Two crazy things occurred to me today. Firstly, Chris and I have been on the road for a month. Where did one third of our trip go? It’s going by too quickly! And secondly, we have been in Australia for a whole week.
When we set out to plan this trip, Australia was at the top of my list. My aunt, uncle, cousins and their families all live out here, and when I was little my Granny and Grandpa used to visit them at least once a year, returning with thrilling stories of their adventures and photographs of snakes, koalas, possums and exciting birds. To me Australia was a mystic, exotic place just waiting to be explored.
So in spite of another mid-air panic attack during our flight from Singapore to Darwin (the fear of flying hasn’t gone anywhere, despite six flights in the past month), as our plane bumped down past towering thunder clouds towards the runway I found myself getting incredibly excited. I skipped joyfully up to customs, ready to submit myself to bizarre questions about the dirt on my boots (remnants of bat poo) and whether I was carrying any food. Apparently airline peanuts do not count. I had finally arrived!
Our time in Darwin itself was short, but we managed to find a tour operator who would take us out to Kakadu National Park to see the Nourlangie Rock galleries, on a guided boat tour of the wetlands in search of ‘salties’ (salt water crocodiles), and back to Darwin all in one day.
I like to make the most of having a guide for these excursions, and will always be the person at the front asking endless questions. So I was a little disappointed that it only took a couple of inquiries to exhaust our guide’s knowledge of aboriginal art. But in spite of this, Nourlangie is fascinating. People have been painting within the caves for around 20,000 years, with the most recent artwork dating from the 1960s. The images show scenes from aboriginal mythology, cautionary tales, x-ray diagrams of barramundi fish, and the best place to pierce a wallaby with a spear while hunting. Images of their spirits appear alongside people engaged in a celebration wearing huge ceremonial head dresses, overseen by the great Rainbow Serpent, a central figure in aboriginal creation.
Our guide for the river cruise, a man from the local Kakadu aboriginal community, was wonderful. During the heat of the day the only animals wondering around the bush are human beings, and our wildlife spotting was limited to one small crocodile and the ubiquitous magpie geese. But Dennis’ stories more than made up for the lack of animals. Turtles are a popular source of food for the people of Kakadu, but he blanched from eating them because “they’re too cute”. His auntie however adored eating turtle because “they come in their own cooking pots”. He spoke of the spirit animal of his community, a large fish eagle, who during a funeral will come down and carry the spirit of the deceased away to their ‘dreaming’, to become one with their spirit animal. During his dreaming, he said, he would become a king brown snake. The king brown is the most venomous snake in the territory, and I couldn’t help wondering how he had come to identify this remarkable creature as his spirit animal.
From Darwin we travelled southwards to Alice Springs on the Great Southern Railway, which runs for 2979 km all the way to Adelaide. The Ghan is the famous scarlet passenger train that makes the journey, pulling half a kilometre of gleaming silver carriages behind it through the Australian desert. A cabin on this train is rather expensive – around £400 plus including all meals and excursions – so we settled for two comfortable, fully reclining seats in ‘Red Service’ for our journey to the Alice. As the train rumbled southwards, and dusk fell, we made our way to the dining car for a simple supper and a surprisingly nice wine. We fell asleep to lush, green bush peppered with cathedral termite mounds, and awoke in the early hours to sunrise over the desert.
Alice Springs may have coffee shops and a branch of Target, but it still retains some of its pioneer frontier town feel. Occasionally a tall, cowboy-esque figure will swagger along the main street, although this is more likely to be an over dressed tourist than an outback cattleman. Many visitors, including ourselves, were passing through on their way to Uluru and King’s Canyon.
Our cheerful guide for Uluru, Lee, scooped us up at crack of dawn from outside our hotel, plied us with a simple breakfast of cereal bars, cheese and crackers, and drove the rattly minibus at breakneck speed out of Alice and onto the long stretch of highway our west towards the desert. By his own admission Lee had “the gayest ipod ever”, and for the next few days the soundtrack to our journey consisted of Rhianna, Kylie and various Disney mash ups. He was also a passionate geologist, giving us chapter and verse on the alluvial fans and plate tectonics that led to the formation of both Uluru and Kata-Tjuta.
For the Anangu, the traditional owners of the land, Uluru is the centre of creation. Every rock and feature has a story, and these myths and legends explain the origin of the world, and the laws that govern their society and their detailed knowledge of the land. It is not simply a rock, to be photographed and climbed upon, but a living place. Yet up until 1985 the land did not belong to them. Tourism to the rock effectively pushed them out, and they had to watch as millions of visitors swarmed all over their sacred spaces. To put this in context, imagine if every visitor to the Vatican expected to be allowed to climb up the outside of the building. The Anangu describe the coloumns of tourists swarming to the top as ‘ants’.
Today, thanks to the return of the land to the Anangu in 1985, it is possible to experience Uluru as a place of power and spirituality. Particularly sacred sites are clearly marked, and there are polite notices asking you not to take photographs in certain spots. And the infamous chain railing running up one side of the rock to facilitate the climb to the top, while still there, is no longer maintained and there are plenty of notices respectfully asking visitors not to climb. After a long day of walking in the heat we camped out in swags that night under a canopy of stars, lulled to sleep by the sounds of the bush.
I’m writing this from my relatives’ home in the Adelaide Hills, and a beautiful koala has just appeared in a gum tree at the bottom of the garden. My first week in Australia has been a wonderful, total immersion into the culture, the landscape and the animals, and I think I may just be the teensiest bit in love.
I shamelessly pinched many of the photographs for this post from my husband’s travel blog, Where We Went, mostly because his photos are just so good :).