Featured Writer: Chelsea Bond Stuart
My visit to the internationally famous OUTBACK was one that I looked forward to with the highest expectations. Long, hot days spent hiking followed by spiritually quieting camping under the stars. How could that be anything less than amazing? Now that I’m fully recovered, I can look back on those four days and say that they were without question nothing short of amazing. However, I’d be lying if I said I was anything short of miserable while there. Of course the first time I get extremely sick in Australia is when I head out for an outdoor adventure with no facilities in sight. That aside, I survived and though it turned out to be more memorable than I could have guessed, it was a spectacular, culturally eye-opening experience.
A mentor on my dorm floor in Menzies College at La Trobe University, Scott, is guaranteed a spot in heaven for driving me and my traveling friends to the airport at 5:45 am. We left rainy, cold Melbourne behind and landed in Alice Springs to the warmth and sunshine that is Central Australia.
After checking into our hostel, Tody’s, we went out to spend the day exploring town. We made quick friends with 29 year old, Claire, from London. Shes been living and traveling Australia for two years and just preparing to leave for home at the end of the week.
Alice Springs was bigger than we expected with a mall, cinema and many Aboriginal art galleries. Fantastically talented, graffitied alleyways popped up regularly and we found the town to hold the largest population of Aboriginal people we had encountered yet. Our only purchases were another bracelet to add our constantly expanding collection of travel souvenirs. A bracelet for every new adventure; inexpensive and forever memorable. We also came across a store casually selling kangaroo scrotums as a touristy key chain. We passed.
One building in particular that caught my attention was a hostel specifically designated for Aboriginals. It made me feel like I had stepped back in time to when segregation existed and water fountains were race labeled. It speaks loudly and clearly to the immense division between these people and everyone else.
The three of us, Claire and her friend from Ireland who had flown in from Perth (Western Australia) each spent $3 and made a huge dinner feast in the hostel of pasta and garlic cheesy bread. Honestly, we could never figure out what the chick’s name was from Ireland, but the 5 of us stayed up sharing stories and travel advice until finally heading back to our bunks to get ready for the early morning start to our tour!
Our Rock Tour bus picked us up at 6am. This would be morning #2 up before the sun. We had a minor panic attack in the morning thinking we were late until we realized our clocks were all behind and we were up an hour early. Who needs sleep, anyway? We actually managed to do the exact same thing the morning we left to fly back to Melbourne. How long can we keep blaming jet lag?
We piled onto the bus and started a 5 hr drive out to the middle of nowhere. In 5 hours of driving, we saw….nothing. Everywhere we drove throughout the weekend provided us with the same panoramic view of red desert, shrubs, and the occasional wildlife. Not a single sign of civilization in sight.
Australia is the only country in the world to have a wild camel population and it’s over a million. They’re not indigenous but have thrived on the land since being brought over for traveling the desert and then released by the farmers. A brave, wild dingo jogged along the road completely undisturbed by our passing bus. We also happened upon the most enormous species of eagles I have ever set eyes on. Their giant wingspans grow up to 6 feet in length!
Our first hike was Kings Canyon Rim Walk. We started it by climbing Heart Attack Hill before making our way around a gorgeous overlook of strikingly steep drops, plants and trees used ingeniously for medical purposes by the Aboriginals. Some of the plants are made to be hallucinogens and conversation with tripping indigenous persons can quickly turn to the many donkey-eared aliens sighted amongst these sacred rocks. We took a break at the Garden of Eden swimming hole. No one was brave enough to enter the frigid water that appeared to drop off into deep, dark depths. After hearing that anacondas live in water, I went in up to my toes.
It was on this hike that our group earned the name Team C. Keep in mind it was only us and one other group, Team A.
This was the start of our guide, Matt, and his frustrations with three young women in our group. Taking photos and ‘selfies’ of literally everything we passed by took priority over their following directions and…walking. More to follow on that later.
