Monday, November 29, 2010

Day 14: Under the Stars

November 28, 2010

Today is Sunday, the first day of Advent, my favourite time of year. The birds flutter and croon and the cool wind brushes against my fleece jacket as I sing Lauds in the bush a short distance from camp.

There are a few notable natural sites between Yulara and Alice Springs, but the main tourists attractions are roadhouses. The three we stop at are privately run by the stations whose land they sit on. The cattle stations in the central outback are huge – Curtin Springs is 1.27 million acres – and have a rich, if somewhat controversial history of their own. Since I began reading Richard Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, a history of early white settlement in North Arnhem Land, written from the Yolnu Aborigines’ perspective, I’ve felt wary about the popular lore offered up by the media of the rugged, swashbuckling Aussie battlers who staked their claims in this inhospitable land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their arrogance and ignorance of Aboriginal settlements and cultures often resulted in escalated tensions and physical violence (from both sides). With the white man’s superior weaponry and prevailing attitudes, which saw ‘natives’ as merely part of the flora and fauna and therefore dispensable, the Aborigines suffered many massacres and huge trauma.

Curtin Springs has been run by the Severin family for several generations and their history is on display at the roadhouse. Photos, signage, banners, memorabilia and lots of classic Aussie outback humour line the walls of the tavern, where a stocky old blue heeler lounges on the cool floor, glaring up at any visitors who pass through the door. A young woman tends the bar and shuffles off to the back room when she hears that we’re not interested in buying anything.

 Curtin Springs Roadhouse

Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse is the only Aboriginal owned station in the Northern Territory. The roadhouse is constructed in a hodgepodge style: a log façade, with attractive stone side walls and a plain brick back wall. The interior reminds me of log taverns in the mountains of the American northwest – a cozy, dimly lit dining area decorated with local native artwork. Surprisingly, several white people are behind the counter. The Imanpa Aboriginal owners sell their artwork in a gallery at the back of the roadhouse. Compared to some of the quality indigenous art we’ve seen in other galleries, this tended towards kitsch in my view.

The Erldunda and Stuarts Well roadhouses boast the world’s largest echidna and the world’s only singing dingo, respectively. Indeed the echidna ran about four meters long and two meters high – shades of Disneyland. We didn’t see the singing dingo; perhaps he was asleep? Each station has its own unique expression of the station owner’s history and their peculiar quirks and characteristics. Despite what the guidebook stated, neither were particularly friendly towards tourists.

Our destination for the night is Alice Springs, but at the last minute we decide to take a 27kms detour east on a dirt road that leads to the Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve 66 kms south of Alice. A geologist’s heaven, the craggy multi-hued rocks are remnants of a 500 million year history of erosion. The reserve was deeded back to the local Arrernte Aborigines and the circle of interpretative panels offers two explanations for the site: the western scientific view and the aboriginal spiritual ‘dreaming’ view. The Arrernte call this place Wurre, an important sacred site that “identifies where we came from, and who we are”. I’m particularly struck by a comment at the end of the panel: “When we look at the land, it’s part of us, not just a pretty site”.

A short walk trail leads to Mushroom Rock, which only looks like its namesake from an odd angle at the back. As I walk the track I feel the conflict between my western bred value system and my desire to explore and understand the Aboriginal way. At the rock, a sign asks walkers to turn around and return the way they came; the traditional owners don’t want tourists clambering around on the site. I feel very restricted by this – my nature is to clamber and explore – and quietly disregard the request as I follow a well-trammeled path up the back of the cliffs. The view is stupendous. I sit for a while and take it in. I want to clamber up further, but my conscience gets the better of me and I opt for returning the way I came.

 View from the top

We select one of the sites in the simple camp area, which has a beautiful view of the rock face. A traditional low-lying square table used by Aborigines in their social gatherings is constructed at each site. We decide to pull out our bed from the camper trailer and sleep under the stars. The evenings have become cool, requiring use of the doona, but it still takes us a while to get warm when we climb in bed after sundown. My love of star-gazing is whetted by a magnificent meteorite shooting horizontal across the sky with a splendid shimmering tail. 

Sunset view

Johan doing his usual Mr Fix-It thing (one of our gadgets died...)

Campin' under the stars

Day 13: Red Tape in the Red Centre

November 27, 2010

My plan was to get up early, head back to Uluru before the rush of sunrise-seeking tourists descends, and do the 10km loop around the base before breakfast. Even though it’s nearly midnight, I set my mobile phone alarm for 4.15am, then try to go to sleep. But Johan’s on the floor trolling through his emails and again, uncharacteristically, whispered expletives rise up to thwart my efforts at slumber.

He’s received an email from the American Embassy in Sydney. They’ve given him an interview date of 14 December, which fits in well with our travel plans. We can finish the Outback Way, then head south to get to Sydney in plenty of time to prepare for the visa interview. But there’s more: the bureaucratic red tape of applying for American residency, a quagmire of complex instructions thus far, has spit out several more demands for us to comply with prior to the interview. Some of them are feasible, given our mobile status; others could be tricky. One request, that I (the sponsoring spouse) submit a 2009 U.S. tax return, seems incomprehensible. I’ve lived in Australia for nearly 23 years, 19 as a citizen of this country; I haven’t submitted an American tax return since 1987.

