No one loves the mailman quite like outback Australians do. It’s mid-afternoon when the truck pulls into the dusty driveway in front of a small ranch house. The door bangs open and a small blond boy comes running down the walk pushing a big yellow Tonka. He wraps a hearty hug around the mailman’s legs—and receives a pat on the head in return—before accepting the delivery of letters into the bed of his truck.
As the boy pushes his haul back toward the house, his mother and a few other women step out. They, too, greet this mailman with easy familiarity, eager to catch up on local gossip and news for a few minutes before he continues his route.
If the scene sounds unlikely, it’s because this is no ordinary mail route. Peter Rowe’s path carves a 372-mile loop through a landscape that looks extraterrestrial: the South Australian outback. Rowe doesn’t look like a typical mailman. He’s in his sixties, with friendly, round features, and today he’s wearing a polo shirt and jeans. And for that matter, he drives no ordinary mail truck: It’s a rugged, caterpillar-like four-wheel-drive minibus that can hold a dozen passengers and still leave ample space for supplies and deliveries. For a decade, Rowe has been traveling this route twice a week, delivering mail and sundries to the few human outposts that dot this endless landscape. On an average day, it’s a 13-hour trip. To pass the time he invites tourists like me to come with him.
Australia’s outback holds a special place in the imagination. It’s a destination synonymous in many American minds with snakes and scorpions, big rocks, and swashbuckling adventurers. People come to marvel at the stunning desert scenery and the diverse wildlife. But there’s something more mystical than that too. It’s cliché to say that people go Down Under for a perspective shift, but it does feel like a different planet. The thing that keeps awing me is the way my sense of time has changed. I don’t mean that things move slower than they do in New York City, where I live, though of course they do. It’s something deeper.
It’s classic for Americans visiting Europe for the first time to be stunned at the medieval churches: How could anything be that old? In Australia’s outback, this same sense is amplified by 1000—and it’s not about the architecture, but the landscape. The outback is a defiant reminder of how ancient our planet is. Once upon a time—or 100 million years ago, more precisely—this bone-dry, pancake-flat sprawl was the bed of the Eromanga Sea; an area nearby is rife with the fossils of long-necked marine reptiles called plesiosaurs. (And baby plesiosaurs: Scientists think it was a shallow area good for breeding and spawning.) At still another time—about 250 million years ago—there were forests here, as evidenced by the glittering patches of gypsum and petrified wood that speckle the soft desert sand. It’s impossible not to feel miniscule standing here.
I’m from a tiny town in New England, population less than 2000. There were 37 kids in my high school class. I thought I knew a thing or two about what it’s like to be in the middle of nowhere. In Australia, I learned I’d been wrong. So among the many things I was curious to find out on my day with Rowe, chief was this: What is it like to live here?
We depart Coober Pedy, a small mining township a 90-minute flight from Adelaide, just after 8 a.m. The desert air is still cool, though it’ll climb into the 90s by midday—that’s seasonal for October, which is among the more temperate months.
Most people who live in Coober Pedy came to mine opal deposits, and it was opal that brought Rowe here in 1966 from his hometown of Melbourne. “I thought I’d go and make a million dollars,” he says. Some miners do strike it lucky; others eke out a modest living. Rowe mined for a while, then opened a pottery shop. In the early 2000s, he started giving tours of desert attractions, and soon he took over the mail delivery contract. These days, his tour company combines the two. Today’s freight, besides the mail and me, includes one retired Australian gentleman, a young Austrian couple, and a tattooed German guy.
It doesn’t take long to get out of town, and it’s just minutes before it feels as though we’re miles from civilization. Out here it’s only sand and sky, one flat reddish plain and one blue one divided by the horizon like a seam. The road is flat, wide, and unpaved, making four-wheel-drive essential. Soon we pull to a stop at a wide gate. On either side is a delicate-looking wire barrier: Australia’s famous Dingo Fence (the world’s longest at 3500 miles). Erected in the 1880s, it keeps ferocious wild dogs out of the southeastern territories so that farmers can raise sheep there. On the other side of it, where we’re about to go, nobody raises sheep. Rowe hops out, unlocks the gate, guides the truck through, and locks it again behind us. “Welcome to cattle country,” he says.
