Category Archives: Adventure

Sunset, Sunrise

As we waited for sunset, the Aussies in our group fell into an animated discussion about the Arnott’s Shapes biscuit (cracker) controversy.

The rest of us listened, bewildered.

“They changed Shapes, to make them ‘new and improved,’ and people went mental,” said the British-Australian guy.

“Shapes are like our National Cracker.  They never should have messed with them,” his wife rang in.

“Arnott’s, the company that make them, had to back down and promise to keep the original formula,” said Heidi.

There was more in this vein.  I kept my eye on the rock and knew better than to make a fuss over the quails or partridges or whatever the birds were that were running around pecking up the cracker crumbs.  They were exotic to me, but probably as common as dust to Australians.

A little girl danced nearby the way little kids do, like grownups do when no one is watching.

The sun set and it was just “meh,” so we climbed aboard the bus and were driven to our campsite.

When Heidi had booked the tour she warned me that it was “stupidly expensive.”

“And the next day I found another tour company with basically the same package, for half the price!  But Intrepid wouldn’t let me cancel and get my deposit back.”

“So is it glamping?” I asked, given the high price tag.  “Is that the difference between the two tours?”

“Oh no,” Heidi laughed.  “It’s not glamping.  It’s just stupid expensive.  But we won’t be sleeping on the ground; there are tents and cots.”

So I had no idea what to expect, but our campsite and the set up was pretty nice, by my camping standards.

There were latrines for men and women nearby, with flush toilets and showers with hot water.  Really pretty posh, if you’re used to camping in a tent on the ground in a sleeping bag.

There was a chow hall, and a cook named Katie with long dread locks who magically appeared, prepared great meals for 16 people, cleaned up, and disappeared.

Upon our arrived Katie greeted us with a buffet of burgers, veggie burgers, kangaroo steaks, home potatoes, and salad. There were a couple long tables set up outside, dotted with wine bottles.  We wolfed everything down and then moved to a bonfire Katie had started nearby, sitting split logs and drinking more wine.

“That’s it, ladies and gents!” Meg exclaimed from some distance away in the darkness. “I’m turning in because we’ve got to leave here tomorrow morning at 5:15.”

There were groans and exclamations of dismay and surprise.

“Five fifteen?! AM?!” I whined.

Heidi was smart and went to bed early.  I was not.  I sat up yammering with the British-Aussie couple and the jumping Germans and drank more wine.  Darren and Kylie, the Aussie pair from Melbourne, sat nearby drinking and chain smoking.  Then Kylie went to bed and Darren hovered near our group.

“Come join us,” I said, and he inched closer.

“It’s my birthday,” said Darren.  “I’m 40 today.  So my friend …” he inclined his head toward their tent, “… brought me here as my birthday present.”

Hmm.  So she wasn’t his mother.  She looked older than me, and Darren was my son’s age and extremely buff.  But no one else seemed nosy about their relationship. We all wished him a happy birthday and turned in soon after.

After a quick brekky (as the Aussies say) and a few gulps of coffee, we were off to see Ularu at sunrise.

There was more groaning when Meg explained that we would be walking around the rock, which would take around two hours.  I was happy to get some exercise; I am not wired to sit.

And so we walked around the rock, and it took two hours because we stopped every five minutes to take photos and admire the changing colors.  Actually, the best views were opposite Ularu, in the bush.

James, the unemployed cook, walked near Heidi and me and we made efforts to converse but he was skittish.  As we approached some kind of gigantic hollowed out formation in Ularu, he spontaneously pronounced, “A frog!”

I said, “A Squirrel!”

Heidi said, “A wallaby!”

 

Thank You

In real time, Happy Thanksgiving, if you are American.  Happy Thursday, if you are not.  I have some news items to share at the end of this post.

Day four in Australia.  Day four?!  It felt like I’d been here forever, in a good way.

We alighted from our bus for sunset viewing of Ularu.  I walked around snapping photos of other tourist vehicles. I have spent many hours in these heavy-duty Toyotas in Kenya and Ethiopia.

There was this crazy sardine-mobile, some kind of motel on wheels.  I’m all for budget accommodations, but this beat even the bunkhouse for the claustrophobia factor.

There was this dusty, Mad Max BMW motorcycle.

