You can tell when something is not quite right. From out of the haze on the outback desert artery that is the Tanami Track, there is a pick-up truck going in reverse. Three hundred miles from the nearest town, in heat nudging 40C, is not a good place to lose all but reverse gear.
"Jeez, are we pleased to see you," coughs the driver, John Carty. "We lost fifth gear a few miles back and then all the forward gears seized. We've been going backwards at 30km an hour, but I don't think reverse will hold out much longer."
With his partner Jess aboard (plus two dogs) and with only four litres of water between them, John was getting worried. Despite having lived in the outback for a long time, he had committed the cardinal sin of not being properly prepared. So, from our stash of 100 litres of water, we donated a 20-litre jerry can and offered to tow John and Jess in the direction of Alice Springs.
The Tanami Track is the "short cut" to Alice from the Kimberly region in Australia's far north-west. There is nothing short about it: it's 700 miles long, with a surface that fluctuates from smooth hard dirt to jarring corrugations and, in the wet season, deep impassable flood plains.
South of the Wolfe Creek meteorite crater, in western Australia, is Balgo, one of the highlights of the Tanami Track. A community of fewer than 500, it is home to Warlayirti Artists – a co-operative of some of Australia's best aboriginal artists. All around is the country that inspires artists such as Helicopter Tjungurrayi.
Helicopter is a "first contact" aborigine – he had never met a white Australian until he was repatriated to Balgo during a severe drought in his nomadic home in the Great Sandy Desert (by helicopter, hence his name). "Sometimes I go back to my country to paint and to cook bush tucker. Things like rabbit, goanna [a lizard], snake, emu, bush apple, and even fish when the rains have flooded the lakes," Helicopter says as he adds layer after layer of acrylic to a canvas.
He has just come back up the Tanami from Alice, returning from a tour in Melbourne where his paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Driving up the Tanami makes him happy. It means he is home. "This was one of the last places in Australia to be discovered by the white man," he says. "It is still a place where few people travel to. I like that."
The Tanami is so long it transcends time zones, climates, one state and one territory. Its northern tip at Halls Creek is closer to Singapore than Sydney; this is tropical Australia, where the air is as thick and sticky as hot treacle and where the land is home to salt water crocs and palm trees. By the time you reach the bottom end, near Alice Springs, you are in the Northern Territory, halfway across the country.
The outback changes by the hour and even sometimes by the minute. There are trees struck by lightning, termite mounds as high as a man and towering sand dunes. Emus weave through the bush and giant eagles soar on thermals high above.
Human marks are sparse and include wind pumps and wrecked cars. You never know if you are going to meet David Attenborough or Mad Max around the next corner, and do not expect to run into a disenfranchised Parisienne. Sounding like a female Inspector Clouseau spiced with the vocabulary of Crocodile Dundee ("Use bloody English," she snaps, after I greet her with a "bonjour". "You're not in France now mate"), Jacqueline Farrands has run the remotest roadhouse in Australia for almost 40 years.
Jackie's "little bit of dirt" at Rabbit Flat is the only roadhouse between Halls Creek and Yuendumu, outside Alice Springs. "It's as tough up here now as ever. You must respect this land," she says, filling up our Land Rover. Although we are only going to Alice and we have enough fuel to reach a third of the way to Sydney, we top up to be safe. It's good to be prepared.
How to get there
Jeremy Hart flew to Alice Springs via Perth with Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk), which offers return flights from £970. Britz (britz.com) rents 4WDs, bookable through Travelmood (0800 8408 305; travelmood.com) from £238 per week. Remote accommodation should be booked in advance. Kimberley Hotel (00 61 8 91 93 7888; kimberley accommodation. com.au), Warlayirti Culture Centre (00 61 8 91 68 8960; balgoart. org.au). Permission to visit communities such as Balgo is required and should be obtained ahead of travel (00 61 8 9168 8900).
NRMA Outback Tracks ( mynrma.com.au), Tourism Australia (australia.com), Tourism Western Australia (westernaustralia.com).