Australia's wilderness has more for travellers than the macho frontier cliches of the beer commercials. Whether you're looking for ancient aboriginal paintings and sacred rock formations or modern art and opera, the outback has a few surprises - and some deadly wildlife - to offer. By Ann Warburton and Steve Toon
ISN'T IT JUST A FLY-RIDDEN DUST-BOWL?

No. The outback is like nowhere else on earth. Although it may seem remote and forbidding, it is more accessible, more beautiful and more varied than you might imagine. As well as some of the most awe-inspiring arid scenery in the world, it is also home to one of the most globally important wetland areas, Kakadu National Park, and has the world's largest man-made lake, Lake Argyle. The outback wildlife is unique and includes colourful parrots, majestic birds of prey and mobs of kangaroos. Alongside dusty ghost towns, archetypal Aussie pubs and famous roadhouses you'll find thriving communities and some memorable sunsets.

DO I NEED A 4X4 OR CAMEL TRAIN TO EXPLORE IT?

The outback is vast. It's 1,533km from Adelaide to Alice Springs, and another 1,489km to Darwin. So, unless you have a lot of time, a mixture of internal flights and local tours or self-drive car hire makes sense. If you plan several internal flights, a number of passes are available. The Qantas Boomerang Pass, for example, offers prices starting at around pounds 94 for destinations within the same zone, and pounds 121 for longer flights, but you need to book at least two flights and buy your pass outside Australia (0345 747 767 for reservations). If you don't have a pass, presenting your international ticket will often bring you discounts on domestic flights.

For a more relaxed introduction to the outback's spectacular scenery, enjoy first-class rail travel on the historic Ghan, from Sydney to Alice, for pounds 424, or take a three-night trip on the Indian Pacific from Sydney to Perth for pounds 522 (call Leisurail on 01733 335599 for details).

Luxury coach operators such as AAT Kings (0171-468 4114) offer a wide range of all-inclusive packages, such as a four-day tour of the Top End (the north of Northern Territory), departing from Darwin and including Kakadu, Katherine Gorge and Litchfield National Park, from pounds 285, or three days from Alice to Ayers Rock from pounds 255.

Self-drive car hire is good value, particularly if you book in advance through a travel agent. Prices can start at around pounds 20 per day for a small hatchback, though many firms charge a premium in Northern Territory. Two- wheel drive will get you to most major tourist destinations. Motorhomes start at around pounds 28 per day for a two-berth vehicle in low season and there are plenty of good value caravan and campsites.

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

Plan to avoid seasonal extremes of temperature in the arid central desert and the excesses of the hot, wet season of the Northern Territory's Top End. If you're planning a trip in the Millennium year and want to visit around the time of the Sydney Olympics at the end of September then you've pretty much timed it right. July and August can mean freezing cold nights around Ayers Rock while in December and January daytime temperatures reach 40C by mid-morning. The best time to visit is from April to June and between October and November.

CAN I CAMP BY A BILLABONG?

Australia has developed a massive range of accommodation, from budget hostels aimed at backpackers, to luxury hotels. The outback is no exception, although luxury hotels are confined to major centres and Ayers Rock Resort. Here, for example, the Sails in the Desert Hotel (00 618 8956 2200) is pounds 133 per double.

There are plenty of good quality tourist hotels for around pounds 40 to pounds 60 per night and even small towns usually have one or more motels, with rooms from as little as pounds 20, and a caravan park. If you don't have a motorhome, self-contained cabins are often available. In Kakadu you can stay in the crocodile-shaped Gagudju Crocodile Hotel (00 618 8979 2800). And, for something completely different, try an underground motel room in Coober Pedy - not as claustrophobic as it sounds (Coober Pedy Desert Cave Hotel: 00 618 8672 5688). If you do camp by a billabong (a river loop that gets cut off in the dry season to form a temporary pond), don't pitch your tent within 50 metres of the water unless you fancy crocodile wrestling.

WILL IT BE EXPENSIVE?

With the pound strong, Australia is good value, although costs do get higher the more remote you are. However, a three-course meal can cost as little as pounds 10 and unleaded petrol costs 30p to 40p a litre.

SHOULD I CLIMB THE ROCK?

Some 450 km south west of Alice Springs lie Ayers Rock and the Olgas. Also known by their aboriginal names of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, these unique rock formations are as impressive as their reputations, despite the hordes of tourists. The traditional aboriginal owners would rather you didn't climb the Rock, but if you insist on tackling the one hour trek to the summit, be warned that, in hot weather, it is demanding and has claimed several lives. Scenic flights (pounds 30) or helicopter trips (pounds 40) from nearby Ayers Rock Resort (00 618 8956 2240) give a memorable view, while ranger- guided walks introduce you to some of the aboriginal beliefs and culture.

