History - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityAustralian animalsCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other CountriesAustralian Prehistory

Australian Environmental Issues

A true-blue battler

Box jellyfish
How to avoid the stings and what to do if stung

So you wrestle crocs...

Unfairly judged in killing off the thylacine?

The wise little gnomes of Australia

Victors of the great Emu war

Shaping everything from how Australians speak to how they salute

Funnel Web spider
Yyou'll never leave your ugg boots outside

Most herbivores don't grow a spine until they are the size of an elephant. Not so the roo.

Kill less people than cows

Shark attack Australia
How to ensure you don't go by the name of Bob

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Keg of muscle

The mainland's largest marsupial carnevore

Mythical creatures
Yowies and dropbears; some say they are myths but those who are not afraid to talk have shared their stories






Albert Tucker

The Outback in Australian Culture

"A queer country, so old that as you walk on and on, there's a feeling comes over you that you are gone back to Genesis"

90 per cent of Australians live in coastal catchments; however, it is the outback which is disproportionately represented in Australian painting, poetry, and movies. Perhaps the appeal of the outback the complexity of emotions that it evokes. It is a non-descript region, somewhere outback behind the black stump. It is a place where few people survive and feelings of isolation rein supreme. Some flora and fauna exist, but barely. It is an area on the frontier, not quite able to sustain abundant life but not completely barren to it either.

Scratching beneath the surface reveals when life was more abundant; shells from an ancient sea, dry river beds that once teemed with life, bones of tree kangaroos that once thrived on now treeless plains, and lakes that have not filled for 10,000 years. In the years that the rains return, suggestions of these more prosperous times reveal themselves with blooms of wild flowers and migrating bird feeding and breeding around the ephemeral waterholes.

On the whole, it seems that the Outback has evoked more negative emotions than positive ones. Poet A.D Hope used the outback as a metaphor of the wasted Australian mind:

"They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

But something in that wasteland appealed to Hope:

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.

Many Australian film makers have used the outback as the setting for movies dealing with life on the fringe of civilisation. One of the first such movies was the 1971 film, Wake In Fright. According to Paul Byrnes, film critic for the Sydney Morning Herald,

"there has never been a more savage and scabrous film about Australia. Unfortunately, it was uncomfortably true, which was one reason Australians didn't go to see it...Wake in Fright took no prisoners. It was a vision of outback Australia as one of the inner circles of hell, a place of mad, murderous men and dull eyed, sluttish women. These were people who lived beyond the polite laws of civilisation, even if they tried to pretend otherwise."

In Mad Max (1979), George Miller used the outback to symbolise a wasteland that followed the breakdown of civilisation into a series of motorised hunter gatherer tribes. Max was a police officer trying to maintain some sense of law and order in outback Australia where gangs were laws unto themselves. It was followed up with Mad Max 2 and 3, which showed a society that had truly broken down, and where Max balances his past concern for others with a world in which he needs to think of himself to survive. Ironically, Mad Max 4 was scheduled to also be shot in the Australian outback; however, rain caused a bloom of wildflowers, and the landscape didn’t match leather clad men burning across the landscape.

Mad Max 2 - Introduction

Although most film makers seem to have been intimidated by the outback, some have been more nuanced in their emotions. In Walkabout, a fourteen year old girl and her little brother were lost in Australia's outback after their father attempted to murder them before committing suicide. They were saved from certain death when they encountered a teenage Aboriginal boy on his walkabout. The narration for the trailer states:

"There is a place where time stands still. Where nature is harsh and demanding. Where only the quick and the strong and the deadly can survive. This place is no place for civilised man. In this place, man is just another one of god’s creatures."

Commenting on its enduring appeal, in 1998 Roeg described the film as:

"…a simple story about life and being alive, not covered with sophistry but addressing the most basic human themes; birth, death, mutability."

Like other Australian movies, Crocodile Dundee (1986) made heavy use of outback symbolism, but rather than use it to symbolise something negative or harsh about Australians, it used the environment to symbolise something positive. Specifically, the environment was used to symbolise a kind of freedom from restriction and norms that was refreshing in the regimented modern world.

Urban artists have also made heavy use of the outback in their work. The paintings of Russel Drysdale reside amongst the iconic works of Australian. Despite being widely celebrated, they are quite bleak. They portray broken dreams, failed communities and people struggling to survive. In the Ruins, Dysdale painted a sheet a corrugated iron acting as a barrier between Aborigines and onlookers. In Moody’s Pub, Drysdale painted faceless figures in semi-formal attire, whose formality is falling away.


