Down Under & Dirty in the Outback

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This piece appeared in the Irish Times on January 16, 2016

The warning was stark and to the point. “You don’t want to get stuck out here. If you do, you’ll probably die.” ‘Here’ is a dirt track somewhere between Yagga Yagga and Lake Mackay in the Gibson Desert of Western Australia and John, the local tourist board rep and outback expert, has an easy-going tone that belies the seriousness of his warning.

We were on day three of an outback adventure that began on a sandy landing strip in Balgo, a remote Aboriginal community in the southeastern corner of the Kimberley, near the invisible border between Western Australia and the Northern Territory. We’d flown in by bockety charter from Darwin, 1400km away, to meet our small convoy of Land Rovers that would carry us another 1400km to Uluru, the sacred rock in the middle of the country. This trip is the stuff of bucket lists, the getting there as much as finally being able to set eyes on Australia’s most famous natural feature.

From the cloudless sky I’d gotten my first glimpse of the outback, an ill-defined vastness whose only infrastructure is a scrawny web of dry river beds and rutted track traced onto a virtually empty landscape without end. This is one of the world’s most inhospitable terrains, a place too remote for roads or airstrips or helicopters - and if anything did go wrong it would take days for help to reach us.

To emphasise the point, the ever-cheerful John told us about “a fella who’d driven out here a few years ago without telling anyone where he was going. He must have broken down, because when they did eventually find him a couple of months later, he’d literally melted into the seat of his car.” To avoid such a gruesome fate, there is safety in numbers. And in a satellite phone - the only way to contact the outside world should something go wrong. There’s no mobile signal in the desert.  

Thankfully, my Land Rover was pretty well loaded up. Two spare wheels on the roof rack, along with three large cans of petrol and the swag, the one-person pup tent that would be my home until we reached Uluru. In the back was enough food and bottled water to last a week. Up front was a CB radio - to keep in touch with the other cars in the convoy - and a USB connection: I mightn’t be able to make any calls, but at least I had my music. 

The rest of the group were mostly Germans who were by then two-week veterans of the outback. They’d driven down from Darwin and were already used to the broiler-hot temperatures. They were also coated in the fine layer of red dust that clung to everything like an extra layer of skin. Most were 20-something adrenaline junkies clearly pumped up by the whole experience. But not Meike Schneider or Diana Arnold, two women in their forties who left behind families and comfortable lifestyles to pursue an unlikely adventure. “If you’d said to me before I started this that I couldn’t shower for a week,” Diana laughed, “I’d have told you ‘thanks but no thanks’ and not gotten on the plane. Now I don’t even think about it.” Before she came, Meike readily admitted to being terrified of ‘critters.’ By the time I met her, she could sidestep a snake in the grass without flinching.

I wondered if I was ready for this. I’d also reached my comfortable forties, and I didn’t fancy the idea of not washing for a week. Sure, I liked the thought of roughing it, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d stayed in a hostel, never mind a sweaty little tent in the middle of nowhere, sweltering in 40-plus degrees of heat. I got into my Land Rover feeling something close to dread. At least I’d brought a stash of wet wipes.

Yagga Yagga is only 75km south of Balgo, but it took us nearly half a day to get there. Drive slowly and carefully was the instruction, and for good reason. ‘Going bush’ means travelling on tracks pockmarked with potholes and soft sand. Get too close to the car in front and the clouds of red dust make it impossible to see anything. All around us were hummocks of spinifex, mottled patches of rice grass and clusters of baobab trees that leaned in on the track, scratching the sides of the car as we passed. And then there were the termite mounds, stretching as far as the eye could see, although to describe them as ‘mounds’ is to offend the construction skills of the termite. These are majestic termite cities, millions of towers rising to improbable heights, some with multiple columns so as to look like beautiful sculptures in mud.

When we finally reached Yagga Yagga, we encountered a ghost town, a small collection of abandoned single-storey houses that paint a haunting picture of social decay and the issues that plague remote Aboriginal communities. Yagga Yagga was a government attempt to settle local Aboriginal people, but it never worked and following the suicide of 16-year-old Calwyn Njamme in August 2002 – his lonely grave is still there, next to the playground – the rest of the community just walked out and left everything pretty much as it was.

The lonely grave of Calwyn Njamme at the edge of the ghost village of Yagga Yagga. 

The lonely grave of Calwyn Njamme at the edge of the ghost village of Yagga Yagga. 

It was a dramatic contrast to Balgo, where we visited the Warlayirti Artists’ cooperative, producer of some of Australia’s most significant indigenous art: one of its founder members was Susie Bootja Bootja Napaltjarri, whose work hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

By the time we reached camp on the first day, I was absolutely shattered. We’d driven nearly 11 hours and all I wanted to do was crawl into my swag and go to sleep. In the outback, though, ‘camp’ is anywhere you pitch a tent. There are no facilities out here; all you need is a patch of flat ground. But remoteness has its benefits, such as the night sky, a glittering dome of blinking stars and nebulae stretching from horizon to horizon. I was exhausted but this was a show I couldn’t miss. I wished I had even a basic knowledge of astronomy so that I could pick out a constellation or two, or that my phone had any kind of signal so that I could at least google what the Southern Cross looked like. I had to settle for just staring upwards for a while and trying to absorb the immensity of it all.

