Tag Archives: Outback

Royal Flying Doctors

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is something of which Heidi, and all Australians, are justifiably proud.

There were many people involved, but the RFDS was inspired by poor Jimmy Darcy, who was thrown from his horse on a cattle station in 1917.

“What’s a cattle station, versus a farm?” I asked Heidi.

“I think a station is just bigger,” she replied.

I looked it up.  America’s biggest ranch is 2,300 square miles (6,000 kilometers), while the largest Australian station is 9,300 square miles (24,000 kilometers)!  These spaces are unfathomable to me.

From the RFDS website:

“Kimberley stockman Jimmy Darcy suffered massive internal injuries when his horse fell in a cattle stampede. An 80-kilometre ride on a dray over a rough track took him to the nearest settlement of Halls Creek.  Darcy needed immediate lifesaving surgery and with the nearest doctor thousands of kilometres away, Halls Creek postmaster Fred Tuckett had to perform emergency surgery.

“It was 2800km from Halls Creek where a doctor in Perth, Joe Holland, instructed Tuckett via morse code how to carry out the surgery.  Tuckett was afraid he’d make a mistake – that he’d kill the injured man – but Dr Holland told him if he didn’t act Darcy would die anyway.  Using his pocketknife, Tuckett made an incision above the pubic bone as the stockman’s brothers tried to ease his agony and shoo the flies away from the blood.  Tuckett worked for hours, cutting and stitching, stopping every few minutes to check the doctor’s telegrams.

“The operation on Darcy’s ruptured bladder was a success but the 29-year-old stockman was weak and now suffering from malaria.  Dr Holland boarded a cattle ship that took an agonising week to reach Derby and then spent six days in a Model T Ford held together by leather straps, bumping and thumping his way across the desert to save the stockman’s life.

“Aborigines help push his car across river beds and up sandy banks and he endured tyre punctures, radiator leaks and engine stutters.  At one point he had to use the rubber tubing from his stethoscope to siphon the last drops of petrol from a can.  The car finally conked out 40km from Halls Creek.  Dr Holland walked for two hours to a nearby cattle station and then rode through the night to reach the town at daybreak.  Jimmy Darcy had died a few hours earlier.

“For days, newspaper readers around Australia were gripped by the story of the young stockman’s desperate struggle for life.”

One of the people following the story was a Presbyterian minister, John Flynn, who was ministering in the outback and had witnessed similar tragedies.  He had recently received a letter from Clifford Peel, a medical student.  Peel was also a pilot and suggested using the relatively new technology of aeroplanes to get medical help to people in remote areas.  A year later, he was shot down over France.

A hundred years later, here’s a live map of RFDS flights in the air.

Originally, rural folk were provided with a chart of the human body, a medical kit, and a pedal-powered radio.

They would describe symptoms and doctors and nurses in Adelaide would instruct them in what to do.

The radios also allowed folks to gossip with their neighbors 300 miles (500 k) down the road on the next station.

Today, the RFDS docs and nurses do a lot of preventive education and telemedicine, but they still fly when necessary to aid anyone living or traveling in the outback.  We watched a cheesy hologram of an actor overacting as Rev. Flynn.

We checked out an RFDS plane; it reminded me of those little rooms at IKEA where everything you need is compactly in its place, only instead of storage for macaroni and shoes here it was scalpels and IV poles.

There was a quilted homage to Rev. Flynn.  Winters are long in the outback.

Even though it was a small museum, there wasn’t enough time to see everything because we had two more places on our list and they both closed at 5pm.  I lingered over some nice tunics on sale in the gift shop but had to settle for a handful of 3D postcards.

Alice, Sans Springs

Alice Springs. I knew little about it except that it was in the middle of a vast country.  It held a mythical status in my mind, maybe because it was named after a person—in this case, the wife of one of the men who built the overland telegraph line. There were no springs in Alice Springs except underground.  If you were dying of thirst and you could make out the outline of a river in the desert, you could secure water by diffing down six feet through sand and rock.  The rivers never flowed above ground unless there was a flood.  Perhaps that’s why it’s usually referred to as just Alice.

