The (Seriously, Truly, Very) Fatal Shore

Australia's full of things waiting to sting, prong, chomp, drown, or lay you out with a toxic nip. People go missing there all the time. But the beer is cold. The sun mostly shines. And the author figures if he can remember to never leave the asphalt, he just might make it back alive.

   
 

"I just want you to know," said a voice in my ear as Qantas flight 406 popped corklike out of a tower of monsoonal cumulonimbus, presenting the window passengers with a sudden view of emerald mountains rising almost sheer from a pewter sea, "that if it comes to it, you may have all my urine."

I turned from the window to give this remark the attention it deserved and found myself staring at the solemn countenance of Allan Sherwin, my English friend and temporary traveling companion. It would be incorrect to say that I was surprised to find him sitting beside me, because we had met in Sydney by design and boarded the flight together, but there was nonetheless a certain residual measure of unexpectedness—a kind of pinch-me quality—in finding him seated there. Ten days earlier, on a stopover in London, I had met Allan to discuss some project he had in mind. (He is a television producer by profession; we became friends while working together on a series for the BBC.) There, in a pub on the Old Brompton Road, I had told him of my interest in Australia and my plans to tackle its formidable desert regions. In order to deepen his admiration for me, I had also told him some stories of travelers who had come undone in Australia's unforgiving interior. One of these involved an expedition in the 1850s led by a surveyor named Robert Austin that grew so lost and short of water in the arid wastes beyond Mount Magnet in Western Australia that the members were reduced to drinking their own and their horses' urine. The story had affected Allan so powerfully that he had announced at once his intention to accompany me through the perilous desert, in the role of driver and scout. I had, of course, tried to dissuade him, if only for his own safety, but he would have none of it. Clearly the story was still much on his mind, judging by his kind offer.

"Thank you," I replied. "That's very generous of you."

He gave me a nod that had a touch of the regal about it. "It's what friends are for."

"And you may have as much of mine as I can spare."

Another regal nod.

The plan, to which he was now resolutely attached, was to accompany me first to northern Queensland, where we would relax for a day amid the fertile shoals of the Great Barrier Reef before setting off for Cooktown, a semi—ghost town in the jungle some way north of Cairns. This warm-up adventure completed, we would fly on to Darwin in the Northern Territory—the "Top End" as it is known to Australians—for the thousand-mile drive through the scorched red center to Alice Springs and mighty Uluru, the more respectful, Aborigine name for Ayers Rock. At that point, the heroic Mr. Sherwin would fly back to England and leave me to continue on through the western deserts on my own.

"You know," I added reassuringly, "I don't suppose it will actually be necessary to drink urine on this trip. The infrastructure of the arid regions is much improved since the 1850s. I understand they have Coca-Cola now."

"Still, the offer is there."


 
   
 
They were having a terrible wet season in tropical Queensland. Cyclone Rona had buzz-sawed along the coast, causing $180 million of havoc, and lesser storms had been teasing the region for weeks, disrupting travel. Only the day before, all flights had been canceled. It was evident from the dips and wobbles of our approach into Cairns that a lot of assertive weather was still about.

It is remarkable now, when more than two million people a year come to the Great Barrier Reef and it is universally esteemed a treasure, how long it took the tourism industry to discover it. But then again, all of Australia—much less the reef—is a difficult place to keep track of. It is a country where it took quite a while for pioneers to discover what was there, and where people often go missing.

On my first visit, some years ago, I passed the time on the long flight reading a history of Australian politics in the 20th century, wherein I encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the prime minister, Harold Holt, was strolling with some friends along a beach in Australia's southern state of Victoria when he decided to take a quick dip, plunged into the surf (the beach was known for its dangerous undertow), and vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly astounding to me—first that Australia could just lose a prime minister (I mean, come on), and second that news of this had never reached me.

Preparing for this visit, I read of two more mysterious cases not far from Cairns. There was an American couple, Thomas and Eileen Lonergan of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who in January 1998 went for a day's scuba and never returned. And there was the sad tale of a young British backpacker named Daniel Nute. The year before, in 1997, Nute set off alone on a six-hour hike to a place called Mount Sorrow, on the Cape Tribulation promontory. His body, too, has never been found.