Russel Drysdale The Ruins

Russell Drysdale
The Ruins

Outbacks of each state


Each mainland state has a distinct outback, but NSW's outback is arguably the most varied and changing. It is broken with rivers that flow when rain falls in the wet years but dry up in the droughts. A particularly emotive region is the Lake Mungo. For tens of thousands of years, Lake Mungo was nourished by the flow of the Lachlan River and humans fished and hunted on its foreshores. 10,000 years ago, the course of the Lachlan changed and the lake dried up. Preserved in the sands were Mungo Lady, whose remains were partially cremated between 25,000 and 40,000 years ago. Even more significant than Mungo lady was Mungo Man, who was estimated to have died between 40,000 and 62,000 years ago. Mungo Man was ritually buried with his hands covering his penis, and his bones were sprinkled with ochre. Mungo Man is humanity's oldest example of a sophisticated and artistic burial taking place.

When Europeans and Asians arrived, they tried farming the barren lake bed, and their ruins speak of the harshness of the landscape that they were forced to abandon.


Murray Darling

Murray Darling Catchment. Rain that falls in the north will swell waterways of outback NSW; bringing water to what wouldotherwise be desert.




Darling River in Flood

Sometimes the Darling River is nothing but a dry ditch, other times it is large enough to carry paddle steamers. Once the rain returns, it again becomes a great river to catch fish, kayak down or camp aside.

Murrumbidgee in flood; a beautiful outback scene.

Lake Mungo - Walls of China

Walls of China in Lake Mungo. Named by Chinese workers who said that the sides of the lake reminded them of China's Great Wall.



Emus walked the landscape when Lake Mungo was full and the shores teemed with life. Even as the waters have dried up and forests turned to sand, still the Emus walk on.



Although dry, Lake Mungo still has wildlife. Emus can be attracted by laying on your back and kicking your legs in the air.


The Red Kangaroo is the largest of all the Kangaroos and is used as the symbol of Qantas. It's home is the outback.

Broken Hill

Broken Hill; desert and industrial cities seem to be conducive to the production and appreciation of good art.


It is debatable as to whether Victoria has an outback. The state has sufficient rain to sustain plains of wheat and dairy farms all the way to the mighty Murray River.



Goannas mating

Goanna are not always easy to see in the trees, but are impressive lizards

Goannas mating

Arguably, cultivated land is inconsistent with common conceptions of an outback thus Victoria has no outback.  

South Australia

The highlight of the South Australian outback is Lake Eyre, which encapsulates the outback spirit of desolation that experiences renewal. 50,000 years ago, it was a deep water lake all year round but burning of the landscape by newly arrived humans caused a decrease in the exchange of water vapour between the biosphere and atmosphere. Clouds stopped forming and the annual monsoon over central Australia failed. Although this led to Lake Eyre drying up, in the process it developed a highly unique ecosystem. For years at a stretch, Lake Eyre is nothing but a salt pan, but sometimes rain in the north flows down once dry inland rivers to fill it once more, bringing fish, and birds. A place that usually feels like a tomb quickly becomes the world's 6th largest lake and an oasis in the desert.


Lake Eyre catchment

Lake Eyre catchment


Lake Eyre, once a deepwater lake that was full all yeararound, now it is mostly a salt pan that is occassionally filled by ephemeral floods.


Western Australia

The outback is laden with history; not only of a time when the ecosystem was vastly different to what it is today, but also cultures of people long since gone. No where is this more evident than the Bradshaw rock art of the WA Kimberly. Dispersed in around 100 000 sites spread over a 50 000 sq. km region,the Bradshaws have been dated at 17,000 + years old. This makes the art at least four times older than the pyramids of Egypt. It also makes the art a comparable age to the Grotte Chauvet paintings in France, which have been dated at 30,000-years-old. Although radio carbon dating was used to date the Grotte Chauvet pigments, the Bradshaw art can't be dated in the same way because the pigment has become part of the rock itself. Peter Robinson, Project Controller of the Bradshaw Foundation, proposed:

"The Bradshaw Paintings are incredibly sophisticated, yet they are not recent creations but originate from an unknown past period which some suggest could have been 50,000 years ago."

Aside from being extremely old, the Bradshaws are very significant to world history because instead of depicting animals, they use humans as the primary subject. The use of humans as the primary subject is very rare for paleolithic art. Furthermore, it shows the humans with tassels, hair adornments, and possibly clothing. Such body adornments are usually only found in agricultural societies that have developed hierarchical systems of status. As well as showing body adornments, the art also shows relatively advanced technology. One painting depicts a boat with 29 people on board. Another depicts a boat with four people on board, and a rudder. In a nutshell, the art shows the culture of a people that was not believed to exist until around 10,000 years ago.

