Photographs and text by Pablo Corral Vega

The plains of central Australia are a horizontal chasm. One’s eyes can travel no more than a few yards across the flat continent, and they find relief only in the immensity of the sky. This region of Australia is the most inhospitable, most savage land I have ever known — desert on an inhuman scale.

The aborigines are the ancestral inhabitants of this land. There are hundreds of linguistic groups; they are hunters and gatherers. Their skin is dark, and covered with golden hairs, and the old men have long white beards and wildly unkempt hair. They have been mistreated, abused, and manipulated by the whites and so have become wary and standoffish. The clash with the white world has been brutal. Health problems due to alcoholism and junk food are now epidemic.

One of the most fascinating concepts in the aboriginal culture is that of “songlines.” These are songs that precisely describe the topography of the land — I might call them musical or poetic maps. If you lose your way in this land, and you don’t know how to get back home or where the nearest water is, you die. These songs, passed down from generation to generation, are these peoples’ maps, cultural pathways that guarantee your, and your species’, survival. Songlines have their guardians, people whose only mission is to preserve the songs’ content and meaning. Some of these poetic pathways run for thousands of kilometers and link linguistic groups that have no other connection but the preservation of their stretch of the poetic highway. Imagine a song that talks about the boulder, the dry river, the tree, the well, that describes the terrain so exactly that you can always walk the same route — the tribal equivalent of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs.

The tragedy of the aborigines is that these complex maps are utterly useless in the white world.

It is fascinating to think that all cultures have these maps that allow a society to survive, that provide us with directions to get back home. Beliefs, superstitions, myths, music, art, literature are poetic maps that allow us to confront the essential facts of our existence.

These poetic maps grow more and more complex as a people’s basic needs expand. At first, one has to find a solution to hunger — ensure survival. Later, there is the need to find answers to the mysteries, and words, sounds, and color may become useless.

More accurate, more complex maps give us power, they allow us to safely navigate the mine fields in our way. I think in this age of fast foods we may have discarded the maps that contain some degree of subtlety and have grown used to the crudest and most primitive of sketches.

But the map that’s hardest to find, and most desired, is the map of the future. If you can get your hands on a map of the future, you can prepare, you can react in time to what the future brings. Science, technology, medicine are a systematic effort to predict what’s down that road. . . They offer us the illusion that everything’s under control, and will stay that way — they provide everything from weather reports to the possibility of changing the future through genetic engineering.

Maps of the future are also called myth, divination, oracle, superstition, even metaphysics. Some are more elaborate than others. They are responses to things we don’t know, maps that can guide us to the meaning of a Beyond whose silence is absolute, and devastating.

What practical difference is there between talking about the Big Bang, that time before time and space, and talking about the Dreaming, as the Australian aborigines do? Dreamtime is a time when dreams created things. They are both myths of creation, ideas about spaces beyond our sensory space.

I am fascinated by cultural maps; I’m fascinated by the people who make them and protect them, who are proud of them, who find in their local references the echoes of a grand human map, a blank map, a map that offers no answers, a map covered with question marks.

This project for National Geographic on the Ghan, the new train that crosses Australia from south to north, was one of the most difficult ones in my life. The desert was savage, exhausting, and I felt I was a stranger among men. I was saved by my cultural maps — Bach’s suites for cello, the vision of the night sky, the smile on the face of Day Day, a simple, wise aborigine, and the warmth of the Horvats, new friends of mine, in a tiny village in this continent-country.