When we arrived in Cairns, we went first to pick up our rental car. I had left the arrangements to a travel agent, and I was mildly surprised to find that the agent had plumped for an obscure local firm—Crocodile Car Hire or something—whose office was little more than a bare counter on a side street. The young man in charge had a certain chirpy cockiness that was ineffably irritating, but he dealt with the paperwork in a brisk and efficient manner, chattering throughout about the weather; 1999 was the worst wet in 30 years, he told us proudly. Then he led us out to the sidewalk and presented us with our vehicle—an aged Holden Commodore station wagon that seemed to sag about the axles.

"What's this?" I asked.

He leaned toward me and said, as you might to a dementia
sufferer, "It's your car."

"But I asked for a four-wheel drive."

He sifted through his paperwork and carefully extracted a fax from the travel agent. It showed a request for a large, standard, high-polluting car with automatic transmission—an American car, in other words, or the nearest local equivalent. I sighed and handed back the paper. "Well, do you have a four-wheel drive I can take instead?"

"Nope, sorry. We only do town cars."

"But we were going to drive up to Cape York."

"Oh, you won't get up there in the wet. Not even in a four-wheel drive. Not at this time of year. They had a hundred centimeters of rain at Cape Tribulation last week." I had no idea what a hundred centimeters was, but it was evident from his tone that it was
considerable. "You won't get beyond Daintree in anything less than a helicopter."

I sighed again.

"The road to Townsville's been cut off for three days," he added with yet more pride.

Allan looked at me in the happily brainless way of someone who doesn't realize disaster is afoot, irritating me further. I sighed and hefted my bags. "Well, can you point us to the Palm Cove Hotel?" I asked.

"Certainly. You go back out past the airport to the Cook Highway and head north. It's about 20 kilometers up the coast."

"Twenty kilometers?" I sputtered. "I asked for a hotel in Cairns."

He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Well, it's sure not in Cairns."

"But the road is open?"

"So far."

"You mean it might flood?"

"Always a possibility."

"And if it floods we're stuck in the middle of nowhere?"

He looked at me with a touch of pity. "Mister, you're already in the middle of nowhere." The point was inarguable.


 
   
 
Much to our astonishment, the Palm Cove was lovely, a purpose-built village inserted with care into a stretch of tropical luxuriance beside a curving bay. We claimed our rooms and then went for a walk along the beach, watching as ominous clouds filled the sky. A few other people were strolling over the sand, but no one was in the water, and for a very good reason: It was March and so the height of the season for box jellyfish, also known as sea wasps, marine stingers, or just stingers. By whatever name they go, these little bubbles of woe are not to be trifled with. From October to May, when the jellyfish come inshore to breed, they render the beaches useless to humans. It is quite an extraordinary thought when you are standing there looking at it. Before us stood a sweep of bay as serene and inviting as you would find anywhere, and yet there was no environment on earth more likely to offer instant death. Each jellyfish has 60 tentacles reaching up to 15 feet in length and each tentacle has enough nematocysts—venomous barbs that puncture the skin—to kill a person. Or put another way, one box jellyfish can kill 60 people. Get entangled in more than one (and they are often found in bunches) and you can only pray you pass out before dying ten minutes later.

"So you're telling me," said Allan, for whom all this was new, "that if I waded into the water now I would die?"

"In the most wretched and abject agony known to man,"
I replied.

"Jesus," he muttered.

"And don't pick up any of the seashells," I added, stopping him from leaning over to pick up a seashell. I explained to him about coneshells—the venomous creatures that lurk inside some of the handsomest, conical shells, waiting for a human hand to sting.

"They've got lethal seashells here?" he asked.

"There are more things that will kill you up here than anywhere else in Australia, and that's saying a lot, believe me." This is a country, I told him (recalling what I had learned browsing a fat book titled, if I recall, Things That Will Kill You Horridly in Australia: Volume 19), where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip. I told him about the cassowary, a flightless, man-size bird that lives in the rainforests and has a razor claw on each foot with which it can slice you open in a deft and appallingly expansive manner. I mentioned also the loathsome, sluggish stonefish, so called because it is indistinguishable from a rock, but with the difference that it has 13 spikes on its back that are sharp enough to pierce the sole of a sneaker, injecting the hapless sufferer with a myotoxin bearing a molecular weight of 150,000.

"And what does that mean exactly?"

"Pain beyond description followed shortly by muscular paralysis, respiratory depression, cardiac palpitations, and a severe disinclination to boogie." He might similarly be discommoded by firefish, I continued, which are easier to spot but no less hurtful. There's even a jellyfish called the snottie.

