After arriving in Australia and finding work hard to come by, I decided to travel to the essential parts of the country I simply had to see before I ran out of money. At the very least I wanted to see just the desert areas. After an abstemious few months in Sydney, I finally got my ‘just deserts’…
Flying to Alice Springs, I was somewhat bemused by the flight safety demonstration: they even told us the “what to do in case of water landings” drill. If that happened whilst flying over a desert, there would be a whole bunch of things going wrong; I mean I know a crash involves hitting the surface where you don’t want to, but that would seriously miss the mark.
The flight was uneventful, and it landed in the right place, which is as much as you’d want from air travel.
Alice Springs was small and quiet. The air was still and hot. I’ve always lived close to the coasts, and here I could feel the difference. There was no mistaking it: I was very far from fresh sea breezes.
I was sharing my room for the night with another solo traveller: my Canadian room-mate faintly resembled Colin Mochrie from Whose Line Is It Anyway? and was a softly-spoken, erudite, gentle old soul somewhere between middle-age and retirement. We got on really well with each other, our different perspectives complementing each other quite easily. We’d arrived at the same time and went exploring the town together.
I’d heard – rightly or wrongly – about aboriginal superstitions regarding photography (that photos of people steal the subjects’ souls or something to that effect) and that one should never take pictures even unintentionally (because they would demand compensation). My take is that you just shouldn’t take people’s photos without permission anyway, and made sure to stick to landscapes.
After we walked across the river – as in, the dry riverbed – and made our way along the opposite bank, we spotted a group of the local Arrernte aborigines sitting in the shade of a large tree. As we drew closer – but still a good hundred or so metres away – one of the men waved his arm languourously.
Its meaning was ambiguous at first, but then a couple of others in the group stood up. We guessed the group had quite a wide zone of collective ‘personal space’ and just wanted to be left in peace without interloping tourists disturbing them.
“I think we’d better give them a wide berth,” my room-mate said.
I agreed, and we took the nearest side-street to a pub for dinner and booze. I was used to being ID’d for drinks all the time, but asking the barman if they served pints (“Nah, sorry mate, we’ve only got schooners.”) seemed to be enough to forestall that question.
The next day I joined the Oz Experience bus to King’s Canyon. The desert – the ‘ red centre’ – was surprisingly lush and green after recent rainfall, but this didn’t make the scenery any less impressive.
My fellow travellers were predominantly English holidaymakers in shorts, football t-shirts and silly little hats with short, floppy brims (adorned with football badges) that did precisely nothing to stop them getting sunburn. I’d bought a wide-brimmed hat specifically for the outback, knowing that my pasty Scottish skin wouldn’t last five minutes. I picked a work shirt I was happy to get dusty and sweaty, and kept my collar up and sleeves down as much as possible. It wasn’t fashionable, but our bus driver and guide recognised that I was making the most sensible choice I could with what I had.
That night was spent at a campfire under the stars. A group of girls opted to go to one of the tents, but – amid much shrieking – found that a substantial family of mice had already made it their home.
It was much warmer throwing down a sleeping bag by the camp fire, and in the middle of the night waking up to see one of the clearest, starriest skies I’ve ever witnessed. (After sunset that evening, there was an astronomy lecture given by a guy with a telescope who could point out the particular stars that were shining over the holidaymakers’ homes back in England.)
The next morning we arrived at Uluru, where we had the choice of climbing up to the top, or walking around the base. I knew the local Anangu took an extreme dislike to tourists hauling themselves up their major religious centre (and occasionally dying of heatstroke or exhaustion in the process), but my choice was made by the fact that the view from the base was bound to be more interesting than the view from the top – the surrounding countryside was flat and uninteresting.
I was rewarded with some unexpected geology – water-worn rocks and pools, overhangs of rock that have existed millennia before the first human cities – and cave art first painted on the bare stone any time from six- to ten-thousand years ago. I wouldn’t have seen any of this if I’d climbed up to the top (along with most of the other tourists). I absolutely made the right choice!
After our morning at Uluru, we went to Kata Tjuta – at that time also known as Mount Olga after the Russian Princess who sponsored the colonial expedition which first recorded it. The night before, on the bus, we’d seen it silhouetted against the sunset sky where it resembled Homer Simpson lying on the ground. Up close, the rocks had been scoured into their rounded forms by thousands of years of dust and rain.
On returning to Alice Springs, very late in the evening, I got my keys at the hostel reception and opened the door to a dorm room of English girls who seriously did not want a sweaty, dusty guy barging in. Apparently, the receptionists figured ‘Terry’ was a girls’ name (nobody tell me pronouns aren’t important!). There weren’t any beds available for me in the hostel; instead they made arrangements for me to have a dorm room to myself at the motel next door, where I would be completely on my own – in the sense that the motel was deserted.
I didn’t care; I was just glad to have a bed to crash onto. And being on my own meant I didn’t have to worry about having a shower until the morning.
That didn’t mean I could relax though. In the middle of the night a couple of high-spirited Outback outlaws burst in so they could hide from the police. From their excited conversation I gathered they’d been involved in some sort of desert car chase.
“Chroist, mate, ya see the look on that rozzer’s face?!”
“Yeeah, ‘e didn’t ‘ave a fuckin’ clue! Loik I’ve got a reg-o!”
“Think ‘e’ll foind the Ute?”
“Nah, they’re all lazy fuckers ’round ‘ere. Good as gold.”
They didn’t seem dangerous, just drunk (I was more worried they’d stagger about and pee on me in the middle of the night than the remote possibility of violence). They even apologised for waking me up.
They asked me if I was a Pommie.
I said I was a Jock.
“You’re a what?!”
“I’m a Jock; a sweaty sock; I’m Scottish.”
“Ah, roight! Loik Braveheart, eh? Ya hate the English?”
“Uh… if you say so.”
I was too tired to argue. They also asked my opinion on unfair judges handing down onerous sentences to a couple of harmless citizens indulging in recreational activities like partaking of drugs, unregulated commercial transactions involving said drugs, innocently driving a vehicle without having fully completed its licensing & registration, insurance, and other sundry activities the police chose to harass them for.
I forget precisely what I told them, but they seemed satisfied with my answers.
I lay wide awake until I heard them both snoring into their pillows before stealthily getting dressed and creeping out of the room to the empty hostel reception at about 4.30am. I dozed on a chair until the receptionist arrived a couple of hours later. I explained the situation, and they arranged for me to have a single room to myself for free for the following night (my bus out of Alice Springs was the day after).
I called my girlfriend in Sydney to let her know about my latest adventure, and then my parents to freak them out with tales of living life on the edge. Then I slept solidly for most of the day.
That evening, I heard the sounds of gunshots and screams somewhere else in town. It soon calmed down again.
I was all set to head south, to civilisation…