Don’t laugh. This sketchy map is pretty much how I viewed Australia until I came to live here. It’s defining features? The big red sandy bit in the middle and the country’s incredibly deadly wildlife – snakes, sharks, spiders, poisonous jellyfish and man-eating crocodiles. Its culture? Cricket and beaches. Beer and barbies. Crocodile Dundee and Kylie Minogue.
Of course, it is more, much more than that. Its vast, open spaces are mind expanding. Its wildlife is unique and diverse. Its indigenous culture ancient and mysterious. Its written history, short, brutal and at times full of despair. Turn off the beaten track and you begin to dig beneath the surface of modern Australia.
That’s why when we leave the green, pleasant land of Victoria and head north, we will steer inland, away from the major roads. We will visit monuments to early settlers, old woolsheds, opal fields and outback cattle yards. We will see the sobering effects of drought and enjoy the mateship of a country pub. We will cross rivers, some running, some dry, as we make our way slowly northward to the tropical wilderness where the deadly predators still roam.
Off the highway, we may begin to understand a culture that celebrates heroic failures more vigorously than stoic survivors. The tragic loss of the Gallipolli landings? Honoured as a defining national event. Bourke and Wills, the explorers who never came back? Recognised by a bronze statue in the centre of Melbourne and better known than any who lived to tell the tale.
Modern Australia is a country built by victory over extreme adversity. Off the beaten track, the human struggle to live on this harsh, parched continent is more apparent. Think back through history. The urban poor of the British Isles, transported as convicts to a far off land, lacked the most basic agricultural skills to scrape a living from the land. They almost starved. New settlers, seeking gold or escaping political discrimination were little better equipped. Tragedy was commonplace in the early days of modern Australia. But still they came, looking for a better life. Hoping to win against the odds.
Perhaps that’s why we celebrate the battler, the man or woman who will take risks and have a go, no matter the consequences.
Travelling inland we will hear their stories and see the land as they would have seen it. Away from the hubbub of 21st century coastal city life, if we listen carefully we may catch the melody of their songs on the wind.
There is much more to Australia than its travel brochure reputation suggests. Dig beneath the surface, leave the highway for a dirt track and discover another country.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” Martin Buber
On my bedside table I have three books. The three book covers hint at a common theme. Colour? Red, red and red.
I am preparing myself mentally for a journey into the “Big Red Bit” in the centre of Australia. I will not be alone, unlike the intrepid Robyn Davidson in “Tracks”, the book on the top of the pile. Robyn travelled across 1700 miles of Australian outback with only three camels and a dog for company. I admire her. Being somewhat less intrepid myself, I will have my husband Richard with me, and for most of the trip we will be with a group of friends and neighbours from in and around Deans Marsh in the West of Victoria. Robyn’s book has helped me with a few tips on how to break in a camel (could come in handy) and has conjured up something of what it is like to be in the red centre of Australia. It’s not possible to sum up this landscape in a few easy words, says Robyn. “It is difficult to describe Australian desert ranges as their beauty is not just visual. They have an awesome grandeur that can fill you with exaltation or dread, and usually a combination of both.” Wow! Awesome in the truest sense of that much maligned word.
The second book is Vic Widman’s “Travelling the Outback – the complete guide to planning and preparing for your outback adventure”. It’s a very practical source of information on anything and everything you need to do to prepare for a trip. The chapters on Camping Gear, Food & Water and Personal Needs have been particularly enlightening for me. “There is really no need to do without anything on your camping holiday”, says Vic before covering showering and toilet facilities when travelling. Important stuff indeed! Richard has spent somewhat more time leafing through the Preparing The Vehicle section. More about that in future posts.
The Simpson Desert is the most remote area we plan to visit and warrants a book to itself. Mark Shephard’s “The Simpson Desert – Natural History and Human Endeavour” is a real gem. This is THE book on the Simpson desert. It is full of gorgeous, evocative photography and a wealth of detail on the history and nature of this unique part of Australia. The dedication at the front of the book took me aback, it reads “To my son Matthew, who was fortunate to be able to experience the desert before he was one year old”. That must have been quite a family holiday!
I can’t compete (and don’t intend to) with the illustrious writers of these books, but in a small way this blog will add to the literature describing travels into the Big Red Bit in the centre of Australia. I hope it informs and entertains anyone who stumbles across it and is interested enough to spend some time reading here.
I liked the quote by Martin Buber that I’ve used as the title for this post. I hope you do too. It reminds me that no matter how well we plan for the journey, it will take on a life of its own and who knows what its secret destination may be.