Way Outback: The Road to Ernabella

Click here to see the video The Road to Ernabella

The drive to Ernabella starts at Uluru, or Ayers rock as the western settlers named it, the ancient rock formation mysteriously present in the dry plains of north western South Australia. The indigenous people of the region have long maintained Uluru as a sacred site. One look towards the rock explains their belief. The formation’s 9 km circumference looms over the horizon giving a focal point to an endless expanse of silver green scrub brush. Although not the tallest formation in the state it is a visual force to be reckoned with. The rock’s weighty mass fills your periphery even when you look at it from a distance.
Within the first few minutes on the road I realize nothing I have seen before could prepare me for where I am going. Our destination is only three hours away but each minute takes us deeper into a world pictures can’t accurately describe. The red dirt of the road forms an almost unnatural contrast with the brilliant blue sky. The colors are the kind you get when you turn up the brightness/contrast on a computer monitor. They remind me that nature already has the patent on 3D technology.
The washboard road knocks the jeep around like a rag doll in a washing machine. Each jolt knocks the Shanghai city life out of my bones. The faster we drive the more the truck finds its footing in the loose soil. As we miraculously top 100 km I feel like I will be propelled out of my seat into the bush itself. Jullian, the driver and co-manager of the arts center, is unfazed by the sudden potholes that have me gripping the side bar. Living in the outback must do that to a person. The unexpected becomes routine and you adjust to the changes without noticing them.
Jullian knew where he was going without road signs or the modern convenience of GPS. As we came to unmarked forks in the road he made decisions based on repetition. In the three years since he and Ruth moved to Ernabella he has made this drive on a monthly, if not bi-weekly basis.  This particular trip was prompted by the Voyages Resort’s weekend market at Ayers Rock.  Although not a huge money maker the market provides a sales opportunity for the art center that is closer than Adelaide, Sydney, or Melbourne. For an isolated aboriginal center selling outside of the community is more convenient for collectors who might not want to make the bumpy drive into the desert.
Throughout the afternoon we see a comical collection of animals running away as we pass. The sound of a truck must be startling in the mostly humanless landscape. Camels brought in decades ago by Afghan traders shake off a dust cloud as they gallop away. The cows we see are remarkably quick and I am impressed with their ability to jump over the scrub brush. The smaller winged animals, owls and hawks, also make an appearance, as well as a dingo, the only outback animal not to travel in packs. Seeing only the back side of a fleeing animal reminds me of the relationship westerners have with this land. When we come everything tries to hide. I hope my experience with the notoriously shy Anangu people doesn’t fit this mold.
As the sun sets Jullian and Ruth’s four year old daughter Beatrix, who somehow has been sleeping through most of our journey, wakes up to yell me stories over the loud rattle of the truck. Her stories about Dora the mermaid make me laugh. She is too young to know the irony of a mermaid story in the middle of the desert. By the time we get to the house we are all hungry and tired from driving. Only a day into my trip and this place has already captured me. If the drive in was this interesting the month I will spend here is sure to be life changing. 


  1. Look at all that red dirt, cant' wait to hear more about this adventure, you really are the red clay rambler now, ha.

    1. I do come by the name honestly. The area from VA that I am from is full of red clay. Hope your doing well today.

  2. Ben, what an amazing journey. I can't help remembering how we played in the red gullies of Bedford County as a child. Very interesting. Love, Dad

    1. That reminds me of the time Jeremy and I where down to our eyeballs in the creek outside of Meadowood. You were very kind to laugh that one off. That creek was full of shale that was perfect for skipping stones.