by Flash Parker, AFAR Ambassador 

Expectation has a way of bringing travel into perspective. But when expectation is paired with long-distance travel – in the case of my trip to Australia’s Northern Territory, a 14-hour jaunt book-ended by a pair of 4-hour flights – expectation also can shape the way you think about place and space.

Flipping through the pages of the remarkable itinerary prepared for me by the folks at USTOA, Tourism Northern Territory, and Goway Travel, I began comparing the unseen Australia to my own Canadian homeland, if for no other reason than to ground my trip on experience I already understood; I’m big on wide open spaces, the sort of which both Canada and Australia boast in spades. I’m comfortable in the Wild, in places where bison outnumber people, and was excited about arriving in the Outback, where I expected camels and kangaroos to outnumber man five-to-one. I like to think of myself as the rugged frontier type, always game for an adventure, and couldn’t wait to exchange knowing glances with the Paul Hogan-esque wardens of the Outback. Sure, my knowledge of Australia begins and ends with Crocodile Dundee, bushranger Ned Kelly, and poet Banjo Paterson, but there are worse icons to idolize. I was promised camel rides up and over desert dunes; campfires and cookouts under starry skies; and a glimpse at the Australia rarely seen. In short, I was set to experience the NT the way locals see it, and I’d have ample opportunity to compare the Oz in my head to the Oz in my heart, though I promised myself, under no circumstance whatsoever, would I at any point on this trip discuss shrimp on the barbie, dingos and babies, or the abomination that was Mick Dundee in LA. As my plane bumped across the tarmac at the Alice Springs airfield, I scrawled this promise across a page in my notebook, and underlined it twice in red ink. I polished off the last of my James Boag Lager, and set forth for adventure.

“… so I took a nasty bite from that big bugger, and that’s when I decided to give up spearfishing down south, and move to the Northern Territory for a look at the quiet life,” Laurie said, as he spirited me away from the airport and off into the NT’s red sand. I’d amused Laurie by trying to get into the driver’s seat when he picked me up – “you’re not driving my bloody car, I just had it washed,” he said with a smile – and we’d become fast friends. At first I thought someone from Goway Travel was putting me on; Laurie was so hyper-Outback that I thought he might have been a hired hand. But after twenty minutes together, I realized he was just a genuine bloke with a story to tell. “Mate,” he said, as he dropped me off at the gates of the Camel Cup, “you call me if you need a ride anyplace – even if you need a lift all the way up to Darwin, ‘cuz I got some family up there – or if you just feel like shooting the breeze. You’ve got my number.” And with that Laurie was off like a shot, no doubt to spend his day boxing kangaroos and wrangling venomous snakes.

And there I was, on the doorstep of my first great Outback experience. With abandon I stepped through the gates at Blatherskite Park and into a world of camels, sand, and costumes. I arrived in time for the Ms Camel Cup pageant, and was gobsmacked by peacocking ladies in full flight. The young and young at heart loaded their partners into antediluvian rickshaws for a zip around the dusty track, while something called the Honeymoon Handicap captured the attention of the 5,000 folks in attendance. Would-be husbands raced their snorting camels half way around the track, where they popped off, hoisted their future wives aboard the beasts, and continued on toward the finish line. All this before one of the “proper” races had been run. My first impression of the Northern Territory is certainly one I’ll never forget.

Ah, but those races! Gallant riders atop ornery steeds – some significantly more ornery than others – spiriting around the track in the pursuit of glory. At one point I was convinced I saw Santa Claus, mounted atop a yellow camel, being chased by a viking riding a brown camel. The moment was singularly captivating, difficult to express in words or images. You really had to be there. I realized in that moment that this was exactly what this trip was all about; the being, the experiencing, and the doing.

Be there I was, indeed; I can’t remember another trip where I felt so wrapped up in the moment. Goway Travel and Tourism Northern Territory thrust me in the center of the action. I was more than a spectator; had I told my guide I wanted to race, I probably would have been given my own camel (for the record, I didn’t ask, for fear of a positive response). I spent an incredible afternoon watching these massive “ships of the desert” sail across the Outback, marveled at the skill of some riders, and giggled at the utter terror strewn across the faces of others. I was caught firmly in the grip of even-toed ungulate madness, and toasted my good fortune alongside other revelers at the Lasseters tent, where post-race conversations ranged from “did you see that,” to “I can’t believe when…” The guests in the tent, probably more than a hundred strong, seemed to be split evenly between foreigners and visiting Aussies, each of us grinning slyly like we were in on some precious Outback secret. In more than one way, we were.

I couldn’t have wished for a better way to kick-start my adventures Down Under. The Goway Travel operators and Tourism Northern Territory had promised a truly unique Aussie experience – one that was “fully customizable.” Instead of itineraries carved from granite, my outfitters worked with me on making sure I got the most out of my time in Australia; they asked what sort of things I wanted to see and experience in the Outback, filling in the gaps with their fantastic local knowledge. That’s how I wound up deep in Thai bliss at Hanumans, Alice Springs’ finest upscale dining option, and toasting NT craft brews under the outdoor heaters at Monte’s, the social center of the town (as far as I could tell). Half a day with Goway Travel and Tourism Northern Territory and I had already sipped handcrafted suds, made fast friends with the local folk, and witnessed Santa Claus fall off a camel – the holy trinity of experiential travel. I expected this trip to be good, but should have listened carefully when they told me to expect the adventure of a lifetime. To think, the first day had barely come and gone.

For highlights of Flash Parker’s tour through Australia’s Northern Territory, click here.

Flash Parker is an AFAR Ambassador, photographer, travel writer and author from Toronto, Canada. His work has been published by Lonely Planet, Conde Nast, Canadian Living, USA Today, Get Lost Magazine, GQ Magazine, Asian Geographic, Escape Magazine and more. Follow Flash Parker on Twitter, FacebookInstagram or on his website.