The Red Centre

When I booked my ticket for this trip, 3 weeks seemed like a lot of time in Australia but once I started figuring out what I actually wanted to see and do, those 3 weeks were filled up remarkably fast. On any trip that you take, you’re always faced with a myriad of choices that are all a variation on the same dilemma – do I visit this place or that place? Once I realized that I couldn’t do both, the most difficult choice for Australia was do I go to the Outback or the Great Barrier Reef? The remoteness and cultural significance of the Outback ultimately gave it the edge. Oh, and of course, the chance to visit Uluru.

Tammy took a couple of days off work and we booked ourselves a 3-day tour in the Northern Territory with Adventure Tours Australia. We flew into Alice Springs where the heat blast hit us as soon as that Qantas door opened up. It was about 39 degrees which actually didn’t feel as bad as I was expecting. We had the rest of the day to explore Alice Springs a bit and it didn’t take long to feel the tension that is percolating just below the surface there. It immediately reminded me of Thunder Bay, another town where there is a cultural clash between the indigenous people coming in from remote communities and the predominantly white town residents. In “The Alice”, aboriginal people come into town to access basic services like health care and they also come in to access alcohol.

Alcohol is an extremely complex issue out here. Many communities in the Outback are dry and there are a series of alcohol control policies (restricting both consumption and sales), some introduced by the federal government and some by aboriginal leaders. It’s hard to deny that alcohol causes a lot of harm in aboriginal comunities, but the government-imposed restrictions are hard to swallow given the extreme drinking culture in Australia. There is frequent violence in Alice Springs and it’s not hard to imagine the bar brawls that take place between black fellas and white fellas. But there is binge drinking and bar brawling every night in Sydney and Melbourne and Adelaide as well, and there are no drinking restrictions there. Take a legacy of colonial history, poverty and racism and mix well. 

Walking around Alice Springs in the heat, we passed groups of Aboriginal people just hanging out on the main strip, Todd Mall, or outside the couple of shopping centres in town. We walked on the dry riverbed of the Todd River (if you see it flow 3 times, you’re automatically considered to be a local) over to the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. This was established in 1956 after 72 year-old anthropologist Olive Pink set up a tent on the grounds and lobbied the NT government to establish a reserve on the land. We felt especially close to her as walked up Annie Myers Hill and read a plaque that informed us that it was named after a “close friend” of Olive’s. We saw lots of poo among the rocks and just as we were debating what animals might be living up there, I caught a glimpse of two red kangaroos bounding away.  

The rest of the afternoon found me searching for a cheap hat that I could take on the tour with me. Hats are an avowed enemy of mine as no matter what shape they are, they inevitably look ridiculous on me. The size of the head, the shape of my face and the fact that I have no hair all seem to be contributing factors. But that no ozone over Australia thing? It is for real. The sun definitely burns hotter here. So I succumbed to the charms of a $10 straw fedora from K-mart and I was ready to go.

There were 20 of us on our tour – several couples from Germany, France and England, two mates from London, two French women who work together, two young women from Germany who were working as au pairs in Geelong (near Melbourne), one German woman and one Irish woman who were each travelling alone, and me and Tammy. Our guides were Molly (boy) and Tommy (girl) who was in training and was actually on her first tour with real customers (she was great). As we were checking in, Tammy resurrected her rusty French to say hello to the French women and then she ended up being their translator for three days. I was her sous translator as I was able to throw in some basic vocab here and there. Mrs. Taylor would have been proud.

We had a long drive to get to Yulara which is the resort town that was specifically built in the late seventies and early eighties to support tourism in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It used to be operated by the NT government but now the entire resort is owned by a tourism company called Voyages which is a bit bizarre. On the way, we stopped at the Outback Camel Farm where Tammy did a 5 minute camel ride. Camels are not native to Australia but beginning in the mid 1800s, they were brought over from India and a few other places to help navigate the vast terrain and to haul materials and supplies for construction. When cars and trucks replaced the working camels the 1930s, the government asked the “Afghan” camel herders to destroy them, but most chose to release them into the wild instead. Now there are as many as one million feral camels roaming the interior of Australia and we saw some during the trip.

When we got to Yulara, we checked into camp and had a quick lunch and then headed out to Kata Tjuta. The Anangu name Kata Tjuta means “many heads” and these are a group of 36 massive red rock formations also known as The Olgas. We were supposed to do the Valley of the Winds walk but it was closed because of the heat so we did the shorter 2 km  Gorge Walk into the Walpa Gorge which was gorgeous. As we worked our way from there over to the sunset viewing area for Uluru, the low clouds on the horizon started to build and the blue skies changed to gray. We stopped at a lookout to get a dramatic distant view of Kata Tjuta and that’s when I got my first look at Uluru in the other direction. Even from that distance, it had presence. Then we merged into the caravan of coaches, cars and mini buses headed for the Uluru sunset. That was a sight in itself as hundreds of people on budget and luxury tours collided with each other with the budget tours breaking out the crackers and cheese dip and the luxury tours breaking out camp chairs and setting up folding tables covered in antipasto and cheese.

