Australian Outback

Author’s Note: “A Day in the Life” is a series in which we chronicle a specific day in the life of a long-term traveler. This particular day is what’s typical of a day of travel in the Australian Outback.  

There’s nothing in the red center of Australia.

If by nothing you mean echos of endless wide spaces and wide sky that holds the world together like an eternal ribbon of Australian blue around a package of rainbow colors that can only be unwrapped slowly.

Beneath the thin veneer of “nothing” are layers of something stunningly, historically, culturally, naturally, creatively beautiful.

Huge swirls of dust, not exactly devils and not quite tornados appear, like sand jinns, and dance hypnotically against the horizon; throwing tumble weeds high into the air. Long trains chug into view, pass us, and disappear in our rear view mirror. The children count the cars: 96.


The earth is simultaneously desert-hard and sand-silt soft, as if the entire surface was sifted through a flour sieve. “Red” is not the right word. I’m not sure there is a right word.  The soil is a particular shade of burnt sienna that Crayola never thought of. “Green” runs the gamut from dusty sage, almost grey, through every subtlety of Mediterranean olive, to garish lime. There is plant life everywhere, even where it seems there is not. Where there are trees, they are black and gnarled, an aboriginal crone’s hand reaching out of the parched soil, grasping desperately at the sky, begging for water.

It occurs to us, more than once, that our lovely Hyundai iMax van is a life raft in the midst of a scorched ocean. With water, food, and relative comfort we are ferried through a landscape that would surely kill people as ignorant as we are.

There is nothing in the red center of Australia.

Except the beating heart of a continent:

Dirt the color of dried blood. A rock, like an enormous, petrified heart jutting out of the earth. I can hear the heartbeat, if I stand still, in the pounding of my own blood at my temples, agitated by the incredible heat, the searing sun, the blinding reflections.

The landscape changes: Trees appear, and then disappear. Suddenly we are on the savannah, straw colored grasses as far as the eye can see – a study in oatmeal and tan. Someone mentions that a lion would be a good addition to the landscape. Wouldn’t that be a surprise to the local kangaroo population. There is discussion as to how a lion would have to modify his hunting strategy to bag a kangaroo. The conversation morphs into the hunting and thought patterns of big cats.

Termite hills are scattered across the landscape. They look like little sun burnt gnomes supervising the passage of time. Other travelers have stopped and dressed a few of them in old t-shirts and hats, which only increases their personification. Hours later, the termite towers have grown exponentially; some are the size of a small car. They look like big red boulders on the plain. Small replicas of Uluru. Hours later, they’ve disappeared altogether.

Cattle, on a drove, are standing, en masse, in the middle of the highway. Highway might be a strong word. The cattle look at us as if we’re the interlopers. True story.

At night, the “nothing” sings:

Insect songs, celebrating relief from another day’s heat. Star songs, sung for thousands of years over sleeping souls by watchful guardians. The drumbeat of the darkness. The long, low hum of the moon; perhaps it’s echo inspired the didgeridoo. The grass whispers behind the melody, wind through long, feathery reeds. It’s a lullaby.


Jacqui and I cooked dinner while the tents materialized in the twilight. The sun set in layers of blue and gold behind low hills on the far side of the lake. Feral cats and semi-feral cows patrolled the outer darkness and the stars came out to sing.

There are stars, and then there are stars.

We’ve been lucky a few nights of our lives and seen breathtaking night skies. Tikal was good. Camped at Douz, on the edge of the Grand Erg Oriental was better than average. Deep in the mountains of New Zealand redefined darkness and starlight. The Outback sky will be among those that we mark star shine by.

Hannah played her guitar and sang softly in the tent while the boys giggled and played with their headlamps to a disco ball effect. The tent glowed a soft, contented blue against the black night. The Man blew into his didgiridoo, trying to extend his ability to sing the Aboriginal songs, or approximations of his own. We sipped wine, surrendered to the hot wind, which mercifully delivered us from most of the flies, and talked softly in the darkness, counting shooting stars.

The Man's Hat

When I close my eyes on other dark nights, the wet Hawaiian and cold Canadian nights to come, nights in jungles far away, and think of Australian nights, this is the night I remember: The quiet hiss of the gas lantern over the sizzle of sausage in the pan and my friend’s lilting voice shushing little children away from the hot stove, the sound of boys playing with sticks instead of helping with the tents, guitar music in the darkness, and the silhouette of The Man’s hat outlined against the outback horizon.

Learn more about traveling in Australia:

Photo credits: Edward Haylan, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.