What you'll find in this story: Australia travel, Australia culture, Australia attractions, Australia itineraries, Australia lodging, Australian dining
Our intrepid reporter takes us into the red centre, down the great ocean road, and to the remote southwest corner.
1. Into the Red Centre
If Australia were folded in half like a book, the Stuart Highway would be its spine, forging through emptiness for 2,000 miles. Driving half of it is plenty, so I've flown to the dead center: the desert town of Alice Springs. North of "the Alice" there's barely a stoplight for 1,000 miles--about the distance from Dallas to Chicago--until the asphalt meets Darwin, on the Timor Sea.
Like Germany's autobahn, the Stuart has no speed limit; unlike the autobahn, it's virtually barren. Every 45 minutes or so, a roadhouse appears mirage-like on the horizon, offering gas, beer, motel-style lodging, and a little "Where ya from, mate?" Aside from that, the land presents itself the way God made it. Hour by hour, sandy red earth gives way to spindly trees, brown escarpments, termite mounds as tall as kindergartners, and not much else. No cell phone coverage, no radio stations. There's nowhere else on earth to be so isolated while on good roads in your average rental car.
A drive on the Stuart Highway evolves slowly, with developments marked by the odometer. Kilometer 36 north of Alice Springs: cross the Tropic of Capricorn. At 54: spot two wedge-tailed eagles feeding on kangaroo roadkill. At 83, 443, 906, and 1,222: nearly hit a kangaroo myself. At 142: tank up beside a "road train," Australia's superlong tractor trailers that pull three or four long trailers. At 202: Ti Tree, "the most central pub in Oz." No one blinks when truckers drain their beers and get right back in their cabs.
Periodically, I pull over and cut the engine, just to feel the nothingness. I consider walking deep into the scrub but never make it more than 20 feet without worrying about snakebites--and being picked clean by wedge-tailed eagles.
The pleasure of a Stuart drive is partly in stumbling across artifacts from man's attempts to make use of the bush. Beside the gas station in Barrow Creek (kilometer 294), a wooden telegraph repeater station from the early 1870s stands abandoned but perfectly preserved by the dry desert air. There's another in the expanse north of Tennant Creek (541). Barely rusted bits of telegraph wire and antique bottles still litter the grounds of both. The eerie ruins at Gorrie Airfield (1,103) once housed 6,500 personnel in World War II. Today, there are ghostly scraps of gray bitumen leading to an old fighter runway that's over a mile long.
The walls inside most of the bush pubs along the highway are stapled over with bras, underwear, foreign currency, and business cards--a few of mine included--left by visitors from around the world. Basic rooms cost about $35; given the volume of cold Victoria Bitter on tap, by bedtime most customers aren't in a state to quibble over thread counts. Just about every pit stop is run by someone who could pass as the main character in a novel. The proprietor of the roadhouse at Wycliffe Well (393) has lined the walls with newspaper reports of local UFO sightings. The owner of the Wauchope Hotel (411) abandoned a 35-year career as a firefighter in Adelaide. The night before I arrive, 40 guys from a remote cattle station drove two hours over a dirt track to have a birthday party there; it lasted until dawn. At the pub inside the Daly Waters Historic Hotel (986), road-trippers gather nightly to be entertained by 14-year-old singer Patrick Webster, who brazenly flirts with waitresses 10 years his senior, and by Frank the Chook Man, who does renditions of folk songs as live chickens roost on his hat.
Even the highway's banner sights seem like something a science-fiction writer might have cooked up. The two big ones are the rock that looks like Winston Churchill's head (652) and the Devil's Marbles, huge, rounded boulders jumbled together improbably in the desert (422).
The wildlife is similarly otherworldly. Some visitors think, at first, that the stirring in the cabbage tree palms and paperbarks above the turquoise Mataranka Thermal Springs (1,220) comes from a bird of some sort. In fact, it's the squabbling of hundreds of thousands of flying foxes, big as beagles and hanging upside down while flailing their leathery wings. The gassy creatures poop everywhere, but that doesn't stop people from jumping in the water beneath them (750 miles of desert scrub will make anyone desperate for a soak).
