Any Australian can tell you where the outback is. It’s out there, somewhere beyond the coastal fringe of the country where most of the population lives, beyond the chic café society of sophisticated cities like Sydney, Melbourne, and Perth, and beyond the green halo of productive farmland that surrounds them. But the outback is more than just a place. It’s a state of mind.
The way it was. Author Angus MacKenzie’s parents stranded on
the main highway between Adelaide and Alice Springs in 1955.
The road was sealed in the mid-1980s.
National symbol. Kangaroos are a common sight for the
Australia is the world’s smallest continent and the world’s largest island; the sixth largest nation after Russia, Canada, China, the U.S., and Brazil; and about twice the size of the European Union. It’s big, but it’s empty: With just a little more than 22 million people, it ranks ahead of Yemen and Mozambique in terms of population, and more than 80 percent of Australians live within 60 miles of the coast.
The first Europeans didn’t settle in Australia until 1788, and their exploration of Australia’s dry and desolate heartland produced heroic tales of hope and courage, triumph and tragedy. I saw for myself how remote and challenging the outback was in the fuzzy black and white photos and faded Kodachromes taken when my parents drove a 1937 Dodge coupe right across the country, from Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin in the north, in 1955.
The stories of that trip were family legend. Rare heavy rains meant it took eight days to cover the 1,020 miles from Adelaide to Alice Springs, the small town located right in the center of the country. Back then the Stuart Highway, which followed more or less the same route taken by explorer John McDouall Stuart when he made the first successful crossing of the continent in 1862, was little more than a dirt track meandering through the scrub in places. My parents’ old Dodge was frequently stuck in the mud.