For three days we were shuffled backwards and forwards between Alice Springs and Uluru so that we could see a sunset and a sunrise on this magnificent and incredible sight. Uluru really does change many different colours, and is also a very different shape depending upon which side you are on.
Four months before setting off on this trip I invested in an SLR camera and took an eight week course in how to use it. I’m nothing other than a very amateur photographer and often end up back in the auto settings as I’m continually confused by ffffffing f-stops, but it really was worth taking a decent camera with us.
In my defence, we are originally from Yorkshire, and a right pair of miserly scrooges, if someone offers you something for free we don’t stop to think about it…….the wine was free all night.
Uluru is full of surprises; there are waterholes, rock paintings, palms, more camels, bird life and flowers, and you could spend the rest of your life here never taking the same photograph twice.
Now, I don’t want to go all preachy on you, but personally I don’t think this is just a big monolith that is there to be climbed on for a better view. I walked around part of the base out of respect to the traditional owners, but my husband is perhaps not quite as spiritually in tune with the world as I am, and he did climb part of it.
It’s a tricky subject, but as a rather crass analogy just consider this; I’m an atheist, and when I see the Vatican I see a rather spectacular and historic building that I am in awe of but have no religious allegiance to, however, if tourists started climbing on to the roof and using it as a toilet I’d be as horrified and upset as the nearest Catholic, as would many other non-Catholics who at least respect the individuality of religious and spiritual faith of other human beings. I simply cannot fathom why we don’t afford the same respect for all communities in this country.
Whether you still call it Ayers, or accept that this is Uluru, it is so much more than just a rock. Bill Bryson describes in his book, Down Under, a feeling of the rock knowing you, as opposed to you knowing it. This tourist destination can be, like the Sydney Opera House, an over familiarised and iconic image from all the postcards that you’ll see in every newsagents here. I certainly had the same feeling when I set eyes on it for the first time, but more than that, I do know it now, and I’ve had an uncanny heightened awareness of its presence ever since I returned. I can feel it and sense it whenever I am still and quiet, and it pulls me back continually. As anyone who knows me really well will understand, that is quite an unlikely result considering that I am fairly rational and particularly as I’m very definitely a water person and have to live on a coast line whichever side of the world I’m on (see my previous post on my obsession with beautiful beaches and you’ll get the picture!).
I didn’t so much as lay a hand on that rock, let alone climb up it, and I honestly didn’t feel the need to when I got there, yet I still had a life changing experience. Sometimes, you don’t have to follow the pack, or do what all the other tourists do because you’re worrying about missing out on an experience……all I ask is that you really think about it if you ever get there; if you do climb it, make sure it’s with the best of intentions, and please, I’m begging you, don’t drop litter or deface the rock anymore than your shoes upon its surface will inevitably do. Make sure you only ever buy authentic, indigenous, local souvenirs and not the made in China crap that is everywhere here, and read as much objective literature as you can. Australia is a huge country and its original inhabitants are spread across a vast area with their own unique localised languages, culture, stories and histories – they are as varied as the land we are sharing and as different as I am from a Southerner, a Scot or even someone from West Yorkshire not the East. And I’m from a tiny island that would fit into this one dozens of times over.
There are very few places left on earth now that are out of mobile phone range but a lot of the surrounding area of Alice Springs is one of them. There was a moment on the way back in to town when the whole coach started to vibrate with the simultaneous buzzing and pinging of phones as we came back into range and caught up with three days worth of text messages and sadly everyone couldn’t wait to catch up on what was mostly trivia.
Along the way there were a few aborigines making traditional fires by the roadside, avoiding eye contact (which we later discovered is because in the culture of this particular area it’s rude to look directly at a stranger, god knows what they think of us Europeans), and not once did I see ANY stereotypical grog soaked layabouts. It always pays to have an open mind about these things I find. That’s not to say that everything is rosy in the Northern Territories; far from it, and you only have to get a glimpse of some of the camps to know that, but despite the strained atmosphere in town I felt very safe and happy to be there. In Alice itself there are a lot of older aboriginal men in cowboy outfits…..I kid you not……boots, hats the lot. Most are old drovers who worked on the long gone cattle stations and talk which much fondness about those times. Alice is a strange town really, a lot of the old tin buildings are gone now and there are the dreaded KFC type eateries creeping in, but despite the lack of water views I found it a really nice place to stop and think and slow down.
This is the town that has the Henley-on-Todd regatta, where people build their own team boats and run down the river. Its dry you understand, and the race has only been cancelled three times in living memory when there was actually water in the river. We passed some five ‘rivers’ on the journey that were just huge swathes of sand, but of course we have had monumental flooding in 2011 since our visit and much of the outback was only accessible by boat for many months.
I was disappointed to miss the camel cup in Alice Springs but whilst we were out on the Stuart Highway we saw Brumbies which more than made up for it; these are wild horses who are also historical descendants of abandoned animals from early explorers. They were beautiful, big, healthy looking animals with glossy dark coats and a distinctive white nose band. Our coach driver stopped so that the pack could cross over the road and I will never, ever, forget the magnificent lead horse who gave us the most intense gaze as he stepped out from the scrub. I’ve seen many amazing sights in Australia, but somehow these horses beat all the birds, koalas, wallabies and kangaroos that I’ve ever seen. This is still the only time in my life that I’ve seen truly wild horses.
We picked up some lovely souvenirs, a hand crafted bowl, and a finger dot painting by Patricia Dodds. I reignited my passion for Art on this trip and bought a few books on the stories that the indigenous arts portray; these styles change the further North you go and become cross-hatching and water spirit depictions by the time you get back into the tropics. In a typically rash purchase for us, one that even out did the didgeridoo/tram ride/excessive baggage shenanigans in Melbourne several years ago, we bought a ‘rain stick’ from a very expensive gallery and had to have it couriered from Alice Springs because we couldn’t take it on the train! But we fell in love with it and had to buy it. Rain sticks are traditional instruments but this was one of five individual pieces made by an American musician who also makes percussion items for Paul Simon. It’s made from a scribbly gum, is slightly taller than the didgeridoo and as the name suggests makes a sound like falling rain with the most magical tinkling noise at the end. They are made by slicing the wood in half and filling a hollow with seeds or sand and ours is decorated with a metal loop and lizards.
As far as I’m aware The Flying Doctors no longer resort to this………..but it does appear as one of the many fascinating artefacts at the museum in Alice Springs. The day we got back to Alice they’d been out to rescue passengers from a helicopter crash at Kings Creek which we’d just left. I don’t have the facts and figures to hand, but it’s pretty scary how large an area this service covers and a visit really brings it home to you just how isolated some areas still are in Australia.
Everyone in the modern, technologically bombarded world should go at least once to somewhere remote, vast, overwhelmingly breathtaking, and completely out of mobile signal range and blog posts!
No offence, but please get lost…..so you can find yourself again
(even if you do have to go via Adelaide to get there)
So, we’re back on The Ghan for our next stop, Katherine, and our final destination, Darwin.