Category: Australia

Summing up Australia

Summing up Australia

Sitting in our hotel room in Canberra, planning our time in Australia, seems a long time ago. Since then we’ve enjoyed ourselves so much and lived a perfect lifestyle. And on balance we were right to limit our travels to five main locations (Sydney, Canberra, Cairns, Darwin and the Red Centre).

We’ve stayed in campervans, a friend’s place, Airbnb’s, and backpackers hostels. Swam amongst coral, explored gorges and watched open air cinema. It’s been easy travelling, with everyone speaking English, plenty of rests and many staggering sights.

But you come away, appreciating you have only scratched the surface of this massive, wild and sparsely populated country. Flying back to Sydney, we travelled over nothing, and we mean nothing, for at least one hour.

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Reading papers, watching the equivalent of question time on tv, talking to people, we got a sense of the wide diversity across this great country. The liberal cities compared with the agricultural stations, renewable energy verses a return to coal, a welcoming hug to the world verses a nostalgia for the 5Os.

Bill Bryson has described Australians as a cross between the British and Americans. Despite living in a harsh environment, they have the positivity and entrepreneurship of Americans, rewarding hard work without any hint of class divide. But they also have customs carried over from Britain, such as a speaker in their Parliament, and a peculiar affection for the Queen, beer and cricket.

To us, based on numerous short interactions, Aussies are direct and straightforward in their conversation, with a dry sense of humour which can be very disparaging about themselves. We imagined they could become great mates, but maybe it would be harder to make deep friends here.

To sum up, Australia is a nation on the up, still young and aware that they are building one of the safest and attractive societies. We are so pleased we had the opportunity to visit a bit of it and to spend time with so many welcoming “mates”.

But it’s time to move on, especially as Australia is so far the most expensive country we have been to on this gap year.

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Truckers Museum

Truckers Museum

Modern Australia is built on the back of huge road trains running the length and breadth of Australia. When you see one of these monsters bearing down on you in your rear view mirror, you quickly pull over.

This Truckers Museum, ten kilometres south of Alice Springs, is dedicated to the history and heroes of trucking across the centre of Australia.

Politicians invested in railways around the coasts, but during WW2 the Stuart Highway was made roadworthy for the army to reach and defend Darwin. Straight after that, in the absence of a railway from north to south, pioneering truckers started making the 30-40 hour drive, transporting anything and everything.

The first generation of truckers had to be mechanics, livestock managers, bridge fixers and flood survivors just to get through. Men like Kurt Johannsen are hailed for the successful conversion of the US Army trucks (left behind after WW2) into the first road train cattle transporters. Kurt also developed a self-tracking system for long multi-carriage road trains, enabling them to better go round corners.

This museum also gave us an insight into the future development of road trucks and their need to comply with increasingly tough specifications for pollution, gas efficiency and also home comforts to attract a new generation of drivers who want all mod cons in their cabs when driving and sleeping.

Roadhouses

Roadhouses

We decided to liven up the journey back to Alice Springs by visiting all four iconic and, dare we say it historic, Roadhouses. The equivalent of 19th century English Coaching Inns, they provide much needed accommodation, meals, water and rest on long journeys across the Outback.

Curtin Springs has 1 million acres, Mt Ebeneezer is Aboriginally owned, on the corner with the Stuart Highway is Erldunda, and Stuarts Well is where we stayed the night.

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80km north of Uluru, Curtin Springs was taken over by Peter Severin, his wife Dawn and their son Ashley in 1956. That year just six travellers passed by. They started it as a cattle ranch, with one million acres of land, but after nine years without rain, things were getting desperate. With Ayers Rock opened up in 1958, a steady stream of tourists were coming by, and Peter and his family changed from ranchers to tourist providers. Today, this Roadhouse offers guided tours of nearby Mt Connor and sells its own paper made from local grasses. And Peter is 90 and still going strong!
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Another two hours drive towards Alice Springs, Mt Ebeneezer is owned by the local Aboriginal Community. It had zero “kerb appeal” looking tatty from the outside, but inside there was a wonderful Aboriginal Art Gallery with some unique paintings, hand carved boomerangs and Didgeridoos. On the walls are one page biographies about their mostly women painters
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A further one hour up the Lasseter Highway is the Erldunda Roadhouse which made the mistake of allowing a large Shell Gas Station to be built right in front of it. Once inside, it had a large bar with a huge TV showing Aussie Rules Football, together with a number of resident Aussies who looked like they were surgically attached to their chairs and glasses of beer
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About an hour’s drive short of Alice, Stuarts Well Roadhouse was built by Jim Cotterill, in the 1960s when he saw the chance of opening up King’s Canyon to tourists, by cutting the road through. We met his son, who still runs the place. Camping was free and we got a very nice bar meal and a mug of Bailey’s Irish Cream in the evening
Aboriginals today

