Outback

 

 

 

You can count the miles down the Stuart Highway from Alice to Urldunda in dead kangaroos. There’s not a helluva lot else to look at though and my eyes began to glaze over somewhere after the thirtieth ‘roo road-kill. These road-kills have had a horrifying effect on Australia’s biggest bird of pray. The wedge-tailed eagle, with its eight-foot wingspan, is irresistibly attracted to this transcontinental smorgasbord and, having no natural predators, it is quite ready to do battle with any vehicle that has the audacity to try to scare it off its meal. Trackside roadhouses are full of yarns about drivers who were terrified to see a half-dead wedgie coming through the windscreen at him. “He was all torn and bleeding and spitting feathers when he turned up here,” they tell you. “Funniest bloody thing you ever saw!”

 

Outbackers have a wry sense of humour. They continue to see themselves as pioneering characters and in a sense they still are. This is the forbidden land that the first settlers knew by such mysterious names as Beyond the Black Stump, The Never Never or simply the Red Centre. The Northern Territory is ‘the real Outback.’ Southern roadtrains are not considered worthy of the name here in the Top End where they have five trailers, stretch to over fifty metres and are capable of sucking the windscreen-wipers off your car as they pass.


Even ‘roos wouldn’t be seen dead on the Lasseter Highway from Urldunda to Uluru. This is the real desert and feral camels are more likely here. There are said to be as many as half a million wild camels in Australia and they are of such pure and hardy breed that some have been sold to Saudi Arabia for racing stock. Territorians in general seem to be delighted at this proof that they also even have the world’s toughest camels. (Although they never got around to feeling that way about the rabbits).


This is dingo country too and even in the resort around The Rock you will often see semi-tame dingoes searching through the bins. The trouble is that the dingoes have mated with dogs from the Aboriginal camps and they are not as shy as they used to be. In some camps the Aboriginals live in fear of what one little girl described to me as ‘cheeky dogs.’ She said she was frightened to go outside after dark because of the dogs. But these dogs are cheeky in a way that only Outback animals can be cheeky: there have been reports recently of people who were actually killed and eaten by ‘cheeky dogs.’


Up here termite mounds grow to cathedral-like proportions and ‘dunny budgies’ (flies) are so thick you get tennis elbow shooing them off. Legend has it that at times the flies can carry small children away. Territorians are immensely proud of their fearsome wildlife and will warn you that the snakes here are so smart that if you drive over them they’ll wrap themselves around your differential so that they can follow you into your house.


Even a relatively short roadtrip from Alice to Uluru, just 5 hours each way (a mere jaunt in the scale of the Outback), shouldn’t be undertaken without proper preparation and a reliable vehicle. This simple journey to The Rock once took me three days when I was stranded by torrential rains and trapped in the little settlement of Curtin Springs. The population of five swelled overnight to almost fifty and some people were attacked by a herd of feral camels that were driven crazy by the excess of water.


Even a relatively short roadtrip into the Outback remains an adventure. The camels and the cheeky dogs might not get you but there are countless terrible things that could happen to you on these remote highways.…and whatever it might be there will always be an Outback ‘character’ who will see the funny side to it.

 

 

Pittwater

There really is no escape from the wildlife here. One of my friends hides in the hammock to avoid the one metre long lizard as it walks across the deck. The wallabies bolt across the track as you head down to the water. It’s a battle to keep the possums out of the rubbish bin. And forget about leaving your breakfast unattended for even a moment- the cockatoos will swoop in and take it from you.

You’d think I was in the bush in the middle of nowhere. But I’m not. I’m still in Sydney.  Pittwater, in the north of Sydney, is one of the city’s stunning and often overlooked jewels. About 90 minutes on the bus from Central Railway station, the collection of inlets, bays, coves and islands makes it feel as if you are a million miles away from the city that lies just over the hill.

While the waterline is rimmed with multi-million dollar mansions and holiday homes on the coastal side, a series of small communities nestle into the bays around Ku-ring-gai National Park accessible only by water.  Hiding there amongst them is one of Sydney’s best-kept backpacking secrets: Pittwater YHA.  

Donated to the park back in 1950s, the hostel is an old rustic building nestled at the top of the ridge overlooking Morning Bay. It is only accessible by public ferry from Church Point, and all food and drink needs to be brought in. The hostel is about a good 15 minute walk uphill from the wharf, which means that often you’re sweating once you’ve finished dragging your groceries up the hill. There are multi-share dorms, a larger shared room, and one double room.

Heading up behind the hostel, there are a series of bushwalking tracks through Ku-ring-gai National Park, which spreads out for kilometres on the edge of the city. It’s the perfect way to experience the Australian bush without straying too far from the city.  One of the favourite past times is to take a kayak and paddle across the bay to the other side, where there is a small white beach that comes and goes with the tide. If I’m feeling more intrepid, I’ll paddle up past the private wharfs and follow the cove as it curves into the mangrove swamps.

