SYDNEY (AP) — Australia has thousands of kilometers (miles) of roads crisscrossing the country's vast Outback. But most travelers miss out on the beautiful sites dotted across the land by flying from one city to the next.
Four mates and I decided it was time for a closer exploration of the country we call home. And so, armed with our cameras, we hit the road for a seven-day, 3,000-kilometer (1,900-mile) journey across the Outback on our motorcycles.
When traveling in such a remote area, planning is essential. We booked our accommodations in advance so we had a definite plan that kept us on schedule.
We set out from Sydney and headed southwest across the state of New South Wales, bypassing the nation's capital, Canberra, and heading west to Griffith. Thousands of sheep graze in pastures surrounding the town, which has a strong Italian heritage, a passion for food and a vibrant, creative culture. Griffith is Australia's largest wine-producing region, featuring more than a dozen wineries and rich citrus and stone fruit orchards.
We'd stopped in Griffith because it was a convenient location, but we soon discovered its charms after a delicious dinner at the Bistro inside the Griffith RSL Club, a popular social club. The osso buco was one of the best I've tasted, and was worthy of any top restaurant's menu.
Trips like this sometimes entail extreme conditions, which for us meant cold, early morning departures on dark roads infested with kangaroos and emus. It's dangerous no matter what you're driving, as 'roos bound across the pavement without warning.
Thankfully, Outback driving etiquette was on our side. Lumbering buses — better equipped to withstand a 'roo strike than a motorcycle — let us follow them, with the drivers hitting their turn signals to warn us of any hopping threats approaching from the left or right.
We made it safely to the Hay Plains, a flat region with little blocking the view of the horizon, and photographed a spectacular sunrise before traveling to Wentworth. The southwest New South Wales town is best known as the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers, the country's largest river system, and boasts the stunning Perry Sandhills, an expanse of wind-swept, red sand dunes.
After 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) on our bikes, Wentworth was a nice break from the saddle, offering plenty of sites to explore on foot and on the water, including a tour of a historic jail and a ride aboard an old-fashioned paddleboat.
Meals at the local pub, the Captain Sturt Hotel, provided a good opportunity to meet (and play pool with) the locals, and taste some hearty Outback cuisine. Vegetarians beware: the steaks here are the size of small dogs.
Our next stop was Broken Hill, a mining community in far west New South Wales. This is where you'll find the harsher side of the Outback, with dry, cracked earth, spiky spinifex grass and jagged outcrops of granite and sandstone. The highway stretches ahead as far as the eye can see, cutting through barren, yet beautiful, countryside. You can travel an hour without seeing another soul.
Broken Hill offers accommodation ranging from $20 hostels to swank $250 hotels. After the long ride, we opted for swank, and checked into our posh digs before heading to nearby Silverton — famous as the shooting location for the post-apocalyptic film, "Mad Max 2."
At first glance, Silverton (population 36) doesn't look like much. There's a museum, an old Masonic lodge, a tourist information center and a collection of old cars used in the "Mad Max" sequel. But a visit to the pub revealed just how popular this place is: More than a thousand signatures adorned the town visitors' log, which is kept on top of the bar.
The 1981 Mel Gibson flick is the real draw here. The pub walls are plastered with movie memorabilia and newspaper articles documenting the film shoot, and a glass case boasts a now-empty box that once held the gun carried by the film's bad guy, Humongous.
With a takeout dinner of fish and chips in hand, we rode out to the desert to photograph another dazzling sunset before returning to Broken Hill for the night. The next day, we stopped at the Living Desert Reserve, which features Aboriginal rock carvings and a collection of giant, manmade sandstone sculptures jutting out of the red earth.
The next day we rode more than 750 kilometers (470 miles) to the city of Dubbo, where we switched the theme of our trip from rural Australia to African safari: We had booked a two-night stay at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo. The ride there was challenging, but typical of the Outback, along roads with few gas stations and more than a few kangaroos, sheep and goats. When we finally coasted into the zoo, we were welcomed with traditions from a different continent: an epic African feast. We ate in an open-air dining area in the style of a Zulu hut with a fire roaring just outside.
We slept in four-star tents with heated tiled floors, separate bathrooms, and windows providing a view of giraffes, zebras and wallabies grazing in a field. Apart from our chatter, the silence was only broken by the occasional animal cry. The staff organized behind-the-scenes tours and animal viewings with special hand-feedings of giraffes and tigers.
It was an interesting end to an amazing trip, and provided a well-earned rest before the long journey back to Sydney. Australia's Outback is so massive that we could only scratch the surface in seven days, but we're already planning to hit the road again for another adventure.
If You Go...
AUSTRALIA'S OUTBACK: http://www.australia.com/about/australias-landscapes/outback-australia.aspx
SILVERTON: Film location for "Mad Max 2." http://www.silverton.org.au/
TARONGA WESTERN PLAINS ZOO: http://taronga.org.au/taronga-western-plains-zoo . Overnight Zoofari stays, $220 a night per person including meals.