From Port Augusta, it’s six hours to Coober Pedy, a remote Outback town that sprung up after a 14-year-old boy found an opal gemstone there. About 85 per cent of the world’s opals are mined there now, and most of its residents live underground, where temperatures are half what they usually are above. Tourists can try their hand at “noodling”, rooting for small chips of opal in the heaps of excavated earth that crowd the landscape. If you fail to strike opal, a pootle around the stunning orange, yellow and white landscape of the Painted Desert will ease your disappointment.
A seven-hour drive brings you to Alice Springs, at the very heart of the Northern Territory’s Red Centre. This town called Alice is a buzzy, take-me-as-I-am place, filled with galleries and backpacker-friendly watering holes. It’s the Aboriginal art capital of Australia, and a jumping-off point for those wishing to explore Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon. Stretch your legs for a few miles on the Larapinta Trail, which runs along the backbone of the West MacDonnell Ranges, and starts at Alice Springs.
The further north you go, the balmier the air, the greener the landscape and the quirkier the roadhouses get. After four-and-a-bit hours you’ll reach Wycliffe Well, a roadhouse-cum-holiday-park with a difference: it claims to be the UFO capital of Australia, and the walls of its restaurant are papered with reports of flying-saucer sightings.