To truly connect with Australia, hit the road and head into the outback. That’s what Catherine Marshall’s brood did and they saw the land they call home in a whole new light.
A deep sense of belonging settled on me the day we crouched inside our windblown tent and watched through the flaps as a pack of dingoes disappeared beyond the horizon. We were journeying across the Nullarbor Plain, making camp on the sometimes frigid, sometimes broiling earth that stretches out like a storybook between Sydney and Perth. An icy wind blew in from Antarctica, flattening the already-squat scrub that matted the landscape. Road trains rumbled past in the twilight. Caravans lined up like mules packed tight against the cold. Lights flickered in the windows of the nearby motel. I sat and watched, feeling thoroughly at home in this immense yet consoling emptiness.
Our family trip across the Nullarbor (and back) was one of many incursions we have made into the outback in the 14 years we’ve lived in Australia. As South African immigrants, our initial explorations had a sense of urgency to them: though our three children were young, we had limited time to build a new bank of memories, to imprint our tracks upon the country’s surface, to claim our own place in its history.
And we’ve somehow accomplished that in the intervening years: in infiltrating this wide brown land, we have allowed it to infiltrate our hearts. We’ve traced the network of roads that blooms like capillaries upon the map; journeyed through interiors devoid of life yet filled with a rich and ancient spirit; and conjured for ourselves a thousand new perspectives on the country that’s become our home.
For our three children, these adventures have encouraged a curiosity about the land we brought them to all those years ago. Australia, they’ve discovered, is so much more than the country in which we live: it’s a great big place filled with remarkable characters and legends and a culture older than most. In exploring the outback, our children have tasted this country’s essence.
There’s something about the primordial nature that speaks to those who venture deep into the outback. It’s at once hospitable and dangerous, beautiful and barren, remote and yet easier to reach than ever before. Most of all, it holds within its hard-baked landscape Australia’s earliest, most captivating history. This is the motherland at her most primal.
As a family holiday, the outback resonates particularly well, for those wide open spaces, that sense of adventure seem to draw parents and their children in close. When you enter the outback, you’re setting off on a voyage of discovery with your children as your expedition crew. Together you’ll see unfamiliar terrain, learn new things and come back all the closer for your shared experience.
My family has seen Uluru from the air and we’ve stared up at its summit from the ground, yet we still don’t feel that we have the true measure of this luminous monolith that beats like a prehistoric heart deep in the centre of Australia. Uluru, it seems, must be visited and revisited before its secrets are revealed.
Regular air connections put it within easy reach of travellers with limited time and a deep desire to connect with this most recognisable and sacred of outback sites. A hire car is essential for families flying to Uluru, as it gives you easy access to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Once you’ve checked in to your accommodation (Ayers Rock Resort offers everything from camping to luxury digs) and paid your park entrance fee, the region is yours to explore – within stipulated boundaries.
You could spend weeks here birdwatching, bushwalking, learning about Indigenous history at the Cultural Centre and watching the sun gilding Uluru and its voluptuous sister, Kata Tjuta, as it rises and sinks each day. But the first priority is to stop at one of the many viewing sites on the road to Uluru and snap a family photograph with the rock as your backdrop.
Next, schedule a full morning to circumnavigate Uluru. It’s an easy, flat 10.6-kilometre walk and suitable for energetic children (pack sunscreen, hats, snacks and plenty of water). We took our time, ducking into secretive caverns, resting beneath shady foliage and pressing our palms against the surface of this seemingly living object.
Tip: Respect the traditional owners’ request to not climb Uluru.
Don’t miss: Book the Tali Wiru dinner at Ayers Rock Resort, during which you’ll observe Uluru at sunset and read the night sky through Indigenous mythology. Bruce Munro’s Field of Light art installation is also on until March next year.
For more information visit ayersrockresort.com.au
Back o’ Bourke
Don’t ever assume there’s nothing out the back of Bourke. This pastoral town set beside the Darling River, 800 kilometres north-west of Sydney, is the gateway to NSW’s outback and the place that inspired poet Henry Lawson to declare: “If you know Bourke, you know Australia.”
Set the tone for your own odyssey by visiting the Back O’ Bourke Exhibition Centre, where the story of outback NSW comes to vivid life. There’s the fabled inland sea that explorers Burke and Wills had hoped to discover on their doomed 1860-61 expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria; the influential role of riverboats and wool farming; the pioneer women who shaped the region.
