Around the middle, part 2

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 20, 2007

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

You only really appreciate how vast (and bloody empty) most of Australia is when you have to drive for over 300 kilometres (they don't do miles here for some reason) between service stations. Whereas in England, a cattle farm of a few hundred acres may be considered large, one we stopped at a few days ago was 2.5 million acres. That is effectively the size of Austria. Also, despite figures that suggest there are around 700,000 feral camels in Central Australia, we only saw two over the last four days.

The main purpose of driving for miles through the desert was to go to the selection of large rocks in the middle, namely Ayers Rock and The Olgas (now being called Uluru and Kata-Tjuju, as the land has been given back to the Aboriginals). As it is far easier to get someone else to do long distance driving, that is what we did. Whilst travelling up the East Coast we'd booked ourselves onto an 11 day tour from Alice Springs to Darwin, going via Ayer's Rock, The Olgas and King's Canyon down south, and the crocodile infested Kakadu in Top End. The tour group has a max of 16 for the off road part of the tour (2/3 of it), and otherwise 24, which is not too bad. What you may loose in certain aspects of independence, you gain in someone else doing the driving (and there is lots of it, especially off-road/dirt road), cooking, sleeping stuff, and guiding of the interesting bits. On the bit we've just done, we had a max of 11 people, going down to 6 on the last day as some headed back to Alice (reason is different tours put together).

Though the hot weather in the centre is often touted as one of the main features, whoever controlled it was obviously on strike whilst we were there - quite overcast for most of it, plus lots of rain. There was so much rain that the river in Alice actually started to flow (as in proper, river style flow), cutting off roads and making headline news all over the place. The lack of too much heat was probably a good thing though, as it meant you could actually walk around the place without getting totally heat scorched/knackered. This was especially true when we visited The Olgas, as the part we walked through is often about 10 degrees warmer than the temperature 'outside' due to the sheer rock walls reflecting the heat. The Olgas are the, relatively, little known relatives of Ayer's Rock, having been pushed up at the same time, but lacking the same dramatic effect of a single chunk of rock. Instead, they are a series of domes (36 in total) of red rock, though I thought that they were just as impressive as Ayer's Rock.

As the weather was a bit cloudy, the sunset over Ayer's Rock was nothing more than the rock getting progressively darker. Whilst this is what may be expected at a regular sunset in England, the generally cloudless sky of central Australia usually gives the rock loads of different colours, ranging from deep red to purple, as the light changes and bounces off it. We got a bit of a taste of this the next morning, when we got up (stupidly early - this was a theme of the trip) to see the sun rise. For about 30 seconds the rock turned a brilliant shade of red mixed with purple, before it turned back to its regular red. Oh well. As there was the possibility of rain, the path up the rock was shut (people have a tendency to fall to their deaths when it gets slippy) so we had a walk round the base. It is only when you walk round it that you get a sense of how huge it is - 9.4km circumference. It is also riddled with holes, which you would not expect, looking at a regular picture of it. Most of these holes have some sort of significance for the Aboriginals, and they've put up signs everywhere telling you not to take photos of their 'sacred sights'. As to why, they didn't expand upon, other than, should a man or woman see each others 'sacred' area, they need to be beaten by the opposite sex until they bleed, as a punishment. By extraction from this, I presume that (by some freakish chance) should they see your photos of the site, they have to be beaten. This is only one aspect of the clash of cultures in Australia. This is much more evident in the Northern Territory, where Aboriginals make up 90% of the people outside of the towns, and where they still practice their traditional law system and language. In Alice, the 20th, let alone the 21st century, seems to have passed them by - many just sit under trees whilst the white people busy themselves around them. The punishments enacted between Aboriginals often involve some sort of physical pain/violence, and in the local hospital (so I am told) it is not uncommon to have people with holes in their leg where they were speared (ie a spear was thrown at their leg, which they then had to pull through), chunks of flesh missing (they go loopy when someone dies and do intense self-flagellation) as well as lots of other funny goings on, all pretty alien to European culture. Enough of that though - should anyone be interested in anthropology, there are quite a few good books out there (though, from my experience of anthropology, what you can extract from the tribes is pretty minute, as they don't really trust anyone outside their circle).

Back to the trip, and though the weather was not as good as it could have been, this did mean that the local wildlife was a lot more active than it may have otherwise been. Over the days we saw two Parenti Goannas (biggest in the world after the Kimono, getting up to 2.5 metres long), numerous Kangaroos, Euro's (a type of kangaroo), rock wallabies, and loads of lizards. The biggest Parenti we saw was on the way to King's Canyon, just meandering along the road, and it was around 6 feet long. Not only pretty rare, but pretty cool. The rock wallabies rocked up on our last day, down a dirt track, across a river and round the corner into an absolutely stunning gorge system. They are pretty small, but hop over the rocks with an ease that is quite astounding.

After Ayer's Rock and The Olgas, the other main attraction of the area is King's Canyon. Another early start was needed for this, but the weather was pretty good on this day. However, the previous night was a different story. We were going to be sleeping in swags in the bush, but torential downpours throughout the night put pay to that. King's Canyon is an absolutely huge canyon (as the name suggests), with sheer walls dropping down into valleys where relict plants still survive. These are rather surreal, as you walk through Eucalyptus in searing hear to suddenly come across valleys with palm trees, cycads and waterholes, left over from when the whole continent was covered in rain forest several hundred million years ago. This was taken to the next level when we went to Palm Valley the next day - huge valley filled with palms and cycads, only accessible by driving down a (usually dry) river bed, then over a pretty bumpy 4*4 track for an hour or so. It was like walking into Jurassic Park - I would not have been surprised to see some form of dinosaur popping over the hill.

Back in King's Canyon, and the tops of the canyon have been eroded over time into bee-hive mounds, stretching as far as the eye can see, whilst down in the valley floor rocks the size of houses have fallen - quite spectacular.

Though our initial attempt at 'swagging it' came to nothing, the weather on the last night was fantastic for it, and I had one of the best nights sleep I've had for ages - just you, the stars (above the cloud), some snakes, and someone else to cook breakfast.

I'm heading off from Alice at another stupid hour in the morning tomorrow (think it is 5.45am), heading north to Darwin before going to the Kakadu area. Loads more I could have said here, but my time is about to run out. Plus I think too much more may send some people to sleep...
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