The Outback of Australia is one of those great feats of nature that astounds anyone lucky enough to experience it firsthand. Like the Himalayas and the great rainforests of the world, the Australian Outback abounds in myth and legend, yet few people, including many non-indigenous Australians, know the true specifics of the ancient red-earthed island.
But thatâ€™s about to change, as we present 20 fact-filled curiosities of the Australian Outback in all its dazzlingly diverse colours!
It seems fitting to start with the most well-known symbol of the Outback â€“ Uluru, or Ayers Rock. Lying 335 km outside the small central town of Alice Springs, the giant red monolith stands 348 m high and is 9.3 km in circumference. As the sun rises and sets, the reflection casts different light upon the sandstone making it appear as if it is changing colour. Its appearance also varies according to the time of year.
The vast World Heritage Site is sacred site to the local Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal people, who have campaigned for many years to ban walking on the great red rock as the path crosses a sacred traditional Dreamtime track. It is also being eroded from overtourism, so under a new 2009 government proposal, walking Uluru may no longer be something you can tick off your travel wishlist.
2. Dry Land
Much of the Outback is dry, arid land which canâ€™t sustain much plant life. Some is semi-arid and tends to be used for cattle stations like this, though; the grass here has mostly dried out, leaving the cows to forage for whatever plants they can find to eat – an unfortunate regular occurrence in a drought-ridden continent. A bleak, yet beautiful landscape.
3. Derelict House
Image: Zonifer Lloyd
Early pioneers built settlements across Australia. Some thrived. Some didnâ€™t. Many were abandoned for various reasons â€“ lack of irrigation or simply the inability to make a living off of the land. As a result there are abandoned settlements like this one scattered across the great Outback.
If you are into abandoned structures, the Outback isn’t such a bad place to be: there are also many wholly abandoned towns around deserted mining operations in areas where the railway service was cut.
4. Abandoned Railcar
The railway was crucial for opening up Australia and transporting goods interstate. However, just as was the case in other vast nations, such as America or Canada, it was not financially viable to run. As a result, lines were closed, services stopped and towns were cut off from receiving goods by rail. But not all is lost because in 2004 the much anticipated 1420 km long Alice Springs to Darwin freight railway opened, which may see the start of many new mining ventures of this age.
Foot passengers have been able to travel the great distances between Adelaide and Darwin for many years via one of Australiaâ€™s treasures â€“ The Ghan. Celebrating its 80th year of service, The Ghan is one of the most spectacular ways to visit the central plains of Australia. It takes just two nights to travel the 2979 kilometres, and leaves twice weekly. At $1286 for the sleeper service return from Adelaide to Darwin, itâ€™s not cheap, but definitely worth it.
Synonymous with Australia, the Major Mitchell Cockatoo is found in the arid and semi-arid inland areas of Australia. With its pink and white feathers and striking bright yellow and red crest, it is widely regarded as the most beautiful of the cockatoos. The distinctive plaintive yodelling cry is unique only to the Major Mitchell Cockatoo and the true white cockatoos, as is the large crest and rounded wing shape.
The bird was named after Major Sir Thomas Mitchell, surveyor and explorer, who wrote, “few birds more enliven the monotonous hues of the Australian forest than this beautiful species whose pink-coloured wings and flowing crest might have embellished the air of a more voluptuous region.”
The Bottlebrush, or Callistemon, is a native Australian plant that looks uncannily like, well, a bottlebrush. They normally flower in the spring or early summer, embellishing their environs with a stunning display of sheer unadulterated colour. The Bottlebruch is one of over 12,000 varieties of wildflowers found across the Aussie Outback, many of which are found nowhere else in the world.
7. Red Earth
The red soil of Australia is truly a sight to behold, especially when the sun hits it, creating a fiery glow. An abundance of iron ore gives the soil its vibrant red colour but also, unfortunately, make it less suitable for cultivation. Coupled with a distinct lack of moisture across the continent, it means that much of the Outback remains a dry, barren dustbowl.
8. Indigenous Australians
The Aboriginal Australians, the original inhabitants of the country, today represent only about 3 percent of the population of modern Australia, but as the indigenous peoples they hold a special place in society.
Divided into clans, or groups (the word tribe is often used incorrectly â€“ Australian Aborigines are a race) their culture is diverse, though they share the Australian Aboriginal myth of creation â€“ Dreamtime, or The Dreaming. Some 500 languages belonging to 31 language groups are spoken, and before colonization there were thought to be over 600 different clans across the continent; now the number is much less.
This man, from the Maningrida group, sells his didgeridoos and his artwork in the outback.