Around kilometer 1,575, the world comes sufficiently alive enough to drizzle. By the time the Stuart Highway terminates in Darwin (1,646), the humidity edges toward 100 percent, and I'm confronted with Internet cafés, traffic lights, and too many people for my Zenned-out brain to handle.
2. Great Ocean Road
In the convict days, ships from Europe shortened the five-month journey to Sydney by sailing along Australia's southern coast, threading between Tasmania and the mainland near Melbourne, a perilous route through the rocky Bass Strait. The irony is that many ships went for months without seeing anything but water, only to literally crash into Australia.
Just south of Melbourne, where I start my road trip, is enormous Port Philip Bay, which has 161 miles of coastline but a mouth that's only two miles wide. The channel roils with so much tidal water that seamen dubbed it the Rip. The area is notorious enough that when Australia's Prime Minister Harold Holt vanished while taking an ill-advised dip nearby in 1967, the government didn't launch so much as an inquiry.
A few years later, the parliament did feel inspired to take action of a different sort a few miles south, at Bell's Beach, designating it a national surfing reserve. From a bluff I watch surfers in wet suits doggedly bob and paddle the same waves that host the annual Rip Curl Pro competition. The Surfworld Australia museum is in the adjoining town of Torquay. In front of the building, teenagers slam the pavement on beat-up skateboards, aware that this is one property they won't be chased off of. Inside, there's a hall of fame, a meticulous history section, and a continuous film festival of classic documentaries.
The Great Ocean Road begins in Torquay and swerves along forested cliffs and swirling waters for 200-plus miles. I quickly learn that meals will be nothing fancy; the staple of the road's bakeshops is the meat pie (I like to dip them in tomato sauce like the locals do). Against my better judgment, at the Louttit Bay
Bakery I try the Mitey Cheese Scroll, a platter-size swirl of cheese and moist bread that leaves me yearning for greens. My favorite stops for grub are at the pubs, where entire families hang out together. In an Airey's Inlet pub, I order a gin and tonic (it comes premixed in a can) and spot a boy no older than seven. He's perched on a bar stool, eating cheese puffs and chatting with the bartender like one of the gang.
Cimarron, a B&B high above the town of Airey's Inlet, was designed and built in 1979 from native eucalyptus wood by Wade Chambers, an American-born professor. Scanning the thousands of books that line the walls, I tell Wade that I could get into the idea of moving, like he did, to this peaceful Aussie Malibu. Wade is an eager talker, and before we know it, it's past midnight. I switch on the TV--you can learn a lot about a place by what's showing late at night--and catch ads for livestock sales and lungworm poison. In the morning, wild parrots and white cockatoos peer into the windows.
As I pull out of Cimarron, three bemused kangaroos blink at me before hopping into the trees. Several miles past Apollo Bay, another tiny vacation town, there's an easy-to-miss signpost: mait's rest. A path leads to a rain forest gully, trickling with streams, layered with ferns as big as beach towels, and pierced by shafts of sunlight. Australia is 70 percent arid, and it's shocking to see how much vivid green the other 30 percent of the land is able to muster. After an hour, an elderly couple appears. "Never seen anything like it," the woman says, craning her neck. It's a sight that would be famous elsewhere.
Next stop is Otway Fly, one of the world's tallest treetop walkways, which opened in September 2003. Its steel catwalk system is 2,000 feet long, rising as high as 147 feet into a rain forest canopy of beech, blackwood, and ash. Seeing centuries-old forests from above, at bird's-eye level, is surprisingly compelling.
Back on the coast, the Twelve Apostles finally come into view, like great sailing ships returning from a voyage. Fat, beige limestone pillars in the slate-blue water, the Apostles are worthy of their postcard fame. Crowds gather for the sidelong photo op from a promontory at Port Campbell National Park.
A plump Australian blows cigarette smoke out his nose and says what we're all thinking: "They're so beautiful I could look at them all day."
Meanwhile, hornet-like helicopters incessantly chop through the air. They're less annoying the minute I actually get in one. A 10-minute ride costs $58, and seven minutes after laying down my credit card, I'm snapping photos of the rumpled sheet of ocean below.
