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The Songline Quest: Australian Outback Mountainbiking Expedition 2000

Getting Ready for the Outback

By Stephanie Gregory

David McLain/Classroom Connect/Aurora
High over the Pacific en route to Australia
Armed with little more than three shirts, a pair of bike shorts, a toothbrush, SPF 30, and a couple pairs of underwear, I sound like the next contestant on Survivor. But I'm not traveling 8,000 miles to play immunity games and rat out my teammates. No, I'm heading to the Outback or, as the Aussies call it, the back of beyond—home of eyeball-sucking blow flies, a private ranch bigger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined, and a landscape that hasn't changed much in 60 million years—on a much more interesting mission. To put my fingers on the pulse of a 50,000-year-old tradition: Aboriginal songlines.

These invisible singing road maps, fleshed out quite nicely in Bruce Chatwin's 1987 book, The Songlines, are tough for Western brains to grasp. At their very simplest, songlines are ancient tracks formed by mythic beings who roamed the land and sang the world into existence during a long-ago period Aborigines call "The Dreamtime." It gets tricky, however, when one realizes that Aborigines still use these ancient song maps to find food and water, settle disputes, and go about their daily business—50,000 years after the fact. As Chatwin puts it, Aborigines use music "as a memory bank for finding one's way about the world."

For five weeks starting October 1, a bunch of biologists, anthropologists, computer technicians, videographers, and I—all signed up with an e-learning company called Classroom Connect, which is beaming the expedition live to 1.5 million American school kids—are biking and sag-wagging in 100-degree heat, risking cane toad poison, redback spider bites, and nips from the infamous desert death adder (a snake that waits for its prey buried in the sand), 1,500 miles from Adelaide to Uluru, to see if we too can use songs to navigate our way across the Outback. Let's hope so, otherwise we may run short of water and have to start drinking our own piss.

Besides pedaling past a whole lot of nothing, we'll stop in the Flinders Range, home of red ochre mines and mile upon mile of empty salt beds; Maree, the original bad-ass Outback town and once a hub for Afghan camel trains; and Uluru, that big red sacred rock dead-center in the middle of the continent. From Uluru, we'll fly to the Great Barrier Reef in hopes that the box jellyfish, the world's most poisonous creature, who likes to inhabit the Coral Sea in November, hasn't gotten there first.

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