Outback Australia: Where are the Americans?

Close to 300,000 people from outside of Australia visit the Northern Territory every year. And if I noticed anything about those tourists while I was there it’s that the vast majority do not speak English. That is by no means a judgmental statement. I enjoyed sharing meals and experiences with travelers from France and Germany. But I was often the only “Yank” for miles. The more time I spent in the Territory, the more I was taken by how I was a bit of a novelty there. “New York,” as most of the locals would begin their greetings, “sure is a long ways from here.” But is it that much farther than Paris or Berlin or London? Why don’t more Americans travel to the Northern Territory?

According to Tourism Northern Territory, 51,000 people from North American visit every year (details on travelers solely from the United States were not available). That pales in comparison to the 62,000 Brits and 136,000 residents of other European countries who make their way to the Outback every year.

Americans surely are traveling to Oz. Anyone who has spent time in Sydney or at the Great Barrier Reef can attest to bumping into American students, backpackers and tourists taking photos of the Sydney Opera House and snorkeling along the east coast. But Americans seem to be ignoring Australia’s Top End, which is odd since it is the region of the country that is most distinctly Australian.

By no means am I diminishing New South Wales, Queensland or Victoria (the more popular states for foreign visitors), but people who travel there often experience only a snippet of true Australian culture. Sydney is a wonderful city and one of my favorite places to relax with friends, but, for all intents and purposes, it feels like the United States. And while the Whitsunday Islands make up one of the most beautiful corners of the world I have ever had the pleasure of visiting, you’ll find people who can make a convincing argument that the Cayman Islands or Hawaii are just as, if not more, impressively gorgeous. There simply are a lot of places with crystal blue water and great snorkeling.

But the Northern Territory is unlike any place I have ever seen (granted, I have not been to the plains of Sub-Saharan Africa). From red rock outcrops to seemingly endless flood plains to the charmingly quirky Centralia town of Alice Springs, the Northern Territory offers a range of natural beauty and culture that simply cannot be found in the more “civilized” cities of Australia’s east coast. Things move slower in the Territory, as evidenced by a saying I heard repeated throughout my travels: “NT stands for not today, not tomorrow, not Tuesday and not Thursday.” Things get done in the Territory and the people who live there work hard on cattle ranches, in mines and on farms. But you won’t see a lot of people wearing watches, scheduling meetings or asking for the status of the last staff meeting’s deliverables. This is a place defined by seasons of the year, not by the time of day.

What Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane do have are direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco. And those flights are almost 15 hours long. For residents of America’s east coast, it will take close to five hours to get to one of those departure cities. Add in layovers and airport waiting times, and you’re looking at 24+ hours of traveling just to get to Australia. In other words, it can be a hard sell to convince people to add another flight across a country just as large as the United States when they’re already sick of recycled air and stiff legs. But believe me, it’s worth it.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle keeping Americans away from the Northern Territory is our culture. Americans do not typically take vacations that last in excess of a week. That is often because of both limited vacation time allotted by American companies and a culture that, unlike Europe, doesn’t consider month-long holidays commonplace. Thus, it becomes challenging to take vacations that require multiple days of travel just to reach to your intended destination. This often discourages people from even approaching their employers about taking an extended holiday.

When I landed in Sydney after more than a day’s worth of travel, I was actually eager to board my 4+ hour flight to Darwin. Sure, I’d been to Sydney before so I didn’t feel compelled to linger there, but I also was brimming with anticipation of the great unknown that is the Northern Territory for a first-time visitor. You don’t have to visit Sydney to picture it in your head. You do need to stand atop Ubirr Rock in Kakadu National Park to truly understand just how massive, wild and beautiful the Northern Territory truly is. And that’s why Americans should be going to the Northern Territory. If you’re willing to travel to Australia – to the opposite side of the planet – then you already have some sense of adventure. If you let that guide you, one more flight just seems like the next logical step.

Mike Barish traversed the Outback on a trip sponsored by Tourism Northern Territory. He traveled alone and had no restrictions on what he could cover during his travels. That would explain how he ended up eating water buffalo. You can read the other entries in his Outback Australia series HERE.