Saturday, 20 July 2013

"Dream time", Desert & Darwin - an Outback Adventure

From the airport straight to the computer - hello again from Sydney!

I guess it's safe to say that the past ten days have been the most eventful time - in a positive way - of my life in Australia so far. Being on my mid-year break, I took the opportunity to travel around Australia with Franzi visiting the probably most recognisable natural landmark of Australia - Ayers Rock or Uluru. But let's start from the beginning...

Ten days ago, we started our trip from Sydney. Jetstar took us to Ayers Rock Connellan Airport which is only a 20 minute drive away from "Uluru" as the Aborigines call it. After the 3.5 hour flight featuring some stunning scenery, we were picked up at the airport by our tour guide Jake who would show us around the Red Centre for the next three days. 

First glimpse of Ayers Rock
Getting off the plane at Ayers Rock Airport
Our group of 16 was a good size and there were plenty of opportunities to get to know each other. And as always, there would be at least one other German in the group - there was Marie from Mainz in Germany, Elisabeth from Austria who went on the tour with her Australian cousin Travis from Adelaide and there were Delphine, Marion and Alice from France just to name a few. As we had only arrived in the early afternoon, there was still a whole day ahead of us, so Jake took us to the base of Ayers Rock to do the Uluru Base Walk. After 2.5 hours of hiking around Ayers Rock, we went to a lookout to have dinner together while watching the sunset over Uluru:

At Ayers Rock with Elisabeth, Marie and Franzi =)

We then spent the night at a camp sleeping in swags. A swag is a lightweight bedroll formerly used by shearers, miners and other outdoor workers that were commonly referred to as "swagmen". It is basically like a water- and sometimes insect-proof sleeping bag that includes a foam mattress - so all you need is another sleeping bag to keep you warm and a pillow if required. 

Swags near the campfire =)
Although the Red Centre is widely known for its arid (i.e. hot and dry) climate, the winters come with very cold nights. While we could enjoy temperatures of 18°C / 64°F and sunshine during the day, the night temperatures dropped below 5°C / 41°F and although I didn't feel cold in the swag, many others were shivering in the morning when our campfire had gone out. One thing, however, that I will never forget is the outback night sky: lying in our swags, we could clearly see the Milky Way, the Southern Cross and other stellar constellations before going to sleep.

The next morning, Jake woke us up at 5:45. Still half asleep, we rolled up our swags, stumbled to the toilets in a trance and headed off in the dark to see the sunrise over Ayers Rock. Even though I didn't think it was as spectacular as the sunset, it was still worthwhile and given this early start to the day, we had plenty of time to visit the other sights as planned. 

Different moods of Uluru
Now, if there's one thing I learned from these tours, it would have to be sleeping on a bus. The vast distances in the Australian Outback and the savanna-like landscape became so monotonous after a while that catching up on some sleep was the best time-killer. On the second day of our tour, we went back to Uluru for a short cultural walk (meaning that Jake told us all about the Aboriginal legends that evolved around this sacred site; more about these legends later) before heading on to Kata Tjuta ("the Olgas"), 60 km west of Ayers Rock. We were about to go on a 3 hour hike through these rock formations with one of the most amazing lookouts I have ever seen:

View over Kata Tjuta National Park
After getting up before 6 am and then hiking in the sun for three hours, most of us were happy about the 3 hour drive to Kings Creek Farm that followed. Kings Creek Farm was our camp for the night but although it may sound like we would have been catered for, we had to bring everything we needed including firewood. Therefore, Jake stopped at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, told everyone to get off the bus and collect firewood (i.e. disroot dead trees).

On the road again... quite literally
In the bush, we saw tracks of horses and cattle and as we continued our journey, we drove past wild horses and camels that were just gazing at us. At the camp, Jake cooked us some Chilli on the open fire and self-made bread and veggies (vegetables) for "tea" (the Australian term for 'dinner'). When everyone had already gone to sleep, Travis and I were still awake, having a beer or two and just sitting by the campfire talking. The beer may have actually done the trick for me to more or less sleep through - I remember though that somewhere far away, I did hear some cowbells ring in the middle of the night. The next morning, Marie and Franzi told us what happened: apparently, around 4 am, a cow randomly showed up at our camp, some 5 metres away from where we were sleeping. As it was probably looking for food, Jake explained that we were extremely lucky because "last time, she actually licked people's faces". Welcome to the Outback ...
The last day of our tour began even earlier than the previous one. At 5 am sharp, Jake got us all "out of swag" and ready to go after a quick breakfast. While most of us were more concerned about the time, others cared more about the fact that there was no time for showers in the morning. Three Korean girls in particular came to be known as "the princesses" on this trip - I mean, seriously: who needs a 20 kilo suitcase for three days, straightens their hair in the morning, gets on the bus with hair rollers in their fringes and starts putting on mascara - ON A CAMPING TRIP?

Anyway, our last day on The Rock Tour started off with a bus ride to Kings Canyon, a river gorge with walls of more than 100 metres in height that we were to walk along on our longest (3.5 hour) hike so far. We began the steep climb in the dark and upon reaching the top were rewarded with incredible views of the gorge and its surroundings - lookouts that simply asked for canyon edge fotos.

