A Journey Through Australia’s Sublime Treasures

From the wilds of the Outback to the culture of Sydney, Australia is a study in joyful extremes — and a celebration of spring’s effortless styles.

AUSTRALIA IS the primordial earth.

It’s something to be felt on a ramrod-straight outback road, maybe chasing the horizon while driving 100-plus miles east to west across the red-soiled Nullarbor Plain. Or when stopping to set up a swag on a moonless night under the shockingly clear Milky Way.

During the 45 years I spend in the Great Southern Land, I pass through nomadic phases, seeking an awe that comes from slowly absorbing the graces and solitudes of this first, most ancient continent.

That awe comes when standing heat-dazed on the far shores of Western Australia late on a searing summer day, watching the sun’s slow fall through pink skies over the Indian Ocean, which extends uninterrupted almost 5,000 miles from here to Mauritius.

The temperature in this cauldron of color sits above 105 degrees Fahrenheit.

Now the air shifts. Cooling south-westerlies swirl in and around, blowing clear the long-endured torpor. People I spot further up the West’s endless beaches and surfers braving twilight’s sharks also have a new vibration.

For standing on the darkening edge of Australis, this vast and remote world, and inhaling the night is a pleasure like no other.

People in Perth — a city up the Swan River — call these air currents the Fremantle Doctor, naming the rejuvenating change after the port town which first receives the soothing night’s breath in this prehistoric land.

And this really is the oldest of lands.

About 500 miles north of Perth is Erawondoo Hill, an assuming swelling in the Western Australian countryside studded with the earth’s oldest-known terrestrial material. Scientists have dated the hill’s crystals to 4.4 billion years old, closer to the formation of our planet — some 4.5 billion years ago — than anything else yet discovered.

These shards of zircon formed as the fresh earth cooled, our initially molten world solidifying into a crust of which the crystals are the oldest remnants and around which the first landmass emerged, even while much of the rest of the planet roiled on, unforged.

It is only about 60,000 years ago that our human ancestors found their way here, during a time when sea levels were so low that much of the planet could be walked. The descendants of these walkers, First Nations Australians, are the oldest continuous civilization on Earth, scientists report.

Then, practically a few seconds ago in the timescale of all this, the British arrived and claimed the vast expanse, with the foundation of Australia as a modern, independent nation taking place not even a century and a quarter ago.


And a snick before now, I come.

Born in America’s Pacific Northwest shortly after a family spell in Tokyo, I’d lived mostly just outside Toronto, Canada, when my parents decided to shift our itinerant brood one last time to Sydney, Australia, a comparatively new city in a comparatively new nation for a comparatively new life.

New surfaces; ancient depths.

As I grow up, the sheer age of Australia, the unfathomably long-baked geological stability and its summer stretches of mind-altering heat, play on my mind.

I find a sharp take on this in “Kangaroo,” the 1923 novel that nomadic English writer D.H. Lawrence banged out about Australia in just weeks after a brief visit a century ago:

“The indifference — the fern-dark indifference of this remote golden Australia. Not to care — from the bottom of one’s soul, not to care … Just to keep enough grip on the machinery of the day; and beyond that, to let yourself drift, not to think or strain or make any effort to consciousness whatsoever.”

Cue the nomadic years: I explore remote, golden Australia, seeking out experiences and realizations beyond language, whether through the teachings of rugged wilderness or via quieter pastoral landscapes.

A love of rugged wilderness takes me to Tasmania, which became a separate island when the seas rose 12,000 years ago with the Ice Age’s end.

Dawn’s rays haven’t yet reached my tent on the flats of the Meander Valley. But high up the rock line is a sunrise still wet, its redness washing the clouds and oozing along the Great Western Tiers. Dawn in the peaks is a hymn I can’t hear from down here by the creek; I know the song sung in Earth’s heavens is not sung for me. But its silence washes me clean.

From this valley in north-central Tasmania, I meander to the end of about the southernmost drivable point in Tasmania: the Lune River.

Among an eclectic array of accommodation for rent, I throw my bag into an old converted bus, then paddle down the Lune in a kayak, adrift in the reflected green of trees lining the river, wet with splashes and a soft rain that comes and goes.

The kayak owner loans me a knife and suggests prizing a few oysters off the rocks to wash down with a glass of homebrewed stout this evening.

They’re delicious. But two or three oysters in, my teeth crunch on something hard. Lo! A pearl.

From Tasmania, I take the overnight ferry to Melbourne and then drive with a friend hundreds of miles north into the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, losing a headlight in the wee hours to a collision with a suicidal kangaroo.

Late the next day, we sit in the twilight on the front porch of her farmhouse, about 12 miles outside the town of Braidwood. One of Australia’s most cherished films, 1987’s “The Year My Voice Broke,” was shot in Braidwood, starring a teenage Ben Mendelsohn (“The Dark Knight Rises,” “Bloodline,” “Captain Marvel”), a sweet coming-of-age drama that exploited to full advantage the beguiling luminosity of the High Country.

My friend and I sit in silence, a dog beside us, sipping beer and watching the arena of here. Paddocks ahead, some with sheep and others empty, stretch miles to where low ranges line the horizon, between which strong winds sweep the grasses and whirl the trees, everything in motion.

Soon it will be cold and we’ll move inside, but for now we’re transfixed by these air currents that have the trees in the fields waving in joy, then swirling up the hills and across the mountains.

After the remote West and South, and after the grand and windswept highlands, I am unsure of resuming life in metropolitan Sydney with its millions of inhabitants.

But slipping into the water for a night swim in Bronte, in the city’s glamorous eastern beach suburbs, houses glittering where the land rises behind and to each side, but all dark ahead and down, it’s clear that here, too, are nature’s portals to the sublime.


Book Travel with American Express

Whether you’re planning a weekend staycation or the trip of a lifetime, you can plan your entire trip through American Express Travel. Plus, make the most of your journey with travel benefits and more. Learn more.

Explore More

Our Contributors

Matthew Thompson Writer

Matthew Thompson is a distinguished writer renowned for his intrepid, compelling, and profoundly insightful explorations of highly complex people and circumstances. In addition to his three acclaimed nonfiction books, “My Colombian Death,” “Running with the Blood God,” and “Mayhem,” Thompson has created an influential body of long-form prose and audio reporting from conflict zones in the southern Philippines: a region close to his heart.

Laurie Bartley Photographer

Laurie Bartley, born in England and now based between New York and Paris, grew up taking photographs. He later applied cinematic techniques to his process, and his fashion images began to resemble film stills. Bartley’s work has appeared in publications including: Vogue UK, Vogue US, Vogue Spain, Vogue Japan, Vogue China, Elle US, Harper’s Bazaar US, V and Numéro. His work has also been shown at London’s V&A Museum and New York’s International Centre of Photography.


Let’s Keep in Touch

Subscribe to our newsletter

You’re no longer on our newsletter list, but you can resubscribe anytime.