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Following in the footsteps of a trailblazer...but not on a camel

It was 150 years ago that John Stuart reached a part of Australia that other colonialists had failed to reach. Polly Evans retraced his journey, only with a few more home comforts

John McDouall Stuart wrote in his journal in May 1860: "This morning I observe that the muscles of my limbs are changing from yellow-green to black.

My mouth is getting worse and it is with difficulty that I can swallow anything." Stuart was a month and a half into his fourth attempt to find a route across the length of Australia and was suffering from scurvy. Less than six weeks later, skirmishes with the Aborigines combined with ill-health and low supplies forced him to abandon his effort and retreat south and it would be more than two years before his sixth expedition reached the shores of the Indian Ocean. But, during this fourth foray, Stuart achieved one great triumph: on 23 April 1860, he and his two companions became the first non-indigenous men to reach the centre of the Australian continent.

So, 150 years later, I set out to travel in Stuart's footsteps. My journey would almost mirror that of the trailblazing Scot: the only differences would be that, while he had limped along with horses crazed by hunger and thirst, I'd drive an air-conditioned jeep; while he subsisted on rations of flour and jerked meat so scanty that his muscles wasted and gums haemorrhaged, I'd fatten myself on kangaroo steaks and fine wines; and whereas Stuart had, with telescope and compass, navigated his way across red dust and spinifex, I'd simply cruise up the highway that bears his name, taking in diversions of interest en route.

First, I flew into Adelaide, then drove north through the Clare Valley. This area was already settled in Stuart's day; conveniently for the 21st-century explorer, it's now one of South Australia's major wine regions. I stopped for lunch at the Skillogalee winery and restaurant, just south of the town of Clare. It's owned by British emigrants Dave and Diana Palmer. "This area was first opened up by John Horrocks," Diana explained as we sat on their rustic veranda, tucked in to our oxtail stew, and chatted about the early explorers of South Australia. Horrocks settled at neighbouring Penwortham, named after his family's estate in England, in the 1840s. It was he who gave the name Skillogalee to the creek that runs through the winery's land. "Horrocks was the first person to bring camels into Australia for exploration," Dave went on.

Unfortunately, it was Horrocks's bad-tempered camel, widely known as Harry the Horrible, who brought about his early death. During a journey into the Flinders Ranges in 1846, Harry gave an untimely lurch that discharged Horrocks's gun, blowing off his finger and a row of teeth; Horrocks died of septicaemia a few weeks later. His demise led Stuart to use horses rather than camels on his expeditions.

My hotel for the evening had managed to turn the demise of Australia's wild inhabitants into a business of considerable success: people drive for hours to Parachilna to eat the Prairie Hotel's feral food – kangaroo steaks, emu paté, camel sausages and the like. Jane Fargher and her husband Ross bought the hotel – then a run-down bush pub – 19 years ago. In renovating it, they decided they needed to create a unique reason to encourage people to stop and eat with them.

"We had a local kangaroo processor at Blinman. At the time, kangaroo was not widely served in Australia, so when we did it, it was a popular attraction," Jane explained. "We've now taken on an executive chef, Andrew Fielke, who is very well known for his work with Australian native foods. It's been fantastic having him training up our young staff," she added.

The result is a high-end restaurant that, even in this remote location, draws crowds every day. And, at night, the tiny bar heaves with happy folk from across the globe as Jane and her gregarious manager, Grant, introduce them to one another like the hosts of a very quirky party.

I stopped the next day at nearby Angorichina Station – a sheep station and comfortable outback lodge owned by Jane's sister, Di, and her husband Ian Fargher. Ian, a pilot who does flight-seeing tours as well as being a cattleman, offered to show me around from the air.

"John Stuart got the horses for his expeditions from Oratunga, very near here," he said as we soared over the chocolate-ripple geology of the Flinders Ranges. Oratunga is just 10km, as the crow flies, from Angorichina; it was from the Oratunga copper mine, then owned by Stuart's sponsor James Chambers and his brother John, that the explorer set out on his first expedition. Chambers Creek, just to the northwest, was used by Stuart as the base camp for subsequent expeditions.