I reach for my mobile phone, switch the alarm off and try again to fall asleep. It’s clear there are more important things to attend to than my love of walking.

We wake after sunrise. I make us a strong coffee and we sit in our camp chairs to discuss the Embassy’s email. Our plans were to take a detour off the Outback Way through the McDonnell Range before heading to Alice Springs, but with this latest development we decide it’s probably best to head straight to Alice, in time to make phone calls Monday morning. Johan also needs a federal finger-printed police check, a birth certificate for his daughter Noonja and a couple other things which will require time and telephone access.

As we drive out of Yulara, I feel disappointed over the lost opportunity to return to Uluru and engage with it more fully. Our time was primarily spent in the cultural centre and I didn’t get a good feel for the natural environment. But we’d expected this interference somewhere along our travels. Johan’s American visa is of primary importance and must take precedence over our leisurely holiday plans.

Johan sits in the passenger seat reading my stories as we head northeast, towards the Stuart Highway that runs from Adelaide on the south coast through Alice Springs to Darwin in the far north. “Oh Sui, how could you?” he mutters when he discovers that I’ve written I “ring out the clothes” rather than “wring out the clothes”. He’s always been a better proofreader of my work than I am.

The Lasseter Highway links Alice Springs with Uluru and is abuzz with tourist buses, every colour, shape and size. The few times we stop to search for caches or view a site, we must share space with rumbling parked buses spewing exhaust while their catchment of passengers point cameras at the distant landscape.

A red sand hill of the Finke bioregion, with Mt Connor in the distance

We're lucky that we're traveling in the off-season or the tourist buses could be unbearable!

It’s clear that bush camping is frowned upon in this high transit section of the Northern Territory, but at 3pm we spy an inconspicuous red track angling north off the highway. We follow it for a few kilometers and find a lovely grove of Desert Oak to pitch camp for the night. The day has been pleasantly warm, peaking at just 27˚ (80˚F), and the night is again cool. After a Saturday night pizza dinner (thanks to the Dutch oven), we retire early to the sound of humming crickets.

 Camping among the Desert Oaks

Saturday night pizza in the Dutch oven

Watching the sun set

Day 12: The Red Centre

November 26, 2010

There’s something in me that shies away from major tourist attractions. I easily become dissatisfied, fixated on things I don’t like about tourists and the tourism industry. The experience can turn artificial, milked by the promises of over-inflated advertising. Cynicism creeps in when I see how voraciously the industry preys upon money-laden tourists, creating an exclusion zone for those with little or no money. The highly regulated system is, of course, also there to protect the site, the environment and the locals from the impact of so many visitors. But the price one pays for entering this system is more than just monetary; there’s a loss of innocence, authenticity, and ease in fully engaging with the beauty of the place. Often it’s too high a price for me, in both senses. I prefer the lesser known, seemingly less marvelous places, off the beaten track. They still provide an aesthetic experience, not the least because there’s no one else around.

Despite all this, when I first lay eyes on Uluru, some 50kms away as we approach from the west, a lump develops in my throat. Whether it’s the mythical appeal created by the tourism industry, or the more mystical reverence afforded the site by indigenous people, there is something awe-inspiring about The Rock. When the dusty red road gives way to bitumen at the entrance to the Kata Tjuta Uluru National Park I feel nostalgic about leaving the remote desert. But I also feel relief. It’s a noisy, dirty track to get here from W.A. Paved roads, with their clear white lines and many signs, are so much easier to navigate.

Clouds linger and storms still threaten – a great relief from the heat wave, but without the sun, Uluru looks muted and understated as we approach.

We spend a couple hours walking through the Cultural Centre at the base of Uluru. I’d expected a western-style interpretive centre, geological, botanical, archeological exhibits. But we quickly learned that “Ayer’s Rock”, as it was initially called when it opened as a National Park in the early 20th century, was deeded back to its traditional owners in 1985 and Aboriginal people now manage it – in tandem with the Director of National Parks. The deal brokered between the Federal Government and the Ananga aborigines stipulated that the ‘new owners’ would ‘lease’ the site back to the national park service to be run as a tourist attraction for 99 years. The Cultural Centre was created by Aborigines to tell their side of the story – they’re long history of association with Uluru.

Tjukurpa, which encompasses the religion, law, relationships and moral systems of the Anangu people, is woven throughout the displays. The centre was architecturally designed in consultation with the Aborigines and is decorated with much of their art. A spirit of gentleness, humility and care for the natural world is evident and one feels as though they’re visiting a church as much as a museum. A half-hour video teaches us about the many forms of bush foods traditionally collected by indigenous people of the desert – fruits, seeds, meat – and how they are prepared to become edible. I would like to try some.