"You're making this all up," Allan said, but without conviction.

"Oh, but I'm not."

Then I told him about the dreaded saltwater crocodile, which lurks in tropical rivers, lagoons, estuaries, and even bays such as this one, leaping from the waters from time to time to snatch and devour unsuspecting passersby. Just up the coast from where we now stood a woman named Beryl Wruck had been taken in a startling manner. "Shall I tell you about it?" I offered.

"No."

"Well, one day," I went on, knowing that he really wanted to hear, "a group of locals at Daintree got together for a festive pre-Christmas barbie when some of them decided to go for a cooling dip in the Daintree River. The river was known to be the home of crocodiles, but none had ever attacked anybody in the area. So several of the party scampered down to the water's edge, stripped to their underwear, and splashed in. Ms. Wruck apparently thought better of leaping in, so she merely stepped a foot or so into the water. As she stood there watching the happy frolicking, she idly leaned over and trailed a hand through the water. Just at that instant the water split in a flash and poor Ms. Wruck was gone. That is what a crocodile attack is like, you see—swift, unexpected, extremely irreversible."

"And you're telling me there are crocodiles here in this water?"

"Oh, I don't know whether there are or not," I replied. "But it's why I'm letting you walk on the inside."

Just then from the restive skies there came a single startling crack of thunder. Abruptly the wind kicked up, sending the palm trees dancing, and a few fat splats of rain fell. Then the skies opened in a warm but soaking downpour. We hied back to our hotel, where we took refuge under the veranda of the beachfront bar and watched the rain beat down with a tumultuous fury. I had thought that having grown up in the American Midwest I was familiar with lively weather, but I am happy to concede that where the elements are concerned, Australia plays in a league of its own.

"So let me get this straight," Allan was saying. "We can't go to Cooktown because we can't get through. We can't swim because the ocean's full of deadly jellyfish. And the road to Cairns might be cut off at any moment."

"That's about the size of it."

He blew out thoughtfully. "Might as well have a few beers then." He went off to get some. I took a seat at a small table on the veranda and watched the rain pour down. One of the bar employees came and stood in the doorway. "Worst wet in 30 years," he said.

I nodded bleakly. "We were supposed to be going out to the Great Barrier Reef tomorrow."

"Oh, you've got no worries there. They don't cancel the reef tours unless it's a hurricane."

"People go out to the reef in this kind of weather?" He nodded. The water in the bay was sloshing around like a bath into which a fat man had just jumped. "Why?"

"How much did you pay for your tickets?"

I had the tickets with me and pulled them out. "A hundred and forty-five dollars each," I squeaked in miserly disbelief.

He smiled. "There you go."


 
   
 
In the morning the rain had stopped but the skies were dark and dirty, and the sea full of chop. Just looking at it made me feel faintly ill. I am not enamored of the ocean, and the prospect of bouncing 38 nautical miles to a rain-shrouded reef to see the sort of darting fish I could view in comfort at any public aquarium, or indeed any dentist's waiting room, was not enticing. As we sat at the Palm Cove, awaiting our bus to the boat at Port Douglas, 20 miles up the coast, one of the members of the staff breezed past.

"Cyclone coming!" she said perkily.

"Today?" I asked in what was becoming a customary bleat.

"Maybe!"

I can't tell you how pleased I was when we arrived to find that the boat was huge—as big as an English Channel ferry, or very nearly—and sleekly new. As we lined up with other arriving passengers I learned from a crew member that the seas should be relatively benign. Nevertheless, when we got aboard they announced the free distribution of seasickness tablets to anyone who wanted them. I was the first to the table.

"This is awfully thoughtful of you," I said to the girl dispensing the pills as I swilled down a handful.

"Well, it's better'n having people spewing up all over the shop," she said brightly.

The trip to the reef was smooth, as promised. What's more, the sun came out, albeit weakly, turning the water from a leaden gray to an approximation of cobalt. While Allan went off to the sundeck to see if there were any women with large breasts to look at, I
settled down with my notes.

Depending on which sources you consult, the Great Barrier Reef covers 174,000 square miles or 213,000 or something in between; stretches 1,200 miles from top to bottom, or 1,600. Even by the shortest measure, however, it is equivalent in length to the west coast of the United States. And it is of course an immensely vital habitat—the oceanic equivalent of the Amazon rainforest. Because it consists of some 3,000 separate coral reefs and more than 600 islands, some people insist that it is not a single entity and therefore cannot accurately be termed the largest living thing on earth. That seems to me a little like saying that Los Angeles is not a city because it consists of lots of separate buildings. And it is all thanks to trillions of little coral polyps working with a dedicated and microscopic diligence over 18 million years, each adding a grain or two of thickness before expiring in a self-created silicate tomb. Hard not to be impressed.

