Talk about taking a fish out of water! I was just a 22-year-old kid the first time I went to the outback. I’d grown up beside the lagoon in the Cook Islands and the surf beaches of Byron Bay and now my very first travel gig as a trainee journalist was to travel to one of the driest places on Earth – Outback Queensland.
Not only would I be going to the desert for the first time, I’d be travelling with two livestock truck drivers in a light plane one of them reckoned he knew how to fly, cutting a path right across the outback for two weeks – from Longreach and Winton in the south to Cloncurry and Mt Isa in the north.
They weren’t planning on taking it too easy on me, so I had to learn quickly just to survive. But it was all worth it. If you’re thinking of heading bush, these tips should help you through.
1. Never insult a bloke for drinking mid-strength beer
Just about everyone out there drinks XXXX Gold. On my first night in the outback I asked local blokes why they couldn’t handle full-strength beer. Big, big mistake. From that point I wasn’t allowed to go to bed till the last drinker had left. Be warned.
2. Learn to love meat
They eat meat with their cornflakes in the outback. There’s a mixed grill for breakfast, sausages for lunch and steak for dinner. I once asked for chicken and was laughed out of Cloncurry. And vegetables? Well, they eat potatoes, that’s close enough. Maybe take some bran with you.
3. Take a hat with corks hanging off it
I thought it was just in the movies, but flies love the outback – no matter how dry and dusty it gets. You might be 200 kilometres from the nearest garbage bin and you’ll still be swotting the things off you. It’s a cliché ‘cause it’s true.
4. Don’t drive at dawn or dusk unless you have a big bull bar
There’s more kangaroos out there than I would’ve thought possible, and they’re crazy at dawn and dusk. Before you know it they’ll be leaping into your path and no matter how slow you drive or how ready you think you are, you’re no match for a leaping roo. I even had a near-miss with a flying emu.
5. Don’t EVER miss a sunset
There’s no better place in the world to watch a sunset than the outback. After all that heat of the day there’s a sudden peace about dusk. It’s so quiet too; it’ll drive you crazy if you like a bit of noise. Sunrise is good too but outback people don’t mind a beer or two so you might struggle for too many early rises.
6. Leave your cliques behind, and any city-slicker attitude
Outback Queenslanders aren’t interested in where you’ve been or what you’ve done. They judge you on face value. And they’re friendly folk, even the bloke with the roughest looking head’s only a cold beer away from being your best mate. Try buying them a drink and joining in the conversation. It’s not like a city where you have to know people before they’ll talk to you.
7. Don’t get too precious about anything
Don’t want to go to the toilet behind a tree? Don’t want a coffee with full-cream milk? Need a scrub-up before every meal? Don’t get precious out here, there’s plenty of soy decaf lattes back home in the city. Rough it for a while and learn to appreciate the simpler things in life… like you did as a kid.
8. Everyone knows everyone
And don’t forget it. Start telling a funny anecdote about someone you met – even if it’s a town hundreds of kilometres away – and you’ll probably find it’s someone’s brother, or best mate, or father.
9. Befriend a publican
Out here, the people who own the pubs have the best stories – they’ve seen it all in their time. I heard stories that made my skin crawl in every outback town I visited just by chatting to the publican.
10. Give yourself plenty of time
They say the outback’s more a state of mind than a destination, so don’t rush it or you’ll never get there. No matter how long you give it, it still won’t be enough time. You’ll be surprised how many things there are to experience hidden amongst all that red dust.
Have you been to the outback? What was your first time like?
Cover photo by Phil Rettke Photography