It is clear that we stick out like a sore thumb at the Emmdale Roadhouse. "So what are you fellas doing here?" asks the barman. Emmdale is an isolated stop in the vast undulating plain of pink and burnt orange at the heart of Australia.
"We're doing a pub crawl," I tell him. He raises an eyebrow in a manner at once sceptical and disapproving. Outback pubs can be hundreds of kilometres apart, and I've only ordered a coffee. We've just arrived from Melbourne, 1,000km away. But instead of 11 hours of driving, much of it on dusty unsurfaced tracks, we stretch our legs in the comfort of a sturdy little Beechcraft Baron, now parked on a dirt strip just across the road, and hop up in a third of the time. Our designated driver is pilot Dave Woodland from Lilydale Air Services, also on soft drinks until the end of the day, ready to take us wherever we like.
The intention is to get a panoramic view of the Outback in all its vast variety and not merely through the distorting lens of a beer glass. We leave lush landscape hatched with vines to fly over territory of arid beauty sometimes stippled with the green of feathery gum trees, scored by the writhing lines of watercourses waiting for rare rainfall, and offering only the occasional wink of a waterhole.
And we head for still more remote places where any request for a latte might be thought lah-di-dah, although we can quite easily choose to land at luxury lodges such as Arkaba Station's five-room colonial homestead.
It is said that 95 per cent of Australians live in the coastal areas, but the "red centre" has a rough and ready culture of its own. Much of that is found in remote pubs which are often battered bungalows with corrugated roofs, but sometimes dignified century-old buildings in solid limestone, with comfortable rooms and impressive menus. Travelling by plane allows you the luxury of hopping between remote and more colourful locations in the daytime, but returning to creature comforts in the evening.
Some pubs are popular with riotous backpacker bus tours that take few surfaced routes crossing the emptiness. But other pubs sit at the centre of cattle stations the size of small European countries whose stockmen travel as much as 100 km to what it seems inappropriate to call their "local". There's a less rowdy atmosphere, oddly enough, and instead of the baseball caps and abandoned underwear sometimes pinned up in the tourist pubs, the battered rabbit-felt hats of regulars hang from the ceiling.
The century-old pub at Tilpa is deserted and the neighbouring cemetery emptier still with not a single gravestone. But the pub's battered interior - walls, ceiling and furniture - is covered with the signatures of passers-by who have earned permission to scribble by making a contribution to the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Other surprises include one of Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves in a glass case, and the ability to fish directly from the rear verandah into the gelatinous Darling River.
We hop to Bourke to refuel beyond which we will be officially remote even when judged by Australian standards are concerned. "Back of Bourke" is Australian for "back of beyond".
Outback pubs typically have their names painted on their roofs along with any radio frequency they may monitor. Use of that, or simply diving down to buzz the pub, will bring the owner out to collect the airborne thirsty. So someone is waiting to take us to the 145-year-old Warrego Hotel at Fords Bridge, the last surviving mud brick pub in Australia.
We drink hastily, but still reach Toompine in Queensland shortly before it is dark. "Land here at night and you'd mince about 50 roos, I reckon," says the local who drives us back out to the airstrip the next morning. Many pubs not only collect customers but do a "roo run" to drive wildlife out of the way.
Cattle stations and homesteads have their own strips, and sometimes the pinkish-ochre land looks like skin patched up with multiple elastoplasts. He asks us to make sure we look down after take-off at his handiwork with a road-grading machine. Once airborne we see a giant smiley face carved into the soft pink soil next to the runway.
"People kept landing at the wrong airstrip and getting shot at," he explains.
We enjoy the luxury of taxiing right up to the front door of the smart little limestone pub at Noccundra (population: two) just in time for opening. New lessees here brought relative sophistication to the menu along with a wide choice of wines. But the tenth time customers asked what a baguette was they removed it from the menu again.
Nevertheless, at spruced-up Innamincka there is smoked salmon, avocado and goat cheese salad although also images everywhere of Burke and Wills - in dubious taste given that these early trans-Australia expeditionaries died nearby in 1861 partly of hunger and thirst. We take off and reach the site within a few minutes.
Still more bizarre, at Broken Hill, a metropolis by outback standards, the Palace Hotel's lobby and stairwell has a copy of Botticelli's Birth of Venus on the ceiling and every other square inch painted with kangaroo-filled landscapes, all made famous in cult movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
In the Outback there are few people, but many surprises, and if you want to get off the beaten track then forsake tracks altogether, and take to the air.
A SMOOTHER RIDE
Short hops by light plane beat hours by gravel road, and introduce a lot of smooth to the rough of the Outback. Lilydale Air Services (www.lilydaleairport.com.au) has planes of various sizes, and will tailor a pub crawl to your tastes, which might include viewing missile remains at William Creek, or the Dig Tree - the final depot of Burke and Wills. There are excellent meals and comfortable accommodation at stops such as the Prairie at Parachilna with its famous feral platter (camel mettwurst, smoked kangaroo, emu pâté and goat curd). Luxury lodges a short hop but a world away from the grittier aspects of the Outback include South Australia's Arkaba (www.arkabastation.com) and Longitude 131º (longitude131.com.au) close to Uluru (Ayers Rock).
Story and photography by Peter Neville-Hadley