ALICE SPRINGS | AUSTRALIA
IT TAKES ABOUT SIX HOURS OF DRIVING SOUTH FROM ALICE SPRINGS TO REACH ULURU.
Our little rag tag group had gotten together in the van and we spent most of that six hours drawing on the windows with markers like six year olds. By the time we reached Watarkka National Park I had created a masterpiece equal to the Sistine Chapel.
Like any good tour we wouldn’t be blowing our load on Uluru straight away. First up that evening was a hike around King’s Canyon. Despite the aussie pride that King’s Canyon is a “proper” canyon unlike Arizona’s it pales in comparison. It’s still an impressive place though. The canyon walls are a steep 100 meters high and the walk around the rim is a fascinating trek through the weathered outback. It’s just that, for me, when it comes to giant holes in the ground the Grand Canyon reigns supreme. Even if it’s not a proper canyon at all.
Like many places here it contains sites sacred to the local aboriginal people. Our guide explained the many rituals that would be completed here, as well as the plants used in everyday life. One of the coolest we came across was the Ghost Tree or Ghost Gum. Closely related to the eucalyptus tree it has pale, almost silvery bark which tends to flake off. The contrast of the ghostly white bark amid the scorched red earth almost gave it the appearance of a skeletal hand rising from a dusty grave.
After my fiasco with the sun burnt feet and the aggressive vinegar treatment, the swelling had gone down considerably. However my feet were still quite sore and stiff. The hike around the outer rim of King’s Canyon and through the Garden of Eden took around two and a half hours across rocky ground. Fitness wise it was a piece of cake. Supporting my body weight on two over cooked kebabs was beginning to become painful though.
A little while later we went on a bush walk to look for some tucker. I’d seen I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, so I knew what to expect when our guide started digging through the roots of a bush. Yep, there it is. A big fat worm. I’d drank my share of australian beer so I already knew aussies would put anything in their mouth. Witchetty grubs are the larvae of moths that feed on the roots of bushes. They’re high in protein and according to the guy who ate it tasted like “nuts…..creamy nuts”. My aversion to putting it in my mouth wasn’t the fact that it tasted like “creamy nuts” but the fact it was alive and moving. I seen a show where a guy ate sushi that consisted of a plate of still-crawling octopus tentacles. We have so many options for food these days why do people feel the need to chop limbs of living creatures and eat them raw? You’d never see that in Abrakebabra.
We stopped on the side of the road to collect fire wood for the camp fire later. It was easy to find dry wood here, everything looked like it was desiccated enough to spontaneously combust into flames anyway. In the distance there rose a majestic table top mountain glowing in the dying sunlight. People began pointing excitedly. Turns out this is called Mount Connor and is totally unrelated to Uluru. However it moonlights as Uluru to tourists so much it’s gained the nickname “Fooluru”. I bet if it just took off those glasses we would have recognised it.
We pulled into the camp grounds that evening and began building a fire and preparing the equipment for dinner. Our two guides cooked up a massive chilli con carne feast which went down well. The fatty piece of kangaroo tail that got passed around after it though almost made everything come back up again. It was only when we were settling in for bed that our guide revealed the campsite was haunted. According to legend a bunch of aboriginal workers had been burned to death in a car here over disputes about working conditions. Another company guide had seen the ghosts only a few weeks backs – tortured figures screaming in the flames of the camp fire. The aussies love a good bed time story. At least it momentarily took my mind of the spiders, snakes, and scorpions. Then I began to think about ghost spiders, ghost snakes and ghost scorpions. If anywhere in the world had them, it would be Australia.
We were sleeping outside in swags, these are like hardcore sleeping bags consisting of a tough outer cover with plenty of room inside for a regular sleeping bag. Just be sure to unroll and zip them properly. Anything could be inside. Venomous or undead, or both. We also learned a few tricks to keep the nasties away from our camp. To keep spiders, scorpions and insects out you lay a circle of salt (also useful to keep out demons FYI). To repel snakes, you take a stick and trace a circle around your bag in the dirt. This creates a heat difference which snakes won’t cross, supposedly. If you have newborn babies and would rather they weren’t eaten by dingos the best thing to do is to piss around your bag. All around it, to mark your territory. Not only did I mark my own territory I think I marked a few bits of other peoples territories too. They’d thank me in the morning.
Night time in the bush is pretty cold. We were just leaving Australian winter and entering spring so the days were pleasant and sunny while at night the temperature plummeted. The benefit of a crisp cloudless night sky is the stars. I’ve seen some pretty amazing things while lying on my back but the night sky in the outback remains ingrained in my mind. A few days ago I was marveling at the Great Barrier Reef and thinking how I had never seen anything like in before with my own eyes. Now I was doing the same. The Milky Way spread out above me from horizon to horizon, as bright and as luminous as a Christmas tree display. The cloudy purples and yellows and the uncountable mass of blinking stars seemed to suck me into a living sci-fi movie. I remember describing it to someone later “it was so good it looked fake”.
Kata Tjuta, also known as The Olgas are situated 25 kilometers from Ayers Rock inside the Kata Tjuta – Uluru National Park. This is where we found ourselves the next morning. We were at a view point halfway between the two sites before embarking on another multi hour hike through the olga formations. I was hoping another nights sleep had alleviated the aching in my feet but I wouldn’t know until we started. The Olgas are made from the same type of sandstone that Uluru is. In fact, from a distance, they look like mini-uluru marbles strung together along the ground. The walk was nice. I enjoyed these hikes through the bush and the scrotum shaped mounds. The red earth and the parched yellow grass interspersed with the ghostly gum trees painted a stereotypical image I’d always had of Australia. I’d also been thankful I hadn’t yet been attacked by any of Oz’s infamously murderous wildlife. Having said that I still had a few more days for the continent to assassinate me.