During low tide, the mangroves reveal a different world. Small shoals of fish flicker between the upturned roots, and on the exposed sandbanks, bright red crabs scurry out to catch their dinner. To see them, it’s an exercise in patience. You have to stop paddling, stay still and they’ll emerge from their holes. When you sit there on the kayak, you begin to hear it: the sound of the Australian bush- the ticking hum of the cicadas, the whooping cry of the currawong, the haunting laugh of a kookaburra and the crack of a eucalypt branch as it snaps off into the brush.

Pittwater isn’t the place to come if you are wanting to party until dawn. But if you’re the type of person keen to watch the sunrise, often the managers will walk you up there with torches before dawn to watch the sun come up across the water. It’s an incredible sight as the water glows pink and gold, accompanied by a rising chorus as the bush wakes up. If you’re keen to explore the other communities, the ferry sets off from the mainland once an hour or so during daylight, completing a loop around the bay and island. The trick is that you have to hail it, by sticking a bright red flag in a pole at the end of the public jetty (in the past, many an unknowing passenger have waited for a ferry that never came). Nearby, there are Aboriginal rock carvings and bushwalks to waterfalls and rocky outcrops, surfing beaches and coastal communities.

Most of the time, though, I’m just happy hanging out on the desk in the hammock, reading the book. The wallabies nibble on the front lawn, the cockatoos screech for food and eat the decking, and if I’m lucky, the lace monitor might scratch along the deck.  The place is special. It’s not about what you can do there, it is about doing nothing much at all- just appreciating being in the middle of the bush…even if you are still in the city.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

 

Flying Docs

 


 

 

In Alice Springs and Katherine, David Whitley discovers how people living in the remotest parts of Australia remain attached to the rest of the world.

 

The real Outback?

On my journey through Australia, I have been travelling across what I deem the Outback. In reality, I’ve been sticking to the main highways with the odd diversion up a short gravel track. It’s still more than many Australians will cover in their lifetime, but I’d be deluded if I tried to convince myself that I was really living the Outback life. For a reality check, a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Centre in Alice Springs is in order. The RDFS is a truly remarkable organisation, and one that literally keeps the people of the Outback alive.

 

Flying Doctors

For some people living in remote Aboriginal settlements, cattle stations and roadhouses, the journey to the nearest hospital with adequate facilities can be measured in days rather than hours or minutes. The Flying Doctors provide an essential lifeline, and run regular emergency missions to dirt airstrips in the middle of nowhere which are being lit up with car headlights. That’s the showy part of proceedings, but the more mundane day-to-day tasks are equally as vital as the nick-of-time airlifts. The Flying Doctors also distribute medicine chests to key spots such as police stations, pubs and homesteads. The drugs inside are labelled with numbers so that people have to phone for diagnosis rather than self-prescribe, while body charts are divided into segments so that the ill/ injured party can explain what hurts and where. The Flying Doctors also run regular preventative healthcare clinics amongst the Aboriginal communities on their patch – and for the Alice Springs base, 90% of the 30,000 people in the area it covers are Aboriginal.

 

RDFS base visit – Alice Springs

A visit to the base is utterly engrossing. Come on a weekday and you can watch the controllers in action, while comparing modern equipment and resources to those the RDFS had in the past is an eye-opener. The 1958 medical cabinet has a nice bit of cocaine in it, while the pedal radios used to keep the line open to the doctors up to 600km/h away would have been of limited use if you’d just broken your leg.

 

World’s biggest classroom. 

Another insight into Outback life comes a lazy 1,000km or so up the road in Katherine. The School of the Air here boasts that it is the world’s biggest classroom. And given that its catchment area is three times the size of the UK, this is probably a fair call. Yes, that was three times the size of the entire United Kingdom. When we show up, there are precisely zero children in the building, but the teacher is plugging on regardless. With pupils living up to 1,100km away from Katherine (and even further for those based overseas in the likes of Kazakhstan and East Timor with their miner/ charity worker parents), turning up every day just isn’t practical.

 

Schooling by satellite

So instead, children living in Australia’s most remote spots are home-tutored (usually by their mother) and have proper school lessons conducted via satellite. The set up is remarkable – the teacher sits in what looks like a radio studio, using cameras to point to what she’s talking about.The kids, meanwhile, interact by satellite phone and a little chat frame in the bottom of the screen. It’s a high-tech set-up and, by and large, it works. That said, choir practice can be a little interesting with the phone lag... Up until 2006, this was all done by (rather crackly) radio. But now the kids can see the teachers during lessons. It’s a huge leap forward, and watching the system work brings a tear to the eye. It’s a privilege to come across children that cherish their school lessons and the interaction they bring to their lives. It’s also yet another amazing achievement in taming some of the harshest, most isolated country on earth.

 

More photos here

 

Alt Uluru

 


 

David Whitley’s travelling partner was sceptical about the merits of Australia’s famous big red rock. And then she walked around it...

“Well, it’s just a big rock, isn’t it?” Katrina, it is fair to say, was excited about our drive-through-the-Outback adventure, but didn’t quite get why Uluru was so special. OK, we pretty much had to go there if we were heading through central Australia, but paying to stay at the severely overpriced resort and taking a six hour round trip out of the way was of debatable merit. I knew differently. I’ve been to the artist formerly known as Ayers Rock before. And I know what those who fly in, take a picture or two and fly out are missing out on.

