I love the Outback. I really do.
Why would anybody ever think that the Outback was a boring place? From the outside and to the uninitiated this thought might come to mind. How can the Outback with its emptiness, remoteness and harsh climate be anything but a destination to avoid?
But I see the opportunity here for the Outback to be a place that is so different from what we are used to. Spending hours on an endless stretch of bitumen, surrounded by flat hard-soil country that is dotted with grey shrubs and rotting animal carcasses is an experience that anyone coming to Australia needs to experience, even if its just for a day or two.
After a couple of days circling the so-called Red Centre, starting from Alice Springs, visiting some of the most recognisable Australian tourist attractions, we take off one sunny winter morning on the Stuart Highway to travel up north. This stretch of outback highway is actually not too remote – it is connecting Adelaide with Darwin, so there are a number of travellers following this road to travel through almost all climates that Australia has on offer. There are also a number of frightening road trains on the way, delivering goods across state borders.
When I say it is not too remote then I do not want to imply that this highway is busy by any means. And it’s not exactly cluttered with tourist attractions. But let me tell you, you will find some gems along the way that are so unusual that they will definitely make their way into my personal book of Outback curiosities. Think aliens, quirky pubs, lonely gravesides.
We first stop at Aileron roadhouse, some 135km out of Alice Springs, to fill up the tank. We don’t have time to explore the place in detail, but one thing about this stop is striking: in the distance, on the hill behind the roadhouse you can see the enormous figure of “Big Man”, a sparsely clad aboriginal man inspecting the landscape with a spear in hand.
What a fantastic example of Australian roadside art – yes, we like it big here in downunder – and for some people it’s a sport to collect all of these oversized installations in their lifetime on film, for example the Big Banana, the Big Lobster and the Big Merino.
What I discover too late is that Big Man’s wife and children have been placed closer to the roadhouse, just a couple of steps away from us. They make for a great photo opportunity for sure. While I miss this great piece of Australian art, I am at least able to admire the installation of two humanised lizards, one of which wearing a bikini bra. Isn’t this something?
We drive on – next stop is the Red Centre Farm. Wait a minute…? Aren’t we in a desert? Yes, we are. And don’t think that the Red Centre Farm was one of a handful of farms that would make use of some miraculous fertile and lush piece of land in the middle of nowhere. This is not the case. The farm is in the middle of nothing, surrounded by baked dry soil, not a single water source in sight, no nearby village or facilities. It is the most curious sight to see rows of wine in this climate, and the plants clearly look exhausted and struggling in the heat. It’s not exactly the Barossa Valley here.
And there is more: not only is the farm producing wine but also mangoes. Now, that really is crazy.
We stop at the farm shop which doubles as a little supermarket, its only customers road travellers like us and the aboriginal population that lives here. The shop is stocking the farm’s preserved produce, so we have a closer look.
We buy a bottle of Red Centre wine. I doubt that it will taste good but the rarity will probably put some value to it. A nice souvenir to have and to keep for years to come. There is also a selection of mango chutneys to be had, but we opt for the mango ice-cream and the mango sorbet instead, since we are travelling with children after all!
Out of all the things in my life that I hope to see and experience I would have never thought that I would be able to buy ice-cream that was produced in the centre of Australia in one of the most remote places anyone could imagine, but here you go. On the other hand, during our visit we see the ‘for sale’ signs everywhere, so maybe this business model is not working out after all.
But that’s not all for today. We continue on the Stuart Highway to stop at the next roadside attraction, the Barrow Creek Hotel.
Established in 1932, this pub is today a treasure box of curiosities, apparently following the old tradition of travelling shearers who leave behind a valuable token to ensure they could pay for their drink next time they pass through. The publican is a nice fellow, he clearly enjoys the interaction with his patrons and visitors.
He’s used to international tourists, his first question being where we were from.
We explain that we had left Germany behind some 10 years ago, and he cheerily points out any German item that is decorating the walls of this pub. And there are many: drivers’ licenses, coins, bank notes, number plates, stickers, beer bottles, flags… and this is only stuff that German travellers left behind over the years! There’s photos, notes, postcards, graffiti, signs… the walls of this pub are like a museum. The coin the publican shows me is a German one alright, but it is one I hadn’t had in my hand for around 15 years – a Deutsch-Mark!
Next to the Barrow Creek Hotel with its friendly owner stands a collection of even older buildings – the old Barrow Creek telegraph station.