But there’s another, less visible side to this story, and I wonder about that as I drink in the rich displays. The skeptic in me can’t sit still. How much of the spiritual, cultural and domestic traditions on display here are still a part of the local indigenous people’s lives?  Uluru is an important sacred site for these people – equivalent to a great cathedral or mosque in other religious traditions. Do they still perform their ceremonies at the specific sacred sites around the base of Uluru – even while 40,000 tourists parade around its circumference annually? Do they still go out collecting and hunting bush tucker? Do their young people still believe in the old dreaming stories – or are they as jaded and disinterested in religion as western secular society? Was all this real or was it merely another con by the tourist industry, feeding a worldwide multi-billion dollar fascination with Ayer’s Rock and indigenous culture?

Maybe it’s a win-win situation: the Aborigines get to tell their story and enhance people’s appreciation of their culture (whether it's still alive and vibrant or a thing of the past); the Director of National Parks enjoys excellent revenues for the state and local governments and top profits for private companies who’ve set up business outside the national park boundaries (with little financial benefit for the local indigenous population).

After spending a couple of hours walking through the centre, we treat ourselves to a café lunch. There’s a 10km walk around the base of the rock, which I’m keen to do, but we decide instead to head into town to set up camp and get our flat tyre fixed. We’ll come back later to do the trek.

We thought Yulara would be another outback town. But there is no town, as we discover when we go searching for a mechanic to fix our flat tyre. There’s only a light industrial area, set up to service the privately owned and operated Yulara Resort (we eventually found an automotive centre run by a sour-faced mechanic who’d hung signs in reception suggesting customers who smiled and behaved politely would get preferential treatment).

To its credit, the resort is aesthetically pleasing, blending well with the natural environment with minimal signage and commercial advertising, and efficiently run. It caters for a broad spectrum of tourists –from campers to a 5-star hotel. The shock of camping in such an organized, regulated, crowded environment is quickly mitigated by the comforts it offers: water and electricity, mobile phone coverage, showers and a shop just down the road. We take full advantage, filling our water containers, cleaning the dusty trailer and car, charging up our many gadgets, checking emails, watching Lost (two episodes!) – and reveling in the first shower in two weeks. Civilization does have its benefits.

Close to sunset, as one does at Uluru, we go to a nearby viewing platform. As we wait and watch for the changing light and colour patterns on the rock, a crowd develops, mostly young Europeans from organized tours. I grow restless and irritated by all the noise and head back to the car while Johan sits it out. The platform is located about 15kms north of Uluru– not the best vantage point for viewing the effects of the sunset on the rock. That and the intermittent cloud obscuring the sun means we don’t get the intense orange and red glow from the rock so often seen in photographs.

Uluru at sunset.

Kata Tjuta to the northwest at sunset.

As I lay in bed late in the night, listening to revelers and their thumping music in the adjacent villa, I feel myself marooned in this island of privilege. This oasis in the desert that serves our excessive needs for comfort, stimulation, distraction. I imagine a circle of Anangu sitting outside this pocket of privileged westerners, wondering why we’re all so busy, laden down with things. Where is our connection with the land? How can we listen to the gentle voices it proffers up when we surround ourselves with such noise?

They must feel sad, excluded, bewildered, grateful that whatever remnants of traditional life and Tjukurpa still exist for them has saved them from the mad disease of western civilization.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Day 11: Kata Tjuta Up Close

November 25, 2010

Another restless night with long patches of sleeplessness. Something’s up as I’m usually a good sleeper and have slept soundly most of the trip thus far. The sky is covered with a thick blanket of clouds and the smell of rain is in the air. A perfect day for a hike!

We decide to leave camp set up for a second night and drive the 23kms into the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Camping isn’t allowed outside of designated areas and we aren’t keen to spend time in a crowded campground after our outback isolation.

Driving towards Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) elicits the same weird feelings as yesterday when we first saw them. They rise higher and higher until we are right up next to them, towering domes of solid rock, painted with white and black stripes from organic run-off – not dissimilar to Aboriginal paintings we’ve seen. As we meander up the first track, we watch as quick-footed tourists, fresh off an “Aussie Outback Tours” bus, pass us, their heads bent and eyes on the ground in front of them. We have to wait out a pain episode for Johan and by the time we’re ready to start again, the tourists have up-and-backed. I’m lucky to have the trail and the viewing platform all to myself as I leave Johan to saunter at a slower gait.

Silence surrounds the immense walls of pock-marked stone. Birds flutter nearby and their calls echo against the crevice of the canyon.

The second trail has several options in length, the longest option a 7.4km loop that takes you deep into one of the canyons and around one of the 34 domes that make up Kata Tjuta. The heat wave has abated and we’re blessed with a ‘cool’ day, ca. 30˚. As I commence the walk, a light rain starts up and cools my still-hot skin. This longer route officially closes at 11am to protect people from the intense heat of hiking in the middle of the day, but I bypass the sign, sure that the grey skies and rain will aid me. Again, I’m lucky to experience most of the trek without the distraction of other walkers and their variety of noises. I sit for a long period inside the canyon gazing at the images made from holes and black streaks on the red walls and breathing in the silence. It is not hard to enter the space where Aboriginals live, who find this place so special, so sacred.

