Aug 11, 2020
I’VE BEEN DRIVING FOR TWO HOURS before the dust hits. In a matter of seconds, the hard-blue cloudless skies have been washed sepia, and the wind has turned an angry gale-force, whooshing giant tumbleweeds around like dried-up asteroids. The only other vehicles on the highway are 200-tonne “road-trains” overtaking me like seasoned quarterbacks, charging through the now mud-thick haze. Cell service has dropped out and I’m now white-knuckling towards the sharp-tooth mountains in the distance on my own, hoping it’s nothing more sinister than a dust storm, as this is bush fire territory. Thankfully, it’s the former and I keep my foot on the pedal, driving slowly but steadily away from civilization to Arkaba Conservancy in South Australia’s backcountry.
Solo adventuring in the outback takes grit, even for a seasoned traveler. It is an expedition into an unfathomably vast land. Having lived in bustling cities most of my life, there is an almost thrilling tinge of danger, going deep into a sparsely populated landscape known for its wild temperament of fires, floods, heat and dust. The perilous journey to a rural station means hours spent on the road in solitude navigating the isolated ground; if anything goes wrong, there’s no one for kilometers and, for the most part, cell service is patchy or non-existent. Comprising 80 percent of the continent, spreading across the country like a giant tapestry, distances are far, creatures are fierce and the climate can be brutal, but the reward is the sheer thunderclap beauty that feels otherworldly, almost extra-terrestrial. Nothing prepares you for this place. And doing it alone is equal parts terrifying and empowering.
Over three weeks I’m trekking lush mountains and deep valleys, discovering the burnt-red gorges of the Kimberleys that are as deep as skyscrapers are tall, a terracotta desert bigger than most countries, and a sky that glows like an ember at sunset. But more than seeing anything in particular, I want to experience the feeling of being swallowed by the vastly different landscapes of South Australia, the Northern Territory and Far North Queensland.
I finally reach Arkaba Conservancy, a 24,200-hectare isolated wildlife preserve hidden in the folds of the Flinders Rangers of South Australia, and framed by the magnificent crater-like formation of Wilpena Pound, so deep it can stack multiple Ulurus. Its curves and contours hold ancient seabeds and the cavernous valleys are covered in forests of native pines and river red gums. I arrive just in time to watch the neon zany dusk swirl from apricot to electric violet, and as the black night finally falls, shadows of furry critters hop and scurry out from the bushes. I feel curiously at peace as the frizzled zing of adrenaline from my journey fades with the night.
Photos by Andy Larcombe/Courtesy of Arkaba.
At Arkaba, it’s all about learning about conservation and engaging with the surrounding landscape via treks and bush drives. I spend most of the time squinting through binoculars in a curious childlike state watching Dr. Seuss-esque wildlife: bounding grey and red kangaroos, emus in ridiculous tailed ball gowns, and little birds with rebellious punk-pink mohawks. It is utterly hypnotic and for the next couple of days I’m in a trance of deep wonder and solitude that seems to suspend the ho-hum tick-tock of time.
THIS IS NOTHING LIKE the first leg of my triathlon—up in the Northern Territory, the heat feels like lashes against my skin and my days are spent dusty and drenched in sweat. It’s so hot I nearly collapse from the sheer intensity and constant motion of it all.
Staying at Bullo River Station, a working cattle ranch and homestead covering 200,000 hectares, I am awed by the red-rock beauty, and the sheer scale (the driveway alone is 75 kilometers of rough dirt). It is hard to comprehend just how isolated I am. Just getting here required logistics worthy of a space mission: from Sydney, it was a five-hour flight to Darwin, where I spent a night before catching a light plane to Kununurra, a middle-of-nowhere country town in the East Kimberley region, followed by a three-hour drive to the station. It is the closest I’ve come to what feels like infinite space.
