Many of us have memories of places and things we saw when we were young, that have lasted with us a lifetime. For me, one of the most enduring memories of life in the Great Outdoors was from a trip to the interior in the early ‘80s.
In those days, the Stuart Highway was a sparsely inhabited, rough and rugged dirt track that stretched north through the country’s heart. On the Oodnadatta Track returning south, we’d go a couple of days without seeing another rig, and those we did see were largely owned by pastoralists with their herds of cattle spanning properties the size of small European countries. While the Track was occasionally criss-crossed by paths leading to fledgling mining operations, their presence was muted, and vast horizons (and bushflies!) dominated our days.
Back then, Uluru was a place many people knew but few visited. There was no public airstrip, no resort, and the fuel station and general store near the small public campground sold just a handful of tacky stickers and t-shirts as keepsakes for the handful of tourists who’d roll in daily.
My lasting memories of Uluru are vivid for a couple of reasons. For one, our visit occurred just a few months after national headlines first blazed with news of a baby being snatched from inside the tent of a young family. As a nine-year-old, I was old enough to understand the significance of what had been reported. So, the memory of a dingo coming within 20 metres of our overnight camp — as I looked out at the Rock just after daybreak — stayed with me. As did the magnitude of the geological marvel that I’d just crawled out of bed to look at. Gazing at this 300-million-year-old monolith, with no other sign of human habitation for miles around, I felt the presence of pre-history in a way that I’d never experienced before.
But I have experienced it since. And so have many others.
With a thirst for adventure among the Australian population fuelling a massive 4WD and camping market, it’s never been easier to get out beyond the Black Stump and start building lasting memories. Sure, many of the places that I visited in my childhood and teens are now more populated and regulated than they were back in the day — whether it’s Uluru, the Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks, Flinders Ranges or Lake Mungo, sometimes efforts to ‘get away from it all’ find us slap-bang among a bunch of like-minded (and sometimes not-so-like minded) fellow travellers. With the pioneers long gone, this country is open for all to enjoy.
While I miss the days of travelling tracks that few others did, I can’t turn back time. And even though things have changed, treasures are still to be found. With Central Australia covering an area of nearly 550,000 square kilometres — populated by just a handful of people — there are still precious places to enjoy without tripping over each other. After all, who would quibble with sharing a therapeutic soak in Coward Springs with fellow campers at the end of a long day? Hit the road the next morning, and you’ll capture a view, see an animal, or take a photo that nobody else has ever enjoyed before and never will again.
The fact is that something special is bound to happen when we make the effort to travel in outback Australia. Ask my 10-year-old daughter in a decade, and I’ll bet she’ll still remember the day she spent swimming in ‘Mermaid Lagoon’ at Lawn Hill Gorge in Boodjamulla National Park. And ask me what I remember about Australia’s deserts when I’m kicking back in my rocking chair in 30 years’ time, and I’ll have so many memories of nights spent under a billion stars, or of vast horizons with desert sand under my boots, that it will be hard to know where to start.
I, however, will know where to start — and that will be telling you about the morning, as a nine-year-old, when I got up early to look at Uluru and a dingo trotted away from camp.