Trekking down the other side of the canyon I stop to listen to the one-pointed whistle of a persistent bird as it echoes against the walls. I turn my head when I hear a rustle in the bush near where I’m standing. A kangaroo, not 5 meters away, is quietly munching on shrubs, seemingly unperturbed by my clomping footsteps. He gazes my way, but still isn’t bothered by my presence, and continues his lunch. I sit and watch for maybe five minutes until eventually he quietly hops away.

When I return, Johan has just finished changing a tyre on the car. The pressure was very low on a back tyre when we set out this morning and he’s certain there’s a slow leak. We’ve driven 1000kms on a rough, gravelly dirt road and are lucky to have suffered only one flat, and this far into the trip.

We return to camp in the mid-afternoon and enjoy a leisurely time, walking, reading, writing, meditating. The night is cool and I put on long pants and a fleece jacket for the first time in over a week. Tomorrow we leave the dirt road and what is likely the most remote part of the Outback Way. The Red Centre awaits, with all its marvel and appeal to world travelers. Our experience of solitude is soon to change as we share the outback with others.

Joan writing her stories...

Day 10: Northern Territory and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)

November 24, 2010

The relentless flat landscape has changed. We’re now in the Central Ranges bioregion characterized by long chains of decent sized ranges and vast spreads of savannah beneath them. Rain came a few days prior to our arrival, opening up the country with a stunning display of wildflowers. We find an abandoned quarry just off the road to make camp for the night. The sloping terrain offers up a panoramic view of the Schwerin Mural Crescent Range to the north and the Petermann Ranges to the south – one long line of magnificent mountainous terrain.

At the bottom of the quarry are two ruddy coloured water holes. Temperatures are still peaking at around 40˚ so the first thing we do after setting up camp is descend on the water holes, ignoring their murky muddiness and jumping in. They’re only a foot or so deep and the bottom is lined with silky soft mud, which I rub on my skin as I float across the pond; my skin feels very soft when it dries.

Our next thought is to scale a nearby peak. The old adventurers in us remember the challenge of spying a distant destination, and setting off to attain it. But our age, the intense heat, Johan’s back pain, and a too-light lunch all slow us down and we decide to call it enough when we reach the base of the peak at around 6pm, 2kms from camp. It’s a wonderful walk through the bushlands though and makes me ponder what it would have been like for explorers who first traversed this area over a hundred years ago.

The next day we follow a cryptic reference to a “very impressive waterhole” in our guidebook, 27kms down a side road. There are no further directions and no signage, but at the 27km mark, we spy a narrow track leading off to the range we’ve been driving alongside. A few kilometers in and the track ends in a lush canyon area. We leave the car unlocked, keys in the ignition and go exploring up the canyon. Not far in we encounter the first water hole, clearly being fed by a watercourse further up. When we arrive at the apex of the canyon, the deep waterhole, ringed by massive sheer red cliffs, is too inviting to pass up. Off go the clothes and in go we -- such refreshment! An awesome idyllic setting. We hang for over an hour, sitting in silence, watching birds, hearing the wind echo through the rocks. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Down a dusty track

...which ends at a beautiful canyon...

...with a stunning water hole...

...and Aboriginal rock art.

Back on the Central Road, we soon hit the W.A. / Northern Territory border. We make a brief stop at the Docker River roadhouse, then at Lasseter’s Cave, another 40kms along. Explorer Lewis Lasseter sheltered in the cave for 25 days after his camels bolted during his 1931 expedition. Hungry and spent, he decided to make his way to the Olgas to meet his relief party. He died a few weeks into his trek.

There’s a cache at the location up on top of a rocky outlook – a hot and sweaty climb in the mid-afternoon sun. Another breathtaking view and chance to drink in the expanse of the desert.

There are several options for camps another 100kms along. It’s been a long driving day and we’re tired, hot and a bit snappy with each other. But the camps are too plain after last night’s experience, so we head further down the track, towards Kata Tjuta, the Olgas. When they first appear, giant round red bobbins jutting unexpectedly out of the flat landscape, it takes our breath away. There’s a momentary surreal sense of being in alien territory, on another planet. They’re blindingly beautiful.

We take a jag down an unposted dirt track and find a good-enough spot with an open view to the southwest, the Olgas just peeping up over the horizon. We watch as their colours change continuously with the setting sun.

A hungry looking dingo.

Day 9: Aboriginal Mind

November 23, 2010

We camp the night at the Yarla Kutjarra Campsite 94kms east of Warburton. It’s a free campground run by the local Aboriginal community and there’s friendly signage welcoming visitors to the site and telling us about their way of life and traditions.

