Megan Johnston gets a taste of a 2200-kilometre outback track - enough to whet her appetite.
If remote Australia holds a secret for plucky adventurers, it's how mercurial the surrounding desert can be. On a brilliant blue day, we're trucking through the Northern Territory and the passing landscape is anything but bleak.
Over a few days, we explore dense scrubland, a tall eucalypt forest, bleached rocky plains and soft red sand dunes. And we almost get bogged in great heaps of brown bulldust.
The strangest show begins at sunset. We park the car, kill the engine and stand entranced by the horizon. Above, the setting sun dots a huge purple sky while yellow grass glows against orange earth below.
This is one of many surprises we encounter on the Binns Track, an epic 2200-kilometre journey that runs from the fringes of the Simpson Desert near South Australia to Timber Creek near the West Australian border.
Named after former parks ranger Bill Binns, the track includes high sand ridges, soft river bottoms, rocky escarpments and boggy plains. In other words, don't try it in your hatchback.
The whole journey takes at least 10 days.
Unlike many other routes that criss-cross central and northern Australia, this one travels through many of the territory's lesser-known national parks and reserves. The whole journey takes at least 10 days but you can also sample shorter legs where the route intersects highways.
The plan for our small self-drive group is to try one day of the official itinerary. We load up a couple of four-wheel-drives and travel south from Alice Springs to Dalhousie Springs, an oasis that invites us to peel off and float about in hot mineral water until we're all pink and steaming.
Along the way, we visit Old Andado Station, a rambling homestead brimming with old-world curios, and Mount Dare, a roadhouse buzzing with hardy outback types.
Given more time, we could also head north to the East MacDonnell Ranges, for example, or the cattle country of the Plenty plains. Then it's on to the Davenport Ranges before heading west to Gregory National Park.
If the Binns Track sounds too gung-ho, however, there are plenty of other options.
Whether you opt for a quick detour off the highway, a gravel track or a full-blown off-road adventure, camping is usually the accommodation of choice, although a few stops do offer some more civilised lodgings.
The tracks cater to different interests, too, including photography, wildlife, Aboriginal culture and extreme four-wheel-driving.
Outback photographer Peter Eve travels to many far-flung parts of northern Australia to capture his landscape shots and panoramas. He rattles off a list of the landscape's charms: old ruins, thriving wetlands, huge termite mounds and pockets of rainforest. He's seen luminous colours that are impossible to capture on camera and trees drooping under the weight of thousands of birds.
"When you've got all the creeks and rivers flowing, so much life comes into the place," he says. "People stop at creeks that cross the road and just pull in a barramundi.
"There are huge amounts of insects and wallabies ... and different types of wildflowers and massive mushrooms and fungi. It's just amazing."
The people and culture fascinate Eve, too.
"You meet lots of people who have made their lives out in these remote places and they're usually pretty interesting characters and free to give you a yarn."
For beginners, the obvious option is the five- to seven-day partly sealed Red Centre Way, which links Alice Springs with Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon.
If you're after something more tropical and have at least a week to spare, head north to Nature's Way, which links Darwin to Kakadu National Park, Twin and Jim Jim Falls and Litchfield National Park.
Then there's the grasslands of Savannah Way, which runs from Broome in Western Australia through Katherine in the Northern Territory and on to Cairns in Queensland. Allow at least a month for the entire journey. Remote options for more experienced drivers include Arnhem Land, the Tanami Track north-west of Alice Springs and the Outback Way, which cuts across the centre of the territory.
One of Eve's favourite places is a restricted area called Cape Arnhem, in a remote region to the east of Kakadu.
"You have to drive a bit over sand dunes and beaches, so it can be tricky, but it's got amazing limestone and sandstone formations and crystal-clear azure waters," he says.
But remember: if you plan to visit private or Aboriginal land, you'll need to gain permission from the land owners or local land councils well in advance.
If that's too much fuss, however, there's still plenty of public land you can explore.
"I'm not a believer in charging off into bush that is possibly owned by somebody else," Eve says.
"As much as I love exploring, there's so much you can do and see [elsewhere] anyway."
All together now
Alice Springs four-wheel-drive expert Jol Fleming, of Direct 4WD, offers low-key, two- and three-week trips along routes such as the Tanami Track and the Simpson Desert, plus other trips into Queensland and Western Australia. Up to 20 vehicles join each convoy, camping along the way. The trips cost at least $100 a day.
Fleming provides mechanical support but travellers must bring their own vehicle and provisions. He recommends high-clearance four-wheel-drives with low range that can handle extreme off-road conditions.
"The scenery out there is pretty awesome," he says. "I love sitting around the campfire at night — it's a trillion-star show out there."
- Beware of dangers posed by wildlife.
- Consider your vehicle's capability.
- Tell someone where you are going.
- Phone ahead to check the road conditions.
- Carry safety gear and plenty of spare water and fuel.
- Read signs carefully and watch for animals crossing the road.
- Do not attempt water crossings unless you are sure of the depth and road damage.
- Remember, many roads flood in the wet season.