Australian outback holidays: Why the outback needs to be on your bucket list

It was my first night sleeping in a swag on the ground somewhere in the middle of the outback. It was on the eve of a cattle drive and I'd been asleep for two hours, wrestling with nightmares about the horrifically giant stallion which had been assigned to me a few hours earlier, bolting, bucking, throwing me to the ground and then stomping on me. 

I'd only sat on a horse once before, on an hour's riding lesson back in Sydney in preparation for this venture into the outback – among 10 six-year-old girls all somersaulting on their mounts and regarding me with undisguised contempt as I clung desperately to the reins – and I was feeling a little tense.

But now, waking in a cold sweat in the pitch black of night in central-west Queensland, about 70 kilometres north-east of the tiny settlement of Aramac, I heard a noise. There was muffled conversation and I saw the flickering lights of torches. And the woman in the swag next to mine sat bolt upright and started scrabbling for her shoes. 

"Wake up!" she called to me. "It's time to get up!"  

Heart pounding, I grabbed for my clothes and fumbled for my torch. When eventually I found it, down the bottom of my swag, I shone it on my watch. It was 12.15am. Apparently the commotion was merely the more relaxed of our group returning from their revels at a distant pub. It took me a good hour to calm down and get back to sleep. 

For a city person – and let's face it, most of us are city people these days – the outback can be a strange place, as foreign to most of us as the Russian steppes or the rocky terrain of Mars. Yet it's also an intrinsic part of our being, of our identity as Australians, of our own dreaming. And it's a tragedy that most of us simply never venture into the outback until much later in our lives, as grey nomads, after we've spent most of our best years and money exploring Europe, the US, Asia and the Gold Coast.

New figures from Tourism Research Australia show the major outback areas of NSW, South Australia and Western Australia had a total of only 2.26 million visitors both from Australia and overseas in the last 12 months to September 2016. That was, however, a stunning 65 per cent up on 2014 numbers. 

In addition, Aboriginal educator Tim Ella, who runs Kadoo Indigenous Tours at Sydney's La Perouse and Watsons Bay, reckons around 80 per cent of people living in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane have probably never even met, or spoken to, an Aboriginal person. Andre Ellis, co-founder of small group outback tour company Outback Spirit, says, "Heading 'outback' gives people a certain understanding and new perspective of our vast country. I think it's something everyone should aim to do. Stunning landscapes, fascinating Aboriginal culture, the expeditions of the early explorers; there's so much to see and discover."

Similarly, Amanda Markham at Travel Outback Australia, a locals' guide to the outback (traveloutbackaustralia.com), says, "There's a huge myth about the outback being expensive to travel in, and that going overseas is much cheaper. It's not. We crunched some figures. My brother and his family of four last year did the outback for a month in a camper-trailer and it cost them $3000. The next year they went to the US for three weeks and it cost them $19,800. But I think people are starting to realise this now and there's a movement back towards discovering the outback."  

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It truly is one of the most magical places on earth; chock full of spectacular scenery, thrilling experiences, amazingly warm welcomes from the locals, surprise sights and sounds, and even, yes, spiritual awakenings. The first time I travelled to the outback, I looked around, saw the flattest stretch of land I'd ever seen, and more dust and flies than I'd ever imagined existed, and thought, "there really is nothing here".

But by the end of that trip, I'd learnt how to appreciate the raw natural beauty of the place, those vast vistas, the endless horizons, the sense of fun of outback people and the stark raving lunacy of some of the real Australiana that goes on there. So listen, if I can love it – a city-dwelling teetotalling non-smoking vegetarian who doesn't drink tea or coffee, and has gluten and lactose intolerances to boot – then anyone, and everyone, can.

Savour its wonder while it's still there.

MY OUTBACK: DAME QUENTIN BRYCE, FORMER GOVERNOR-GENERAL OF AUSTRALIA

"I love the outback. It's where in my heart I feel I belong, out there in the central west of Queensland. The little bush town of Ilfracombe [near Longreach] is where my sisters and I spent those influential years of our early childhood in the 1940s. It's where the foundations for our futures were formed; our first lessons for life, the values that would guide us, the friendships that endure across generations, enriching and reassuring.  