Yarla Kutjarra Campsite

It is obvious by now that the interior of Australia belongs to its indigenous people. Even though the landscape is quintessentially Australian, we have a sense of being in a foreign land, where the ‘locals’ live lives very different to ours. The small towns we’ve passed through are home to anywhere from 50 to 500 Aboriginal people and the land surrounding has been deeded to indigenous communities through Native Title. Permits are required to travel through these lands, but no one so far has asked to see ours.

Occasionally we hear it said that the Aborigines are living ‘traditional lives’ in Central Australia. But it’s hard to see what that means. The towns are like shabby shanty towns with single family dwellings littered with rubbish and rusting old cars and dilapidated furniture. Every house seems to have a solar hot water heater, air conditioning and a satellite dish – their way of keeping in touch with the ‘outside world’, primarily through TV I should think. Aboriginal people are given welfare payments from the government and are not required to work or be looking for work. Most of them have little to do all day and it shows in their grimaced faces and frequent loitering. They’re dressed in western clothes, though not particularly fashionable. The young men look similar to the men I worked with in prison: dread locks and half shaved heads, earrings and tattoos, oversized baggy pants and t-shirts with cryptic advertising written in graffiti-style type. The young children seem the closest to our western ideals of the ‘traditional native’: scantily clad with chocolate skin, bare feet, unkempt hair and big honest smiles.

Our Melbournian acquaintances seem to have the most optimistic view of the Aborigines of anyone we’ve talked to so far. Others we’ve met living in the communities are more cautious. Peter at the Service Centre in Warburton warned us to keep watch over our vehicle at all times – “if they see something they want, they’ll find a way to pinch it.” Petrol (unleaded fuel) is not allowed in the communities because the young people are prone to sniffing it – so our jerry can of fuel is a prime target (it’s locked to the trailer but the lid isn’t lockable). The roadhouses sell “opal fuel”, developed by BP, which apparently doesn’t have the noxious fumes that give the sniffers highs. We fill our tank and the jerry can with it as a preventative measure against theft.

The man at the Giles Weather Station, the world’s most isolated, says he doesn’t have much to do with the Aborigines in town. The police have a hard time of it keeping order as they are not respected by the locals. Much of their time is spent intervening in family feuds. It’s a tough job and burn-out is common.

Diabetes is rampant amongst the Aborigines, along with its associated problems: loss of hearing and vision. A white woman who recently came to work in one of the roadhouses we stop at tells us she tries to regulate their diet by only offering fish and chips for sale one day a week. Still, the shop reeks of greasy food and chips and healthy options aren’t readily available amongst the mostly processed and packaged food -- probably because they don’t sell.

Though all the businesses in the communities are purported to be owned by the Aboriginals, none of them work there. Shop attendants, health workers, teachers, Centrelink employees, maintenance crews, police are all staffed by itinerant white workers, most of whom don’t stay for longer than six or twelve months. The roadhouse workers we’ve met stick around for a month or two. Apparently the black people aren’t reliable enough to hold down jobs, we’re told. Most of them don’t want to work anyway, preferring to live off their dole money. The roadhouses primarily service the locals, as well as the few hardy tourists that occasionally pass through, and there’s a pervasive sense of “us and them” in the interactions between the blacks and whites. I recognize the pattern from my work at the prison: on the surface there’s a friendly rapport, even a bit of joking. But underneath there’s a game being played: the blacks want something they’re determined to get, mostly through surreptitious means; the whites are aware of the blacks’ scheming and are vigilant to prevent it from happening. In one roadhouse, the attendant, who didn’t look much over 20, told a young black man that he hadn’t been charged for a soft drink that was sitting on the counter. The Aborigine turned away as if to leave, but when the attendant turned his back, the black man quietly went to the counter, grabbed the can, put it in his bag and left the shop. I suspect the young attendant knew it had happened, but didn’t feel secure enough in his authority yet to do anything about it.

But under the subversive game-playing lies another story: the age-old power-play between the Oppressed and the Oppressor. Defeated, the Oppressed look for interminable ways to reclaim their power. Threatened, the Oppressor seeks equally covert ways to retain his. It’s a dance that never ends.

So where’s the ‘traditional community life’ in all this? Do they still practice their sacred and social rituals, dances and corroborees in the bush the way our history books tell us they once did? Or has the influence of western values and modern civilization impacted on their traditional life – even out here in this isolated desert land – to the point where it seems trivial to them, quaint or irrelevant, like many of our western religious practices do to us today? They seem to me like a people in exile: disempowered and disenfranchised. Like any people under stress, their behaviour degenerates to the lowest common denominator. The attitudes white people have towards blacks are often quite justified – but fail to take in the whole story.

What I know about the Aboriginal mind, their way of thinking, is that it encompasses a more holistic view of life than ours. Greater priority is given to being rather than doing, accepting what is rather than striving for goals, accumulated wealth, prestige. Alternative elements of our society may revere this, but in everyday life in western society it is either considered quaint and impractical, or lazy and irreverent. It is in opposition with our capitalist, progressive thinking and the rational, scientific paradigm that underpins it. This devaluing of their worldview further subjects them to a position of irrelevance.

