Tag Archives: Ularu

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.

“No.”

“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.

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.