This article was made possible by Travellers Autobarn, who gave me a campervan to drive around Australia and take photos of things. Also if you're into local stories, check out more of our editorial series: Australiana
The Stuart Highway runs in a pretty straight line from Darwin to Port Augusta, through about 2,600 kilometres of red dirt sandwiched by two oceans. If you drive the thing it takes 29 hours, and there’s not much to look at. Just sky and salt bush, until for a brief 1000-kilometre stretch into the tropical north you'll start seeing termite mounds wearing clothing.
Australia has around 360 recognised species of termite, and a lot of them are mound-builders. The mounds are essentially enormous piles of termite poo, which is mostly just wood pulp from the termites’ wood-heavy diet. Inside the mounds are all sorts of chambers and chimneys and honeycomb-inspired flourishes, while the outsides are windowless and basically rain-proof. Termite mounds can also completely outlast the colony that built them, and stay upright for 100 years. But most importantly, they look hilarious when they’re wearing shirts.
The joke is this: people driving the Stuart Highway pull over and use whatever daggy, dad-esque clothing they have in the car to dress the termite mounds. The prime location for termite mound fashion is a 1000-kilometre strip between Darwin and Tennant Creek. There, you’ll pass thousands of them. Some in hi-vis overalls. Some in t-shirts and sunglasses. And an unnerving amount wearing plastic masks like they’re out of Eyes Wide Shut. There are no rules for termite mound fashion, just raw creativity and earthy structures built by weirdly sentient insects.
According to Kellie Friel, who is manager of the Daly Waters Pub, it all started about three years ago. “I’ve been here four years now and didn’t notice them before that,” she explained over the phone. “Lately there’s been even more popping up than ever before. It’s really taken off.”
What Kelly didn’t answer, however, was how it’d begun. She assumed that one inspired traveler did it once, which inspired those who followed. And then the fad must have taken off in a very old-school viral way.
“I think it’s just a bit of fun,” she chuckled. “I don’t think people dressing them up is causing any harm. If anything they’d be getting more wear and tear just being in the bush. I can’t see it causing any drama.”
And now, please scroll down for photos of termite mounds dressed by passing old people in winnebagos.