A group of barefoot Aboriginal women sat on the pavement selling paintings.  I felt a sharp, uncomfortable contrast as Meg poured sparkling wine.

But then I was distracted by food.  “This is kangaroo jerky,” she indicated, “this one’s emu pâté  and this here’s croc dip.”

“The kangaroo is delicious!” I commented.  “It’s like venison.”

Heidi didn’t touch it.  “I can’t eat it. The kangaroo and the emu—they’re our national animals.”

“They’re animals that can only go forward,” explained Heidi.  “Like our country, I reckon is the idea?”

“I guess I wouldn’t want to eat a bald eagle,” I replied.  Well, all the more emu and kangaroo for me!

The members of our group began introducing ourselves.  Trevor and Gwen had immigrated to Australia from Nottingham, England, 20 years ago.  They were here with their 14-year-old daughter, Tiffany.  Kris and Melanie, a young Swiss couple, never spoke unless spoken to, so I didn’t get to know them at all.  Brenden and Stefanie were another young couple, from Canada.  Johannes and Sandra were a middle-aged German couple who took elaborate tripod-assisted selfies of themselves jumping for joy in front of every landmark.  Mia and Nora were also German; both were around 22 and they were student teachers in a German school in Melbourne.  There was a Chinese couple—father and daughter?  Lovers?  They stood apart and avoided all eye contact.  Another couple, Darren and Kylie, were also a May-December pair.  They said their names and that they were from Melbourne, then also kept to themselves.

I spoke with James, a 30-something Korean guy who spoke confident but almost-impossible-to-understand English. He was an out-of-work cook from Adelaide, blowing all his savings on a last hurrah in Australia before going home to an uncertain future.  He reminded me of Vince.  Because he was a cook, but mostly because there was a soulfulness about him.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it doesn’t involve decorating the house inside and out, buying presents, or any Christmas/Hanuka dilemmas.  You just eat a lot with your family or friends, then fall asleep in front of the TV watching The Hobbit for the millionth time.

Thanksgiving is about—as the name implies—giving thanks, and I have a lot to be grateful for this year.  As I sit here at my writing desk and look out the window at the grey sky and freezing drizzle, I am grateful for a warm home.  I am healthy.  I have friends and family.  I got to spend a month in Australia!  I wish I was there now.

And, some big news: I quit my job last week.  More on that later, but I already feel 10 years younger.

And another big development: Vince and I started this blog together four years ago.  We just published the first year of the blog as an e-book.  It chronicles his time in prison, his recovery, and my ride along with him.

Besides providing insight into why people turn out the way they are, we’ve been told by many readers that it’s just a good read, a page turner.  So if you’re looking for something to binge read over the weekend, or holidays, consider buying a copy.  Only $3.99!

Breaking Free: A Mother And Son Journey From Addiction, To Prison, To Redemption https://www.amazon.com/…/B…/ref=cm_sw_r_cp_apa_AbI9Bb9K1SXQM

Please feel free to share this on social media, and thanks for reading—we know it can be difficult stuff but addiction and all its consequences, including imprisonment, are a reality for hundreds of thousands of people every day.

Not More Champagne!

Heidi lived in Papua New Guinea as a child, lived in London for 18 years, and has traveled all over Europe but she had not yet been to the Red Centre.

“I feel privileged to be seeing this with you, both of us for the first time,” I said as I peered down into a diorama at a taxidermy platypus. Heidi stooped down next to me. “I feel the same!  Such a strange-looking little thing; I’ve never seen one, alive or stuffed.”

The Cultural Centre had a small gift shop, and I lingered over some throw-pillow cases with Aboriginal art.

“They’re beautiful, but they’ll be everywhere, right?” I didn’t want to weigh myself down with more stuff, when we might have to carry everything on our backs.

“Oh, I’m sure.  Whoops, it’s time to get our bus,” replied Heidi.

So I didn’t buy the pillow cases and I never saw anything like them again, but in the grand scheme of things, throw-pillow cases are not important.

There were about 30 Italian tourists waiting on the curb, dressed in black, with black Italian luggage and handbags and black sunglasses.

“Surely they can’t be on our tour?” Heidi wondered.

I was snapping photos of the bottle-brush-like flowers that were everywhere around the resort.

