Australia’s Red Center and the Middle of Nowhere

Our journey into the Australian outback to visit Uluru was the last leg of our year-long round-the-world trip. It is crazy for us that we are at the end of this trip, and while we are both ready to get home, there is a hint of sadness that this grand adventure is drawing to a close. In many aspects, the year went by quickly, and in others, very slowly. But no group of people can make you feel like your time has been merely a drop in the bucket like the Aboriginals of Australia, who have inhabited various regions of this continent for anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 years.

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-4: Sydney
  • Days 5-9: Tasmania (Strahan, Launceston, Bicheno)
  • Days 10-15: Sydney to Noosa Road Trip (Blue Mountains, Hunter Valley, Port Macquarie)
  • Days 16-18: K’gari Island
  • Days 19-25: Noosa to Ciarns Road Trip (Byron Bay, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Airlie Beach, Townsville)
  • Days 26-29: Cairns and Great Barrier Reef
  • Days 30-33: Melbourne
  • Days 34-41: Alice Springs & Uluru
  • Days 42-43: Back to Sydney then flying home

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: October 23-December 3, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

The “Red Center”, where we have spent this past week, is considered the heart of the Australian outback in the Northern Territory, and is where Tim and I first saw Aboriginals in Australia. Interestingly, this ethnic group still seems very much segregrated from the majority culture of Australia, and whether that is a good or bad thing, I am not sure. Is it a result of racism and racial tension due to the way European Australians treated, and still treat, this minority group? Is the segregation preferable, since it allows the Aboriginals to maintain their own culture, which is the oldest on the planet? These are things Tim and I have not been able to determine, and when we asked one local (and white) tour guide in Alice Springs about the segregation, his response was that he simply “hadn’t noticed.”

Really? Hadn’t noticed? It was one of the first things that stood out to us when we arrived to the town. But that is part of the problem regarding race and treatment of Aboriginals in Australia (not that I mean to suggest that racial discrimination is unique to Australia- it is certainly a problem in many of the places we visited this year, and also in the United States)- many people just simply do not notice.

Thankfully, some mindful television producers noticed this lack of noticing and have begun a reality show called First Contact that puts white/racial majority Australians in contact with Aboriginals for the first time. Obviously shows like this like to find people with a range of opinions and view points, but I have to admit I was surprised by some of the things people would say about their perceptions of Aboriginal people (things like, “White people have all the brains, but black people can dance so at least they have that” or “They get so much welfare they don’t have to work at all and just stay home and drink all the time.”).

In the one episode I saw, the participants on the show met successful business managers who also happened to be Aboriginal, and learned that the amount of welfare received is actually the same as white people. My hope is that this show can at least make the issue less invisible, get people talking and interacting, and break some of the stereotypes that dominate the social hierarchy in Australia.

As curious travellers, we have always been grateful when we can find and participate in culturally sensitive and thoughtful tour groups or experiences (one reason why we enjoyed our Intrepid Indochina Loop trip so much!). Our tour to K’Gari (Fraser Island) with DropBear Adventures was definitely like this, and we were so happy to quickly learn that the three-day/two-night tour, booked through The Rock Tour, of the Red Center also focused on cultural education and sensitivity.

Uluru Ayer’s Rock

We flew straight from Melbourne to Ayers Rock, or Uluru as the traditional owners call it, and our guide from The Rock Tour met us there. We were originally supposed to have one night on our own at Ayers Rock Resort and then start our organized group tour the next day, but due to some cancellations, they rescheduled us for the day we arrived. In exchange for the hassle, they covered our cancellation fees at Ayers Rock Resort and included one free night of accomodation in Alice Springs, where the tour ended. This was some of the smoothest costumer service we encountered in Australia, and we were grateful for it.

After being picked up by our guide, we got in the bus with the ten or so other people we would be spending the next three days with. Our first stop was the Aboriginal Cultural Center. Here, we got to learn some of the stories the Anungu (the specific tribe of Aboriginals in this area) associate to the landscape. The land inspires their spiritual beliefs, with all of their creation stories and religious stories stemming from the features of the land (an indentation in Uluru for example is a spirit wincing in pain from a fight with another spirit).

We also learned about how the European Australians made Ayers Rock and the surrounds their own when they arrived, excluding the Aboriginals from the management of the land altogether.

