Any Australian can tell you where the Outback is. It's out there, somewhere beyond the coastal fringe of the country where most of the population lives, beyond the chic café society of sophisticated cities like Sydney and Melbourne and Perth, beyond the green halo of productive farmland that surrounds them. But the Outback is more than just a place. It's a state of mind.
The first Europeans didn't settle in Australia until 1788, and their exploration of Australia's dry, desolate heartland produced heroic tales of hope and courage, triumph and tragedy. I saw for myself how remote and challenging the outback was in the fuzzy black-and-white photos and faded Kodachromes my parents took when they drove a 1937 Dodge Coupe right across the country, from Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin in the north, in 1955.
The stories of that trip were family legend. More than half a century later, I'm about to relive the legend, and reconnect with Australia's pioneering spirit. I'm heading north out of my old hometown, Adelaide, through lashing rain with photographer Julia LaPalme and videographer Jim Gleason in a Subaru Outback, a right-hand drive, Australian-spec version of our 2010 Sport/Utility of the Year with the 3.6-liter flat-six under the hood. We're heading for Darwin. We're heading for...the Outback.
Our 3464-mile trip included a few detours, but basically followed the ony sealed road thro
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.
Rare rains make the desert bloom and the roads interesting from the Flinders Rangers to th
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.
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.
We stop again about 10 miles south of Anna Creek Station homestead (at 6 million acres or so, Anna Creek is the largest cattle ranch in the world, eight times bigger than the legendary King Ranch in Texas), this time to plot our way through a giant mudhole.
So far, we've only come across a few muddy patches and some deep ruts, but nothing to faze the Subarus. But as we watch Chris' Land Cruiser, gray water halfway up its doors, slither for traction, it's clear we're going to need an alternate path. The upstream side of the mudhole is a mess, but a couple of prods with a stick suggests a firm gravel base under the silt on the downstream side, though a nasty gutter midway means we can't race through the soft stuff. The Outbacks scrabble a little for grip in the silt, and the front bumpers bounce off the gutter, but we're back on the road without trouble.
After a stopover at William Creek for a scenic flight over Lake Eyre, we arrive in Coober Pedy just at nightfall and check into the Comfort Inn. Despite the prosaic name, it's actually a complete hotel dug into the side of a hill. It gets hot in this tough opal-mining town -- 130 degrees is not uncommon in the summer -- so before the advent of air-conditioning, many of the miners took to living underground, out of the sweltering heat. I had a quiet, comfortable room with a view -- of rock walls and ceiling.
Vivid red sands are an Outback feature
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.
The Way It Was: Editor-in-chief MacKenzie's parents' 1937 Dodge stuck in the mud on the St
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.
The road to Kata Tjuta back then was wheeltracks through the desert.
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.
Day 4: Uluru to Kings Canyon
I have mixed feelings about Uluru. Back in 1955, my mum and dad were the only people here; there were no permanent buildings of any kind, not even a campground of any sort. And when I was last here in 1973, the place still had a frontier spirit to it. Now the tourists jet in and stay at the lavish Yulara Resort, or drive their Toyota rentals down the bitumen from Alice Springs. The road around the Rock has double yellow lines and no-parking signs and is crawling with giant air-conditioned tour buses that stop at the handful of places tourists are now allowed to get close to Uluru itself. It's like Outback Disneyland.
After a morning at Uluru, we head east back along the Lasseter Highway past Curtin Springs to pick up the Luritja Road, a sealed two-lane that will take us northwest to Kings Canyon. Just 20 miles or so up the Luritja Road, Chris slows the Land Cruiser and turns off the blacktop along a narrow, scrub-lined track. A few minutes later, we join what had once been the main road down from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock and start heading north. This road probably hasn't seen a grader in 15 or 20 years and is riven with steep ruts and washaways in places. For 25 miles or so, we do some serious off-roading. Take care with your wheel placement, watch your approach and departure angles, and it's amazing where the Outback will take you.
We stop by an old bore and stockyard, near where the original Angas Downs Station homestead once stood. "Your mum and dad probably stopped right here on their way down from Alice Springs in 1955," says Chris. In an instant, I could see an old black-and-white photo from the family album: the Dodge stopped, driver's door open, and Mum sitting on the running board, enjoying a hot cup of tea. I don't think that photo was taken here, but the nostalgia hit was overwhelming.
