Thursday, August 20, 2009

An Outback Safari - Vicariously

I have been house sitting for the past month while my hosts have been employed on a tour of the Kimberley Region of Western Australia. [Map Of Western Australia] There was no problem for me, in this wonderful sub-tropical rainforest area to let my mind wander, but seeing the excellent photos of the Great Outback Safari allowed my mind to wander even further afield.

Those road signs on any journey tend to tell a story about a region. The fascination with this Gibb River Road sign is that regardless of the time of year, wet or dry essentially, any number of issues can close these unsealed roads. It might be flood or dust storm, wind or a myriad of events. As rugged as this country is, it is extremely sensitive and fragile to any attempt to change the natural order.

The story of these roads is every bit as fascinating and dramatic as that of Canada’s Ice Highways. The second image, taken from the centre bottom of the first, gives an idea of the transport dynamics. These huge road trains are the main way of moving cattle from the region to markets. Scales of economy might dictate four of these massive trailers; reality has it that all the cattle in a fourth trailer will die from suffocation in the dust cloud created.

From the earliest European settlement in the region cattle production was the key industry. These pastoral spreads average around 2500 Sq Kilometres (965 Sq miles) and support two or three head per square kilometre. Of course there is the problem then of getting this beef to distant markets, not to mention bringing in precious supplies.

There was one attempt to establish an air shipment service where the cattle were slaughtered and dressed, then the beef flown out, but in this vast land even that proved uneconomic. The road trains and trailers are still heavily relied on to move goods in and out.

Over the past few decades another industry has sprung up – diamonds. Fringing the region is the heavy iron ore mining, but diamonds are so far the main mining game here. Like De Beers, albeit for different reasons, I would have been just as happy if the resource had not been found at Argyle. However it is another link to that Ice Highway experience.

Shit happens…

Of course without adventure tourism I wouldn’t be writing this,

wouldn’t know to be so excited about an otherwise isolated region. But tourism is the latest ‘white European’s assault on this fragile land. Admittedly there seems to be an awareness among the adventure tourism promoters of the sensitivities of this land, but in the end they are still driven by profit.

For the owner of that license plate the claim is tongue in cheek, Claus and his dog travel these dusty roads in an old campervan towed by a pair of camels. There is a big difference between owning the land and belonging to the land so we’ll go with this bloke, Claus, who seems to simply belong to the land.

He is often encountered on the, even in the vast outback he stands out. Here he was happily reading Dickens’ Great Expectations while his camels gazed nearby. Characters like this enrich the safari experience without any great threat to the fragile environment.

The traditional owners had come to terms with this land many thousands of years ago, with some remarkable areas, like the Bungle Bungles, only coming to non-indigenous attention in the last few decades.

Personally I am quite happy to experience this wonderland vicariously, and not add my footprint. Though in reality the growing hunger for adventure tourism, for mineral resources and of course prime beef, will accelerate the pressures on the land.

Though I should qualify that comment on the tourism, which I am informed is in the hands of local women who really do understand and respect the nature of the land.

A real concern is perhaps the potential damage to one of the worlds great unknown treasures, some of the oldest rock art known to man – Gwion Gwion. But that is a story for another post.

Note: The photos used here are courtesy of Louise Caldwell and I am thankful for her permission to use them. While they might be among the more prosaic of the hundreds of images she bought back from this safari, please respect her copyright. If you want to know more about Louise’s photos you can contact her through my email address on this blog site.


lindsaylobe said...

An interesting posting about our outback and its vast open spaces which always seems incongruous since we rank as one of the most urbanized countries in the world, with most residing on the eastern seaboard.

It’s hard to imagine how this dry fragile land was occupied continually by the aboriginals prior to colonization for between 45,000 to 60,000 prior to colonization.

Best wishes

Cartledge said...

Lindsay, it's probably a good thing we are only ruining the coastal fringes :) There are some great stories in the outback. I just posted a new one on the Kimberley's rock art.