An epic and ancient landscape, deeply entwined with the artistic, musical, and spiritual traditions of Indigenous Australians, the Outback is one of the largest remaining, intact natural areas on Earth. A cultural, ecological, and geological wonder, I explore and capture these vibrant regions on foot and from the air.
Known for its Aboriginal peoples and its vast, ancient landscapes, the Outback is an incredibly special place for me. I think that once you get that distinctive red dust in your blood it never comes out.
My roots are deeply connected to the rural areas of western Queensland and from a very young age, the never-ending expanse of inland Australia has been something that has captivated me. Ever since I can remember, we would take long road trips out to a family-run cattle station, and there was always this great sense of wonder and adventure. In the Outback, you can travel for days in any direction and stumble across places that are unique, untouched, and rarely visited. It was on these early trips that I fell in love with the bush, the people, and its landscape. I’ve never stopped venturing back.
Drawn to remote, wide open spaces, to the dusty and the desolate, I have found that there are countless unique rocky outcrops and ridges to explore. From the arid and ancient regions of Kimberly and Pilbara in Western Australia, to the rugged, weathered peaks and dramatic rocky gorges found in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia, to the red centre and Australia’s most famous monolith, Uluru — it is not only the sheer size of the Outback that is astounding (it could encompass almost all of Europe), it is also home to some of the world’s most spectacular and untouched landscapes. Over the past few years, I’ve been lucky enough to photograph, film, and fly over these regions — both in light aircraft, and more recently, with drones.
Deeply entwined with the landscape itself are the artistic, musical, and spiritual traditions of the Indigenous Australians, among the longest surviving cultural traditions in human history. Some 30,000 to 70,000 years ago — many millennia before the European colonisation that would come to threaten and profoundly disrupt many Aboriginal communities — the first inhabitants of Australia arrived from the north, making them amongst the world’s earlier mariners. They spread throughout the landmass, surviving even the harsh climatic conditions of the Last Glacial Maximum.
Evidence of ancient Aboriginal art is found all over the Outback, most notably at Uluru and Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory. An impressive sandstone rock formation, Uluṟu — as it called by the Pitjantjatjara Anangu, the Aboriginal people of the area — or Ayers Rock, still holds great sacred and cultural significance for the local indigenous population. Appearing to change color at different times of year, this natural monolith is quite magnificent as it glows a deep red or purple at sunrise and sunset.
It was only in 1606, little over four centuries ago, that the first known European landing was made by Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon on the western shore of Cape York, in Queensland. This discovery was closely followed by that of Dirk Hartog, another Dutch explorer, who sailed off course during a voyage in 1616 and landed on what is now known as Cape Inscription, thus discovering the coast of Western Australia.
For many decades to come, the true extent of the continent would not be known, and with the exception of further Dutch visits to the west, Australia remained largely unvisited. Although a number of shipwrecks are evidence that other Dutch and British navigators did encounter the coast during the 17th century, usually unintentionally, it would be over 150 years before the crew of HMS Endeavour, under the command of British explorer Lieutenant James Cook, sighted the east coast of Australia in 1770 and Europeans widely came to believe that the great, fabled southern continent existed.
Running in parallel ridges to the east and west of Alice Springs, through Australia’s Red Centre, lie the East and West MacDonnell Ranges, also known as the Macs. Most people imagine the Outback to be completely flat, but these mountains run for more than 600 kilometres and in places reach heights of over 1,500 metres. Formed 300 to 350 million years ago, folding, faulting, and erosion have since shaped the Macs to form numerous narrow gaps and gorges, and they contain many areas of cultural significance. Seen from the air, their undulating and intricate rock formations are spectacular.
Weather patterns in the Outback are also something that surprises many people. While often envisaged as a uniformly arid area, the Outback regions stretch from the northern to southern Australian coastlines, and encompass a number of climatic zones — including tropical and monsoonal climates in northern areas and temperate climates in the southerly regions. At times, dramatic dust and thunder storms roll in, soaking the dry ground and often causing flash flooding. Witnessing these storms is an incredible experience.
