Sunburnt country ... the massive granite Devil's Marbles near Tennant Creek.
Four days on a Greyhound hardly seems the ideal outback holiday, but Sue Williams has some tricks in mind as she embarks on the longest bus ride in the world.
Water? Check. Sandwiches? Check. Bladder empty? Check. A bloody good book? Check. With the longest bus ride in the world ahead of you, stretching south to north across an entire continent, you can't afford not to be prepared.
And while it's one thing to buy a bus ticket that's going to take you the 3030 kilometres from Adelaide to Darwin, it's another to make sure it's going to be a trip as memorable for its excitement as the vast distances it's covering.
"New to this are you?" asks another passenger with a smile and a glance at my neat pack of cheese and tomato sandwiches, water bottle and anxious face. "It's a breeze. You'll love it!"
I'm not so sure. Ordinarily, if I have to travel from Adelaide to Darwin, it's a simple case of flying direct for three hours and 40 minutes. Since the Ghan went all the way, I've travelled on that a couple of times, too, once in gold class and once, memorably, in platinum, which turned out to be the most deliciously luxurious two nights imaginable. I've also driven a one-way hire car, a trip that took three days ... and felt more like half a lifetime.
But this time, I've decided to try out the bus, the Greyhound bus, to be precise. On the surface, it makes perfect sense. For a start, I can stop off anywhere I want along the route to explore places of interest. With 10 days or so to spare, it also offers a way of taking a quick look at all those wondrous outback destinations it often costs a small fortune to visit on individual package tours.
In addition, it's a terribly environmentally-friendly way of touring Australia, with one full coach emitting five times less carbon dioxide per passenger, per kilometre, than a jet aircraft on the same route; it takes 16 cars off the road and the company even allows you to offset your carbon emissions for $1 a booking. Also, it's much less hassle being driven and gazing at the scenery through the window than driving yourself.
And last but not least, it's extraordinarily cheap. My fare, with a combination of specials and booking in advance is, for a trip totalling 97 hours and 20 minutes, just $406 - which even includes one night's all-inclusive accommodation in Katherine. Surely there must be a catch I haven't yet discovered?
The bus leaves Adelaide on the dot at 6pm and already I'm pleasantly surprised. The bus looks pretty new, it's clean and it's very comfortable, with aircon, overhead reading lights, reclining seats and plenty of leg room with a footrest, too. There's cold water onboard, a toilet - yes, I didn't need to be quite as prepared as I'd imagined - big windows and even movies. My fellow travellers seem a cheerful bunch, too; a mix of people visiting relatives, backpackers and one family group on a cheap holiday.
Four hours later, I get off at Port Augusta, 322 kilometres north, and check into a hotel. I'd booked a hire car for the morning and at daybreak, I'm off driving myself up through the ancient Flinders Valley, with its towering ochre mountains and vast plains of virgin bush and desert. There's plenty to see here, such as the vast natural amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound, but my aim is the tiny township of Parachilna - population seven - in the heart of the Flinders.
Dramatic gorges of glowing red cliffs guarded by giant gnarled gums, roads twisting and turning sharply and, suddenly, a sign with pictures of kangaroo, emu and camel that reads: "On Your Plate three kilometres". You simply can't visit one of South Australia's greatest stretches of outback without a stay at legendary local landmark the Prairie Hotel, with its feral antipasto and feral grill comprising roo fillet, emu pattie and camel sausage.
After a couple of days exploring, I head back to Port Augusta and pick up the next bus to Coober Pedy. It's a longer trip this one, at 6½ hours, but we have regular stops to drink coffee, visit non-moving toilets, buy snacks and eat ice-cream. By the time my trip comes to an end, I'm almost reluctant to leave.
The old opal town of Coober Pedy, however, is one of the most fascinating, and eccentric, towns in Australia. With its eerie, pockmarked lunar landscape of mineshafts, the warning signs not to fall down the holes, the quirky opal museum and the numerous sellers - as well as decent hotels and a drive-in cinema - it wasn't to be missed.
