Travel: Journey to the Outback of beyond: Simon Calder braves scorching heat, a ranting redneck, asbestos dust and a few Sydney Harbours to get a look at millions of square miles of nothing

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The Independent Travel
According to the Australian Tourist Commission, this is 'Discover the Great Australian Outdoors Year'. Next year is optimistically trailed as the 'Year of Australian Art and Culture'. Preferring the outdoors today to the promise of culture tomorrow, I set out to cover the back end of a very distant beyond: the 2,500 miles from Perth to Darwin.

Six of Australia's capital cities huddle in the south-east of the country. The two outsiders are the capitals of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Perth and Darwin lie on the far fringes of the nation - both closer to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, than to Canberra. And if these two renegades seem isolated, you should see the terrain between them.

Now is the best time to make such an expedition, since the onset of 'winter' means the weather is as benevolent as it ever gets. Furthermore, April to June is silly season for air fares to Australasia. I bought a ticket on Royal Brunei Airlines from London to Perth, returning from Darwin: just pounds 569 for 20,000 miles of air travel.

Any glee at getting such a bargain, however, is tempered with the problem of how to get from Perth to Darwin. The road distance is greater than that from Glasgow to Cairo, and translates as three mind- and bum-numbing days on a bus. Domestic air fares are so high that you could easily spend more cash travelling between these two cities than it costs to travel between the UK and Australia. So I went freelance, taking short hops by air, riding buses and hitching lifts. The Great Australian Outdoors turns out to be comprised of a million square miles of almost nothing. It contains, however, enough gems strung out along the rugged backbone of the continent to make this trip the ultimate adventure for anyone less than completely gung ho.

The starting point is Perth, the demure capital of the wild state of Western Australia. The city does not enjoy a good press. 'Dallas without the intellect' is how the Sydney Morning Herald once described it. Perth may lack the style and confidence of Sydney, but on the other hand it is not burdened with endless dowdy suburbs. It also has one of the world's great city parks.

King's Park begins where the modest skyscrapers end. Broad, shady trees fan out along the north bank of the sleepy Swan River, offering the sights, smells and sounds of Australia beyond the city limits: red sun-baked soil, the whiff of eucalyptus, the manic cackle of a kookaburra.

So tempting are the other attractions of Perth that you might be tempted to make do with an afternoon in the park as your 'outback experience' and head straight for the beach. Go a few miles west from anywhere in Perth and you splash into the Indian Ocean. Even now that winter has set in, the water and air temperatures are tolerable.

After a hearty hour or two being hurled around by the biggest breakers this side of Africa, you can return to the city to recover at any of the gloriously varied restaurants: Italian, Japanese, Malaysian, Mexican, Macedonian and more. Australia's 'Year of Good Living Down Under' isn't due until 1997, but the gastronomes of Perth are already rehearsing. You could stay here for months or years before the greenery, coastline and cuisine began to pall. Nowhere else in Western Australia is anything like the capital.

From Perth you need only an hour, and pounds 86, to reach the tropics. The town of Paraburdoo is a compass needle's width inside the Tropic of Capricorn. Half the population turns out to welcome the flight from Perth, a big event in a small mining community. I ignored the crowds in favour of admiring the world's broadest sky, where sunset is an extraordinary performance.

Paraburdoo is to the neighbouring town of Tom Price as the moon Charon is to its parent planet, Pluto. They are all a jolly long way from anywhere else, and in each case the latter is the dominant partner. Tom Price is named after the man who discovered the wealth hidden in the nearby Mount Tom Price (imaginative nomenclature is not a necessary qualification to be an explorer). Price was a pilot, and reputedly latched on to the quantity of iron when the compass in his aircraft went wild. The mountain proved to be the richest source of iron ore in the world. It is being systematically blasted apart and shipped to Japan. By now the heart has literally been ripped out, and there are two smaller versions of Mount Tom Price rather than one big mountain.

It was Friday night, and the townspeople had just drawn their pay from Hamersley Iron. I checked into the Tom Price Hotel, where a ferocious disco was already in progress. The occasional flash of yellow crushed velvet from a hyperactive trouser leg created a strong sense of deja vu. The crowd loved the music and each other, as the distortion eased to a slow smooch. The DJ was dreadful. To paraphrase Sinatra: if you can't make it anywhere else, you can make it in Tom Price.

The next morning, I was by the side of the road north, while everyone else was still in bed nursing a collective hangover. Eventually, a Jeep stopped. The local schoolteacher was, she said, going precisely one mile along the highway, which hardly knocked much off my 300-mile trek to the coast. Yet her lift turned out to be invaluable. 'You have got some water, haven't you?' she asked as I stepped out. No, I hadn't.

Her eyebrows were hoisted in a manner that said: 'Have you any idea what you're letting yourself in for?' But she was too kind to say anything. Instead she drove home, filled a two-litre bottle with cold water and returned with it. After another hour at the roadside, the sun had risen to a position of scorching hostility. I was an amateur, half the water had gone, and I needed help. It arrived in the form of Steve, an English emigre who empathised with my unpreparedness. He was heading all the way down to Port Hedland on the coast, and had a pass for the mining company's network of roads - much smoother dirt tracks than the public highways.