As the ship began to make the sort of slowing-down noises that suggested imminent arrival, I went out on deck. I had expected that we would be arriving at some kind of sandy atoll, possibly with a beach bar with a thatched roof, but in fact there was nothing but open sea all around, and a long ruff of gently breaking water, which I presumed indicated the sunken and unseen reef. In the middle of this scene sat an immense aluminum pontoon, two stories high and big enough to accommodate 400 day-trippers. It brought to mind, if vaguely, an oil platform. When the boat had docked, we all filed happily off. A loudspeaker outlined our options. We could loll in the sun in deck chairs, or grab snorkels and flippers for a swim, or board a semisubmersible ship for a tour of the reef in comfort.

We went first on the semisubmersible, a vessel on which 30 or 40 people could crowd into a viewing chamber below the waterline. Well, it was wonderful. The pilot took us into a shimmery world of steep coral canyons and razor-edged defiles, fabulously colorful and teeming with fish of incredible variety and size. We saw giant clams and sea slugs and starfish, small forests of waving anemones and the pleasingly large and dopey potato cod. It was precisely like being at a public aquarium, except of course that this was entirely natural. I was amazed, no doubt foolishly, by what a difference this made.

Back on the pontoon, Allan insisted we go at once for a swim. At one side of the pontoon metal steps led into the water. At the top of the steps were large bins containing flippers, snorkels, and masks. We kitted up and plopped in. I had assumed that we would be in a few feet of water, so I was taken aback—I am putting this mildly—to discover that I was perhaps 60 feet above the bottom. I had never been in water this deep before, and it was unexpectedly unnerving—as unnerving as finding myself floating 60 feet in the air above solid ground. This panicky assessment took place over the course of perhaps three seconds; then my mask and snorkel filled with water and I started choking. Gasping peevishly, I dumped the water out and tried again, but almost immediately the mask filled again. I repeated the exercise two or three times more, but with the same result. Allan, meanwhile, was schussing about like Darryl Hannah in Splash.

"For God's sake, Bryson, what are you doing?" he said. "You're three feet from the pontoon and you're drowning."

"I am drowning." I caught a roll of wave full in the face and came out of it sputtering. "I'm a son of the soil," I gasped. "This is not my milieu."

He clucked and disappeared. I dipped my head lightly under to see him shooting off like a torpedo in the direction of a colorful maori wrasse—an angelfish the size of a sofa cushion—and was consumed once more with a bubbly dismay at the unimagined depth beneath me. There were big things down there, too—fish half as big as me and far more in their element than I was. Then my mask filled and I was sputtering again. Then another small rolling wave smacked me in the face. I must confess that I liked this even less—quite a good deal less—than I had expected to, and I hadn't expected to like it much.

Interestingly, because snorkelers lie on the water with their arms and legs spread and their face just under the surface—that is, in the posture known as the dead man's float—it isn't possible (or so I am told) to tell which people are snorkeling and which are dead. It's only when the whistle blows and everyone gets out except for one oddly inert and devoted soul that they know there will be one less for tea. Fortunately, I managed to haul myself back onto the
pontoon. I took a seat on a deck chair and toweled off with Allan's shirt.

Allan emerged at last, looking invigorated and holding in his stomach in a manner that recalled Jeff Chandler in some of his later films, chattering with tedious gusto about what a brilliant experience it had been and what an egregious wimp I was. He slipped on his shirt and fell into the chair beside me, looking very happy. Then he sat up and patted himself extravagantly.

"This shirt's wet," he announced.

"Is it?" I said, frowning with concern.

"It's wringing wet."

I touched it lightly. "Why, yes it is."


 
   
 
A week later, we lost all hope of ever getting to Cooktown, checked out of the Palm Cove, and boarded a flight to Darwin. We bounced into Darwin a couple of hours later through the outer strands of two minor cyclones that were bumping along the north coast, and acquired another rental car—a sleek Toyota sedan that looked as if it could cover the 932 miles to Alice Springs in a single rocketlike burst. We dubbed it the Testosterone.