I thought Heidi said, “Banksy are lovely, aren’t they?”

I looked around, confused.  “Banksy, the British graffiti artist?”  Two of the nearby Italians sniggered.

Heidi burst out laughing, “No!  Banksia—bank’-see-a—they’re kind of our national flower.”

Tour buses pulled up, dropped off or picked people up including the Italians, then drove away.  You could see the rock by Segway, bicycle, camel, motorcycle, hot air balloon, or helicopter.

We would go in an air conditioned bus.  But these weren’t your average tour buses.  They looked really bad ass.

A bus emblazoned with “Adventure Tours” pulled up and a young woman hopped out and called our names. “But we paid for a tour with Intrepid,” Heidi said to her.

“Aw, they’re all connected, or sub contracted, or whatever yer call it,” she replied.  “Throw your backpacks in the storage in back and hop on.”

So we did, and I sat in front which I always do if possible, to see stuff.  Our guide’s name was Meg, she was about 24 years old, and she was a bad ass (that’s good).

There were a dozen people in our group but I wouldn’t start to meet them until our first stop, which was—Kata Tjuta, or The Olgas.  We drove for a half hour and arrived at the gate of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and sat in line for another half hour.

“We’ve got tickets, but you have to get them verified at the gate and it always takes forever,” explained Meg.  “I don’t know why.”

While we waited, she told me the story of her life, including how her boyfriend, who was from New Zealand, pronounces her name “Mig.”

She was from Tasmania, was now based in Alice Springs, five hours away, and worked three or four days a week.  “But of course it’s three or four days of 24 hours a day responsibility for a bunch of people who have never been in the Outback,” she added.

Once we were in, Meg handed back our tickets, which said, “Welcome to Aboriginal Land. Parks Australia and Anangu, the Aboriginal traditional owners, welcome visitors.  It is requested that you respect the wishes of the Anangu by not climbing Ularu.”

Maybe they need to print the message in larger type.

This was my first view of Kata Tjuta, or The Olgas.

Kata Tjuta is a range of dome rock formations, 3,500 feet high at the highest point.

Called The Olgas in honor of Queen Olga of Wurttemberg (daughter of Tsar Nicholas I), Aboriginals have origin stories about them but they do not disclose those to outsiders, or even to their own womenfolk.

We traipsed up a valley between two of the domes.  This was my first deployment of the fly netted hat.

Then we drove away to an overlook to get a view from the distance.

It was already 6:00pm. “Next stop,” Meg called out to our group, “Sparkling wine sunset at Ularu!”

In a Pink-Skinned Country

We had a few hours to kill before joining the tour that would take us to Ularu/Ayers Rock and other natural wonders with two names like Kata Tjuta, formerly The Olgas.

“Our tour is with Intrepid,” Heidi said as she read the deets, “And we need to meet the bus at the Lost Camel Hotel.”

So we left the bunkhouse behind, with no regrets, and walked past Ayers Rock Campground, the Outback Pioneer Hotel, Desert Gardens Hotel, Emu Walk Apartments, Sails in the Desert, and Longitude 131, each of which was successively more upscale. That last one cost $3,000 a night and there’s a minimum of two nights.  We looked at the brochures to see what you got by paying 40 times more than we had paid.

“It’s glamping on steroids,” I said.  The rooms were permanent tents with private views of Ularu.

“I stayed in a place like this in Kenya, on safari,” I told Heidi.  “It wasn’t as deluxe as this, but it was one of the nicest places I’ve ever been and it sure didn’t cost $3,000 a night.  I don’t think I paid more than $1,200 for the whole week.

“The thing is, if I was paying $3,000 a night I would feel like I had to stay in the room the whole time so I would get my money’s worth.”

Heidi laughed.  “Aw, anyone who can afford $3,000 a night—it’s nothing to them!  And I reckon they don’t drink ‘sparkling wine’ on their private deck.  It’s real champagne, baby!”

We happened upon a Cultural Centre with displays about Aboriginal history, desert wildlife, and the geology of the area.  It was a great little free museum, basically, so I take back all the snide remarks I’ve made about the Ayers Rock Campground being price gougers.  I snapped one photo before I saw the signs that said, “NO PHOTOS.”

