Australians travel 150 miles across the Outback for beer

How far would you be willing to travel for a beer? If you’re anything like the residents of Marble Bar, located in Western Australia’s Outback, the answer is “pretty far”.

According to the Daily Mail the Ironclad Hotel, which was located in Marble Bar, closed down last month, taking the town’s only pub with it. As a result, many of the locals have been making the 150-mile round trip journey to Nullagine just to enjoy a frosty pint at the Conglomerate Hotel. By Outback standards, Nullagine is practically right next door.

It is estimated that more than a quarter of the residence of Marble Bar have been making the commute to Nullagine on a regular basis, and as a result, the amount of beer being consumed at the Conglomerate has tripled. In fact, the situation has gotten so dire, that the pub may run out of beer before they can get resupplied later in the week. If that were to happen, residents of both towns would have to travel an additional 125 miles to get a taste of their favorite beverage.

The Daily Mail is quick to point out exactly why the Marble Bar locals are in such need of a cold drink. The town holds Australia’s record for the most consecutive days above 100ºF. Set back in the 1920’s, the record still stands at an astounding 160 days of triple digit temperatures.

There is hope in sight however, as plans are already afoot to reopen the Ironclad very soon.

[Photo Credit: Alamy]

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.

Outback Australia: Big Fun in Little Alice

It’s rare that a town with a population under 30,000 is known by everyone in a country as big as Australia. But Alice Springs is no ordinary town. It’s defined less by its size and more by its location and quirky nature. Known colloquially as just Alice, the town is considered the capital of Centralia (the efficient abbreviation for Central Australia). If you’re going to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), or anywhere else in the Red Center, odds are you will be starting or ending your journey in Alice Springs. How does a tiny outpost in the middle of the desert become known the world over? By doing everything the hard way and with a big smile.


Alice Springs is an Outback town, plain and simple. It’s 1,500km from Darwin and Adelaide and almost 2,500km from Perth, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. It is in the middle of one humongous country. It has survived and thrived for decades, however, thanks to ingenuity, creativity and, in recent years, a tourism industry that has capitalized on those traits.

So, you’ve found yourself in the middle of Australia with a few days to kill. Now what? Well, expect plenty of fun, for one thing, and some of the most breathtaking views you’ve ever seen.

  • Palm Valley ToursA bumpy 130km drive to the southwest of Alice is an amazing natural wonder that will make you believe that your eyes are deceiving you. In the middle of Finke Gorge National Park, in what appears to be a wide expanse the barren Outback, is a valley filled with lush, healthy palm trees. Relying on underground water supplies and only minimal amounts of rainfall, these palms have flourished for thousands of years. The tour bus takes you along unsealed, rugged roads and through some of the most striking landscapes in the entire Territory.
  • Alice Springs School of the AirSince when is a school a tourist destinations? Since this became the first school to communicate with students in remote areas via peddle-powered radios. The Northern Territory was, and still is, a region built around cattle stations and massive, remote plots of land occupied by very few people. As such, children are often hundreds of kilometers from the nearest school. The Alice Springs School of the Air was the first school to connect students and teachers utilizing the technology of the day. They have since upgraded to computers, webcams and chatrooms to allow students to attend classes with their peers who are scattered throughout the Territory. The visitors center shares the fantastic history of the school’s growth, development and the many innovations that have allowed it to educate the youth of rural Australia for decades.
  • Royal Flying Doctor ServiceThink setting up education in an area as remote as as the Northern Territory is difficult, try providing medical service to those sequestered locations. What do you do if you’re injured on a farm that’s 1,000km from the nearest town or hospital. You call the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which was founded in Alice in 1928. The visitor center in Alice is also the dispatch office, where people with medical situations can call for a doctor to be flown out to treat anything from traumatic injuries to flu outbreaks to childbirths. You can see the history of the RFDS, as well as how calls are processed and proceeds from sales in the gift shop help keep this essential service operating.
  • Outback BallooningI’d always been curious about flying in a hot air balloon but turned off by the high price of the experience. Also, while I’m not afraid of heights, I am a firm believer that only fruit should be collected in a basket. People deserve a metal casing. But after watching the sunrise over the Outback on the outskirts of Alice while floating several hundred feet above the ground, I realized that ballooning is the only way to travel. Or, the only way to see the majesty of an amazingly desolate yet beautiful landscape seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And the champagne breakfast afterward is sure to settle the nerves of anyone who was left jelly-legged from the ride.
  • Anzac Hill – Apparently, every single destination in the Northern Territory has a “perfect” spot to watch the sunset. In Alice, there is no better place than Anzac Hill (partially because there is no other place – Alice is flat other than this one bump). Atop the hill sits a war memorial (ANZAC stands for Australia-New Zealand Army Corps) and a remarkable 360° view of the little town that could. Wrap up your trip to the Red Center by watching the sun sink behind the MacDonnell Ranges that lurk in the distance.

