Stark red earth, the dry gray-green of stunted plants, kangaroos and unending flat, disorienting planes; I doubt I am alone in these images of the Outback, culled from postcards, films and friends’ Facebook albums. But after a year of record rains, this is a land transformed. Blanked in thorny shrubs, frosty salt brush, and leafy trees, it is the greenest the land has been in recorded memory.
Seeing the Outback now is quite literally a once in a lifetime experience.
We stop for coffee at an endearingly kitch café which entreats us to ‘comonananavacoffee.’ The shop next door is for sale, its for-sale advertisement praising the town’s active bowls club, several churches, easy access to kangaroo culls and country fairs. I imagine writing a similar advertisement for Marree’s general store, promising prospective buyers cold pints in a pub for hard drinking shearers, an old bush mosque made of wattle and daub, a large wooden camel, a yacht club 200 km from the nearest lake, a large sign warning drivers of dangerous and impassable roads, and apparently more small aircraft than inhabitants. With no possibility of an evening boat ride, we take to the skies for a two-hour flight over breathtaking landscapes.
The old cliché of the earth looking like a patchwork quilt has no place here. The land is broad strips of dusty red, cut through with old roads, mottled swatches of green, the 5614km dog-proof fence built to keep out the dingos. The lake, an hour’s flight from Marree’s yacht club, is startling. A sudden deep blue in the red earth, surrounded by billabongs and the bleached ghosts of dead trees. In the late afternoon light, hundreds of birds come into nest. Even in the wettest year on record, the earth is visible beneath the water.
We fly on over Eyre, a salt lake roughly times the size of London. The unusual weather has brought out a bloom of cyanobacteria. The lake, all 9,500km2 of it, is a dusky rose. Even from above it is impossible to take in the whole lake at once; the white salt gradually rising from the pink, the peninsula where the land speed record was broken in 1964, the sheer scope of it. With an ever-changing landscape, it is an experience that can never be repeated, nor missed.
We detour through the Flinders Ranges. The landscape changes without pause or warning. Suddenly we are surrounded by tall trees and delicate alpine flowers, we cross deep streams and descend steep mountain bends. Without the red earth to camouflage it, our first kangaroo forages in the meadows, soon another darts across the road.
More of the now ubiquitous emus scatter as we approached, all feathers, legs and confusion. But in the town of Blinman, at 614 meters above sea-level the highest in South Australia, we spy our most incoungious find. Shaggy haired camels, legacy of the Afghan cameleers, graze on the mountainsides.
In total, we travel over 3000km in four days often on unsealed roads. This is not the well-worn tourist trail: we see more emus than people. At times, it’s 200kms to the nearest hotel but we chose to sleep in the ruins of settlers cottages.
Starting in the late 1800’s, it took twenty years to survey each twenty kilometers. The distances between the cottages must have been insurmountable in the height of summer.
Even today it remains an adventure, a green Outback that most likely won’t be seen again in my lifetime.
When I return, it will be to an entirely different world.
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