WHAT ELSE CAN I SEE?

The outback has an amazing wealth of hidden culture. The Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs, for example, is like a miniature South Bank with arthouse cinema, theatre, galleries and visits from the national opera company (00 618 8951 1120). Broken Hill in New South Wales is building a reputation as a centre for outback art through the local school of artists headed by Pro Hart. The outback is also home to ancient aboriginal art, with excellent and accessible examples of rock paintings in many of the national parks. Some of the best are at Ubirr and Nourlangie in Kakadu. You can find the best and cheapest examples of modern aboriginal dot paintings in the outback, although recent controversies over authenticity and exploitation of artists mean you should take care before you buy. For more information about aboriginal culture there are good cultural centres at Ayers Rock (00 618 8956 3138), Kakadu (00 618 8979 2101) and the Wadlata Outback Centre in Port Augusta, South Australia (00 618 8642 4511). Wadlata also features excellent displays on early white settlers and explorers.

WHAT ABOUT THE WILDLIFE?

Most animals are nocturnal, so dawn and dusk are the ideal times for spotting red kangaroos and wallabies. Keep a lookout when travelling outback roads at these times - warning signs and, sadly, numerous roadkills will alert you to the presence of "roos". If you're lucky you can also spot dingos, emus and feral camels along major tourist routes. Roadkills attract birds of prey, including the majestic wedge-tailed eagle. Look out also for the parrots that thrive in arid habitats.

Among the best parks for seeing wildlife are Flinders Ranges in South Australia, Mootwingee in New South Wales and Kakadu in the Northern Territory. If visiting Kakadu's wetlands in the dry season, you will see thousands of waterbirds and crocodiles skulking in the billabongs. The park's Yellow Waters cruise is a must (00 618 8979 0145). Northern Territory's Parks and Wildlife Service (00 618 8989 5511) operates two wildlife parks, the Desert Wildlife Park in Alice Springs and Territory Wildlife Park half an hour from Darwin, offering a chance to see the more elusive animals.

DO I HAVE TO LIVE ON MEAT PIES AND TWO VEG?

Standard fare on most roadhouse menus is pie and chips, or that great Aussie pub staple, roast and two veg, so you might want to pack a picnic for long journeys. Otherwise eating out can be surprisingly good with plenty of choice, some gourmet options and even a burgeoning cafe society. Try the excellent Cafe Doppia in Alice Springs (00 618 8952 6525) for an eclectic mix of Thai, modern Australian and north African food, and delicious homemade pastries. Gourmet wild food and upmarket bush tucker is on offer at restaurants such as the Red Ochre Grill (00 618 8952 9614) in Alice or the Prairie Hotel (00 618 8648 4895) in Parachilna, South Australia ("feral food" is a speciality). If you want to self-cater adventurously, supermarkets stock kangaroo, camel and buffalo.

CAN I BE A CROCODILE DUNDEE?

Canoe up Katherine Gorge, ride camels at Ayers Rock, fish for barramundi in Kakadu or pan for gold in old mining towns - the outback has a wealth of outdoor activities. Alice Springs is Australia's ballooning capital and flights over the MacDonnell Ranges, followed by a champagne breakfast, are popular. Try Ballooning Downunder (00 618 8952 8816), Outback Ballooning (00 618 8952 8723), or Spinifex (00 618 8953 4800). But the best way to appreciate the outback is to go walkabout. Good marked trails in the National Parks are graded according to difficulty. Bushwalking tours with expert guides give an insight into natural history and aboriginal culture. Try to spend a night under the stars with campfire and billy tea. Darwin-based Billy Can Tours (00 618 8981 9813) offers camping safaris.

IS THERE ANYTHING TO AVOID?

Watch out for massive 50 metre road trains. You need a clear kilometre ahead before overtaking. Protect your face against flies with a net face guard. Wear boots for bushwalking - Australia has the most venomous snakes in the world. Wear high factor sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat, drink plenty of water and use mosquito repellent in wetland areas.

WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?

The Australian Tourist Commission (0181-780 2227) produces a traveller's guide and has a website at www.australia.com. Lonely Planet's Outback Australia (pounds 13.99) is good if you plan to spend time independently in remoter areas.

