The outback comprises 70 per cent of Australia – that's 5.6 million square kilometres; half the size of Western and Eastern Europe combined. This back of beyond defines Australia, and Australians, and yet for most of us, it's as foreign as any country.
Who among us has ever really seen it, let alone know where it quite begins and where it quite ends?
Getting there from a capital can takes days of driving; and once you're there it takes days to get anywhere else. That's why it's largely the domain of adventurous, time-rich grey nomads in four-wheel drives with enough grunt to pull their caravan through the heart of Australia.
Then there are the city slickers on year-long sabbaticals, keen to get right around – and through – their country before the kids start school.
But could there be a better time than now, as we're isolated from the rest of the world, for the rest of us to explore the foreignness of our own interior?
And what if you could see the best bits of the outback and still be back at work next week? Even better, what if you could do this while stopping at every good pub along the way? An outback pub is a lifeline for locals; a place to check in and check out; where problems are solved, where gossip's spread until it's gospel-truth. And when one closes, or worse, burns down as was the case in Tibooburra, NSW, this year, a whole community suffers.
You'll need a plane, of course, fast enough to knock off serious kilometres, but one that travels low enough to catch the intricacies of the world below.
The Classic Safari Company, best known before the pandemic for its trips to the wilds of Africa rather than the far-flung reaches of Australia, runs five-day "Aussie Outback Pub Crawls" that take you 4000 kilometres across the outback encompassing three states and visiting eight pubs.
The plane for our journey is a 14-seat Cessna Grand Caravan turbo-prop aircraft with a top speed of 300 kilometres an hour (162 nautical miles) operated by tour partners Outback By Air co-owner and noted bush aviator, Phil Hines, along with a co-pilot.,
It's the kind of adventure that might take weeks, even months, by car. "You haven't seen Australia unless you see it from the air," aviation pioneer Nancy Bird once remarked. "People climb mountains to see these things. But you see it every time you take off."
We'll drink responsibly to that. Fasten your seatbelts for adventure.
DAY ONE & TWO: SYDNEY-BOURKE-TIBOOBURRA-INNAMINCKA-BIRDSVILLE (1960 KILOMETRES/1058 NAUTICAL MILES)
The Innamincka Hotel. Photo: South Australian Tourism Commission
Though our flight took off this morning – it's fair to say for all of us on board it's only beginning now. Half an hour after lift-off from Bourke (and a counter lunch at the Port of Bourke pub), the country's turning crimson below me.
We're flying so low I can see kangaroos and goats and camels, and old homesteads built beside the only water, "a mosaic of temporary kingdoms", as the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey describes them.
Then, barely two-and-a-half hours' flying time from Bankstown Airport, our departure point in Sydney's south-western suburbs, we're touching down in NSW's far north-west corner, another world (by road it's a 14-hour drive).
There's an airstrip on the fringe of Tibooburra, the state's hottest and remotest town, where three blokes wait in dual-cab utes (Uber in these parts).
The one in the shamrock-green cowboy shirt with sleeves cut off and the cowboy hat offers me a beer. "Sorry, mate, haven't got one," Tibooburra pub owner Craig Hotchin teases when I answer in the affirmative. "Me pub burnt down."
In January, the 132-year-old Tibooburra Hotel went up in flames. Locals put up a hell of a fight trying to save it - and they did manage to rescue most of it - though three locals ended up in hospital in Broken Hill. Small sacrifice, mind you. Out here pubs are almost as well-valued as hospitals.
It's fortunate that tiny Tibooburra's has got a spare, namely The Family Hotel. It's an easy stroll past wild horses and camels that wander the main street – a strip of red earth and tar on the edge of one of the state's biggest national parks.
Gold was discovered here in 1880, and the town surged to 2000 inhabitants. By 1896, all but a few fossickers had left, worn out by drought.
These days, the population's built back up to a bustling 134. Here in the dusk, there's a gentleness to the harshness of the outback; gardens are meticulously maintained, locals' way of keeping the wildness beyond their back fences at bay, while twilight lasts forever.
Meals out on the Family Hotel's verandah are of the farm-to-table variety – steaks are juicy and the size of your dinner plate.
A salad is a good idea but entirely optional and the beer's icy-cold but not of the craft variety. The locals look on at us as if the circus has come to town.
Next morning's flight requires no wake-up call, when breakfast's done (like most on this trip, it's of the buffet variety and heavy on local bacon), we head out to the plane.
It's a 45-minute flight to Innamincka, population 44, across the border in South Australia where we stop for lunch, then an hour to Birdsville in Queensland, population 140, where we park the Cessna on an airstrip 100 metres across the road from the town's world-famous pub.
The Birdsville Hotel. Photo: Steve Christo
Come the Birdsville Races in September, 10,000 people will pack these streets, but today there's not a soul in sight and I breathe in the dusty silence.