The next morning I was overtaken by more earthly concerns. I’d forgotten John’s warning to keep my shoes inside my tent at night. Instead, I picked them up carefully one by one and shook them out. Sure enough, out of my right boot came tumbling a scorpion that had taken shelter from the heat, presumably displeased at the disturbance. I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

At some point during the trip the four-wheel drive in my car just stopped engaging. So long as I was on flattish track it wasn’t an issue, but the real challenge came when we’d hit even a small sandy rise. My first attempt to negotiate a dune ended with my front tires buried halfway in the red sand. “The Irish guy is stuck,” I announced over the CB radio, “and I need help.”

Within a couple of minutes, Meike and Diana were out of their car to assess the situation. “Straighten your steering wheel,” Meike said, and then they started digging the sand out from behind the tires. I jumped down to help and after 10 minutes we’d more or less dug it out. “Do you mind if I do it?” asked Diana before climbing into my car and deftly reversing it out of the sand trap before accelerating hard through it. She cleared it easily. We drove on, another lesson learnt.

All around us was big sky and forever horizons daubed in brilliant blues and deep reds that never seem to wash out, no matter how high the sun was. Inside the car was a climate-controlled coolness that made everything comfortable, but once we stopped and got out we were reminded that all this beauty came at a price. Midday temperatures hovered around 45 degrees Celsius, but even this was tolerable compared to the flies. The outback has few people and, except for the odd herd of wild camels and kangaroos, even fewer big animals, but it has billions and billions of flies, and their preferred habitat appears to be the human face. Within second of opening the car door they were there, hundreds of them, flickering around my eyes, nose, ears and mouth. You could ignore them, or just keep flicking them away with your hand (a gesture known as ‘the Australian salute’). Or you could wear a fly net, as some of the group were doing. Nobody had told me about the flies so I’d shown up without one. I wrapped a t-shirt around my face and tried to avoid the outdoors as much as possible.

I was able to buy a net a couple of days later in Kiwirrkurra, a tiny settlement on the edge of the Gibson Desert, known for being Australia’s remotest community. We were greeted by Jimmy Brown, a village elder who is one of the original Pintubi Nine, the last Aboriginal nomads to make contact with white Australia. Until 1984 they lived as their ancestors had done for more than 30,000 years, walking between waterholes in the desert around Lake Mackay, a huge glistening salt lake of 4737 sq km that is Australia’s fourth-largest and easily one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever been to in my life.

Lake Mackay, a huge salt lake in the heart of the Outback that is sacred to the Aboriginals. 

Lake Mackay, a huge salt lake in the heart of the Outback that is sacred to the Aboriginals. 

Jimmy is a chatty, friendly man, but the town has a troubling presence. Perhaps it’s the shuttered petrol pumps, locked behind a metal cage to discourage petrol sniffers. Or the sight of visibly intoxicated figures, wraithlike and glassy-eyed, despite the insistence that this is a ‘dry’ community. The fate of Aboriginal people since the arrival of Europeans has been marked by tragedy, cruelty and abuse; not even the concerted efforts of successive governments can erase the stain. It’s a problem too complicated and overwhelming for casual visitors to properly understand, but one little incident inside the general store stayed with me. A middle-aged Aboriginal woman was trying to buy a chocolate bar but the white shop assistant grabbed it off her and pointed to the fridge. “Read the sign,” she said, in the tone you might use to address a bold child, “NO chocolate in the morning!” The woman shrugged and just walked out of the shop. I only found out afterwards that Aboriginal people had a major issue with diabetes, resulting from their exposure to a western diet of processed foods and sugar.

Jimmy Brown, one of the Pintubi Nine, the last Aboriginal group to contact white Australia

By the time we got to Uluru I was well used to roughing it. I didn’t even notice how dirty I was but I had become pretty adept at digging out stuck cars, changing tires and using the bush toilet. I could put up a tent in under three minutes and dismantle it even faster. And in an effort to really embrace the outback experience I’d even stopped using my fly net and becoming strangely indifferent to the flies around my mouth. Hardly surprising then that the hotel receptionist gave me a horrified look when I checked in to the Ayer’s Rock Resort – and where I promptly took the longest shower of my life.

Uluru is every bit as stunning as I’d imagined it to be. I did the standard dawn and dusk visits, looking for that perfect photograph to mount on my sitting room wall. I was leaving the next day, but as a final farewell to the outback I took to the skies for my first-ever sky dive. An exhilarating experience, but as I floated down to earth I tried to glimpse the road from whence I’d come knowing that I was at the end of one of the best adventures I’d ever been on.