"How grateful I am to my parents for passing on to me their love of 'the bush'. For me it's all about the people.  Their legendary hospitality is offered with warmth, generosity and style whether at home on the veranda, at the annual race meeting or at the sheep show."

MY OUTBACK: DJAWA TIMMY BURARRWANGA, ABORIGINAL ELDER, ARNHEM LAND

"Country for us is home. We know everything there; the trees, animals, plants. It's like a bush library for us, and often a bush university too. It's there that we study and understand, and have learnt about the land and the care of that land over thousands of years. We can read it like a GPS. It's been handed down by our ancestors.   

"[White Australians] were brought up with another system and another way, and grew up with different priorities. But I think it's good if more of them come and visit the outback. They will learn more and understand better. There's lots of knowledge in books, but we'd like them to come out and experience the beauty of the land. It's now time to start understanding each other, understanding each other's cultures would be a wonderful thing."

MY OUTBACK: GINA RINEHART, EXECUTIVE CHAIRMAN, HANCOCK PROSPECTING GROUP

"Many of my best memories were made while I was growing up and working in remote areas, in the rugged Pilbara, on our family's pastoral stations, Mulga Downs and Hamersley, and later, with our various mining projects. They say, once you get the Pilbara's red dust in your system, the love for the Aussie outback stays with you for life. 

"I think they are right; I still recall with deep feeling enjoying warm or hot evenings, on the homestead veranda or at mulga garden, overlooking vast open stretches of land towards the ranges, as they turned blue in the evenings, sliding down waterfalls and playing in gorge pools, sleeping out on hot nights under skies overfilled with stars, riding and driving through the stations I loved, including during what's called the 'bankers' hour'."

MY OUTBACK: JOHN WILLIAMSON, SINGER-SONGWRITER

"In 1985, I took a road trip through the outback, drove 14,000 kilometres and ended up writing my album Road Thru The Heart, for which I won my first Golden Guitar. I guess that was the beginning of realising the diversity of the outback, its colours and its wonder. I love that untouched landscape and there's something marvellous about walking on land that's older than all of us, even the Aborigines. 

"And you never know what you're going to see over the next hill. There's such a sense of space and freedom out there, and the skies at night are amazing with so many stars. I think we Aussies take the outback a bit for granted, but there's nowhere else like it in the world. I love picking up an old, old piece of gidgee, a beautiful deep red colour and making it into music sticks or things for the children. And you can't beat sitting around a campfire. Everyone's equal out there, no matter how much money someone's got."

MY OUTBACK: HELENE YOUNG, AUTHOR AND PILOT

"I spent my previous career – before writing – in aviation, looking down on the grandeur of the Australia landscape and now I love being able to share it with my readers.  Places like the Channel Country of Queensland embody the huge contrasts in the land. In the dry season, the withering veins and arteries of eastern Australia are etched into the dust.

"In the wet season the ground shimmers in the early light as the monsoon rains send life-giving water pulsing south down the creeks and rivers. I remember my first visit to Birdsville where the red sand hills of the Simpson Desert seemed too inhospitable for anything to survive. My guide turned over a gibber stone to show me a tiny plant clinging tenaciously to the soil. Life was everywhere. I just needed to know where to look."

FIVE UNSUNG OUTBACK DESTINATIONS

WINTON, QUEENSLAND

THE PLACE Winton comes as close to the quintessential perfect outback town as anywhere in the country. Set in central-west Queensland, 1150 kilometres west of Brisbane, it's a neat little cowboy town with a touch under 1000 residents, but with enough pubs in the main street alone to keep a population 10 times the size happily fed and watered.

DON'T MISS A tour of the nearby massive sheep and cattle property Carisbrooke Station, recently featured in the award-winning movie Goldstone, with some of the most spectacular landscapes in Australia: glowing red craggy cliffs towering over low claypan country.

