Danny’s outback tours
The gravel track is rough and straight, unending. On either side, scrubby plains stretch out to a vast uninhabitable landscape. Throughout the journey, lone signposts will point to Kathleen Springs, the Lasseter Highway, the West MacDonnell Ranges. The four-wheel-drive bus looks like an army vehicle: dark grey-green, hard edges, box-like. In the driver’s seat, Danny sits straight-backed, eyeing the road ahead. His 190-centimetre frame is dressed in blue KingGee, with a golden mane spilling to his shoulder blades. Through his tongue is a piercing, several more in his ears. Delicate tattoos adorn one wrist, the pillow of flesh between his thumb and index finger, and behind his left ear. Drumming his fingers on the broad steering wheel, Danny begins to sing.
It is two years since he left Sydney’s Newtown to work as a tour guide in the desert. He begins his days early, under a thousand stars tossed like fairy lights across an endless expanse of sky. Rising, he lights the fire around which his charges sleep in swags, before playing a recording of the rhythmic drone of the didgeridoo.
At the base of Uluru, where purple wildflowers spring from the dry earth and kangaroo grass crackles under touch, Danny shepherds his tour group into a cave set in the rock. “Come, touch it,” he says, “there’s a special energy here.” People move forward quietly, before splaying their fingers on the rock’s cool surface. The children in the group, as if magnetised, lean their entire bodies into its gentle curve. Danny crouches, runs his hand over a small area of rock that has been worn smooth. This is where, he says, for thousands of years Aboriginal women ground mulga seeds, comparable in size to that of a poppy seed. Enough seed would be ground to feed a mob of 30 or 40 people. “Touch this smooth part of the rock and you are touching a piece of history. Feel the strength of Aboriginal women. As someone raised by a single mother I think it is very important to have that acknowledgment and understanding of what women do. My mum was a kid raising a kid,” he laughs, “and I think she did alright.”
Out here, Danny tells the group, we walk past things all the time and have no idea of their use or significance. Aboriginal people found everything they needed in nature: native lemongrass for fevers, stripey mint for colds and decongestion, the mulla mulla flower to line babies’ cribs. “How amazing is nature?” he says. “You know there’s shrimp living on the top of the world’s most famous rock in the Australian outback?”
On a plateau at Watarrka, Danny strides over the rubble and pauses in front of a sharp cleft. Surrounding him is red sandstone, layered like pancakes, and beyond, ancient ghost gums growing among rock and spinifex. The crevice where he stands, he says, is a well-known landmark in Australian film. In The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the actors climbed through here dressed in drag. The film was “so important” for the rights of people in Australia’s LGBTI community.
Danny believes the Northern Territory is a “little bit looser” than any other state in Australia. People in the outback are different from what he expected. “It’s the most open-minded group of people that I’ve ever met in my life. People don’t care who you are, what your sexuality is or what colour your skin is. All that doesn’t matter. As long as you come out here and be a good person and look out for other people – that’s what matters.”
Out here, it is easy to be removed from things politically, he says, but marriage equality is very important to him and to his friends. “I’m out here helping that cause in a different way. In the cities
people can rally in the street, but I’m out here in remote areas and I’m driving big trucks and doing stuff that outback people can relate to. Outback people who have never been to a city can’t relate to rallies and sparkles – it’s not that they don’t like it – but they can’t understand it,” he explains. “Suddenly they have a friend out here who is driving trucks – just another one of the boys – and they can relate to that, so they care more about the issue of marriage equality than they did before.”
At the edge of a waterhole at Ormiston Gorge, Danny sits in the sand. He removes his Akubra and sweeps his hair into a thick, messy bun. This is fun, he says of the job. “I get to be G. I. Joe in a way. But it’s also serious. If we make a mistake out here, people can die. When I drive past people that are pulled over I wait until I get the thumbs up before going on. It can absolutely be life or death.”
In the job he has had his head cracked open, been burnt and cut, bitten by a brown snake. The responsibility of caring for people on tour can be overwhelming, he says. You’re constantly aware of it. On this trip he has 16 travellers in his care, mostly from Europe. “We don’t get many Aussies – they go to Fiji or Thailand. But when Aussies do come out here, they say: ‘What took us so long?’ ”
He tries not to think of himself too much as a tour guide, more as a friend who knows some cool stuff. It is more of a lifestyle than a job, he says. “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. I came out here and felt such a deeper attachment than I ever did in the city. It was freeing. We take ourselves so seriously, but being out here reminds me of how insignificant we are. We are smaller than a piece of sand. That’s not a scary thing; it’s an awesome thing. We are so insignificant compared to Uluru and Kata Tjuta. We are nothing; just a speck in time. When you acknowledge that, it stops being scary and starts being freeing.”
Around his wrist is a music festival band, worn until it will be replaced by next year’s. It “sort of” reminds him that there is life outside the desert, he says, “but there is no way I could live in the city again”.
Now, he’s leaving central Australia for Kakadu. “Two years is a long time for me. The world is just so big and life is short. I could go and sit in a little cubicle in the city, but look at this…” he points to the luminous water, surrounded by towering sandstone. “There is just no feeling like it in the world.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "One of the boys". Subscribe here.