The Outback of Australia is more of a colloquial term than a geographical area. It refers to the vast, remote, arid interior of Australia. It is also known as the “Never-Never”, the “Back of Beyond”, and the “Back o’Burke.” The open spaces in the Outback seem to stretch on forever and reflect Australia’s pioneering spirit and identity. You can find a little bit of the Outback in every state of Australia.
Arid and semi-arid desert lands make up 70 per cent of mainland Australia. There are ten major Australian deserts. A large proportion of this land is held by Aboriginal people through various property acts. About half the population lives in five regional service and mining centres such as Kalgoorlie, Alice Springs, Mount Isa, and Broken Hill – each with a population ranging from 10,000 to 30,000. Interestingly, 90% of the Australian population live in urban areas on the coastal fringes. The Outback is therefore mostly uninhabited.
Due to the low humidity and the lack of light pollution, the Outback is one of the best places in the world for stargazing. It is a fact that astronomers can enjoy uninterrupted views of constellations, planets, and up to over 5,000 stars.
From challenging four wheel drive adventures to sprawling cattle stations of more than a million hectares, and from rugged mountain ranges and spectacular gorges to the longest stretch of straight railway track in the world, the Outback really does symbolize the essence of Australia.
However, it would be very wrong to assume there is nothing to see or do as a visitor on your Australia vacation.
The Aboriginal Significance in the Outback
The Aboriginal people of Australia have a rich, living culture stretching back at least 50,000 years, making it one of the oldest cultures on earth. There is much evidence of this in the Outback. Steeped in Aboriginal history are the Northern Territory, the Red Centre, and South Australia.
Being hunter-gatherers, the Aboriginals felt at one with nature. They believed that they belonged to their land or their country. This included sacred sites and ancestral grounds. Ancient rock art illustrates their dreamtime culture and is visible today at many sites in the Outback. The Outback is the only place where Australian Aborigines still live in a completely traditional way.
(Wild) Life in the Outback
There is an extraordinary biodiversity of plants and animals. The outback is home to a significant number of rare fauna and flora species and is the habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered species. This includes 1800 types of plants, including the ubiquitous spinifex, which dominates the desert areas. There are over 605 vertebrate animals including wild camels, red kangaroos, desert dingoes, the Thorny Devil lizard, monitor lizards, and the bearded dragon lizard.
Important Outback Destinations
There are many places in the Australian Outback that will not fail to enthrall the visitor. However, in the interests of space, here are a few recommended visits, listed by state.
The Red Centre is, without doubt, the best known destination in the Outback. Using Alice Springs as a starting point, you can head to the renowned Ayers Rock, also known by its Aboriginal name, Uluru. It is basically a very large piece of rock situated in the desert; a monolith of red sandstone rising out of the flat landscape. To the indigenous Aboriginal people, it is a very sacred place. To walk around the circumference is approximately 10 kilometres/6 miles and takes around 3.5 hours. One special feature is that it changes colour depending on the time of year and time of day. Sunrise and sunset are particularly magical times to view Ayers Rock, when its terracotta hue morphs into a violet/blue tinge.
The Olgas, 55 kilometres/34 miles away, are a group of large, ancient rock formations and are located in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. They consist of 36 domes spread over an area of more than 20 square miles and are believed to be around 500 million years old. Once again, like Ayers Rock, The Olgas are sacred to the local Aboriginals.
Approximately midway between Alice Springs and Ayers Rock, Kings Canyon is a formation of tall red rock faces that soar above dense palm forests, and is a refuge for more than 600 species of native plants and animals, many unique to the area.
Kakadu National Park
Not far from Darwin, Kakadu is one of the best places in the country to see some well preserved rock art. It also has a number of bush-walking trails, plus an expansive area of wetlands teeming with birdlife and even the odd crocodile.
Kalgoorlie is Australia’s largest Outback city. It was established during the 1880s gold rush when thousands of prospectors arrived here to seek their fortunes. Today there remains one of the world’s largest open cut mines called the Super Pit. You can also enjoy stories of the gold rush days and view interesting colonial architecture.
