Photos Tourism Australia
By Dominick A. Merle
We had to slow to a stop while a python ambled across the road. But that’s getting a little ahead of the story, although I swear it was as big around as a fire hose. “We give way to animals out here,” said my driver, Katie, a Nicole Kidman look-a-like.
The journey began a few days earlier when we left the coast of Queensland and headed into the legendary Australian Outback, or “The Bush” as the locals call it. If that weren’t exotic enough, our drive would be practically astride the imaginary line of the Tropic of Capricorn. Likewise, the Outback has no set boundaries, no beginnings and no end.
“There are no welcome signs,” said Katie, “but you know when you’re here.” There is also no agreement as to the size of the Outback, but it occupies practically the entire interior of the country, and Australia is almost as big as the U.S. or Canada. When is the last time you had to yield to a python in Chicago or Montreal?
After arriving in Brisbane, the modern capital of Queensland, we “prepped” for our Outback adventure at nearby Lone Pine, the world’s first koala sanctuary. There we were able to hold the cuddly koalas in our arms and feed kangaroos, emus and wild lorikeets.
The next day, we stepped up the pace with a 75-minute boat ride to Tangalooma Island Resort where our itinerary included tobogganing down sand hills at speeds of 40 kph on thin masonite boards, and the showstopper – hand feeding wild dolphins at dusk. Each evening a group of dolphins swim to the beach and are fed fresh fish by the staff and guests. We waded hip-deep into the water, a fish in each hand, and the dolphins arrived and gently took the fish from our hands underwater, sometimes brushing their huge bodies against us as they swam off.
At sunrise, we drove up the coast to the Town of 1770 (Seventeen Seventy), a resort area named after the year explorer Captain Cook first landed in Queensland. Seventeen Seventy and its companion town, Agnes Water, are also the southernmost gateways to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, and we took a one-day cruise to the Reef the following morning. The skies were cloudy and the waters choppy, but once we began snorkeling the dazzling colours of the corals and sea creatures burst into view. Glass bottom boat rides and a walking tour of a nearby island rounded out our day.
Further up the Queensland coast we would “ride” the Tropic of Capricorn into the Central Highlands and Outback. Our road was named the Capricorn Highway, but it was a misnomer. The Capricorn part was true because it traced that imaginary line on the map. However, highway was a bit of a stretch because it was a two-lane paved road at best, often turning to dirt in the blink of an eye. The longest trucks in the world, aptly called “road trains”, use the Capricorn Highway and when they blazed by hauling their three tractor trailers the wind rocked our four-wheel-drive vehicle like a cradle.
Now, without any fanfare, we were in the Outback. One can drive four or five hours here and see absolutely nothing in all directions. It’s part desert, part greenery, flat as a griddle and about as hot in the summer, and as remote as you're likely to ever be.
You plan your fuel and food stops; pass one and it’ll be four hours to the next. We were headed for Rubyvale, known as Australia’s gem capital. We stopped at the only gas station/restaurant en route. The specialties included a dingo trap sandwich (meat, cheese, egg, salad and bacon) and spaghetti on toast (canned pasta of any kind heated and poured over plain toast), an Aussie breakfast favourite.
After our overnight stay in Rubyvale we took another day’s drive to the tiny town of Longreach. Arriving was like stepping back into the old Wild West with saloons, cowboys and even a bona fide stagecoach, which we boarded for a ride along a historic stagecoach route. The six-horse coach reached speeds of 55 kph over bumpy terrain. A bit rattled, we headed for a gentler candlelight dinner cruise on the nearby Thompson River. I had heard that the skies would be “chock a block” full of stars, and it was no exaggeration.
Now deep into the Outback, driving over gravel and dirt roads with road trains hurtling by, we headed for Winton, known throughout Australia as the birthplace of its unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda. There is an entire museum devoted to the song, and it is worth a visit. The python crossing occurred after we left Winton for an overnight stay at a sheep farm tucked away in the central Outback.
The farm, Carisbrooke Station, felt like it was the last place on earth, this could be the boondocks of the Outback. The original owner of the 202-square kilometre sheep farm, Charles Phillot Sr., drove us around the property. A farm this size is about average in the Outback, with some even ten times larger. At one time, Charles had more than 10,000 sheep along with other livestock. Dingos have been mating with wild dogs and other animals and the offspring have become bloodthirsty, sheep and kangaroos are their favorite targets, but they will attack anything, from snakes to humans.
Many farmers, like Charles, have given up sheep farming and turned to tourism, setting up cabins in the bush to give guests the feel of life in the Outback. Which includes the “School of the Air” where pupils phone their teachers each morning for assignments and then mail them in (delivery is twice a week), and where the nearest hospital is often a six-hour drive away.
We backtracked to Longreach the next day for our short flight back to Brisbane and the long flight home, slowing for kangaroos, emus, cows, wallabies and even a few termite mounds in the middle of the dirt roads. Katie asks “So what do you think of the Outback now?”
If You Go
A passport and short-term visa are necessary for entry into Australia. Short-term visas can be obtained online at www.eta.immi.gov.au for about $20 or through your travel agent or airline.
We flew Qantas Airlines nonstop from Los Angeles to Brisbane. For more flight information visit www.qantas.com