A day and a half later, I get back on the bus to head up to Alice Springs. An eight-hour journey lies ahead but I'm getting into the rhythm of this bus travel by now. I start getting off at every stop for a walk around, dozing for a couple of hours in between, reading my book and swapping magazines with the other passengers. Everyone's always up for a chat, too, if you feel like it, and there are plenty of recommendations of places to stay and things to do ahead.
Alice Springs is a gorgeous little town at the heart of the Northern Territory, with fabulous galleries of Aboriginal art, a great desert park, good restaurants, cafes and hotels and the delicious air of still being a remote frontier town, despite its surface sophistication. Getting off here, I pick up another hire car and make my way to Uluru for a couple of days. It's always a stunning sight and the awe and wonder still hits, however many times you visit.
Back in Alice, I board the bus again, this time on my 14-day Croc Stopover Package, which allows me to travel from Alice to Darwin with three stops on the way, including an all-inclusive overnight stay in the Katherine Gorge. For just $218, it feels incredible value.
I decide my first stop will be in Tennant Creek, a small township 500 kilometres north of Alice, originally established as a repeater station for the Overland Telegraph in 1872 and the scene of Australia's last gold rush in the 1930s. Popular lore has it that the town proper grew up where a beer truck broke down in an area occupied by 600 miners. The only downside of the bus trip here is that it arrives at 2.15am and leaves every morning at 3.15am, but it is the place, says Miles Franklin award-winning author Alexis Wright, where "more stars than you could see anywhere on Earth shine across the sky so brightly and so close". At least the early-morning start affords me a view of those. I rent a car and take a trip south of the town, too, to see The Devil's Marbles, an area of massive granite boulders, bathed in a fiery red at sunrise and sunset.
My next stop comes after the longest leg of my trip, 8½ hours, but my destination, Katherine, is just out of this world. I take a boat along the sapphire-blue waters of the gorge, between the rocky cliffs and escarpments, with the tour guide stopping to show us ancient rock paintings on the walls, talking about the lives of his ancestors in this part of the world and pointing out the tracks in the sand on the banks of nesting crocodiles. We stay in a tented camp in the Nitmiluk National Park and I sleep more soundly than I think I've ever before done in my life.
From here, it's a mere 2½ hours to Adelaide River, the home of the famous "jumping crocodiles". It's touristy but tremendous fun cruising along the river and watching giant crocs leap out of the river to tear at the meat they're being offered by the crew.
My final leg to Darwin is just 2½ hours. "Come back soon!" calls the driver as I collect my bags at my destination. I smile back. Well, maybe I won't be doing that exact same trip again, but it sure wouldn't be a bad way to see the rest of the country.
By plane, train or automobile?
ADELAIDE TO DARWIN
BUS $406; takes 97 hours and 20 minutes; services every day.
PLANE Qantas and Virgin Blue have fares from $265 to $868; takes three hours, 40 minutes; frequency is often.
TRAIN The Ghan's Red Service day-nighter seats $716 a person; Gold Service sleeper $1973; ultra-luxury Platinum Service $2987; takes two nights; leaves twice a week.
CAR One-way car hire from $420-$4000 — depending on the model — for four-day rental, plus petrol bill of about $400; takes three to four days, comfortably.
THE VERDICT The train is, without doubt, a fabulous experience and the trip in Platinum Service turns the trip into a stunningly luxurious journey through some of Australia's most stunning scenery.
The plane is quick, efficient and great for simply getting there. However, isn't it sad always to be missing some of the best sights our country has to offer?
Driving a rental car does give you the ultimate in freedom to stop and stay where you like but, with so much of the landscape consisting of featureless gibber plain and desert, the drive can be dull and tiring.
The bus is a great stress-free compromise between the flexibility of driving and the comfort of being able to doze off when you want or dreamily gaze out at the scenery, without worrying about hitting stray animals or being battered by the crosswind from road trains. And it's surprisingly economical, with half-price fares for children, too.
The writer travelled on a Coober Pedy two-stop pass for $108 that took her from Adelaide to Coober Pedy; a Coober Pedy to Alice Springs ticket booked in advance that cost $80 (compared with the normal $175); and the 14-day Croc Stopover ticket for $218 to Darwin. Specials change from time to time.
Phone 1300 473 946, see greyhound.com.au.