Even in the middle of the harsh desert, the spindly trees seemed decked out in the colours of autumn. I expressed amazement at the rich red foliage. As politely as he could, Steve pointed out that the colour was due entirely to a drenching of dry red dust thrown up from the road. Fifty yards away from the roadside, nature had reverted to a monochrome.

We diverted to the Hamersley Gorge, and witnessed the patient power of water in carving a course through solid rock. The steep sides of the gorge luxuriated in vegetation, populated by a flock of birds that sounded like a cacophony of mobile phones.

The gorge forms part of Karijini National Park. The name was given by the Aboriginal people, who managed to eke a living from the ungenerous land for millennia until the Europeans arrived. When the settlers moved in to excavate the land, most of the Aboriginals were forcibly exiled to the coast.

The earth took revenge on some of those who sought to exploit it. Thirty years ago, the city of Wittenoom was second only to Perth in size and importance. Now it is a ghost town. Many of its former residents have died from mesothelioma, caused by the blue asbestos they were mining. On the day I visited, the West Australian carried a story saying that 12 of the victims diagnosed over the past year had contracted mesothelioma while merely visiting Wittenoom. The Fortescue Hotel, the last remnant of the boom years, stands dismally vacant on Fifth Avenue; so many dwellings have been demolished that this street is barely distinguishable from the surrounding desert.

The desert, one is usually told, is much more fascinating than most people might imagine - an endlessly changing kaleidoscope of shape and colour. In my experience of motoring through it, this view is total tosh - desert is deadly dull. It can have its moments, though. Suddenly we were speeding through what seemed to be a primeval cemetery. Tall, slender headstones ranged mutely on either side. These red edifices are termite mounds, insect municipalities built up to take advantage of the sun's rays. Faced with such tenacity, you surmise that not only would termites survive a nuclear holocaust, they would positively enjoy it.

In the human world, the equivalent to living in a termite mound is probably Port Hedland. Its modest attractions can be judged from the suggestions in the tourist hand-out: 'Stand alongside some of the largest ore carriers in the world' and 'View some of the longest trains in the world.' The welcome I received after Steve dropped me off could have been warmer, too: the sign at the caravan park where I spent the night threatened 'itinerants and hitch- hikers' with arrest for 'trespassing, illegal entry and vagrancy'.

Every trip has to have at least one truly awful day, and mine was Sunday 17 April. Twelve hours of my life fell victim to searing heat, dazzling light, endless desert and unwholesome company.

Hitching a ride in Australia can slam you up against naked bigotry. Within five minutes of picking me up, Vince the vituperative truck driver was ranting against 'slopes', a derogatory term for Japanese people. The fact that he had paid good Australian dollars for an Isuzu lorry did not seem to be relevant to him. I had hitched a ride with the stereotypical Australian redneck.

After 150 uncomfortable miles, a tyre blew. It took Vince an hour of concentrated swearing to fix it, and he insisted we cool down at the Sandfire Roadhouse. I was given an instant grounding in how to cope with one of the cruellest environments on earth. In Vince's case, survival involved drinking lots of beer, and then some more. He ordered two cans to my one in the first round, and just kept going. I ordered a sandwich. Vince sneered. 'There's a steak inside every one of these,' he belched, draining another tinny.

In half an hour he downed six cans, and ordered another six-pack for the road, wrapping them in a blanket to protect them against the now-murderous heat. With the temperature nailed firmly at 100F, the last thing you want to do if you wish to remain conscious is to drink three pints of strong beer. Vince proved to be more of a man than I'll ever be, and kept awake while I dropped off.

Fifty miles before Broome I awoke with a bang: same wheel, same problem, no spare. Another piece of Australian lore: one of the double wheels from the rear axle of a truck can be removed and used to replace a blown front tyre. We finally rumbled unsteadily into town well after sundown.

Broome in the gloom was unappealing, but the next morning shed favourable light upon the oceanside town. Early in the 20th century, Broome produced four-fifths of the world's mother-of-pearl. That trade has since disappeared, as have the mainly Asian divers who provided cheap - and expendable - labour. In 1914 alone, the 'bends' killed 33 divers, many of them Japanese. They are buried in a small, dignified cemetery, each grave marked with a simple sandstone headstone. The Chinese cemetery next door is a bit less bleak, and even has picnic tables for a day out with the dead.

After the debacle with vitriolic Vince, I flew to the next town, Kununurra - as far from Broome as Land's End is from John O'Groats - and checked into the Desert Inn Backpackers' Hostel. Whatever your age and condition, it is well worth choosing backpacker accommodation in Australia. Not only is it cheap, but it is also cheerful and relaxed. The standard bunk bed in a dormitory costs Adollars 10 ( pounds 5), and twin rooms are usually available for Adollars 30 ( pounds 15). Most hostels are spotlessly clean, though not entirely thanks to the efforts of the residents: a sign in the kitchen at the Desert Inn reads: 'Your mother doesn't live here, so please wash, dry and put away your dishes.'

