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.
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.
Iconic Ayers Rock glows Martian red and juts 1,142 feet above the plain. But its real majesty lies in its holiness to the Aboriginal people, who believe the sandstone monolith was formed by their ancestors and that its features tell their cosmology. The Aboriginal guides of Anangu Tours lead a sunrise pilgrimage to the Rock—or Uluru, as it’s known to the indigenous Anangu (from $80; ananguwaai.com.au). Ayers Rock Resort, 12 miles from Uluru, has the only accommodations in the area, ranging from grassy tent sites ($10) to suites at its high-end Sails in the Desert Hotel (from $150; ayersrockresort.com.au). Climbing Uluru isn’t illegal (and plenty of people do), but the Anangu don’t because of the rock’s spiritual significance—and request that visitors follow suit. Instead, you can let loose by hiking through 36 rounded sandstone formations nearby called Kata Tjuta. An early a.m. start on the 4.6-mile Valley of the Winds Trail puts you among the monoliths in time for sunrise scrambling.
In Gunya Titjikala, a tiny (pop. 300) Aboriginal-owned resort town, homegrown delicacies like raw witchetty grubs and roasted kangaroo tail are likely to leave a memorable aftertaste. But it’s the elder Pitjantjatjara storytellers who leave an even longer lasting impression. Residents of this isolated village—75 miles south of Alice Springs—host guests overnight in five stilted safari tents (doubles from $860, two-night minimum, all-inclusive; gunya.com.au). On guided forays, trek to caches of ancient rock art and fossils, gather "bush tucker" (bush tomatoes, berries), and learn about Aboriginal Dreaming, a meditative relationship with the landscape, from tribal elder Philip Wilyuka. At night, sacred tales are told around an open fire under stars so bright they make the flames irrelevant.
The 139-mile Larapinta Trail hits its high point in West MacDonnell National Park, at a 1,640-foot bluff that overlooks soaring rock walls, folds of red desert, and swooping wedge-tailed eagles. "Waking up here is the most solitary, top-of-the-world feeling," says bush guide and biologist Shane Fewtrell. An end-to-end trek is a rigorous 20-day undertaking; hikers can go days without encountering a soul (from $2,780 for a fully outfitted trek led by Fewtrell; treklarapinta.com.au). Or tackle a shorter segment on one of Fewtrell’s six outfitted section hikes of ridge hopping and gorge plunging (six days, from $840; nine days, from $1,300).
In the great Aussie outback, cattle ranches are the size of small countries. Deep Well Station is no exception. The 450,000-acre spread of red-sand hills hosts visitors and the occasional film crew at its Ooraminna Homestead. Hereford cattle take priority, but the cowboys save time to guide roo- and wallaby-spotting bush walks. Rooms are outback-chic: four cottages that include an "authentic" jail, built by a movie crew (from $170 per person, all-inclusive; ooraminnahomestead.com.au). If that still feels too boxed in, there’s always the Pioneer Suite (from $80): a plush bedroll laid out beneath the open sky.
Up in the north, as the country’s bone-dry center yields to its tropical top end, the Katherine River splits a sandstone plateau into 13 distinct gorges, flowing easily through red-rock palisades popular with paddlers and tour boats. To experience the river in solitude, head out with Mick Jerram’s Gecko Canoeing (three days, from $470, all-inclusive; geckocanoeing.com.au). Jerram launches 25 miles downriver from the gorge and floats the Katherine and her offshoots through cattle stations and Aboriginal lands otherwise inaccessible to visitors. Much of this low-key 30-mile paddle passes riparian vegetation teeming with wildlife: Freshwater crocs—"freshies" aren’t as fearsome as their saltwater counterparts—kangaroos, and huge water monitors (Komodo dragon cousins) make reliable appearances, and kangaroo and buffalo are roasted on the nightly barbie. "We’d do it all for free," Jerram says, "if it were possible to sustain a lifestyle."