image: The sun drenches Ayers Rock.
The sun drenches Ayers Rock.

Photograph © L. Clarke/CORBIS

Australian Outback
By Bill Bryson

I first realized that I was going to like the outback when I read that the Simpson Desert, an area bigger than some European countries, was named in 1929 for a manufacturer of washing machines. (Specifically, Alfred Alan Simpson, who funded an aerial survey.) It wasn't so much the pleasingly unheroic nature of the name as the realization that an expanse of land of more than 50,000 square miles didn't even have a name until 70 years ago.

But then that's the thing about the outback—it's so vast and forbidding that much of it has yet to be charted at ground level. Even Uluru (to use the original, now official, Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock), that hypnotic monolith in the center of the country, was unknown to outsiders until only a little over a century ago. It's not even possible to say quite where the outback is. To Australians anything vaguely rural is "the bush"; at some indeterminate point "the bush" becomes "the outback." Push on for perhaps 1,500 miles and eventually you come to bush again, and then a city, and then the sea. And that's Australia. My affection for the outback is, frankly, a mystery to me. Nearly everything about it is alien or alarming to my nature. It exceeds by a considerable margin my personal requirements for warmth. It is amazingly unforgiving to anyone who is forgetful, unfit, or geographically or mechanically inept, and I am all of those. Its solar rays, unmitigated by any veil of cloud, are pitiless, and I have skin that burns like cellophane before a flame. It is full of dangerous (if shy) snakes and insatiable flies—flies that are prepared to devote every ounce of their beings to crawling up your nose or into the deepest recesses of your ears. Uluru apart, most of the interior is just unremittingly unremitting. And yet I love it all.

I particularly love the pubs. In the unlikeliest places, in spots so remote that "middle of nowhere" sounds like an aspiration, you will often find an outback pub. They are a miracle of commerce. Once in such a pub, at the end of a dirt road in the Northern Territory, I asked the proprietor why he chose to live in such a hot and distant place. He paused to think because, as all outback enthusiasts know, there are many reasons one might choose: the intoxicating sense of space; the simple, timeless beauty; the companionable silence; the hope that one day you might trip over an anvil-size nugget of gold; the chirpy indomitability of the people.

So he thought hard for a minute, eyes crinkled as if from a painful glare. "Buggered if I know," he said at last, and went off to change a barrel.

"But you like it out here?" I called after him.

"Wouldn't live anywhere else, mate." I knew just what he meant.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published, but we suggest you confirm all details before making travel plans.



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