Australian outback wears a deserted outlook

The Farrands, whose Rabbit Flat roadhouse is billed as the country's most remote, are among the few to defy the urban lifestyle.

Driving on the dusty Tanami Track "highway," is like riding on an old wooden rollercoaster, without the adrenalin-pumping shifts and swoops. Hour after hour you rattle along on red dirt, passing termite mounds and the occasional Aboriginal community, until you reach what's billed as the most remote roadhouse in Australia - Rabbit Flat.

It's a quiet place, if you ignore the din of the generators that supply the electricity. But in a country gaining attention for its urban attributes, Rabbit Flat is a loud symbol of the harsh place that much of the country remains - and of the growing divide some see between Australia's prospering cities and its struggling remote areas.

Rising out of Rabbit Flat's desert scrub are a few rusty fuel pumps and cinder-block buildings and a $1.20-a- night campground ($2 Australian), the sum total of Bruce and Jackie Farrands' outback business.

"People in the city haven't got a clue what life is like for us," says Ms. Farrands, who with her husband has run the roadhouse for 31 years and is still in love with the isolation and stunning landscape of the desert.

For all the gastronomes and fashionistas, feeding and clothing a mostly suburban population of nearly 19 million, much of Australia resembles sparsely settled places like Rabbit Flat, inhabited by pragmatic iconoclasts like the Farrands.

Yet in recent years Australia has been getting more attention for the cultural revamp that has turned the Crocodile Dundee cliche into a more cosmopolitan creature. Australians don't wrestle crocodiles anymore, it seems. They prefer to wear faux versions of their skins.

In May, for instance, Texas supermodel Jerry Hall strutted up and down a catwalk in Sydney, decked in the latest creations by Australia's top fashion designers. The Australian press crowed about the attention the country was getting from the fashion world and Mick Jagger's ex.

But it all seems ludicrous to Jackie Farrands. She left the comforts of Paris and a job where she was forced to wear high heels and tight skirts. She came to the outback to flee Paris and, she says, found a place where she could finally be her opinionated self.

Now she dons surplus camouflage handed down to her by her two sons in the Army (twins delivered by Bruce at home in Rabbit Flat 25 years ago) to tend to her desert vegetable patch.

Somehow she pulled a bumper crop of asparagus from the desert plot this year, which seems a bit like extracting oranges from the Siberian permafrost.

The Farrands, who met while they were working on a cattle station nearby, established the roadhouse in 1969 to fill the need for a fuelling stop halfway up the Tanami Track. But even three decades later, in a supposed age of convenience, life remains hard.

The mail and some fresh food come twice a month by plane. Road trains (the massive tractor-trailers that supply outback Australia) thunder up the Tanami Track on a regular basis during the dry season. But both services can be unreliable, particularly when it rains and the dry creek beds fill and flood. Thanks to the worst "wet" in 26 years, the road to both Alice Springs, 360 miles to the southeast, and Halls Creek, almost 300 miles to the west, has been closed more often than it's been open so far this year.

There is contact with the outside world - the couple have a phone and fax machine and get a dozen television channels via satellite. But the Farrands don't plan to make the leap online. Computers just don't survive in the heat - in summer it can hit 120 F. in the shade - or under assault from the red dust of the desert. "I don't have to worry about the love bug," Jackie says, pointing to her head. "This is my computer."

"Some people may think I'm eccentric," she says in her French accent. "But I just take their money and say thank you...."

One magazine recently declared Rabbit Flat - where fuel costs almost twice what it does in suburban Sydney - the most expensive place to buy gas in Australia. "Hands up," the article began. "You are now entering Rabbit Flat."

That infuriated the Farrands, who work 15-hour days on the four days a week they are open and still have people knocking on their days off.

To Bruce Farrands, the article in Australia's most widely read news magazine was another example of a growing gap both he and his wife feel. Once, it seems, Australians had closer ties to the outback, or at least a stronger affinity for its mythology and a better understanding of its realities.

According to Peter Andrews, chief executive of the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Center, Australia's rural and remote areas have long felt ignored by people in the cities. "The divide has always been there," Mr. Andrews says. "If you read historical documents, you see a lot of that view."

But it has flared in recent years and become a political issue, too. Faced with a rural revolt that led to the creation of the far-right One Nation Party, and opposition in remote areas to plans to fully privatize the national phone company, Telstra, the government has been trying to woo back outback voters. In its most recent budget, it boosted spending on remote health and education programs, for instance. Jackie Farrands thinks even with a raft of legitimate complaints the outback is fighting a losing battle to have its say. Millions live in Australia's cities and just a few hundred thousand call the outback home. Says Jackie: "Even if 1- or 2-thousand come up here each year, it's going to take a long time for all of them to understand."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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