The sun's getting low in the sky by the time we rejoin the bitumen, and as we have a dinner date under the stars, we put the hammer down and hustle for the last 60 miles to the Kings Canyon Resort. Just minutes ago, the Outback had been tiptoeing through the rough stuff; now it's cruising effortlessly at 100 mph, feeling confident and planted through the sweeping turns. The car's bandwidth is impressive.
Hidden Gems: Kings Canyon (above) and Palm Valley (below) are oases of lush green palms an
Day 5: Kings Canyon to Alice Springs
We take time in the morning to walk into Kings Canyon, a spectacular rip in the desert with sheer red rock walls that tower more than 800 feet above the canyon floor. Kings Canyon is home to thickets of palms and cycads and many species of native animals that drink from the cool waterholes. The Luritja people have lived here for at least 20,000 years; the place was unknown to Europeans until explorer George Giles came through here in 1872.
Our destination today is Alice Springs, a town of 27,000 souls situated on the Stuart Highway almost midway between Adelaide and Darwin that is the largest settlement for 1000 miles in any direction. We're taking the scenic route through Hermannsburg, along a road that heads north then east along the McDonnell Ranges. The signs in German, Japanese, and Italian warn tourists that gravel requires "careful driving techniques."
We quickly learn to watch out for any white Toyota Land Cruiser or Nissan Patrol; most have Hertz stickers on the door, and are driven with little concern for what's going on under the wheels. At one point, we're passed by a Japanese guy in a Land Cruiser pounding down the road like it was the Tomei Expressway, neither braking for, nor steering around, any obstacles in his path. I wince as I watch the Land Cruiser crash and bounce all over the place, the springs and shocks taking terrible punishment.
Hermannsburg was founded in 1877 by two Lutheran missionaries, and the old buildings at the center of the town still stand. It's famed as the birthplace of Albert Namatjira, an aboriginal painter whose vivid watercolor landscapes of the McDonnell Ranges once captured the attention of Queen Elizabeth, and have been hung in major art galleries.
We turn off the main road near Hermannsburg to take a detour into Palm Valley, on a track marked "4WD Only." The 18 miles or so into campground take us an hour; the route basically follows the bed of the Finke River, one of the largest in the Northern Territory. The Finke starts in obscurity and finishes nowhere in particular, running some 370 miles from the McDonnell Ranges southeast to the western edge of the Simpson Desert. The Subarus tackle the deep water, loose rocks, and fine sand without raising a sweat, and effortlessly crawl over rocky outcrops.
With all the recent rains, there's plenty of water in the Finke and the waterholes in Palm Valley are full. The tropical palms in the valley look incongruous, yet they are a native species, living remnants of an age when central Australia was a tropical paradise, millions of years ago.
Day 6: Alice Springs to Tennant Creek
Alice Springs was founded in 1870 as a repeater station for the Overland Telegraph Line that linked Australia with the rest of the world. When Mum and Dad lived here 55 years ago-Dad was a mechanic for the Northern Territory's first tour operator, while Mum worked at the hospital-fresh milk and vegetables arrived once a week on the train from Adelaide.
Today, Alice Springs is a bustling community with all the modern conveniences you'd expect. And that's not necessarily a good thing: We see our first McDonalds, and our first traffic lights, in five days of traveling.
Today should be a straight 315-mile haul straight up the Stuart Highway to Tennant Creek, but to make things interesting, we're going to head west along Namatjira Drive, going as far out as the edge of the Tanami desert before looping north and then east to rejoin the Stuart Highway just 10 miles north of Alice. It's a 230-mile detour, but worth it for the spectacular views of the McDonnell Ranges and a distant glimpse of Gosses Bluff, a giant impact crater 140 million years old.
Out here, we cross the Tropic of Capricorn, the line that marks the most southerly latitude at which the sun can appear directly overhead at noon (the Northern Hemisphere equivalent, the Tropic of Cancer, passes through Mexico). Red desert's still rushing past the windows of the Outback. But we have officially entered the Tropics.
