The first time it’s terrifying, the second, exhilarating. I’m on the road between Longreach and Winton in central Queensland, where roadtrains are as common as the animal carcasses that lie stiffening on the reddish dust. Passing them takes courage and a flat foot.
This is my third outback trip. I have Springsteen’s new album playing, cranked up high (you can listen on Spotify here). (BTW if you have any roadtrip playlist suggestions feel free to leave them in the comments).
The first trip, a ‘famil’ (a trip for journalists writing travel pieces, hosted by a travel organisation or tourism board) was from Longreach to Uluru and it had a profound effect on me. The outback, I discovered, is a deeply spiritual place. Something radiates from the ancient soil beneath your feet into your boots and travels upward through your spine before lodging in the brain with an ‘ahh’ moment – another piece of the puzzle of our existence, a dream half-remembered, a dawning of understanding that we are not of skyscrapers and smartphones, but here – this is Australia.
These days, I will take any excuse I can to head ‘outback’ and if you haven’t yet connected with the real heart of Australia, this is why you should.
The light and the colour of the outback have been attracting painters and photographers for decades. The skies are wide and clear blue, the cloud patterns so unusual and contrasted with the red earth, it’s stunning. And talking of light, don’t miss the Field of Lights installation at Uluru where 50,000 spindles of light have been planted in the desert – it’s there until December 2020.
I don’t know why I imagined people in the outback to be naive, simple folk. (My own naivety perhaps?). Many are canny business people running properties the size of small countries. They are whip- smart, incredibly hospitable, no-nonsense and are natural raconteurs. Sit for a while in a remote pub and you’ll hear amazing tales of their lives and how they ended up where they are. Most will tell you they wouldn’t leave for quids. In the pic above is Les Cain who, with his wife and son run the pub in Middleton, between Winton and Boulia. Once a thriving town with its own dancehall, there’s now only the pub and a population of three, including Les.
The Indigenous Culture
This is a map of the language, nation or tribal groups of the first nation people of this country. The incredibly rich diversity of language and custom means a wealth of differing art and stories specific to region or group, so take a tour with an elder to see different art work or important sites. Sometimes you won’t be able to go to places because they’re the site of men’s (or women’s) business or private to that group. On a tour I took, our guide Ricky was forbidden to even tell us the name of a sacred site and before taking us to one place had to ask permission from the spirits of his ancestors.
There is some amazing art to be seen and bought if you want to take a piece of indigenous culture home with you. If you *do* want to buy some art do your research – there’s a lot of shoddy work being passed off as indigenous art and you want to buy the real stuff and support the community who make it. There’s a good piece here in The Guardian on how to buy aboriginal art ethically.
The Sunsets and Night Skies
I’ve seen some sunsets in my time (probably a few less sunrises!) and there is nothing that even comes close to an outback sunset. Unless you’re an artist with a comprehensive paintbox, you will never have seen so many shades of orange, pink or red. Find yourself a lookout, a ‘jump up’ or a spot by a billabong, breath and appreciate the beauty of the bush.
The star-filled night skies are equally as incredible. Clear, unpolluted skies mean a canvas of black scattered with thousands of diamond- bright stars, shooting stars and the odd satellite on its circuit. I’m not a photographer so can’t do justice, but if you’re interested, this is *the* place to come to shoot starry skies and sunsets.
Everywhere you turn in the outback there is incredible natural beauty. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are just awe-inspiring. I could have sat and looked at it Uluru for ever or spent days walking around it at different times of the day, to capture the nuance of light and shadow. I wanted to touch it, to run my hand along the ancient weathered stone; I’d hug it if I could. One thing I had no urge to do was to climb it (it will be illegal to do so soon). It makes me sad to think that some people whom are informed of its indigenous caretakers’ wishes choose to climb it anyway. Imagine if we were to set up a picnic in the knave of a church? It would provoke outrage, yet people are okay with climbing and walking on this sacred place, in fact in the last few weeks before it is actually banned, people are rushing to do so.
Incidentally, as journalists, before we went to Uluru, we had a briefing on how we were and weren’t allowed to photograph the rock. There are some areas that are particularly sacred that the traditional custodians don’t want to appear in published photographs.
There’s loads of other incredible sites in the outback too. Termite mounds bigger than your car, time-eroded canyons, swimming holes and walks to bluff and plateaus. Bring your walking shoes and good thick socks – but don’t expect that the red dust will not somehow magick its way between your toes anyway.
One hundred and ten million years ago outback Queensland was a vast sea called The Eromanga. Today, thanks to the region’s soil profile that helps preserve fossils, you can see skeletons of ancient marine animals such as ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs as well as well-preserved bones of land dinosaurs like gigantic sauropods and therapods.
Make sure to visit the Australian Age of Dinosaurs outside Winton and book a tour that includes a visit to the lab where scores of dinosaur bones sit on shelves, waiting to be cracked open from their protective jackets (they’re coated in a kind of plastic, then foil then plaster to protect them) and prepared by lab staff and volunteers for categorisation.
There’s also the dinosaur trackways at the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument where you can view the footprints of a dinosaur stampede. Around 95 million years ago, small carnivorous coelurosaurs about the size of chickens, and slightly larger plant-eating ornithopods came to drink at a lake when a theropod began to stalk them, then turned and charged. A panicked stampede ensued, and mud and silt preserved the footprints until they were discovered in the 1960s. It’s still the only example of a dinosaur stampede in the world.
You should also check out the marine fossils in the attractive little town of Boulia. And while you’re there make sure to check out the cute Min Min Encounter show that details the phenomenon of some mysterious, unexplained lights that race and float above the ground, scaring stockman and cattle alike. We tried but failed to encounter the real thing but were told by locals that “you don’t seek the Min Min lights, they seek you.”
I guess when you have to make your own entertainment AND when your tourist season is relatively short (April-October) due to both heat and ‘the wet’ cutting off many roads, you party hard while you can. Hence the outback calendar is full of events. We’ve just come back from a long weekend in Longreach for a new event called The Outback Queensland Masters where a series of competitive golf games takes place in six outback town courses with the last, in Mount Isa, being the culmination with a million dollar hole in one competition. Then there’s The Big Red Bash, in mid July outside of Birdsville. The world’s most remote music festival (you can listen to the podcast we did with the organiser here) attracts around 10,000 people and is growing every year. The Vision Splendid Film Festival has just taken place in Winton, lures both local and overseas talent. There’s The Julia Creek Dirt and Dust Festival, the Boulia Camel Races, The Mount Isa Rodeo, the “Melbourne Cup of the Outback” The Birdsville Races, The Territory Taste Festival and heaps more, from outback marathons to fishing comps.
And finally other reasons to visit… because one day you’re going to die, because every Australian should see and know their own history, because if you don’t, you’re missing out on something truly unique – one of the oldest lands and cultures on the planet.
So, get out there if you haven’t. And if you have – I’d love to hear your memories or experiences.