The Northern Territory has always had something of a frontier mentality. Still does. In late 1998 its inhabitants were invited to become Australia's seventh state and roundly rejected the notion in a referendum. In consequence, an area of 523,000 square miles, or about one-fifth of the country, is in Australia but not entirely of it. (Technically Australia has six states and two territories, one of which is the Australian Capital Territory, which contains Canberra, the federal capital. The Northern Territory is the other.)

This throws up some interesting anomalies. All Australians over 18 are required by law to vote in federal elections. Those failing to vote are fined if they don't come up with an adequate excuse. The fine is nominal—A$20, or 12 bucks—but it's there, and the authorities do trek out to homes to serve nonvoters. (Suggest to an Australian that this enforced voting seems mildly fascist and he'll likely argue that given voter turnout in the United States, Americans have no business telling Australians how to run elections.)

But here's the thing: Mandatory voting applies to residents of the Northern Territory. However, since the Northern Territory is not a state, it has no seats in parliament. So the Territorians elect representatives who go to Canberra and attend sessions of parliament (at least that's what they say in their letters home) but don't always affect national policy. Even more interesting, during national referendums the citizens of the Northern
Territory are again required to vote, but no Australian I met, including a member of parliament, could explain how their votes are accounted for. As far as I can make out, their ballots are just put in a drawer or something. Seems a little odd to me, but the people seem content with the arrangement.

Darwin is in the steamy heart of the tropics, which to my mind imposes certain stylistic requirements—white buildings with verandas, louvered windows, potted palms, lazy ceiling fans, cool drinks in tall glasses presented by obsequious houseboys, men in white suits and panama hats, ladies in floral-print cotton dresses, a little mah-jongg to pass the sultry afternoons, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in evidence somewhere looking hot and shifty. Anything that falls short of these simple ideals will always leave me disappointed, and Darwin failed in every respect.

To be fair, the place has been knocked about a good deal—it was bombed repeatedly by the Japanese in the Second World War and then devastated by Cyclone Tracy in 1974—and therefore much of it is necessarily new. The one small local peculiarity was that there seemed to be no one about of professional demeanor. Nearly every person on the streets was bearded and tattooed and scuffed along with a wino shuffle, as if some very large mission had just turned everyone out for the day. "It's like a fucking ZZ Top convention," Allan muttered darkly, but correctly, at the hotel bar that night.

We had breakfast the next morning in a small Italian café and then drove out to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory because I had read that it had a box jellyfish on display. I had expected the museum to be small and dusty and to detain us for no longer than it took to find the jellyfish display, but in fact it was sleek and modern and quite wonderful.

One area was devoted to Cyclone Tracy, while much of the rest of the museum was given over to cases of stuffed animals illustrating the Top End's extraordinary biological diversity. Pride of place was given to an enormous stuffed crocodile named Sweetheart. Sweetheart had had a passionate dislike for outboard engines and used to attack any boat that disturbed his peace, but he never attacked a person. In 1979, when it was feared that he would do himself serious harm—all those propellers—wildlife officials decided to move him somewhere safer. Unfortunately, the capture was botched and Sweetheart drowned and became a stuffer.

Perhaps the most admirable quality about the museum—and I suspect this is a real Northern Territory thing—is that it didn't mince words about the dangers of the world outside. Most museums in Australia are at pains to stress the unlikelihood of anything happening to you. Darwin's makes it quite obvious that if something does happen to you here, you are really going to regret it. This was most potently displayed in the aquatic creatures section—and here at last we saw a preserved box jellyfish, the deadliest creature on earth.

It was remarkably unprepossessing—a translucent box-shaped blob, six or eight inches high, with threadlike tentacles trailing off beneath it. As noted above, these tentacles carry enough wallop to kill several people, yet the box jellyfish lives exclusively on tiny krill-like shrimp, creatures that hardly require a great deal of violent subduing. As ever in the curious world of Australian biology, no one knows why the jellyfish evolved such extravagant toxicity.

While we were studying the display, a man, lavishly bearded in the Darwinian style, said g'day. He identified himself as Dr. Phil Alderslade, curator of coelenterates. "Jellyfish and corals," he added at once, seeing our expressions of frank ignorance. "I noticed you taking notes," he said. I told him of my devotion to box jellyfish and asked if he worked with them himself.

"Oh, sure."

"How do you keep from getting stung?"

