BY TARYN ADLER
Ten years later, I found myself tempted by another outback, only this time it was the outback, that indeterminate Australian land—somewhere far beyond the beach and past the bush – where the soil is red, the air dry and people few and far between.
Almost 90% of Australians live on the picture-perfect coastline. This is a country spanning roughly the size of America with only half the population of California, that leaves the middle of the continent virtually uninhabited. Legends pervade this vast, uncharted territory: undiscovered gold mines, Wolf Creek serial killers, skeletons of explorers past. It’s the Australia of Bill Bryson novels and Waltzing Matilda.
Like most tourists, I spent my first two months in the country on the roads more traveled: Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, and Cairns. I sauntered up the east coast bikini-clad and care-free, surfing, scuba diving, sun bathing. As I began feeling restless, straight out of The Secret, I received a call from my friend Barry over in Melbourne: “Taz, decided to head on out to Darwin for a bit—I’ll be driving up next week, you keen to make a ripper of a road trip?” he drawled with a thick Aussie twang.
The distance from Melbourne to Darwin is around 2,000 miles, approximately a 45 hour drive from one end of the country to the other, right on through the outback. Obviously, I was keen. One week later, I tossed my bag into Barry’s ute (utility vehicle in America) and off, or rather in, we went.
The first stop was Uluru/Ayers Rock, the quintessential outback experience, significant in its stature (1,142 feet high by 5.8 miles wide,) as much as its spiritual value. For many aboriginal tribes, it’s the literal cornerstone of creation. “Imagine pre-civilization encountering this monolith in the middle of a completely flat desert,” our tour guide nostalgized. And I did. I circled it, predatorily, admiring caves, rock paintings and its chameleon red hue.
As the rock basked in the sunset’s searing rays, I headed for the Sounds of Silence dinner, a tourist institution in these parts. The meal was al fresco, under the stars in the middle of the desert, where I devoured the crisp air and authentic delicacies like barramundi and crocodile. The deep sound of the didgeridoo accompanied free-flowing wine and a lecture on stars and planets, which ended with a group of us tipsily clamoring to peer through a telescope at Saturn. It also glowed red.
Early the following morning, we climbed the canyons at Kata Tjuta and strolled the Valley of the Winds before continuing north, hopped up on iced coffees and The Black Keys. Much to his feigned dismay, I made Barry stop everywhere along the way: A kitschy pink panther-themed trailer park, a marked UFO sighting and a farm stand selling mango ice cream, which we relished in an expansive orchard. In the middle of nowhere, I expected little more than a bright and cloyingly sweet concoction in a cone; what we were actually served is a scoop of artisanal vanilla bean ice cream swirled with fresh mango chunks and it was quite possibly the best ice cream down under.
Other stops included the Devil’s Marbles, thermal pools and a crocodile farm (guess who insisted?); for as many places as we detoured, we spent countless hours on Stuart Highway, not passing so much as another car or gas station. We sped along, breaking periodically for kangaroos, feral dogs and in one instance, a wild camel. Through sunrises and sunsets, past Alice Springs and Katherine and Tenant Creek, I bought and sought indigenous stories, historical facts and aboriginal artwork. And while it may not have Bloomin’ Onions, or bloomin’ anything for that matter, the Outback’s stark beauty and rich history make it the true heart of the country and a ripper of a road trip.