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City slickers

This is the outback, after all. People died out here.

Ladies and gentlemen, if the marquee starts to go, we'll evacuate you all to the buses." Fine sand settled on the surface of our tea as we digested this announcement. We were a motley collection at the table: Michele in her yellow and blue "Hello Kitty" pyjamas, Chris in short shorts, vest and medallion, Ned in full-length Driza-Bone oilskin, hat and boots, at his side a bag containing food, water and passport. Tahira was fretting about a credit card that she had dropped in the dark and Audrey complained that she was coughing up sand-balls.

When the sandstorm struck soon after 1.00am, we had all been tucked up in our tents, which were pitched in military rows on a red gibber plain in South Australia's outback. Apparently, there had been lightning, but the first I knew was a sudden clatter as the wall billowed in and knocked over the bedside stool, sending the lantern flying. The whole tent shook, walls and roof flapped, loose guy ropes snapped and cracked like stock whips and above it all the wind roared. Through the mesh windows I could see, under the floodlights, a pink haze in the air and the blue roofs of the other tents heaving like the ocean. It was no stretch of the imagination to picture all my pegs pinging from the ground and the tent, with me in it, tumbling away across the desert to fetch up who knew where. I felt like a downunder Dorothy: starting out in Oz, would I end up in Kansas?

It was hugely reassuring to hear the flat, unhurried drawl of the Aussie blokes who appeared out the dark to tighten guy ropes and check everyone's pegs. "Here comes New Zealand to the rescue," one said, laughing as the Auckland guys across the way cautiously unzipped their door. Soon there was the throb of engines as the camp's buses and trucks were lined up windward to protect the tents: the wagons being circled.

Braving the vicious sand-blast - "Just think of it as a free dermabrasion," said Tahira brightly - we scuttled across to the marquee, which was standing firm despite its size. Ian, fully dressed from Akubra to boots, said that if it had been light, we would have seen a huge red cloud boiling up over the horizon towards us, as in the dramatic photos I had admired back in Coober Pedy. I was glad to have missed it. If the storm had struck in daylight, we would have been caught out in the open on our horses, with 500 head of cattle: 80 pretend drovers, many of us novice riders, some wearing contact lenses. It could have been a disaster.

This was the outback, after all. People died out here. On the way to the cattle drive's base camp, we had passed through tiny William Creek. Here, across the wide street opposite the pub and tucked in with the random remains of rockets from Woomera, we saw the memorial to Caroline Grossmueller. She was a 28-year-old Austrian tourist who perished in 1998 after walking more than 30km in 50+ degrees after her car became bogged at Lake Eyre. The soles of her shoes had melted when she was found with a bottle filled with urine and notes begging for help, still 30km from William Creek. The outback is no place for the stupid or the careless.

Although it was created for tourists, the two-yearly Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive is not a frivolous event: it is based on the practical experience of people like Darryl (60), Randall (49) and Whitey (77), who have spent more nights in swags under the stars than in beds. They are old hands at droving huge herds of cattle through the remote desert to the railhead at Marree, back in the hard days when even the cattle had to be shod to cross the stony plains: eight shoes per animal. Before motorbikes, helicopters and trucks, a ringer spent months at a time in the outback, relying on his horse and his mates to muster the cattle and move them south. "When you move at the pace of a beast," said Darryl, "you have time to connect with the land. You learn respect."

Whitey had no illusions. "She's a hard country," he told me, stroking the nose of his horse Blackie (a grey, naturally). "Droving's finished now. The young men are all going to the mines. That's where the money is." But even today, money isn't everything, and Nick (25), motorbike musterer turned builder, had jumped at the chance to experience the old ways: riding close to the cattle, cracking a stock whip to move them on, able to hear them snatching at the saltbush above the shuffle of 2000 hooves through the sand; and knowing that all around, for hundreds of kilometres in every direction, there was space and silence.

It was exactly the same novelty that we city slickers were enjoying, mounting up each morning on our docile horses to follow the herd over salt pans, around unexpected puddles, through sand and stones, past flat-topped hills and astonishing bubbling-mound springs. We chatted companionably or sat in peace in the saddle enjoying the sunshine. On the day after the storm, we yawned.

When we returned at the end of that day, having moved the cattle a further 14km down the Oodnadatta Track, the sandstorm had been wiped away. The tables, the toasters, the toilets, the tents: all were clean and shining again. There was a choice of three roasts for dinner, with pavlova after and happy hour before. Afterwards we sat late into the night around the campfire with wine and marshmallows, singing and laughing under a three-quarter moon that outshone all but the Southern Cross.

Pamela Wade was a guest of Tourism South Australia.