Imagine for a moment that you could trace your heritage back 40,000 years. Imagine that for this amount of time, your ancestors had lived in the same place, practicing the same traditions and honoring the same gods. Imagine that your great great great grandfather (and beyond) learned from his great grandfather how to behave ethically in the tribe and how to hunt from within the walls of the same cave that you learned from your grandfather the same lessons. Imagine the same as a woman learning about childbirth in the same streams and water holes.

Now imagine a foreign tribe of people coming in and taking this place that has physically, literally been your family’s home for 40,000 years. Imagine that it is opened as a tourist attraction. People come and take photos and climb on top and scar (yes, you can see the scar from the rock climb) your family’s home, and you are told there is nothing you can do about it. Even when you are told, you do not fully understand, because these foreigners expect you to understand their language and their customs of property and land ownership, concepts your culture does not have and has never had.

I imagine that the Aboriginals, experts in the land and animals of Australia, must look at the Europeans who came here and think, “Really? These idiots who have no comprehension of the spirits in this land, and no understanding of how to manage it to yield water and food, expect us to succumb to them? And they have successfully become the dominant culture in our home?”

It is absolutely ludicris. But it is reality.

In 1985 the Australian government gave the site back to the traditional owners. Both parties agreed that the Aboriginal owners would lease it back to the government in 99 year increments to be used as a national park, and the notorious rock climb (a chained climb to the highest point of the rock) would be closed. The Aboriginals kept their word. The Australian government did not, and the climb remains opened to this day, on the condition that if less than 20% of visitors to Uluru do not climb the rock, then they will close the climb.

Climbing scar on Uluru

Climbing scar on Uluru

The subject of the climb is a sensitive one. The railing and the chain that guide climbers up has left a physical scar on the rock- a white line in the middle of the ancient red surface. And a number of people have died or suffered injury during their climb, something that hurts the spirit of the Anungu people deeply, as they feel responsible for these deaths and injuries.

Uluru Ayers Rock

Stunning and unique Uluru

Uluru base hike

Tim and I along the Uluru base hike

 

Uluru

Tim and I

Beautiful sunset at Uluru

I loved the deep red colors of the Uluru sunset

Learning this background made our base walk around Uluru (we did about 75% of it, about 6km) much more meaningful. During this walk, Tim and I befriended Daniela, another girl in our group who was hiking on pace with us. Together we found a water hole our guide had told us to look out for. It is only full when it has recently rained, and was used as a source of water as well as part of the hunting practices of the Aboriginal people.

Kangaroos and other animals would come to the water for a drink, and the men would be hiding and watching. At the right time, they would emerge and corner the last animal leaving the water hole, securing food for their tribe. We also saw cave walls with ochre (a type of rock mixed with water to make a paint) paintings that could be thousands of years old, or relatively new, since the site is still used for Aboriginal ceremonies and teachings today. Either way, it was very cool to see this sign of spirituality and teaching on the cave walls.

Aboriginal rock paintings at Uluru

Aboriginal rock paintings at Uluru

Uluru Water Hole

Uluru Water Hole

Variations along the walls of Uluru

Variations along the walls of Uluru

After the hike (which, by the way, was very hot- at least 90 F with no shade), we joined back up with our guide Tom and he drove us to a spot where we would have dinner and enjoy the sunset and its colors against the rock. Dinner was delicious, and the sunset was nice, but we admittedly found Uluru itself a bit underwhelming. After all, it is just a big rock. What made it worthwhile for us though was learning more about the significance and history of the site.

After the sunset we went to our campsite for the evening, just a short drive away. We each had a swag to sleep in, which is basically a fortified sleeping bag designed to protect against wind and rain. It became popular during the gold rush for men to use as their portable homes. Before bed Tim and I played a few games of cards with Daniela and Luke, another guy on our tour we had become friends with.

Tim models his fly hat at Uluru

Tim models his fly hat at Uluru

That night the stars were very vibrant in the sky. As I was laying in my swag about to close my eyes to sleep, I saw the most magnificent shooting star (actually a meteor entering our atmosphere) I had ever seen. It was large and slow moving, heading downward in the sky. It must have lasted 5 seconds or so (quite a long time for a shooting star).

