Day 2: Parachilna to Coober Pedy
The blacktop ends 70 miles north of Parachilna, and there's at least 280 miles of dirt road to cover before we join the Stuart Highway at Coober Pedy. But we're not sure we're going to get through. As of yesterday, parts of the Oodnadatta Track, the road we need to take, have been closed because of the rains. They take their road closures seriously out here: Get caught and the police will fine you $1000 a tire, including spares. For our convoy -- the Outbacks and guide Chris Chambers' Toyota Land Cruiser -- we'd be looking at a ticket of about $24,000. The idea is to stop the 18-wheelers churning giant ruts in the mud and destroying the fragile roads.

At Maree, we're relieved to learn the Oodnadatta Track is open, albeit only to high-clearance vehicles. With 8.7 inches of ground clearance -- more than the previous-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee -- we figure the Outbacks qualify. We top up with gas and get underway.

It's here that the sheer scale -- and the emptiness -- of the Australian Outback starts to register on my American colleagues. We'll see only a handful of vehicles over the next few hours, and when we stop for photography, or video, the silence is eerily oppressive. At times, the road stretching across the gently undulatingplain is the only sign of a human presence. On either side, there are no buildings, no power lines, no fences. Nothing.

We stop briefly at Lake Eyre. The unusually wet winter means the giant salt lake, where in 1964 Donald Campbell's Bluebird became the last wheel-driven vehicle to set the world land-speed record, is full of water, something that has happened only three times in the past 150 years.