Mike's Australia by Mike Dixon - HTML preview
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It's Australia's "Never Never Land": If you never never go you'll never ever know what it's like. But where the hell is it?
That's a frequently asked question and you'll get a heap of different answers from a heap of different people. City folk talk about their outback cousins but the cousins don't necessarily see themselves that way.
Eighty percent of Australians live within a few hours drive of the sea. When you leave the settled areas on the coast and travel inland you enter a different world. The trees get smaller, woodland gives way to scrub and scrub to semi-desert.
The huge, sparsely inhabited interior of Australia stretches all the way from the eastern coastal mountains to the Indian Ocean. It is about the size of the USA (minus Alaska and the east coast). On the map of Europe, it would reach from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.
When I use the term outback I'm talking about Australia's vast dry interior. There are few bitumen (tarmac) roads and few settlements. Names on the map may be no more than that. Sometimes, when you reach them, all you find is a post with a name on it. Bear this in mind when you go travelling. If you have an accident, help may be further away than you think.
Most outback towns have populations numbered in hundreds rather than thousands. The exceptions are mining centres such as Mt Isa and Broken Hill. Apart from mining, the only major industry is cattle and sheep grazing. Homesteads are frequently fifty or more kilometres apart and reached by dirt roads.
Homestead kids receive their early education, via the internet, through the School of the Air. Older children attend boarding schools in the cities.
Over much of the interior, the majority of people are of Aboriginal descent. They live in small communities and own large tracts of land. You require their permission to enter these lands.
Some people think the outback is boring. Others find it fascinating and I'm one of them. It is so totally different from the crowded world in which most of us live. Life is different and so are the people. Some have roots that go back generations. Others were born overseas or have parents who were born overseas. They come from all over Europe and Asia but have a lot in common. When you live in a remote area you have to be resourceful and that shapes the person you become.
In recent years, large numbers of young people from Europe have taken jobs in the outback. On a recent trip to Central Australia I met a lot. The locals welcome them. They fill the gap left when young Australians migrate from the outback to the cities.
The photos, below, were taken on that trip. The first is of a road that has recently been graded and is in good condition. Non-sealed roads get badly churned up when it rains and vehicles drive over them. Recent policy is to close them to non-essential traffic (e.g. tourists) when that happens. Bear that in mind if you have a tight schedule.
The last three photos are of the small town of Tibooburra in the far north-west of New South Wales. It is famous for its pub which was frequented by (now) famous artists. As undiscovered geniuses, they earned their keep by painting every nook and cranny of the place. Their later, more transportable, works fetch a fortune when they come up for sale.
Driving in the outback has a lot in common with driving anywhere else ... until something goes wrong. It is easy to forget how vulnerable you are as you drive along, cocooned in air-conditioned luxury. It's as well to remember that people die in the outback when their cars break down.
Aboriginals whose ancestors roamed the lands have died of thirst on their way home from a trip into town. Workers on cattle ranches have got lost and died of exposure. If they are vulnerable, think of what could happen to you as a tourist in a strange land.
For the average traveller in an average vehicle:
1 Keep to the bitumen (tarmac sealed roads) whenever possible. There aren't many and they carry a fair amount of traffic so you shouldn't have to wait too long in the event of a breakdown or accident.
2 Carry lots of spare water. I use 2-litre plastic milk bottles, which are easy to pack amongst luggage.
3 Take a mobile phone but don't count on reception everywhere. Better still: take a satellite phone.
4 Take spare fanbelts, spare radiator hoses and jump leads.
5 Make sure you have enough petrol to get between filling stations. Don't assume you will come to one before your tank is empty. And bear in mind that the filling station might be out of your sort of fuel. If that happens go to the local police station and seek advice. On two occasions, I’ve had my tank filled by a man in police uniform with a key to emergency supplies.
6 Never drive off the highway.
7 If you do breakdown, stay with the vehicle unless you are one hundred percent certain that help is nearby and you can safely walk to it.
8 Don't attempt to walk anywhere in the heat of a hot summer's day.
9 Bear in mind that accommodation is not as easy to find in the outback as in the more densely populated parts of the country. In some places you have to provide your own in the form of tent, caravan etc. Plan your outback travel accordingly. Make sure you secure your night's accommodation at least a day in advance.
10 Remember that it does rain in the outback. Months and sometimes years of drought can be followed by torrential rain. Roads are cut and travellers are marooned for days on end.
11 Yes. It is possible to cross the deserts of Central and Western Australia. You need special permits and may be required to carry satellite distress beacons. My friends in the rear vehicle (photo above) kept going when we headed back home. They had all the necessary permits for the desert crossings and were required to keep to a tight schedule.