Out-back in the Wallangie Bush
by Pamela Boles Eglinski
The sign read CLOSE THE GATE BEHIND YOU. I heard the telltale click and knew I’d entered another world – the Australian bush country. A small caravan of off-road four-wheel drives labored over parallel ruts in the red earth.
“Easy to get lost if you fall behind,” Charlie said, pulling hard on the wheel, trying to skirt a jagged mound of rock. From the back seat, I sucked in air and held tight to the handgrip over my head.
“Charlie,” I said, leaning forward, “I’m not worried about getting lost; I’m worried about rolling over.”
“Ah, Maggie, have a little faith. We’ll have a g’day, we will.”
The Australian outback had long been a fascination. When a group of friends decided to buy into a bush-country safari, there was no holding me back. From the quiet of my comfortable home in Kansas, I booked the Bush-land Tour Company of South Australia.
Red dust filled the vehicle before we thought to roll up the windows. Coughing, I pulled a bandana from my pack and held it over my nose and mouth. My baseball cap didn’t cover my ears; they filled with ochre dust and my eyes began to itch.
I watched through sealed windows as a mob of kangaroos skimmed the earth, hopping up and over the crest of the surrounding foothills, enormous thighs propelling them across the sandy earth. An emu wandered nearby. The long-legged bird-that-can’t-fly stretched its limbs, scrambling off in the opposite direction. Too slow with the camera, I captured a large behind of blurred feathers. Delete.
Charlie reached for his two-way radio.
“Ya know where we’re go’in mate?”
Oh, my God we’re lost! I held a bottle of water to my chest, hoping it wasn’t my last.
“Aye, just pull up on the crest of the hill, straight away to the left,” said the voice on the other end of the radio.
The Land Rovers struggled forward, twisting and tipping at precarious angles as they mounted the hill – then lurched to a rock-grinding halt. Drivers leapt out. I sat, waiting for the dust to settle. When I could see the men again, I opened the door and prepared to step out. Someone yelled, “Watch for brown snakes! Hard to see in the dirt and brush. Very poisonous.”
I whipped my foot back inside and slammed the door. Breaking out in a cold sweat, I thought of Indiana Jones. He hated snakes too.
I lectured myself. Don’t be a wimp! Tuck your pant legs into your socks and jump out!
I grabbed my camera, opened the door, surveyed the ground and stepped onto the burnished earth. Cautiously I moved toward an outcropping, keeping a watchful eye out for snakes. And that’s when I saw it – a 360° panoramic view of the Australian bush-land.
Awestruck, I absorbed the raw beauty. My thoughts reached back to the Aborigines and their passion for the land. Guided by the Southern Cross, they were Australia’s first settlers, a tribal people known only to this isolated continent.
I looked around at the mystical land, frozen in time. Primeval. To the Aborigines, this is where life began. Even now, native peoples travel to the bush, hoping for their mysterious dreamtime – a trance like state where they commune with gods of earth and sky.
As I gazed out across the broad sweep of land, I realized the bush was much like the rugged canyon lands of Utah, where I’d camped many years ago among the water starved plants and howling coyotes.
I snapped photos far and near – trying to capture the vast expanse of land and the earth just below my feet. Thick layers of lichen covered mounds of rock. Yellow tuffs of grass peeked out from under my boots. Tiny desperate-to-survive orchids blossomed everywhere. In the distance, scrub trees eked out a life beside the green saltbush – food for the animals and a balanced eco system. Far off, I squinted to see the effects of civilization – lush green alfalfa fields and bright yellow canola ready for harvesting. After ten years of drought, farmers were reaping the fields once again.
Romantic, unforgiving land.
A driver broke the solitude. “It’s time to head over to the campfire. Hop in and we’ll be on our way.”
What kind of meat would they roast, I wondered. Kangaroo, probably. Emu, maybe. Wombat, not likely. Quail? That would be nice. To Americans, these animals epitomized Australia. Did we dare eat them? Surely, there was a vegan among us.
