Where does the Outback begin?
Before we set off for the Outback, I thought we might be there by the end of the first day, 750 kilometres west of Brisbane, in Charleville. As we drove the last leg of the Warrego Highway, however – the 190 kilometres from Mitchell – there were far too many tall trees. So, where does Bush become the Outback?
Charleville is a sizeable town, with a station, airport and several tourist attractions. I liked it a lot. The town might consider itself to be Outback, but it wasn't Outbacky enough for me. From there we headed south to Cunnamulla, west to Thargomindah, then more south, towards the New South Wales border. By now there were definitely landscapes, colours, vegetation and critters screaming 'Outback!' A narrow bitumen strip with gravel verges is Outback. And by now we were unquestionably back o' Bourke.
We stayed on an enormous cattle station* off the Thargo-Hungerford Road. It was so big we didn't see any cows; we showered in geothermal water pumped from hundreds of metres below ground; and the night sky was a star-gazer's dream. This was the Outback, no question.
Once in New South Wales, the road due west from Wanaaring to Tibooburra and the Corner Country felt very remote indeed. I don't remember passing another car in 200-odd kilometres. There may have been one, but in fact the road was almost certainly closed since we were heading into a massive storm that produced the hairiest hour of the entire trip. The dirt road was transformed into a skating rink after 10 or 15 minutes of heavy rain, and we were churning up mud that flew up and over the back of the car on to the windscreen.
We'd had our first Where does the Outback begin? discussion with locals by the end of day 3. We knew for sure by then that it is further west than Charleville! Red dirt says Outback; and acknowledging oncoming drivers who are few and far between; and having to be alert all day, not just at dawn and dusk, for wildlife leaping (roos) or striding (emus) into the road, or cattle just standing and staring in the middle of it, not to be moved; and long distances between towns, with more Black Kites or Little Corellas than people once you get there; and too many flies that appear the moment you take an apple out of the esky.
For many travellers, the Outback starts beyond a certain town, whether it be Longreach, Windorah, Dubbo, Broken Hill or Port Augusta (heading north in South Australia); or a river such as the Murray; or a road such as the Newell Highway or the Dowling Track.
Our furthest-west point should have been Cameron Corner – where South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland meet – but road closures scuppered that plan, and necessitated a quick getaway from Tibooburra at first light on the third day there in order to keep to schedule and reach Quilpie.
From a vantage point in the Sturt National Park we looked out towards the Strzelecki Desert, where I wanted to be headed. It was an ambition too far, however. I realised at this point that Outback should mean merciless sun: grey is kind of desolate.
Kangaroos were with us much of the way. One person's answer to the Outback question was that, to him, it meant live roos rather than dead ones. Fast straight sealed roads and road trains cause carnage. We'd been warned, but it's still awful to see dead animals in such numbers. The Outback means carrying a sharp knife or a shotgun, for finishing off those animals not fortunate enough to be killed instantly. We weren't up for that. I agonised, having passed a victim still moving, about whether there might be a joey still alive in a pouch. What could we possible do if we found one? Take it in the car to goodness knows where? Our short-wave radio had a range of less than 50 kilometres so we were unlikely to be able to contact an animal rescue service even if there was one. The Outback is harsh and grown-up and you have to become resilient. It is also extraordinary. Watching a feral tabby share roadkill with an eagle at least twice its size was something I won't forget.
Re-entering Queensland, we approached the Channel Country, a weird and wonderful paradox. The countless dry channels are shallow and almost ghostly. You can't help but wonder how they would look in the Wet, when the whole region becomes inundated... such that you can't drive around at all.
The Outback at this stage meant rivers with names made famous by weather reports as much as history: Cooper Creek**, Thomson and Barcoo. (Beyond the Barcoo is a hell of a lot more remote than back o' Bourke.) By Windorah there was a new ingredient: sand dunes! How I loved it out there. How quickly we had got used to few people and unfamiliar ways.
The Outback is driving long distances along the same road. From Wanaaring to Tibooburra is 228 kilometres and Google Maps estimate that it will take five hours and 37 minutes. If you ask for directions, there are only five instructions, and three of those are the same:
Wanaaring NSW Australia
1. Head southwest on Bourke-Hawker Gate South toward Nardoo Rd 131 km
2. Continue onto Cut Line15.8 km
3. Continue onto Bourke-Hawker Gate South 26.7 km
4. Turn right to stay on Bourke-Hawker Gate South 53.3 km
5. Turn right onto Silver City Hwy 600 m
Tibooburra NSW Australia
Huge stretches of the journey looked like this.
In fact, Google Maps – and they are not the only ones – are out of date. You can no longer take the Cut Line, which is a shame because it's a great name. The Bourke-Hawker Gate South road has been detoured via a track with no name. Perhaps it's to avoid the marshy country of the Bulloo River Overflow.
The interior of the Australian continent is sometimes referred to as the GAFA – the Great Australian F**k All. I couldn't disagree with this description more. There might be few settlements, and not much wildlife that you can see. But the landscape is ever-changing: the colour of the soil and its composition (stonier or not); the colour of the grass, the height of the shrubs and occasional tree. There are dry lakes and swamps, vermin-proof fences and gates, dry creeks and waterholes, bores and oil fields. The weather evolves across an enormous sky and sunset effects extend for at least 180-degrees.
The Outback is also a state of mind. Someone once said that your heart will tell you when you're in the Outback, and I think that may be true. For that, you'll need to be receptive, and excited rather than apprehensive. And pragmatic, a bit tough, well prepared and flexible, because not everything will go according to plan. Listen to the locals and heed their advice. Enjoy your own company but be prepared to chat in shop and pub bar. And worship in the temple of the natural world.
Bear in mind, however, that if a place in Australia is called Dead Horse Crossing, it almost certainly means a horse died there once. Either from heat exhaustion or drowning; hunger or thirst. Which probably means conditions are inhospitable a good deal of the time. You are not infallible. Check conditions before you leave, and respect warnings. Take provisions and spares with you.
I can't wait to go back. I want to drive the Birdsville Track; and the Min Min Way from Winton to Mount Isa. I'd look out for the Min Min lights, which glow mysteriously without known cause, and withdraw as you approach. No one has ever reached or identified them and returned to tell the tale. For the Outback is not without its myths. And I want to trek through the Strzelecki Desert to Innamincka and thence, hopefully, to Cameron Corner. And down the Silver City Highway to Broken Hill. And across to Lake Eyre – when it's full, natch – and stay in the Underground Motel at Coober Pedy…
I've felt drawn to the Outback ever since I first flew over the centre of Australia in 1995. Now I've been, it is calling me back. Of hundreds of photographs, this, probably more than any other, says Outback to me.
* Kilcowera Station is part of the Outback Beds network. You'll get a warm welcome and a great insight
** Cooper or Cooper's, take your pick
For details of individual stages of our Outback trip, see posts during June, July and August 2013
This post was last edited on 20 November 2016