On our way from Kings Canyon to bush camp, we pulled over to gather wood for the fire we would need to cook dinner and keep us warm throughout the night. Our athletic, ex military guide was the center of attention literally ripping down entire dead trees. Our group of 21 worked together to tear down the largest branches we could find.
Considering one of my friends had ownership over about a third of the beers we picked up at a bottle shop, she was appointed Beer Marshal of the group when we set up our swags and sat around the bonfire. Dinner was prepared in thick, metal pots heated by embers from the fire. I think it’s fair to say we were all blown away by how incredibly blue the perfectly unpolluted sky was during the day, but knocked breathless by the night’s stars. One young, American woman admitted to tearing up at one point during the night. Thats become our trusty meter to measure incredible moments by.
Starting along the tree line, the stars dotted every inch of the sky. It’s strange to imagine, but it felt like I was lying in the base of a starry snow globe. The trees made a wide circle all around us and the only upward view was a massive sky of diamonds. It didn’t feel real. The Southern Cross, only visible in the southern hemisphere, and entire Milky Way Galaxy were perfectly brilliant even when we awoke to start the next day (again, up before the sun). Shooting stars flew through the night sky. I spotted 3 in only ten minutes time. One of the first things I saw waking up around 5am was another star streaking through the sky.
I was unfamiliar with what a swag was before coming to Australia so I’ll give a quick explanation of that. Our group slept in a circle surrounding a bonfire to keep us warm. Each of us slept in a sleeping bag, inside a swag. The swags are basically long, canvas sleeping bags with zips from your feet to your neck. They also have a “monster flap” at the head that you can cover your face with during the night so as to “keep the monsters away”. How comforting. But they kept us surprisingly warm throughout the cold, desert nights and were more comfortable than the unsupportive, plastic mattresses provided back at our hostel in Alice Springs.
The following day we hiked Kata Tjuta, meaning “Many Heads”. Huge, rolling rocks litter the land where this enormous rock form stands. The Aboriginal people have many stories of their history that explain the creation of these sacred, spiritually significant land forms that make this area of the Outback such a popular tourist destination. Most of their stories we will never know because we are not part of their community and they are typically only allowed to be shared by their creators. However, here’s one we were told…
Two Brothers Story
Two brothers decided one day they wanted to build a giant mud pile. The brothers were as big as giants and as they piled and smoothed the mud, they removed any rocks and threw them aside– this marked the creation of Kata Tjuta. When finally finished, they slid down the pile, running their fingers through the mud behind them– this marked the creation of Uluru with its unique, black streaks that run down its sides. The brothers separate to find food when one gets ill from eating poisonous berries. His worried brother builds him a bed to rest on– the creation of another rock formation– while he goes out to try and find help. When he returns, his brother had sadly passed away. The living brother mourns his death and cries giant tear drops onto the land– the creation of an area of salt lands. The brother is buried where his bed was made and where the giant now sleeps is the only area that anything green grows in the entire area.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park is jointly owned by the Anagu people and Government though the Government holds a 99 year lease on the land. We were given the chance to explore an Aboriginal Culture Center, read the ‘Sorry Book’, and then go on the Mala Walk. The Sorry Book holds a record of stories written by tourists apologizing for doing wrong while visiting the park. The land is so spiritually significant that people take it to heart when they have broken Anagu Law. This can include activities such as climbing Uluru or taking home rocks. Some stories discuss illness such as cancer, deaths and etcetera mishappenings shortly following their experience in the Outback and taken as karma.
I had to pass on the Mala Walk because I felt so sick, but tour guide Matt later filled me in on the culturally rich stories he had told the group during it. He also took us to the base of Uluru where we could watch dozens of tourists ascending the rock. He told us about why people shouldn’t climb Uluru and why people do anyways.
The main offenders to climbing this sacred rock are the Japanese and young, Australian men. The Japanese, and most other international tourists, are sold by tourism centers to climb the rock and told nothing about its history. Additionally, the young, thick-headed Australian men are sometimes of the mindset that so long as this is their country, it’s their damn rock to climb. A multilingual sign sits at the base of the climb pleading, “Please do not climb our rock”. It’s extremely dangerous, disrespectful of Anagu Law, and environmentally unhealthy.
