by Jen H
Christina and I spent an amazing and enlightening week in Australia's Outback.
|Exploring the Red Centre
Stuey was a good rental car. Named after the Stuart Highway, he chugged along reliably, due north. The Stuart Highway consists of only 2 lanes, but it is the main thoroughfare that runs up and down through the Outback. Surrounding the highway for miles around was nothing but desolation: flat red earth punctuated sporadically by a rock or tumbleweed, all lying peacefully under a clear turquoise sky. I had never seen terrain like it before, and as we drove along I stared, entranced by the monotonous beauty.
Driving on the wrong side of the road took a little getting used to, but luckily there was no traffic on the highway and no turns to make, so we couldn’t run into much trouble. On our map of the Outback, there are a few towns marked that the Stuart Highway runs through. Stopping at each for a precautionary filling of the gas tank, we noticed it didn’t take much more than a gas station and a bar to be considered a town out there.
We stopped at Ti Tree, where we spotted a hospital, police station, and aboriginal art center. We pulled over at the art center, where I bought an amazing black, brown, and yellow aboriginal painting in the traditional dotted style. There was a photo of the little weathered woman who painted it taped on the back.
We met a girl from Philly who worked there.
“Where are you headed next?” she asked.
“Barrow Creek, the next town up,” I answered.
“Ugh. You won’t stay long. It’s a shithole,” she bluntly commented.
“Compared to Ti Tree?” I thought.
But indeed, Barrow Creek made Ti Tree look like Manhattan. It consisted of a gas station, telegraph station, tiny graveyard and bar. We stopped in the dusty saloon for a drink, and noticed two equally dusty men sitting in the dark. That’s when I realized the only illumination was coming from the open door and windows.
“No power,” one of the men grumbled without looking at us.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked.
“There’s no power,” he repeated.
“Why?” I inquired.
He helpfully replied, “Because there’s no power.”
Undeterred, we sat at the bar and were given two still coldish Cokes. The dingy bar inside was decorated with donated and signed currencies from around the world. Some of the yellowed notes looked like they had been there for decades. We realized we couldn’t expect much more scintillating conversation from the guys at the bar, so we guzzled our Cokes and hit the road again.
Next stop was The Devils Marbles: a group of round granite boulders in the middle of the red desert. Some of them measured up to twenty feet across. Many were balanced precariously on smaller rocks. Others had cleaved right in half due to expanding and contracting from the drastic changes in the desert’s temperature.
We climbed among the rocks, appreciating the unique opportunity to be in the Outback, miles from true civilization, in such a peaceful and beautiful setting. I had never felt so isolated in my life. It was unsettling, but also exhilarating.
The more I learned about the Aboriginal people, the more I respected and admired them. In a landscape that looked bleak and barren to the untrained eye, they survived. They thrived. They learned how to find the camouflaged food and water the Red Centre obscured from them. For hundreds of years they lived in harmony with their environment, and got along just fine.
While I was living in Sydney I saw a movie with Christina and Susan called Rabbit Proof Fence. The remarkable story was about three girls, aged 14, 10, and 8, who were stolen away from their families by the English and made to go to a boarding school designed to ‘civilize’ them. The girls escaped. Nine weeks and 1,500 miles later, they found their way across the desert, back home. I can’t imagine being so in tune with my natural surroundings at such a young age, able to subsist on what I found in the wilderness.
We camped at Wachoupe that night, a town that consisted of a caravan park, a bar, and a white caged cockatoo that said “Hello.” We set up our tent and watched the sun set. The heavens were expansive with no mountains or buildings to obstruct the view. Fluorescent orange and pink clouds streaked across the indigo sky as a flaming red sun dropped out of view, ending our day and beginning another one somewhere far away.
The next morning we headed back south, uneventful except for when we filled up with gas at Barrow Creek. I stood innocently by the car, waiting while Christina pumped. I saw some cute chickens standing by the side of the weather-beaten bar. I thought, “How rustic,” and prepared to take a picture.
Clearly, this angered the chickens, because a herd of about ten huge, scary chickens came running, running, toward me. Some of them were black with frighteningly furry feet. I was scared shitless and didn’t know what to do. Luckily Stuey had finished filling up so I just jumped in, slammed the door and told Christina to floor it. They chased the car all the way out of town. Which wasn’t really that far. But it was still an unnerving experience.
We had a lot to do upon arriving in Alice Springs, by far the largest town in the outback at 25,000 citizens. First, we paid a visit to the School of the Air. The Outback is vast and empty; the population is quite spread out and it’s hard for all children to have access to schools. Kids that live on cattle stations or in Aboriginal communities tune in their two-way radios every morning and listen to a lesson being broadcast by their teacher in the studio in Alice Springs.
