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 oulback was in the fuzzy black-and-white photos and faded Kodachiomes 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 oí 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.
DAY 1: ADELAIDE TO PARACHILNA
If you want a point where you can say the Outback physically begins, Gcyder'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, Gordcn, Kanyaka—some little more than a sign and the crumbled ruin of what was once a sturdy family farmhouse.
Ry IIS standards,the Flinders is a hijon 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 ofWilpena 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 tliick, 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 sc 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
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