The walking trails at Loch Ard Gorge, a mile or two on, explore the land above sea-worn tunnels, blowholes, and arches that have wrecked many a luckless ship. The gorge is named for its most infamous disaster--the Loch Ard went down in 1878 with 52 out of 54 passengers, even though it came to grief only about 20 feet from land. The air wheezes with sea mist as waves pummel the rocks and splash skyward. You can actually feel the earth tremble when the surges strike land.
3. The remote southwest corner
I'm as far away from home as I can get without swimming--on the opposite end of the planet, with New York City somewhere beneath the soles of my feet--yet few places on earth seem more American. Driving south out of Perth, a city of skyscrapers, suburb tracts, car dealerships, and gas station mini-marts, things rhyme far more with Houston or Miami than with the pseudo-British settlements of eastern Australia.
After a bland 100 miles or so, just below the town of Bunbury, the southwest tip of Australia juts into the Indian Ocean and the landscape bursts into a thousand shades of green. In the 50-odd miles between the northern and southern capes of the bulge is Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, a coastline of thundering waves, untouched beaches, and death-wish surfers who brave curls with names like the Gallows and the Guillotine.
In Yallingup, I check in at Caves House, amid gardens high above the moody sea. It's a creaking manor with a sweeping veranda, antique white-tiled bathrooms, and dark hallways lined with 1930s photographs of the staff dressed for tennis. I'm so enraptured by the time warp that in the morning I can't help gushing to the desk clerk. She nods sadly. "Glad you liked it," she says. "We got the word last week that we're all getting the boot." In a month, Caves House would be handed over to a company for conversion into a luxury resort.
I drive to the coast's far southern tip, near Augusta, where the Indian and the Southern Oceans meet and chew furiously at the shoreline. Humpback and southern right whales are known to frolic in the foamy waters beneath the Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse. When I ask about the seas, the lighthouse's middle-aged, cardigan-wearing ticket attendant mistakes me for a surfer. "Redgate Beach is going off today," she reports. "Be careful. There's a nasty rip."
This remote corner of Australia is home to more than 60 wineries, which flourish thanks to sunny summers and surrounding waters that ward off frost and drought. It's called the Margaret River Wine Region, and the town of the same name is a laid-back artists' retreat of coffeehouses and galleries. Encouraged by raves from several people at a coffee shop in town, I lunch at VAT 107, which uses local organic ingredients for dishes like spicy quail, honeycomb ice cream, and grilled marron--a cobalt-blue freshwater crayfish that is native only to southwest Australia and can grow to more than a foot long.
I rent a cottage for the night at Burnside Bungalows and Organic Farm. It's run by Jamie and Lara McCall, who fled Perth for the wine country a few years ago with their three young sons. Guests stay in airy, hand-built cottages with kitchens, woodstoves, and views over the paddocks, and they're even welcome to help themselves to food from the harvests--olives, macadamias, avocados, apricots, and mulberries.
What really drew me to the region are the ancient, mammoth trees. The pale-bark karri trees are 150 feet tall, as big around as foldout couches. I cruise along on empty roads that undulate over hills, around pastures dotted with contented cows, and into miles of forests that feel as sacred as Gothic cathedrals. Now and then, brief bouts of rain appear, and the clean scent of wet soil pours through the open windows. It's car-commercial good.
The forest hides some cozy lumber hamlets--toy-town-like and tinged with the aroma of freshly cut timber, where chimneys smoke and carpenters deal in exotic woods such as jarrah. Many village names use the Aboriginal suffix -up, which means "place of," lending the vicinity an endearing, fairy-tale euphony: Nannup, Manjimup, Balingup. Then there's Pemberton, home of one of the area's most prized attractions: the enormous Gloucester Tree, which for years served as a lookout tower for firefighters. Anyone may climb to its platform, which is 190 feet up, but the means of ascent is a helix of slippery metal pegs spiraling perilously into the branches.
As evening sets in, I check into a two-room bungalow at Pump Hill Farm Cottages, stoke its potbellied stove, and uncork a bottle of Margaret River red. Out my back door, in total darkness, a cool rain rustles the leaves.
I may be far from where I live, but I'm utterly at home. The chatter of the forest is a little unsettling at first, but by the time the fire dies out, I'm fast asleep.