ESSENTIALS You can drive on bitumen roads all the way to Winton; there are daily QantasLink flights from Brisbane to Longreach from where it's a 180-kilometre drive; there's a twice-weekly Rex flight to Winton; Spirit of the Outback rail services run twice-weekly from Brisbane to Longreach; and there are daily Bus Queensland coach services from Brisbane. Stay at pubs, hotels, motels, caravan parks or local stations. See queensland.com; experiencewinton.com.au

LAKE BALLARD, WESTERN AUSTRALIA

THE PLACE This blindingly white salt lake, close to the old ghost town of Menzies, in the Goldfields-Esperance region, 730 kilometres east-northeast of Perth,  with a series of steel sculptures standing lonely and stark against the blue sky. It's an amazing sight and, even better, you can walk on water – well, on the dried lake bed – to get out among them. The figures are scattered over a 10-kilometre area beckoning you from a distance, it's impossible not to keep going, and become more and more enchanted with every sight, and increasingly heavy step. 

DON'T MISS Stopping off for a drink and a chat at the Menzies Hotel, a lovely old cream-coloured stone building in the main street – the last of the 13 pubs and two breweries that used to service the area. 

ESSENTIALS Fly to Kalgoorlie on either Qantas or Virgin Australia, usually via Perth, and then drive out for two hours through the red desert, spinifex and saltbush. See lakeballard.com; westernaustralia.com

LIGHTNING RIDGE, NSW

THE PLACE Lightning Ridge, 75 kilometres north of Walgett and 530 kilometres west of Coffs Harbour, in the state's north west, is the only place in the world that produces stunning black opal, but the area itself is just as alluring as the stone.  Its population, for a start, is a complete mystery, with few ever registering for elections. As a result, the membership of the town's bowling club alone almost eclipses its official tally of residents.

DON'T MISS Amigo's Castle, a stunning hand-built castle that's taken 25 years to build and will probably take the same amount of time to finish …

ESSENTIALS Fly to Dubbo and rent a car for the 350-kilometre drive to Lightning Ridge. Stay at the Black Opal Motel Ph 02 6829 0518. Eat at Bruno's Pizza Italian Restaurant. See lightningridgeinfo.com.au; visitnsw.com

PARACHILNA, SOUTH AUSTRALIA

THE PLACE Imagine a world where any time is beer o'clock, there are no TVs, not many people, nothing to stress over and it's all about enjoying a chat as the sun sets over the desert.  Yes, the outback's own Narnia – Parachilna, population two – is set in the Flinders Ranges, 520 kilometres north of Adelaide, among some of the most barren desert, and most fiery red sand dunes, the outback can offer. 

DON'T MISS A look at the historic mining town of Blinman, 36 kilometres away and the highest town in the state, which began with the discovery of copper in 1862. See blinman.org.au 

ESSENTIALS Drive the four hours on bitumen road from Adelaide or charter the one-hour flight via Fargher Air (fargherair.com.au) and consider adding a joy ride over Lake Eyre. Stay at the Prairie Hotel itself, at its cabins or The Overflow, all operated by the hotel, depending on budget. See prairiehotel.com.au; visitsouthaustralia.com

LITCHFIELD PARK, NORTHERN TERRITORY

THE PLACE Kakadu grabs most of the attention when you think of parks in the Top End and, of course, it is a stunning place. But its little cousin Litchfield National Park is also very beautiful with a huge variety of landscapes and attractions and, at just 1½-hours' drive from Darwin, incredibly accessible. Here, there are towering termite mounds, crystal-clear pools at the base of rocky escarpments, picturesque spring-fed waterfalls, rainforest and look-outs. 

DON'T MISS In one day, it's possible to see all the major attractions, like the double cascades of the Florence Falls in the forest, the picnic spot of Wangi Falls, the historic ruins of old homesteads and cool off with swims in many of the rock holes.

