Our off-road vehicle jostles through a dry gully, each jolt bouncing us in our seats. Through the front window two kangaroos take the lead in the rutted path just ahead. Their hopping mimics our painful jostling.
We bounce along together until breaking into a grassy clearing. Another pair of kangaroos bounds across our path. Close on their heels, an emu races behind in a comical flat-footed sprint. We all burst out laughing.
On a two-day safari into the outback of South Australia, our tour group felt fortunate to spot 40 kangaroos. But Mick Scholz, our guide with Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris, says some groups see as many as 200, along with dozens of varieties of birds and the southern hairy-nose wombat, a nocturnal marsupial resembling a small bear.
Mick and his brother Geoff founded their safari company in 1988, specializing in wildlife and an authentic outback experience. Native Aussies, they know this wilderness like a mother knows her baby’s face, and seem to love it just as much.
Heading to the Outback
Our adventure begins with a flight by prop plane from Adelaide, capital of South Australia, to the hamlet of Whylla where Mick helps us load our packs into a trailer pulled by his four-wheel-drive SUV.
In Your Bucket Because
- You want to see Australia’s Outback and its wildlife
- You want to rough it in the bush, but in comfort
- Good for those who love animals and wilderness
Soon we’re off into the Outback, a generic term for the center of the continent. Dry, under-populated and with little vegetation, it lies primarily in the states of South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and the New Territory.
Why is it called the outback? If you live in the populated areas around the fringes of Australia, the wilderness in the center is, in Aussie speak, “out back.”
Mick points out the myall trees, a member of the acacia family and a common species in this dry land. The Aborigines used this wood to make boomerangs, he says. The majestic spreading branches provide welcome shade, for people as well as animals. In summer (winter in the Northern Hemisphere) temperatures can climb to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Animals spend most of the day in the shade, burrowed deep in the brush, so it’s not a good time for wildlife viewing, says Mick.
Time for tea and a dunny break
We pull over in the outpost of Iron Knob, a mining town, for a morning scone and cup of tea. Mick sets out the provisions on the tailgate of his trailer and encourages us to make use of the nearby dunny. This concrete-block restroom — a glorified outhouse — will be the only facilities we will see until tonight. In the meantime we will make use of what little vegetation we find for what we come to refer to as a “bush pee.”
As we travel through a landscape of rock and red soil, the paved road turns to gravel and our vehicle sets up a rooster tail of dust. Mick spots a sheep station where workers are bringing in rams for shearing and stops to ask whether we might have a look. We watch as shearers remove the wool, carefully avoiding the animals’ curving horns, and pull off the fleece in one piece.
Outside, we take our time heading back to the SUV until Mick yells “Run!” A car heading our way sends up its own rooster tail and we’ll be choked by dust if we don’t get in and close the doors before it passes. “Slam, slam, slam, slam” — just in time.
Exploring Gawler Rangers National Park
We see more evidence of this dry and dusty terrain as we head into Gawler Ranges National Park. Formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago, the landscape consists of rocky outcroppings, hills and gorges with seasonal water flow. In spring, wildflowers carpet this desert.
But the oddest landscape we come across doesn’t look like Australia, but Antarctica. Dark hills surround a flatland so blazing white it nearly blinds us, even through sunglasses. The white isn’t snow, however, but salt.
Dry salt lakes lie scattered through the region and we’ve come to one of the largest. Lake Gairdner measures 100 by 28 miles and its salt pan can be up to 78 inches deep — thick enough to drive across.
Watching speed demons on Lake Gairdner
Lucky us, we’ve come during the one week of the year that the Dry Lakes Racers Australia holds its annual Speed Week. Fifty-six vehicles, from motorcycles to Indy-style race cars, rocket down a nine-mile course in an attempt to break the land-speed record. At times looking like a scene from a “Mad Max” movie, drivers and race fans hover around home-built roadsters, customized motorcycles and stock cars sporting bright paint jobs and attended by uniformed crew.
We leave the noise of racecars behind and make our way to the solace of Kangaluna Camp, a bush camp Mick and his brother created on the edge of the national park. After drinks and a dinner of steak, salad and fruit in the mess hut, we retire to luxury tents. Built on platforms, each tent is divided into two rooms, one with queen-size bed, the other with a pair of twins, plus a bathroom with shower and an honest-to-goodness flush toilet. The plumbing operates by hand pump using stored rainwater; the lights use solar energy.
Next morning dawns cold, about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. As the sun comes up through the trees, green parrots flit over our tents. Driving out of camp a mother kangaroo with a joey in her pouch stands up and peers at us from the bush as if to bid us an Aussie g’day.
- Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris, www.gawlerrangessafaris.com, has a variety of safari packages. More information about the Outback and tour companies can be found through the South Australia Tourism Commission, southaustralia.com, and Tourism Australia, Australia.com.
- Safaris run year-round, but October and April are the best months. Temperatures can fall to freezing in winter (June through August) and can pass 110 Fahrenheit in summer (December through February).
- Pack good walking shoes, waterproof jacket, hat, sunglasses, long-sleeve shirt and sunscreen.