The next morning was an early one – Tom woke us up shortly after 4am to pack up and get ready to head back to the rock to watch sunrise. Again, we were kind of indifferent to sunrise (I know that is not a popular sentiment to admit, but there you have it), but the moment when the sun actually rose just above the rock, our guide started playing the Lion King theme song and it was kind of perfect. And it was not bad to look at either.

Kata Tjuta

After sunrise and breakfast, we headed about a 40 minute drive away to Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas (terrible name). This site is especially sacred to the Anungu people and the majority of it is still used today for special ceremonies. Only a small fraction is open to visitors. Kata Tjuta, like Uluru, is a large rock formation, and Kata Tjuta is actually larger but does not count as one single rock since it has many cracks in it. Personally, I liked this site much more, since it was more mysterious and more interesting to look at. It is formed of many dome-shamed rock formations clustered together in what appears like a lumpier Uluru.

Hiking in Kata Tjuta

Hiking in Kata Tjuta

Hiking in Kata Tjuta

Tim was ever ready to avoid the pesky Aussie flies

After our hike of Kata Tjuta, we were back in the bus for a few hours making our way towards our campsite a half hour from Kings Canyon, where we would hike the next morning. Along the way, we stopped on the side of the road in the literal middle of nowhere to collect firewood, upon which Tom would cook our dinner that night.

That evening, after dinner and a shower, everyone sat around the bonfire and out of nowhere one of the girls on our tour, a young woman name Jee Eun from South Korea, started playing guitar and singing a song in her native language. It was a very sweet moment and inspired every other group to also share songs from their country. The Polish group sang a few songs, the two German girls shared a song, the French Canadian girl shared a song in French, and Luke, Tim and I sang “Friends in Low Places” to represent the United States. It was a really nice evening.

King’s Canyon

It was another early morning to get up and get ready to hike in Kings Canyon, since it gets hot very quickly in the canyon, to the point where it is too dangerous to hike. This hike was spectacular, with gorgeous scenery. You could see the history in the rocks here – for example, parts of the ground had ripples in it leftover from millions of years ago when the entire Red Center was covered in ocean.

Hiking in King's Canyon

Hiking in King’s Canyon

Waterhole in King's Canyon

Waterhole in King’s Canyon

Kings Canyon Water Hole

Can you tell why it’s called the Red Center? Photo from King’s Canyon

Hiking in King's Canyon

Big open spaces in King’s Canyon

Hiking in King's Canyon

Hiking in King’s Canyon

Alice Springs

After the scenic hike we were back on the bus for the long drive to Alice Springs, the only big town in the region, and 1500km from any major city (Darwin to the north and Adelaide to the south). Along the way, we made one last stop at a camel farm, where we had the option of taking a quick camel ride. We didn’t ride since we had done so in Morocco and frankly I had my fill of camel riding from that experience. It was interesting to learn the history of why there are camels in Australia to begin with, though.

They were first brought to Australia from the Canary Islands in 1840 (and shortly after from Pakistan and Afghanistan) initially as part of explorer expeditions. They were shortly after used for aid in building the Overland Telegraph Line, carrying pipes and other materials for the construction of the line. Once they were no longer needed, they were set free into the Australian outback, meaning you can find wild camels there (we only saw wild horses but that was awesome to see too). Allegedly, Australia is the only country where you can find wild camels today.

After a few more hours of driving, we finally made it to Alice Springs, where Tim and I would spend the next six nights (it quickly proved to be too long). That evening, our entire tour group went out for dinner and drinks. Tim and I split a delicious kangaroo steak and had a fun night with our new friends from the tour.

The next day, our first full day in Alice Springs, we only ventured out to buy groceries for the week and spent the rest of the day relaxing, watching the last of the four-part documentary on Australia, and also watching the film “Australia” staring Nicole Kidman.

West MacDonnell Ranges

The following day, Saturday, we took a guided day trip out the West MacDonnell Ranges. This area is very cool. These former mountains (300 million years ago) once rivaled the Himalayas in height, but due to erosion, they are now a cluster of slowly shrinking mountains (the tallest among them now is 1500m) that have numerous hidden gorges and canyons.

