Real middle Australia

Lee Atkinson finds her centre in the gravitational heart of the land.

Sitting cross-legged underneath a silver pyramid surrounded by red dust and spinifex, I can't help but feel centred. Centred, but not anchored, I realise, as my wobbly lotus pose slides sideways and I topple from my precarious perch atop what is actually quite a small pedestal. But you don't need good balance to find your centre at Lambert's Centre, on the edge of the Simpson Desert a long day's drive on rough bush tracks south-east of Alice Springs - because no matter where you sit, you are about as close as you can get to the very centre of Australia.

There's a lot of confusion and quite a bit of controversy surrounding the exact location of the centre of Australia. If you believe the tourist brochures, it's Uluru, often likened to a red beating heart in purple advertising prose.

Explorer John McDouall Stuart claimed he had found the centre of Australia, which he called Central Mount Sturt after fellow explorer Charles Sturt, in 1860, although it was renamed in honour of the man who found it when he got back to civilisation. It's six kilometres from the Stuart Highway about halfway between Alice Springs and the Devils Marbles.

But Geoscience Australia, the government body responsible for such things, says that "officially, there is no centre of Australia ... because there are many complex but equally valid methods that can determine possible centres of a large, irregularly-shaped area - especially one that is curved by the earth's surface."

Even so, that hasn't stopped people trying to pin it down, and Geoscience Australia admits there are actually five possibilities, and they all have plaques to mark the spot, if you can find them.

In 1965, the Division of National Mapping determined, by trigonometric surveys, that the centre was a kilometre north of Mount Cavenagh homestead, just off the Stuart Highway on the South Australia-Northern Territory border, and built a cairn to mark the spot. But in 1988 the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia decided that the geographical centre of Australia is at the Lambert Gravitational Centre, otherwise just known as Lambert's Centre, in honour of Dr Bruce Lambert, one of the country's best cartographers.

Beyond the rather trippy-hippie silver pyramid, which is actually a scaled-down replica of the flagpole atop Parliament House in Canberra, a visitors' book and the smelly outback dunny, there's not much to see at Lambert's Centre, besides beautiful budgerigars, red 'roos and the occasional lolloping camel; but it's the getting here that's the fun part.

From the east coast we'd speared due west, through iconic outback towns such as Bourke and Tibooburra and Cameron Corner, hitting the red desert dunes at the start of the Strzelecki Track. This four-wheel-drive highway cuts through the heart of the Strzelecki Desert and during dry times is everything you expect a desert to be.

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But we're lucky enough to be there after a rain-filled season and the dunes are carpeted in yellow and white daisy-like wildflowers. The only thing that doesn't change is the wide brown gibber plains - miles and miles of flat land covered in small, rounded rocks called gibbers. These gibbers change colour depending on the time of day and where the light is coming from - from one side of the track, all around you is brown; cross the road and the same scene will be bright red, silver or black.

At Lyndhurst we meet up with the junction of the Oodnadatta Track. Linking Marree in the south to Marla in the north, the Oodnadatta Track traverses some of South Australia's most remote outback, following in the footsteps of explorer Stuart, the first to cross the continent from Adelaide to Darwin. The Overland Telegraph Line was built along this route just 10 years later - which was followed by the now-abandoned first Ghan railway line, opened in 1929 - and we pass by the crumbling ruins of old stations and sidings, rusty water towers and roofless railway workers' cottages built from stone, as well as several old train carriages plonked in the middle of the main street in Marree. Many of these old stations and sidings were built beside mound springs, where the hot water from the Great Artesian Basin bubbles to the surface, creating small oases in the midst of the red sandhills.

At Oodnadatta we take the less-travelled route north towards Finke, still following the old railway line into the Pedirka Desert. The track's rougher and we see no other vehicles all day, and we stop several times to explore the ruins of once-grand station homesteads beside beautiful waterholes full of pelicans.

By the time we get to Lambert's Centre, we've travelled more than 2500 kilometres, across four states (if you count our 100-metre trip into Queensland at Cameron Corner) and three deserts over two hot, dusty weeks. The scientists might still be arguing about exactly where the real centre is, and the devil's in the details, but no matter what you call it, or how you measure it, it's a long way from anywhere else.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Lambert's Centre is 35km west of Finke. The quickest way from Alice Springs is via the four-wheel-drive-only Old South Road to Finke (243 kilometres).

STAYING THERE

Camp free at Lambert's Centre and various spots along the Oodnadatta and Strzelecki tracks; there are caravan parks at Tibooburra, Marree, William Creek, and Oodnadatta.

WHEN TO GO

Winter. Summer temperatures can exceed 50 degrees.

MORE INFORMATION

Hema's Great Desert Tracks Atlas and Guide, wilddiscoveryguides.com.

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