Outback refers to remote and arid areas of Australia, although the term colloquially can refer to any lands outside of the main urban areas. The term "outback" is generally used to refer to locations that are comparatively more remote than those areas deemed "the bush".
The outback is home to the Australian feral camel and dingoes. The Dingo fence was built to restrict dingo movements into agricultural areas towards the south east of the continent. The marginally fertile parts, mainly within the Lake Eyre Basin, are known as rangelands and have been traditionally used for sheep or cattle farming, on sheep stations and cattle stations which are leased from the Federal Government. Whereas these grassy areas have fairly fertile clay soils, the remainder of the outback has exceedingly infertile paleosols which cannot support fodder nutritious enough for the economic raising of stock. Although the north of Australia has high (if extremely seasonal) and fairly reliable rainfall, giving it almost all the continent's runoff, the soils there are so poor and eroded (consisting mainly of ironstone or bauxite) as to make cropping impossible even with fertilisers such as superphosphate.
Early exploration of inland Australia was sporadic. More focus was on the more accessible and fertile coastal areas. The first party to successfully cross the Blue Mountains just outside Sydney was led by Gregory Blaxland in 1813, 25 years after the colony was established. People starting with John Oxley in 1819 and 1821, followed by Charles Sturt in 1829-1830 attempted to follow the westward-flowing rivers to find an "inland sea", but these were found to all flow into the Murray River and Darling River which turn south.
Over the period 1858 to 1861, John McDouall Stuart led six expeditions north from Adelaide into the outback, culminating in successfully reaching the north coast of Australia and returning, without the loss of any of the partys' members' lives. This contrasts with the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition in 1860-61 which was much better funded, but resulted in the deaths of seven of the eight members of the expedition.
The Overland Telegraph line was constructed in the 1870s along the route identified by Stuart, who had found enough water to support the needed repeater stations.
Exploration of the outback continued up to the 1950s when Len Beadell explored, surveyed and built many roads in support of the nuclear weapons tests at Emu Field and Maralinga and rocket testing on the Woomera Prohibited Area. Mineral exploration continues as new mineral deposits are identified and developed.
Along with agriculture, tourism and mining are the main economic activities in this vast and sparsely settled area. Due to the complete absence of mountain building and glaciation since the Permian (in many areas since the Cambrian), the outback is extremely rich in iron, aluminium, manganese and uranium ores, and also contains major deposits of gold, nickel, lead and zinc ores. Because of its size, the value of grazing and mining is considerable. Major mines and mining areas in the outback include opals at Coober Pedy and White Cliffs, metals at Broken Hill, Tennant Creek, Olympic Dam and the remote Challenger Mine. Oil and gas are extracted in the Cooper Basin around Moomba.
Less than 10 percent of the Australian population lives outside the urban settlements on the coastal fringes. Despite this, the outback and the history of its exploration and settlement provides Australians with a mythical backdrop, and stories of swagmen, squatters, outlaws such as Ned Kelly (though Ned Kelly spent virtually all his time in the relatively temperate Great Dividing Range) and so on are central to the national ethos of the country. The song Waltzing Matilda, which is about swagmen and squatters, is a popular traditional Australian song.
Due to the low economic value of much of the land in the outback, Aboriginal communities have been able to exist with less interference and disruption than in more fertile areas. A significant proportion of the country's indigenous population now lives in the Outback, in areas such as the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in northern South Australia.
Due to the wide expanses and remoteness of people in the outback, a 'Flying Doctor Service' exists to provide medical services and medevac to remote areas. This service was created in 1928 in Cloncurry, Queensland by the Very Reverend John Flynn (known as Flynn of the Outback). The aim of the service is to provide medical care, primary and emergency, to people who cannot reach hospitals or general practitioners. Regular Clinics are flown out to remote communities, with consultations held in a specially built clinic, in a homestead, or even under the wing of the plane. In addition The Royal Flying doctors Service provides Air Ambulance to remote areas, Hospital to Hospital Transport and Telephone and Radio consultations.
Culturally, many urban Australians have had very generalised terms for the otherwise complex range of environments that exist within the inland and tropical regions of the continent. Regional terminology can be very specific to specific locations in each mainland state.
It is colloquially said that 'the outback' is located "beyond the Black Stump". The location of the black stump may be some hypothetical location or may vary depending on local custom and folklore. It has been suggested that the term comes from the Black Stump Wine Saloon that once stood about 10 kilometres out of Coolah, New South Wales on the Gunnedah Road. It is claimed that the saloon, named after the nearby Black Stump Run and Black Stump Creek, was an important staging post for traffic to north-west New South Wales and it became a marker by which people gauged their journeys.
"The Never-Never" is a term referring to remoter parts of the Australian outback. The outback can be also referred to as "back of beyond", "back o' Bourke" although these terms are more frequently used when referring to something a long way from anywhere, or a long way away. The well-watered north of the continent is often called the "Top End" and the arid interior "The Red Centre" due to its vast amounts of red soil and sparse greenery amongst its landscape.
The Australian Outback may be desolate but there is still wildlife existing in these extreme dry, hot conditions. Camels may be encountered as they wander the desert sand plains, brought to Australia by the early Afghan drivers; these animals survive well in the outback. Kangaroos are also encountered along with the Dingo, as they survive the harshness. White Cockatoos and Grey Galahs are often sighted in flocks as they cross the wilderness. Snakes and lizards are often basking in the sun, and they may be sighted resting on roads. Wild horses known as 'Brumbies,' imported by early settlers, run wild in large numbers.
There are many popular tourist attractions in the outback. Some of the well known destinations, include:
- Alice Springs
- Uluru (Ayers Rock)
- Coober Pedy
- Devils Marbles
- Katherine River Gorge
- Kakadu National Park
- Kings Canyon (Watarrka)
- The Olgas (Kata Tjuta)
- MacDonnell Ranges
- Mount Isa
- Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame
- Monkey Mia
- Mount Augustus National Park
Part of the draw card of the outback, is the hundreds of small towns that radiate Australia's famous larrikinism and character. As there are too many to mention, for those wanting to explore the "Back of Bourke" or get off the beaten track, check out one of the most comprehensive guides to outback Australian tourism.
Organised travel to the outback is popular, although some Australian and international tourists travel in their own vehicles. Such a trip, particularly once off the few bitumen roads in the outback, requires considerable advance planning and a suitable vehicle (usually a four wheel drive). On remote routes considerable supplies and equipment may be required, this can include prearranged caches. Some trips cannot be undertaken safely with a single vehicle instead requiring a convoy approach. Deaths from tourists and locals becoming stranded on outback trips sometimes occur, and rescues for the ill-prepared also take place from time to time.
In 2002 the Western Australian Tourism Commission promoted the outback of Western Australia as part of its promotional programmes.
The outback is also criss-crossed by numerous historic tracks, roads and highways. Despite their names, most of these require high-clearance four wheel drives and spare fuel, tyres and food before attempting to travel them, even in favourable weather. The Stuart Highway runs from north to south through the centre of the continent, roughly paralleled by the Adelaide-Darwin Railway. There is a proposal to develop some of the roads to create an all-weather road named the Outback Highway from Laverton, Western Australia (north of Kalgoorlie northeast through the Northern Territory into Queensland, at Winton.
Air transport is heavily relied on in the outback due to the immense distances, sparse population and poor roads. This includes the major commercial airports at Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. Many outback mines have an airstrip and much of the workforce operates on a fly-in fly-out basis. Most outback sheep stations and cattle stations have an airstrip and their own light plane. Medical and ambulance services are provided by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The School of the Air is a radio-based school using the RFDS radios.