ESSENTIALS Fly to Darwin and then drive down on sealed roads via Batchelor, or take a tour from Darwin. See nt.gov.au; visitnorthernterritory.com

FIVE QUINTESSENTIAL OUTBACK EXPERIENCES

WALKING THE LARAPINTA TRAIL

A hike across the MacDonnell Ranges, near Alice Springs, through some of the most astonishingly beautiful and majestic landscapes in the world, with soaring cliffs, crystal-clear rivers and dramatic gorges, is an awe-inspiring experience. The entire route stretches 223 kilometres, but most people do a four, five, seven or 10-day trek to encompass the highlights. See larapintatrail.com.au; visitsouthaustralia.com

DINNER GAZING AT ULURU

Sure, it's only a big rock, but its size, majesty and atmosphere turn the experience into something far deeper. There are now two fabulous dinners under the stars – the Sounds of Silence Dinner or the more upmarket Tali Wiru – where you sit out in the desert watching the sun set over the ancient monolith over a beautiful dinner, examining the brilliant night stars, listening to Aboriginal music and hearing stories about the icon. Magical. See ayersrockresort.com.au 

CATTLE-DROVING IN THE QUEENSLAND OUTBACK

There's little that conjures up the romance of the outback like gazing over the land from horseback to the sound of the rumbling of 600 head of cattle on the move and the crack of a drover's stock whip nearby. It's less fun when you fall off that horse, and the cattle refuse to do as they're told. But the evenings around a campfire hearing the old hands yarn, and the nights in a swag under the stars, more than make up for the bruises and bandy legs. See harryredford.com.au 

FRED BROPHY'S OUTBACK BOXING TENT

What could be more fascinating than seeing this ages-old gold fields tradition of a travelling boxing troupe challenging newcomers to a fight, in front of a riotously partisan crowd, still alive in outback Queensland? The legendary Brophy still runs fight nights throughout the year, at Birdsville, Mt Isa, Kilkivan and Cracow. His next date is March 5 at Kilkivan. See fredbrophysboxingtroupe.com 

SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS AT NINGALOO

Taking a dip alongside the largest sharks in the world, that can grow to 18 metres in length and weigh in at more than 36 tonnes, is terribly humbling and a little scary – especially when they open their massive 1.5-metre-wide mouths close by. Happily, they eat only plankton, plants and tiny animals. Spotter planes look for them, then radio down the co-ordinates to your boat, you speed there, then drop into the water nearby. See ningaloowhalesharks.com

FIVE OF THE BEST OUTBACK STAYS

THE DESERT CAVE HOTEL, COOBER PEDY, SA

The Desert Cave Hotel – experience sleeping underground for a taste of life as an opal miner in this very special part of the outback. It makes perfect sense, being so much cooler and quieter than life above ground in the crazily eccentric town immortalised by Mad Max movies. See desertcave.com.au 

THE BIRDSVILLE HOTEL, BIRDSVILLE, QLD

The beating heart of this tiny remote town on the edges of the Simpson Desert, Sturt's Stony Desert and the Channel Country, and probably best known for its famous races, held almost every September since 1882. Comfortable, friendly and with great food (and drink). See theoutback.com.au/birdsville-hotel

AYERS ROCK RESORT, ULURU, NT

A true icon of the outback, Ayers Rock Resort is one of those special places that nothing else on earth can come close to. The resort has options to suit all budgets, from the five-star Sails in the Desert to the campground. See ayersrockresort.com.au

THE PALACE HOTEL, KALGOORLIE, WA

A fabulously atmospheric old pub right in the centre of town with a lovely laced balcony all around for drinks and dinner. Past guests include the man who later became a US President, Herbert Hoover, who worked in the goldfields, fell in love with a barmaid and donated a mirror as he left, which still hangs in the foyer. See palacehotelkalgoorlie.com 

OUTBACK CHURCH, BROKEN HILL, NSW

A 1911 heritage-listed Romanesque church that's always been a town landmark, now restored and offering luxury accommodation in either the church, presbytery or cottage. See brokenhilloutbackchurchstay.com 

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Author and journalist Sue Williams leads a double life – as a cityslicker living in Sydney's Kings Cross, but at the same time a lover of the Australian outback. She has written five books on the outback, including Women of the Outback, Welcome to the Outback and Outback Heroines. 

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