Travel '98: January In the outback

Kick-start the year with champagne at Ayers Rock, followed by a sleepless night lying under the stars in a swag: it worked for Rosalind Russell

Men are the worst, apparently. Riding pillion on a Harley Davidson, cruising along a ribbon of road through the crimson dust of Central Australia, men sit bolt upright, like they're being interviewed for a job. They won't lean into the bends. And they won't hold on to the waist of the guy who is driving. So they lean back stiffly (and manfully) and grip the seat by the grab rails.

Women, with fewer inhibitions about clinging on to a strange man - as an alternative to falling off, or getting cramp - soon pick up the rhythm. So says Patrick, whose waist I am clutching with shameless familiarity. I feel like a Hell's Angel's moll, stuffed into a borrowed biker's leather jacket. I really ought to have a Joanna Lumley hairdo, but it wouldn't fit in the helmet. Not in the same one as my face, anyway.

But the sexes do have something in common when it comes to Harleys: we all imagine rock music blasting through our helmeted heads while thundering along. Ask anyone who's done it. Bruce Springsteen and the Stones are favourites. Big Boys' bikes call for matching music. Nobody would ride a Harley humming anything by Andrew Lloyd-Webber.

Arriving at Ayers Rock (Uluru to the Aboriginals, who own it) by Harley is classier than filing out of a tourist coach. You can even stuff a couple of bottles of chilled champagne in the panniers, to sip as the sun turns the rock from deep damson to fiery salmon pink.

Ayers Rock is the Taj Mahal of Australia: a tourist cliche, you know what it's like because you've seen a million postcards. But you don't really, not until you've stood and watched, spellbound, as it changes colour and depth before your eyes. Just before the sun melts into the horizon, Ayers Rock glows like a red hot coal. You'd swear someone inside it had turned on a megawatt lightbulb.

The National Park, in which Ayers Rock and the almost as remarkable, but not-quite-as-famous Olgas stand, is closed between sunset and daybreak, giving the local Aboriginal community a break. Their settlements near the Rock are off-limits to outsiders. The restriction also prevents the viewing spaces being ring-fenced before dawn by Japanese photographers and their camera tripods. Most of them are on honeymoon. I ask you, what sort of bridegroom takes his tripod on honeymoon?

"This is a great place," enthuses David, an Australian lawyer who has relocated from Queensland's Gold Coast to the Rock. "When I worked at Surfer's Paradise, I spent all day in meetings with businessmen in white shoes and heavy jewellery who were only concerned with screwing every last dollar out of the poor tourist. Now my meetings are with tribal elders and we discuss land rights and how land should be managed."

Talking land in Australia means talking about regions the size of France, with hardly anybody in them. "Just miles and miles of bugger-all," says one dismissive, city-born Sydneysider.

Up to a point. It might look empty, but there are eyes in the dark everywhere. 450km from Ayers Rock and 24km from Alice Springs awaits an Outback experience never to be forgotten.

There's no better man than Ian Blevin to lead a nocturnal yomp among potholes, sand drifts and clumps of razor-sharp spinifex in the bush. Stocky, straight-talking, funny and passionate about the environment, the Zimbabwe-born former farmer and ex-Gurkha is the sort of chap you feel you could rely on in a tight corner. He looks as though he could skin and cook a goanna - and eat it - if the going got tough. His company Trec Gondwana is used by film crews - including television's cult hero Bush Tucker Man - looking for wildlife footage.

Blevin's safaris trek through land belonging to the Bond Springs cattle station, which, at 700 square miles, is bigger than the whole of Greater London. Only about 10 people live on it, including the owners, Jan and Grant Heaslip. This is no ersatz dude ranch where visitors can play at being cowboys; it's a working station where the mustering is done by professionals with an aeroplane and motorbikes. On the wall in the huge farmhouse kitchen, a sign (from an old hotel) reads: No Dancing On The Table With Spurs On. Big Girl's Blouses who can't face a night in the open can stay in one of the homestead's guest rooms, or in a restored early Australian cottage.