The Top End: Giant termite mounds are everywhere
We turn right onto the Tanami Road and on to the blacktop (had we turned left, we'd be back on the dirt again within 10 miles, heading through the heart of the Tanami Desert for Halls Creek in Western Australia, some 600 miles away), and within a few miles spot feral camels grazing by the roadside. Before the rail link between Adelaide and Alice Springs was completed in 1929, thousands of camels, imported mainly from India, were used to transport goods across the desert. These descendents of those original pack animals have thrived in Australia; one million wild camels are now estimated to roam the Outback, the largest wild population in the world.
It's hot and steamy, near Darwin, but there's little rainforest.
Joining the Stuart Highway, named after John McDouall Stuart, the first explorer to cross the continent from south to north, we turn north again, heading for Tennant Creek. When Mum and Dad's Dodge rolled along here in 1955, the road was virtually a single lane the whole way. The whole road's been resurveyed and remade since, but it's still only a two-lane blacktop. And it's not that busy: We see just 22 vehicles in an hour.
The Stuart Highway has the highest speed limit of any road in Australia, 80 mph. A few years back, though, you could legally drive it as fast as you dared. It's too long a road for the limit to be vigorously enforced all the way, so at times we cruise at 100 to 110 mph, the Outbacks easily eating up the miles.
Day 7: Tennant Creek to Katherine
It was a bracing 43 degrees when we rolled out of Alice Springs early yesterday. This morning, in Tennant Creek, it's a balmy 72. We're definitely in the tropics.
It's a straight shot up the Stuart Highway today, 400 miles of what should be the easiest traveling we've done so far; our first full day with no dirt roads. There's more traffic today, including a lot more road trains. Imagine an American big-rig with another two trailers tacked on the rear. That's a road train. These supersized semis are about 175 feet long nose to tail, with 16 axles and 62 tires all up, and weigh 120 tons fully laden. The prime movers are usually top-shelf American stuff -- Australian-assembled Kenworths and Macks rule -- with 500-600-horsepower diesels under the hood. The truckies have these babies running at 60 mph whenever they can, which means overtaking one requires patience and planning.
The Stuart Highway looks like we're back in civilization; that the real adventure is behind us. But it's only a mirage: This country is still too vast and too empty to be tamed. As we pass by Daly Waters, famous for its pub, built in 1893 and one of the oldest buildings in the Northern Territory, I radio that the Outback's trip computer is showing we have 125 miles worth of gas in the tank, and that the next gas station is 100 miles up the road.
I can tell the math hasn't quite computed with my American colleagues, as they're happy to push on. But a half an hour up the road, as the fuel needles sink toward E, there are one or two calls back on the radio: "Er, how far until we can gas up again?" In America, you pass gas stations every 20 miles or so on the Interstates; in the Outback you have to plan your journey around gas stops. Forget EVs; you can get range anxiety here in a car that runs on regular unleaded.
We take a 20-mile detour out to Katherine Gorge, a spectacular chain of 13 waterholes carved in deep into the sandstone rock by the Katherine River. The river is a raging torrent during the tropical wet season (November through March), but we have to walk over rocks between our boat rides on the two closest waterholes. Katherine Gorge is sacred to the Jarwon aboriginals, who call the place Nitmiluk. As we drift noiselessly on the tranquil water between the towering rock walls, it feels like we're in a cathedral.
Day 8: Katherine to Jabiru
Today, we're heading into the heart of the Top End, as the locals call it, right into Kakadu National Park. Our destination is Jabiru, a mining town on the edge of Arnhem Land, a largely trackless 37,000-square-mile wilderness of thick scrub and crocodile-infested rivers.
This is "Crocodile Dundee" country-literally. We turn off the Kakadu Highway just past the Mary River Roadhouse and onto the dusty, badly corrugated road to Gunlom Falls. Several scenes from the movie were filmed right next to the main waterhole. We hike up to the top of the falls (now dry) in the steaming heat to find a couple of big pools of cool, clear water stepping down to the rock lip where the creek cascades to the main waterhole below. It doesn't take much to persuade several of our party to dive in.
There are signs at every river and creek crossing warning of saltwater crocodiles. The warnings are no joke; one or two people are killed by crocs up here every year. The irony is the saltwater crocodile was nearly hunted to extinction in the early part of the 20th century. My dad, who drove to Darwin with a buddy in 1953 to shoot saltwater crocs, often says: "Fortunately, we never found one." And he's only half joking: Now a protected species, big males often reach 20 feet or more in length.