“They have something called the Henley-on-Todd Regatta every year,” Heidi chuckled, “where they race ‘boats’ on the dry riverbed.”

Alice is also the midpoint of the legendary Ghan, the train that runs almost 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north.

Originally called the Afghan Express, it was built for the British by immigrants from what is now Pakistan, who imported camels from India and Afghanistan to help with the job.  The camels did very well.  In fact, Australia now has over a million of camels running wild in packs in the outback.

I had checked out the Ghan and it would have cost me about $700 to get to Alice from Adelaide.  This didn’t line up with my plans with Heidi but I would definitely go back and do it someday.

First, we had breakfast.

Someone had taken the trouble to decorate the stairwell of the motel with painted scenes from nature.

“You wonder if they were taking the piss,” Heidi said as she traced the names Boobialla and Cocky Apple with her finger. Taking the piss means “to joke mockingly.”

Each of the three mornings we ate breakfast in the motel restaurant, we sat for over an hour drinking coffee and talking.  This is my favorite part of traveling—spending lots of time with people I like.  Heidi and I talked about our families, our jobs, our pasts, our plans, travel, men, news, culture, and everything else.

Finally we stepped out into the heat of Alice to get our bearings and find the Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum.

Alice struck me as more of the Wild West.  Now, obviously I never lived in the Wild West and don’t even know exactly what I mean by that except it includes images of cowboys and Indians and dusty towns with saloons and lots of drinking and gambling and perhaps a gun fight.  There was none of that in Alice that I saw, except for the dust.  The people were definitely scruffy—I guess it would be nicer to say they were casually dressed.  It was a contrast with Sydney, where men wore expensive suits and shoes and women sported skirts and heels.

There were a lot of Aboriginals, and many of them were barefoot.  Their feet must have been tough to withstand the heat of the pavement.  There were also plenty of Aboriginals dressed like the rest of the non-tourist population; that is, as bus drivers and students and shop keepers.

I am not Aboriginal nor an expert on Aboriginal culture.  I have felt guilty writing about what I observed, when it could be construed as negative.  It is my understanding that Aboriginals are plagued by the same troubles as many Native Americans: Obesity and its attendant health problems, alcoholism, domestic violence, and poverty.  Beyond these statistics, I don’t feel like their story is mine to tell, beyond what I saw firsthand.

And about drinking in Australia.  My expectation had been that everyone would be guzzling Fosters and stumbling around in the streets.  This was also an impression several of my American and British friends shared before I left.

I think this impression came from our encounters with Aussies in London and elsewhere.  Once I thought about it, these had been mostly young people living away from home for the first time.  I should have known that they didn’t represent the entire Australian population, who didn’t appear to drink any more than Americans.

Pests, Animal and Human

Up before dawn, I held my bowl of muesli while blearily reading the camp rules.  I liked this one: “Be aware, the fire is always hot.”

The rest of the group was watching a gecko hunt a moth.

“It’s like mini Nat Geo,” said the British Aussie guy.

“Go, go, go!” came anguished cries from the German student teachers as they rooted for the moth.  The gecko had failed to nab it but had damaged its wing, and stalked it as it hobbled away.

The German wife shrieked as a very large beetle crawled onto the table; the Chinese father unceremoniously whacked a plate on top of it.

Megan stepped into the chow hall and gave us the day’s drill.

“We’ve got a short drive to King’s Canyon, a three-hour hike, then a very long drive to Alice,” she outlined.  “The hike has 500 steps.  Do Not Go near the ledges!  Are you listening to me?

“Don’t be that person who backs up to the edge of the cliff to get a selfie and ends up a mangled pulp at the bottom!  If you go closer than two metres to the edge, I will send you back to the bus. If ya think 500 steps is too much, there’s a couple other walks that aren’t as bad, so come talk to me,” she finished.

