Roaming the Red Centre

Australia's central Outback is about more than just big red rocks Polly Evans discovers feral camels,remote cattle stations and relics of the early pioneers on an epic self-drive odyssey.

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I should never have braked to avoid the dingo. When wildlife smaller than your vehicle leaps out from behind roadside shrubs in central Australia, you’re meant to do just the opposite: floor the accelerator pedal, brace yourself for the crunch and live with a bit of dingo blood on your bumper.

Luckily for me, my emergency braking didn’t slide into a skid, my car stayed on the road – and the dingo lived. This was the third wild animal I’d nearly written off as I traveled overland across Australia’s Red Centre. First there had been an emu that had sauntered, slender-legged and feathers flowing, across the road just behind the brow of a hill. Then came a kangaroo that bounced out with blithe disregard; these Aussie icons are so suicide-prone at dusk and dawn that hire-car insurance policies don’t cover drivers during the hours of darkness. Cows, too, are a problem: they lie down on the warm tarmac at the end of the day, and motorists fail to see them in the dark until it’s too late.

In fact, I reminded myself as I regained speed, the only significant wild animal I hadn’t nearly demolished in the past few days was a feral camel.

In a pioneer's footsteps

My near-misses occurred on a drive through Australia’s Outback to Alice Springs. Many people come here in search of the Aboriginal culture that’s celebrated at Uluru (Ayers Rock) and in the many art galleries of Alice Springs, but as I moved through this vast expanse of arid earth I was beginning to realise that Australia’s white explorers, too, had a gripping story to tell.

To start with there was the man after which Australia’s south-to-north highway – along which I was driving – was named. John McDouall Stuart was the first white man to traverse the continent, in 1862,south to north and back again. The effort nearly killed him: with wasted muscles and blood vessels haemorrhaging through scurvy, he wascarried on the final leg on a stretcher slung between horses.

He never truly recovered. He took to the bottle and was shunned by polite society; unable to find work, he returned to London, where he died at the age of 50. Just seven people attended his funeral. As I drove that day across Australia’s hot, red heart, where rust-coloured dirt and spiky spinifex grass stretched for mile after dry mile, I wondered what could have possessed Stuart to ruin his life trailblazing – for the successful journey was Stuart’s sixth expedition, and it lasted an entire year.

I was driving nearly 800km that day, from Coober Pedy in South Australia to Uluru. I’d left my previous night’s hotel just as the sun had risen, a great yellow globe over the Outback. Every now and then a road train – a triple or quadruple articulated lorry – would thunder past in the opposite direction. Less frequently, I’d come up behind one and would agonise about when it might be safe to pass. Drivers are advised not to pass these motorized beasts until they can see that the road’s clear for at least 2km ahead – but what does 2km look like in this vast land with such little perspective?

Life on the range

Along the highway, signposts warned motorists to watch out for livestock – every now and then I passed entrances to sheep and cattle station homesteads – though it seemed extraordinary that such animals might eke out an existence from this harsh land. But as I became used to my surroundings, I started to notice the changes: here, a plateau of scorched red earth where once a river had run; there, a miniature forest of trees whose roots sucked up water from some underground channel so that their leaves shrieked with green against the terracotta dust.

I turned west onto the Lasseter Highway. To my left, the great rocky mass of Mt Conner rose 350m from the flat earth, suggesting the wonders of Uluru to come. I stopped at Curtin Springs Inn and Cattle Station, to talk to some more recent pioneers.

‘Please don’t feed our dogs’, the guest information leaflet implored.

‘One of them is highly allergic and the nearest vet is 360km away’. And that’s just the outward leg.

Peter and Dawn Severin, the station’s owners and founders ‘As I moved through this vast expanse of arid earth I was aware that Australia’s white explorers, too, had a gripping story to tell’ have been farming at Curtin Springs for more than 50 years.

“Pete and Dawn came out in 1956,” their daughter-in-law, Lyndie, told me.“They had an inch of rain – and then it didn’t rain again for nine years.” Family legend has it that in the course of their first year the Severins saw just six people – two station agents, two friends who wanted to know if they were still alive, and two tourists.

Ships of the dessert

A few days and a few hundred kilometres later I stopped at King’s Creek Station, where Ian and Lyn Conway had done the same; when they arrived in 1982 there was no electricity, no communications, no water, no roads and no buildings. And they had two small children.Their business? Camels.

The first camel was brought to Australia in 1840 by Europeans eager to find land suitable for sheep and cattle stations; the idea was that camels would be well suited to long journeys of exploration in a land with limited water. The first beast to arrive was not a success. His personality soon earned him the moniker ‘Harry the Horrible’ and when, in 1846, an illtempered lurch from Harry resulted in the death of celebrated explorer John Horrocks (his gun discharged and blew off his finger – he died slowly of septicaemia), Harry, too, was shot.

Despite this initial ignominy, however, the importation of camels continued throughout the second half of the 19th century. They were used for transport, mail and freight delivery; the first piano in Alice arrived in 1880, strapped to the back of a camel.

Today, camels are less popular. Turned loose when their usefulness expired, they multiplied; it’s reckoned that more than a million feral camels now live in Outback Australia. King’s Creek Station at least makes use of them: it’s the largest exporter of wild camels in Australia, and also sells camel meat domestically.

On the way to Alice

Continuing towards Alice Springs, the surroundings became greener: I was entering the l and that inspired famous Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, known for his watercolour paintings of glistening-white ghost gum trees. From Alice I’d continue my journey north to Darwin on the Ghan – the train that runs for nearly 3,000km across the continent. The service was named after the early pack camels’ handlers who were always known as the ‘Afghans’ or ‘Ghans’, though they actually came from various countries across the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. First, though, I wanted to delve a little deeper into pioneer culture.

Alice Springs telegraph station opened in 1872, sitting midway along the Overland Telegraph Line that relayed messages from Adelaide – then a bustling colonial centre – to Darwin and from there via an undersea cable to Indonesia and the world beyond. Before then it had taken three months to ship a message to London; the telegraph brought news in hours. The town of Alice Springs grew up around the repeater station.

The telegraph station is now a museum; the air is punctuated by the tapping of Morse code on the machines that still run for visitors. Through this room, I mused, news reached the Australian colony of Queen Victoria’s death and of the Boer War, and of countless tiny triumphs and tragedies personal to the Empire’s furthest-flung colonialists. The grass was green; the trees’ leaves were bountiful. Here was a curiously tranquil oasis that, amid the dramatic miles of central Australia’s red dust, bygone travelers had created in lieu of home.

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