Last September I relived the legend in, appropriately, a Subaru Outback, driving from Adelaide to Darwin with Motor Trend photographer Julia LaPalme and videographer Jim Gleason. Today, more than half a century after my parents’ epic road trip, the 1,880-mile Stuart Highway is now paved, though it’s only a two-lane highway and still the only direct route between Adelaide and Darwin. Alice Springs is now a city of 27,000 souls, but it’s still the largest settlement for about 1,000 miles in any direction.
South Australia’s Flinders Ranges are small by U.S. standards, but picturesque.
The outback is still the outback.
We covered nearly 3,500 miles in 10 days, loosely following in my parents’ wheel tracks, but detouring to take in some of Australia’s most iconic landscapes along the way. These included Uluru/Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon, Katherine Gorge, and Kakadu. Just 40 miles of that distance was freeway, and almost 800 miles was on dirt roads and occasional four-wheel drive tracks. As with my parents’ trip, rare rains made some of the dirt roads challenging, but nothing stopped our 3.6-liter, Australian-spec Outback, which was often the only four-wheel drive vehicle on these roads that wasn’t a burly Toyota Land Cruiser or Nissan Patrol.
The trip reinforced why we had selected the Outback as Motor Trend’s 2010 Sport Utility of the Year: This is a vehicle of impressive bandwidth. It is a surprisingly competent mud plugger and rock crawler; it will cruise all day at 60 mph on a rough and dusty desert road; and it will loaf along at a relaxed 80 mph on the blacktop. We averaged just over 21 mpg for the distance, useful when you’re paying more than $7.00 a gallon at an outback gas station.
I thought about my parents’ trip as we traveled in air-conditioned comfort from south Australia’s lush wine district, through desert country where kangaroos bounded across red sand dunes, to tropical bushland where saltwater crocodiles basked on mud banks. In 1955, you could journey through America’s heartland, traveling from motel to motel, with Dinah Shore singing “See the USA in Your Chevrolet” on the car radio. In Australia in 1955, you never knew whether you might need to bag a kangaroo for breakfast if your car broke down on a deserted stretch of outback road. So my parents rode with a Winchester Model 1873 rifle strapped under the seat of their old Dodge.
Our journey through the outback in a Subaru Outback had been a breeze by comparison. Even so, as I stood in the steamy tropical heat overlooking Darwin Harbor, it felt like it had been an epic adventure.
The full story of MacKenzie’s drive across Australia in the Subaru Outback can be read in the March 2011 edition of Motor Trend. For bonus features and video, check out the March 2011 Motor Trend iPad® edition or www.motortrend.com.
Few of us get the opportunity to turn a lifelong passion into a full-time job, but Motor Trend editor-in-chief Angus MacKenzie admits he’s one of the lucky ones. He began writing about motorsports for newspapers and magazines in his hometown of Adelaide, Australia, 30 years ago. He since has driven many of the world’s most exotic cars, interviewed executives from automakers all over the world, covered motorsports from F1 to drag racing, and written extensively about every aspect of the auto industry, from design and engineering to manufacturing and retail. Also having overseen top-selling car magazines in Australia and Britain, he is the only person to have edited major auto titles on three continents.