We started back down the hill – vehicles tipping, seeking traction and finally gripping the warn ruts the Aussies called a road. I closed my eyes and imagined a glass of chilled Claire Valley Riesling.
“We missed the turn off,” said a crackling voice over the two way radio. My eyes popped open as the trucks swung around in a cloud of red dust and headed back in the direction we’d come.
“Charlie,” said the radio, “there is a shed that marks the site. Watch for it. It’s back behind us, I think.”
“Ah, yeah, I saw ‘er back there a bit. Didn’t know that was the marker. Follow me.”
My life was in their hands. I refused to worry. These men had traveled in and out of the bush all their lives.
Soon, we came upon the cookout site. A large wood fed fire glowed in the center of a clearing. Circled by rocks and an abundance of lawn chairs, our hosts were ready to show us a good time.
Charlie pulled up on the edge of the campsite and unloaded the eski – an Eskimo cooler holding water, ale and wine. Others did the same. They knew the drill.
We plucked a drink from the coolers, settled into a chair and watched dinner cook and the stars came out.
“Okay,” yelled the camp cook once everyone arrived, “over there is the loo.” She gestured toward a corrugated steel shed, about fifty feet away at the end of a well-worn path.
“It doesn’t flush but it’s clean, odor free and you’ll find paper near the door. Wash your hands in the bucket of water. There’s a small mirror in there too for the ladies,” she paused, “and fussy men.”
“Paper you say?” said Sam.
“Better than a salt bush,” said the cook.
Laughter filled the evening air.
My mind wasn’t on toilet paper. Watch your step. Snakes slither out from under rocks at night.
As the sun set and the meat cooked, empty bottles found their way to a short stubby leafless tree. Mounted on the tips of branches, blue, green and amber glass twinkled in the firelight reminding me that Christmas was only two months away – a time when the bush would be unbearably hot and cookouts unimaginable. Christmas, down-under was always in the summer.
“Your glass empty?” Sam asked. “Let me fill ‘er up. No use hauling it back home.”
Australian hospitality flowed as the lamb grilled and sausage, mixed with beans, simmered. Large salads were set out on a card table, indicating time to gather ‘round and dish up. It was dusk now, and I imagined American cattlemen, as they must have lived a century ago, herding steers to railheads across the Kansas prairie.
We washed dinner down with a New Zealand cabernet, then leaned back in our chairs and gazed up at the stars.
I gasped. The legendary southern sky glittered. Aboriginal guideposts were everywhere, common to the bush-land then and now.
“Let me show you the stars,” offered Charlie.
That’s a very old line, I thought, as we stepped outside the firelight. But I had nothing to fear.
“See, just above us and slightly to the left? That’s the Southern Cross. Like the North Star, in the northern hemisphere, it guides travelers on foot and horse-back.”
The sky was radiant. Beyond anything I’d ever seen before.
“And right there,” Charlie whispered, as if he might disturb the stars, “just above the Cross is a swatch of white that runs from horizon to horizon.”
“The Milky Way,” I exclaimed breathlessly. My mouth fell open and I breathed in cool night air.
“And there’s the moon!” I exclaimed, pointing upwards like a four-year-old child. “Looks like a cup on its back – not the usual crescent we see in the north.”
I stood, frozen, gazing at the star-studded heavens.
But the evening’s surprises were not over yet. As guests from America, we were asked to sing Waltzing Matilda, then Home, Home on the Range. The Aussies joined as song and laughter rang out across the wild land.
Things quieted for a moment, as cookies and tea were served. All too soon, the “Christmas tree” was stripped of its decorative bottles and we gathered up plates and napkins … packing them away.
As I walked back to the car, I knew I couldn’t leave this magical place without one more glance over my shoulder. I turned and fixed in my mind, this perfect evening in South Australia’s forever mystical, Wallangie bush.