It’s a bit hard to imagine that back in the day this lonesome outpost in the middle of the Outback would make such a difference to thousands of people – without the telegraph line connecting Darwin with Adelaide, people in Australia would have to wait months to receive any news from Europe.
So you can imagine that the two, three people who manned this station as well as the other stations along the line were vital for the Australian progress. Looking at these old sandstone structures I am thinking about the kind of world changing news that must have travelled through this station – death notices of monarchs, the beginning of WWI, or the start of WWII.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to go inside the main building, but you can walk around it, and there are a number of signs which explain the background of the telegraph station which was only closed in the 1960s. Halfway between the house and the neighbouring pub two graves of station staff who were killed by native people.
It was a hard life back then, dangerous, and unforgiving.
The little hobby historian in me is impressed and thrilled by this quite unexpected find. Overall a great example of Outback history and a very vital piece of the puzzle that would make up the history of Australia as an independent nation later on.
Our last stop of the day turns out to be very different from the history and significance of Barrow Creek. We stop at a camp ground right off the Stuart Highway called Wycliffe Well. You really have to stop here even if you are not planning on staying for the night. Wycliffe Well’s claim to fame is the notion that it is the UFO capital of Australia. Yes, that’s right.
Apparently, a number of unidentified flying objects have been spotted here in the night sky. Why aliens would seek out this remote place with its arid climate is beyond me, but at least it makes for a good story and great photos. The petrol station in itself is a fantastic attraction with little aliens poking over the roof, adorning the walls, and parking their UFO right in front of the building. The kids love it!
We check in for the night. The camping ground is shady and friendly. Considering that we are not in a big city they do their best to keep the kids entertained: There are statues all around, of Elvis, the Hulk, and so on; there is a choo-choo train, cows, caged birds and emus, and from what we can see on the map, an undercover swimming pool.
The sun is low now, so we cook up a storm before I head out for a leisurely evening stroll in the warm red light of the setting sun.
Next to the camping ground there is the famous Wycliffe Lake which I want to explore. A lake?, you may say. Yes, a lake.
But when I get there I first think that this must be a prank. A tall sign explains proudly the cost and effort that went into creating the lake, it is man-made, and cautioning anyone who intends to swim in the lake to check with management first. After studying the sign for a minute I turn my head to inspect the lake, and… it’s gone!
Not a single drop in the hole, it is bone dry. If this is a joke, it must be a very elaborate and costly one, but I think the lake will hold some water some time during the year, just not now. A couple of steps further there is another hole, this one holding some shallow water, but the word “lake” really doesn’t quite describe it.
Night falls and the locals turn up at the petrol station. Like so many other places in the Outback it doubles as a supermarket of some sort. Aborigines gather in front, greeting their mates, revving the engines of their cars, honking. They make quite a spectacle, and to me it looks like some sort of ritual: Let’s meet at the only place that qualifies as a town square around here and exchange news about our days.
It’s all good we think. Yes, they are loud but it’s the silence of the desert that amplifies this impression.
After some time the noise on the other side of the fence gets louder. The honking becomes more frequent, and then longer. Cars leave, new cars arrive, with a velocity that comes with people that want to show off their impeccable driving and speeding skills.
The honking becomes more aggressive. It echoes across the desert, engulfs us with its nerve wrecking noise. Toot, tooot, toooooot.
We figure the petrol station has closed for the night, but the locals won’t accept that. They want the owners to leave their comfy sofas in front of the telly to open up the shop again and serve them chips, coke, or cup noodles, or whatever it is that they want to buy after sunset. Nothing happens. The honking continues.
It must be some form of strange outback ritual. The locals coming at night, strangely surprised that the shop is closed, then behaving like toddlers who want to annoy the hell out of the authoritative figure to get what they want, bending the rules. The honking continues. We travellers and campers try to ignore the commotion outside. The fence is there for a reason, we figure. It must be safe in here. They will probably leave eventually, peacefully.
After an hour the last car disappears on the horizon with a giant cloud of dust trailing behind. It is silent now, the Outback taking over again.
It is a different world out there, the crazy side of Australia. Aliens, frontier lives, collections of the most curious of things, the unexpected in a setting that betrays you with its uniformity and superficial boredom.
I love the Outback, I really do. What about you? Have a look out our dedicated Outback Travel Blog!