The truth is, however, that their worldview could compliment ours, if only we would listen.

I spend an hour’s vigil watching the full moon rise above the nearby range where we’re camped. I wake from a restless sleep with a strange surreal dream. Its other-worldly quality makes it impossible to decipher. The only thing I have a sense of is that I’m in Aboriginal mind, the only one allowed out here in the extreme isolation of the desert. I’m filled with a sense of awe and fear – what are we doing out here, so vulnerable, so susceptible? 

View of the ranges campsite; great place to watch the full moon rise.

Day 8: Warburton and a Dead Battery

November 22, 2010

The heat has become intense, unforgiving. The sun feels like an iron on my red skin. Nature walks or any outdoor activity during the day quickly become too difficult. Our search for caches continues, but if we can’t find one within ten or fifteen minutes, we give up, conceding defeat to the relentless, grueling sun.

It’s 39˚ (102˚F) when we pull into Warburton. Our mobile phone registers three bars so we pull under the shade of a River Gum by a dried up creek bed and spend an hour internetting and checking emails – first time in three days. The Tjulyuru Art Gallery on the edge of town is the regional centre of the local indigenous Ngaanyatjarra culture. The floor-to-ceiling dot paintings on unframed canvas are stunning – and not for sale (though you can buy prints of them). The exhibition notes from the artists state that their paintings are like “second skins”, and parting with them is too difficult.

Inside the gallery shop, you can buy less stunning, but still beautiful paintings from artists in the local Warburton community. Their price-tags are more reasonable than what we’ve seen in W.A. city galleries (up to $4,000 for an indigenous painting) and we decide to buy one as a memento, not only of our Outback trip, but our love of Australia and the rich, expansive land. The colours in the painting are similar to those we’ve been seeing in the desert panorama we’re passing through. It will look nice on a wall in our new home in Port Townsend. The lady behind the counter says she’ll talk to the artist about the ‘story’ within the painting and send it to us in an email.

After lunch in a sheltered spot of the Gallery, we head into town. The car thermometer registers 42˚ (107˚F). The friendly attendant at the Roadhouse directs us to the Service Centre in town where hopefully we can find a piece of PVC pipe to protect our new painting. Our Melbournian friends from yesterday said tourists aren’t welcome in the town (aside from the roadhouse) as the Aboriginal people like their privacy and probably don’t appreciate being gawked at. But we drive through anyway, assuming our mission to find packaging for our newly acquired indigenous painting justifies our presence in the town.

The man in the Service Centre juts out his hand when he sees Johan and says, “Hi, I’m Peter.” Most of the white men we’ve met en route so far have been fair-skinned, thick and burly, like the characters of Aussie bushman you see on film, and very friendly. Peter’s no different. He offers to drive down to the warehouse to find us a piece of PVC, and then cuts it to size when he brings a two-metre piece back. No charge.

While we’re waiting, I type on the computer, the sun streaming through the front window. “Could you turn the car around?” I ask Johan, hoping to get it facing away from the sun while we wait so my fingers don’t sweat on the keyboard so much. Johan turns the key and an abrasive rattling noise cackles from the engine. Another couple of tries suggests we’ve got serious problems.

When Peter returns and listens to the sound, he immediately diagnoses it as a dead battery (we’re not used to modern high tech cars; old cars always just sound dead when the battery dies). Apparently our demands on it have been too much: air conditioner, fridge, computer, battery charging. It simply had enough and gave up the ghost. Peter jump-starts us and we drive back to the Roadhouse to pick up a new battery: $120. 

On the way we have one of those typical conversations between a Believe and a Non-Believer: was it Fate? Chance? Divine Intervention? that we landed with our first car problem in the middle of a town full of friendly, helpful people? How would our day have ended differently if we’d discovered a dead battery stuck in the middle of a remote desert, miles away from the nearest friendly face?

Picnic under a lone roadside tree - nice to have the shade!

A not-so-native animal roaming the desert.

Wild flowers galore!

Day 7: Wash Day

November 21, 2010

It’s wash day. Here’s how it works: the Esky (ice chest) sits in the back next to the Engel (electric fridge). We initially put two ice blocks and the harvest from our dismantled veggie garden in it. When the ice blocks melt, we take out the veggies, put in a tablespoon of soap powder and a pillow case of dirty clothes, then close the lid. We drive for a couple hours on a gravelly, rutted road (great agitator). When we get to Tjukayirla Roadhouse, we dump the dirty brown water, ring out the clothes and put two buckets of clean water in. Drive two more hours. Pitch camp. Tie clothes line. Hang clothes. In this heat, the dripping clothes are dry in an hour. Voila – clean clothes. Not as good as a Maytag, but it’s pretty good for bush life.

