Space. Freedom. Silence. Unspoiled Beauty. Where Nature Rules. Immense. Haunting. Unique in geology and life forms. Spellbinding. Mysterious. Vast distances. Alien. Unforgiving. Extreme weather. Heat. Heaps of flies. Sheep. Cattle. Last but not least – the toughest but also the friendliest people…
It is hard to describe the Australian Outback. You have to dream it. It is even harder to define where it actually is. You have to know it. But I know one thing: I absolutely love it! And I know when I am there. I feel completely at home when you stick me right in the middle of the outback, with nothing but nature and a lot of space around me. Something about this vast rugged millions of years old landscape draws me like nothing else. I may be a cityboy now but I grew up on a farm and that’s probably part of the reason why the outback is so sacred to me. I prefer big empty open spaces in nature and animals to big crowded cities and humans. On the right is one of my photos from Outback Cape York, click to see full size.
To Australians anything outside the main urban areas is “the bush”; at some undefinable point the bush then becomes the outback. Drive for many days through the outback and suddenly you enter the bush again and a few days later you may even come back to a city or the coast. Actually this is a fairly apt description of Australia. I would guess most tourists think of Uluru (Ayers Rock) or a stockman with a horse (Man from Snowy River style) like shown on the cover of OUTBACK magazine on the left when they hear the word ‘outback’. For me the following are important parts of my outback definition.
Stations and Stockmen
Stations (Australian for a ranch/farm) in the Outback are absolutely huge and the nearest neighbor is usually hundreds of kilometers away. People stay in touch through satellite phones, internet, cb radio and kids get their education long distance through the brilliant School of the Air. In the North during wet season stations can be cut off from the world for months. So the station is a small village in itself, some with up to 60-70 people working and living there. The largest working cattle station in the world is Anna Creek Station in South Australia. It is larger than Belgium! It’s spread out over more than 30 000 km² and in comparison Americas largest ranch is only roughly 4000 km². In the great Australian tradition of being great at naming things a Stockman is someone who works on the station looking after the livestock. A jackaroo is a trainee stockman, a jillaroo is a trainee stockwoman!
Naturally the true “outback” itself is not the easiest place in the world to visit as a tourist. There are no hotels, no b&b, no cafes and hardly any roads for that matter. Unless you know someone living in the outback or can drive a 4WD around Australia on your own the only choice is an organized 4WD camping trip. Some places are so remote that an organized tour is the only option. So someone like myself really only have the option of staying in the city and doing tours into the outback. Fortunately there are heaps of great tours available but what I would really love would be to know someone who owned a cattle station so I could just stay there for months, working on the station and taking pictures. Driving in the outback is quite an experience (and a very deadly experience if you don’t know what you’re doing). There’s something special about driving from early morning till sunset and you haven’t passed anything but maybe a road train or two and you haven’t arrived at anywhere. The distances are impossible to understand, you have to try it yourself. It’s very humbling. Here’s one of my own shots of travelling in the outback towards infinity (click to see fullsize)
Sleeping in a million star hotel
You also have to try bush camping. I am sure many people hate even the thought of camping in the middle of nowhere with no electricity, no showers, no toilets. But sitting around a campfire at night under a million stars, sleeping in a swag and waking up at sunrise to the sounds of the outback is an experience that cannot be matched. Again, impossible to describe you have to dream it.
The Australian soil is the oldest on earth. No earthquakes or volcanos have pushed the soil around for many millions of years, so Australia is older than anything else and aboriginals have lived in Australia for at least 50 000 years (remember this when you think Australia has no history). The age of the land is very evident in the outback where you feel humbled by this ancient landscape that haven’t changed for so many years and feels strange yet familiar.
Photographing the outback
Something so hard to describe is also hard to photograph. A single image cannot convey everything I love about the outback but I will keep shooting and keep trying. I doubt I will ever shoot the perfect outback photo but I can dream it and keep trying anyway (‘ave a go – as aussies would say). A few handy tips for shooting in the outback: use polarizer filters and adjust for reflected light. The light is so bright and harsh that taking your meter reading from the sky doesn’t always work, the reflections of the sun on rocks can be much brighter than the sky and it’s easy to get burned out highlights.
An important part of why I love the outback. The sunrises and sunsets are so beautiful you think you’re on another world. No photograph can truly show what it’s like you have to experience a burning red and orange outback sunset to believe it. I’ll end this with an old shot I have from De Grey River in Western Australia (click for fullsize)