Since you probably can’t read it, I’ll reproduce some of it below.

Aboriginal people first took action for land rights in the early 1960s when the Yirrkala people in Arnhem Land submitted a petition to the Australian government requesting recognition of their rights as traditional owners.  In 1971, their claim was rejected … ruling that the traditional owner property system was not recognized under Australian law and that Australia was “terra nullius,” an empty land, prior to 1788.

Let that sink in.  The Englishmen whose tall ships arrived in 1788 near what is now Sydney were, according to Australian law, the first Australians.  The English made all the laws, naturally stacked in their favor.

There was an Aboriginal civil rights movement in the 1960s, and in 1967 90% of Australians voted yes on a referendum that meant Aboriginals would be counted in the census for the first time.  It also allowed the federal government to make laws regarding Aboriginals, instead of the states.  As in the US, federal laws tend to take better regard of the rights and needs of all citizens. So, for instance—the federal government, in theory, makes more humane laws regarding segregation or voting rights than would, oh … Louisiana or Mississippi.

I was seeing Aboriginals around for the first time.

“Does Australia have anything like African Americans?” I asked Heidi.

“No.  We’ve got people of European ancestry, Asians, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, and that’s about it.  Obviously we had a Somali cab driver the other day so there are some African immigrants.”

“No Hispanics?”

“No, not really.”

I encountered one guy from Argentina in my month in Australia, the owner of a fabulous Argentine tapas restaurant.

“Wow.  We’ve got 11 million ‘unauthorized’ immigrants in the US.”

Most of them are Hispanic, although 1.5 million are Asian.  ‘Unauthorized’ is the new gentler, kinder term for ‘illegal.’

The Australian census doesn’t ask about race, but it’s estimated that 91% of Australians are white or multiracial people who are mostly white, 5% are East Asian, 2% are Indian (dot, not feather), and 2% are Aboriginal.

By comparison, whites make up 72% of the US population.  Hispanics are 16%, African Americans about 13%, Asians 5%, Native Americans 1%, and 9% are another race or mixed race.

Ninety-one percent white—no wonder it’s called the sunburnt country.

Field of Lights

It was time for the Field of Lights tour.  We boarded a bus, got off 10 minutes later, walked around, and were back at the bunkhouse 40 minutes later.

“We could have almost walked to it, with flashlights!” Heidi said.

“I know.  It’s one of those things you don’t know until you’re there, and then it’s too late.”

But it was really cool, and beautiful.  There was no “tour,” unless you counted the 30-second orientation to the night sky given by a young guy with an extremely heavy Chinese accent who stood on a milk crate and pointed out the Southern Cross.  What this had to do with the lights wasn’t entirely clear.

The lights were a work by British artist Bruce Munro—50,000 of them glowing organically in the desert.

Heidi and I wandered in separate directions, lured by whatever instinct called.  I wandered a bit too far and started walking back briskly when I realized our 20 minutes of off leash time was almost up.  It was so dark that I headed in the wrong direction.  I imagined being stranded out here all night.  Would they turn the lights out?  Would I, as a Minnesotan, be able to survive the desert cold dressed only in light clothing and flip flops?  Would I have to stay awake all night to fend off the dingos? What if I stepped on a scorpion in the dark?  Could I collect enough dew from the spinifex grass to wash it out?

My daydreaming was interrupted by the sight of someone kneeling on the ground and vomiting violently.  I could make out that it was a man and his friend was standing over him patting his back at arm’s length.  “Must ‘ave been something ‘e ate, I reckon,” said the friend.

At the bus I let the Chinese star guide know there was a man down, and he hurried off.  He’d probably be in trouble if they got off schedule and the next batch of $42 tourists was delayed.

“Did you see that guy throwing up?” I asked Heidi as I sank into my seat.

“Yeah, how awful.  I wonder if it was from the $210 Sparkling Wine Sunset Dinner?” she asked, deadpan.

I woke up early and walked up to the lookout to see Ularu at dawn.  On my way back the quiet was broken by raucous cries coming from the branches above my head and I looked up to see a dozen large rose- and grey-colored birds squawking.

“Heidi, Heidi!” I whispered loudly back in the bunkhouse.  “Look at these birds I saw—they’re amazing!”