The days start with the first raspberry ripples of light and I spend most of my time trying to keep up with my spritely guide, a 27 year-old who is part jillaroo (female station hand), part outback ranger. We tail a herculean cattle muster across plains led by the ringers and stockmen (cowboys) on 4WDs, motorcycles and horses rounding up the 4,000 or so cows that live on the station. I feed the fuzzy-soft abandoned calves and the station’s 15 horses. I watch the burly butchers go at their carcasses.
We trek to the bald granite high hills and I gawk at murals of Indigenous rock art etched into the stone by the Miriuwung-Gajerrong ancestors some 10,000 years ago. Nowhere does the sense of Australia’s intrinsically connected history and nature become more apparent.
Photos courtesy of Bullo River Station (2)
Later, when we go fishing on the Bullo River, deep inside the crimson cliffs of the Kimberley with saltwater crocodiles below and the mewling cries of bats and birds above, I feel the first nibbles of a fish, which in a snap turns into a heavyweight splish-splash tug of war as I reel in a barramundi. The jolt of adrenaline feels like an invasion to the bloodstream and I whoop and holler until my cheeks physically ache.
I am dizzy with delirium when the sun finally fades and all that’s left is clean air and a star-bright sky. Everyone from the station gathers for dinner and ice-cold drinks. Guests and staff mingle and eat together. Stories are told and jokes casually bandied and I feel a frisson of excitement at having slotted into this tight-knit far-flung community, a city slicker undetected.
MY FINAL DESTINATION is tropical Far North Queensland. The red rocks of the Kimberley are replaced by the lush greenery of the rainforests as I journey to Mount Mulligan Lodge, another working cattle station, whose 28,000 hectares feel downright boutique compared to Bullo River Station. Two hours from Cairns, it’s one of Australia’s most exclusive luxury stays, a place where Crocodile Dundee would retire in riches. Mount Mulligan takes the hardship out of exploration. It’s the kind of place where the elements of the outback are offset by deep comforts like an infinity pool, fine-dining, plush-smart rooms with deep outdoor tubs on private verandas and fresh-botanical cocktails.
For this last journey, I must confess, I give in to luxury and opt to chopper in from Cairns, forgoing the two-hour drive. It’s my first time in a helicopter and I actually feel drunk with anticipation. My pilot knows this and to my delight he dips and dives and my stomach does full-throttle spins as we whizz towards Mount Mulligan, the massive sandstone mountain that gives the lodge its name. A gentle tilt and nosedive later, and I’m greeted with a Champagne Fizz, having landed in a spiffy version of the Australian outback, before being thrown straight back into action.
I jump on a quad bike and follow the farm hands as they count and divide the herd of beefy Brahman cows in the sticky heat. It’s rodeo-meets-Australian-bush-ballet, as they steer the cattle into pens, leaping, twisting and turning every which way. I’ve forgotten my sunglasses and goggles, so my unprotected eyes are being whipped by the dust and heat. Sweet relief comes when I rehydrate with cold gin in the “Sunset Bar”—really just a corrugated iron bush shack. I’m on my own and it feels deliciously off-grid: my little secret spot.
Then I realize that for nearly three weeks, I’ve been on my own for the most part without cell service or Internet… but I’ve never been lonely. In fact, the opposite: it’s the most connected I’ve ever felt, like all my senses have been supercharged as if plugged into a socket.
The next day, I skip the frenzy of activities on offer (kayaking, fishing, heli-picnics) and instead park myself by the pool and take in the quietude of the property, watching guests arrive in private helicopters, each bigger than the last. Leaving Mount Mulligan Lodge and whirring back towards civilization, I look down at the sparse and rugged landscape, a murky colored patchwork quilt, with dried riverbeds that look like octopus tentacles. In some spots there are rising puffs of black smoke; bushfires no doubt. It all seems so unfathomably vast and impenetrable and I’m filled with soul-searching satisfaction, like a tap that has burst.
Ta-da! I conquered it.
Read on: Three Forays off the Australian Grid