Out in the Outback


“Survival in the outback hinges on finding water. To flies, your eyes are swimming pools and your ears, nose and mouth pretty good targets too.”

Here’s the first thing you need to know about the outback. Don’t be trekking out here without a local guide. It’s not cool, it’s not brave, it’s just stupid.

With farms the size of Belgium, they won’t find you when you get lost, which you will because you can travel hundreds of miles without seeing a landmark.

As harsh as it is, the outback here isn't desert, it's semi-arid

On top of that everything here seems to want to kill you. If it’s here, it’s probably poisonous.

Don’t let that put you off, though. One of the happiest memories I have is of lying on the ground in the outback, listening to the camp fire dying away and looking up at a display of stars you can only get this far from civilization.

But get a guide. You can easily tag along with some of the backpacker tours which are pretty cheap and run by rangers who have been trained by Aborigines.

You jump in the back of a toughened up minibus and they’ll take you from trek site to trek site, making sure nothing kills you in the meantime. They’re also great fun, right up until they discover the Englishman can play the didgeridoo better than them.

I can’t stress enough the heat of the outback. It’s brutal; the kind of heat that attcks the surface of your skin like a blowtorch.

About two and a half seconds after you notice the heat, the flies notice you. You will learn to hate them. Survival in the outback hinges on finding water. To flies, your eyes are swimming pools and your ears, nose and mouth pretty good targets too.

Buy a head net. Sure, it will make you look like a bee-keeper who’s into musical theatre, but at some point to will reach the stage where you gladly put pride aside and hide in it.

Try to save your energy for the stunning areas of the outback. Aborigines can walk for miles out here. Everyone else is exhausted after a few hours and needs to hide from the heat at siesta time.

The outback of Australia

The outback is so beautiful you can be carried away, but be careful, when the sun comes up, it can be an immensely dangerous place.

You must see…

Here are three places you can visit within a couple of days that will give you a real feel of the spectacular geography of this place. Just take a small plane to Alice Springs, then hop on a backpackers bus.

Check out the backpackers tours. Some are quite gentle, others pretty hardcore. It all depends on what you want, but my advice is, avoid the nice coaches. They’ll give you a champagne breakfast at Ayre’s Rock, but you won’t meet the locals and, in my opinion, you won’t have really seen the outback.

King’s Canyon

You start with a climb up “Heartbreak Hill”, which got its name because of its steepness. In the frying heat, it really can sap your energy.

But at the top, you can look down 300m (about 900ft) inot the canyon. This whole part of Australia was once an inland sea, so the exposed geography is insane, with jagged, angular drops toped off by undulating domes of rock.

You can take the short, one hour trek down to Kings Creek, which is well worth it, if you’re strapped for time, but the longer, three to four hour trek takes you right across the rim of the canyon.

As with a lot of places here, parts of the canyon are sacred to the locals, so do them the courtesy of staying away from those parts of the canyon.

Kata Juta

This means ‘Many Heads’ and when you see it, no one needs to explain any further.

These are actually part of Uluru (Ayres Rock, as was). The two structures are opposite ends of a giant, bow shaped ‘stone’ of harder rock that sat for who knows how long under the sea bed.

When the inland sea disappeared and the area was exposed to wind and rain erosion, the rock ends were exposed.

The difference with Kata Juta is that it cracked, split and subsequent erosion has created the 36 seperate, giant rock domes that you see sticking out of the ground today.

It’s a place sacred to Aborigines, where men go to gain wisdom so powerful, it is dangerous to the uninitiated.

Luckily though, the local Anangu people are happy to let the uninitiated go and have a look around and take pictures. Again, just make sure you don’t trample across a sacred site.

Uluru (Ayre’s Rock)

I realised I wasn’t here to see the sun rise over Uluru, but to see the Circus of Absurdity as waiters throw crisp, white tablecloths in preparation for champagne breakfasts in the middle of one of the harshest environments on the planet.”

This is the place everyone wants to go. It’s also the place people want to climb, which is unfortunate, as people often die and the locals who own it become desperately sad, as the site is about as sacred as you can get.

You’re free to climb Uluru, but it’s like abseiling down the Temple Mount, or playing basketball in St Peter’s Basillica. It’s just not cool.

That doesn’t stop hundreds of people a day doing it though. They’ve driven a chain link fence like a scar along one side of the rock and, from a distance, you can see why the locals call tourists ‘minga’ – ants.

Two lines of black dots move up and down the side of the rock, passing each other on the way.

My tip, get one of the backpacker tours leaving early to drop you off at the rock before dawn. As the sun rises on Uluru, you have the whole thing to yourself. That’s how something as powerful as this should be experienced.

After, you can get a bus to the nearby hotel complex where you can still get a room for not too much money (or spend everything you own on one night’s accommodation, if you want a luxury room) and spend a couple of days hanging out with the rangers and local Anangu people.

There’s a road that circles the rock from a distance and it has two car parks – one giving a view of the sun rising over Uluru, the other giving the sunset view.

Go. Not because the view is spectacular; actually it’s kind of spoilt by the hundreds of tourists crammed in there. Go because it’s a spectacle of humanity.

As the sun cast its first light over the peak of Uluru, the magical sight was accompanied by the sound of four Texans complaining about the seats on their coach and a couple from Pinigidyboing Ohio, or somewhere, talking about sandwiches.

It’s that wrongness that makes me recommend this though. I realised I wasn’t here to see the sun rise over Uluru, but to see the Circus of Absurdity as waiters throw crisp, white tablecloths in preparation for champagne breakfasts in the middle of one of the harshest environments on the planet.

Rich, fat businessmen from the air conditioned coaches rub shoulders with filthy backpackers and somewhere in the bush, the locals are sitting, wondering why on earth we do it. Magical.

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