In the plastic sleeve of a long-lost photo album, there’s an image of ten-year-old me seated in the dry bed of an outback creek, patting a bull terrier. A bygone flood event had carved a channel through red sand plains, leaving two banks of solidified soil to delineate the creekbed. This bed, on which I was sitting, was patterned with footprints, old and new. The fresh ones bore the clearly defined tread of sneakers, while all that was left of the older were amorphous contours — with the hollow imprint remaining but the details smoothed out by outback downpours and scouring winds.
My memory of the daytrip out to that creekbed is a little like those aged footprints in the sand. I could locate the outing to within a certain radius surrounding Broken Hill; perhaps it was near the Silverton Hotel where, as a small boy, I undertook their secret challenge and cried from embarrassment — or perhaps out at Mutawintji National Park, if we ever made it that far from town. So too could I muster a hazy outline of the details — that we were in Broken Hill to check up on an aged friend of a friend, that the gentleman weighed 15 stone and that the dog was his — but that’s all. Though I can still feel its fur pricking my fingers, I can’t even remember that dog’s name.
But I can remember what I felt. And if I was to locate that photo album, with its distinctive potpourri-pattern hardcover, and to peel apart the sticky pages to find my youthful face looking back at me, I’d see that feeling take form in a smile and wide, wondering eyes. Compare that to the internal agonies pasted over my wailing visage in an image of me on Fraser Island, where as a one-year-old I am pictured crying — in spite of the magnificent scenery.
These two images, taken side by side, do communicate something about the balance of my preferences as they have continued throughout my life, even though the beach doesn’t induce me to tears nowadays. Everyone will differ in their final opinion but, as an obsessive list-maker and analyser, I cannot resist the temptation of comparing a favourite bush and beach location to pick apart their less obvious strengths and weaknesses — and in the process, to hopefully give you a few ideas about where to head next.
Representing beaches, we have Cape Hillsborough National Park, crown jewel of the Queensland coast. While in the outback corner, Mutawintji National Park dons the gloves. Firstly, let’s consider location. You have to hand it to Cape Hillsborough for convenience. It’s close to Mackay, which has a population of 80,000, whereas Mutawintji is closest to Broken Hill with its 17,000 residents. Consider too that Mackay is about 400km from more major centres of Rockhampton and Townsville, with near continuous development in-between as we can expect of much of Australia’s coast, while Mutawintji is smack-bang in the middle of nowhere — which means less resources, unsealed roads and uninterrupted drives to get there through kilometres of nothingness.
But wait, Mutawintji deviously turns this remoteness to its advantage. Isn’t travelling about getting away from it all? In wide open spaces, on single-laned outback roads with disintegrating edges and only the occasional road train, the mind is permitted the breathing room to wander, freed by the sudden dearth of stimuli. Without 4G, emails, texts and Facebook messages are suspended in cyberspace; one can ponder, or simply unwind. At campsites, there’s plenty of space to spread out and enjoy the serenity. The view needn’t be blocked by fibreglass walls belonging to other campers.
Cape Hillsborough’s marketing brochure tries to claim for itself one of these benefits, stating the national park is one of the few remaining where a digital detox is possible, but the few bars of Optus reception we encountered shut that down. Although, is that a bad thing? It’s helpful to stay in touch with rellies and abreast of the latest news — a fact that has really been brought home by the constantly changing travel regulations surrounding COVID-19.
Another consequence of Hillsborough being closer to the action is that it’s better maintained, by management and, when it comes to the walking paths, by foot traffic. At Mutawintji, the drive to the Homestead Creek Day visitor area had been gutted by floods when we visited, making it inaccessible by car; the locks were breaking apart or missing on some bathroom doors; and plants and weeds had overgrown some walking tracks. Such is the reality of resource allocation. There are just fewer staff out bush and less money to work with.
On the wildlife front, it’s a battle between the euros and wallabies on Cape Hillsborough beach and the birdlife at Mutawintji. At Hillsborough, you can get close to the animals — without actually touching them — during the morning ritual of kangaroo feeding on the beach. At sunrise, a ranger lays out cones marking how close you can get, sprinkles pellets behind them, and about five to 20 euros and wallabies eat their fill while dozens of tourists jostle for position and take pictures. With the inevitable crowds, those in positions of authority have little choice but to ensure the whole thing is supervised to ensure roos aren’t fed Zooper Doopers. It’s presently free to attend, but has an interesting history of commercialisation, to go with other private enterprises in the area.
There are fewer salesmen in the bush. At the Homestead Creek campsite at Mutawintji, budgerigars find their homes in the hollows of gum trees; ravens try to eat their eggs, but can’t fit their boof heads down far enough; ringneck parrots perform fantails and dashing manoeuvres; mulga parrots and kingfishers take refuge from the wind on gum branches; and noisy apostlebirds have domestics all over the place. Which makes Mutawintji natural in a much more natural way. Sadly, drought can invert wildlife numbers, and pest species like goats and foxes are generally more prominent in the outback, too.
Bypassing a lot of other fine points for lack of space, the battle comes to a head when we compare the two distinctive trees of the National Parks; when we stake the Mutawintji’s River Red Gums against the Hoop Pines of Cape Hillsborough. It’s here, too, that the comparison loses meaning and descends into the domain of personal preference. Which would you rather? The River Red Gum, with its soulful character, rugged beauty, and uniquely Australian identity? Or the Hoop Pine, with its ancient aura, evocation of lofty possibilities, and longstanding oversight of Australian beachside traditions?