Alice is home to countless indigenous art galleries and plenty of pubs and restaurants serving bush tucker ranging from yams to wallaby. It’s also the only city in Centralia with an airport that hosts flights from virtually any other city in Australia that you may be coming from or going to.

You may have noticed that Uluru is noticeably absent from this list. The rock is nearly 500km from Alice and is by no means a day trip. While Alice is the closest city to Uluru, they are neighbors in the sense that anything within 1,000km is your closest neighbor when you’re in the Outback. If you’re planning a trip to Alice and Uluru, expect one of your days to be spent in transit from one to the other.

In a quirky country like Australia, it takes a lot for a small town to stand out. Alice Springs has done more than that. It has prospered and evolved from a tiny outpost in the bush to a popular tourist destination for people the world over. And there’s one event that draws the biggest crowds to this little hamlet. A regatta in the town’s dry river bed. Confused? Well, check back tomorrow to learn more.

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.

Outback Australia: Disappointment in the Tiwi Islands

When visiting a colonized country, it is difficult to ignore many of the social and economical inequities that exist. Australia is no different. Much like the United States, Australia’s history of dealing with the indigenous peoples is checkered at best and downright awful at worst. Native cultures have been marginalized, victimized – read up on the Stolen Generations – and subjected to both institutionalized and socialized racism for centuries. The climate has changed in recent years thanks to activist groups and improved government policies, but the poverty and stigmas that past practices created still linger. Cultural tourism has provided new sources of income for many aboriginal communities, but that often leads to commercialization and exploitation. And nowhere is that more evident than on the Tiwi Islands.


Located a mere 80km north of Darwin, the Tiwis are comprised of Melville Island and the smaller Bathurst Island. The local Tiwi people are culturally distinct from the native people of mainland Australia. Ferries shuttle passengers to and from the islands via Darwin, and charter flights make the trip in about 30 minutes. And the only way to tour the islands is via Tiwi Tours, which is owned and operated by the Tiwi Land Council (though they lease the operation to Aussie Adventure Holidays, a privately-owned venture).

I visited Bathurst Island with Tiwi Tours and was cautiously optimistic before the trip. I’m always skeptical of organized cultural tours as they often end up being forced reproductions of ceremonies that result in me feeling more guilty than educated. The last thing I want as a traveler is for people to pander to me or disrespect their traditions for the sole purpose of entertaining visitors. Whether the operation is owned by the local people or not, the resulting experience is more exploitative than authentic. Buoyed by the knowledge that all the guides on Tiwi Tours are of Tiwi decent and that we’d be speaking with island locals over morning tea, I boarded the propeller plane and enjoyed the views on the way to Bathurst Island.

Upon landing, we met our Tiwi guide, Trevor, and our white driver, Rod. We boarded our bus and proceeded into the island’s interior. Our first stop was the local history museum which houses artifacts of the island’s rural past and Catholic missionary experiences. Trevor did an adequate job of explaining both the Dreaming of the Tiwi people, as well as their dances, hunting practices and general history. Our time there was short, if not rushed, and it was difficult to absorb the abundance of information.

It was at morning tea, however, that the tour revealed itself as the faux cultural experience I had feared. We met several Tiwi women who explained the various dances that are used to celebrate auspicious events. They then demonstrated these dances in front of the tour group in celebration of nothing more than the attendance of another group of paying customers. We then watched as they painted their faces and those of their young children while offering limited explanation of the nature of the custom. The vast majority of tourists looked on in amazement while I struggled with feelings that ranged from unease to guilt.

Watching the women and children dance and sing for our amusement, with limited educational or cultural content, was beyond inauthentic. It was pandering. The same can be said for the myriad art galleries that are part of the tour. Guests are encouraged to purchase the works of local artists, though it seems that any Tiwi who wants to come to the art centers and paint a picture can be called an artist. By no means am I diminishing Tiwi or aboriginal art, but I have a hard time believing that anyone who picks up a brush is automatically an artist telling a story. Many of the artists are simply impoverished and unemployed locals hoping to make some money from tourists. Several of the installations are managed by whites, which only emphasizes the exploitative nature of the experience.

