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; F01

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.

"I think it was a bat," came the reply.

Yep, time to shut my eyes.

* * *

The Outback has an uncanny power to make you feel really, really small, in a sneaky sort of way. After driving for miles and miles (and hours and hours), you find yourself in a place that looks a lot like where you started: more red dirt and salt bush, reaching to the horizon in all directions.

The result is a shriek-inducing euphoria at the sight of nearly anything that deviates from that scenic norm. That was particularly true of the wild camels (yes, camels) that caused several spontaneous pit stops, each involving all 21 of us scrambling out of the minibus and over the prickly roadside brush for a picture as though it was the last thing we'd ever do. (Turns out that camels have been roaming inland Australia since explorers imported them in the mid-1800s. Far outnumbered the kangaroos we spotted, by my count.)

Apparently John McDouall Stuart, the first person to cross the continent from south to north as we were doing, experienced no such euphoria during his inland expeditions from 1858 to 1862, which took months and caused him "the greatest pain and agony that it is possible for a man to suffer," as he wrote in his journal. It took him six tries to make it all the way to Chambers Bay, just east of present-day Darwin. Our journey took nine days, in air-conditioned comfort, along the paved two-lane highway that bears Stuart's name.

Like many tourists, we'd been drawn to the route (which is, distance-wise, like going from Miami to Minneapolis) because of Uluru. The massive, 1,100-foot-high icon, also known as Ayers Rock, is the Outback's equivalent of England's Stonehenge or Sri Lanka's Sigiriya. Geologists say it's the remnant sandstone of an ancient shallow seabed. Which means that the harsh, lifeless central Australia of today was once covered in water.

When we arrived at Uluru's nearby campgrounds around lunchtime on Day 3, we were briefed on the debate surrounding whether or not to climb the massive rock. An estimated 100,000 people do so each year, even though the Anangu, the local Aboriginal people who manage the national park with Parks Australia, request that visitors refrain. Uluru is considered a sacred site and a seriously dangerous climb.

The warnings are spelled out in more detail in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park's Culture Centre, a glorious sanctuary of information on Aboriginal culture. Among the exhibits is a book of letters written by visitors who decided to climb Uluru or swiped a stone from the grounds as a souvenir. A quick flip through and you get the gist; the letters of apology claim that the climb was a curse, noting subsequent bad marriages, disease or deaths. With about 1,000 miles of Outback left to travel before reaching Darwin, I opted to keep karma on my side.

No matter your vantage point, though, the Rock is a slab of sheer awesomeness. From the six-mile track that runs around its base, you can view the fantastic designs of its curves and grooves in close detail. Farther away, the scene, most dramatic at sunset, is of a brilliantly red natural wonder in an otherwise flat expanse.

It was one morning at dawn, as I lay bundled in my swag on the campground lookout where we'd spent the night, watching the sun creep over the horizon, the darkness recede from the rusty land and the soft blue of the sky begin to frame the distant outline of Uluru, that it hit me that we were really here.

Sure, I had yet to sleep more than four uninterrupted hours on the trip, mostly because I was awakened by the cold when the campfire died out or by rocks that had somehow doubled in size overnight and grown right into my spine. But the comforts of a hotel could never compete out here. My dusty potato sack of a bedroll offered a panorama that was simply too spectacular.

For me, it was a new day, indeed.

* * *

The journey to Uluru was only Act 1 of our epic adventure; it would be another five days before we'd see the Timor Sea. Fortunately for our group, prone to bouts of stir-craziness from the extreme road mileage, the Northern Territory is chock-full of leg-stretching opportunities.

The domed, towering boulders of Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas, and the serrated crests of Kings Canyon, at the western end of the George Gill Range, offer hiking trails with breathtaking, never-ending views of the red, barren surrounds. The lush Garden of Eden, a valley of waterholes deep in Kings Canyon, is itself well worth the meandering up-and-down trail. Both ranges are easy drives from Uluru.

Once we were in Alice Springs, with Uluru nearly two days behind us, time was too scarce for sauntering. The desert town, boasting a population of nearly 30,000, is the closest thing to a metropolis that you'll find between Adelaide and Darwin; our stopover highlights included pub food, Internet access and a real mattress (not necessarily in that order of importance) before we switched tours the next morning.

The brief return to civilization was a needed pause for a good night's sleep, clean laundry and a call to Mom, but so much now seemed missing: the stars, the laughter around the campfire, the peacefulness. My 8-year-old self would shudder at the thought, but in a matter of days, I'd grown accustomed to -- dare I say, even liked -- it out there.

The next day, the second act of the trip started much like the first. "We've got a lot of driving," said Mike, our new tour guide, almost apologetically.

By that point, though, we fully understood that long stretches on the road and sporadic rest stops are part of the whole Outback experience. The outposts can be as eccentric and kitschy and alluring as the Las Vegas Strip, minus the flashing lights and crowds and any sign of Wayne Newton.

A little more than 200 miles north of Alice Springs we reached Wycliffe Well, the UFO capital of Australia. We stopped to refuel and browse around the holiday park's roadhouse, which is, quite appropriately, decorated in all things extraterrestrial: murals of aliens on the outdoor walls; newspaper clippings of UFO sightings on the interior walls; neon-green, life-size figures of the third kind next to the fuel pumps; even "maliens" and "femaliens" labels on the bathrooms.

"Oh, just wait until you see the back room," Mike had told us.

If camels roam the Outback, this could mean anything, right? A piece of a flying saucer? An alien corpse?

Try a giant toy gorilla on an Oriental-style canopy bed, next to a glass case filled with an international doll collection: action figures, china dolls, you name it. I'm still not sure what any of it has to do with UFOs, but that seems to be part of the Outback's charm: Sometimes it's daunting, sometimes it's incredible and sometimes it's just plain befuddling.

Outposts along the Stuart Highway are also a kind of ongoing time capsule, scattered with items left behind by previous sojourners. The Daly Waters Pub, nearly 400 miles south of Darwin, is one of the oldest and most popular spots for tacking a bank note, a flip-flop, even underwear, to the wall. We stopped there on our penultimate day for the usual touristy to-dos, taking photos showing Australia's most remote traffic light and buying "Where the hell is Daly Waters Pub?" bumper stickers.

Then we were in the home stretch, taking time to swim in the turquoise thermal springs of jungly, tropical Mataranka and under the refreshing cascade of Edith Falls near Katherine, before (finally) reaching the Darwin city limits and, like all good Australians, hitting the pub to celebrate.

As with most adventures, the mementos I cherish are in memory form: how the gigantic rock piles known as Devils Marbles cast shadows at sunrise, how Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" sounds when strummed by the campfire. But my most prized keepsake is my pair of sneakers. They're still caked in red dust, and I probably should have tossed them by now, but instead I keep them sitting outside my door. In case another journey should arise.

Maybe, say, with more camping?

No worries, mate.

Voelkel, a 2009 Rotary International ambassadorial scholar from Madison, Miss., is a graduate student at the University of Melbourne in Australia.

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