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.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.