The Australian Outback is a contrast in weather extremes. When we were there, it was extremely hot and we were inundated with swarms of tiny black flies that hovered around our eyes, nose and mouth. But it is also a land of raw beauty with its powdered red earth and amazing rock formations, the most popular being Ayers Rock.
Other than agriculture and tourism, mining is the main economic activity. It is rich in iron, uranium, ore, gold, nickel and zinc as well as beautiful opals. Seventeen percent of the total population of the Outback is Indigenous. The Outback, although it covers 2.5 million square miles, contains only ten percent of Australia's population.
Too sparsely populated for conventional schools, the children are educated at home by the School of the Air using wireless internet technology. Each student has direct contact with a teacher for about one hour each day. For the rest of the day assigned material is worked on with either a trained parent or a hired tutor. There are three or four annual gatherings where children travel to the school to meet their teachers and other students. Those in secondary education attend boarding schools elsewhere. The first School of the Air was broadcast from Alice Springs in 1951. When we visited this school, one of the annual gatherings was currently being held.
Because of the vastness of the Outback and the sparse population, the Royal Flying Doctor Service was established to provide emergency and primary health care services for those living in remote areas. These services include emergency aide, air ambulance services, medical consultation services, health care clinics and support for the rural and mostly remote doctors. They have twenty-one bases and five health facilities.
Hot, dry, sparsely populated and with extreme weather conditions, the Outback is an extremely inhospitable area. But those living there, usually in small villages, weathered by the harsh climate, say they love it and they wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
Part of the historical folklore of the Outback includes the swagman, squatters and bush rangers. Waltzing Matilda, a popular Australian song, was written about these people. Besides the colourful characters that this song was written about, there are red kangaroos, emus, dingos, wild horses, camels, geckos and snakes, many poisonous. Some of the Indigenous people living in the bush areas eat kangaroos and some of the other animals. When we visited, they cooked a kangaroo tail over an open fire for us to try; it was greasy and grisly and I found it quite unappetizing. When a group of Aboriginal children came to dance and play drums for us, they said many of them drank warm kangaroo blood as part of their rituals.
But the Outback is also home to beautiful natural sights, one being Ayers Rock. Listed as a World Heritage Site, the sandstone formation rises to 348 meters in height. It is sacred to two Aboriginal tribes in the area. Much of its base is decorated with ancient cave paintings, however, many are becoming obliterated with weather conditions and time.
At a dinner we attended in the bush of the Outback, after darkness had descended and the lights from the camp were extinguished, we saw a truly amazing sight. Looking up we saw that the sky had become a masterpiece of unparalleled beauty. Stars blazed brightly overhead and the Milky Way paraded its way across the black velvet of the sky. It was an astronomical showing like I had never seen before.
Although the Outback is not a place I would want to permanently hang my hat, I can appreciate the beauty of its vast expanse and admire the people who endure its hardships and love it just the same.