Kings Canyon with Marie, Franzi, Elisabeth and Travis

When we got back to the car park from this hike, we had wraps for lunch at my usual breakfast time. It's amazing how long a day can be if you get up at 5 am... We then continued our bus ride to a camel farm while listening to "Why does it always rain on me". At the camel farm, everyone was keen to ride one of their dromedaries before our tour ended in Alice Springs.

Not much there... just a huge sign ...
... and Road Trains =)
Alice Springs is Australia's biggest outback city, situated some 2,000 km (1,200 miles) north-west of Sydney, 1,330 km (830 miles) north of Adelaide, 2,000 km (1,200 miles) north-east of Perth and 1,300 km (810 miles) south of Darwin. You see, Alice Springs literally is in the middle of nowhere. It is only the transcontinental trade route and Australia's famous North to South railway, The Ghan, that link Alice Springs to the rest of the world. Accordingly, everything we found when we got to Alice Springs was a small country town with a few pubs, grocery stores and hotels pretty much lined up at either side of the main road only. Our accommodation for the night was Toddy's Backpackers. The excitement about a wi-fi connection after days of travelling through a dead zone soon faded when I found that the showers were broken and there was no choice but to have a cold shower if any. What followed was probably the quickest shower I've had in my life... As there was no way of getting out of Alice Springs later than 5 pm, the whole tour group stayed at hostels in Alice Springs and we went out for dinner together with Jake.

After breakfast on the morning of the 8th July and after sending some obligatory postcards, some of us took The Ghan up to Darwin while others went back home. Delphine, Marion and Alice - the French girls, however, had booked the same flight as Franzi and I to go up to Darwin, so we met again at the airport. Like Ayers Rock Connellan Airport, Alice Springs Airport is more of an airstrip that doesn't have any air bridges. Instead, passengers are required to walk to their aircraft over the manoeuvering area.

Qantaslink Boeing 717 - our plane from Alice Springs to Darwin
Two hours later, we landed in Darwin - the capital city of the Northern Territory (NT) and thus in the same state as Alice Springs and Ayers Rock - but totally different. Darwin has a population of about 130,000 inhabitants, making it smaller than Paderborn. Likewise, there is not much to do apart from drink at a bar, resulting in the fact that Darwin has the highest per capita alcohol consumption of the Australian capital cities - and the highest number of broken jaws per annum. Also, Darwin is the only Australian capital city that has a surplus of men. To sum it up: Darwin is a rough place for tough guys who like to drink and get involved in brawls. The weather in Darwin is completely different from the desert climate down south: when we got off the plane, the heat greeted us at the gate. 35°C / 95°F at 7 pm with a very high humidity made us want to take all our clothes off. After a cool shower at our hostel, we were about to go out for a few ciders with the French girls at the pub around the corner when it happened: we walked past a group of Aboriginal people when I heard someone near me sniffing back their snot. Next thing I know - my feet are wet. This Aboriginal woman had actually spit on my feet in the middle of town - what a great welcome to Darwin. The French girls, studying medicine, immediately asked "Do you have a wound on your foot?" - but I was alright once I had washed it off my feet.

The situation of the Aboriginal people in Australia is actually still very alarming. As for many indigenous people around the world (Native Americans, Aborigines, South American Indians etc.), alcohol abuse is quite common. However, it is important to note that the Aboriginal people that we saw in both Alice Springs and Darwin are outcasts of their own society that have been sent off to live with the white men whose poison they were not strong enough to resist. The intact Aboriginal communities live away from the Caucasian Australian population. Some say Aboriginal Australians do not receive enough aid by the government to ensure a similarly high living standard; others oppose the imposition of western values on Aboriginal society. We know for a fact that the Aboriginal way of living with the land has been successful for nearly 60,000 years - it was in only 200 years that European settlers in Australia exploited and destroyed a seemingly uninviting landscape that in their eyes was hostile to life. While Aborigines account for about 4% of the overall Australian population today, the Northern Territory's population is 30% Aboriginal. Most likely out of fear of the unknown, Caucasian Australians tend to avoid and marginalise Aborigines - something that I could feel and witness myself.  The alcoholics that you see in the streets do not seem to be the kind of people that I could make friends with or talk about their culture with. Like Caucasian alcoholics, people avoid them to avoid trouble, however, doing injustice to the overall Aboriginal population by generalising. Throughout the following tour that took us to the Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, I felt increasingly sad and devastated upon learning just how unfair, hateful, uncomprehending and deliberately oblivious white Australians have treated the native inhabitants of Australia, a people that seems so peaceful, wise and connected to what is in fact their land. The erasement of whole tribes and languages in a minimum of time must be regarded as a very short-sighted act of wasting the knowledge of a people that has known Australia for tens of thousands of years prior to European settlements. In fact, the Australian constituation today is still based on the "Terra Nullis" paragraph that establishes Australia as a previously uninhabited land, made possible by the fact that the Aboriginal people did not believe that land was something that could be possessed. More recently, the Australian government has given way to Aboriginal land claims in the course of which tribal land was given back to their owners. 

