The Australian Outback is as foreboding a place as you will find anywhere
on the planet. The arid climate host's a vast desert that can stretch
for thousands of miles without a trace of water. And yet in the middle
of seemingly nowhere, you can stumble upon the most beautiful rock formations
you have ever seen. And lo & behold, at the base of these rock formation
lies a cool watering hole. Plants drink the water and grow. Animals
come to eat the plants. Humans come along and build a K-Mart.
There is a constant debate as to where the outback actually starts.
But once you are in the Outback, you know immediately. Every state in
Oz has an Outback (no, not the steak house), and traveling inland from
the coast more than an hour will usually land you smack-dab in the middle
in the Outback, the sky becomes enormous, you can literally see mountains
hundreds of kilometers away, enormous grazing fields stretch to the
horizon, and the sunsets.... well, the sunsets in the outback rival
any tropical island paradise. Minus the umbrella drinks and the ocean,
but plus extreme heat and endless flies. I don't wantto steal any of
Bill Bryson's thunder here, but the flies in Australia really do conquer
your psyche more than any other insect I have ever encountered. For
some reason, they are quite fond of my earwax, and try to eat it at
any chance they can get. They are quite tenacious. This can be terribly
frustrating. But once the sun does set, and the excruciating heat mellows
to a comfortable evening, the outback is really a special place.
We spent a lot of our Outback experience in the Northern Territory.
The Northern Territory is not a state, but rather a few years back the
people voted not to have representation in Parliament and to remain
a silent partner, observing the governing of Australia in a non-obtrusive
way. This flows quite well with their hands-off attitude about most
things in life.
From the moment we entered the Northern Territory, there was an odd
feeling in the air. It was an eerie silence, like when you walk into
a party where people were talking about you and the whole room quiets
down real quick. Perhaps it was the vast openness about the place, the
stretches of miles and miles and miles with nothing but emaciated cows
and fat insects. But I think it was more than that. It was almost a
feeling of trespassing, as if we were walking around land that we shouldn't
have been walking on. And perhaps we were.
It is estimated that the Aboriginal people lived in Australia more that
40,000 years before there was any contact with white people. This is
40,000 years of hunting and gathering without any intention of getting
day jobs or attending university. Much like when the European colonists
settled in North America, the indigenous people of Australia were without
natural immunizations to European diseases, and many, many Aborigines
died from the white man's illnesses, including alcoholism. Europeans
that settled Australia had their own version of Manifest Destiny and
their own justifications for taking land from the native people. In
some instances, British traded blankets, food and spices for large parcels
of valuable land. In other cases, white people just took what they needed
An outsider's simple resolution would be to give back the land that
was taken. But this is naive. Most of the valuable land to the Aborigines
is build up with cities and towns. That is no more plausible than giving
Manhattan back to the Native Americans who where settled there. Instead,
Australia has given the Aboriginal community large portions of desert
wasteland, completely undesired by the average Aussie. That is sad.
What is even sadder is what the Aboriginal people have done with this
As the original caretakers of the land, one would expect a great respect
for the land and its surroundings. That is why it hurt even more when
we pulled off the side of the road in the middle of the Outback and
saw the ground completely littered with empty beer cans and boxes of
wine, parts of cars, blankets and other rubbish that was just left there.
When we questioned this with a local, he informed us that was where
the "Abbos" go to drink and sniff petrol. One bloke from Melbourne
informed us that Australia was very lenient with the dole (their welfare).
Apparently, a person who is out of work can be on the dole for years
with minimal effort. The dole checks are handed out on Thursdays. Thursday
evening and all of Friday are busy days for Outback police officers
as they round up drunks on a dole-financed binge.
Now, to be fair, there are plenty of well-minded Aboriginals. They are
warm people, and there is a rich culture, which they are happy to share,
if they have the right incentive. On our trip to Uluru (or Ayer's Rock
as the whities call it), we learned a great deal about the local Aboriginal
culture. One Aussie I spoke with felt like the natives will get in touch
with their roots if there are dollar signs around. This is a typical
white-Aussie attitude towards the indigenous people, especially in the
Outback. Many of them are sick of their taxes going to support someone
else's drinking habit. I'm sure they would rather the money go towards
their own drinking habit. When you ask Aussies why the Aboriginal kids
are not in school, the response would sound something like, "Oh,
the darkies don't have to go to school. Normal kids do, but not them.
What can the state do when the parent is drunk under a tree somewhere?"
Actually, you won't get most Australians that far on the subject. They
will typically just say it is a complicated subject and move onto something
I find even more dizzying, namely Cricket. But it is true; this is a
complicated problem. How can the Australian government help people that
don't really want help? And how can they educate a people that don't
want an education? They have received land back, but they don't take
care of it and continue to waste resources that they do have. It is
a real problem, and one that doesn't have many obvious solutions. It
is my own theory that Aborigines are used to living off of the land.
Now that white people have taken the resources they were counting on
for this, they live off of the land in a different way, in the form
dole. But to take the dole away from them would really leave them with
nothing. They lack the Protestant work ethic (mainly because they aren't
Protestants), but should they be punished for having a different culture,
a different style of life or a different work mentality from the people
who colonized this country so many years ago? I think not.
So might we have been trespassing by stepping into the Outback? I hope
not. But as for going to the Outback again, I don't think I will. It
is too hot, there are too many flies and the whole place gave me an
uneasy feeling. I sure will miss those sunsets though.
*Photos courtesy of Productive