Published: March 2009The Big Trip: Australia
Map: Australia

On the Road in Oz

Australia’s mythic red center is best seen from behind the wheel.

Text by Robert Earle Howells
Map by Emily Cooper

Australia’s outback may be the world’s best place to get (far, far) away from it all. The country’s rugged center—about two-thirds the size of the continental U.S.—is populated by fewer than a million people. (That’s about one person every two square miles.) The best way to up-close-and-personalize this vast landscape is to road-trip right through it. Book a car in Adelaide, South Australia (this is not the time to upgrade to a gas guzzler), dig out that Books on Tape edition of War and Peace, and devote at least a week to cruising the Stuart Highway all 1,925 miles to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory. Head down under anytime from April through November—it’s a furnace the rest of the year—to maximize your side-trip options. From Aboriginal-led hikes out to towering Ayers Rock to overnights at old prospector haunts and dips in cool red-gorge streams, a zip through the outback is a lesson in living history.

1. Coober Pedy
Go Underground Down Under

In a nation that prides itself on bizarre geography—and the unusual folks who inhabit it—there’s no higher compliment than to say that Coober Pedy is peerless for weirdness. Summers in this old mining settlement are broiling, so half of the 2,200 residents live in houses built underground. You can slumber a hundred feet under in a cushy sandstone chamber at the Desert Cave Hotel (doubles from $150; desertcave.com.au) or share a romantic mine shaft for two in Anne’s Dugout B&B (doubles from $60; annesdugoutbandb.com). On the way out of town, things get even more intriguing: You’ll drive by an anti-dingo fence longer than the Mississippi River into an eerie lunar expanse called Moon Plain, the backdrop for Mad Max and the next two hours of your drive.

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