Description from the Bradshaw Foundation: - http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/bradshaws/gallery8.php

" Bradshaw Period
Tassel Bradshaw Group
600x130mm (23x5 ins) left figure
540x270mm (21x10 ins) right figure

This discrete panel involves a pair of Tassel Bradshaws, each with an upwards facing long-tailed marsupial aligned close above its headdress. The distinctive dashed line objects with a 'Y' upper section are occasionally shown in close association with Tassel Bradshaws, appearing to be surviving monochrome remnants of once bichrome artifacts. Accoutrements include Tasselled Cord Armpit decorations, and multiple round bangles. The awkward arm alignment shown on the left figure appears exclusive to Tassel Bradshaws.

Northern Territory

The northern territory outback rivals with NSW as the most internationally known; perhaps due to a 1980s movie about a bloke from the Northern Territory who wrestled crocodiles.

The Kakadu National Park is perhaps the most famous of these attractions. Ironically, much of the emotion of the park comes from the havoc that humans have wrecked on it in the name of "saving" it. After becoming a National Park, rangers and ecologists tried to control the ecosystem using guns, poisons, fences and fire regimes. They only succeeded in killing off almost every mammal except for tourists flooding through to take photos of what is best described as a tomb.

As far as Australian national parks are concerned, Kakadu is underwhelming but it does have some amazing rock art that speaks of a time when life was more abundant.  

A superior environmental experience is to be found in the Litchfield National Park. Like Kakadu, the mammals have been killed off but it teems with waterfalls, camping grounds and crystal clear streams that can be swum in without fear of crocodiles.

Uluru is the Territory’s other flagship attraction. Previously, it was known as Ayres Rock, but reverted to the traditional Anangu name in 1993, much to the distress of Japanese tourists who struggle with their ls and rs.

The rock is 3.6 km long and rises up from the flat landscape to a height of 348m. During the afternoon, it appears as ochre-brown. As the sun sets, the rock is illuminated as a burnt orange before fading into deep reds and then charcoal. When it occasionally rains, the colours change again as waterfalls cascade off it.

Kakadu rock art

Along with the Bradshaws in the Kimberly, the rock art at Kakadu is arguably the interesting rock art in the world.

litchfield National Park

Litchfield National Park is more like a national park should be. It allows people to truly engage with the ecosystem by jumping in and having a swim in the many crystal clear pools and streams.


Sometimes referred to as the heart of the outback, Uluru is a rock that speaks of the age of the landscape, the complexity of its light and the diversity of its climatic conditions.

Northern territory billabong. Beautiful scene, but salt water crocodiles lay in wait.

Questions to think about

Why the outback?

In their 1988 song Beds Are Burning, a song about Aboriginal land rights, Midnight Oil sang:

Out where the river broke
The bloodwood and the desert oak
Holden wrecks and boiling diesels
Steam in forty five degrees

Ironically, by setting the song in the outback, Midnight Oil was distancing Aboriginal land rights from the 80 per cent of Australians that live in coastal catchments and 70 per cent of Aboriginal Australians that live in cities. It was also proposing paying rent on land that couldn't even generate enough income to get an old Holden fixed. A more relevant image could have been built with lyrics such as:

Out where the big waves broke
The ocean views and the French oak
Toyotas, BMWs and boiling diesels
Steam in thirty five degrees.

In your opinion, would the song have been as successful it if had

  1. Set the song in an area with greater economic potential?
  2. Set the song in landscapes that audiences were more familiar with?
  3. Set the song in landscapes that are not as uniquely Australian?
  4. Can you suggest a reason for why the song was set in the outback?

Midnight Oil Beds are Burning made extensive use of outback imagery in a political campaign. The urban scenes appear to have been filmed in Redfern (Sydney). This is an area that an Aboriginal Housing Commission was established in the 1970s to purchase properties for Aboriginal habitation.


Invasive ferals


Carp and Trout
A tale of two ferals

New hope for Cane Toads
The many unknown predators of the toad

A fence almost 2,000 km long to keep rabbits out of WA? Sounds like a great idea! If it doesn't work, we'll build another one!

The Willow
How a change in its status from asset to weed led to fish kills with blackwater and blue-green algae outbreaks

To bait dingos?
Should the health of the ecosystem be considered or just the kennel club registration?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Environmental values

Environmental problems
How money and ideology shapes environmental "science."

Australia's Stockholm Syndrome with gum trees.

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Climate change in Australia
Australia was once covered in rainforest. Could it be again?

The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?




Australian environmental science is defined by an ideology that is not unlike a prison warden. There, the scientists are not seeing themselves as part of the ecosystem, but as masters over it; protecting the rights of the species that they say have rights and killing those that they say do not…but inevitably killing both.

"It was always seen as desirable to remove or cull the introduced species. We also need to ask whether it was possible to do so, how it should be done, whether it could have unintended consequences and what it would cost? I don't think anyone really asked those questions." Physicist John Reid - 2012