Pannawonica Hill in Western Australia’s Pilbara. Much of the Outback now has fewer people managing the land than at any time in the past 50,000 years. Source: The Australian
Pannawonica Hill in Western Australia’s Pilbara. Much of the Outback now has fewer people managing the land than at any time in the past 50,000 years. Source: The Australian

IT is as the legends have it: red, vast, and there are very few people in it. But the Outback is also astonishingly varied, alternately lush and bountiful and harsh and inhospitable. There are red sand-dunes dotted with hummocks of spinifex grass, barramundi nosing along a tropical waterhole lined with paperbarks, dust rising from cattle on a brown plain, and mist rising in the dawn light in a Cape York rainforest.

Our remote lands are a deep part of our Australian identity, part of the birthright of being on the island continent. It is the space we can choose to visit, or to reside in for a year or a decade, far from a suburban life.

On an increasingly crowded planet this is something few other countries can give their citizens. But do we understand this gift? Can we get beyond the mythology?

To date, the concept of ‘‘the Outback’’ has sometimes been deliberately, and delightfully, vague. In Australian myth it is often seen as somewhere else, somewhere more remote, never quite exactly here or there. The residents are frequently described in terms tinged with nostalgia — its stockmen and Aboriginal people are somehow from a time past, and are not related to a modern world.

But the Outback is a real piece of bush, water, soil and rock, and it is a very tangible piece of Australia, with real people living in its spaces. It covers an enormous swathe of land, more than 70 per cent of the continent — the arid country of the centre and west and the tropical savannas, wetlands and rainforests of northern Australia.

The Outback stands out as one of the great natural places globally, a place where nature remains in abundance; a landscape where the bush still stands, where the rivers still flow and where wildlife still moves as it always has to find food and shelter in a tough environment.

Importantly, it’s also a modern landscape. The stockmen and Aboriginal rangers are likelier to use helicopters than horses to traverse their country. They use laptops and satellites to check for fires and the state of water tanks in distant paddocks.

The enterprises of the great stations now include carbon-farming and tourism enterprises as well as cattle and sheep.

AT the most basic level, active land management is required in all the Outback. We need to manage fire, control feral animals and noxious weeds, and implement conservation programs that maintain wildlife, protect the general health of the environment.

This matters for people and development across the landscape as a whole as the condition of the land underpins much of the key enterprises of the region — tourism, pastoralism, fishing and emerging enterprises such as carbon farming. The Outback and its residents face many social, economic and environmental challenges, largely due to patchy social and economic foundations.

Read the full story by Barry Traill, The Australian, 11 October 2014