Everyone has seen the postcard shots of Uluru. Many realise that it changes colour depending on the light, and many know that sunsets and sunrises featuring the big red rock can be pretty spectacular. But that’s just one of the rock’s faces you’re seeing. Walk around it, and you see many, many more – each one thoroughly striking. Black streaks formed by water courses over the millennia stripe the sides, chasms have been carved out and caves have been gouged into the almost 90 degree cliff faces.

Some parts appear as a heavily pockmarked face, an acne-ridden teenager that makes Stephen Hendry look like a Clearasil model. Holes remind of damaged plaster that has been attacked with a sledgehammer. The kinks, bulges and hollows form a vastly different shape at every turn. From one angle, Uluru looks like a dome; from others it looks like a series of corrugated ridges or the break-outs of a jelly mould.

Some parts are weathered to the point of appearing scabby; others seem firm, smooth and mighty. Formations and features set the imagination running wild – you start seeing whale’s tails or the heads of ET, Darth Vader and a disgruntled/ constipated man.

The contrast with the plain Uluru rises from is dramatic too. Although this is the desert, vegetation does pretty well out here. The branches of spindly white-trunked trees add a touch of menace, like snakes lashing out wildly from a Gorgon’s head. Salt bush covers the least fertile soil, while more impressive beasts clamber higher where they can. The red dirt is sprouting an oasis of green, but the rock itself is starkly barren except for a couple of hardy pioneers trying to grow in narrow cracks where rainwater occasionally flows.

Aside from occasionally debating whether a formation looks like a snake’s head or a fish, we walked around for just under six miles in an entranced silence. To the local Anangu people, Uluru is a sacred spot. Others bleat on about its spirituality. I’m an old cynic who doesn’t buy into that sort of nonsense, but it has a certain magic about it that cannot be described in words or pictures.  It’s far more than just a big rock, and once you’ve walked round it, you’ll understand why.

As my sceptical compadre neatly put it, “Wow, I’ve fallen under its spell.”

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Ayers Rock Resort

 

Vastness

 

 

“That’s the thing about Aus. It’s vast!” my fellow passenger was saying, as we shot across the desert at 100km an hour while gulping at frosted glasses of Victoria Beer. “People from outside just can’t grasp the sheer ‘vastity’ of it.”
The Indian Pacific train had been trundling across the Western Australian Outback for close to twenty hours already and I had to admit that I was struggling to come to terms with it myself. We were now in what my friend might have called the complete ‘emptity’ of the Nullarbor Desert. The name derives from Latin for ‘treeless desert’ and apart from a few scraggy bushes there had been nothing worthy of the name for the last two hundred miles. Then we came upon a little collection of a few shacks around a railway watering point. At some point in the past some optimistic (or perhaps just humorous) souls had planted about a dozen scraggy pines here and they had named the place "Forest."
The map shows an enthralling chain of place names: Kellerberrin, Kingoonya, Woomera and, in this sweltering desolation, the wonderfully named Koolyanobbing. In the village of Cook, touted as ‘Queen City of the Nullarbor,’ we stopped to explore the few sun-scorched huts and the old jailhouses while the train refilled its water-tanks. A sign beside the track said that Cook has a population of ‘four people, forty dingoes and four million flies.’
Scarcity of water aside, crossing the Nullarbor is in some ways more like making an ocean voyage. The Indian Pacific sings smoothly along on her silver rails between featureless horizons with never a bump or a lurch. This is officially the longest stretch of straight railway line in the world. You only realise what an unusual sensation this is when you suddenly find yourself careering into the wall when you reach the first kink in the track after 298 miles.
The Indian Pacific connects Perth and Sydney along 4,352km of track but I would be disembarking at Adelaide to catch another train northwards. The famous Ghan follows the supply route once used by the intrepid cameleers who brought supplies from South Australia to the embryonic settlement at Alice Springs. The cameleers came from such diverse places as Punjab, Kashmir, Sind, Rajasthan, Persia and Afghanistan but came to be known to the locals simply as ‘the Ghans.’
The Ghan claws its way for 2,979km from Adelaide right through the great Red Centre. Like a great silver spear, piercing directly into the heart of the island continent, The Ghan still offers the feeling of an expedition (albeit a delightfully relaxing and luxurious one) as it leaves behind the wheat fields of South Australia and heads off into what, even today, is one of the world’s great wildernesses.
It took the great explorer John McDouall Stuart many months to cross the desert from coast to coast. (Having made it that far – and on the verge of starvation – he had to turn around and walk all the way back again because nobody had thought to send a boat to meet him).
Many years ago I hitch-hiked and drove across this same route in a month. With The Ghan I made the crossing easily in just over a week (with a stop at ‘the Alice’). Nevertheless, by the time The Ghan rolled through the steaming tropical rainforests of ‘The Top End’ and into Darwin I had once again found an increased respect for the incredible vastity of Australia.