Bungle Bungles Ranges
Looking like giant beehives protruding from the landscape, the Bungle Bungle Ranges is not only unique, but is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the Aboriginal people have lived here for at least 20,000 years, the colourful striped sandstone domes were surprisingly kept a secret from the outside world until 1983. Featuring orange, black, and gray stripes, and possibly some of the most amazing formations in the world, visitors can take in the full spectacle of these on a scenic flight from Kununurra, Broome, or Halls Head, or an open-door helicopter flight from within Purnululu National Park.
The northernmost region of Western Australia is called the Kimberley. It’s a spectacular region and is special because it’s one of the world’s last great wilderness areas – covering an area large enough in which to fit the UK. Highlights of the Kimberley include magnificent wilderness scenery, rare fauna and flora, and a rich and colourful history. There are several historical reminders in Broome of the importance of Australia’s pearl industry. The renowned Cable Beach in Broome, from which you can admire the sunset while riding camels, is indeed an attractive place with historical significance. However, the main reason to come to the Kimberley is to enjoy the surrounding wilderness. Drive only a few kilometres on an unsealed track and you can quickly feel the immensity of the region. You can also observe wild birds by the thousands.
The lunar-like Pinnacles form one of Australia’s most unique and fascinating natural landscapes. Formed over millions of years, thousands of tall limestone spires rise right out of the yellow desert sands of Nambung National Park, just outside the coastal town of Cervantes. The Pinnacles were formed from erosion by the wind and rain, and stand up to 3.5 metres/5 feet tall in various shapes – jagged, rounded, sharp edged, and combinations of these. There are literally thousands of them on view.
The Flinders Ranges, in the Flinders Ranges National Park, are the largest mountain range in South Australia, located about 200 kilometres/125 miles north of Adelaide. The ranges stretch for over 430 kilometres/265 miles. The first humans to inhabit the Flinders Ranges were the Adnyamathanha people (meaning “hill people” or “rock people”), whose descendants still reside in the area. Cave paintings, rock engravings, and other artifacts indicate that the Adnyamathana people have lived here for tens of thousands of years.
Two Most Relaxing Ways to Cover the Outback
Consider travelling from Australia’s south to north on your choice of two of the world’s greatest train journeys. You can board The Ghan train in Adelaide and travel through South Australia’s rolling green hills, which then make way for the desert. Later, enter the Red Centre and finally arrive in the tropical north in Darwin. You can also take the train journey in reverse. En route, you can stop over in the Outback town of Alice Springs and pick up the next Ghan train, or fly on to your next destination if time is limited. Another suggestion is the Indian Pacific Railway journey which travels between Sydney and Perth, passing through the amazing Blue Mountains, the desert frontier town of Broken Hill, Adelaide, the stark Nullabor Plain, and Kalgoorlie.
For Your Reading Pleasure…
One of the most fascinating and graphic books bringing the Outback to life is called Tracks by Robyn Davidson, a woman who totally on her own, crossed the desert on foot between Alice Springs and the coastline of Western Australia, accompanied only by two camels. Her journey made international headlines and parts were photographed for National Geographic magazine before her story was published in 1980. A movie was recently released by the same name.
The well known travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, got to the heart of Aboriginal existence in his book, part fiction and part non-fiction, Songlines, published in 1987. It provides insights into Outback culture as well as Aboriginal culture.
Let’s conclude this article on the Outback with a befitting poem:
The Outback – by Leighton B. Watts
There’s a place where daily hardships are the making of a man
Where learning skills come less from books than a knowledge of the land
Where a rough and kindred mateship can be built on work and trust
And a fair day’s work reaps just rewards for a fair day’s work’s a must
Where an unforgiving landscape boasts extremes of flood and drought
And a sheep walks miles ‘tween blades of grass or it has to go without
Where the pestilence of rabbit, fox and feral takes its toll
And the red hills rust with iron ore and the valleys seam with coal
Where gold and light-rich opal can be wrested from the earth
And a man can find a solitude to test his very worth
Where a woman’s sense of humour is a valued prize and dear
For a woman holds the heart of man when it’s more than he can bear
Where a team is all that matters when the river’s running rife
And a single strand of radio can be all there is to life
Where age is often listened to for experiences gained
And helping out a neighbour is an ethos much maintained.
It’s a place they call The Outback and we’re never far apart
For The Outback’s not a place at all it’s the beating of my heart.
© L.B. Watts