Assignments and library books are posted back and forth in the mail. Some students live up to 1000 kilometers away, and are extremely detached from civilization. The School of the Air gives them an education and social contact with peers. Once a year, the children make the trip to Alice Springs for ‘in school’ activities like field day, and once a year the teachers travel out to meet the students in their homes.
From the School of the Air we went to visit another unique necessity of life in the Red Centre. The Royal Flying Doctor Service Base was set up for the same purpose of helping those distant in the Outback. It was founded in the 20’s with the use of the Traeger Pedal Radio- there was no need for electricity to run the radios, and they could be used to call doctors in emergencies. First aid kits were posted at many of the cattle stations in the desert, and frequently, doctors would talk patients through self-treatment before they arrived. The radio use was actually what inspired the School of the Air in 1951.
In emergencies, the planes often had to land in dirt fields or on the roads. At the time we visited the center, there were three planes out in the field. Our visit there drove home the vastness and emptiness of the Outback, and for someone who doesn’t like being alone and enjoys the bustle of city life, imagining growing up that far from civilization fascinated me.
Continuing our tour of Alice Springs, we visited the Aboriginal Arts and Culture Center, where we got a didgeridoo lesson. The didgeridoo is an Aboriginal instrument traditionally created from a termite-hollowed tree limb. It is played by vibrating one’s lips and blowing into the tube.
The man in charge of the center, Peter, was the first well-dressed, middle-class looking Aboriginal man I had seen.
Our didge instructor, Wayne, was more stereotypical in his mismatched dirty clothes and shoes. However, in listening to him talk, it was apparent he was intelligent and spiritual.
He explained the sounds you can make on the didge, “They’re all based on nature. The kangaroo, emu, snake, dingo, frog. Even the wind. Sometimes I’ll just go out into the bush and try to capture the spirit of an animal in the music of the didgeridoo.”
I asked him why, and he elaborated.
“It’s just the Aboriginal way. It’s a way of being close to nature and thanking the spirits of the animals.”
After hearing his beautiful philosophy behind the instrument, I took my lesson seriously. Could I capture the spirit of a kangaroo or emu? I followed his instructions and produced little more than a lot of spit and a brief fart noise. “That’s a good start,” Wayne encouraged.
He told us after our lesson that he plays every night at a dinner show for tourists, and a lot of the Aboriginal people who work at the show make very little money and feel taken advantage of by the men running it.
“The Big Men say they’re trying to help us, but they’re really just making a profit. It’s draining our spirits.”
I felt outraged by this and sad that such a beautiful culture had been destroyed.
Christina and I climbed Anzac Hill, overlooking the town, to watch the sunset. A dozen aboriginal kids ran around in dingy clothes and bare feet. It made me feel guilty and angry. They lived and prospered with nature for 50,000 years and within a few years of white man coming to the Outback, their culture had been all but annihilated. And was now, ironically, being exploited for the entertainment of the same white men.
So many Australians looked at the Aboriginal people with disdain. Sitting in the park, drinking beer, wandering from place to place in filthy garments and no shoes. They didn’t fit into modern society. But why should they have had to? Why should they have cared? Things like fashion and jobs and money didn’t matter to them for millennia, and now they were supposed to change all that in less than two centuries? Our view of a ‘modern’ life just wasn’t in their blood.
When Christina and I walked back to our hostel that night, we passed a group of young Aboriginal girls sitting on the sidewalk.
An adorable nine year-old girl with reddish-brown skin and wild, coarse, black hair approached me and said, “You're pretty. I like your blond hair.”
I was taken by surprise, and simply smiled, said “Thank you,” and kept walking. Looking back, I wish I had told her how beautiful she was too. She deserved to know.
We arrived the next evening in King’s Canyon, after another amazing and sweltering drive through the Outback, snacking the whole time on some poultry flavored crackers we loved called Chicken Crimpies.
We set up our tent, and visited the campsite bar for one drink. We had stepped about two feet into the bar when an extremely friendly young man approached, grinning.
“Hello ladies, how are you this lovely evening?” he asked.
“Fine, thanks. How are you?” we replied.
“Great, thanks! I’m Kane. Would you two like to join me in the pool tournament tonight?” he asked, eagerly.
“Oh, thanks, but I'm not that great at pool,” I declined politely.
“Well you have to come do karaoke later, then,” he insisted.
Not feeling especially social, we gave him a “maybe,” that definitely meant “no”.
We took our drinks and sat outside on the porch, chatting.
After a while, Kane came back outside and said, “I think you left something inside– your smiles.”
