Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Where is the Outback?

Where, exactly, is the Australian Outback?

No one knows. There is no border between the Outback and civilization, no line on the map. You won’t drive under a large wooden gate that says, “Welcome to the Outback! Food services ahead.” If you tell Australians that you’re heading into the Outback, they’ll give you a quizzical look and ask what you mean.

The Outback is best described as a vast, empty, barren, desolate desert. But then, Australia is best described with those same words. While international attention focuses on the country’s populated east coast – both Sydney and Melbourne have hosted the Olympics – and Australian folklore focuses on the beach-and-barbeque lifestyle of its city slickers, the bulk of the country is uninhabited.

By “uninhabited,” I don’t just mean it consists of small towns. I mean it’s truly a no-mans-land. There are spaces larger than the state of Colorado that don’t have a single road running through it. To paraphrase travel writer Bill Bryson: it is impossible to exaggerate the scale of the Australian Outback.

In South Australia, where we are now, there is a single cattle station -- I repeat, just one of many many cattle stations -- that by itself is larger than the nation of Belgium.

The other day my friend and I thought about taking our 4-wheel-drive across the Simpson Desert, a 68,145 square mile (176,500 square kilometer) swath of nothingness. The trip, we realized, would require about 8 to 10 days. We’d need to carry all our water with us.

Allowing five liters per person per day in the desert heat, we’d need 100 liters (26.4 gallons) minimum just to survive, assuming we don’t have any unexpected delays or leaks. We’d also need the same amount of extra fuel strapped to our roof. And that’s just the beginning. We’d need all the tools and knowledge to handle a car breakdown in the middle of a moonscape, a blazing desert in which – not to sound melodramatic – our bodies may never be found.

The Australians refer to this knowledge as “bush mechanics” – the ability to get your car running when you’re at least 400 kilometers from the nearest human being. Here it is an essential skill.

Ultimately we voted against the Simpson Desert, thanks to the cyclones that slammed into Australia’s northeastern coast in mid-March, causing flooding in the desert that results in vehicles getting bogged down to their axles in wet sand. This is just another reminder that if the "ordinary" conditions in the desert don't kill you, and freak cyclone, wild animal or any number of other bizzare natural activities might.

To I need to illustrate any further? The Australian Outback is harsh, unforgiving terrain. It’s no wonder that Aussie culture – like the Americans – celebrates radical self-reliance.

But even without venturing into the Simpson Desert, the Outback is all around. It is alluring and terrifying. Its appeal is unavoidable. Young Australians see treacherous Outback crossings as a coming-of-age ritual. Mature Australians undertake it as a challenge, and a way to connect with their land.

We constantly marvel at Australia’s “grey nomads,” the sunburned retirees we see adjusting the valves on their dust-encrusted Landcruisers. Contrary to the popular image of most retirees, these 60-somethings know exactly how to weld a cracked hose in the middle of nowhere; they heat their shower water off their car batteries; they can change two tyres before lunch.

They are lured into the Outback time and time again – at great expense and inconvenience -- because its power is raw. The Outback may be a killer, but it makes any traveler feel alive.