Lessons from the Outback

Lessons from the Outback

Capturing a sunset in the southern Outback of Australia offers up more than picturesque views. Along with a few panoramic photos, TB&C Ambassador Marley Parker takes in some of the strange and haunting history of this remote land.  

Just a few steps from this road, we get out of the car to watch the sunset over a far-flung horizon.

Just a few steps from this road, we get out of the car to watch the sunset over a far-flung horizon.

“Wow!”

“Hot damn!”

“Bloody hell!”

The words fall out of our mouths simultaneously, as we try to absorb the enormity of the land and sky stretching out in every direction.  

Nick and Alice (a lovely Aussie couple from Sydney) and I have been road-tripping across the southern Australian Outback for the past four days. It’s been a good time to say the least, and we have seen some incredible views, from kangaroo and emu sightings to a massive dust storm. After so many hours spent driving across flat terrain, we have become accustomed to massive skies, but nothing compares to this spot — the Mundi Mundi lookout.  

We pull into the parking area, which is nothing more than a relatively flat circle of packed dirt with some recent tire tracks. Just one other car is here.

Alice takes in the view while the sun is still high in the sky.

Alice takes in the view while the sun is still high in the sky.

Because we are in the southern hemisphere in late April, the sun will set roughly an hour from now, around 5:30pm. Nick maneuvers our small car into a position to help block us from the gusting winds, while Alice and I put down a blanket and a bag of provisions that includes crackers, cheese, hummus, and a bottle of wine. With the excitement of movie-goers finding seats for a long-awaited, blockbuster film, we settle in for one of my all-time favorite activities — watching the sky change colors.

While we wait for the sun to begin its descent, I turn over a few nearby rocks, and my mind wanders (as it often does in these types of environments) to geologic time scales. I hold two bright red rocks in my hand and wonder how many millennia they have spent rolling across this dusty landscape.

As far as landmasses go, Australia is one of the oldest on the planet. So it comes as little surprise that this continent is home to some very, very old rocks. In 2014, American geologists confirmed that zircon crystals found in western Australia were roughly 4.375 billion years old—the oldest terrestrial diamonds yet discovered anywhere.

Enjoying color contrasts in the bright sun.

Enjoying color contrasts in the bright sun.

Despite being one of the oldest geological places on earth, when it comes to politics and government, Australia is a relatively young country. I put down my rocks and ask Alice when her homeland officially became a nation.

“Federation happened in 1901,” she says. “The six colonies – Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia – united and became the Commonwealth of Australia.”

The familiar wave of my own American ignorance washes over me. “Wow, I didn’t realize Australia is half the age of the United States.”

The landmass of Australia is just slightly less than that of the continental United States, but it has far fewer people. A quick Google search tells me the population of Australia is 24.6 million, with roughly 85 percent of the population living within 50 kilometers of the coast. Even though the vast majority of Australians live in and around its major cities, the Outback is home to a storied (and often haunting) anthropological history.  

Over a dozen cars full of people (both locals and tourists) gather at the Mundi Mundi lookout to watch the sunset.

Over a dozen cars full of people (both locals and tourists) gather at the Mundi Mundi lookout to watch the sunset.

More cars pull into the parking area as the sun dips lower. I snap photos of the transient colors while Al tells me about Terra nullius, a Latin expression meaning "nobody's land". Throughout history, empires used this term to justify new land claims — if a large area of land was not inhabited by “civilized” people, it was considered “nobody’s land” and therefore deemed eligible for political and social occupation by whatever group has laid claim to it. We discuss how destructive this ideology has been around the world, from North and South America to Australia.

In the case of Australia, historians believe the Aboriginal people had inhabited the continent for over 65,000 years before European settlement began around the end of the 18th century. Because the indigenous customs, rituals and laws were unwritten, they were considered “uncivilized”.

This mentality persisted beyond the time of settlement, of course. Alice describes the ways in which the Australian government dehumanized Aboriginal people – from massacres, to forced removal from their homes, to relocation, to exploited labor.

“Do you know about the ‘stolen generation’?” she asks.

I shake my head.

Nick, who has spent years working as a lawyer for Aboriginal Legal Services, explains how in the early 20th century, all across Australia, aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families.  

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with another Aussie friend during our weekend in Nyngan about how history repeats itself. “Australia has made all the same mistakes the United States has made,” he told me. “We’ve just condensed them into a shorter time period.”

As the last cars pull out of the parking area, we begin to pack up our belongings and discuss plans for dinner. The sun disappeared almost an hour ago, but the horizon still glows — a hazy strip of indigo blue against a thin line of bright red. I photograph the deep contrasting colors, thinking of the unjustifiable harm that comes from drawing lines between people due to differences in language, customs, or skin tones. I wonder about the white men who came here just over 200 years ago, and their notion of Terra nullius. I wonder how different the history here could be if in place of nobody’s land, it had instead been claimed as everybody’s land?

The final light of the day casts an ephemeral glow across the horizon.

The final light of the day casts an ephemeral glow across the horizon.

Marley Parker Comment