When Anthony Trollope toured the Australian bush in 1872, he composed what has become the anthem of outback travel.

"One seems to ride forever and to come to nothing," the English novelist wrote, "and to relinquish at last the very idea of an object."

More than a century later, not much has changed. Farms of sheep and wheat give way to plains of scrub and stone. Towns vanish. Trees disappear. And the road dwindles from two lanes of tar to a rutted dirt track, winding into desert. Early explorers dubbed the worst of this region "the Ghastly Blank."

In touring the outback, the modern-day traveler, like Trollope, has given up the very idea of an object when a wooden building leaps off the horizon. What seems at first a desert mirage becomes a genuine oasis, though it has little in common with the watering holes of the Sahara or the cookie-cutter "rest areas" along American roads. The outback way station offers fuel and food and water -- but its reason for being is beer.

"Europe, it has the culture," says Bill Gilholley, a Hungarian immigrant and a seasoned outback traveler. "Australia, it has the pubs."

Gilholley should know. As an itinerant handyman in the Northern Territory, he drives hundreds of miles each week, from one outback property to another. The only relief from the heat and boredom of desert driving are the pubs, usually spaced at intervals of 100 to 150 miles. In essence, Gilholley and other travelers are held to ransom; an outback road trip inevitably becomes a motorized pub crawl.

Not that anyone's complaining. Beer is so much a part of Territory life that the distance between two points is often measured in the "grog" consumed en route.

"How far to the next roadhouse?" inquires a traveler at the Barkly Homestead, a pub and petrol stop that is the first break in the Territory for westbound drivers.

"It's about a carton to Three Ways and another six-pack from there to Tennant Creek," the barmaid answers, naming the next two dots of civilization. The traveler checks his map, calculates that he will have to swill a beer every five miles to stay on schedule, and questions the barmaid's arithmetic.

She laughs. "This is a good road, mate. On a dirt track it would be twice as much."

The serious pub tourist approaches the Northern Territory via the somewhat tamer, though no less remote, pubs in the neighboring states of Queensland and Western Australia. Outback Queensland is cattle country; appropriately, its finest pub is named for a hardy breed of ranch dog, the Blue Heeler. The pub itself is a ramshackle structure of weatherboard and corrugated iron, with a dog's head painted on the front. It is located in the small township of Kynuna, near the spot where the main north-south highway turns to a dusty, bumpy track. Drivers drink to brace themselves for the rough journey ahead, or to recover from it.

"Dave and Derry walked to this pub in the mud and rain," states a penciled scrawl on one wall of the 87-year-old building. "Here two weeks. Jan. 84."

The Blue Heeler is a kind of shrine to the bored or bogged bush traveler. The writing is so prolific that it has spread in lesions from the walls to the ceiling and floor. "Curly Tru Blu Longfulla had a slack attack, 23-1-85," wrote one dazed driver. Added another: "Rockhounds never die, they only petrify at the Kynuna Pub."

As in other outback pubs, the writing is woven into a rich tapestry of pin-ups, dart boards, discarded clothing, animal skins and bumper stickers with quaint messages such as "You Toucha My Truck I Breaka Your Face." There's also a price list for the pub's "answering service for irate housewives." If a wife phones to ask after someone at the bar, the drinker can pay hush money for the following answers:

"Just left." 25 cents.

"On his way." 50 cents.

"Not here." $1.

"Who?" $2.

In a community of 22 people, many of whom work at the pub, the wife isn't likely to be fooled.

On the Northern Territory's other flank lies Western Australia, a state that is bigger than Alaska and Texas combined, with about one-tenth the population. The distance between pubs is therefore greater than in eastern states, and even emptier.

"No petrol for 291 kilometres," states a sign at Sandfire, an aptly named way station in the blazing semidesert between the iron-ore town of Port Hedland and the pearling port of Broome. Needless to say, there's also no water, food, conversation -- or beer -- for the same distance.

Whimsical charities are a common feature of outback pubs, and Sandfire has the oddest of all: the Sleazy Sleeveless Shirt Club. To join, the traveler pays $2 for the privilege of cutting off one of his own shirtsleeves. The money is donated to the Flying Doctors, an airborne medical service in the outback. The sleeve is donated to the pub's ceiling, which looks like a punk rocker's wardrobe: shredded bits of unmatched clothing, drooping almost onto the heads of drinkers. In four years' time, the club has raised $4,000.

Even after a warm-up in Queensland or Western Australia, the heartland of outback pub-crawling may come as a bit of a shock.

Several hours after leaving Western Australia, the Greyhound bus pulls in for petrol at a roadhouse called Timber Creek. Passengers gaze out the window and through the open door of a pub, which is doing a very brisk business. The time is 2 a.m. on a Monday morning.