"Basic precautions, really. You wear a wetsuit, of course, and rubber gloves, and you just take a good deal of care when handling them, because if even a tiny piece of tentacle is left on a glove and you accidentally touch it to bare skin—wiping sweat from your face or brushing away a fly or something—you can get a very nasty sting, believe me."

"So have you ever been stung?"

"Once. My glove slipped and a tentacle touched me just here." He showed us the soft underside of his wrist. It bore a faint scar about half an inch long. "Just touched me, but jeez it bloody hurt."

"What'd it feel like?" we asked together.

"The only thing I can compare it to is if you took a lit cigarette and held it to your skin—held it there a goodish long while, maybe 30 seconds. You get stung from time to time by various things in my line, and I can tell you I've never felt anything like it."

"So what would a couple of yards feel like?"

He shook his head at the thought of it. "If you tried to imagine the worst pain possible, it would be beyond that. You're dealing with pain of an order of magnitude well past anything most people have ever experienced."

He did something you don't often see a scientist do: He shivered. Then he smiled cheerfully through his extravagant facial hair and excused himself to get back to his corals.

We left the museum and headed out of town through Darwin's sunny suburbs and at the edge of town passed a sign: alice springs 1,479 kilometres. Ahead, along the lonely Stuart Highway, lay 900-plus miles of largely unrelieved emptiness all the way to Alice Springs, and beyond it, Uluru. We were on our way into the famous and forbidding Never Never, a land of dangerous heat and bone-white sunshine.


 
   
 
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.


 
 
 
We had been driving for perhaps 90 minutes in a largely mindless silence when at last Allan spoke. He said, "How are you off for urine?"

"I have all I need, thank you. Why do you ask?"

"It's just that I notice we're nearly out of petrol."

"Truly?" I leaned over to confirm that Allan could indeed interpret a fuel gauge—if not perhaps quite as frequently as one might wish.

"Interesting time to notice, Allan," I observed.

"This thing just seems to suck up fuel," he replied, shamelessly blaming the Testosterone. "So where are we?" he asked after a moment's further reflection.

"We're in the middle of nowhere, Allan."

"I mean in relation to the next town."

I looked at the map. "In relation to the next town, we are"—I looked again, just to confirm—"in the middle of nowhere." I did some measurements with my fingers. "We appear to be about 40 kilometers from a dot on the map called Larrimah."

"And do they have petrol there?"

"One sincerely hopes so. And do you think we have enough to get there?"

"One sincerely—and if I may just say bloody well—hopes so."

We chugged into Larrimah on the last vapor of gas. It was an all but dead hamlet, but it did have a gas station. While Allan fueled up, I purchased a stock of bottled water and snack foods for future emergencies. We vowed that henceforth we would jointly keep a steady eye on the fuel gauge and not let it dip below the halfway mark. There were greater stretches of emptiness to come.

Ten hours and 919 miles after leaving Darwin, we arrived, dry and dusty, in Alice Springs, a grid of ruler-straight streets set like an enormous helipad on a plain beside the golden slopes of the Macdonnell Ranges. Because it is so bang in the middle of nowhere, Alice Springs ought to seem a miracle—an actual town with department stores and schools and streets with names—and for a long time it was a sort of antipodean Timbuktu, a place tantalizing in its inaccessibility.

Nearly all guidebooks and travel articles indulge the gentle conceit that Alice retains some irreproducible outback charm, some away-from-it-all quality that you must come here to see, but in fact it is Anytown, Planet Earth. We passed strip malls, car dealerships, McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets, banks and gas stations. Only a scattering of Aborigines strolling along the dried bed of the Todd River gave any hint of exoticism.

We took rooms in a motor inn on the edge of town. My room had a balcony where I could watch the setting sun flood the desert floor and burnish the slopes of the Macdonnell Ranges beyond—or at least I could if I looked past the Kmart plaza across the road. In the two million or more square miles that is the Australian outback, I don't suppose there is a more unfortunate juxtaposition.

A half-hour later I joined Allan out front, where he was staring at the same scene. He looked at me. "You Yanks have a lot to answer for, you know."

Over dinner, we made plans for our stay.

"What is there to do for two days in Alice Springs?" Allan asked.

"Quite a lot, in fact," I said encouragingly, and pulled out a brochure I had taken from a rack in the motel. I flipped through it. "There's the Alice Springs Desert Park, for one thing."

He inclined his head a fraction. "What's that?"

"It's a nature reserve where they've carefully recreated a desert environment."

"In the desert?"