The outback roads north of Oratunga run a little ragged, so I headed back south to join the Stuart Highway at its beginnings in Port Augusta. I crossed through the Flinders Ranges National Park, whose green hills contrast dramatically with the sparse prairie on which Parachilna sits. Kangaroos bounced by the score across the lush grass; as I came over the brow of one hill, I had to brake to avoid colliding with a plushly feathered emu that strutted across the road.

Coming out of the park, you can see little huddles of stone ruins littering the wayside. A signboard indicated that one of these had been the historic townsite of Gordon, surveyed in 1879; a few kilometres further on lay Wilson, surveyed in 1881. These were the remains of defunct settlements whose pioneers had pressed too far north during a few years of unusual rainfall. Fooled by the greenery, they'd invested and built – only to see their fortunes dashed by this harsh climate.

From Port Augusta, I began to drive north once more. I stopped for a couple of nights at Coober Pedy. Stuart passed through the current location of the town during his first expedition in 1858 – the mountain range that crosses this area is named after him – but today it's known for its opal mining and the underground cave homes that its residents love for their summer cool.

At John and Yoka's Opal and Art shop I talked to John Dunstan, who has been mining opal in Coober Pedy for 41 years. He's known in the town for the quarter-of-a-million-dollar opal haul he dug out when building his underground home. "Off our kitchen, I wanted to build a pantry, so I turned the tunnelling machine into the solid sandstone, and started to cut this drive," he told me. "And there was one big pocket of opalised shells that I sold for 70,000 Australian dollars."

I left this real-estate wonderland to visit Uluru, formerly known as Ayer's Rock, which duly glowed lucent red at dawn and inky indigo at dusk, then drove on to the magnificent red sandstone gorge of King's Canyon and the tranquil Glen Helen Resort, which sits on the banks of the Finke River. The river was named by Stuart during his 1860 expedition – this time to please his sponsor William Finke – as were the dramatic MacDonnell Ranges, now one of central Australia's major attractions (MacDonnell was governor of South Australia at the time).

Upon arrival in Alice Springs, I toured the old telegraph station, which has been restored as a museum. It's a serene, green oasis through whose silence the staccato rhythms of Morse code still resound. The telegraph line, which opened in 1872 and stretched from Darwin to Adelaide, owed its existence to John McDouall Stuart's explorations. The line's construction followed almost exactly the route that he had discovered, and it transformed Australia: for the first time, messages could be transmitted to and from London in hours rather than the months that letters had taken to arrive by ship.

Having dropped off my car at Alice Springs I boarded The Ghan, the train that runs the length of Australia. It was named after the Afghans who drove the early camel trains across the outback. Again, the original line's route owed much to Stuart, following closely his line of travel. The old railway closed in 1980 and now a new, tourist-geared operation runs from Adelaide to Darwin in just 48 hours. I sat back in my cabin (which came with the most compact ensuite bathroom I've ever seen) and I raised a glass to John McDouall Stuart and his agonising exertions.

The next day I arrived, rather cushily, in Darwin. It's a congenial oceanfront town whose tropical climate gently cuddles the visitor in greeting. Stuart, too, eventually made it across the continent, though the effort very nearly killed him: he had to be carried through the last legs of the journey on a stretcher strung between two horses. He was greatly feted – for a while. But his explorations had cost him his health, and his excessive drinking habits marred his reputation. Unemployed and impoverished, Stuart returned to Britain where he died at the age of 50. Just seven people attended his funeral.

Today, Stuart is rightly known as one of the most accomplished and famous of all Australia's inland explorers. My trip in his footsteps, 150 years on, was a fascinating insight into his legacy.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Polly Evans travelled with Bailey Robinson (01488 689700; bailey robinson.com). Trans-Australia packages, including accommodation, return flights, car hire and Ghan tickets, cost from £2,950 per person based on two sharing.

Further information

Northern Territory (australias outback.com); South Australia (southaustralia.com).