An example of this is Kakadu National Park near Darwin. It covers an area as big as Slovenia: roughly 20,000 sq km (7,600 sq miles) of estuaries, floodplains, lowlands, hills and stone country are home to about 300 bird species, 60 mammal species and 10,000 insect species. While Kakadu National Park is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, it belongs to the traditional Aboriginal land owners but is leased by the Australian Government. The same applies to Uluru / Ayers Rock which is why tourists can still climb the rock: the government allows them to climb it while the Aboriginal elders ask people not to - but they can't do anything about it. In return, however, the Aboriginal tribes receive (financial) support to keep their cultures alive - the two sides of the same coin, the choice between the devil and the deep blue sea - however one might want to call it.

After some theoretical background, here are some pictures of our Kakadu and Litchfield tour:

Nik - our tour guide - and Justin, Franzi's travel unicorn =)
Some of the better roads ...
Sea eagles at Corroboree Billabong
Saltwater Crocodile at Corroboree Billabong
Aboriginal Art at Ubirr Rock
Panoramic View from Ubirr Rock (click to enlarge)
Another Panoramic View from Ubirr Rock (click to enlarge)
Steep climb to the top of Twin Falls
At the top of Twin Falls, Kakadu National Park
Dirt road to Jim Jim Falls
At Jim Jim Falls with Franzi, Corinna and Emma
Wangi Falls, Litchfield National Park
After having seen all these beautiful places - of course there is always a story attached to them. Some of these stories I'd like to share with you here.

Our tour guide Nik was partly Aboriginal and therefore knew a lot about the legends and stories that his aboriginal grandfather told him. The site of Ubirr Rock, which was overall the place that I felt was most powerful of all the places we visited, is a sacred Aboriginal site that is open to the public every day till 7 pm. After that, the gates are locked and only the traditional Aboriginal land owners have access to the site. Nik told us he was fortunate enough to be invited by the land owners to go hunting with them, to participate in their culture. The more he learnt, the more he began to question the existence of Aboriginal dreamtime spirits in the area (- the "dreamtime" in Aboriginal culture refers to the creation times when there was still a lot of magic on earth). So one night, Nik's Aboriginal friends thought he was ready and took him to Ubirr after dark - because the more open you are, the more you will experience. Nik told us that all of a sudden, he saw a white ball of light coming out of the rock, making its way across the floodplains to create a reflection in the water, only to return to the rock it had come from and disappear again. The Aborigines call these spirits "Mimi". They are believed to have been human-like before the arrival of the Aborigines in Australia and taught them how to cook, paint and make fire. When they became spirits, they had to live in rock crevices like Ubirr Rock. They are generally believed to be harmless but can become mischievous if their land is not treated with respect. European explorers that came with economic interests would suddenly become fatally ill after attempting to exploit the area and it was only when they apologised to the Aboriginal elders and put through a special smoke ceremony that they were almost instantly cured.
This is why today, there is a so-called "Sorry Book" at Ayers Rock. More and more people that have harmed the environment, taken stones from the area etc. have had bad luck in their lives afterwards and return to apologise to the traditional land owners to put an end to their misery.

Some legends seem to continue on till the present day. The legend of Wangi Falls in Litchfield National Park says that it is a place exclusively for women. Swimming in the waterhole is said to increase the fertility of women due to the presence of the Rainbow Serpent, a dreamtime being that shaped the landscape as we see it today. Men who dared to swim in Wangi Falls were seduced by mermaid-like creatures that lived in the waterhole and then pulled under water and drowned. As for Jim Jim Falls, there have been numerous drownings at Wangi Falls over the past decades. Interestingly, however, all of the fatal victims at Wangi Falls were men.

Even more interestingly, the phenomenon of the Rainbow Serpent is not unique to regional tribes in Australia but a legend that all Aboriginal people in Australia share. Indigenous cultures in South America such as the Inca and Maya are known to have told the same legends - like the legend of the Seven Sisters. Those seven sisters did not want to grow up and be initiated into adulthood. However, they were to become tribal leaders. Instead, they wanted to look at the stars and the night sky. The ancient spirits agreed but the sisters could not remain among the living so they became seven stars. These stars and their story are the same in indigenous Australian culture and indigenous South American legends.

Whether all of this is a coincidence or not is left up to each individual. All I can say is that the understanding that the Aboriginal people have of their land is on an entirely different level than ours and that there may well be phenomena or activities out there that cannot be rationally explained - like the alleged "coincidence" of meeting the three French girls from our Red Centre tour again on the top of Ubirr Rock.

At Ubirr Rock with Franzi, Delphine, Alice and Marion
All in all, this trip is probably one of the most inspiring trips that I have ever been part of. And after an exciting Jumping Crocodile Cruise and the most amazing sunset at Mindil Beach in Darwin, we left the Top End of Australia to fly back to Sydney.

Jumping Saltwater Crocodile on the Adelaide River
Palm Trees at Mindil Beach, Darwin
Goodbye Darwin ...

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