Road to the red heart
Red Centre ... the ruins of an old hotel on the Oodnadatta Track. Photo: Getty Images
The world has plenty of famed routes for the adventurer but none kick up as much dust as Australia's Adelaide to Uluru escapade, writes Sue Williams.
Towering mountain ranges, wild outback towns, the world's largest salt lake and stunning desert complete with the biggest chunk of solid rock on the planet ...
How does Australia's ultimate road trip, from Adelaide to Uluru, from the coast to the country's red heart, compare with the rest of the best the globe can offer? Pretty damn well, it has to be said. Route 66 across the US? A little cheesy. Italy's Amalfi Coast? A touch tame. New Zealand's famed South Island drive? Too same-y.
Great views ... Lake Eyre, South Australia. Photo: Corbis
But our iconic road trip of 1783 kilometres, via a few of the fabulous wineries of the golden Clare Valley, traversing the magnificent Flinders Ranges, dropping in at tiny bush towns with time for a flight over Lake Eyre, staying underground at wacky Coober Pedy and then crossing breathtaking desert, is an absolute bucket list must-do.
It's not the kind of trip you have to wait until retirement to have the time for, either. It's possible to do it comfortably in a week – although a more leisurely 10 days or two weeks would be even better.
And while it's a drive that once used to be more about endurance than comfort, these days there are surprisingly high-quality places to stay, great food at many stops, wonderful wine and atmospheric local pubs, and a host of things to do as well as amazing sights to see.
The dog fence near Coober Pedy. Photo: Getty Images
Day one: Adelaide to Clare
Distance 144 kilometres
Travel Time Two hours
Breathtaking ... Uluru at sunset. Photo: Getty Images
I flew from Sydney to Adelaide first thing in the morning, had breakfast at the beach in Glenelg and then picked up a car, a new Audi Q3 that I'd been asked to test-drive. A compact SUV, I thought it could be perfect for the route ahead.
This trip can be done comfortably in a two-wheel-drive as the roads are pretty good, but with an SUV or four-wheel-drive you can venture off-road at various points, too, to kick up some real outback dust.
This first leg takes you out of the city, through its backblocks into the verdant green hills of the Clare Valley, with rich farmland, rolling vineyards and tumbling stone ruins.
You arrive in plenty of time, too, for some wine-tasting. One cellar door not to be missed is Skillogalee, a boutique winery that's family-owned and operated, with wines made by a father-and-son team and food prepared by the daughter as head chef. The winery takes its name from a local creek, which was in turn named after the gruel "skilly" made from grass seeds and water on which a British explorer in the area survived.
These days, provisions are far more plentiful; the Clare Valley was the first region in Australia to pair food with its grape offerings. Skillogalee has its own restaurant housed in a 140-year-old stone settler's cottage, nestled among the green wooded hills, and accommodation, serving dishes such as confit duck with braised red cabbage, and Middle Eastern yoghurt-baked mulloway, served on saffron and sumac rice.
Extra Time-Out Cycle or walk the Riesling Trail, or take the new Rattler Trail, with its ever-changing views of vineyards, farmland and bush.
Day two: Clare to Parachilna
Distance 326 kilometres
Travel Time Four hours
Gradually the green countryside gives way to flat yellow sweeps of dried grasses, the beginnings of the red dust of the outback, and, in the distance, the mighty Flinders Ranges appear in a haze of purple. From this point on, the landscape grows steadily more and more rugged, and bluffs soar over quiet gorges circled by eagles, while sheep graze tranquilly, their coats pink from the earth.
All around the Flinders are great drives and 4WD tracks, which the Q3 handled with ease, while its jewel is Wilpena Pound, an ancient, natural, giant crater criss-crossed with walking trails. Take a break here for a brisk walk to see some of the views.
Further on, Parachilna feels almost in the middle of nowhere – because it is. But its fiery red setting is known the world over because of the number of movies filmed here, such as Holy Smoke!, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Pitch Black and Beautiful Kate. It's also the last place you might expect to find one of the globe's hippest hotels, but the surprises keep on coming.
This is the home of the Prairie Hotel, a great pub – no TV or pokies allowed – a very comfortable hotel, and astoundingly good food. Its speciality is its Feral Mixed Grill: kangaroo fillet, emu fillet mignon and camel sausage with grilled tomato, creamy mash and a red wine pepper leaf glaze.
Extra Time-Out Take a longer hike in Wilpena Pound, sleeping at Rawnsley Park Station; stop off at Quorn for a ride on the steam-driven Pichi Richi Railway; or just chill out at the Prairie, watch the sunrise and sunsets and meet the locals.
Day three: Parachilna to William Creek
Distance 395 kilometres
Travel Time Six hours
Leave early for a day of longer driving to give yourself plenty of time to stop along the way and take photos.
Have a break at Maree, the small town at the start of the Birdsville and Oodnadatta tracks that once used to be a bustling railhead, before the original Ghan line was relocated. Now with a population of just 70 people, it's fascinating for both its history – Australia's first mosque was built here by Afghan cameleers – and its atmosphere. With an old Ghan carriage incongruously in the middle of town, it's a place where you feel time (like everything else) has stopped.
From here, you turn west on to the historic Oodnadatta Track through semi-arid desert, passing by oasis springs, historic ruins and great views of the shimmering Lake Eyre to the north, with its salt-encrusted plains stretching all the way to the water, and plenty of side-trips to try out the suspension of an SUV or 4WD.
After a 200-kilometre drive to the north-west, you finally come to William Creek, South Australia's tiniest town – population three humans and a dog – which is enjoying something of a revival from tourists coming to see Lake Eyre in flood. This is a great place from which to take a flight over the lake, for that once-in-a-lifetime view of Australia's largest inland salt lake with water actually in it.
