In this column, Montage Editor Joe Polito travels to Australia and reports his experiences there.
Before this trip I thought of steak and blooming onion when I heard the word “Outback.” Yet, having now camped in the real Outback, I will associate the word with Aboriginal dancing and kangaroos.
After my family piked up our off-road vehicle, our first stop was a tiny mountain town called Yungaburra. Walking up to the backpackers’ lodge, the patron greets us with: “Who do you go for?”
She’s referring to the State of Origin rugby series, in which professional players return to play for the state from which they were born. The matchup features the New South Wales Blues facing off against the Queensland Maroons in game one of a best of three. Being in Queensland, the patron tells us to always reply: “I go for Queensland.”
My brother and I set up the dome tent that will be our home for the next 10 days. An Australian man named Richard watches us as he drinks rum and Coke.
It is his last day working at the backpackers’ lodge, and he generously offers us the local brew, XXXX Gold. He tells me that he is leaving to become a miner, but this cannot be verified as he tells my dad that he is going to be a banana farmer and my brother that he is going to be a house disk jockey. Either Richard is truly a bloke of all trades or we still have not mastered interpreting the Australian accent.
We walk up to the local pub to catch this highly anticipated rugby action. As we enter, we walk past a man belligerently waving a wrench in his hand as he argues with the bartender. The bartender tells him to go home and the man stomps off, hurling the wrench at a nearby dumpster.
Inside we stick out like a sore thumb. Maybe it’s because we are the only sober ones. Or maybe it’s because we have obviously never seen a rugby game in our lives outside of the movie “Invictus.” But any awkward feelings are erased as most of the locals greet us with a smile and offer us unused chairs.
By halftime, I understood the basic rules of the game, but my family looked 10 seconds away from deep sleep. We stumble to bed, preparing for a day of off-road driving.
We leave the cool brisk tablelands for the dry and dusty Outback. A few hours into our bumpy excursion we face our first river crossing.
Shifting into low gear for increased torque, we drive straight into water that goes as high as the door handle. The key is to move slowly for traction, but at a consistent speed to avoid stalling out.
Safe on the other side, we pass a sign that welcomes us to Laura, a town that consists of not much more than a general store/gas station and pub/restaurant.
The usual population of 120 has increased by 5,000 as people from all over the continent arrive for one of Australia’s major cultural gatherings: the biennial Laura Aboriginal Dance Festival.
Among them is Kelly Greenop, an architect working toward her Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Queensland who studies Australia’s indigenous people. The home of some of the oldest cave drawings in the world, the Aboriginal people consider Laura a sacred place, she said.
She explains that the majority of Aboriginal people live in urban communities. The Laura festival gives tribes from all over a chance to reconnect and perform for thousands of non-Aboriginal festivalgoers.
The only instruments involved in the dances are drums, sticks, didgeridoos and human vocal cords. Performers range from small children in diapers to gray-bearded elders.
Walking around the campsite, the festival environment reminds me of Bonnaroo. But on the inside, I realize this is entirely different. Spectators and participants gather in Laura every year not for the sake of entertainment, but to celebrate this piece of their culture that has survived colonialism.
Clad in body paint and grass skirts, the dancers depict nature and tell stories. One dance embodies the Aboriginal creation story, while another emulates an emu.
On day two of the festival, the governor of Queensland presents awards but draws the smallest crowd of all. When she is finished, the crowds return to the main stage for the beginning of the competition. The best tribal dancers will be awarded the Laura Shield.
I have never felt more American than walking around the festival grounds. I mutter just a few words to a young Aboriginal girl playing with Greenop’s kids, to which she replies: “You sound American.”
As for the spectators, they make American hippies look conservative. Even their dreadlocks have dreadlocks.
We leave the hum and drum of 5,000 campers for a far less crowded spot deeper into the Outback. An oncoming semi leaves us in a cloud of dust. We stop to let the dust settle when a dirt biker approaches our vehicle.
“Keep your lights on, and don’t stop in the dust, mate,” he said. “Somebody’ll come up behind and ram you in the arse.”
Heeding his advice, we drive blindly through the dust of several other trucks, finally reaching Lakefield National Park where we will camp for the night. After setting up camp, we head down a one-lane dirt road that takes us to the middle of the middle of nowhere.
Our vehicle takes us safely across the rushing water of the Normanby River. There, we spot 10-foot termite mounds, an eagle, a crocodile, a boar, parrots and a family of kangaroos. Kangaroos are like hopping deer, in that they quickly scurry away if you get within 100 yards.
Having satisfied our thirst for wildlife, we head back to camp under the setting sun. Every color looks more vibrant than I have ever seen: the bluest sky, the greenest leaves and the reddest earth.