Tag Archives: Aboriginals

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.

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.