"We're in the Northern Territory, mate," the driver tells an astonished traveler. "This isn't kiddie-land anymore."

Indeed, it isn't. The Territory's scattered inhabitants merit a mention in "The Guinness Book of World Records" for their heroic drinking: 236 liters of alcohol per annum, per man, woman and child.

To finance this habit, some Territorians set up special accounts at a pub institution called the "bush bank." Depositors simply sign a note -- $2, $5, $10 -- and pin it to the panel behind the bar at one of several pubs along the Territory's only highway, called "the Track." If the drinker finds himself short of cash on a subsequent visit, he can reclaim his bill and keep on drinking.

At Barrow Creek, a community of seven people several hours north of Alice Springs, the bush bank has so many deposits that the bills form a sort of pop-art tapestry behind the bar, bordered by bottles of whiskey and rum. Pub owner Lance Pietsch also has placed a portrait of himself behind the bar, intentionally askew. "Gives the place character," he explains.

Not that the pub needs it. Typically, Barrow Creek and other Territory pubs are crowded with a roughneck collection of truckers, itinerant miners, jackaroos (cowboys) and drifters. Aborigines also wander in from ranches or distant settlements, but the outback isn't renowned for its racial tolerance. Often, blacks drink outside or at a separate section at the bar, and in tense towns such as Alice Springs there may even be a dress code -- a shirt with collar and "enclosed" shoes -- to discourage ill-clad blacks from entering.

For the tourist, the most colorful and accessible character at any pub is likely to be the owner. Take Barrow Creek's Lance Pietsch. A chatty, plain-spoken man, he says that if he hadn't become a barkeeper, he would have been a priest. But midway through his studies, Pietsch landed a summer job on an outback ranch, discovered drink and other pleasures, and "gave the seminary a miss."

Judging from his shrewd pub management, it was a wise career decision.

"I have a rule -- never go out to serve petrol," he says of the gas pump in front of the pub. "If you've got competition, then you have to do something. But Barrow Creek? If they don't fill up here, they're stuffed. And if I don't come out, they come in. Then I've got them drinking beer, buying pies and T-shirts. That's where I make my quid {money}."

It is in pubs along "the Track" that the traveler also encounters the outback's most rugged cuisine. Usually, the menu is scrawled on a blackboard by the bar, or on an empty bit of wall space. A few beers and a sense of adventure often tempt the traveler to sample exotic and misspelled dishes, such as "Stake-an-eggs, mate" or "Queensland stoo (frogs extra)." The temptation is best resisted.

"With this cuisine the appetite dies quickly," a Frenchman, Oscar Commettant, wrote of Australian pub food in 1888. "The shilling meal consists of one of those soups that are neither soup nor sauce, a plate of tasteless meat accompanied by even more tasteless vegetables boiled in saltless water, and a pudding that you swallow while reminding yourself that you must eat to live, not live to eat."

Even if the traveler plays it safe and sticks to "pie, salad and veg," he will be confronted with a meat pie as big as his head (and drowned in grayish-brown gravy), six vegetables (cooked to perfection and left on the heat for another three hours) and a salad that is mostly potato and beetroot, sailing through the muck on a tired leaf of lettuce. Washed down with "te or koffy" -- or, more often, with another beer.

Even if he never leaves the highway, the outback traveler can't help seeing wildlife -- kangaroos, camels, cockatoos and emus. That's because many pubs have their own zoos and aviaries, usually in a caged area outside. Weary drinkers are encouraged to ogle the creatures while their mates knock back a few more beers at the bar.

Animal behavior can also be observed inside Territory pubs. In remote communities, where the radio turns to static and the television to snow, people learn to entertain themselves. This isolation, coupled with vast quantities of beer, breeds a bizarre sort of gamesmanship. Remember the oaf in "Crocodile Dundee" who balances beers on his head while being punched in the stomach? It is one of the movie's more realistic scenes.

Actually, the traveler need not brave the rugged interior to witness strange feats of endurance and gluttony. Darwin, a city of 60,000 at the Territory's "Top End," conducts a year-long Drinking Olympics. This steamy city is the logical end point for an outback pub crawl.

The final event of the drinking season in Darwin is, appropriately enough, devoted to the leftovers. Empty beer cans are strung together or flattened into solid sheets, fashioned into seagoing vessels, then floated into the city harbor in what's known as the Darwin Beer Can Regatta.

It was in 1839 that a very different sort of vessel, the Beagle, sailed into these same waters. The Beagle's crew named the fledging settlement after a young biologist who had sailed on an earlier voyage to Australia.

Could he visit today, Charles Darwin would no doubt be struck by the de-evolution of the species that has occurred at the Top End since then. Tony Horwitz is the author of "One for the Road: A Hitchhiker's Outback," which will be published in the United States by Random House in 1988.