Then, like a mirage, sand pirouettes up the main street like a mini-tornado. It's gone as quickly as it came; a reminder the Simpson Desert starts on the western edge of town. Tonight we drive 35 kilometres to the first of 1200 dunes (Big Red is also the tallest) for a sundowner as the full moon rising steals the show.
DAY THREE: BIRDSVILLE-OODNADATTA-WILLIAM CREEK (630 KILOMETRES/340 NAUTICAL MILES)
The William Creek Hotel. Photo: South Australian Tourism Commission
We're low over the Simpson Desert this morning. With sand made up of quartz grains, it sparkles like thousands of flashes exploding simultaneously when you fly above it. Colours change out here as fast as they do on Uluru.
It's also pretty - the Simpson has the world's longest parallel sand dunes, shaped into endless three to 30-metre high red waves.
Below is some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth: temperatures reach the high 50s, there are no houses, no bitumen roads, no telegraph poles - nothing to suggest an European ever visited.
Station hand Josh Hayes got bogged here in 2012 and lost his friend getting out.
"You get so hot," he said. "You don't know what you're doing. A lot of people who perish strip off naked."
We stop for lunch at the Pink Roadhouse in Oodnadatta (population 204 and the setting for Australia's highest recorded temperature: 50.7 degrees), then hightail it to William Creek, half-way between Adelaide and Alice Springs.
And here it is, folks: the quintessential Aussie outback outpost. Forget Mick Dundee's Walkabout Creek, William Creek is the outback pub they should show all foreigners. There are more planes than people – easy when the permanent population is just five. Expect 17 millimetres of rain a year, and 25 days over 45 degrees - too rugged even for roos.
Once earning the nickname of Dodge City, William Creek's lawless reputation (there were shoot-outs between rabbit shooters and railway gangs) has given way to a new notoriety as the outback's friendliest watering hole.
Ringers, or station hands, from neighbouring Anna Creek, the world's largest cattle station which is bigger than Belgium (a common measure), will drive up to 150 kilometres for a cold beer, and you will want to meet this lot.
The town's no more than a caravan park, a shop, a petrol station, a golf course (the greens aren't much chop), charter flights (Lake Eyre is next door) and the last tin pub operating in South Australia. It's a relic of the past that lets you slip right back into it.
Trevor Wright is William Creek's unofficial mayor. He moved from Victoria 30 years ago and never went home. He owns everything in town. "I've seen UFOs out here," he says. "But that's nowhere near the strangest thing I've seen. There's no police, no doctors, no anything for 200 kilometres in any direction."
I'm shown to my room – an old donga from a mining camp that went bust. While a hearty dinner's served up in a room built from old Ghan Railway sleepers, you should come for the bar.
You don't socialise in groups here and travellers mix with ringers from Anna Creek (our tour coincides with Saturday night knock-off drinks after the station's working week).
This tour was never conceived as a booze-up and guests include a professional couple celebrating a significant birthday, two brothers and their father taking a rare holiday together and two Melbourne 50-somethings taking a break from the kids. Most guests are here to escape hectic work schedules and family commitments made that much tougher through 12 months of COVID regulations, so responsible drinking is encouraged, particularly at lunch times when we are due to fly soon after.
But in this least self-conscious of moments I think of Mark Twain's advice to "dance like nobody's watching… sing like nobody's listening". Perhaps it's the anonymity of the outback (or maybe it's the big round moon in the sky outside this tin shed bar) that releases a part of us we usually hold tightly together.
A guest watches his brother-in-law dance as the barmaid calls last drinks: "Known him 35 years and never seen him do that," he says.
DAY FOUR & FIVE: WILLIAM CREEK-MARREE-BROKEN HILL-TILPA-SYDNEY (1865 KILOMETRES/1077 NAUTICAL MILES)
The Marree Man. Photo: South Australian Tourism Commission
Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre is a sight to behold, even when seen through bloodshot eyes. The size of a small European country, it changes colours from fiord-jade to lagoon-blue between silvery patches of salt plain. The lake only fills completely two times a century on average, and the last time was 1984. But this La Nina year has topped up 2019's bumper year (it takes two years for the lake to dry completely).
Forty kilometres south, I can see the Marree Man. In 1998 a 2.7 kilometre tall drawing of an Indigenous man hunting with a woomera magically appeared in the red earth below. To this day, no-one's claimed responsibility, nor has a witness to the artwork's creation ever come forward.
Next morning we touch down in Broken Hill and my phone buzzes to life for the first time since we left Sydney. I see now that I'm almost a fugitive: my home state (Queensland) has banned travelling to some places, while Brisbane – 50 minutes' north of my home - is in lockdown and any traveller from there must complete a 14-day quarantine.
I'm in a travelling bubble, but it may yet burst. The only mention made of COVID in it was a quip from Clarke. "COVID means nothing out here," he'd said of William Creek. "All we got is social distancing."
