Out and Back Again: an 11,000 Kilometre Road Trip
A road trip through Australia’s red centre
Photography by Ben Cirulis
“I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror
The wide brown land for me!”
– My Country, Dorothea Mackeller
Australia is a big country. Bigger than Europe. As big as the entire United States of America. 7,692,024 kilometres squared big, to be exact.
And yet with all this lovely space to explore, most of us cling to the coasts, spending our spare time at the beaches. The heart of Australia remains for the most part a vast wilderness, humans few and far between.
I moved here from New Zealand nearly nine years ago, and now call both countries home. But, like many lifelong Australians, I had never been into the Outback - Australia’s red centre.
Why not? I suppose there’s the sheer distance to cover; the poisonous creatures, the stories of death from exposure, the cheap overseas destinations that beckon.
But mainly, it’s that it’s always…there. You think – of course I’ll go, one day. Maybe next year. After all, it’s not going anywhere. So we decided: this year would be the year. After our outdoor wedding in New Zealand, our honeymoon would be a month-long outback road trip deep into my second homeland, to see the ‘real’ Australia.
The months melted away, as they always do. And suddenly it was time.
The van was packed; including essentials like 40 litres of water, extra fuel and fairy lights. The out of office email signature set. To Do lists checked and double checked. The vague jumble in my head of Uluru and kangaroos, dreamtime stories and desert was about to become reality.
Alice Springs sits in the centre of Arrernte country, aboriginal land. The Todd River snakes through the township, a dry riverbed filled with soft, powdery sand and crooked eucalyptus trees. We are in the outback now.
Within ten minutes I’ve seen more aboriginal faces than you’ll see in most parts of Sydney in ten years. Foot tracks are worn into the grass verges around town, walking is the preferred – or only – mode of transport for many.
Alice Springs is considered the art capital of Central Australia, and walking down Todd Street Mall, I can see why. It’s a jewelled strip of galleries, full to bursting with colours and culture. Each brushstroke speaks of a deep love for the land. Art is a meeting point for the aboriginal and white communities here, a chance to have a conversation.
Yet as we are soaking up the paintings, we can hear shouting in the distance and see a crowd of people gathered. It’s a media interview with Aboriginal community elders, following heartbreaking footage on Four Corners of aboriginal youths being abused in Northern Territory prisons. The anger and heartbreak is palpable.
Australia, we have a long way to go.
AN ANCIENT LAND
Desert nights are cold, but worth it for the starlight. We go to sleep with the milky way blazing overhead, and wake to a crystal coating of frost.
A cup of tea helps us defrost, air warming quickly as the sun moves through the sky.
The Larapinta trail traces its way through these West MacDonnell ranges, an arduous two to three week hike covering 223km and some spectacular views. Rather than take on the whole thing, we do a couple of day runs. The track is hard, jagged rock and completely exposed. I quickly learn to avoid the spinifex - these innocuous looking grass clumps are savagely sharp, piercing through clothing with ease.
As I gain height, the country unfolds around me. This is truly ancient land. Low rolling ridges are the nubs of mountain ranges, worn away over eons. My mind struggles to comprehend the sheer scale, both of age and size. We camp on a cliff edge at Redbank, surrounded by sky. Our campfire at dusk feeds a primal urge, red tongued flames holding back the night.
We park in a pretty spot beside the lazy Finke river. Golden valley plains stretch either side as we pedal our mountain bikes down the 4WD track. The corrugated, sandy surface is hard going, but we’re in no rush. Finally we cross into the National Park and the land changes, enormous rock formations rearing their heads. The earth is redder, the sky bluer…and the track even bumpier!
A handful of offroad vehicles signal we’ve arrived at Palm Valley – home to the world’s only Red Cabbage Palms. These prehistoric palms are the only living remnants of an ancient rainforest, from a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth. We make our way along the base of a huge red slab. Suddenly the path opens out into the gorge, and there it is – a Heathen Paradise.
We have stepped back in time millions of years, the very air itself stands still.
Palms soar and stoop and spiral in a cacophony of green. Thick emerald grass runs rampant, and a river lies dormant at their feet. Even the water itself is verdant green. Red cliffs provide sheltering arms, guarding this magical oasis.
The cliff top hosts a protected meadow, full of wildflowers and tiny jewelled birds. From here we can see into the hidden valley and beyond. The details seem to blur before my gaze. Some things are simply too much to take in clearly, it is only in the heart that they can remain.
