Long before I ever traveled there, I yearned to visit the Australian Outback. I was seduced by thoughts of wide-open vistas, kangaroos hopping across endless dirt roads that just lead to more dirt roads, and vast, cloudless skies. As a New Yorker, an afternoon in Central Park was as close to roughing it as I ever got, and I imagined what it would be like to be in the middle of nowhere, where the sound of chirping birds replaced the timbre of traffic, and where there are no city lights and few people. I had to find out. So I headed Down Under to visit one of Australia 's treasures—the untamed Outback.
My adventure began in Adelaide , the gateway to the Outback, and the last big city before you disappear into solitude. After a six-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles, a 15-hour flight to Melbourne and a one-hour flight to Adelaide, I picked up my bags at the airport and caught a taxi into town, passing outdoor cafés, stylish restaurants and bustling streets. Of the 1.5 million people who live in the state of South Australia, 1.1 million reside in Adelaide. The other 400,000 are scattered throughout the state, most of which is considered Outback territory. It's a vast land about 1.5 times the size of Texas. Adelaide is lovely, but I was anxious to get out into the wilderness, where I could really stretch my legs. I met Kent Rossiter, the guide I had hired to drive me around the Outback. (You can drive yourself but, like many city gals, I'm not that comfortable behind the wheel.) Kent is an Adelaide native who has worked in tourism for years, and his kind face immediately put me at ease. We quickly made our introductions and discussed our six-day trip, which would cover 700 miles. And with that, we tossed my bags into the car and were off.
As we crossed over the city limits, the landscape changed almost instantly from manicured parks and stately Georgian architecture to lush vineyards and farmland. On our way to the Outback, we stopped 55 miles outside the city in the Barossa Valley , one of Australia's most renowned wine producing areas. After quick visits to a few wineries to sample the delicious Shiraz , the red wine for which the region is known, Kent took me to the Kaiser Stuhl Conservation Park . We had walked just twenty steps into the open grassland, which was littered with eucalyptus trees and native plants, when I had my first glimpse of wild kangaroos—about thirty of them, grazing.
They stopped eating and stared at me—just as I stared at them. I tried to figure out what familiar animals these adorable creatures resemble. Their faces were deer- or dog-like and, sitting on their hind legs, their bodies seemed to me like those of oversized rabbits. Several had a joey (baby roo) or two resting in their pouches. The roos let me come close and take photos. I hadn't expected to see so many so near the city, and I didn't expect them to let me get this close. These unfamiliar animals, so different from the skittish squirrels of the Northeast, made me realize how delightfully far away from home I was—and it was thrilling.
I could have camped out and watched the roos all day, but Kent let me know that we had to stay on track. As we drove further into the wilderness, the scenery seemed to become more expansive. Vineyards gave way to wheat fields. The light was bright and vibrant, and I felt like we were driving into a Technicolor film. For hours, we passed hardly anyone or anything on the single-lane highway, except for the occasional lonely farmhouse. The few times we saw someone, as we sped through a tiny town, he or she would wave to us and would wave back.
"Friends?" I inquired once."No," he replied, "they're just happy to see someone."
When driving in these parts, it's unlikely that you'll spot many people, so when you do, it's polite to acknowledge them. No need to wave heartily or make a grand gesture—a mere lift of the hand or finger will do, Kent explained.
I had come to see "the Outback," but the Outback is an enormous stretch of wilderness. When I first mapped out the route back at home, I had needed to pick a point for us to travel toward, and so had selected the Prairie Lodge, an inn embedded deep in the wilds. And, even though Wilpena Pound, a famous rock formation in the shape of a stadium, was out of the way, I decided we should go the extra distance and include it as a stop on our journey. Scientists say that this geological masterpiece was formed hundreds of millions of years ago from quartzite and limestone that rose from the ocean and were forced upwards.
