Australia is a land of optimists. I know this because a couple of months ago I was riding shotgun in a tiny bush plane, the cockpit barely bigger than the inside of a Mini. The pilot, Ian Fargher, was flying us from his sheep station in the Flinders Ranges to Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. Below us, mountains tilted at lopsided angles and the scrub-covered earth was alive with kangaroos. True outback, as advertised. As we hummed southward in his 1969 SkyHawk II Cessna—a glorified gnat, with a single tinny propeller—Fargher glanced over at me, took his hands off the yoke, and said with uplifting confidence, "OK, you're flying now."
This was toward the end of my ten-day visit, and I'd learned a thing or two by then. Namely, that when you're thousands of miles from home, across oceans and time zones, on a three-million-square-mile landmass that's almost entirely engulfed by desert, it helps to have a sense of humor. I'd also seen that in Australia, a story well told trumps the mundane truth any day. Believe me when I tell you that I piloted that plane all the way to Adelaide.
As a country, a continent, and an island unto itself, Australia is a land of bizarre extremes—from desolate desert to tropical rainforest and stunning coastline. It's also home to some of the most exotic native wildlife you'll find anywhere: pogo-sticking 'roos, docile koalas, and—if you happen to be driving through Flinders Ranges National Park at dusk—leggy emus as ubiquitous as deer in New England. Roughly the size of the lower 48, with a population of 21 million (slightly less than that of Texas), Oz is a vast expanse of natural thrills and a freak show of brag-worthy fauna.
Australia's outback and its wildlife have always been a draw, but until recently the country lacked a critical mass of luxurious bush camps and guide services to deliver a true safari experience. Now, with the arrival of several small, chic lodges on its farthest fringes, Australia is becoming a Down Under version of Africa, where it's possible to buzz via bush plane from one hideout to the next, immersing yourself in the wilds without sacrificing comfort or style. The best thing about Australia, of course, is the locals: relentlessly upbeat, unpretentious, and always game for adventure (however dubious). Chat up your hosts at any of the new outposts and next thing you know you'll be tagging along on a sheep-mustering mission or helping push a bush plane out of a garage.
Late last fall, I flew to Australia to experience the country's emerging safari culture for myself, charting a course that focused on the northeast coast and the Great Barrier Reef, the outback just outside of Sydney, and the coast and interior of South Australia. I flew in helicopters and bush planes (once with a baby-faced pilot who looked barely old enough to drive, let alone navigate safely through a gale), slipped into a contented, kangaroo-induced daze in the front seat of a Land Cruiser, and negotiated that most loathsome of driving challenges, the traffic circle—from the left side of the road—behind the wheel of an electric buggy.
In Queensland's Whitsunday Islands, a 19-year-old skipper named Jack, with jumbo gold Ray-Bans and salty-blond dreadlocks, tacked our catamaran back and forth across a whitecapped bay. Soon, however, a motorboat approached and Jack shoved the tiller toward me. "Here's my ride," he said as he hopped into the dinghy and left me alone to sail. Over his shoulder, he reassured me in the most Aussie of ways: "You'll be right."
Australians' laid-back joie de vivre is an adaptive trait: The austral sun is too bright, the air too clear, and the horizon too wide and possibility-full to harbor prolonged pessimism. This, after all, is the oldest continent, a stalwart relic that's been there, done that a thousand times over but refuses to be fazed. Outdoor-loving Aussies aren't discouraged by the fact that some of the world's most venomous snakes slither through these parts or that the oceans' creepiest agent of torture, the box jellyfish, patrols the Coral Sea—an army of killers the unflappable locals simply call "bities."
Over breakfast one day at Burrawang West Station, property manager Doug Loeb and I got to talking critters. A former marketing executive from Sydney, Loeb, 39, epitomizes Australia's sunny, can-do ethos: By day, he's a sunburned cowboy in a shearling vest and dusty boots; by night, you'll find him in his chef's whites, preparing gourmet lamb shanks. That morning, before a hike along Goobang Creek, I grilled Loeb about protocol should I trip over a stick that was actually a death adder lying in wait. "Oh, no worries," he said. "It'll hear you coming and get out of your way."
But if it didn't? I could always do what a local rancher did when he was bitten in the bush, Loeb suggested: Lie absolutely still on the ground for 12 hours, to keep the venom from pumping to my heart and killing me on the spot. That seemed as likely as, well, flying my own plane, but Loeb was grinning so assuredly, I couldn't help but believe him.