She looked blearily at my cell phone as I shoved it in her face and laughed, “Aw, Annie, those are Galahs.  They’re like your squirrels.”  Galahs, also known as the rose-breasted cockatoos.

“Well, we don’t have them in Minnesota,” I pouted.  “How d’ja sleep?”

“Not so well, thanks to this heat pipe two inches from my face,” Heidi said as she whacked it with her fist.

We knew today would be another long day, so we had paid $25 apiece for the breakfast buffet.  There was a $5 discount if you paid the night before.  I thought maybe this was so they would have a head count, but when we rocked up to the buffet I began to suspect that they didn’t want people to know how it was until it was too late.

Everything was cold.  Not cold as in refrigerated; as in “formerly hot but now not.” Cold, limp bacon.  Cold spaghetti (spaghetti is a real fav in Australia). Cold baked beans.  The scrambled eggs were sitting in a half inch of pale yellow water.  We stuffed ourselves with things that weren’t supposed to be hot, like yogurt and fruit and rolls.  The hostess, a middle-aged white woman, was friendly and attentive as she poured the lukewarm coffee.

“What’s the deal with tipping here?” I had asked the first day.  Heidi was adamant that no one tipped unless you were at a fancy restaurant with a large party and the service was exceptional.  Then you might round up the bill.

“We just pay people decent wages,” she explained, “so there’s no need to tip.”

Because It’s There

Our airport shuttle driver had informed us there was plenty of water in the outback but it was all underground.  Still, I began to notice a very strong conservationist approach in Australia, including this recycled toilet paper in the IGA.  I didn’t want to know the details of how it was made, and I probably wouldn’t use it myself, but I’m glad they make it and that someone must use it.

I was aghast that not only was there, as I had expected, Aussie biltong (beef jerky) but also Jack Links.  Jack Links is based in Wisconsin and I always buy it, thinking it is a local company.  But here was Jack Links jerky—made in New Zealand.  Maybe it’s not a Wisconsin company after all.

After our exciting afternoon watching football, photographing toilet paper, and buying kangaroo-themed tea towels, Heidi and I returned to the bunkhouse.  She went in search of the bath huts and my eye fell on a thick folder she’d tossed onto the bottom bunk.  It was stuffed with glossy brochures, pages of meticulous hand-written notes, and rows of calculations.

“I knew you and Danielle put a lot of time into this trip, but I didn’t realize how much,” I said as she rejoined me.

“Yes.  Well, they don’t make it easy.  Everything is a la carte, even Internet, which is why I printed everything out.”  We hadn’t had wireless or 4G or even one G since we left Sydney.

“There’s about a dozen different tiers of accommodations … the wireless … meals … excursions … the one we really struggled with was the Sounds of Silence Sparkling Wine and Sunset Dinner.  It’s all about seeing the stars, and what if it was cloudy?  You wouldn’t get your money back”

“How much was that?  I think I read in my guidebook that it cost $500 per couple.”

“It wasn’t that much.  It was ‘only’ $210 per person,” she replied.  “Of course that’s Aussie dollars.”

“It’s so confusing!  So what’s the $42 thing we’re doing tonight?”

“The Field of Lights.  I think it’s an art installation.”

“I guess we’ll find out.  Did you notice there’s a little sign near the bathhouse that says, ‘Ularu lookout’?”

“Yes!  Let’s see if we can see the sunset from there.”  So we did, for free.

You can just see Ularu (oo’-la-roo) in the distance.

Ularu was formerly named Ayers Rock.  Because it’s a big rock.  It’s 863 meters (2,831 feet) high and 9.4 kilometers (almost six miles) in circumference.  I learned that Ularu is just the tail end of a snake-shaped rock formation, most of which is underground.

Like many such formations, people have always wanted to climb it, and there is a chain strung along posts hammered into the rock to facilitate this.

The local aboriginals, the Pitjantjatjara (pit’-in-jar-a) consider Ularu sacred.  They don’t claim to “own” it; they consider themselves its guardians and ask people not to climb, but people still do.

A woman started chatting with us as her kids climbed and did the limbo and swung on the fence rails, as kids do.  She had disconcerting false eyelashes, an extreme fake tan, and long acrylic fingernails.