The views are spectacular, ranging from the blinding white of the salt deposits still there on its shores, to the pale mauves and blues of the water itself, dotted with islands covered in birds bewildered by the water flows. "I think this is something all Australians dream of seeing one day," says Trevor Wright, the owner of the little airline Wrightsair, these days acclaimed as the town's saviour.
The cabin accommodation in town is nothing flash but is clean and comfortable, and the local pub, full of character and decorated with buffalo heads, old plough blades and guns, serves unexpectedly excellent meals, including plate-size steaks, burgers, pies and even fish and chips.
Extra Time-Out Take another flight (or combine the two!) to see the Anna Creek Painted Hills – a series of sandhills streaked with glorious natural colour – and hang out with the passers-by at the pub.
Day four: William Creek to Coober Pedy
Distance 167 kilometres
Travel Time Three hours
Turn right from William Creek to pass the entrance to Anna Creek, the largest cattle station in the world, at a mind-boggling 24,500 square kilometres, the size of Holland and Belgium combined.
Winding through the red dust claypans, the towering sandhills and past the salt bush and blue bush that break up the incredible tree-less emptiness of the landscape, eventually you start approaching Coober Pedy.
You can't mistake the place. The site of the original Mad Max movies, it looks like a deserted moonscape, full of pockmarks from the thousands of little opal mines dug by hopeful fortune-hunters over the centuries. It's no wonder you're urged not to wander from the streets after dark. Many a disappearance has been put down to people simply falling down holes, and never being seen again. "And there are few better hiding places for bodies!" a cheery local once told me. But this is also the town that produces most of the world's opals, and it's one of the most fascinating places in Australia, filled to bursting with colourful characters, eccentric buildings and great sights. Well, how many golf courses have you seen made completely of dust?
Half the population lives underground to escape the heat of summer, and there are a number of underground places to visit. With a population drawn from more than 50 countries, there are no fewer than four underground churches, including the heritage-listed St Peter and Paul's Catholic Church – thought to be the first underground church in the world – the Serbian Orthodox Church, the Revival Fellowship and the Catacomb Church.
It's then only right that you choose an underground room in one of the hotels to sleep in, to get into the mood.
Extra Time-Out Try your hand at opal mining at Tom's Working Opal Mine and visit the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum to learn all about the stones and history of the area.
Day five: Coober Pedy to Marla
Distance 233 kilometres
Travel Time Three and a half hours
Spend more time exploring Coober Pedy and then set off north.
About 15 kilometres on, you pass by the dog fence, the longest man-made construction in the world, stretching some 5600 kilometres from Jimbour on Queensland's Darling Downs to the Bight in South Australia, and built to protect the sheep country in the south from the dingoes of the north.
Cadney Homestead is a convenient stop for a coffee break and is also the turn-off for Arckaringa and its nearby Painted Desert, another piece of land streaked with colour from the natural pigments in the earth. Marla, based on an Aboriginal word meaning "kangaroo", is little more than a collection of buildings – a shop, a roadhouse and accommodation – but it gives you a great feel for the outback. Across the road the new Ghan railway line disappears in the distance, to both north and south, in an absolute straight line.
Extra Time-Out Take a side-trip to Oodnadatta, with the desert trail clearly marked for every attraction and place of interest. At its end is the famous Pink Roadhouse, a major landmark of the Australian outback.
Day six: Marla to Uluru
Distance 518 kilometres
Travel Time Six hours
Set off early from Marla, cross the border into the Northern Territory and then take the Lasseter Highway west at Erldunda. You'll see Uluru on the horizon, growing strikingly bigger as you approach.
When you arrive, you'll have the afternoon to explore and then maybe take the Mala Walk and Kantju Gorge Sunset Tour to watch the rock change colour under the setting sun over wine and cheese, or book on to one of the beautiful open-air sunset dinners.
The Sounds of Silence dinner is on white cloth-covered tables set on a lone dune with canapes and sparkling wine as the sun slips down, followed by a three-course buffet and a talk by the resident star-gazer.
The Tali Wiru dinner is a much more intimate affair, with small tables for a sumptuous a la carte meal set up on a dune closer to the rock, with magnificent views.
Day seven: No more driving!
Rest and relax at Uluru, or take a camel sunrise tour or Aboriginal art class. And then, finally, take a flight home.
The writer was a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission, Voyages and Audi Australia.
Qantas and Virgin Australia fly direct to Sydney from Uluru (Connellan) Airport, and Qantas also flies via Alice Springs to Sydney and Melbourne.
Clare Valley Skillogalee, Hughes Park Road, Sevenhill, South Australia. From $235 a couple a night. (08) 8843 4270, skillogalee.com.au.
Parachilna The Prairie Hotel, High Street and West Terrace, Parachilna, South Australia. Heritage rooms from $195. (08) 8648 4895, prairiehotel.com.au.
William Creek William Creek Hotel, South Australia. Cabins are $159 a night, sleeping two. (08) 8670 7880, williamcreekhotel.net.au.
Coober Pedy Desert Cave Hotel, Hutchison Street, Coober Pedy, South Australia. Rooms from $160 a night. (08) 8672 5688, desertcave .com.au.
Marla Marla Travellers Rest, Marla Bore, Stuart Highway, South Australia. Rooms from $100 a night. (08) 8670 7001, marla.com.au.
Uluru Desert Gardens Hotel, Ayers Rock Resort, Yulara. Two-night Uluru Escape from $304 a person, twin share. 1300 134 044, voyages.com.au.