AFAR

REWILDING AUSTRALIA

The last words I hear before takeoff are from the man sitting behind me, finishing his phone call. “I’ll be out of contact for the next three days,” he says, as we leave the Adelaide airstrip.

After that, it’s hard to make out conversation over the noise of the twin propellers. The copilots exchange an occasional, untranslatable sentence of flight jargon. They’re so close I can’t shake the feeling I’m in an Uber; I have to resist the urge to lean forward and ask if I can charge my phone.

Down below are shades of khaki and tan and chestnut and russet, seamed with a single, deadstraight road. I’ve driven that road before on a previous trip through the South Australian outback: It takes you five hours north from Adelaide to the rugged Ikara-Flinders Ranges, where I’m headed now. I remember the city suburbs giving way to quaint country towns, wheat fields becoming cattle stations becoming wilderness, until there was nothing by the roadside but racing kangaroos.

You don’t get that unfolding drama on an hour-long flight, but you do get scale. South Australia’s topography reveals itself in crinkled shapes that seem to resemble the skin and spines of its scaliest animals. A ridgeline has the beveled back of a giant lizard. Riverbeds look like seismological snakes; not one of them winks with water.

There are hints, too, of a much younger species. This mass of land has been marked out in geometric lines, its trapezoid parcels proof that humans are trying to domesticate the place. I spot plowed furrows and tap one of the pilots on the shoulder to ask what a farmer could hope to grow out here in the outback. “Nothing,” he says. “They’re rip marks, to stop dust storms happening when the wind blows.”

Australia is home to one of the largest remaining wildernesses on the planet. From its famous Red Centre desert outward—through barren landscapes and inhospitable bushland, to ancient

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