Kununurra is the outback for softies. The town has its own junior-sized national park on the outskirts, with trails mapped out through some modest gorges. If you step a few yards off the beaten track, you find a billabong - a water hole left behind by a retreating river. No swagmen, jolly or otherwise, are in evidence, but some surprisingly tame water lilies enliven the scene. A giant boab tree, shaped like a sprouting Perrier bottle, presides stoutly over the ensemble. The birds here sound like an exotic South American engaged tone, sliding casually up and down the audible frequency range.

For a bit more adventure, take a boat trip along the Ord River to Lake Argyle. Jeff was the man with the boat, and he explained that the lake contained nine 'sinniarbas'. I assumed that a sinniarba was a large unit of volume named after some obscure Portuguese hydrographer, until I realised that Jeff was using the amount of water in Sydney Harbour as the basis for comparison.

We scudded upriver, carving a jagged course through the rocks. Around a twist in the river, hundreds of black shrouds hung in the trees. Suddenly one unfurled and dived down towards the boat. This was a colony of flying foxes - bats straight out of hell, a most malevolent-looking bunch of creatures. They dangle like ripe fruit from trees all day, then at dusk swoop off to hunt for food.

My search for a meal was probably less successful than theirs. You might imagine that a small town such as Kununurra, being hundreds of miles away from food suppliers, would have little to offer in culinary terms. You would be dead right. I munched unhappily through a sad old bit of fish, and studied the map.

Bus travel in Australia is easy, comfortable and as rapid as the 110kph (67mph) limit allows, but as soon as I climbed aboard for the five- hour ride to Katherine, I was introduced to a labyrinthine set of rules. After every stop, the driver runs through the in-bus regulations for the benefit of newcomers. Instructions cover everything from what to do with any alcohol in your possession (give it to the driver who will lock it away until the end of the ride) to how to operate the lavatory.

The only exciting moment of the entire journey was crossing the border from Western Australia into the Northern Territory. The territory insists you put your watch forward by a contrary hour and a half. All the digital-watch wearers on the bus collectively curse and fiddle with their wrists, wishing they had bought one with hands.

The town of Katherine boasts the only set of traffic lights on the 900- mile Stuart Highway between Darwin and Alice Springs. It is the de facto capital of the Never-Never, the land beyond the coast of the Northern Territory. I signed up for a tour of the area, and paid with a credit card - not for the thrill of going to the Never-Never on the never- never, but because the monopoly prices charged by roadhouses on my trip had caused an embarrassing cash-flow crisis.

The trouble with organised tours is that you have no control over who your fellow tourists are going to be, and no escape when you discover that, apart from John the driver, you are the only English- speaking person amid a coachload of Germans. The driver set the tone for the day early on. 'Here's some music I think you'll all enjoy,' he said, turning up loud a contemptible clarinet version of 'My Way'. Regrets? I had a few.

Between waves of syrupy syncopation of 'Hey Jude' and 'A Walk in the Black Forest', the trip traced the tortured course of the early settlers. Jeannie Gunn described the hardships in her autobiographical account, We of the Never-Never, and at the Mataranka Homestead - close to where she lived - a replica of her outback home has been built. The unforgiving nature of the terrain is highlighted by the story of the postmen. The first mailman had a 1,000-mile round, and perished from thirst halfway through it in 1901. His replacement drowned 10 years later while trying to swim a flooded creek to get the mail through.

You can bathe in safety at the homestead, despite the 'No Swimming' sign pinned up next to the water hole. A natural spring keeps the water bubbling along a little below blood temperature, and preserves an impossible clarity. You are surrounded by graceful eucalyptuses and palms, whose leaves form a natural carpet on the surrounding land. Dive beneath the surface and tales of the riverbank unfold. The tangle of branches at close quarters is extraordinary - stabs of sunlight pierce the surface and reveal a grotesque underwater world of twisted roots and writhing tentacles.

Even without any background music, the prospect of the final 200- mile bus ride from Katherine to Darwin was unappealing. My luck turned when the tour bus left the highway and headed for an airfield. Some of the tour members were on an aerial day trip from Darwin, and about to fly back. In hurried negotiations, I offered double the bus fare for the chance to see the Top End of Australia from a mile high, rather than spending four more hours on the road. I flew contentedly off into the sunset and the capital of the Northern Territory.

Darwin is 20 years old this year. The old city was destroyed on Christmas Eve 1974, by Cyclone Tracy. The brash architecture of the new one reflects its main occupation - acting as a funnel between South-east Asia and Australia - and precludes any inclination to linger.

From Darwin harbourside - overlooking a good two sinniarbas- worth of water - the sky is the clear winner. The sun is now well below the horizon, but its flames are still manipulating the heavens and gold is the only colour left in the world. The moon is plump, cheesy and close enough to touch. The sky goes on for ever, but thank goodness the road has reached an end.

(Photograph omitted)

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