Then discover for yourself what really lies beyond Bourke: hit the 300-kilometre dirt road – navigable in a two-wheel drive in dry weather – that leads to Wilcannia, journeying through a glorious expanse of flatland where the crystalline air seems to shimmer on the horizon and the sun rises and sets in a symphony of garish colour.
En route you’ll pass 53,000-hectare Trilby Station, which holds a special appeal for me: it was here, beside the Darling River, that we camped on our very first outback adventure (the station also offers cottage accommodation).
Further along is the historic inland-port town of Wilcannia. Its historic buildings can be appreciated on a walk through the streets leading off the Barrier Highway. If you have time, continue on to one of NSW’s quintessential outback towns, White Cliffs, where you can immerse yourself in an opal-studded lunarscape with underground dwellings.
Tip: The Darling River’s water levels fluctuate dramatically but take along your fishing rod just in case the fish are biting.
Don’t miss: Modern-day “Bard of Bourke” Andrew Hull holds popular Poetry on a Plate (poetryonaplate.com.au) evenings at Kidman’s Camp, north of Bourke, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays between April and October.
For more information visit visitbourke.com.au
SEE ALSO: Cultural Secrets Around Australia
Across the Nullarbor
It takes so long to traverse the Nullarbor Plain that the journey becomes – by sheer necessity – the destination. And what a magnificent destination it is: undulating paddocks filled with spun-gold hay bales in South Australia’s wheat belt; limestone cliffs dropping sheer towards a brilliant cerulean sea all along the plain; those distinct yellow-and-black road signs periodically warning of camels, wombats and kangaroos. And the longest dead-straight stretch of road in Australia (also one of the longest in the world): the 146.6-kilometre section of unbending Eyre Highway that slices the landscape from Caiguna to Balladonia.
This part of the trip might just lull you if you don’t take care, though having a car-load of kids will help keep you alert. It was here that our three kept a record of all the roadkill they’d spotted, played I-spy until our ears hurt and listened to an endless rotation of Australian children’s books on CD.
But there are plenty of opportunities along the way to stop and stretch those legs. Spot southern right whales in the bight between May and October and pop into the cliff-side Head of Bight Visitors Centre for an illuminating insight into the marine reserve that fans out below it. Visit Balladonia, where fragments of America’s Skylab space station landed in 1979. Or walk through the world’s largest eucalyptus hardwood forest on Fraser Range Station near Norseman. Stay in the motley assortment of accommodation offered along the way – remote camp sites, outback roadhouses, cattle stations – and you’ll end up a true veteran of Australia’s legendary road trip.
Tip: If you have time, trace the shoreline of SA’s Eyre Peninsula and head south towards Esperance and along Western Australia’s coast after passing through Norseman.
Don’t miss: Port Augusta’s Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden, an oasis filled with desert blooms.
For more information visit australia.com
Carnarvon Gorge comes as a surprise, slashed as it is into a ragged expanse of Queensland’s Central Highlands. It’s a testament to everything that’s green and tropical and lush, a gorge system carved out of flat terrain like giant ant tunnels and filled with cabbage palms, liverworts, mossy gorges, cycads and ponds in which the elusive platypus lives. The sky is so clear here at night that, staring up at it as we returned from the camp-site bathrooms in the early hours one morning, my young daughter remarked that there were surely more stars in Queensland than anywhere else in the world.
Though located in a remote and underpopulated region about four hours south of Emerald, Carnarvon National Park – and the accommodation clustered around it (camp sites, cabins, a lodge) – thrums with visitor activity. So much is crowded into these canyons that you could spend a week exploring them. The 10-kilometre walking track that threads through the gorge diverges into caves, caverns and amphitheatres carved out by erosion. Within them you’ll find rocks patterned with ancient lichens, spotted gums speckled with luridly coloured mushrooms, sandstone cliffs that rise up sheer as walls and the sky nothing more than a thin blue sliver high above you. It’s like a biology field trip for children – and quite possibly their parents, too. ￼
Tip: Time and patience will improve your chances of spotting a platypus.
Don’t miss: The Indigenous stencils, paintings and sculptures (some believed to be up to 5000 years old) in a section of the gorge known as the Art Gallery.￼
For more information visit nprsr.qld.gov.au