When someone dies attempting to do the climb, as over 35 people have, the Aboriginal people feel responsible for the accident. They hold private ‘sorry ceremonies’ for as long as a month. During these ceremonies, they will cut themselves to feel the pain that the deceased person’s friends and family now must endure. Though the public is slowly becoming more educated on the topic, the percentage of visitors that choose to climb is still roughly 60%. The Government believes that money is made from the climb and without it people will stop visiting the national park.
Moving away from such serious issues, we had some hilarious lost in translation problems along the way with the previously mentioned very slow going three young women.
Our group took a long, scenic hike that was about 4 kilometers (roughly 2 miles) of difficult walking that included a final, extremely steep hill up to an overlook. Once we all reached the overlook, we realized the three women were missing. After about 10 minutes of waiting and seeing nothing in sight for at least a mile, Matt set off on a sprint back down the hill and down the path to find them. Apparently they changed their minds at the start and went back to the bus without mentioning it to anyone. Well, anyone that would’ve shared the information. The only person to know this was the one South Korean girl who spoke very little English and neglected to mention it before Matt’s nearly 8k sprint through the heat and up a mountain. He wasn’t too happy.
Though we were one of the last buses to arrive, we made it to sunset and dinner at Uluru. The giant monolith changes colors as the sun goes down. In all honesty, we couldn’t make out any spectacular change other than it getting darker, but the sunset was gorgeous. The sky filled with cotton candy pink clouds and brilliant streaks of yellow and red.
When the darkness finally won out, we were joined by dozens of too-friendly ‘hopping mice’. They bounded around us just inches from touching in attempts to snatch up any food we dropped. The fearlessness of these tiny guys, just like all the other wild animals we’d encountered, was a subtle reminder of how wonderfully protected and sacred this place is. And additionally, how lucky we are to see it once (hopefully again!) in our lives.
We had one last night of camping, this time at the Ayers Rock Campground. It was a night for the now bonded groups to play drinking games if they wanted or catch up on sleep. It was another beautifully starry, night.
The sunrise at Uluru the next morning was one of the most stunning horizons I have ever set eyes on. As the minutes passed by, so did new intricacies of colors on every side of what is one of the largest rocks in the world. Not feeling well enough for the final base walk around Uluru, Matt drove me around all the sides of the rock and took me to see the Mutijulu Waterhole. We walked through nearby caverns covered with Aboriginal artwork that no one can guess how far back they originally date to. The Aboriginal people have no written history, but pass it along to each new generation in the form of stories.
Nearly every distinguishing aspect of these great rocks has a special story to explain its creation. These people are the longest surviving group in the world, dating back 25-30,000 years ago. Non-indigenous people regularly comment on their distinct body odor, but when you realize many of them moved out of the bush as little as 50 years ago, it’s easier to understand their very different lifestyle. Several Australians of varied ages have spoken of these people as lazy, alcoholic nuisances to society. It’s easy to see where the frustrations stem from on both sides, and sadly frustrating to see the deep divide of misunderstanding that has grown into widespread racism.
Of course once the long, exhausting hikes were all over, I started to finally feel well. On the final leg of the tour headed back to Alice Springs, we had one final bit of excitement stopping at a camel farm! The farm takes in unwanted, orphaned or injured animals. That including Zhara, a now domesticated dingo, camels large and small and little kangaroos. We all had the amazing opportunity to ride one of the camels. It was without question the best $6 I’ve ever spent. We rode them two at a time around a track. They walked slowly until building up into a very uncomfortable, awkwardly bouncing run. So hilariously ungraceful to watch and so much fun.
I’m getting too comfortable with this fast-paced, jet setting life. Every few days has been a new adventure and I’m dreading when the end of this unreal semester abroad will eventually come to an end. Until then, every week promises new lessons I only wish I could share in person with friends, family and readers.