I just got back from a whirlwind trip around the Outback and gotta say, it was amazing. The ‘Outback’ – that vast swath of flat, dry, rust-coloured territory across central Australia – is like being on another planet: looking out the airplane window as you touch down, you could swear you’re landing on the barren red surface of Mars, albeit it at a colony settled by white and black Australians.
Much of this world is familiar to anyone coming from any other part of Australia, yet at the same time it’s markedly different. The beer selections, for example, are same-old: Carlton Draught, XXXX, Cooper’s, Heineken… Yet to buy a beer at any campground/resort, you need to produce a little piece of paper you’re given upon arriving there – at least in theory, since I was never asked, since (I suspect) I don’t look overly Aboriginal. The road signs, too, come in familiar formats – e.g. the trusty black-on-yellow triangles that tell you what to expect ahead – but instead of heralding a T-junction or people crossing, they warn you to ‘BEWARE OF WANDERING STOCK’, ‘WATCH FOR WILDLIFE’ and, most commonly, to flag an upcoming ‘floodway’ – a low point in the road where rainwater accumulates during the brief but intense wet season.
There are also the usual white-on-green billboards displaying how far to go until the next few towns – the numbers usually in triple figures, reinforcing the ‘tyranny of distance’ that characterizes this wide brown land. Visiting just three places in four days – Uluru, King’s Canyon, Alice Springs then back to Uluru – my girlfriend and I racked up more than 1,000 kilometres of road travel, which cost us a pretty penny in petrol and extra mileage charges. But it was totes worth it.
Driving is really the way to ‘do’ the Outback – just you and the open road, metallic pools shimmering in the distance as the heat plays tricks on your eyes. Speed cameras are absent along these remote stretches of tarmac so you can move at a nice brisk speed – 130, 140 kilometres an hour… Occasionally a vehicle will appear in the opposite direction, a tiny speck that within seconds becomes a clearly discernible tour bus or camper van or road train that in another few seconds roars by with a ferocious rush of air, and is suddenly gone – an insignificant speck in the rear-view mirror, leaving you alone and intimate with the landscape once more… Just you, your music, the sun-cooked dashboard and the faint, constant whoosh of air con.
And what a landscape it is! Contrary to what I imagined, the Outback is actually covered in vegetation, albeit of a semi-arid variety… Low-growing, thin, with the bleached greens and browns of old army disposals apparel, all growing somehow out of the fine, bone-dry red dust. Far from being monotonous, this primitive but striking flora changes markedly every half-hour or so, as if you’re time-travelling through the great eras of prehistory – now Cretaceous, then Jurassic, then the other one… At times the orange-red ground is barely visible for all the dense shrubbery and tussocks of spiky grass; then you notice it’s become mostly bare and exposed but populated by black-stumped trees with limp branches and long, wispy leaves like green hair.
You also see the occasional animal – most of them dead; unlucky critters who chose the wrong moment to cross the road. Within our first hour of driving down the Lasseter Highway we came across a fly-bitten red kangaroo corpse with empty eye sockets, then a stinking big lump of a cow, then a poor lizard still strangely intact with blood around its mouth:
By far the most common encounters are with birds – cute, fluttery little things that swoop in front of your vehicle like acrobats. No joke, these little thrill-seekers actually dive into the middle of the tarmac to let the car pass over them – the first time it happened I thought I’d hit one, then realised when I watched in the rear-view mirror that the little blighters take off again once we’d whooshed right over the top of them. Gotta get your kicks in the desert somehow, I guess.
Not all the birds are cute and fluttery though. Every now and then you see the broad wingspan of a much larger bird silhouetted against the shining blue sky… Carnivorous scavengers scouring the ground from high up for something dead or dying to pick at, their shadow slowly swirling across the road, a subtly ominous element in the otherwise bright and radiant day.
