On a hot and cloudless morning Brendan throttles his twin engine Piper Chieftain down the smooth tarmac and we rise into vivid blue South Australian skies. We are heading for The Outback, a landscape two years into a drought. News reports says a farmer is committing suicide every four days.
We are a small group: Brendan; photographer Greg and myself; and Rolf, a pencil–thin Swiss guy with sudden body movements like an electrocuted marionette.
Given where we are about to go we are a happy unit. It's embarrassing to admit, but we aren't on a relief mission. We're on a pub crawl, most of it by small plane. A plane is the only sensible means of travel in this enormous, desiccated land where farms––"stations" as they are called––can be the size of Belgium.
Out of Adelaide the suburbs beneath give way to a quilt of green and brown which disappears into a radiant heat on the horizon. I'm enjoying the feel of real flying as the 10–seater is gently buffeted by the warm cross–breeze.
Suddenly Brendan banks hard. Greg turns from his seat by our furrow–browed pilot and yells, "one of the engines isn't working properly, we're going back". It is a nerve–wracking flight back to Adelaide and we all keep glancing anxiously at the starboard engine.
Back on the ground the problem––more than moderately dangerous and a part might have to come from the States––is identified. I commiserate with Brendan, thanking him for his caution.
"I'm no hero when I've got my pants on," he says.
Deserts and Isolated Pubs
A pub crawl flight across the Australian Outback is more than an excuse to beer it up in towns where the population could comfortably fit into your bathroom.
The starkly beautiful terrain beneath becomes the chief diversion. We will fly over ancient mountains that were under oceans 500 million years ago; watch dust storms form on the distant horizon; and swoop low in the Simpson Desert to be amazed by three dromedaries––the only sign of animal life for hours. We'll observe a landscape carved by Antarctic winds millions of years ago. Four days, three nights, and pubs about as far away from the rest of the world as you could conceive. If we can get airborne.
That night we end up at the Prairie Hotel, some 220 miles north of Adelaide. It's been a long day since landing back in Adelaide, and we are hungry and thirsty. Dinner in the rugged dining room starts with an antipasto of smoked kangaroo, camel mettwurst, emu pate and goats cheese which comes with a bush tomato chutney and char grilled veges. Feral food they call it round here, mate.
Plan B today proved simple: we simply drove north towards Arkaroola in the southern Flinders Ranges where we'll stay tomorrow night. The following day we'll fly around the Outback with a different pilot then be delivered back to Adelaide.
This morning we headed out of Adelaide but after the fertile vineyards of the Clare Valley the land becomes just rock and sand with tiny and silent towns scattered along the endless highway. A few skeletal trees punctuate the low parched plains, brown dust blows across the deserted road which rolls out before us in the dry heat. At a dusty spot called Kanyaka we walk around the ruins of the Phillips homestead.
The family arrived in 1860, established themselves here in massive stone buildings which included a surgery and a post office (23,000 letters received in 1862), and within 20 years had abandoned the place after relentless drought.
Kanyaka means black rock and the local Aborigines associated the place with death.
Yet this land possesses an eerie beauty and as we drive in silence I notice now there are few places named after European families or explorers. This is Aboriginal country, or at least once was. At dusk we see the sign which announces the feral food at the Prairie.
We need that beer too.
After the dinner of local wildlife Mick Irwin drives us to Blinman about 10 miles away. Apparently Mick's name is the conflation of Crocodile ("Mick") Dundee and Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. Appropriately we hit a small kangaroo, which bounces off into the darkness. Near midnight we arrive at the North Blinman Hotel.
There is no South Blinman. In fact there is very little Blinman at all: just a shop, a few houses and a large pub. Town population: 15. The most crowded place is the cemetery.
On the way to Arkaroola the following morning we pull over beneath the red gums by a dry creek. "Blokes love it out here", says Mick. "You come out here in your four–wheel drive with your swag [bedroll and food] and you can swear and fart when you want, and you don't have to shave."
"Women don't get it. They need all the make–up because they think a rabbit might see them. Pig's arse. But that's changing, women make the decisions to buy the four–wheel drives and they figure they've spent a lot of money so they better get some use out of it. You're seeing more and more blokes with their wives and kids out here."
I wander off down to the waterless creek bed, bleached branches of the gums arch overhead like a cathedral ceiling. It is silent––no birds or flies––and beautiful beyond belief.
Across the Outback Desert
On another hot and cloudless morning two days later Doug taxies his single–engine Cessna onto the rough runway at the self–designated "Arkaroola International Airport", a strip of man–made flatland in the rocky landscape.
We rise into a blazing blue sky, looking down on parched scrub and dusty earth. The creeks beneath us are waterless, Lake Frome on the horizon is a massive body of salt. In the Tirari Desert below us low vegetation coils and spirals like Aboriginal dot paintings and amidst Nature which abhors a straight line we see tire tracks heading to…
Rolf and I look at each other, both thinking the same thing. Who, and why?