We get up close and personal with our first crocs at Yellow Water, where a sunset cruise on the wetlands of the South Alligator River -- mistakenly named by an explorer who thought the crocs were gators -- reveals an astonishing array of wildlife. Mostly the crocodiles are catching the last rays of the sun on a mudbank, but every so often one slides silently into the water and glides noiselessly alongside our boat, mere feet away. The crocodile hasn't changed all that much since dinosaurs roamed the planet, and it's a chilling experience to come eye to eye with one of these primordial killing machines.
Day 9: Jabiru to Batchelor
The Jarwon aboriginals call parts of Kakadu "sickness country." They knew that if you camped too long at the wrong waterhole, or spent too much time hunting in the wrong place, you would get sick and die. What they didn't know was that this whole area is rich in highly radioactive uranium ores. At one point, there were 13 uranium mines scattered through here. Now there are just two, the Ranger and Jabiluka Mines near Jabiru.
It's a hot and steamy 84 degrees as we roll out of Jabiru at 8 a.m. We're barely out of town when we run into a police checkpoint at the junction of the road to Jabiluka. It's a random breath test-all drivers have to blow into a bag to ensure they're not over the legal limit. The fact that the police are shaking down drivers for drunk driving at breakfast time suggests the Territory hasn't lost its reputation for hard drinking.
We're heading west along the Arnhem Highway, toward Darwin. Not long after we cross the South Alligator River, where we spot a croc basking on the mud near the bridge, Chris feels the Land Cruiser start wallowing over the road. A rear tire's gone flat, the only car problem we will have on the entire trip.
We turn left off the Arnhem Highway and onto a back road that will take us to Adelaide River, back on the Stuart Highway. The road is wide but badly corrugated in places, and extremely dusty. Occasionally we hit a patch of what Aussies call bulldust, powder so fine it explodes around the car and penetrates past even the best door seals. There's a fine film of dust all over the Outback's dash as we approach the Margaret River crossing, where in the wet there can be water barreling across 30 feet of road.
During the World War II, the northern military command center was moved 60 miles south from Darwin to Adelaide Rover. Up to 30,000 Australian and U.S. soldiers were stationed in bases around here, and numerous airstrips were carved out of the scrub alongside the Stuart all the way up to Darwin. Australia was never invaded, but it was touch and go in the early 1940s until Australian troops stopped the Japanese advance in the mud-soaked, malaria-infested hell of the Owen Stanley Ranges on New Guinea.
Day 10: Batchelor to Darwin
I'm leaving early because I want to get to Darwin to catch up with my brother, whom I haven't seen in 12 years. The others will linger and take their time checking out a couple of waterholes in the Litchfield National Park before heading to our final destination.
The road into the park is a driver's delight, twisting and winding and swooping and sweeping through the hills -- and at this time of the day, utterly deserted. I make the most of the Outback's paddle shifters, flicking through the gears to keep that smooth 3.6-liter flat-six thrumming happily in the middle of its meaty torque curve.
After almost 60 miles, the road turns to gravel, and I'm four-wheel-drifting the Outback gently through the more open turns. A nasty limestone outcrop that forms a sharp crest in the middle of one turn nearly catches me out; I spot it late, too late to brake. I straighten the steering; the Outback dances over the rocks; and as it settles on the other side, I flick it back into the turn, quickly straightening the front wheels and punching the gas, letting the all-wheel-drive system pull us straight.
I rejoin the Stuart Highway just 20 miles south of Darwin, and before long I'm rolling through what counts as urban sprawl up here. After almost 3500 miles, nearly a quarter of that on dirt roads, and all but 40 miles of the rest on two-lane blacktop, it really does feel like I've crossed a continent as I pull onto the pier overlooking Darwin Harbor in the steamy heat. It feels...epic.
BY THE NUMBERS
Total distance traveled: 3464 miles
Total distance traveled on dirt roads: 783 miles
Total distance traveled on freeway: 40 miles
Longest day: 572 miles-Alice Springs to Tennant Creek, via Glen Helen
Total fuel used: 155.2 gallons (to Batchelor, 3330 miles)
Average fuel consumption: 21.45 mpg
Most expensive gas: $7.23/gallon (Curtin Springs)
Mechanical problems: 0