Western Australia is one of the last truly wild places on the planet. You can drive into the heart of Australia’s red center without passing another car for hours. Being hours away from any metropolis is not only isolating, it’s also freeing. Self-reliance isn’t just a desired skill for exploring Australia’s unforgiving terrain, it’s a requirement to survive. Perhaps because of this, you can be whoever you want in the Australian outback — however brash or eclectic — without the same repercussions you’d have in a city.
Once you make it out on your own into the wilderness, you’re no longer bound to social norms.
In the Australian outback, people tend to be equal parts blunt and helpful. Acting overly polite or being a stickler for social etiquette is often seen as disingenuous.
After many stints with into Western Australia’s outback, I’ve started to get a hang of the social cues that guide a place that’s mostly ungoverned.
Here are five of the most important etiquette rules of the outback, and what they look like in action.
Rule #1: Blunt is best
Billabong Roadhouse is one of the only places to purchase gasoline on the twelve hour stretch from Geraldton to Canarvon, two of Western Australia’s handful of major towns. After an exhausting night of driving and dodging kangaroos with my campervan, I parked in front of the roadhouse and slept in the back of the van for the night.
In the morning, I walked to the roadhouse desperate for caffeine. The roadhouse was plastered with self-printed signs advertising kangaroo burgers and fly nets. I ordered a six-dollar cup of coffee from an older woman and went to use the restroom. When I came back, I weaved through the line of truck drivers to collect my drink.
“Do you want your coffee warmed up? You were on the toilet quite a while,” the woman said loudly across the counter. A man glanced over at me, the toilet-hog, before darting his eyes back to a display of muffins.
“No thanks, I’m sure it’s fine,” I answered. I took a sip of my coffee — it was only a few degrees above lukewarm.
Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Why waste time creating an excuse for why the coffee got cold?
Rule #2: Don’t be afraid to bend the rules
In 1970, a wheat farmer named Leonard Casley for in a dispute with the Australian government over wheat production quotas. Because of a loophole in the law, Leonard Casley was able to secede from Australia, establishing a micronation known as the “Principality of Hutt River.”
Leonard Casley then declared himself as His Majesty Prince Leonard I of Hutt and handed out royal titles to those closest to him. At the beginning of the year, Prince Leonard passed his crown onto his son who now rules over the micronation as Prince Graeme.
Prince Leonard has engaged in a nearly 50-year-long battle with Australia (specifically its tax office). Today, tourists can visit the 30-square-mile piece of land to get their passport stamped and exchange currency.
In the outback, don’t be afraid to veer off course when it comes to how you live your life. There’s nobody around to stop you, anyways.
Rule #3: Swearing is part of the vernacular
The cashier finished scanning my pile of groceries and moved to place them in a plastic bag.
“Wait, I have my own,” I held up the canvas tote I’d brought.
“Well! I can’t read your bloody mind, Can I? Can’t expect me to fuckin’ know where your bag was,” the cashier grumbled.
I walked out to the parking lot with my bag of groceries. I walked past two men chatting. One told the other, “Thanks for the help, you’re a good cunt!”
Coming from a land where the “C word” is considered beyond taboo and I was scolded as a child for saying “crap,” the incessant swearing in Australian language takes time to get used to. The ratio to swear-words to non-swear-words only increases once you leave the city.
There’s a sentiment some people believe that says if an Australian calls you a cunt, it means you’re a mate. If an Australian calls you a mate, it means you’re a cunt. After being called both while living here — I can attest to its validity.
Swearing happens in all types of scenarios. The same words spoken to berate and harm are used to celebrate and praise. Many even double as a term of endearment. Just roll with it and try not to pick up too much of the lingo, else you risk offending everyone with your new habits back home.
Rule #4: Help anybody who needs it
My boyfriend drove our campervan, Snowball, to a soft-sand parking area on the beach. When it came time to leave, he asked me to reverse out of the parking area so that we could start the 30-minute drive back to our campsite along the corrugated, rock filled dirt road. The sun just set and the sky was turning dark.
I reversed the van and the back tires quickly bore a deep hole in the sand. We were stuck, without cell phone service, and without any alternative way to get back.
The beach happened to be the one of the only tourist areas around. There was only one truck left in the lot and we wondered if its owner was around.
A couple emerged from the nearby sand dunes. I’d seen them cuddling and smoking behind a dune earlier, and I tried to avoid invading their privacy with my gaze.
The man, hooked up a chain to the front of our van and attached it to the back of his boss’s work truck. He was grumpy and told us he’d likely be fired if this fiasco put a dent in the back of the truck.
After a few attempts, Snowball was out of the hole. The man and his girlfriend smiled, waved, and sped off back to their camp.
Car accidents and breakdowns happen constantly in the outback, where the roads are notoriously rough. It goes without saying that you stop for whoever you see pulled over — and others will stop for you.
Rule #5: It’s not personal
Your first experience encountering a blunt Australian might sting, especially if you’re used to exchanging small talk and pleasantries.
The same Australian who swears at you for the slightest misstep will be the same Australian who rescues you without question should you ever need it.