"Yes."

"They've recreated a desert in the desert? Have I got that right?"

"Yes."

"And you pay money for this?"

"Yes."

He nodded contemplatively. "What else?"

"The Mecca Date Garden."

"Which is?"

"A garden where they grow dates."

"And they charge money for this as well?"

"I believe so."

"Is that it, or is there more?"

"Oh, much more." I went through the list of other attractions—the Old Telegraph Station, Frontier Camel Farm, Old Timers Folk Museum, National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame, Road Transport Hall of Fame, Sounds of Starlight Theater.

Allan listened intently, sometimes requesting a soupçon of elaboration, and considered all this for some moments. Then he said, "Let's go to Ayers Rock."


 
   
 
Uluru and Alice Springs are so inextricably linked in the popular imagination that nearly everyone thinks of them as cozily proximate. In fact, it is 200 more miles across even more featureless tract to get from the one to the other.

The other thing about Uluru is that by the time you finally get there you are already a little sick of it. Even when you are a thousand miles from it, you can't go a day in Australia without seeing it four or five or six times—on postcards, on travel agents' posters, on the cover of souvenir picture-books—and as you get nearer the rock the frequency of exposure increases. So you are aware, as you drive to the park entrance and pay the ambitiously pitched admission fee of $9 a head and follow the approach road around, that you have driven 1,300 miles to look at a large, inert, loaf-shaped object that you have seen photographically portrayed innumerable times already. In consequence, your mood as you approach this famous monolith is restrained, unexpectant—pessimistic, even.

And then you see it, and you are instantly transfixed.

There stands an eminence of exceptional nobility and grandeur, 1,143 feet high, a mile and a half long, five and a half miles around, less red than photographs have led you to expect but in every other way more arresting than you could ever have supposed. I have discussed this since with many other people, nearly all of whom agree that they approached Uluru with a kind of fatigue and were left agog in a way they could not adequately explain. It's not that Uluru is bigger than you supposed or more perfectly formed or in any way different from the impression you created in your mind, but the very opposite. It is exactly what you expected it to be. You know this rock. You know it in a way that has nothing to do with calendars and the covers of souvenir books. Your knowledge of this rock is grounded in something much more elemental. Somewhere in the deep sediment of your being, some long-dormant fragment of primordial memory, some little severed tail of DNA has twitched or stirred. It is a motion much too faint to be understood or interpreted, but somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding, hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level—perhaps even at a sort of tadpole level—and that in some way your visit here is more than happenstance.

I'm not saying that any of this is so. I'm just saying that this is how you feel. The other thought that strikes you—that struck me anyway—is that Uluru is not merely a very splendid and mighty monolith, but also an extremely distinctive one, very possibly the most immediately recognizable natural object on earth. I'm suggesting nothing here, but I will say that if you were an intergalactic traveler who had broken down in our solar system, the obvious directions to rescuers would be, "Go to the third planet and fly around till you see the big red rock. You can't miss it." And if ever on earth they dig up a 150,000-year-old rocket ship from the Galaxy Zog, this is where it will be. I'm not saying I expect it to happen; not saying that at all. I'm just observing that if I were looking for an ancient starship, this is where I would bring a metal detector and start looking around. That's all I'm saying.

We stopped at the visitor center for a cup of coffee and a look at the displays, which were all to do with interpretations of the Dreamtime—the Aborigines' traditional conception of how the earth was formed and operates. There was nothing instructive in a historical or geological sense, which was disappointing because I was curious to know what Uluru is doing there. How do you get the biggest rock in existence onto the middle of an empty plain? It turns out (I looked in a book later) that Uluru is what is known to geology as a bornhardt: a hunk of weather-resistant rock left standing when all else around it has worn away. Bornhardts are not that uncommon, but nowhere else on earth has one lump of rock been left in such dramatic and solitary splendor or assumed such a pleasing smooth symmetry. It is a hundred million years old.

Afterward we had one last drive around the rock before heading back to the lonely highway. We had been at the site for barely two hours, obviously not nearly enough, but I realized as I turned around in my seat to watch it shrinking into the background behind us that there never could be enough, and I felt moderately comforted by that thought.

Anyway, I'll be back. I have no doubt of that. And next time, I'm bringing a really good metal detector.   

Bill Bryson is the author of A Walk in the Woods, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, and other books. This article is adapted from In a Sunburned Country, to be published in June by Broadway Books. He lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.



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