Doin' the wash

At the Tjukayirla Roadhouse we meet two Aussie blokes (Caucasians) and a couple of black fellas. Johan has a conversation with one of the black fellas while I chat with one of the Aussie blokes at the fuel pump. My bloke just started work today; says he’s worked in Aboriginal communities for a while, along with his wife. I ask him how his wife copes with it out here in all this heat and isolation. “She’s OK, but she copped more humbug than me,” he says, explaining that his wife worked in the Shire office while he was out on the road. I tell him I worked with indigenous people at my last job. We talk about the challenges of cross-cultural communication and respect.

Johan’s fella was driving the ute we saw while we were having breakfast this morning. The ute rumbled past our camp and drove straight into the bush, disappearing somewhere into the distance shrubs. Johan asks him what they were doing. “Can’t tell you that,” he answers. Black fella business, in other words.

A hundred kms later we find a rock hole, ringed by white rocks. As we approach, a half dozen finches fly out. The hole is filled with water, an array of insects fluttering about. I dip the bucket in and pour it over my head. Such refreshment! Johan sits on a rock while I pour another bucket over his head. He screeches and, uncharacteristically, swears. “Jesus, jesus! Shit!” It’s been a long time since he’s had a cold shower.

Today's shower

Down the road is tonight’s camping spot: Desert Sands. An extraordinary breakaway that sits like an island in the flat desert. The top offers spectacular terrestrial views. The cliffs around the edges are made of crackly red rock, the type they crush to make road gravel. It’s not safe rock-climbing because chunks come off in your hand.

Desert Surf Campsite - from inside a cave

A couple in a Toyota is walking their dogs around the cliffs. We cross paths as we cruise around looking for a campsite. They look scraggly, dusty, a bit odd, but they must think the same of us. After an initial hesitation, we strike up a conversation. They’re from Melbourne and they got a seven month posting to work in Warburton, an Aboriginal settlement 100kms down the road. She’s a nurse; he’s an environment officer. They love the outback, don’t mind the tough conditions and isolation and are enjoying learning about traditional life from the Aborigines, whom she calls “very wonderful”. They take them out hunting and bush trekking, but draw strict boundaries when it comes to sharing some of their more sacred sites and rituals. They’ve came down to the Tjukayirla Roadhouse last night for their monthly brew-up – alcohol is strictly forbidden in Warburton and they’ve signed a legal document agreeing not to drink.

With a whistle they round up their two dogs and head back to town, leaving us to enjoy the solitude and stillness of the advancing evening. The wind has died and it’s still 35˚ (95˚F) when we climb naked and exhausted into bed just after sundown.

Desert Surf Campsite at sundown

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Day 6: A Fun Sky

November 20, 2010

It’s overcast when I peak out the canvas window next to our bed at dawn. That’s good; we want to take a walk down into the valley for a better look at the breakaway and the clouds will make a good buffer against the intensity of the sun. Not many people travel the Outback Way after October as the heat can be paralyzing. Most days so far have peaked around 35˚ C, which is bearable sitting in an air-conditioned car. The nights are balmy and deliciously warm.

We head out after a Saturday pancake breakfast, aiming for an escarpment of rocks we think is about 2kms away. Our GPS tells us it’s only 1.5kms when we get there, but that’s as the crow flies. The clouds break up on our way back and the heat becomes unbearable. Johan nurses back pain and my mood turns cranky. We find a cool reprieve in a massive cave, littered with kangaroo bones and scat. A shiny black substance, like coagulated oil, lines parts of the walls and when Johan breaks off a piece it smells of wild animal and rich compost. I think it’s bat scat; Johan suspects it’s something oozing out of the rocks. He pockets the souvenir.

A walk through the breakaway and exploring some caves.

Earlier we’d talked about spending a second night at this beautiful spot, but when we return to the tent, the sun is high and the heat heavy with no shade. We eat a light lunch, pack up the trailer and head off down the road. The clouds range from frivolous white ribbons to dark cotton wool that threatens rain. Johan calls it a Fun Sky.

The road is deserted, except for one dust-raising 4WD travelling at high speed in the opposite direction. We sit on a feeling of utter aloneness. The heat shimmers mirages on the long straight road that make us wonder if it’s rained up ahead. Up in the distance three tall dark figures emerge. “What’s this?” Johan murmurs and images of marauding black men ready for a heist on unsuspecting tourists drift through my thoughts. We’re only a hundred metres away and one of the figures turns sideways. It’s a horse, three of them, scraggly with ribs sticking out their flanks. “Must be wild,” I muse, relieved.

A Southern Cross watermill provides some welcome relief from the heat.

Day 5: The Outback Way

November 19, 2010

We camp the night at Niagara Dam, 100km north of Kalgoorlie. We traveled this route in April when we toured the Goldfields so we don’t show much interest in revisiting the sites we lingered over previously. We just want to get there – our destination: the start of the Outback Way.