FIVE OF THE BEST OUTBACK TOWNS

ALICE SPRINGS

The self-styled capital of the outback, Alice today bears little resemblance to the town depicted in Nevil Shute's outback classic A Town Like Alice. Nonetheless it remains a good base for exploring the MacDonnell Ranges, the Devil's Marbles, arranging trips to Ayers Rock or shopping for opals and aboriginal art. Visit the Telegraph Station and Desert Wildlife Park.

BROKEN HILL

With street names like Chloride, Iodide, Cobalt and Bromide it's hard to escape the fact that the history of Broken Hill, New South Wales, is steeped in minerals and mining. Just in case the many reminders of this heritage escape your notice, the whole townscape is overlooked by a massive spoil heap. Don't be put off. The grand and gracious provincial architecture of Argent Street, Beryl or Blonde is impressive. Visit the Living Desert Sculpture Park, the innumerable art galleries, or take a mine tour.

SILVERTON

Silverton, a short drive from Broken Hill, is your stereotypical outback settlement. Parts of Mad Max II were filmed around here, and the former mining town is also home to some of the wackiest outback art. The whole place feels like a film set with rusting old cars, broken down shacks and photogenic debris. Visit the Silverton Hotel for a cold beer - this famous pub has played backdrop to countless Aussie beer commercials.

KUNUNURRA

Situated in Western Australia and ideally placed for exploring the Kimberleys and Bungle Bungles, Kununurra is by no means your average outback town. It was purpose-built to serve the Ord River Irrigation Project, an ambitious local agricultural scheme. The cultivation at times makes the place seem more like tropical Queensland with sugar cane, bananas and mango trees lining the roadways. Visit the Hidden Valley National Park and Five Rivers Lookout at Wyndham.

COOBER PEDY

If you remain to be convinced about the otherworldliness of the outback, the moonscapes around Coober Pedy and the unusual lifestyle of the inhabitants of this South Australian mining community should do it. Its name means "white man's burrow" and many of the townspeople prefer to live in underground homes than face the extremes of temperature. There's an underground church and a range of underground tourist accommodation. Visit the Big Winch Lookout for an overview.

FIVE OF THE BEST UNSPOILT WILD PLACES

MACDONNELL RANGES

Easily reached from Alice Springs, the scenic highlights of the east and west MacDonnell ranges are often overlooked by tourists heading for the more famous sights. The ranges are known for the spectacular gorges which cut through the spine of the rocks and their intense colours when illuminated by the rising or setting sun. Visit Trephina Gorge in the eastern part of the range and Ormiston Gorge in the west where short trails have been laid out for visitors.

FLINDERS RANGES

Flinders Ranges National Park in South Australia contains some of the outback's most stunning scenery, lots of wildlife and enough amazing geological features to make it a textbook location. There's good accommodation, yet the area remains unspoiled as it's away from the main tourist facilities. Visit Wilpena Pound and Brachina Gorge on the self-guided geological trail.

KEEP RIVER NATIONAL PARK

Although it's less well-known and smaller than the major national parks, Keep River in Northern Territory has landscapes to rival them all. Walks starting from the two campsites are spectacular. Rock formations echo the beehive shapes of the better-known Bungle Bungles, while others appear like the architecture of lost Aztec cities. Baobab trees and palms high on the cliffs add to the bizarre landscape.

MOOTWINGEE NATIONAL PARK

Remote and arid, this small park is a haven for wildlife and an ideal stopover when exploring the New South Wales outback. Two hours drive from Broken Hill, the park is home to mobs of red kangaroos and wallabies, while eagles soar above the gorges. The park has a good network of trails and historic aboriginal sites.

LAKE ARGYLE

Man-made Lake Argyle, in the north of Western Australia, covers an area of 900 square miles. The sheer scale of this irrigation project and the engineering involved makes the six-hour cruise worthwhile. Sailing on this lonely inland sea, the only life for miles around is the thousands of birds that make the wetlands their home - and the occasional curious wallaby. Cruises are run by Lake Argyle Tourist Village (00 618 9168 7360).

Getting there: The writer travelled as a guest of the Rio Tourist office in London, Riotour (0171-431 0303) and Varig (0845-603 7601). Return fares on Varig to either Rio or Sao Paulo in the next couple of months cost from pounds 560 including taxes. Varig, the national carrier for Brazil, flies from London to Rio seven times a week. It also offers frequent onward connections from both Rio and Sao Paulo to Amazonia and Bahia.

Accommodation: The writer stayed as a guest of the Copacabana Palace Hotel (00 55 215 487070) where standard double rooms cost US$360.

Packages: Tour operators such as Journey Latin America (0181-747 8315) offer five-night packages

in Rio this autumn from around pounds 500-pounds 600 a head based on two sharing.

Comments