LIFE ON THE ROAD
Exploring a big chunk of the continent means a lot of time in the car. From Alice Springs to Katherine is 1200km of straight, sunbaked road through the outback. But I’m finding that the ‘through’ matters as much as the ‘to’. A road trip is both journey and destination, all wrapped up into one.
I discover a Sturt’s Desert Rose growing on the roadside, a soft splash of pink against the sand. It reminds me that beauty can be found in the smallest of details, just as much as in the impressive landmarks. The Desert Rose is the floral emblem of the Northern Territory, a true Aussie battler in the toughest of conditions.
While at first glance the landscape looks bare of life, as the miles tick by we see lizards scuttling, birds of prey swooping for roadkill, and countless termite mounds standing guard, their silent armies hidden underground.
At sunset in the outback, the kangaroos come out to play. Which means it’s a good time to get off the road, sit back and enjoy the show. We settle in for the night in a small dirt clearing off the highway. Our days have fallen into a steady rhythm of winding down once dusk falls, and rising before the dawn.
Morning brings a soft pink land and womblike sky. As we drive the world seems to be holding its breath, watching a huge golden ball tremble on the edge of the horizon. Finally the sun plunges free. Day has arrived, the sky now a pale blue eternity.
WATER IS LIFE
Most of the time, I take water for granted. I just turn on a tap, and there it is. But here in the Northern Territory, water is life. Leilyn…Nitmiluk…Maguk…water sources are sacred places, the home of spirits. Refuges for plants, wildlife and Aboriginal peoples for thousands upon thousands of years, as they still are for travellers like us today.
In Kakadu National Park, most of the rivers have been claimed by over 10,000 saltwater crocodiles, promising salvation and damnation in the same cool breath. And all around lie endless plains, baking in the sun. Even the empty roads are thirsty here, shimmering with watery mirages in the distance.
At the end of another dry and dusty day driving, we climb up and up a rocky cliff path to the very top of Gunlom. A natural infinity pool melts into the horizon, the forest far below. I dive deep under the surface. Immersion feels so good. Emerging from the water, I am made anew.
This is a land of spirits and legends.
Generations have journeyed across these plains, year on year, to pay homage. Pitjantjatjara Anangu men and women hold ceremonies here in sacred places. What a sense of homecoming they must have had – and still will – returning each time to Uluru. We jump on our bicycles to explore the rock on two wheels, wending our way through the wildflowers around its massive ten kilometre base.
From photographs, I expected Uluru to be a smooth red oval rising out of empty sand. In reality, it is a huge, organic seeming entity, formed of curves and hollows and studded with caves. Colossal rock planes meet smooth connective ribs. Dripping, toothy mouths are set in rolls of stony flesh.
Water trickles down its flanks, sustaining a green oasis all around. Grasses sway and finches flutter from tree to tree. From its foot I look up, and up, and up, until finally the red rock gives way to bright blue sky, and I am filled with awe.
Come sunset, we set up a cosy spot at the viewing platform. We’ve been carrying a bottle of champagne with us for over 7,000 kilometres to find the perfect romantic honeymoon moment. And this is it: watching the sun set over Uluru, with a picnic made for two.
Slowly our trajectory angles back again, like a boomerang.
We finally leave the vast red plains of the outback behind, crossing the border into South Australia. We visit the underground town of Coober Pedy, marvel at Lake Hart’s ethereal salt flat, and camp a night beside the wild southern ocean. We find sunshine growing in country Victoria, yellow canola fields blazing amongst the patchwork green. We mountain bike in Melrose, and play in a snowstorm up Mt Buffalo.
The days grow shorter, the nights longer, and the air colder. I can see the landscape changing before my eyes, like magic. It’s hard to believe this can all be part of the same country. Plains to mountains, deserts to snow. Four seasons, in four weeks. All of it, Australia.
Hours slip away to the sound of tires humming. It’s a long way home. Until one night we see the lights of Sydney in the distance. A glowing beacon in the dark, signalling an end to our trip at last.
11,000 kilometres. One vast land. We’ve seen so much, our heads and hearts full of wilderness. And yet we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Luckily we can go back again…after all, it’s not going anywhere.
All photos © Ben Cirulis
This article first appeared in our Spring 2016 issue. Subscribe here.