Journey to Australia, the Original Oz

George Fetting

Journey to Australia, the Original Oz

Scorching deserts filled with birdsong, a coast dotted with life-restoring aboriginal fires, rivers pulsing with crocodiles. At once the most dangerous and beautiful place on earth, Australia's Northern Territory is the true outback that legendary explorers couldn't conquer.

By Rene Ebersole/ Photography by George Fetting
Published: July-August 2006

The Arrernte people indigenous to central Australia call Mount Gillen Alhekulyele, after the spirit of a wild dog that sniffed around the desert here near Alice Springs, looking for a mate. "Our ancestors tell the story that dog protected this area," says Doug Taylor, an Arrernte aboriginal guide leading a tour at the Alice Springs Desert Park, near the base of Mount Gillen (indeed shaped like the snout of a basset hound). "You protect it as well."

Taylor's smile reveals his evenly gapped Chiclet teeth. The afternoon sun is beating heavily on his brown bush hat as he ushers our group and a trail of ear-buzzing flies through the sand country, woodland, and desert-river habitats within the park's 123-acre exhibit area. "If you're ever out in the wild and dying of thirst, look for the little budgies and zebra finches," he says, pointing to a mob of small green-and-yellow parrots and carrot-beaked, striped finches flitting about an outdoor enclosure. "My dad always said, 'Have respect for those birds; they'll lead you to water.' "

He strokes a beanlike stem of nardoo, a fern his people have relied on for centuries as an important type of bush "tucker," or food. The plant's spores are harvested to make "damper," bread baked beneath the hot coals of an open fire. The secret to damper, says Taylor, is in the preparation--a tip that, combined with the earlier one about finding water, might have saved the lives of explorers Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills. Cannons were firing in the U.S. Civil War when Burke and Wills became the first Europeans to complete a south-to-north crossing of the Australian continent. Unlike their rival, John McDouall Stuart, however, they perished in the desert on their return trip.

In many ways Australia's Northern Territory is as wild today as it was then. Towns and highways have risen from the sand, and each year more than 348,000 tourists trek to the Red Center for a snapshot of one of the world's largest monoliths, Uluru (Ayer's Rock), a sacred aboriginal landmark. But the region--encompassing 300 million acres, an area the size of France, Spain, and Italy combined--contains just one percent of Australia's total population, or about 200,000 people, including aborigines on walkabout. Thus there is still a lot of wild country to explore.

The last time I traveled here, 11 years ago, I posed for a photograph with an eight-foot-tall termite mound and climbed past Japanese women scaling Uluruin high heels. I later learned that although the aboriginal landowners tolerate tourists mounting their rock, they don't understand it. And they would prefer that visitors (I hear they sometimes call us minga, or ants) skip the climb.

For this 10-day trip, I've planned another kind of outback experience, one that explores the Northern Territory's birdlife and aboriginal culture while tracing part of the route blazed by Stuart himself. Isolated from the other continents for millions of years and largely devoid of people, this is a land of unfathomable emptiness, thorny bush, and sweltering heat that is home to some of the planet's most unusual wildlife--the largest living crocodiles, carnivorous marsupials, thorny devils, and kookaburras.

 

"People think deserts are barren places, but they're actually full of life," Taylor says while acquainting me with some of the 350 types of birds I might encounter in the wilds beyond Alice Springs. Rumbling northwest out of town on a strip of tar passing for a road, I find the desert is a stunning panorama--a layer cake of terra-cotta sand, topped with grasses in every shade of green, from celadon to teal, azure sky, and white icing clouds. It's easy to imagine that the chain of rocky hills in the distance is a sleeping dragon, its spiny back and tail formed by squat acacias interspersed on the ridge with tall desert oaks.

Halfway through the five-hour drive to the remote outpost where I'll be staying for the next few days, the tar gives way to a sandy thoroughfare pocked with puddles. Wildlife pops up, it seems, out of nowhere. A brown falcon glides overhead, exposing its buff-colored underbelly, then banks for a swift landing in a dead gum tree. A dingo flashes out of the brush and races parallel to the car, maybe a dozen feet away. Up ahead what appears to be a log in the middle of the road transforms into a three-foot-long monitor lizard, or goanna, sunbathing. A huge bird with a long white neck and brown wings spooks from the spinifex grass. It's the Australian bustard, also known as the "Australian turkey."

"This land belongs to the Ngaliya people," reads the sign at the boundary of Newhaven Reserve, a 650,000-acre cattle ranch turned wildlife refuge that's just east of the Great Sandy Desert and bounded by aboriginal lands on all sides. In 1999 a biologist surveying raptors here alerted Birds Australia that the owner was talking about selling. The group quickly raised more than $1 million (Australian) and added the property to its collection of managed bird reserves. Newhaven represents all of the major inland Australian desert environments, including rocky mountain ranges, giant salt lakes that look like mirages in the desert, towering red sand dunes, scrubby woodlands, shallow depressions known as claypans, and spinifex grasslands spotted with ghost gums.

Just before sunset I arrive at Newhaven's nerve center, a smattering of metal dwellings that include a few caravanlike abodes called dongas.Property manager John Tindall, a former cattleman, lives with his wife, Marjory, in the reserve's only permanent structure. The dongas are for volunteers and researchers; tourists stay in a campground equipped with showers and pit toilets.

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