That evening was spent at Australia’s most recognisable landmark. In the 1870’s the first Europeans named it Ayer’s Rock in recognition of Australia’s secretary Sir Henry Ayer. Recently the more commonly accepted name is the traditional aboriginal title : Uluru. It’s a sandstone monolith, essentially an incomprehensibly vast iceberg of rock wedged into the Australian desert around 500 million years ago. It is a sacred site to the local anangu people. It features prominently in their creation legends called the Dreamtime and, at certain sacred spots around the rock, are ancient aboriginal rock art. These were pointed out and explained to us. The anangu tended to represent animals artistically by the tracks they made in the dirt, or how they looked from above. As a result their art can be quite abstract and trippy. We continued on the Mala walk to a gorge containing a lot of beautiful rock art. Here, in aboriginal legend, the Mala (ancestral beings) first camped at Uluru.
At sunrise the next morning we embarked on the base walk around Uluru. It’s a 10.5 kilometer hike and usually takes around three and a half hours. You get to see the sides of Uluru not usually in the tourist brochures. Uluru being composed of iron rich arkose sandstone acts as a huge lightning rod for the surrounding bush. As a result it’s backside is scarred with numerous lightning strikes which have chipped away at the monolith. The walk takes you through small patches of acacia woodlands and through yellowed grass which seemed to almost catch fire in the early morning light. There are certain sites where photography is forbidden as the anangu male elders conduct rituals here, a subject which leads me to the main controversy surrounding Uluru.
Should you climb it?
Here is my take. The aboriginal peoples own the land. Legally it’s theirs and they only lease it to the government. Because of the rock’s importance to them culturally they ask visitors not to climb it as a show of respect. Now if I visit someone’s house and they ask me not to climb on their roofs or crap on their floors for the shits and giggles I’m not gonna do it (unless they don’t offer me tea). It’s their place, not mine. Besides, there’s a sign. A sign.
Our tour guides made it perfectly clear that it was our own decision at the end of the day. However their preference was for us to respect the land and do the base walk instead. The government has agreed to shut down the climb if certain criteria are met. Apparently one of those criteria is that if 50 people die during the climb it will be roped off. We are just waiting for 15 more volunteers so grab those deck chairs…..
In the visitor center there is an interesting little museum dedicated to the aboriginal struggle to reclaim Uluru. There are also old school boomerangs. The old boomerangs look nothing like the sleek modern versions. For one thing they aren’t symmetrical or designed to come back to the thrower. Unlike the modern usage they were used for hunting, not smashing your neighbors windows. The modern boomerang was actually invented by a dutch guy, probably while stoned.
When the walk was over it was time to bid fair well to my tour buddies (and my legendary window fresco) and get dropped off at Ayer’s Rock Airport. This remains one of the smallest airports I’ve ever been too. You walk in the door to the check in desk, turn to the left through the one man security team and arrive right at the two gates. Oh there is a small snack bar and toilet in one corner and a souvenir shop in the other, tucked away apologetically.
As the plane took to the air I found myself once again on the wrong side. I was excited I might get an aerial view of Uluru as we sped to Sydney, instead I saw an endless red landscape stretching unbroken to the horizon.
And then Sydney. Ugh.
I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog I’m not a big city fan. I’m not the kind of traveler that loves wandering aimlessly through art museums or finding quaint little coffee shops where the waiter is a dog or any of that gimmickry. I prefer the outdoors, nice scenery, natural attractions, old ruins, history and small towns. A city needs a lot of character for me to enjoy it. Skyscrapers and shopping malls don’t cut it. Add to that the weather was terrible so as I touched town in Sydney I just wasn’t feeling it.
I stayed in King’s Cross which has a poor reputation for being the red light district. I didn’t find it too bad. As dodgy parts of cities go it was an arcadian utopia compared to ropey places I’d been in before, and would find myself in after. I was looking forward to maybe taking a day trip out to the Blue Mountains, but the combination of atrocious weather and still-aching feet put me off. Instead I went for a walk down by the harbour and “The Rocks”. This is the area containing the famous Opera House and Harbour bridge and is the oldest settlement in Australia. It’s a nice area sure, and a lot of fun to walk around at night, especially to marvel at the Opera House illuminated by light. Up close the Opera House looks even more alien than it does in pictures. It looks like an egg Godzilla crapped out and then stepped on.
One day when walking through Hyde Park (all Sydney’s locations are ripped off from London’s) I came to the ANZAC memorial. It was roped off for “filming”. As I loitered around I heard a familiar voice from my childhood. It couldn’t be? Could it? Trembling, I climbed the steps and peered inside. Yes. Yes it was.
SAM FUCKING NEILL
Dr Alan Grant from Jurassic Park was mere feet away from me. ALAN FUCKING GRANT. My favourite actor of all time. OK David Duchovny is, but SAM FUCKING NEILL is a close second. I wiped the tears from my eyes and the urine from my pants (in that order). Do I climb – nay smash – the barricades and stampede him like an autograph hungry raptor? Do I casually slip inside, all cool-like?
In the end I did none of those things. I went to Hungry Joe’s instead and now I hate myself.
Next time: I climb inside a glacier and sleep through an earthquake.