Driving Australia's Outback: Part 1 - First Impressions (by Zofia)

I can't even start to write as well as my daughter who dashes out quick scripts like this below - so I have her permission to steal her words from some emails she sent me - enjoy...

Sitting down to write this, I was at loss as to where to begin. But I think that’s a problem many people have when faced with Australia; it's just so overwhelmingly big. I can't even begin to imagine how the first European settlers, dumped unceremoniously on the coast somewhere around Sydney, hopelessly un-provided for or provisioned with anything remotely useful for settling an entirely new and mostly hostile country, knew where to begin.

Looking for my very own personal place to begin on my (unfortunately) short trip, I opened up the map and was faced with a country which appeared to have all signs of civilisation clinging desperately to its edges­ apart from one big road right through the middle. Alright, I thought, I pick that one.

This road is called the Stuart highway and runs for 3020 km from Adelaide to Darwin, following almost exactly the route of explorer John McDougall Stuart, the leader of the first successful expedition to find a way from south to north through the infamous 'outback'. I say 'successful' because of the infamous Burke and Wills saga­ they actually did manage to cross, however, due to a series of tragically ironic events, most of them died. And I really, really have no idea how Stuart went about it. Previous explorers had been either chewed up and spat back out by the merciless outback, or simply vanished. It didn't help that these people, clearly, had no idea how to begin.

These were conditions Europeans never had to deal with before: searingly hot by day, freezing at night, teeming with deadly poisonous animals and insects, and covered with Spinifex grass, probably the only type of grass to be shunned by grazing animals, who will only eat it out of sheer desperation. And barely any water; Australia is the flattest, driest inhabited continent in the world. After driving the Stuart Highway, the fact that someone made it across the outback without a car is a simple miracle to me. Until I reach Wycliffe Well, over 3⁄4 of the way through my journey, the only water I see along the Stuart Highway is a puddle on the side of the road. And it's salty.

I flew into Adelaide and, wasting no time, picked up my hire camper and did the quick dash to Port Augusta, about 300km up the coast. The weather was all moody rains and sudden strikingly clear rainbows, which are only to be washed away by the next sullen downpour. This is to be the last rain I will see until my trips end in Perth­ sadly I didn't appreciate it at the time as it was spoiling my view.

Leaving Port Augusta, only a few hours drive from Adelaide, and you're already in the 'outback' – I'm not sure if that’s technically true, but it definitely felt like it­ the landscape flattened, the signs of human life were few and far between, and the green country farmland surrounding Adelaide gave way to the duller red­brown and quiet olive greens of Spinifex grass, low shrubs and scattered trees, all set off by the deep red of the soil. The subtle beauty of the outback's colour palette will continuously astound me throughout my trip: the simple change in the morning to evening light, and the more gradual changes as I travel from north to south.

The outback is classified as a desert (a place where evaporation exceeds absorption) but it is not the lifeless, plant­less, sand­dune landscape that is usually associated with the word 'desert'. Surprisingly, the outback appears to be teeming with life­ a deceptive coating of Spinifex grass makes it seem almost inhabitable. There are trees, and shrubs, lizards and birds­ and the vegetation is constantly changing. The thing that unifies the outback is its huge vastness­ so flat, and so empty, that the few landscape features that exist become fascinating. A hill which would have been completely unremarkable in any other landscape becomes a wonderful thing of beauty when seen rising up in isolation from these endless horizons. Driving through this is an excellent exercise in perspective­ you can see so far ahead of you it looks like the sky meets the earth, and you are driving into the clouds.

If I sound romantic, it's because I fell instantly in love with the outback. This, I thought, is the real Australia, the very essence of this country. Yes, I know this is a cliché­ everyone seems to fall in love with the outback at some point or another. This is simply a place that evokes deep emotions, and a deep respect. How could I not love this wild, endless place? It's like catching a glimpse of infinity.

Read Part 2 Flinders Ranges to Coober Pedy
and Part 3 Coober Pedy