Beating about the Australian bush

The Guardian, January 23 1999

There was a story in the papers late last year about a European couple who had taken their camper van way out into the back of beyond in northern Australia and then got stuck in some mud with nothing around them except the vast space of the outback. Then they started to fight. The result of that was that the young woman abandoned the van and stalked off into the desert and, even though the man ran after her and pleaded with her, she would not stay with him. He gave her some of his rations but, all the same, they found her a couple of days later, still more than 20 miles from civilisation, effectively burned to death by the sun. The man stayed with the van and survived.

It is probably true to say that there is no adventure without fear, and it is certainly true that there are parts of Australia where that fear is justified. On the other hand, the potential for adventure in this huge, empty continent is so great that, even for families with young children, it is an experience to be grasped with enthusiasm.

A lot of it happens to be safe. Almost all the way around the country, there is an outer ring of well-maintained, more or less well-populated freeway, where it would be difficult to get into any kind of serious trouble. From here, you can see breath-taking scenery and the kind of animal life that makes you want to abandon the city for ever.

Even along the coast of Victoria, which is relatively developed by Australian standards, you can find miles of golden beach with blue sea and white surf and just about nobody for company. You can stop at will and play for hours, hooking beasties out of the rock pools and watching the waves go by. On the Great Ocean Road, which runs west from Melbourne, you also find the Twelve Apostles, a dozen mighty towers of yellowing rock which stand bolt-upright like sentries in the sea which has shaped them; patches of eucalyptus forest where you smell the gum trees before you see the wild and crazy shapes they have formed; the waterfalls and green hills of the Otway Ranges; herds of kangaroo thumping their way through woodland; koalas watching dolefully from the treetops; sulphur-crested cockatoos which suddenly burst into the air in a volley of squeals. It beats the M25.

It’s the same in Queensland where the main road runs through dense rainforest, teeming with wildlife and the chance of adventure. We took our three young children walking in amongst the trees and ended up on a private planet with no sign of human life amongst the soaring tangle of branches. We had a close encounter with a dragon lizard which clung to a stretch of bark rattling its loose collar of skin at us. After a while we came across a small river, whose water for some reason was a blue grey, and, inspired by our surroundings and reassured by our isolation, we all ended up skinny-dipping before our walk back.

Still, you should go wild. The outback presents a limited number of risks, for each of which there is an answer. Some of them are quite ingenious. For example, if you get stuck out in the desert and start to run out of water, you can make your own, with an ‘Arizona still’. Some of the guidebooks explain that you have to dig a little hole – say, two foot deep and two foot square – and cover its floor with fresh leaves. Then you put an empty jar or can in the middle of the floor, cover the hole with a sheet of plastic or polythene and leave a pebble in the middle of the top of the sheet. The sun hammers down on the plastic, turning the hole into an oven, which cooks the leaves so that they release their moisture, which condenses on the underside of the plastic. The moisture trickles down towards the low point, where the pebble sits, and drips down into the jam jar. By nightfall, you’ve got water – about a litre for every six hours of sun shine. It’s almost worth the hassle of getting lost to experience the delight of surviving.

Some of the risks are surprising. Australia is the only place where I have come across road trains, great long multi-trailered trucks churning their way down outback roads. If they come towards you, you just have to pull over or get lost in their dust cloud and, if you come up behind one, there is no way you can overtake it unless the driver takes pity on you and helps you past. There are also wandering animals – bullocks for example, which stray from unfenced pasture, and sex-crazed kangaroo – who seem to enjoy jousting with passing tourists, particularly at sunset.

Other risks are notorious. In the summer months, there is a constant sequence of warnings and news stories about bush fires. They can break out anywhere. Even the Great Ocean Road was devastated by fire on Ash Wednesday in 1983. If the fire catches up with you, the secret of survival is to conquer your instinct to run: stay in your car, lie down on the floor, cover everyone with blankets or clothing and rely for salvation on the fire’s most terrifying single feature, its speed. For an alarming minute, the car will be surrounded by flame and the temperature inside will rise to the unbearable, but then it will pass and not only should you still be alive but, for some reason best understood by engineers, your car will neither have caught fire nor exploded. At least, that’s what they say.

The same applies if you break down. The poor European woman who died last year made the classic mistake of leaving her vehicle, thus losing her only refuge from her worst enemy, the sun, and making life more difficult for those who started to search when the alarm was raised.

The main point, however, is not to become neurotic. The dangers are there, but survival is largely a matter of common sense. When you are driving between cities which are separated by such huge distances (2,700 miles, for example, between Adelaide and Perth), it is obvious that you check your car is in good shape and take extra food and water. If you are driving into the desert, it is equally obvious that you phone ahead to someone, probably the people you are going to be staying with, to ask them to raise the alarm if you are inexplicably late.

Even at its worst, the Australian wilderness is a lot safer than the average American city. At its best, it is an unforgettable, even life-changing experience to stand there and take in the vastness, the antiquity, the sheer stillness of the place.