Reflecting its wide climatic and geological variation, the Outback contains a number of distinctive and ecologically-rich ecosystems, along with many well-adapted animals, such as the red kangaroo, the emu, and the dingo, which are often to be found hidden in the bushes to keep cool during the heat of the day. Recognised as one of the largest remaining, intact natural areas on Earth, the Outback is home to many important endemic species.
One such species is Adansonia gregorii, known locally as the boab tree, which is found nowhere else in the world but the Kimberley region of Western Australia, and east into the Northern Territory. With their striking swollen trunks, boab trees can reach up to five metres in diameter at their base, and amazingly, some individual trees are more than 1,500 years old, making them the oldest living beings in Australia, and among the oldest in the world.
For thousands of years, Indigenous Australians have used these giants for shelter, food and medicine; often collecting water from hollows within the tree, and using the white powder that fills the seed pods as food. Decorative paintings or carvings were also made on the outer surface of the fruit.
Also found in the Kimberly region is the Cockburn Range, a magnificent sandstone escarpment that rises for 600 metres above the surrounding plains. Shaped like a vast fortress with towering orange cliffs, many rivers have cut through the formation to form steep-sided gorges. Flying above the Range at sunset, when the western face is lit up with a brilliant red glow, reveals another of the Outback’s epic and ancient landscapes.
The geology of South Australia’s Outback is no less dramatic, and among the rugged, weathered peaks and rocky gorges of the Flinders Ranges, some of the oldest fossil evidence of animal life was discovered in 1946, in the Ediacara Hills. Similar fossils have been found in the Ranges since, but their locations are kept a closely guarded secret to protect these unique sites.
The first humans to inhabit the Flinders Ranges were the Adnyamathanha people — meaning “hill people” or “rock people” — whose descendants still reside in the area, and also the Ndajurri people, who no longer exist. Cave paintings and rock engravings tell us that the Adnyamathanha have lived in this region for tens of thousands of years. Though my perspective is usually broad and from the air, in the nooks and crannies of these arid landscapes live the yellow-footed rock-wallaby, which neared extinction after the arrival of Europeans due to hunting and predation by foxes, and also two of the world’s smallest marsupials — the endangered dunnart, and the nocturnal, secretive planigale, smallest of all, often weighing less then five grams.
Last but certainly not least, we come to the spectacular Pilbara region of Western Australia. Stretching over a vast area of more than 500,000 square kilometres in the north of Western Australia, it is home to some of Earth’s oldest rock formations, dating back an impressive two billion years.
Seen from the air, parts of the Pilbara can sometimes resemble another planet. Yet the greens and yellows of the acacia trees, the hardy shrubs, and the drought-resistant Triodia spinifex grasses — contrasting so spectacularly with the brilliant orange and ochre of the land itself — remind us that life can flourish and adapt even in the most challenging of conditions.
Known also for its vast mineral deposits, for many years the Pilbara has been a mining powerhouse for crude oil, natural gas, salt, and iron ore. Today, although the fragile ecosystems of this area have been damaged by these extractive industries, a number of Aboriginal and environmentally sensitive areas now have protected status in the Pilbara — including the stark and beautiful Karijini National Park with its deep gorges and striking canyons.
Culturally, Australia’s Outback regions will always be deeply ingrained in our country’s heritage, history, and folklore. For Indigenous Australians, creation of the land itself is believed to be the work of heroic ancestral figures who traveled across a formless expanse, creating sacred sites on their travels. Ecologically, it is one of the most untouched and intact natural areas we have left on the planet, and home to a plethora of important endemic species. Geologically, it represents a vast and ancient landscape — one of the most unique on Earth and one that I could never tire of exploring. Every time I head up into the air or set out to photograph the Outback, I’m blown away.
THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.
Dan Proud is a Queensland-based photographer and film maker with a passion for aerial cinematography and capturing the magical wide open spaces of Australia.