Australia is a favourite place of mine. Or rather places since it’s about as diverse a country as one could imagine from urbane modern cities like Sydney and Perth to the desolation of deserts, the richness of tropical rainforests and, above all, the unimaginable scale of the outback. My first sight of Australia (in 2000) was from 35,000 feet and all I could see was a red Martian landscape devoid of life or civilisation. Six hours later, I was still looking down at the same landscape and it was only then that I started to grasp the sheer vastness of the country. Even then, a view that unfolds at over 500 miles per hour remains largely unreal to me. The real scale only made sense when we travelled on the famous Ghan train from Darwin to Adelaide via Alice Springs – a journey that took 3 days and 2 nights. A sense of Australia’s astounding diversity didn’t come until a more recent visit (in 2014) when we were able to sample some of the different areas from Port Douglas in the tropical north to the breezy west coast of Perth and the southernmost tip of the country near Melbourne from which the next landfall is Antarctica.
We spent a couple of months travelling around without so much as scratching the surface of what Australia has to offer in visual terms. My abiding memory of these journeys is how amazingly rich even the desert environments can be, especially in terms of their biodiversity and how ancient some of the landscapes feel. There is a strong sense of deep time in the outback which is reinforced by the powerful bonds that join the indigenous people to the landscape. One feels hugely privileged to visit these places especially the sacred ones like Uluru.
Sadly, not everyone feels this way. From jabbering tourists insisting on climbing over religious symbols to multinational mining companies ripping out minerals from vast strip mines, Australia is threatened from many sides so I felt obliged to testify to what we saw in the hope that, if enough people find it all half as impressive as I do, the tide of opinion may begin to swing towards protecting these unique places rather than exploiting their richness for material gain. In the small towns of the outback, the impact of humanity is largely sustainable and, more often than not, respectful of the relationship that mankind has had with nature in these places since time beyond memory. The scale of habitation here is in proportion to the land and little harm is done. Elsewhere, especially on the coastal margins, this relationship follows the standard western model and, slowly but surely, is destroying much that is of value. Fortunately, for now at least, Australia is vast enough to cope with these insults but how long it will continue to be able to do so remains a great and worrying unknown.