Aboriginals today

Australia has shocked us for being the most segregated society we have come across. We saw scenes here that could have been 1960’s Mississippi.

Whilst the current generations and descendants of the white Europeans, Chinese and Japanese migrants enjoy a first world lifestyle, health and longevity expectations, the Aboriginals (3% of the population) lead a third world existence, together with the associated bad health, domestic violence, lack of education and opportunity. And to make things even worst, they are not resilient to alcohol, and diabetes is rife in their communities because they converted too quickly from a sparse nomadic diet to “white man’s sugared diet”.

We sat at a bus stop in Darwin, whilst the Aboriginals left us to sit on the pavement. We drank alcohol in bars that the Aboriginals can’t drink in. We saw in the Northern Territory towns dozens of Aboriginals standing around in groups, shabby, smelly, wearing no shoes, with nothing to do. Nowhere have we seen interaction between Aboriginals and the descendants of the First Fleet, except for aggressive policing.

The great shame is we never got to speak to any Aboriginals except those that were hassling us for change in Darwin and Katherine. Smile at them and there is a blank stare. And ironically, as we travelled into the Outback, we actually saw less Aboriginals, as their communities are off the main highways, down unsealed tracks that you need permits to enter.

It’s an incredibly complex issue, that we clearly only have superficial knowledge of.

Successive Australian Governments have spent a lot of money on Aboriginals, trying to assuage the guilt of taking their land, righting the wrongs of “the stolen generation”, and the harming of their original way of life, with alcohol and a new diet. There was a full apology by the Prime Minister in 2006, but the problems carry on and many tell us that progress has stalled.

When we ask many white Australians about the issue, every sentence starts with: “I don’t want to sound like a bigot but….”. They simply feel the Aboriginals are culturally not capable or willing to integrate. One Aussie in Katherine said “The Government pays them lots of sit-down money and the kids only go to school on hot days for the air conditioning”. Our Airbnb host in Darwin, said there were a number of hard-working Aboriginals in his company, but they were unreliable because “They just go walk about”.

So despite being given their citizenship fifty years ago, most arboriginals it seems still live in a segregated world; and if we step into their shoes we can maybe understand and appreciate why.

Saying sorry, the constant expressions of guilt, and the building of “aboriginal cultural experiences” don’t seem to have helped much. We can only hope this is still early days and things will improve, but it needs commitment on both sides.

Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)

Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)

We spent a full day 40 km west of Uluru, at Kata Tjuta, which means “many heads” in the local language.

The busy path took us up to the Karingana Lookout. And it came as no surprise that it was windy, as the walk is called The Valley of the Winds.

Here most of the tour parties headed back, whilst we continued on for a few more kilometres, along the stony path, through the gap, into a huge circular valley bordered by many of the 36 ancient chestnut-coloured rock domes.

The air was filled with the aroma of lemon, mint and hay, tiny blue and red flowers were just coming out, and colourful birds sang in the gum trees. Underfoot, giant ants and the occasional beetle, and of course the persistent flies which are so much more tenacious than their European cousins.

At Kata Tjuta you are surrounded by the red rocks, enclosed within their warm and generous faces, whilst at Uluru you are on the edge, always outside.

It was a fitting place to leave the National Park.

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Hilary with Beatrice and Walter from Germany who are touring Australia for three months. By chance, we met up with them five separate times between the Barrier Reef and here
Tourist experiences v travelling

Tourist experiences v travelling

For us, the Uluru bubble – with its helicopter rides, a British designer’s “field of lights”, camel trekking, Segway riding, quad biking, and under the stars dining experiences – demonstrated clearly the evolving nature of tourism.