I sidled over to her.  “Tell me about the other hikes.”  She probably assumed I wasn’t fit enough for the 500-step hike, but the truth was I wanted to hike alone.  I wanted to see wildlife, and hiking with a dozen people who were talking would scare it away.  I wanted to “hear” silence, so rare in our lives.  I just wanted to be off by myself for a couple hours.  I felt a bit guilty—I always feel like a weirdo for wanting to be alone.  But when we were on the bus and I told Heidi, she said in her easygoing way, “Aw, Annie, it’s your vacation, just do what you want to do!”

And so I did.  The alternate hike had “only” 367 steps, so I still got a good workout.  The track, as Aussies call a trail, was rugged.  Once I was at the summit it was still a matter of stepping up and down and around boulders and jumping across gaps in the rock.  It took concentration. It was beautiful.

There were no other humans for an hour.  I paused near a cliff to listen.  Eagles soared on the updrafts.  The wind whistled quietly. I turned. A wallaby appeared, made three boing, boing, boing leaps, then was gone.

When you see them, you can’t help using the word boing.

A wallaby!  This was my first sighting of a jumper. I later learned from interpretive signage that it had been a Euro, and that there are lots of wallaby species: Swamp wallaby, rock wallaby, red-necked wallaby, hare wallaby, agile wallaby, black-footed wallaby, etc.  Mine hadn’t even been a wallaby, but a wallaroo, which are larger than wallabies and smaller than kangaroos.

I sat on a rock and ate the granola bar Meg had doled out.  Why was there a warning that it contained lupin?  Lupin—as in the wildflower that grows in northern Minnesota?

The “easy hike” took two hours, and after descending I followed a flat path that stretched up the middle of the canyon to fill time before the group returned.

The valley was green and lush. I was taken aback by a sign asking people in that very polite Australian way to not vandalize the trees.

Who vandalizes trees in a national park?

Suddenly I heard a loud whirring noise, and looked up to see a drone.

“Who flies a drone in a national park?” I asked a family standing nearby.  “How annoying!”

“It’s ours!” returned the father proudly, while his daughter stomped on a line of leaf-cutter ants.  I hoped the drone didn’t have a camera, and that my comments wouldn’t go viral on YouTube.  No, wait—I hoped they would.

I realized this was the first time I’d felt irritated with my fellow humans in a week.  Normally, I am irritated with them almost every day. Is it just me?

An App for Magic

It was Day Two on our Intrepid tour in the Outback, and it felt like we’d been together for a week.  I had introduced myself to most of my fellow travelers, and some had introduced themselves amongst themselves, but here had been no “formal” introductions that included all.

So as we sat around the fire I suggested we introduce ourselves.  It was one of those moments when I wondered if they would all think, “Bloody pushy American, so overfriendly!  Why can’t we spend 48 hours in a bus, sleeping, hiking, and eating together and remain anonymous?”

I was the oldest member of the group by a good 10 years, so I like to think I was just more mature and had better social skills than the rest of them.

Everyone thought it was a good idea.  We went around the circle, each person saying his or her name and where he or she was from.  When we got to the Chinese pair, the young woman stood up and gave a speech with her Chinese name, her English name because no one could pronounce her Chinese name, where she was from, where she lived in Australia, the name of the bank she worked for, her job title, and her leisure interests, which of course included travel.

We then turned to the older man beside her; he was sitting a ways outside of the circle and staring into the bonfire as he slowly took drags off his cigarette.  I waved a hand at him, “Hello! Would you like to introduce yourself?”  He stared straight ahead, giving no sign that he was aware of us.

The young woman said, “He is my father, and he doesn’t speak any English.”

That didn’t explain why he wouldn’t join in. He could have asked her to translate.  Was he autistic? Antisocial?  Shy?  Depressed?

Heidi chatted with the Canadian couple.  The woman was a marine biologist and he was a book editor for a publishing house.  They lived in separate cities and were engaged and would have to figure out where to live where they could both work.

We had all been examining the sky.  Rare is the night I can see stars in the city.  I had gasped with awe to see the Milky Way in August in northern Wisconsin.  It had been splashed across the sky in a horizontal arc.  Here, it seemed to rain down vertically.   Was that because of where we were, or the time of night, or the season?