A positive highlight of the tour was the visit to the former Catholic mission. The church was a unique hybrid of Tiwi and Catholic liturgy and that is evidenced by the ornamentation that is evident in the structure. Figurines of Jesus sit next to depictions of Tiwi Dreaming spirits. And the church complex is also home to a fascinating piece of WWII history. The radio shack on the site was used by the priest to warn Darwin of the first incoming Japanese war planes. The planes flew directly over the Tiwis and the priest attempted to warn the mainland of the impending invasion. His calls for vigilance were ignored, however, and Japan struck a deadly opening salvo on Australian soil.

Overall, Tiwi Tours strive to both educate and bring much needed income into the struggling communities of Bathurst Island. However, the emphasis is clearly on the latter at the expense of the former. While I appreciate their desire to operate a revenue-generating venture in the Tiwis, the cultural costs seemed excessively steep. I would much prefer to attend several discussion groups with locals and be invited to attend an authentic ceremony than have contrived activities thrown in my honor simply because I had a ticket granting admission.

As always, cultural tourism can often have positive intentions that are lost in the execution. Tiwi Tours does seem to have the best interests of the people and history in mind. But more effort is needed to avoid turning Bathurst Island into a depressing Epcot Center version of its former self.

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.

Outback Australia: Kakadu Culture Camp

Yesterday I told you about the wonders of Kakadu National Park. What made my experience there all the more organic was the unique place that I called home for three days. I’m not much of a hotel person and I certainly wouldn’t want to stay at a resort while trying to appreciate a national park (even if one is shaped like a crocodile). Ideally, I would camp in my own tent and cook my meals on an open fire. But short of that, a cabin and personal time with people know that land better than anyone else may be the next best (or even better) option. And that’s exactly what I found at Kakadu Culture Camp.


By no means is Kakadu Culture Camp a Colonial Williamsburg of Aboriginal culture. Rather, it is the only accommodation in Kakadu that is owned and operated by indigenous people whose have called the region home for countless generations. The Hunter family runs Kakadu Culture Camp to provide not only accommodations for visitors, but a learning experience for anyone who visits the park. Jenny, Fred, Dell and Douglas were all born and raised in what is now Kakadu National Park. Jenny and Fred work as park rangers while also operating the camp. In other words, my hosts had a wealth of knowledge about the region, the land, its history and the local cultures.

I was greeted at Kakadu Culture Camp by Andy Ralph, who is noticeably white. He’s married to Jenny and helps operate the camp and leads various talks and tours as well. He would prove to be a valuable source of guidance on what to see and do while at Kakadu National Park and also hosted a fascinating talk on water buffalo and the history of hunting in the park.

I was housed in a safari tent, which was nestled in the woods and provided both privacy and comfort. All of the structures in Kakadu Culture Camp save the restroom facilities are temporary, as the area is under several feet of water come wet season. I had a full-sized bed, screened windows to allow for airflow and was situated a fair distance from the campsites that can also be reserved on the property. While the accommodations were basic, they were perfect for a national park visit, as I spent most of my time exploring hiking trails and rock art rather than relaxing in bed. And in the evenings, the pitch black surroundings and near total silence allowed me to sleep off the day’s activities.

Kakadu Culture Camp offers a variety of tours and demonstrations to educate the public on indigenous culture. One does not need to be staying at the camp to attend these tours, so they also provided me with an opportunity to meet other travelers and share tips on what to see and do. I attended a discussion on bush tucker, a demonstration of didgeridoo playing (Douglas is fantastic while I am horrendous) and a tutorial on spear throwing. I also went on their moonlight boat tour in search of local fauna. While everyone searched vigilantly for a crocodile, I relished the opportunity to see the activity of nocturnal birds and the many fruit bats that call the area home.

Because Kakadu Culture Camp is owned and operated by native people, the entire experience was more respectful and authentic than other tours I have attended that have been hosted by people who do not directly represent the culture that is being discussed. The Hunters are quite proud of their heritage and share that passion with their guests.

Breakfast and dinner are provided, and Andy typically grills up a wonderful meal of local meat and vegetables. Dinner also provides a peaceful opportunity to ask the Hunters questions about the area and how life has changed since the land became a national park.

Kakadu Culture Camp is a wonderful blend of rustic accomodations and experiential travel. You could easily stay there, keep to yourself and explore the park all day, but you’d be missing out on the wonderfully organic cultural experience that exists there. The Hunters made Kakadu Culture Camp one of the more unique experiences I had in the Northern Territory. Just be sure you ask Andy to make your water buffalo patty medium rare. Those things can get a bit chewy.

For more information on Kakadu Culture Camp, visit their website.

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.