Tag Archives: Ayers Rock

More Questions than Answers

Meg drove around to the other side of the rock and we disembarked again.

“After a little talk ‘n’ walk with an aboriginal guide, we’ll visit the cultural centre and then head out to our next camp for the night,” she explained.

“Cultural center …” I said to Heidi, “I wonder if it’s the same one we were at yesterday?  I could buy those pillow cases?”

“Yes,” she replied, “How exciting.”

We were invited to sit in a circle on the ground by a young white woman who introduced herself as Donna.  I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get up again, so I remained standing.  I can hike, bike, or swim for hours but I have a hard time getting up off the ground due to my scoliosis.

“This is Bessie,” Donna said, introducing the woman next to her wearing a t-shirt that said:

I used to think I would do something important with my life, but I kept getting distracted by Sparkly Things.

The work sparkly was, of course, bedazzled with glitter.

“Bessie is our local guide,” explained Donna.  “She lives in the nearby community.”

Community, I learned, referred specifically to Aboriginal settlements.  I had heard something about some indigenous people somewhere not liking their photos taken, but Donna said to go ahead and snap away.

“I’m a PhD candidate in Aboriginal Culture at [some university],” continued Donna.  “And I’ll be translating for Bessie.”

She said a few words in what I assumed was Pitjantjatjara, the local language.  Bessie said about four words in response.  Then Donna translated, “Bessie says ….” and talked for 10 minutes.  Who knows, maybe Pitjantjatjara packs a lot of meaning into every word.

This was repeated; Bessie didn’t seem into it, or maybe she was just tired, or maybe Aboriginal Australians also wear the dead-pan expression common to Native Americans.  She would force out four or five words and Donna would wax on about various customs and objects which she passed around, including a boomerang.

“Contrary to popular belief, most boomerangs are not designed to return to the thrower.  They are designed to break the legs of an animal like a kangaroo, and you wouldn’t want that coming back to you!”

It went on for some time and I felt self-conscious about standing.  If Bessie could get up again I should be able to.  So I sat, and then Donna said, “Now we’re going to walk over to those caves and Bessie is going to tell us about the paintings.”

Heidi helped me up and we walked a short distance.  The paintings were beautiful.  They told stories using symbols for things like people, emus, and the sun.

I had expected to learn something about the Dreamtime and creation stories, but as I wrote previously, most of them are sacred and not shared with outsiders.

The Cultural Centre was a different one from the one we’d already visited.  It was a circle of shops and workshops and a café around an open plaza.

“There’s a museum-like thing if you can find it,” bawled Meg as we jumped off the bus.  “The café is super slow so get in line now if you want a cuppa!  You’ve got one hour!”

Heidi and I got in line and took turns keeping our place.  It took 50 minutes to get two coffees.

The gift shop was extremely expensive; I was relieved not to see “my” pillow cases.  There was a workshop where Aboriginal women sat on the ground painting while tourists watched.  I realize it is the Aboriginal way, to sit on the ground, but I felt very uncomfortable, like I was watching animals in a zoo.

There were signs everywhere that said No Photos.  I think they are trying to prevent people from taking photos of the paintings and then just printing them out without paying for the labor that went into them, which is substantial.

Meg had been right, the museum was hard to find and once we did find it we had only 10 minutes left.  I would have skipped the coffee and the shop for an hour here but it was too late.

Back on the bus!

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!”

 

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!”

Caravans and Bunkhouses

Last week I wrote a Facebook post which went sort-of viral:

Long post but important, I think.

There seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about immigrants, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It’s important to know that asylum seekers Are Not Eligible to receive government benefits (no subsidized housing, no food stamps, no welfare, etc.) and they also are Not Allowed to work in the US for five months after their arrival.  

Most of the people in the so-called caravan in Mexico are hoping to claim asylum. They have the right to do so under international law. That Does Not Mean they will be granted asylum; the process can take years, and only 10% will be approved.

Asylum seekers are people who have been tortured, imprisoned, raped, and otherwise abused by their own governments, militias, gangs, police, etc. This may have been because they were fighting government corruption, organizing small businesses or unions, they were related to someone who was doing these things, they were the wrong religion or ethnic group, or they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

How would you survive for five months if you weren’t allowed to work and you couldn’t get any public benefits? While they wait for their cases to be heard, asylum seekers literally depend on the kindness of strangers. Many clients of my organization, the Center for Victims of Torture, depend on two local religious orders, the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Franciscan Friars, for housing. When you are thinking about year-end donations, think about contributing to one of them.

I don’t know why this particular post spurred people to share it.  When I started working where I work, I remember being shocked that asylum seekers could not work or get government benefits.

“But how do they survive?” I asked one of our social workers.

“Barely, that’s how,” she replied. She explained that they go from couch to couch in the homes of friends of friends who belong to their same nationality, or they sleep in homeless shelters, because there’s no way the Sisters of St. Joseph and Franciscan Friars can house all of them. “You can imagine,” she continued, “how stressful it is for someone who’s been tortured and is having flashbacks and is afraid of being sent back—how stressful it is to be in a homeless shelter, with people yelling and fighting with each other.”

Heidi and I arrived at Ayers Rock Airport, located in Yulara, a five-hour drive from Alice Springs.

Here, I would have a comical flashback to my son’s time in prison.

Heidi, with the help of her sister—a travel agent—had planned this whole thing.  I had followed Heidi’s instructions to bring only a backpack. She had also urged me to bring a pair of shoes I wouldn’t mind tossing when we left, since rugged hiking and the red dust would destroy any footwear but hiking boots.  I don’t own boots and I didn’t have time to break in a new pair.

A bus took us to Ayers Rock Resort, which holds a monopoly on accommodations in the centre.  There is every level of price and comfort, from a luxury hotel to caravan park, all owned by the same people.

Heidi had booked us in to a bunkhouse.  “I reckoned we’re only here one night, so how bad could it be?”

It was actually named the “Pioneer Lodge.”  There’s a reason they don’t show photos of the interiors on the website.

These people are outside because, well, who would want to spend any time inside?

 

“I feel like we’re in an episode of Orange is the New Black,” I commented as we surveyed the place.

“We’ll certainly get our thirty-eight dollars’ worth,” quipped Heidi.  It was, indeed, only for one night—this was an adventure.

We “fought” over who would sleep up top with the giant pipe.  Heidi sleeps through the night, while I get up several times to use the bathroom.  “You can’t climb down that ladder in the dark,” she insisted.

“I could hold a flashlight in my teeth,” I suggested feebly.  Heidi didn’t get much sleep, since the pipe turned out to be a hot air pipe.