A distant view of Kata Tjuta

Arriving for the Uluru sunset

We had just enough time to lug our own crackers and sparkling wine to a clear spot before the clouds made their final approach, unbelievably bringing thunder and lightning with them. We all toasted each other and marvelled at the light in the sky. Molly assured us that even though we weren’t seeing the usual spectacular red sunset, we were seeing something      rare that few people get to see. Instead of pinks and oranges, we watched the rock change from dusky red to black, as the sky flashed with streaks of lightning.

 

It’s hard to explain the mystical presence of this immense rock, moody and brooding out in the middle of the desert but the weather really took nothing away. We were back first thing in the morning for a sunrise view, and the cloudy stormy weather still lingered so we had a muted sunrise that was beautiful nonetheless. 

The clouds continued to threaten so after getting up close for a short walk all together, most people opted out of the base walk. The actual climb was closed due to the weather and I’m not sure why it is still permitted given that it is clearly expressed that the Anangu people prefer that people do not climb Uluru since it is a sacred site. Some tourists respect that but many do not, so just ban the climb, I say. So Tammy and I layered up with the warmest clothes we had brought and headed out along with Liddy from France and one of the German couples.  

Uluru really reveals itself to you when you walk around it. I had never thought about the fact that every picture you see of it is from the same angle, but professional photography is not permitted from many locations and there are numerous sacred sites around the base where all photography is not permitted. Some of these sites are for women’s business where only initiated women are allowed to go, and some are for men’s business where only initiated men are allowed to go and then some are for both genders. But you have to be old enough and worthy enough to have the knowledge passed onto you, so most of what we know about Aboriginal culture is the equivalent of what an Aboriginal child would know.

We walked through the wind and the rain and it was really powerful and moving to be that close and to be able to appreciate the different shapes and textures. The surface of the rock is shingled, alomst like a reptile’s skin and it is pitted with crevices in many places. The overnight rainfall created several waterfalls that gushed down the rock face and also woke up the bleating frogs in the rock pools around the base. These tiny frogs make a racket, baa-baaing like sheep, which added a weird cool soundtrack. I fell a little bit in love with that place.

After a visit to the Cultural Centre, we left Uluru and the clouds behind and headed for our camp at Kings Canyon. We made good time and climbed the rocks above camp to watch the sun set. The night before we had had a big barbecue for dinner and I got to try kangaroo steaks and camel sausages which didn’t taste much different from your average sausage. Tonight’s bush tucker specialty was Aussie damper which is a bread that bushmen baked in an open camp fire. Tammy was chef on that one and they put vegemite and cheese in the middle  to get some stealth vegemite comsumption past everyone. We had a clear night and hung around the fire watching the immense starry sky. Some people slept in swags which are like big sleeping bags made of canvas with a bedroll inside, but Tammy and I wimped out over the cold and the sight of wild dingos roaming around camp. Yes, I do regret it now. I should have at least tried it.

Our last day began with a hike around the rim of Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park. It was a perfect day with blue skies, sunshine and the temperature was under 30 degrees. Since the hike starts out with a climb up “heart attack hill”, we were all thrilled at the conditions. That steep climb took us to the top of the canyon and then we followed the rim trail across the Lost Canyon on the north rim and then on through the lush Garden of Eden at the bottom of the Canyon and back across the south rim . This was one of the locations for “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” which is now on my list of DVD rentals. The entire trail of eroded red rock offered amazing vistas everywhere you looked.

It was back to camp for lunch after that and some people took helicopter flights over the canyon Then we had the long drive back to Alice Springs with stops for ice cream and an international Weetbix challenge to help pass the time. Each country had to pick a representative to eat a dry Weetbix as fast as you could without drinking anything. Everyone was a good sport about it and sent some poor sap up. We had been referred to as  Team Canada for the first two days but somehow Trinidad was put on the roster for this particular activity. It’s a lot harder than it sounds and both Tammy and I took slightly over 2 minutes but the British guy took almost 4 minutes so we represented our countries comfortably.

Most of us had dinner together that last night in Alice Springs and then we went through that strange experience of saying goodbye to people that you feel like you have kinda gotten to know well, when really you don’t know them at all and most probably, you will never see them again. The traveller’s goodbye. Take care and safe travels.

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more about “The Red Centre“, posted with vodpod
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