Fergus Blakiston follows the footsteps of explorers into the heat of South Australia.
North of Adelaide, the Stuart Highway undulates through a bucolic landscape of cereal fields, sheep farms and vineyards.
Neat rows of wheat and barley are stitched into the rich red soil. Farmhouses sit at the end of long driveways lined with eucalypts. The grapevines of famous wineries such as Peter Lehmann and Jacob's Creek lie draped over the gentle, sunny hills. The villages are quiet and prosperous: antique shops and angle-parked SUVs.
At Kapunda, you are in cattle country. Sir Sidney Kidman (1837-1935), "the Cattle King", had his home base here. The old North Kapunda Pub was the scene of his raucous horse sales; the rail yards received cattle bred on the dozens of stations he owned across Australia.
Beyond Kapunda the Flinders Ranges unfold into the centre of South Australia in a series of broken, canted ridges. Some of the oldest rocks on Earth, half a billion years old, are found among the folds and synclines of the Flinders. From a distance the ranges protrude from the Earth like the curved backbone and ribs of some immense, fossilised animal: a dreamtime creature stripped bare of flesh and turned to stone.
At Marree (pop 64) you can choose between following the Birdsville Track north into Queensland, or turn left and head north-west along the Oodnadatta Track, deep into the desert heart of Australia. Marree was originally the staging post for the Afghan camel trains, which carried supplies to the isolated townships and stations of the Northern Territory. Australia's first mosque was built in Marree; the wild descendants of the Afghans' camels still roam the deserts of Central Australia. The camel trains were eventually replaced by the "Ghan" railway, which ran from Marree to the railhead at Oodnadatta.
But as road transport gradually replaced rail, the Ghan fell into disrepair. Its tracks were torn up and silence returned to the desert. Today, the Oodnadatta Track follows the route of this iconic Australian railway. Scattered along the way are old iron railway bridges, abandoned railway engines and sidings gradually returning to dust. It is also the same route the Overland Telegraph Line once followed. The ruins of the old repeater stations (where telegraph signals en route to or from Europe were amplified then sent onwards) dot the landscape along the track.
It was into this parched and seemingly featureless wilderness that the Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart set off to find a route north across the unknown centre of Australia. Stuart was charged by his backers (the South Australian government and a number of wealthy pastoralists) with discovering a supposed "inland sea", mineral resources and new grazing lands.
Between 1859 and 1862, Stuart mounted four expeditions into the dead heart of the continent, culminating in the first successful crossing of the Australian continent from north to south. The routes mapped by Stuart during his expeditions opened up the centre of Australia to development, settlement and communications. Today's traveller on the Oodnadatta Track is following directly in his footsteps.
Not long after leaving Marree, the road crosses the Dog Fence, built in the 1880s to keep dingoes out of the sheep-farming country of south-eastern Australia. The fence stretches 5614km from the Queensland coast to the edge of the Nullarbor Plain. The fence is the longest man-made structure in the world.
Anna Creek Station, the world's largest cattle ranch (at 24,000sq km it is slightly larger than Israel) lies to the west of the "township" of William Creek (pop 3), halfway along the track.
The William Creek Hotel is reputed to be the most isolated pub in the world. In a dusty lot behind the pub lie the remains of a British R4 space rocket, launched from the Woomera Rocket Range in 1971.
Although the Oodnadatta Track crosses a landscape of sun-bleached desert, deep beneath the ground lies the Great Artesian Basin, the world's largest underground aquifer. The water contained in the Great Artesian Basin (an estimated 69,000cu km, which is enough water to submerge all the world's land to a depth of one metre) fell as rain on the ranges of Queensland millions of years ago.
Percolating slowly through the porous shale and limestone rock it emerges in places along the track in the form of mound springs. At each of these springs, a permanent ecosystem of lush grasses, trees and wildlife live.
The springs made it possible for cattlemen like Sydney Kidman to drive huge mobs of cattle from the Northern Territory down to the markets in Adelaide.
Kidman's chain of stations - each with grazing and permanent water - were linked together along the Oodnadatta Track. The farming company he established, S. Kidman & Co, still owns many properties in the region.
The Oodnadatta Track, with its historic places, scenery and natural history, along with attractive bush campsites and quirky Outback settlements, is regarded as one of Australia's best Outback 4WD routes.
You are never more than a few hours' drive from a settlement where you can stock up on food and fuel.
Allow a day to reach Marree from Adelaide, four days to drive the Oodnadatta Track (including two bush camps and a night at either William Creek or Oodnadatta) and three days to return via the Stuart Highway and Coober Pedy.
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Adelaide five to seven times weekly. airnewzealand.co.nz
Complete Ute and Van Hire in Adelaide have specialist 4WD vehicles with long-range fuel tanks and extra spare wheels. They also have agencies in places along the Oodnadatta Track.
For information about flights over Lake Eyre and the Painted Hills from William Creek: wrightsair.com.au.