimming over the top of the corrugations, and though it gets a little rougher and dustier near Curtin Springs, with occasional limestone outcrops peeking through the sand, we make great time.

There's something special about driving long distances on roads like this. You have to concentrate the whole time, picking the best line around the bumps and rocks and gutters, as well as watching for wandering cattle and blundering wildlife. You develop a heightened sensitivity to grip and balance as the carmoves around over the surface, and you feel so much more a part of the landscape than you do on a regular highway. We all get out of the cars at Curtin Springs grinning.

Uluru National Park is home to what is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the Australian outback, the brooding stone monolith known as Ayers Rock, or Uluru, to the local Pitjandjutjara aboriginals. Towering 1142 feet above the desert, and measuring 5.8 miles around, Ayers Rock is the visible tip of a huge sandstone mass that lies buried beneath the surface. The Rock changes personality as the light fades, turning from orange to red to purple, and we linger until there's only a faint glow of light in the west, and the stars start to sparkle in the clear desert sky. As the night chill begins to seep across the dunes, we fall silent for a moment. This is a spiritual place.