When you think of Australia, surely the outback comes to mind. But what exactly is it? Officially, it’s a remote or sparsely populated inland region. In this country-continent’s case, it’s 80 percent of the land! No wonder there are twice as many kangaroos (50 million) living in Australia than people (25 million). And in the outback, where these large hoppers largely live, there are only about 750,000 people, many of which are Aboriginal (indigenous).
Australia uniquely has unusual marsupials (pouch-nursing animals) because it became isolated from the other continents millions of years ago. While kangaroos supposedly originated in South America, they evolved and proliferated in Australia after the continental divide. Other marsupials in this camp include koalas (which are NOT bears by the way), wallabies (mini kangaroos), wombats (like woodchucks) and Tasmanian devils. The latter are way smaller in real life than Bugs Bunny cartoons would have you believe. (Growing up, my sister called me “Taz” after the cartoon character with a whirlwind of energy.)
What else can you find in the Australian outback? One million wild dromedaries (one-humped camels … yes, they were introduced); six of the world’s 10 most poisonous snakes as well as pythons; bizarre-looking lizards, including frillnecks, thorny devils, goanas, blue-tongued skinks and even legless ones; saltwater crocodiles; and more than 100 species of scorpions. No wonder this is continent where Britain once exiled its prisoners (1788-1868)! Thankfully, there are also adorable-looking wild dogs called dingos and 830 types of birds, 45 percent of which are endemic, like the laughing kookaburra. (I remember my friend Robert telling me he barely slept during a business trip to Australia because of a myriad of “wackadoo” birds outside of his hotel window!) On top, the outback has reddest soil I’ve ever seen due to oxidized iron in rusted, dusted rocks (the continent even looks red from space) and desert bloodwood trees that “bleed” a sap used in Aboriginal healing.
Believe it or not, some people (about 3 percent of the population) do live amongst these inhospitable life forms in the dry and dusty outback. They are largely Aboriginal, descending from the first Australians 50,000 years ago. Early migrants are thought to have come to Northern Australia from Asia with primitive boats. It is theorized they originated in Africa about 70,000 years ago, making them among the oldest human descendants on earth.
During a December 2012 trip to Australia, my father and I went to the outback to see the famed Uluru (formerly called Ayer’s Rock by the British), a giant, red rock in the middle of nowhere to most of us. To the local Anangu people, it is sacred. They believe their ancestral spirits live on this red sandstone monolith, therefore, it is tjukurpa, the ancestral source of being. (This word comes from the Pitjantjatjara language spoken by the Anangu – one of Australia’s 250 languages.)
For decades, the 1,110-foot-high Uluru, meaning “island mountain,” has been a tourist attraction. While it has benefited the region economically, culturally and spiritually it was a disaster as tourists used to climb the rock. The Anangu felt like their ancestors were being stomped upon. When my dad and I visited, there were signs warning of both physical danger and spiritual invasion climbing Uluru. Our tour guide also informed us it was NOT for climbing out of respect for the Anangu.
“Phew!” my dad joked to me. “I was worried Taz was going to try to get me to climb it!”
I would have if it was culturally acceptable. (After decades of controversy, Uluru officially closed to climbers in October 2019.) Instead, we observed the monolith from the ground. We also explored nearby Kata Tjuta – 36 domes of red rocks incredibly shaped by wind and water. Together known as Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the rocky, red landscape was awe-inspiring, especially at sunrise.
In fact, the most beautiful sunrise I’ve ever seen in my life was near this park. It was worth waking up at 4 am to see! I will never forget slogging down multiple cups of coffee while multiple colors spilled onto the horizon like moving paint on a canvas.
Another highlight was meeting Anangu people, including artists painting in patterns of dots, painted dancers, spear throwers and boomerang makers. They taught my dad and I how to throw a spear and boomerang – not easy, especially when the boomerang flies back towards you! (FYI, there is also a non-returning boomerang used for hunting.)
“Watch oooooout!” I yelled as my lop-sided boomerang sailed past my instructor. Talk about a job hazard!
My dad, who taught my sister and me how to throw a football in the absence of sons, put his former high school quarterback days to task with the spear and boomerang. The throwing motion of a football is similar to a boomerang and both require spin.
“You’ve still got it,” I teased my dad, whose boomerang soared past mine with better spin and direction. It was as if he skipped a generation.
The spear was even more challenging as it must be awkwardly held in your palm with your thumb on the bottom at its balance point. I have no idea how hunters throw it accurately and far enough to hit animals, much less take them out! Surely, I would starve to death if my food depended on a spear.
Aboriginal dancing with a spear is more my speed. This tradition is about telling stories physically, acting out dreams, Aboriginal life and animal impersonations. (As “Taz,” acting out the Tasmanian Devil should come naturally!) Dancing is usually accompanied by Aboriginal instruments, such as the didgeridoo and clapsticks. Dancers wear costumes made of animal fur, feathers, branches and dyed cloths. They apply face and body paint to relate to their character or family.
Dot paintings were inspired by such body paint, which is outlined with circles and encircled with dots to connect to sacred rituals. These designs were also historically drawn in the sand before going on canvas. Aboriginal artists abstract their paintings to disguise sacred designs to Westerners. (Ironically, a westerner inspired them to start painting them in 1971.)
With its fascinating wildlife and people, Australia’s outback is a moving experience. It transformed my dad into a baby boomeranger and me into “RazmaTaz.”