The English-Australian guy was pointing out the Southern Cross, which was also tattooed on his calf, and one of the German girls excitedly pointed out the Big Dipper.

The Canadian guy had been fiddling with his cell phone and then sprang up, “I’ve got this app to show us the constellations!”  He held it aloft and it showed lines connecting the stars composing the Orion Belt.

The Swiss guy, not to be outdone, held up his ipad, which had a similar app but with more bells and whistles.  The apps were cool, but the magic was gone.  There was no searching, no excitement upon finding, no mystery, no helping fellow travelers by pointing and painting a verbal picture.  It was Stars for Dummies.

I left the group to join James, the Korean cook, who was sitting by himself.  No one engaged with him, perhaps because his English was so rough. Or maybe it was because he was the only solo traveler.  I’ve been that solo traveler on many a journey, and people do tend to ignore you.  We’re so uncomfortable with people on their own.

James confided that he was depressed and very anxious about going back to Korea.  He didn’t want to go, but it hadn’t worked out here.  He was a failure. I tried to reassure him, “But you tried! You took a risk, which is more than most people ever do.”  I don’t think he bought it.

“Awwwlright you lot!  Brekky at five,” Meg yelled.  “Be on the bus by 5:30 for another three-hour hike—and this one’ll be a killer!”

In our tent, Heidi and I could hear the Chinese dad yapping incessantly to his daughter in the next tent.

Steaming and Swagging

The Aboriginal story was one of the most intriguing things to me about Australia.  Maybe it was because I didn’t feel like it was told very well, but only hinted at.  I’m sure there are loads of books on the subject.  Our friend Dean, who we would stay with the following week, teaches at an Aboriginal school.  I looked forward to learning more from him but for now it was a lot of, “There’s a dreamtime story about that but we can’t tell you what it is because you’re not Aboriginal and it’s sacred.”

There may have also been a factor of Aboriginals losing their culture by being forcefully removed from it.  This was one of the similarities between Australia’s Aboriginals and Native Americans.

“I went to a powwow in Wisconsin a few years ago,” I told Heidi, “and when I asked my Native American in-law what a certain dance signified, she didn’t know.”  Was that because the meaning had been lost to time, or because she personally just didn’t happen to know, or something else?  It felt like a sensitive subject and I didn’t want to ask a follow up question for fear of implying she was ignorant about her own traditions.  But a lot of natives and maybe Aboriginals are not well versed in their culture, because in both countries children were taken away from their families and forbidden to speak their language or practice their traditions.

Heck, I don’t speak any Czech or German and I know nothing about those cultures except as it relates to the World Wars.

I sure wasn’t going to ask of the Aboriginals, “Are your people plagued by alcoholism, diabetes, and domestic violence, like Native Americans?”

Our next destination was Kings Canyon, where we would hike the next day.  It was a four-hour drive from Ularu, halfway between nowhere and the back of beyond.  The road and the hours unrolled, flat and monotonous; I sat up front in hopes of seeing a kangaroo but no dice.

After our one toilet break, which was a fetid, smelly “long drop” toilet, I sat in back with Heidi and tried not to drink any more water.  My Restless Legs Syndrome started to torment me, as it sometimes does on long flights or drives.  Heidi had caught a signal on her phone that morning and I had piggybacked via her hotspot but now there was nothing.  Heidi leaned over on the window and slept while I wiggled and kicked my legs.

If I could just get up and walk around … I got my wish, as Meg pulled over and put us to work collecting firewood on the side of the road.

“Man, it’s roasting out today,” she remarked as she watched us load parched wood into the back of the bus.  “No wonder we haven’t seen any roos.  You know they don’t sweat, so they literally bake to death if they move around too much in the heat.”

That seemed like a very counterproductive natural adaptation for an Australian animal.

Back on the bus, we entered the Kings Canyon Resort.

“Ooh, this looks nice,” said Heidi.

“I wonder if there’s a pool?” I said excitedly.

Then we passed a sign that said Campground and Meg announced, we’ve got another 20-minute drive over some pretty rough … argh!”  The bus lurched sideways, then rocked to the other side, and I was grateful I didn’t have sciatica on this bone-crunching trail.