We couldn’t help laughing and we accepted his offer to buy us a drink. He had $50 in bar credit from winning the pool comp, and was eager to share the wealth. Kane’s friend Avon joined us while Kane karaoke-d Shaggy’s “Boombastic” in a convincing Jamaican accent. Avon had us choose a song for him to sing, so we signed him up for “Bootylicious” and laughed the whole time he performed.
After some convincing, Christina and I agreed to sing. I decided upon “You Shook Me All Night Long,” which I felt was appropriate since AC/DC is an Australian band. We rocked out to some Acca Dacca (as they were affectionately known down there) and it was fun.
The free drinks kept appearing in our hands. Like two parallel lines marching steadily upward on a graph, my drunkenness increased at the exact same rate as the inexplicable urge to embarrass myself. Christina and I sang “One Week“, by the Barenaked Ladies, and did surprisingly well.
Then the doors opened. James entered. A tiny little Chinese dude in a “Chicks Dig It” T-shirt, he was the karaoke master. Many ballads were belted that night, along with classic hits like “Mamma Mia”, which he did as a duet with Christina. He and I decided upon “Don’t Be Cruel”. My favorite part was when he clapped and cheered for himself after every song. He took a break for a while and I talked to him. He read my palm, and told me that I love to travel and that I am like Marco Polo. He told me that I’ve always done what I wanted.
He added that Gaz and I were both born in the year of the horse, so we would clash a lot, but it could work. James then told me he knew Kung Fu and tried to teach me some, but after five Bacardi Breezers, I wasn’t grasping the moves.
The night came to an end. Christina and I brought the house down with a rousing rendition of “The Devil Went Down To Georgia”, complete with square dancing. Everyone in the bar sang along and swung around, linked at the elbows.
Before hitting the sack, Kane and Avon gave us a “You girls rock,” and James gave us big hugs and seemed sad to see us go. It was an unforgettable night, and I’m so glad Kane talked us into joining the festivities. Sometimes the most fun is had when you weren’t planning on having any at all.
The next morning we dragged ourselves out of the tent early so we could attempt the canyon rim walk. The hike started with a steep rock staircase that took us to the top of the plateau. From there we explored the canyon. The rocks and trees had weathered into fascinating formations . Every time we turned a corner, the canyon vista changed and surprised us again with its unique beauty. We found the Garden of Eden, a small oasis tucked away in a crevasse of the canyon. From parched ruby rock blossomed emerald trees and shrubs. A tiny pool of sapphire water rested in the middle, without one ripple. I couldn’t believe my eyes– it was idyllic and until that point I didn’t really believe oases like that existed.
Back in Stuey, on the road to Uluru, more commonly known as Ayers Rock. It is a massive monolith in the middle of the Red Centre. We arrived at the campsite, checked in and went straight back out to watch the sunset. We couldn’t get enough sunsets! Uluru took my breath away. It was majestic, standing so tall, surrounded by the perfectly flat desert. We snapped photo after photo as the light changed and the colors of the rock evolved from orange to red to purple.
Back at the resort shop we bought some frozen pizzas to bake. We followed the campsite map to the area designated as “kitchen”.
“Um, Christina. Do you see an oven?”
“Nope. I thought an oven was requisite to labeling an area ‘kitchen’,” she said.
“You’d think,” I agreed. “All I see are a fridge and vending machine. Are we just being really stupid right now?” I wondered.
“That’s always a strong possibility, but I seriously think there’s no oven,” Christina decided.
“I’m starving! And tired,” I moaned. “What do we do?”
Christina looked at me, I looked at her, and we both unwrapped the frozen pizzas.
“I can’t believe I’m actually about to eat a frozen pizza,” she said laughing.
“Hey, desperate times…” I explained.
The pizzas were gross. But at least we didn’t go to bed hungry.
We rose at 8:30 the next morning and hiked around Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), which are monstrous domes of red rock. From there, we went to a cultural center to read about how sacred the area is to the Aboriginal people, and how they only regained ownership of the land in 1985. We then headed back to Uluru to hike the circumference of the monolith.
At 102˚, we were wilting, but we drank a ton of water and still enjoyed the day. We wandered past caves, and pondered primitive paintings on the surface of the rock. I wondered how old they were, and what importance they had. I felt like a hypocrite, being upset about the desecration of sacred areas, yet still using the roads and staying in the campsite and treading on Aboriginal paths just like every other tourist. It’s a dilemma a lot of travelers face: knowing you probably shouldn’t be somewhere, but wanting to experience the culture just the same.
I had an extraordinary week in the Outback with Christina. I saw a lot, learned a lot, sweated a lot, and had a fantastic time. When we first arrived, I wondered why anyone would want to live in such a desolate area. But after having spent a few days there, I saw the Red Centre for the captivating and alluring place it is.