As we crossed over from the “inside country” (as those in the Outback would say) into the first realms of the Outback, about 20 minutes from Wudinna town, there was a brief hush as my travelling companions and I pondered how the next two days would pan out.
Out the window of our white Toyota Land Cruiser, huge swathes of cotton wool plastered across the clear skies, washed with a blue reminiscent of Bliss, the Windows XP default wallpaper. Huge fields of green and patches of gold raced alongside us as we began our induction into South Australia’s remote country.
During the brief stint in the Outback, we — a German based in the United States since she finished her education, an Argentinian travelling with the lightest overnight bag and myself — were to be schooled by Gawler Ranges Wilderness Safaris, a 26-year outfit run by the spunky Geoff and Irene Scholz (Jeff and Raine to my ears). Our classroom was vast, but each night we returned to the cosy and pleasant Kangaluna Camp, which comprises a central dining shed, three luxurious tents equipped with comfortable bedding and modern toilets, and a swagon (refurbished wagon).
Kangaroos, emus and galahs (rose-breasted cockatoos) were the main subjects of our scholastic pursuit. Wombats and sea lion experiences were, unfortunately, not included in the crash course package. If you love the iconic Australian creature and bird watching, well, this is your dream safari.
This is something I keep saying time and again: there is nothing more exhilarating than being up close to wildlife — in their natural habitat. Granted the ‘roos and the emus were shy, and they were extremely protective of their young which made it challenging to get good photos, not to mention the vast landscape made it hard to catch the animals in action, but it meant spotting the chicks and joeys would elicit bursts of joy that were a far better stimulant than the Nespresso Cubania.
Now I fully offer this as a compliment — Geoff is a thorough Outback nerd, as is Tim, our Rawnsley Park Station guide in the Flinders Ranges on the other side of Port Augusta. They are deeply passionate about the environment they work in and share with strangers all over the world; every aspect — the tiniest creatures or a misplaced rock — fascinates them and gets them talking even more. They are interested not in giving away business cards, but imparting knowledge about the stupendous landscapes they call their office.
They also cared deeply about their non-human companions. Their eyes twinkle as they speak about special friendships. For Geoff, it was a particular galah who gets excited by the sound of his vehicle and would fly out as if on cue. He made us get out of the 4WD a distance away and walk towards the tree before he stepped his pedals the same way. Lo and behold, we saw pink emerge out of the hole and off the bird went — all within a span of two seconds. Geoff must have seen it a thousand times, but the enthusiasm has hardly waned.
As unpredictable as things in the Outback can get, on our way back to camp the first night, we hit a kangaroo. It was the first time I’d experienced road kill so intimately. We may have been travelling rather fast as darkness was creeping in, and the headlights had been turned on for better visibility at that speed. The loss of this kangaroo was a topic Geoff revisited several times throughout the course of our stay — his way of grieving perhaps. Only when he bade us farewell at the tarmac for our helicopter transfer to Adelaide Airport, did I realise that had been his first kangaroo fatality in five years.
It may be the “what” that lures you into the Outback, but it is the “who” that ensures how memorable your visit is. Geoff, ever the cowboy, surprised us by imitating an emu crying, something he had learnt during his childhood days from his Aborigine friend. From a distance, a frantic male adult scurried over toward our vehicle and when he realised he had been taken for a ride he scooted off in the opposite direction. Another time, he goaded a goanna (monitor lizard) into displaying his set of pearly whites by wagging his finger above its head. On our final night in the camp, he set up his telescope and gave us a thoroughly enjoyable view of the moon craters.
I can’t say I’ve come away with a comprehensive understanding of the history and evolving ecosystem of the Outback, which is my fault really for being thick and lacking the inability to retain information, but I did have a fabulous time out there and I fully embraced the passion and dedication of the folks who are a tremendous inspiration in their commitment toward the bush. Thanks to Irene, I had the most delicious grilled salmon — seared with a soft pink centre — and mint-sprinkled watermelon. And I slept like a baby for two nights, possibly the best uninterrupted rest in years! And that’s what matters, I suppose, at the end of the day.