“We all climbed the rock today.  It’s just one of those things you have to do.”  There was no hint of embarrassment.  I expected her to at least acknowledge that this was going against the wishes of the aboriginals, but no.

Heidi and I maintained neutral expressions.  The woman moved on from topic to topic, asking questions and not listening to our answers but using her queries to launch a new run-on story about booking holidays, the Australian school system, driving and cars, and I-can’t-remember-what-else.

Once the sun set, it was like someone had flipped off the lights; there was no lingering gloaming. It gave us an excuse to leave.   As we walked down the hill in the darkness while our new friend tried to round up her kids, I murmured to Heidi, “I felt judgey back there.”

“I know; me too, but it’s hard to understand why people still climb.”

The government has settled the matter once and for all, by banning the climb as of next year.

Aussie Rules

The bunkhouse was the best place we could have stayed because it motivated us to get out and explore.

“Let’s get a beer,” I suggested, and we wandered until we found a large open-sided, tin-roofed beer hall from whence a lot of whooping was emanating.  I stopped to read the alcohol limits.

A six pack of beer and a bottle of wine, or two bottles of wine?  I would be flat out on the floor before I ever reached those limits.  There were multiple bartenders and the place was crowded and rowdy.  How could they track who-had-how-much?

“I wonder why you have to show your room key?” I asked the guy next to me at the bar as I looked it over.  “It doesn’t have a tracking chip in it to count drinks or anything.”

“It’s for the aboriginals,” he said.  “To keep them coming in here and getting pissed.  I have no idea if this was true or not.  I do believe I finally found my sport that day: Australia Rules Football. That was the draw today—the AFL Championship game between the West Coast Eagles, based in Perth, and Collingwood, based in Melbourne.

I didn’t know what was going on, just that very fit men in what look like wrestling uniforms were running around a round field and kicking, throwing, and bouncing an American-football-like ball and tackling each other.  The clock never stopped.

The men in the crowd weren’t bad either, if you like tall, rugged men with tattoos.

Heidi was ecstatic.  She’s a sporty person and she explained the game as we stood in the crowd and watched.  “Collingwood is Dean’s team,” she said, as she texted him a message of support.  Our friend Dean, who we would stay with in Melbourne in a few weeks.

Alas, Dean was destined for heartbreak this day, as the Eagles prevailed over Collingwood in what everyone seemed to agree was a great game.  I enjoyed it, to be sure, but I just have no patience for sports.  When people start talking about plays and stats and lineups my eyes go dim.

At the end the crowd became subdued.  The men in the background, behind Heidi below, were dejected at Collingwood’s loss.  More than one man and boy passed me on his way out with tears in his eyes.  The winners were also subdued—I didn’t notice any fist pumping or victorious howling.  Very civilized.

We walked to the “Town Hall” area, which had an IGA (a grocery), a few restaurants, and some stores that sold souvenirs and outdoor gear.

“I’d better get my souvenirs here, since we’ll be camping the rest of the time,” I said to Heidi as I stuffed my shopping basket with aboriginal-art-themed notepads, wacky Australian animal stickers, and a tea towel with kangaroos on it.

“Oh yes,” Heidi replied drily, “This will probably be your only chance to buy souvenirs.”

I bought a hat with a built-in fly net, a decision that would save me from bug-induced insanity while hiking.

We took a spin through the IGA and as is my habit when traveling I documented another culture through foods and household goods.  I was not disappointed; there were lots of items with Australian themes.

I’m not sure “furry” is an adjective I want applied to candy, but they sure were cute.

The one box of Emu oil moisturizer looked like it had been there for a decade and had been stepped on by a big dusty boot.

This soap was made in “Country” Australia.  Country means rural.

I wanted to buy some Strong and Bitey cheese, especially Bega brand, but we had no refrigeration in the bunk house.

There were lots of Asian imports, like this ramen spaghetti with roasted black bean sauce from Korea.

Adorable diapers with koalas.

Infant wind drops “provide relief from infant wind.”  What a relief.

As I would learn, Jatz are the national crackers and people had strong opinions about them.

Lamingtons, which are rectangles of day-old chocolate cake with chocolate frosting sprinkled with coconut, are the national—and delicious—cake.

Various mites.  And no, I never did have a vegemite sandwich.