West MacDonnell Ranges

West MacDonnell Ranges

After being picked up that morning at our hostel, our first stop was to John Flynn’s memorial grave. John Flynn was a missionary, and more importantly, doctor, who founded the Royal Flying Doctors service, which still operates to some extent today. Due to the remoteness of many people living in central Australia, Flynn founded this service to provide healthcare to people who cannot feasibly get to a hospital in an emergency. Several days later, when we got to the Alice Springs airport to fly out to Sydney, we got to see the headquarters and museum.

Our next stop was to Simpson’s Gorge, a beautiful gorge and water pool surrounded by tall rock formations. This area is also home to an estimated twenty or so rock wallabies. As a group we got to see two hopping along the rocks above us, and shortly after we saw one who had actually come down from the rocks and was chewing on some plants. A bit later, after most people in our group had started heading back to the bus, Tim and I stood and watched the rocks for any hint of motion, and were greatly rewarded. We saw three rock wallabies perched above, and two of them began hopping down towards us! We ended up getting to see them fairly close up and got several good pictures too (you will notice in the pics how well they blend in to their habitat).

Simpsons Gap

Me and Tim at Simpsons Gap

Rock wallabies at Simpsons Gorge

Rock wallabies at Simpsons Gap

Rock wallaby

A rock wallaby came down to say hello!

Rock Wallabies at Simpsons Gorge

More rock Wallabies at Simpsons Gap. They are so cute!

Throughout the day we visited:

  • Standley Chasm, which is a split in the rock and used as a sacred men’s site for the Aboriginal culture
  • Ochre pits, where Aboriginal people would get multi-colored rocks to mix with water and animal fat to create paints for body and cave painting
  • Ormiston Gorge, where we were able to hike up to a look out over the gorge and water below, and also got to see a lizard sunbathing, not to mention many frogs in the bathroom (imagine my surprise after I flushed the toilet and a frog hopped up!)
  • Mt. Sonders, which is a mountain range that resembles a woman’s body and is part of a traditional Aboriginal story
  • Glen Helen Gorge, where we got to explore the area around the lake and Tim got to talk to a cockatoo
  • Ellery Creek Big Hole, which is the most magnificent swimming hole I have ever seen, situated between two tall cliffs of red rock
  • camel farm, where we got to say hello to a baby camel

All in all it was a very good day and well-worth the time and money we spent on it!

Standley Chasm

Standley Chasm

Ochre pits of West MacDonnell Ranges

Ochre pits

Ormiston Gorge lizard

Lizard we saw while hiking in Ormiston Gorge!

Ormiston Gorge

Ormiston Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge

Glen Helen Gorge

Ellery Creek Big Hole

Tim at Ellery Creek Big Hole

Ellery Creek Big Hole

We loved swimming at Ellery Creek Big Hole

Baby camel at camel farm Australia

Cute baby camel at a camel farm

The next few days were again spent relaxing and doing not much at all. We did eventually make it back out to the town center for a free walking tour offered by the tourism office. We learned a bit about the significance of the town for communication as a repeater station along the telegraph line, about some of the ways the Aboriginal people would use the land and plants in the area, and about a boat race in the (normally dry) Todd River- which ironically gets cancelled when there is water in the river, since it is intended to be ran while holding a boat-like structure around your body. After the tour, we also visited an Aboriginal art gallery and free museum, where we got a sense for some of the rituals and beliefs of the people, and how their artwork ties into their spiritual stories.

Wild Horses in the Red Center

Wild Horses in the Red Center

We also dyed my hair pink, inspired by Lucy, a girl we met scuba diving in Cairns who dyed her hair pink, and my friend Amanda who just dyed hers purple. Don’t worry, it is a wash out dye and will probably be gone by the time we get home in just a few days (technically tomorrow night but with all the time changes and crossing the international dateline, it is still a few days worth of hours away).

And so that brings us to where I am now- sitting in the business class lounge in the international terminal of Sydney’s airport, enjoying some wine and food before our flight back to the United States and home (with a day-long stopover tomorrow in Taiwan, with plenty of time to explore the city!). It was quite a headache getting to this point today, due to some run-ins with the typical sub-par customer service in Australia (sorry Australian friends, you guys are awesome, but your customer service reps tend to be jerks).

But that is another story, one that belongs in a yet-to-be-written synopsis of our general thoughts about, well, the world.

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