I just looked up George Gill; he was the editor of a Navy journal.  Interesting choice for a desert campground.

The site was beautiful.

Katie was there with a burrito bar for us.  After wolfing it up we built a bonfire.

Megan gave a swag demo. Swag = an outback bedroll.

“Just make sure there’s nothing in it before ya get innit,” she advised.  “Like a snake or a spider.  And if you wake up and there’s a dingo staring down at you, don’t panic.  They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

Yeah, right.  I’ve heard that before, about bears.  I would miss the star gazing, which was bound to be awe inspiring, but I would wake up with my face intact, in the tent.

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!

Feeling Like Home

Walking around Ularu was a good example of a common dilemma: should I stop every five feet and take a photo, or should I stop every five feet and just look at it and be?  Should I try to capture it, or just see it—really see it?

I chose photos.  As the sun rose, the light changed minute by minute. The sky, the red earth and buff-colored grass and the red rock went from hue to hue.

You can barely see it in the photo below, but it looked like a line of ants crawling up Ularu. Climbers.  Meg had further explained the Aboriginal perspective on climbing.  “They feel responsible for the rock, as a sacred place, and that means they feel responsible for the people who climb it. Every year stupid people get hurt, or dehydrated, and who wants to be responsible for that?  Just his winter, an old Japanese bloke died up there.”  Meg wasn’t one to mince words.

“What’s the view like from up there?” someone asked.

“It’s crap—its just red dust and spinifex as far as you can see,” replied Meg.

Spinifex, a tufted grass that comes in hundreds of varieties, including one that’s as sharp as shards of glass.

We were going on our third hour, and approached the base.

It was very pretty—the was a (currently) dry water hole surrounded by glorious gums.

A sign informed us that the Aboriginals waited by the water hole until the last animal in a herd had drank its fill, then they killed that one animal. This was so the rest of the herd wouldn’t panic and never return.

Another sign asked us not to take photos of a “sensitive” place called Mala Puta.

“That’s ‘bad whore’ in Spanish,” I told Heidi.

“It doesn’t look any different from the rest,” she replied.

“Do you feel any juju?” I asked.


“Me neither.”

We walked on, in and around the rock formations.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been to a lot of places like this that are or were sacred to a culture, or from which civilizations mysteriously disappeared.  Machu Picchu, Tikal, the Western Wall, Petra, Dzibilchaltun, Lalibela, and the Native American burial mounds near my house. I had an out-of-body experience at the Western Wall, felt a strong “something” in Petra, a little something in Tikal, and nothing at all anywhere else.  I’m pretty sure it’s all based on my state of mind and how much time I have to overthink it and imagine I feel something.

But who knows. From thoughts of the sacred to the sensible, I headed for the toilet, having downed two liters of water as instructed by Meg. A helpful guide informed me that I was hydrated.

We gathered near the bus in the parking lot for 9am tea, which was date cakes but no tea.

Heidi and I chatted with the Aussies who had immigrated to Australia.

“We just love it here,” said the husband, whose arms and legs were totally tatted.  “We’ve only been back to the UK twice in 20 years.”

“Don’t you have family there?” queried Heidi.

“Aw yeah, but we just like it here better,” said the wife.  She was the second woman I’d seen on this trip who was wearing false eyelashes.  One of them was coming unglued.

“Awwwll right you lot!  Back onboard!” bawled Megan.

“Did you think it was strange,” Heidi asked in a low voice, “The British couple have only been back home twice?”

“Yes! I wonder if there’s some family feud.”

“I lived in London for almost as long as they’ve been here, and I came home every year.”

“Where do you feel most at home?” I asked her, thinking the answer would be London.

“Austria,” Heidi replied.  Her mother is Austrian.  “But I can’t get a work visa because they base it on your patriarchal heritage.”

“That’s so sexist!”

So the British couple love Australia, Heidi would rather be in Austria, and I feel at home in the UK.  An Indian friend of mine feels Minnesota is where he is meant to be.

Is the draw to a place something spiritual, or a story we manufacture in our minds?

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!”

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.