LONG before Oprah unleashed the cliches about the Red Centre of this wide, brown land, another colourful American, called Big Jake, was all over it. Jake, a bear of a man from Seattle, was the token American in our tour group taking on the Larapinta Trail - a 12-stage, 223-kilometre walking track through the West MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs.
Much of the Larapinta requires single-file formation and you spend a fair bit of time looking at the bum in front as you climb over 800-million-year-old rocks. Not five minutes had passed on the first leg of the trail before Jake hollered a complaint from the back about dust getting in his mouth. Someone piped up with the suggestion he keep his mouth closed. "I can't," he replied. "I'm American." We liked him immediately.
Jake was thrilled to find he was a "seppo" (septic tank = Yank) in Aussie rhyming slang. Keen to fit in, he told us this was exactly the "fairly dinkum" experience he was after.
He photographed and recorded everything and having his microphone shoved under our noses every time we spoke became a regular annoyance. "What did you say? Flat out like what drinking? Say that again! Wait, let me adjust the mixing." After a while we realised this could be a lot of fun and wasted plenty of his time and disk space recounting harrowing tales of tourists being taken by drop bears and hoop snakes and reciting ridiculous vernacular. "Yor'll rip-snort the flamin' smoko off the dunny if ya strewth that bonzer clacker." Jake thought he had struck anthropological gold. We slept in swags, the unimaginable outback stillness broken only by our new seppo mate's chainsaw snoring. At breakfast, Jake underlined his American-ness by adding chocolate cake to his muesli and lamenting the lack of onion rings. He couldn't believe how far it was to the nearest Starbucks.
Each day, Larapinta brought fresh wonders - the ochre scenery and azure sky seemed to be splashed from the palette of the Dreaming. Occasionally, we spied bored rock wallabies, circling kites and the odd dingo inspecting our campsites after we left them but the general paucity of fauna irritated Jake, who was expecting the full Crocodile Dundee palaver.
One night around the campfire, Jake finally got what he came for when we heard the unmistakable guttural bellow of a wild bunyip. We were so used to taking the proverbial out of Jake that by now we had it down to a fine art. We all adopted worried looks and spoke of the bunyip with hushed reverence. He already believed everything in Australia was deadly anyway, so this was no great stretch. He shooshed us all so he could get a better sound bite and after 10 minutes or so of watching him tentatively poke his microphone into the darkness, we let him know he had been recording a cow.
"You bloody bastards," Jake said, his transition to dinky-di complete.