We stop for one last pub lunch at the tiny hamlet of Tilpa on the banks of the Darling River, then set our sights on Sydney.
The outback turns soon enough into the bush then the bush turns into the big smoke and I'm back in the modern world, scrambling to change my flight home.
In a world gone crazy, the outback with its desperate droughts, its curious characters and intense isolation never seemed so sane.
TOP OF THE HOPS: THE BEST OF THE OUTBACK
Photo: James Brickwood
The Family Hotel, Tibooburra. Probably because it's the first beer you'll have out here. Nothing beats that first ice-cold schooner (pity though that XXXX Gold and Great Northern are the outback's favoured tipples.
William Creek Hotel. Come Saturday nights when the locals have their pay cheques you won't have more fun in any pub in Australia.
BEST COUNTER LUNCH
Birdsville Hotel. A local T-Bone bigger than your face smothered in freshly made pepper sauce. Now that's outback cuisine.
William Creek Hotel. Backpackers, ringers, grey nomads and fun-loving staff come together to make this the friendliest outback bar in the country.
William Creek Hotel. Good lattes come in the oddest places.
FIVE OTHER PUBS IN THE OUTBACK WORTH A VISIT
DALY WATERS PUB, NT
There are few more iconic pubs in the country. Clad in corrugated iron and located on an old droving trail, Daly Waters has held a liquor licence continuously for 83 years and was once the site of the first international runway and airport in Australia. Throw your swag for free out back. See dalywaterspub.com
WALKABOUT CREEK HOTEL, QLD
Crocodile Dundee's home pub isn't actually in his native Northern Territory, it's 2.5 hours from Mount Isa in a tiny town called McKinlay. Built in 1900, it's the only reason you'd visit the town, but least it still looks the same as it did in the 1986 blockbuster.
AILERON ROADHOUSE, NT
It's the only thing out here apart from flies. About 150 kilometres north of Alice Springs there's a massive sculpture of an Aboriginal warrior and a sign for Aileron that looks like the Hollywood landmark. Go inside for a yarn with publican Greg Dick who's been here for 40 years. See aileronroadhouse.com.au
WELLSHOT HOTEL, QLD
Located in the central Queensland town of Ilfracombe, 27 kilometres west of Longreach, the hotel was relocated by bullock and cart a few times before it found its home. Built in 1890, locals call it the Crab Pot, because once you're in it's hard to get out. See wellshothotel.com.au
PALACE HOTEL, WA
This is the classiest outback pub you'll find. Kalgoorlie's most iconic bar was built in 1897 to be the most luxurious hotel outside of Perth. But its characters have always been a tad rougher round the edges. Meet them over a beer on the balcony watching the sun set over the main street. See palacehotelkalgoorlie.com
FIVE MORE MUST-SEES
STURT NATIONAL PARK. NSW
Photo: Destination NSW
Fringing Tibooburra, at 325,000 hectares this is one of NSW's biggest parks. There's walking trails throughout its mulga bushland and past Aboriginal middens. When it rains look out for wildflowers like Sturt's desert pea. See nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
One of Australia's most iconic outback drives, this 517-kilometre graded dirt road traverses three deserts from Birdsville (Qld) to Marree (South Australia). Now a popular track in winter, it was first developed in the 1860s to move cattle. See birdsvillehotel.com.au
BACK O' BOURKE INFO CENTRE
Set among redgums on the banks of the Darling River in Bourke, you can experience what life was like in the outback through interactive installations featuring stories of bushrangers, poets such as Henry Lawson and other local legends. See visitbourke.com.au
ROYAL FLYING DOCTOR SERVICES EXPERIENCE
Broken Hill is home to one of the only Royal Flying Doctor Services open to the public daily. Join a guided tour and come inside the operations centre as the team go to work. You'll get to see aircraft and hear about the history of the service across 80 years. See flyingdoctor.org.au
Spanning 144 by 77 kilometres, Australia's largest salt lake can be seen by air, traversed by 4WD or even sailed on (the Lake Eyre Yacht Club sails her waters each flood). Even in the dry season there are more than 200 smaller lakes. See southaustralia.com
The Classic Safari Company's four-night/five-day Outback Pub Crawl By Private Plane tour costs $7750 a person (plus an extra $750 for a single supplement) and leaves three times a year (March, June, October). It includes all meals, accommodation, activities and transfers in a Cessna Grand Caravan operated by Outback By Air co-owner and noted bush aviator, Phil Hines. See classicsafaricompany.com.au
Accommodation ranges from rooms within the pubs you'll visit (Birdsville and Marree) to rooms within 500 metres or so of them (Tibooburra and William Creek). All rooms are air-conditioned, with TV and hot showers.
The writer travelled courtesy of The Classic Safari Company and Outback By Air.