We arrive in Laverton at 2pm. Johan promised me a drink in the Visitor’s Centre, which boasts of the best coffee this side of Perth, so we take a break over two iced coffees. One of our more compelling gadgets, surpassing the thrill of mobile Broadband (last week’s novelty), is our hand-held GPS navigator. It’s a toy you have to grow into because on first impression it seems to have no relevance to outback travel, let alone your life. The purpose of acquiring it was to participate in the geo-cache tracking game, which techies are playing worldwide. There are 34 caches along the Outback Way, which boasts of being the world’s longest geo-cache trail. I bought it thinking it would force us out of the car and its window-shopping reality. The GPS contains the coordinates for each cache and, once you get the hang of it, will guide you to within a metre of its placement. Inside the cache (tin or plastic containers) are trinkets – you can take something and leave something – plus a little notebook and pen to log a quip, if you’re so inclined. If you’re really techno, you can log onto the website and tell the world which caches you’ve found.

Our first round of geo-cache navigating proves unsuccessful. We rummage around a vacant lot in Laverton, worrying about what the locals might be thinking. After not too long we give up and head back to the Visitor’s Centre where the lady behind the counter pulls out the cache and apologizes that it’s not outside the front door – it too easily goes missing. We work out that our coordinates set-up is wrongly programmed and make the necessary adjustments. We find the next three caches on the first 40kms of the Outback Way with little trouble.

Finding our first cache, aptly called "Dead Falcon".

We’re thrilled to be on our way. The road out of Laverton heading northeast boasts a huge sign claiming Alice Springs is 1587kms away. That’s just past halfway. The road turns a dusty red and the landscape flat and scrubby. We set up camp on a ridge overlooking a stunning view of the Jindalee Breakaway, a circle of undercut cliffs and jagged ochre and yellow rocks. I take a moonlit walk further down the track and breathe in the eerie valley views and enveloping silence.

Start of the Outback Way

A rough and red road ahead.

First camp in gorgeous breakaway country.

Day 4: Techno Campers

18 November 2010

Camping has always been an exercise in simple living for us. We pack a few things; the rest we do without. Our standards rose somewhat earlier this year with the acquisition of a camper trailer, a box trailer with a fold-out canvas tent, queen size bed, handy external kitchenette that swings out the back and plenty of space for storage. Not only can we take more stuff, we can organize it all so much more efficiently than throwing it all in the back of the car like we used to do. But with more stuff comes more complexity, and our experience of simple living suffers.

Still, when I look at how most of our peers do it – big air conditioned caravans fitted out with all the mod cons to ensure you stay safe and entertained, tucked away in your aluminum and plastic bubble – and I’m grateful for our lighter, more rustic version. One of the foundation rules of good writing also applies to camping: KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid.

This journey contains a new element, however, heretofore scrupulously banned from outback travel: technology. Along with a laptop fitted out with a mobile Broadband stick, we have an e-gadgets box. Here are its contents: digital camera, eTrex hand-held GPS, Navman GPS, iPod, 2GB Flashdrive, Projecta 120w power converter (allows us to plug things in using the car’s cigarette lighter), battery charger, cords to attach all these units to the computer, more cords to charge all the gadgets when their batteries get low. Egad, what have we done?

While one of us drives, the other is often found clicking away on the laptop. If we’re in mobile range (which mostly we have been this side of the Outback Way), we check emails, do the banking, or, my favorite, play Wordscraper and Scrabble on Facebook. One night we hooked up the laptop to the trailer battery and watched an episode of Lost Season 2. We borrowed the 24-episode DVD set from a friend before we left. It was fun and a novel way to spend a night out in the bush, but when I stepped out into the moon-filled silent night after it was over, it was clear we’d crossed a boundary and inched two steps closer to our caravan-comforted friends.

So what’s the point of all this technology? It’s a good question, and one we should ask ourselves regularly. Initial answers emerge to justify our technology addictions: our time-frame is indefinite and we’re selling a house and waiting for Johan’s American visa; we need to be contactable. We’re travelling into a remote outback area where people and services are limited. GPS navigation and the occasional mobile connection increase our chances of a safe and carefree journey.

But here’s another thought: outback travel is rare in Australia. Most Australians and foreign visitors cling to the bitumen paths that encircle the edge of the continent. There’s something forbidding about the interior. The harsh, arid land with all its monotony and flatness, the sparse towns, infrequent and unadorned with all the dazzle and trappings of modern western civilization, remind you that this country belongs to a simpler, tougher people, more compatible to this rough and inhospitable land. The dark faces of indigenous Australians seem to glare at me in the small outback towns we pass through, raising feelings of fear and guilt, a sense of “Us and Them”. I don’t like this because I think I’m a progressive, liberal minded wadjala, white person. But the deeper we go into their country, the stronger the sense that we’re the Visitors, the Invaders, gawking at them as though they’re the exotic natives of some far-away foreign land.

Technology keeps us connected to Our World, embedded in a reality that is safe, measured, secure. Logical. Rational. Technology keeps us from merging too deeply with that raw, untamed Heart of Darkness of a more primitive existence, a pulse that hums in the dry, hollow winds of Australia’s interior.