Slingshot drive: along the sea, then up to the Outback's fringe
BLINMAN, SOUTH AUSTRALIA — There's a things-to-do list for guests up here at the sheep station. It's fairly short.
"Appreciate the night sky," reads one item, advising the reader to first get clear of artificial light. Simple enough at Alpana, a 51,000-acre ranch with its shearers' quarters converted to a plain but comfortable dormitory. You pretty much flip the switch on the veranda and bring on the Southern Cross.
I tuck the list away. It's morning, and that means bushwalking. Crunching alone across sunburned vegetation acquires a certain edge when you've just asked about snakes and learned that the warming weather ought to be bringing out the big brown and the common death adder about now. Just watch where you walk.
The shingleback lizards seem friendly enough.
Welcome to the Outback - the fringe of it, anyway. I'm not quite up to the backcountry described in tourism brochures, where the baked earth is deep red (photographed with filters to look even redder, several Australians tell me) and Land Rovers trail plumes of dust as a didgeridoo supplies the soundtrack.
But tiny Blinman - a few buildings, a closed copper mine, and a cemetery - is a different Australia from the ones I've seen so far, a world away from Melbourne and a long haul up from Adelaide, a pleasant and park-laden frontier city laid out in a grid but with just enough jug-handle roads to send an exiting driver back into town for a few last looks at the cricket pitch, whether he wants to or not.
Long drives are a national pastime. You can crush the gas pedal for hours before passing another vehicle.
Quite often the encounter is with a "road train" - a longer than usual semitrailer, with Mad Max-style kangaroo bars across the grill. The driver typically lifts an index finger from the wheel as if to salute your pluck, and you bond for one thunderous second with a fellow human traversing the barren wasteland.
The twisting, 30-kilometer stretch from Parachilna to Alpana will paste a smile to the face of anyone who has watched an auto rally with envy. At a lonely pump behind the Prairie Hotel I tank up - yet again - one hand waving away black flies that seem magnetically drawn to human eyes. Then I hit one of Australia's famous unsealed roads, mindful of the occasional "creek crossings" I hear something about as I pay for gas.
The big-wheeled trucks up here use snorkel-like exhaust pipes. I wonder about my choice of conveyance: a tiny rental car.
The urge to play road warrior in Australia is strong: You can't come this far from the East Coast of the United States and not take the overland, sampler approach. About 1,860 miles behind the wheel gives you a nice oval bite of the big country's southeast, including a swing down the Boomerang Coast and up into the rugged interior of the Flinders Ranges.
West of cosmopolitan Melbourne I pick up the Great Ocean Road, crossing tiny Lollypop Creek on the road to Geelong. Before long, the little five-speed Holden, Australian-made, hugs spectacular hairpins, which peak in intensity between Lorne and Apollo Bay.
Now and then the road rises 100 meters up from the wave-hammered shore - site of hundreds of shipwrecks - into cool eucalyptus groves, even a stretch of temperate rain forest.
Surf towns all have the lifesaving clubs required of spots with names like Point Danger. Even in the rain - in late November the wet winter is just ending - I catch lifeguards practicing, pushing long-oared rescue boats into the unrelenting surf.
I catch my first glimpse of Australian wildlife in Anglesea, where not-so-shy kangaroos have taken over a golf course. (Similarly, Kennet River is said to be "overrun" with koalas, but I have to climb a rutty track to catch one rumbling along, like some "Star Wars" ewok, before he shimmies up a tree to strike a pose.)
Just before Port Campbell, with the weather "fining up," I come upon the 12 Apostles - stone spires just off the beach that simultaneously evoke Utah and Ireland's Cliffs of Mohr. Up the coast, Port Fairy - founded by Irish immigrants - has its shops and restaurants named for Dublin and Belfast.
At a fuel stop in tiny Nelson I ask about lodging. The room charge gets added to my fill-up since the hotel sits next door. Along with my receipt I'm cheerfully handed a small pitcher of milk to juggle while I shift and park. Overnight, a water glass rattles as big trucks blast past.
Mt. Gambier, across the line from Victoria in South Australia, takes pride in its caves. At Robe I watch fishermen offload crates of rock lobster. It's practically New England. After Robe comes Kingston - and then, on the long stretch to Meningie, nothing. (I'll get behind a pig truck there that will make me pine for that unscented nothingness.)
As straight as the road is, a soft shoulder makes it inadvisable to try checking a road map while under way. Trust me. My eyes won't leave the road until Adelaide.
South Australia prides itself on being the only part of the country not settled by convicts.
At its heart lies Adelaide, the capital and "a 20-minute city," residents will tell you, easy to traverse end-to-end - and worth a day or two of crisscrossing. Bustling Rundle Street, a broad pedestrian zone, runs through its center, with gilded arcades that invite detours. The major gallery and museum are free - don't miss a chance to view an opalized plesiosaur.
The place for breakfast: any of the cafes in the Central Market off Victoria Square, also a good place to pack a "tucker bag" with fresh bread, smoked meat, and cheese for the drive north.
Morning rain makes the notion of lighting out for the Outback daunting. Roads wash out in places without topsoil. It's not uncommon here to see white roadside measuring posts showing where water can rise a yard or more.
But a new excitement kicks in as I leave Adelaide's northern suburbs - the landscape goes extraterrestrial and stays that way all the way up to the edge of the jagged Flinders.
Nearly 90 percent of Australia's population lives on the coast. Jon and Jan Henery are two people who don't. Alpana Station has been their family homestead since 1878, a producer of merino wool and now an oasis of hospitality where the deep morning quiet is broken only by raucous flocks of white cockatoos. (The naughty birds strip trees out of boredom, Mrs. Henery says.)
In the late afternoon light, the unmistakable silhouette of a kangaroo might appear 50 yards from your window.
The Henerys' grandchildren live next door, attending school via the Internet. Michelle, 8, holds a clay sculpture up to her webcam to share, then leans into a tiny microphone attached to the computer. "Would I be able to have 'Wombats to the Rescue'?" she asks a librarian online.
A jouncing four-hour Land Cruiser drive along some of Alpana's fence lines reveals a wind-worn expanse of gum trees and creek beds. Parts of the property have an almost East African beauty.
Mr. Henery calls "G'day" to some resting sheep, points out the moisture-robbing prickly pears he's working to eradicate, and checks his rainfall gauge, noting the previous night's few precious millimeters.
So tough is this land that sheep require up to 20 acres - each - to graze. Their teeth tend to wear down, Henery says, after about six years.
Still, there's room - and sustenance - for abundant wildlife. At 6:30 a.m., on a better road out of Alpana through Flinders Ranges National Park toward Wilpena, I brake for some unflinching emus and eventually lose count of kangaroos - reds, euros, Western grays - crossing in front of me.
To the southeast lies the Murray River valley and the road back toward Melbourne, through vineyards and citrus groves, through towns like Mildura, Swan Hill, and Echuca, with their small paddle-wheelers and their penny-arcade feel.
In my rearview mirror, the morning sky yawns wide. I recall that Mr. Henery had said astronomers come up here. Like Outback travelers who heed Alpana's short list, they douse the lights, and they soak up the stars.