Kent and I arrived at the Wilpena Pound Resort, the lodge at the entrance to the site. We quickly checked in and were introduced to Richard Wickens, a guide who would show us this natural wonder. A passionate bird and nature lover, Richard has worked as the resort's guide for nearly four years and knows the region like the back of his hand. As we began driving on winding dirt roads, surrounded by imposing trees and oddly shaped plants, I knew right away that the terrain here was unlike anything I'd ever seen. I felt as if I'd stepped into a Dr. Seuss book—even the names of the vegetation were strange. Richard pointed out a yacka tree, an odd, stick-like plant with a single, fuzzy yellow branch that sticks straight up from the ground. Another tree, the wattle, draws its branches into a tight mass when it's not flowering, so that it looks like a giant whisk.
As we wound our way around the site, Richard mentioned the possibility that we might see yellow-footed rock wallabies, which are endangered members of the kangaroo family. "This sighting should be part of your Outback rite of passage," he said, setting the stakes high as we drove past yet another lookout. Even some employees at the resort have never seen one, so spotting one of these increasingly rare creatures is really special.
I was just starting to give up hope when I heard Richard cry out. "Found one," he shouted. I fumbled with the binoculars for several minutes, but all I could see were giant rocks and bits of green foliage. Finally, the animal came into focus. The wallaby has a unique appearance: Its underbelly is gray-black with touches of white, its limbs are orange-yellow, its tail is striped and there's a black line down its back. Wallabies can jump about 2.5 times their own height, but the ones I saw calmly idled on the rocks.
For our final glimpse of the crater-like formation from the ground, Richard drove us to Stokes Hill Lookout. Grey-hued kangaroos (known as euros) and emus, which resemble ostrich, wandered about as corella birds flew overhead. I didn't realize the Outback would be so lush and colorful—or so alive.
And I didn't truly comprehend Wilpena Pound's massiveness until and I took a scenic flight over it. The Flinders Ranges rise suddenly from flatlands, and their jagged edges spread for 500 miles into the Outback. The rock morphs from red to orange to blue, and the colors change at sunrise and sunset. Since the mountains face west and rise suddenly from flat terrain, the atmosphere acts as a prism as the sun rises and sets, bending the light rays and creating a pink hue. Also, the very clean air makes mountain-viewing possible in the best and clearest light. From above, the expanse made me feel tiny, and awed. I was silent the entire ride.
Back at the resort that evening, Kent and I sat outside and dined on delicious steaks under the stars. A few kangaroos grazed on the lawn before us. Then more appeared, and by the time I was ready for dessert I counted nine. As if on cue, they started boxing with each other using their front paws. My eyes grew wide. "They're just having a little fun," Kent said, laughing. After a morning hike, we got back in the car to head toward the road that follows Brachina Gorge. This dirt road is strewn with 580-million-year-old rocks, ancient fossils and other geological treasures. We wound past miles and miles of massive rocks and red river gum trees. There wasn't another soul in sight.
Then we set off for the Prairie Hotel. We drove for a couple of hours, until the massive gorges straightened out into desert terrain, developing into the redder, less rocky and drier land of the plains. Finally, we came to a wooden post with neon signs fixed to it. One sign was emblazoned with an illustration of a kangaroo, another had a camel and on the third was an emu. A sign above the illustrations contained the words "Eat Some Today." A few miles later the dirt road ended at a paved "T." We had arrived at the township of Parachilna , population seven, home of the Prairie Hotel.
The Prairie Hotel may have been my final destination but, aside from the cozy guest lodgings, there isn't much to the place—no spa and no gym, just guest rooms, a pool and a bar. Yet pop in any night and you'll find ranchers, farmers, locals from neighboring towns (here, a neighboring town is about an hour's drive away) and visitors from around the world. It's one heck of a watering hole. I entered the bar and immediately felt at home. There was an old-fashioned wooden refrigerator (a fixture of Outback pubs), road signs, an airplane propeller and a handful of bar stools.
"Lost?" asked an Aussie man wearing an Akubra Cattleman hat, just like Mick Dundee in the film Crocodile Dundee. Actually, if Dundee had sidled up to the bar I wouldn't have been surprised."No," I responded. "But I'm not in New York anymore, am I?" I ordered a glass of wine and took it outside to the veranda to watch the sun set with some of the other hotel guests. "This is the only show in town," said one guest. He was right, especially since the guest rooms don't have TVs. But it sure was a good show. I watched the sky turn from blue to gold, with the red plains in the background—and I could have gazed at it forever.