Our al fresco bush dinner - steaks and a stir fry which Blevin cheerfully admitted looked like road-kill - was cooked on a campfire and washed down with a very acceptable Aussie red. Water, if we hadn't brought our own in the trailer, was no problem. You've just got to know where to look for it. Ian Blevin does.

He dropped to his knees and began to dig furiously with his hands in the dry, sandy river bed. Two feet down, there was the sound of running water. We city slickers were impressed.

"It's a bit brown, but it's pure," said Ian, scooping up a handful. "If the colour worries you, you can strain it through a T-shirt."

Not mine, I think.

As the rest of us stumbled inexpertly behind, uttering soft curses (spinifex looks as soft as a feather duster, but its leaves are like needles and they harbour some of the world's more excitable reptiles), Blevin's flashlight searched out eyes in the dark: affronted owls and blinking frogs. Big red kangaroos took off like steeplechasers through the mulga trees.

The thought of a 14-stone kangaroo trampolining off your stomach in the middle of the night does not encourage sound sleep. Does anyone know if kangaroos can see in the dark? These thoughts (and more) tumble restlessly through the mind of an unconvinced camper in the lonely small hours, lying under the stars in a swag. A swag is a duvet-size canvas zip-up bag, in which is inserted a thin mattress and a sleeping bag. As in "Once a jolly Swagman camped by a billabong, under the shade of the coolibah tree".

Lucky he didn't camp under a river red gum. The eucalypt's nickname is the Widow Maker, because it has a habit of dropping very large branches which can flatten a camper van, never mind a dag in a swag. By the light of the moon, I estimated the distance between me and the nearest large branch. Unless a wind got up and blew it off in my direction, I was safe. This really wasn't so bad.

Almost fun in a retrospective kind of way. In fact, it's very snug and comfortable in a swag; just the sort of place a venomous snake might like to curl up in on a chilly night such as this... I grabbed my hiking boots, stuffed them into my body bag and zipped myself in all the way round. I'd rather suffocate with my Christopher Brashers than share a bed with a death adder.

It was a long night. A heavy dew soaks everything uncovered by canvas. This includes your head if you leave it poking out of the swag. A pack of dingos about a kilometre away began to wail. Bats flitted by, squeaking through the trees. The Hale Bopp comet fizzed silently behind a lacy tangle of branches, outshone by the Southern Cross. Unidentified scuffles in the dark had my heart thumping like a cornered rabbit's. I was profoundly grateful when, at 6am, I was wakened from a fitful sleep by Ian Blevin.

"If you were stranded and really desperate for water," said Ian later, back on metal strip road, "you could eat just one square inch of one of those..."

Growing in the scrubby red earth by the side of the road are yellow melons the size of a grapefruit. They looked pretty good.

"Paddy melons, a strong purgative which will keep you in the toilet for a week..."

So much for bush tucker.

How to get there

In the past 10 years, air fares to Australia have fallen by half. As competition between the airlines intensifies, they are likely to be even cheaper this year. The best gateway to central Australia is Darwin, and the lowest fares are likely to be on Royal Brunei Airlines via Bandar Seri Bagawan; through discount agents you could pay as little as pounds 600. Flights via Japan and the Philippines are likely to be among the cheapest and fastest, but these require add-on domestic flights. You need a visitor visa for Australia; many airlines and specialist agencies issue these electronically. Call 0891 600333 for more information. Uluru Motorcycle Tours can be booked from reception at the Sails In The Desert Hotel, Ayers Rock Resort, or in the UK through Lotus Supertravel (0171-410 0200). They provide leathers and helmet. Bond Springs Cattle Station (00 61 8 8952 9888; fax 00 61 8 8953 0963) features in UK brochures for Lotus Supertravel, Quest Worldwide, Travel Portfolio and Trailfinders.

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