“It's now or never”, said my husband Frédéric, and I knew he was right. Two-year-old Thomas hadn't yet started nursery, and eight-month-old Christophe was still breast-fed and easily transportable. We planned a Big Adventure before the challenge of proper, grown-up parenting: a nine-week motorhome trek across southern Australia.
The mining town of Broken Hill ("The Accessible Outback!") was our halfway point. From here we hoped to experience a taste of the less accessible Outback. Nothing too adventurous, just an overnight excursion to somewhere that little bit more remote. Broken Hill's tourist brochure outlined our options. Mutawintji National Park, just 130km north-east, off National Route 79, was a "haven of secluded gorges and tranquil rockholes amid rugged sandstone ranges, with an abundance of wildlife," and Aboriginal rock art "scattered in the caves and overhangs".
Gregory's ‘State Road Map of New South Wales’ described Route 79 as a "sealed surface highway" for 30km out of town, then an "unsealed surface highway" for 24km to the Mutawintji turn-off, and another 74km of "minor road and track (surface not specified)" to the park. In the late dry season, the roads were still passable. We had full tanks of petrol and water, and ample stocks of food and Kleenex Huggies. We could make the three-hour drive during the boys' afternoon nap, arrive by tea-time and return after lunch the next day. What could possibly go wrong?
At Broken Hill's National Parks & Wildlife Service, a ranger gave us a booklet about Australian spiders and indicated a few dusty specimen jars on the reception desk. One huge, eerily pale creature answered the description of a Common Huntsman ("large, long-legged – up to 15cm across. Bite usually results only in transient local pain and swelling.") Smaller but deadlier were the Red-Headed Mouse Spiders, 3cm long, with a bite comparable to the Funnel Web ("serious illness or death"), especially if the victim was a child. We hadn't even started on the local snakes.
Had I taken leave of my maternal senses? It was for one night, I told myself. People in parts of Sydney checked for Funnel Webs down their own toilets. I was reassured by the unfazed ranger, and Fred's patient exposition of the statistical likelihood of any unfortunate occurrences (briefly, nil).
Gregory's map described the terrain around Mutawintji. It's landscape, but not as we Europeans know it: green patches represent national parks rather than actual greenery, while the blue lakes range from "Dry Saltpan" to "Generally Dry Saltpan" and finally just "Saltpan". Britain's Ordnance Survey is crowded with cute pictograms; Gregory's fills the empty space with descriptive annotations, and warnings printed in red: "Enquiries should be made before travelling on this track." About 350km from Mutawintji, a terse note records the outcome of the white man's first trans-Australian expedition:
"Burke & Wills Depot on Coopers Creek., 1860. On returning fr. Gulf both died, June, 1861."
We drove to Mutawintji while Christophe and Thomas slept, respectively, in the baby-seat and the double bunk above the driver's cabin. Fred bowled the motorhome expertly over the corrugations of the "minor road & track (surface not specified)".
"There's an optimum speed," he explained happily. "Not too slow, not too fast, see?"
I saw, despite the thin film of red dust settling on my glasses.
We rolled through the park gate. A friendly Aboriginal ranger produced a hand-drawn photocopied map, "Where to Go, What to See". A rectangle was drawn around the main rock art gallery, sadly closed to visitors in the Dry, on account of the snakes.
The red-dirt campsite was designed for holiday crowds, and deserted apart from a single rambling brown tent. We parked beneath a line of majestic River Red Gums marking a dry creek bed. Nappy-changes, drinks, snacks and Porta-Potti visits were duly accomplished, and we set out for a sunset walk to the top of a nearby ridge.
"Stamp your feet!" chanted Fred as we climbed through the red rocks and pale green-grey sage brush. "Frighten the snakes!"
Thomas stamped and shouted enthusiastically; Christophe giggled and bounced in the rucksack seat on his father's shoulders.
We moved to the western edge of the hill to watch the sunset. It was like looking out to sea: a featureless expanse of bottle-green, gold and beige, fading to the palest grey and blue. Our faces and arms glowed like the sandstone. A small voice broke the silence.
"Look Mummy," said Thomas, "a crocodile."
On the face of it, there was no cause for alarm. Australia has crocs, but not at Mutawintji. However, Thomas had said these words once before, pointing to a lizard on a wall. And there are lizards all over the Outback, some as long as three or four domestic cats trotting in single file, but much broader at the shoulder. With bigger teeth, and more muscly legs.
Christophe was out of reach, but Tom was on foot, a tender morsel whose getaway would be impeded by chubby little legs and a heavy pair of Huggies. I turned slowly.
Tom was crouching over a low boulder, examining the carved outline of a salamander, its body pock-marked with dots. A small plaque had been screwed into the stone, marking the tiny work of Aboriginal art – a still, small human voice in a wilderness that had once been home.
We picked our way back down the ridge to the motorhome, supper and bed.
In the morning, walking among the boulders and outcrops near the campsite, I experienced a mad 'call to the wild'. We could step out into the landscape, I told myself. Walk off into the sunset. Others have felt the same – an American woman once wrote a book about an Outback trek with an Aboriginal tribe who burned all her clothes on a ceremonial bonfire. It turned out to be a hoax.
Read more about family holidays in New South Wales.