Red is surely the most schizophrenic colour. It is the blood that pumps through our body, and sometimes spills out in horror. It is the heart of the fire that warms us, the fire that can also consume and savage. It shrieks warning and danger, making us stop in our cars and wait for what seems like forever, all for our own safety. Red is the shade of the devil dressed, agitating up an hors category climb in the Alps, pursuing breathless cyclists to the upper limits of their EPO threshold. It’s the colour of love and passion, of Wimbledon strawberries and luscious lips on a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is dry earth and fiery sunsets, timeless and boundless on the horizon.
I would not declare red as my favourite colour, but then I struggle to see how any colour can have superiority over others . When I think about it though I have been drawn to red across my life, starting from the time I was placed in Budoc, the red house at primary school for which I accumulated goodie-two-shoe points and bonus long-jump merits. Since then I have gathered red t-shirts that have become faded through years of devoted use . I do enjoy a glass of red wine, and of course the gooey red jam spread out on a warm scone, the sweet template for a dollop of silky, rich cream. I am clearly enamoured with a place called Red Hill, where I am especially enlivened when an explosive red sunset marks the passing of a day. There is even something ashamedly endearing about that album by Taylor Swift. Like driving a Maserati down a dead-end street.
Forget your green and gold, to me red is synonymous with Australia. It is the colour which paints the emptiness of the country and is most obviously portrayed through the sunset pictures of Uluru featuring on postcards and slick tourism adverts everywhere. It’s a scene embedded in the national consciousness despite – for most – a lived environment of golden beaches and green bushland, silver cities and yellowing countryside.
Ever since moving here an aspiration has seeded and sprouted in my head whereby I tread into fine red sand, baked and cracked by searing afternoon heat. A clutter of rocks and saltbush and spinifex sheltering frilled lizards lies before me. Small gullies weathered by flooding rain weave into the landscape, twisting toward bare, earthy ranges crumpled and folded so that they cast shadows across one another. It is remote; it is a little dangerous; it is the very essence of the heart of Australia.
I’ve had a few tasters of this red, from Uluru itself, to giant sand dunes in the NSW outback and a visit of the fabulous Flinders Ranges in South Australia. One particular spot that I have ventured into seems almost wholly red. Pilbara red coats the northwest corner of Australia right down to the stunning blues and whites of its coast. The deep red hues cover a suitably rugged and barren landscape which gets surprisingly hilly at times, rising to the mountainous ridges of the Hammersley Range. Despite some significant intrusions, it retains a remote, untamed and enduring sense.
A gateway to this landscape proved to be Bullara Station. Bullara Station proved to be a surprise. A surprise proved to be most welcome along this sparsely populated stretch of Western Australia. A huge working cattle station, Bullara also offered a rustic camping area. Now, rustic can often be a byword for primitive and inadequate. But in this case it was more charming and quaint, from the moment you were welcomed by the friendly owners to the campfire damper with many who are enamoured enough to linger. The beautiful open top shower shed was surprisingly one of the best places to wash away some of that red dirt.
Bullara is – in the context of this vast landscape – but a stone’s throw to the west coast and the sensational coastal colours of Ningaloo Reef. With white sands and shallow turquoise waters, the reef is every bit the tropical idyll you would expect. Yet equally striking here are the desert sands perforated with termite mounds and the upward thrusts of the Cape Range piling up into giant pillars of rock and sliced by dry gorges. This is where the red earth meets the blue sea.
Heading in the opposite direction and inland from Bullara Station it takes some time to find a settlement. Petrol is a premium price to pay to cover the country. Settlements that do spring up are principally established because of the red land around it: red rocks that are mostly dug up and taken away to China.
Tom Price is one such spot; a rough replication of a Canberra suburb clustered between deep pits and mountains carved away into a spiral of tiers. The scale of these mines is huge – from giant yellow transporters whose tyres are bigger than me to rows of rocks pilfered from the ground and lined up into varying grades of iron ore. It is both crude and sophisticated, simple and advanced. And while the urban latte sipping ecomentalist in me could take offence at such obliteration, I remind myself that we all use iron, we benefit a great deal from these holes in the ground and, yes, there are plenty of red rocks still to go round.
Thankfully environmental credentials are restored east of Tom Price, in a swathe of Pilbara red pitted with deep gorges and crumbling upland. Karijini National Park is the jewel in the crown, the ruby in the iron of this russet country. It is where you can step out into the red land and absorb it, along the panoramic cliff edges and down into the heart of quite breathtaking canyons. Rivers and pools add a vibrant green tinge to the valley floors, a ribbon of life flourishing amongst twisting red walls. It’s said that red and green should never be seen, but here it is a perfect arrangement.
Yes it sounds clichéd but this is the real Australia, the realisation of the vision and the aspiration of the fundamental essentials of a red earth country. A grand composition of nature, culminating in the view as four gorges congregate hundred of metres below Oxers Lookout. Millions of years in the making, impenetrable and untainted. Red rocks shaped by land and water and maybe a giant serpent, rocks that have not felt a human’s footstep or handprint and likely never will. This is part of the magic, the wonder, the spirit of Australia. This is the allure of red.