We shake our heads and wonder about this world that just makes you thirsty. Fortunately we are off to the local pub, the Mungerannie Hotel beside the Birdsville Track, it is 180 miles away across nothingness.
The pub manager John picks us up from the burning runway. Despite its geographic isolation he gets 45,000 visitors a year because it is halfway along the 330 mile unsealed Track. A sign on the wall reads, "Hangovers sold and serviced here".
This feels remote and lifeless, yet outside beyond a line of trees––rare in this part of the desert––is the Derwent River which attracts over a hundred species of birds. It is astonishingly photogenic––although so too is the sign in the empty earth which advises you to beware of pedestrians.
Back inside we finish another beer and John, who says he's going to retire to somewhere with a water view, takes us back in his flatbed to the plane. We are going for a chaser at "the neighbours", the Innaminka Hotel about 125 miles across the Sturt Stony Desert.
Opposite the Innamincka is what Doug says is the largest silica deposit in the world: a mountain of beer bottles. The nearest police station is 350 miles away, the nearest traffic light about the same. And flat, hot emptiness between here and them.
We have a beer and talk about water, and the lack of rain, measured here in spit–sized amounts. From behind the bar Don tells me how he came up here a few months ago and just loves it. "Always busy and the people are friendly," he says. There is one other person in the bar and he is sitting sipping in sullen silence.
But we have another pub to go to, the legendary Birdsville Hotel across the state line in Queensland, opened in 1884.
Birdsville, by some quirk, is considered an international airport and so is now surrounded by a security fence that even an obese terrorist could hurdle. Doug yells out the secret gate code to me across the main street. There is no one on the main street.
To the World's Largest Homestead
The following morning, staggering into the brightest day we have encountered, we refuel and ruefully reflect on a night of enormous alcohol intake. Rolf and I huddle beneath the meager shade of the wing while talking with the pub's owner Kym who came here in 89 as a builder when the pub was burned out. Never left.
I congratulate him on bar that is as hospitable as it is remote, and the walls of which are covered in decal stickers, oddball photos, and historic pictures of the pub when it was the only thing around here. These days there are about three other things around here.
Later we make a loop past Lake Eyre where the salt is two feet thick in places, and aim for the William Creek Hotel which is on the Anna Creek Homestead, the world's largest private property at 13,000 square miles.
Neville the owner has only been here five months. Like every pub we've seen, the walls are covered with business cards, posters, handwritten jokes, baseball caps and other abandoned objects.
"I don't feel isolated," says Neville. "You can pick up the phone and talk to anyone. And the Flying Doctor comes every fortnight." I don't ask about a toothache or a burst appendix.
We choose lunch from the menu of homemade pies: emu and sun–dried tomato; kangaroo curry; or lamb and river mint. Outside it is 98 degrees and dry. There is a sign by the dusty track which warns of children crossing.
The Mole People of Andamooka
Later we are airborne again flying over what Rolf calls, "the land of nothing" heading for Andamooka, an opal mining town where people prefer to be subterranean. From the air we can see a scattering of huts and houses surrounded by red and bleached brown mounds of excavated dirt left as they mine for seams of opal. It looks lunar.
But it isn't just in the hope of striking it rich because as Erica, who meets us, says, "some people have made a lot of money, but they like the lifestyle so keep coming back and digging".
The lifestyle, as she calls it, involves spending most days down in the cool caves they have carved out with rock drills. She and her husband have a lounge in theirs with a fridge, comfortable chairs, and a bed. They bring the laptop down and watch DVDs.
None of the streets in unsettlingly strange Andamooka have names and of the 300 or so permanent population most go by nicknames. If an address is required for an official document everyone just gives a number on "Government Road". "There's no Government Road," laughs Erica. "If there was there'd be hundreds living on it."
As we come out of her deep digging and squint into the merciless afternoon sun she says, "Some days we come up, and just go back down again".
Rolf and I nod to each other.
"These are crazy people," he whispers to me as we melt in the sun. "They are…underground people, yes?"
We taxi down the stony runway and rise above the mole people and their remote town. Adelaide with its cafes and crowded streets are ahead, the compelling beauty of the Outback receding with each air–mile south.
Way below us in the middle of yet more arid earth we see a small truck cutting a straight line across the land. Rolf and I stare at this alien object in the landscape and look at each other in bewilderment, both still thinking the same thing: Who and why?
Graham Reid is an award-winning travel writer, music writer and journalist based in New Zealand. His book Postcards From Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year award, and his website www.elsewhere.co.nz features travel stories, photos, rock'n'roll reminiscences, and a weekly music review in which he posts tracks from albums which have gone past radio programmers and other reviewers.
Books from the Author: