|I first realized I was going to like the Australian outback when I read that the Simpson Desert, an area bigger than some European countries, was named in 1932 for a manufacturer of washing machines. (Specifically, Alfred Simpson, who funded an aerial survey.) It wasn't so much the pleasingly unheroic nature of the name as the knowledge that an expanse of Australia more than 100,000 miles square didn't even have a name until less than 70 years ago. I have near relatives who have had names longer than that.
But that's the thing about the outback—it's so vast and forbidding that much of it is still scarcely charted. Consider one of very few stories about Australia that made it into the New York Times in 1997. According to the report, in January of that year scientists were seriously investigating the possibility that a mysterious seismic event in the Australian outback three and a half years earlier had been a nuclear explosion set off by members of the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo.
At 11:03 p.m. local time on May 28, 1993, seismograph needles all over the Pacific region twitched and scribbled in response to a very large disturbance near a place called Banjawarn Station in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia. Some long-distance truckers and prospectors, virtually the only people out in that lonely expanse, reported seeing a sudden flash in the sky and hearing or feeling the boom of a mighty but far-off explosion. One reported that a can of beer had danced off his portable table and into his tent.
There was no obvious explanation. The seismograph traces didn't fit the profile for an earthquake or mining explosion, and anyway the blast was 170 times more powerful than the most powerful mining
explosion ever recorded in Western Australia. The shock was consistent with a large meteorite strike, but the impact would have blown a crater hundreds of feet in circumference, and no such crater could be found. Scientists puzzled over the incident for a day or two, and then filed it away as an unexplained curiosity.
Then in 1995 Aum Shinrikyo gained sudden notoriety when it released nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 people. In the investigations that followed, it emerged that Aum's substantial holdings included a 500,000-acre desert property in Western Australia very near the site of the mystery event. There authorities found a laboratory of unusual sophistication and focus, and evidence that cult members had been mining uranium. It separately emerged that Aum had recruited into its ranks two nuclear engineers from the former Soviet Union. The group's avowed aim was to destroy the world, and so it appears that a band of terrorists could have set off the world's first nongovernmental atomic bomb here—and almost four years passed before anyone noticed!
Cultists or not, there is something about all the emptiness that exerts a strange hold on people. It is an environment that wants you dead, and yet in the face of the most staggering privations, for the meagerest of rewards, explorers ventured into it again and again. Sometimes, as the Scottish-born expedition leader John McDouall Stuart found, they didn't even bother to leave their names.
In June 1860, during the second of his heroic attempts to cross Australia from south to north (he succeeded on the sixth), Stuart reached the almost waterless center of the continent, roughly halfway between the present sites of Daly Waters and Alice Springs. Hundreds and hundreds of miles from anywhere, the spot was the very "climax of desolation," as one of Stuart's fellow explorers once put it, and Stuart and his men had gone through hell to get there. They were sick and ragged and half-starved, and it had taken months, but at least they had the satisfaction of knowing that they had become the first outsiders to penetrate to the brutal heart of the continent.
So you may imagine Stuart's surprise when, in the middle of this baking nowhere, he and his party encountered three Aborigine men who greeted them by making a secret sign of the Freemasons. It became painfully evident to Stuart that he and his men were not in fact the first white people to reach the empty center of the country. So who preceded them? No one has ever had the faintest idea.