In Australia, cowboys are known as stockmen or drovers, while trainees are referred to as jackaroos or jillaroos. They work on large cattle ranches, or stations, herding up cattle. It is now not uncommon for women to work as drovers, although historically it was a very male-orientated environment.
In the Outback, cattle stations might exceed 10,000 square kilometres with over 10,000 cattle, so it is essential to have stockmen to round up the herd and keep them from wandering off the station. Fables of the stockman have long been a source of song in the Outback.
The kangaroo, which run wild in the Outback, have become an instantly recognisable international symbol for Australia, and a fascination for all who visit. It even appears on the Australian Coat of Arms.
A large male Roo can stand around two metres tall and weigh up to 90 kg. Their powerful back legs and large feet make them well suited to jumping, which they use as a means of locomotion. They can travel at a comfortable 20-25 km/hr and can go up to 70 km/hr for short distances.
Though an indigenous, endangered species, kangaroo are often viewed as pests in Australia as they can devour massive areas of grassland and crops within a very short time.
Believe it or not, there are more wild camels in the Outback than anywhere else on earth â€“ an estimated 1 million roam freely, and are quickly becoming a nuisance. Introduced in the 19th century by explorers, most of the feral population are of the one-hump variety, though a small number of two-humped camels can also be found. They were originally used for travel and work but by the 1920s, with the introduction of the motorcar, they were surplus to needs and so were released into the wild where their number doubles every nine years.
With the lowest average annual precipitation in all of Australia, the Outback is bone dry. And with so little moisture, there are also very few clouds to obscure the sun. As a result, there are spectacular sunrises for those who are up early enough to catch them.
As the sun descends behind the horizon it illuminates the day left behind in a deep red. This particular cloudy sky catches the final rays of the sunâ€™s light turning them a pinky/orange hue. The few trees that can survive the hostile climate and harsh landscape are cast in deep shadow against the dying light.
14. Water Tower
This old water tower is in Broad Arrow, in the Outback. Once a gold rush town with a thriving economy, there are now only 11 residents left, a tavern, and this water tower, which has been refurbished with a plastic liner so it can still function as a water supply. Due to the exceptionally dry climate, any precipitation is trapped for future use. As you would assume, droughts are not unheard of and water is used judiciously.
15. Road Train
Image: The Rocketeer
If you’ve never heard of them before, road trains are simply several carriages pulled by one truck. They are used to transport goods across the great distances of the Outback with some hauling up to 200 tonnes of freight, though the majority are between 80 to 120 tonnes.
Whether it may be coast to coast or to and from extremely remote communities, these workhorses transport all kinds of goods, including cattle, fuel, mineral ores and consumer goods. Coupling up several trailers has proved to be a cost-efficient way of transporting goods, especially to the most remote areas.
16. The Open Road
The Outback demands journeys. Great distances are travelled for everyday things that city slickers take for granted, like shopping, medical attention or even basic social interaction. Out here you have to hit the highway and see where it takes you.
17. Devils Marbles
Image: Iain Whyte
The Devils Marbles are a collection of large, round, red-coloured boulders, found in the Northern Territory. They are made up of granite rocks of volcanic origin which have eroded over time into their current formations. Some of these magnificent boulders are as much as seven metres in diameter. They also feature in the Dreaming, where they were the eggs laid by the Rainbow Serpent. Aboriginals refer to the spot as Karlukarlu.
18. Aboriginal Rock Art
Australian Aboriginal rock art is thought to be tens of thousands years old. There have been some finds in the Olary region of South Australia that date back some 40,000 years. The rock art generally depicts everyday Aboriginal life as it once was. Examples include carving, as above, but there are also numerous paintings of animals, symbols and significant characteristics of Aboriginal life. These particular images are thought to be stars.
19. Navigating by Starlight
Image: Two Big Paws
The Outback provides one of the clearest views of the heavens above. A combination of low humidity and minimal interference from ambient electric light allow for perfectly clear views of the stars – the sort that most urban stargazers can only dream of! Out here itâ€™s possible to turly grasp the enormity of the heavens as they open up and surround you for as far as the eye can see.
Image: Georgie Sharp
A whopping 90% of Australiaâ€™s 22 million residents live in the coastal city areas. This leaves just 10% scattered across the vast geographic area which is Australia. As a result the Outback is sparsely populated, at best. Many of the Aboriginal communities still live there, as that is where they originate from. As for the non-Aboriginal inhabitants, some were drawn to work in mines, some on the cattle and sheep stations, and some to escape humanity. It creates a hotbed of stories, myths and legends of the characters that make this bleakly beautiful land their homes.