Campers in Australia's Outback can explore the continent from south to north

By Megan Voelkel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 28, 2010

There was a pretty good chance that I'd cry. After all, most of my outdoorsy ambitions had come to an end when I was 8 years old, at an overnight Girl Scout camp in Brandon, Miss. Bee sting. Horseflies. Vow never to endure again.

Yet now, at 24, here I was on a nearly 2,000-mile camping trip across the Australian Outback, the vast "Never Never" that foiled countless explorers and made the 2005 Aussie horror flick "Wolf Creek" (think serial killer plus backpackers plus complete remoteness) so terrifying.

Reactions from relatives and friends to news of my continent-spanning road trip, from Adelaide to Darwin, from campground to campground, had been unanimously faithless: "You? Sleeping outside? Aren't there snakes?"

Yes, yes and yes.

But it's Australia, I explained. Visiting without experiencing some sort of adventure is like visiting without seeing a kangaroo. (Of course, some might say that just setting foot in Oz is adventurous enough: The country does have a remarkable number of lethal critters.)

We were two days out of Adelaide, officially in the middle of nowhere, with only two lanes of asphalt, acres of squatty, scrubby bush and a whole lot of red dirt to distract us. Our tour guide, John-Paul, stopped the bus and instructed us to gather some of the dry growth nearby for a fire. We'd be spending the night here, along the side of the road.

We'd long ago realized that we weren't in Kansas anymore; the previous night we'd slept in the underground bunks of the world's opal capital, Coober Pedy, in South Australia. Most of the mining town is underground because of the blistering heat, which has left the terrain a flat, treeless, Marslike expanse of ocher dust.

But here there was no cellphone reception, no bathroom, no reminder of the outside world, except for the occasional three-trailer big rig, known in these parts as a road train, roaring by.

I was on a guided camping tour with four friends (two other Americans, one from Spain and one from Japan, whom I'd met through the Rotary International ambassadorial scholarship program that had sent me and three of the others down under) and 16 other travelers from nearly a dozen countries. It was the first of two tours providing transportation, equipment and food as we crossed the continent. The first was taking us from Adelaide to Alice Springs, a distance of 950 miles; the second would cover the 930 miles from Alice Springs to Darwin. Along the way, we'd devote a couple of days to seeing Uluru, one of the most famous rocks on the planet and smack-dab in Australia's godforsaken center.

To really bush-camp, you sleep in a swag, a roll-out waterproof canvas that slides over a sleeping bag and opens at the top for an unobstructed view of the night sky. And in Australia, that means an ongoing overhead light show. We're talking hundreds, maybe thousands, of stars, with nothing but the glow of the campfire to challenge their brightness. The Southern Cross, the kite-shaped constellation found on the Australian flag, was easy to spot. There was the dust of the Milky Way. There were shooting stars.

And as I lay watching them, sure enough, there came the waterworks. Just not quite the kind of tears I had anticipated.

Then something dark flew across the sky, letting out a sound between a chirp and a screech. A few gasps came from the swags scattered around the fire. "Uh, what was that?!" a brave soul asked.

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