ALICE SPRINGS, Australia — There's something humbling about soaring at 3,000 feet, with 360-degree visibility, and rarely seeing even a hint of human presence on the landscape below.
Few earthly terrains have maintained that raw solitude. But the central region of Australia, barely habitable for even the hardiest of species, has been largely unsettled by humans. So inhospitable is it that most people would decidedly prefer to see it from the air, landing only for brief back-to-nature stints.
In fact, with only one person per 5 1/2 square miles and limited road access, flying is the mode of transportation that makes most sense in these parts.
It's also one of the best ways to experience an Australia uncontrived for tourists. The Outback mailman who pilots a single-engine Cessna on his weekly mail runs over the country's central region usually keeps two seats open for good-humored tourists who are willing to forgo five-star treatment in favor of a genuine cultural experience. But this adventure is not recommended for the timid.
The mailman, I had heard before I arrived here in March of last year, is sometimes the only person whom inhabitants of the Outback see for weeks at a time. So once I was settled in Alice Springs--the consummate Outback town in the heart of the country--and found that my yearning for the far-flung counterbalanced my fear of flying, I signed up for the daylong odyssey.
Pilot/mailman Steve Patrick, a genial, slightly burly bloke, forewarned me and my fellow passenger, Karen, a medical student from Ottawa, that there wouldn't be any creature comforts on the mail run. None whatsoever.
At about 10 the next morning, we took off from the Alice Springs Airport on the southeast mail run. On it, Patrick flies to about eight huge family-owned ranches, called Outback stations, and one aboriginal community. We rose slowly at first over the rust-covered earth in the smallest plane I'd ever been in. I sat in back with the 10-or-so mailbags and watched the Outback roads quickly become thin red veins as we approached 3,000 feet.
Patrick pointed out the mostly dried-up Finke River below, the fluvial system that scientists think may be the oldest in the world. The Finke looked enormous even from the air, the parched white river bottom unchanged even after the rain the day before.
We followed its serpent-like body as it undulated through jagged bronze plateaus and valleys dotted with scrub the color of pistachio. White-barked ghost gum trees and red river gums grew right in the middle of the river in an attempt to suck up any lingering moisture.
You could almost visualize outlaw bush rangers and swagmen (Australian hobos) of a bygone era fighting for survival in Australia's toughest territory.
We neared our first stop, Engoordina Station, when Patrick said: "Have to have a look at the (air) strips first to see if they're right."
He circled low, squinting to make his judgment, and added nonchalantly that if there was too much water on them, we could flip over and die. It must have passed inspection because he made an abrupt hairpin turn at one end of the strip and landed the thing before I had time to close my eyes.
I tried to keep in mind that for all the light planes flown in Australia, there is a very low accident rate. (Not counting the English kamikaze who flew through the roof of the Alice Springs Airport 15 years ago on purpose.)
It was the roughest landing I'd ever felt--grinding, lurching, screeching. I guess you can't really expect much from a runway that's no more than a scratch on the ground.
A lone windsock and an abandoned cattle pen were all that we could see at first until a yellow flat-bed truck came out of nowhere and the station's owner and his two young children greeted us. Patrick swapped mailbags and news with the man while Karen and I stretched our legs and tried our best to imagine life out here.
The children who live on outback stations must rely on School of the Air for their education--lessons by two-way radio with their teachers in the city--so they look forward to seeing new faces on the mail run.
Flying south, our second stop would be the Finke Aboriginal Community, on the border of the Simpson Desert, a place you wouldn't want to be stranded. The squalor of the settlement was almost overwhelming from the air, and the river next to the village dry as a bone. One had to wonder how they survived out here.
A blue Nissan truck, the back of which was packed to the hilt with a tangle of aboriginal children, came out to meet us. The children were beautiful, with uncontrollable smiles. What I would have given for just an hour with them. They stayed to watch us take off again and waved the whole time.
Airborne again, we watched the earth become more desolate except for, here and there, the odd sandstone hill rising up to a flat top. The occasional shady desert oak was crowded beneath with cattle vying for a cool resting place.