The land here is divided into huge cattle stations. The largest, Anna Creek, covers almost 10,000 square miles—bigger than Israel. Because the desert land isn’t vegetation heavy, the cattle population isn’t dense. They roam free for miles, grazing on desert saltbushes while modern cowboys keep an eye on them with motorcycles and helicopters.
At the first station, there’s a small cluster of men waiting to greet Rowe and help him unload. They make small talk while we tourists wander and take in the scenery. There’s not a lot to look at, just a house and a couple of buildings to store farm equipment. The scene is the same at the next station, and the next: just a few people, warmly greeting Rowe.
As we drive, I realize the mailman is the one reliable visitor they’ll see all week. The neighboring ranches are miles away, and it would take hours to get to the nearest store—which is why families typically get industrial-sized parcels of groceries delivered every few months and their weekly perishables via Rowe. While it’s nice that Rowe is toting extra goods, you get the sense that it’s neither the letters nor the produce he’s carrying that make him so popular, but simply the human connection he provides.
“It’s a buddy system out here,” Rowe says. It has to be. People rely on CB radios to communicate between ranches, so neighbors can help when someone has truck trouble. Doctors are reachable by radio. People call in with symptoms and get a diagnosis; if it’s serious they’ll receive a visit from the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the fleet of 63 aircraft that service the 290,000 people in Australia’s most remote regions. For many years, even kids attended school by radio. These days they do it on the Internet: Though there are no high-speed lines here, the government has subsidized a satellite system that gets the outback online. Hearing this, I think about my own high school and feel downright cosmopolitan.
As we drive, sometimes with an hour or more between stops, Rowe tells stories. He talks about the landscape, the way every couple of years after a rare soaking rain the whole desert will suddenly burst to life with colorful flowers. Desert flowers have a peculiar biology. They can insulate their seeds for long periods of drought and then suddenly blossom after a good shower.
Looking out, I think about how what seems so overwhelmingly empty is actually full of hidden life. There are the dingoes, of course—the world’s longest fence isn’t fooling around. There are also intimidating lizards. Late in the afternoon we screech to a halt when Rowe spots what could be a perentie, the largest lizard native to Australia, renowned for its sharp claws and venom. At an average length of six feet, they’re not the sort of thing you want to meet, in part because they tend to run up the tallest thing around when they’re threatened. (In a treeless landscape, that might mean you.) Fortunately, they’re also notoriously shy. We pile out to get a better look, but there are no lizards in sight.
Occasionally, we stumble across evidence of people. We come upon ruins from an abandoned railroad: a rusted train bridge, a trackbed that’s slowly being reclaimed by the wind and the sand. There’s the burnt-out husk of a mid-century car nearby, a startling sight in the middle of nowhere. Rowe, of course, knows the story behind it. One night decades ago, a local ranch hand made the unwise decision to drive across the train bridge. A train came along and, unable to outrun it, the man had to leap for safety. He was fine; the car, as we can see, was toast.
At dinnertime we pull into a town called William Creek, which consists of a restaurant/hotel and one parking meter (the locals’ idea of a joke). The permanent population here is six. Humans are outnumbered by a huge flock of pink and white galahs—a common and very vocal cockatoo—that alight in a tree outside the restaurant as dusk falls and a huge full moon starts to rise. The bar inside the hotel, though, could almost be in Brooklyn; it’s cozy and well stocked with canned beer, artfully wallpapered with license plates and business cards and trucker hats hung from rafters. Not many people pass through—tonight there are just a couple of college-age cowkids from the nearby station hanging out—but those who do seem compelled to leave some evidence of their visit.
By the time we’re on the road back to Coober Pedy, it’s late and dark, perfect for some of the best stargazing in the Southern hemisphere. Or it would be, if not for that full moon. We pull over to look for constellations anyway. “Pull over” is the wrong phrase—there are no other cars, so we stop in the middle of the road and wander a short way into the silent desert to see what we can see. Rowe points out the Southern Cross, a constellation visible only in the southern hemisphere, which again gives me, a lifelong northern hemisphere–dwelling sky watcher, the sense that I’ve left my home planet.
It’s a little unsettling knowing that the six of us are the only humans for miles in any direction. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt so remote. Then, behind us, the CB radio in Rowe’s truck crackles to life, a warm greeting cutting through the cool night air. The buddy system is at work. We’re not alone after all.