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Investigating Australia’s Top End Outback

James Fisher A raised safari bungalow at the Bamurru Plains bush camp, in northern Australia.

Photo: James Fisher

Even the crows sound different out here. Sitting in front of the Warmun Roadhouse in Warmun, Western Australia, I note how their strangled clacking has a higher timbre and a more staccato rhythm than that of their larger cousins back in my hemisphere. The cry of these birds, clustered in the gray gum trees that shade this dusty pit stop on the Great Northern Highway, triggers memories of a year I once spent in Fremantle, another town on the outback’s verge. It was a rough little seaport in a region that Australians, who perennially apologize for their remove from society, call the “back of beyond.” The real bush—with its sore-throated birds, blackened stumps, and searing light—wasn’t far from my door. I could head there on a fast horse, riding fence lines until the animal was lathered in foamy sweat and my face was caked with sand. All this time later, I figure my familiarity with the outlying realm’s cadences has prepared me for an even stranger landscape of ocher escarpments and Aboriginal Dreamings. Little did I know.

The stretch of northern Australia known colloquially as the Top End covers more than a half-million square miles within the neighboring states of Western Australia and the Northern Territory, between the pearl-farming town of Broome on the Indian Ocean and the subtropical Cape York Peninsula. It encompasses some of the world’s least populated but most climatically diverse regions—saltwater estuaries, arid savanna, hidden thermal springs, and impassable peaks. Film director Baz Luhrmann, who was raised in rural New South Wales, recently spent more than a month in the Top End (as well as time in Sydney) shooting Australia, a pre–World War II epic set on the cattle ranches of the outback, starring Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. (It is slated to open in the United States on November 26.) Luhrmann used the landscape to reveal an Australia most people have never seen. “This is an untouched frontier with a rare abundance of nothingness,” Luhrmann says. “You have your Wild West. We have the Wild North.”

Luhrmann chose to rough it on the range during filming. “I decided that instead of traveling to the location and back every day, why don’t I just camp there?” he says. “I didn’t leave for the whole five weeks. This is what I had come looking for, to be forced by the power and scale of the landscape to be still, to be in the moment. There was a unique magic in this place on the edge of the world.”

The crows eventually settle as dusk fades. I finish a cup of bitter black tea and watch the people hovering by the roadhouse’s gas pumps: blond German girls in a battered Wicked rental camper, two Aboriginal drovers in Akubra hats, “truckies” clutching hypercaffeinated sodas. This roadhouse, like many of its kind along the Top End’s barren highways, is a gathering point where travelers can stop for insulated souvenir beer cozies, basic bed-and-shower facilities, and carb-heavy fried dinners. (Whoever invented Chiko spring rolls should be boiled in his own vat of grease.) I’m waiting for Nora Saliba, the Sydney-based casting director who managed the 50 or so indigenous extras on Luhrmann’s film and who continues to be welcomed into their communities, where some of the world’s most ancient narrative traditions still flourish. Aboriginal mythology has been sustained by an unbroken line of storytellers, generation after generation, since the Stone Age. No oral history quite like it exists in the era of YouTube and Amazon Kindle electronic books. Saliba has agreed to a trek around the Top End, which makes entrée to this closed world possible for me.

Teeth clamped on her cigarette, Saliba pulls up in her four-wheel-drive. “Get in, Shane-o,” she yells over the rumble of a passing road train, those supersized trucks that haul supplies between Aussie outposts. Tonight we are meeting the singer and celebrated artist Peggy Patrick, an Aboriginal elder. Patrick also instructs young girls in joonba, or ceremonial performances. Saliba spins out of the lot and drives to a nearby cluster of concrete ranch dwellings and trailers belonging to the Gidja people, who are considered the East Kimberley region’s traditional owners, or “TO’s.” She stops at a lot where several women are surrounded by children chasing a soccer ball. As some of the women rake a clearing under a paperbark tree, Patrick, tall and wiry with a gaunt face, asks me in pidgin English to sit next to her on the bare ground, close to a fire that’s staving off mosquitoes and the evening chill.

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