Today, even the world’s great monuments and landscapes are not enough for the tourist. They need to have enhanced personal experiences; jungles need zip wiring, deserts need a 4WD experience whilst Uluru needs skydiving. Of course, for the tourism industry it’s all about increasing the dwell time and spending at each location.

But does it also say something about the changing nature of travel and tourism? Increasingly it’s “selfie tourism” we see, or more simply “I did this” tourism, especially for the young.

Perhaps, because the actual act of travel is so easy, not taking up all our time and energy, tourists now need to self-induce adrenaline into their holiday. But in the process, aren’t we in danger of losing connection with what we are there to see and learn from?

Climbing Uluru (Ayers Rock)

Climbing Uluru (Ayers Rock)

We love climbing up mountains – we always have done. So as soon as the winds dropped and the path up Uluru reopened, we were quickly through the gate.

But we acknowledged this is not what the owners of the land – the Anangu Aboriginals – wanted us to do. For them Uluru is sacred. And it has to be said, they are asking us very nicely to respect their hospitality; the signs say “Please don’t climb”.

It took us just over an hour of hard climbing up the 60 degree slope, helped by a simple chain, to reach the summit marker. A Japanese lad climbing up with us, turned to Roger and said “Isn’t your wife strong?”.

When he left, we had the top to ourselves. Totally glorious, and the best place to see the rock’s huge footprint, its endlessly contorted features and its isolation in a sea of barren flatness.

So if the owners of the land don’t want us to climb up Uluru, why is the path still open? Apparently, it’s all to do with the tourist dollar and opposition from white Australians who see the rock as theirs as well. One Aussie told us, “It belongs to all Australians not just the Aboriginals. They didn’t build it”. But a young Australian actress, even though we were tourists, was very disappointed we had walked up.

Respect (or disrespect), guilt, belief, wonder – there’s a lot to this climb.

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Uluru (Ayers Rock) at sunset

Uluru (Ayers Rock) at sunset

Tourists on a lightening tour only get to see the sunset from the designated “viewing areas”; a lot of expensive cameras lined up to replicate the iconic, but overseen, postcard view.

Above is the wonderful view we enjoyed, but we felt distant from Uluru here. With our extended stay, we also had the opportunity to be close to the rock at sunset, away from the masses, on the Mala Walk and at the Kanju Gorge waterhole.

As the sun dipped, the birds sang, the rock radiated a red glow, with shadows lengthening, and crevasses falling into darkness.

All too soon, Uluru became brown and uninteresting. However, ten minutes later, as if by magic, the Rock gleams again – reflecting the deepening orange sky to the west.

Reaching out, we could touch this afterglow.

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If you plan to do this The red glow only lasts a few minutes so plan in advance where you want to be. We found the official viewing area’s views partly obscured by bushes and trees. And as we say above, it’s brilliant close-up to the rock too.

At Uluru (Ayers Rock)

At Uluru (Ayers Rock)

It’s made of rock, but it acts like a giant magnet, drawing millions of tourists from around the globe. And seeing Uluru in context, from all angles and perspectives, is so different from seeing the classic postcard shot.

In the flatness of the Outback, you see Uluru first some 40km away. Thereafter, as you drive around the National Park, your eyes are always drawn to it. It’s simply both mesmerising and engulfing.

We spent a couple of days focusing on getting to know the 348m high stone well. The journey of the sun, the contours and buttresses in the rock’s surface, create ever changing effects that rewards the extra time.

Since, Hilary was here 30 years ago, more walks have been opened up. For five hours, we walked all around the base of the rock, enjoying the unique flora and fauna, the succulent waterholes and the caves where the Aboriginals gathered to tell their stories.

And we’re glad to say that, despite the number of visitors, discretely accommodated some 15km away, there’s still remarkable peace to find.

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Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

We decided to head 300km west to Kings Canyon first, Roger wanted it to be the warm up act to Uluru (Ayers Rock). And it was a pretty good opener.

Here there’s really only one thing to do, but you need to be pretty fit. The 6km Kings Canyon Rim Walk took us through breathtaking scenery with incredible views. The rocks at the top looked like beehives, with others reflecting the rippled subterranean surface they once had been. The edge of the canyon was almost sheer, whilst wooden steps take you down into the magical Garden of Eden at the canyon’s bottom.

This whole area was only opened up to tourism in the 1960s when one local rancher, Jim Cotterill, cut the first road through.

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