On foot, your boots dusted with what looks like dried paprika powder, you experience some of Australia’s less endearing animals. Flies are a serious pest in the Outback, and the hotter the day, the more numerous they are, relentlessly bullying you until you become one sweaty, swatting, swearing epitome of futility and frustration. Cata and I experienced this on our last full day, bushwalking up the Olgas on what was the warmest afternoon of our trip, and it was like the worst summer barbeque you’ve ever had – a merciless barrage of buzzing that simply wouldn’t let up, the little black vermin honing in on our faces again and again as if compelled by some magnetic force. Selfies had to be retaken several times as one of us would inevitably turn away or pull a face at the critical moment, thanks to a fly shooting up a nostril or into an ear… And I’ve been told not to share those dud pics under threat of death. So bad was it that many of the older (and obviously wiser) hikers we passed wore beekeeper-style netted hats over their heads, wandering the desert like women in an Islamic theocracy… So yeah – if persistence is a virtue, flies are its most fanatical disciples… And indeed we wondered, as we retraced our steps back to the car park, swinging at the air in vain with folded maps, whether it’s the same group of flies the whole time or new ones coming and going. But that’s another subject for another time.
Of course ants, spiders and snakes also made an appearance. Luckily I noticed the little huntsman when I did, scurrying across one side of Catalina’s suitcase when I flung it into the back seat of the car – which, of course, saw said suitcase immediately hurled back out of the car onto the red dirt. I say ‘luckily’ because if I’d felt that thing crawling up my leg 20 minutes later, hurtling along Lasseter Highway at Formula One speeds… Well, let’s just say there’s been a long history of unexplained car crashes in Australia. God bless ’em for keeping the flies in check but let’s face it, nobody likes a hairy eight-legged arachnid upon their person, at any time or place.
The snake, on the other hand, was actually kind of cute – clearly an infant, about 50cm long, frantically wriggling across the walking path and disappearing into the undergrowth just as I’d rushed up to it with my smartphone camera at the ready.
Ever-present, of course, were Nature’s tireless little toilers, the ants – forming dotted black lines that criss-crossed all the walking tracks, carrying little bits of whatever down into their underground kingdom of tunnels. Catalina was quite smitten with this particular lot at Uluru, their pretty blue-black exoskeletons giving them the appearance of nanobots:
Finally, of course, there were dingos. The ‘resort’ we stayed in at King’s Canyon was rife with these, as suggested from the outset by signs imploring visitors to ‘keep dingos wild’ and not leave food lying around. Although long tarnished with a negative reputation, dingos are actually pretty tame, casually trotting around the edges of car parks and campgrounds without any apparent fear of or aggression towards humans. Where we stayed, every toilet block had a gate you had to swing open to enter and on the first night we discovered why – as I parked the car, a dingo suddenly scampered out of the shadows, made its way briskly across the lawn and without hesitation let itself through the ajar gate into the brightly lit Gents, emerging a few seconds later to return to the bush as though this was perfectly standard procedure. When I went inside later I discovered why – the bin, filled with paper towel and food scraps, had been tipped over. It made me wonder how many unwitting campers have copped a shock as a result of these shenanigans… Quietly brushing their teeth in their jim-jams only to have a wild dog burst in and start rifling through the garbage. Later that night another dingo (or perhaps the same cheeky bugger) wandered right past our tent, his four-legged silhouette clearly visible through the fabric… But there were no babies around so all good.
Basically, when it comes to the wildlife in Australia, the usual logic is reversed. Our answer to the wolf/coyote is basically a Bangkok street dog, and our bears are little more than perpetually sleepy soft toys… While our pint-sized critters – the spiders, snakes and jellyfish – can kill you in an hour flat.
Well, them and the crocs I guess.
Note: This is the first part of what I hope will be a broader piece about me and my girlfriend’s 4-day tour of the Outback – part 2 will focus less on road signage and insects and more on what we actually did and saw. In the meantime, you can check out some of the photos from our trip on Instagram.