It's no wonder Australians cling to their coastline. Venture inland, and you approach the harsh netherworld known as the Outback. Unlike Lewis and Clark, Australians Burke and Wills died in their exploration. Stuart finally made it out alive, but nearly blind and with scurvy.
The north-south highway through the Outback bears his name. A mere two lanes and unpaved until 1987, at least it's there; only dusty tracks venture east and west.
"If an alien probe landed here, it would say 'no life' and go home," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tony Horwitz writes of the Outback, which spans an area about the size of the contiguous United States west of the Mississippi. But instead of majestic mountains and national park vistas, the Outback is a still, flat sea of rock, sand, and scrub, unbroken by meaningful topography--but with one amazing exception.
Smack dab in the middle, floating like a gigantic red iceberg, is Uluru, the rock formerly known as Ayers, and just a few miles to the west are the Olgas (Katra Tjuta to the aboriginal Anangu people), looking like a cluster of smaller icebergs melting under the intense sun.
Uluru is a red-rock cathedral. You instinctively understand why the Aborigines consider it holy, especially as it appears to change shape, color, and, in an Outback optical illusion, even location as the sun exposes shadows, textures, and creases that may remind you of the wrinkles around your grandmother's eyes.
Uluru would be a major tourist destination on any continent, and it's even more spectacular here because it's surrounded by so much--well, so much nothing.
But you must be motivated if you want to visit. Australia is 24 hours from everywhere. Leave home, and you consume a full day before landing on the continent's coast, and then you'll endure two more days, long days, driving through a blistering flatscape.