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Outback

The Outback of Australia. It is a remarkable experience of environmental, cultural, geological, geographic, climactic and sensory systems. I now sit on the porch of our hotel in Alice Springs, inhabited by Europeans initially as the half-way point between Adelaide in the south and Darwin in the north as a telegraph relay station. The distances are enormous – 1500 kilometers (800 miles) in each direction with almost no one living along the way. Theoretically, with enough gas, you could drive the entire distance without slowing down – and for most of it there is no speed limit. Practically, you would end up behind a “road train? which can not go too fast. The paucity of traffic and the distances offers a road that permits trucks to attach multiple trailers (up to 6, but the most we saw was 4), so that instead of an 18 wheeler, you end up with as many as 100 wheels.

The climate is desert. As an life experience, we were fortunate to encounter its extremes. The average November high is in the low 90s, with lows in the 60s. Even in January, the average high is below 100. We got to experience 110. Even with normal day-night variation, it didn’t cool off enough by day break. We really experienced this, since our tents barely had cross-ventilation, let alone air-conditioning. The second night, several of us in our group of 17 (with two guides) slept on cots outside. It was uncomfortably hot, even wearing only shorts and without a covering bed sheet. The breeze helped, until it suddenly picked up the ubiquitous fine red sand, dusting us lightly but thoroughly. I now have a different sense of the Sandman. I gave up and went into the tent, which by 1 AM was almost tolerable. This was timely, as the others scrambled an hour later when rain began pelting their exposed skin.

We were camping in the area near Ayers Rock, called Uluru by the local Aborigines. This monolith is the most photographed site in Australia. Along with the Sydney Opera House, it represents the two icons of the country. Discovered in the late 1800’s by determined outback explorers, it had already been a sacred site for natives for tens of thousands of years. It is one of a number of remnants of ancient mountain tops in the central desert and not the oldest or largest, but the only one developed as a tourist destination – now visited by over ½ million people per year. Pictures, regardless of the beauty due to varying angles of the sun and clouds, don’t do it justice. The 1000 foot high rock with a circumference of over 5 miles must be experienced as a contrast to its surroundings, by driving from Alice Springs for 6 hours (with stops) down straight empty road across perfectly flat desert covered with scattered shrubs and small trees. Thus it can be seen for many miles not unlike an island in the open sea.

Uluru’s attraction for tourists coincides with international interest in indigenous populations. This, I have learned, is relatively new and not uniformly shared by Australians. The area around the rock is controlled by the local Aboriginal community of about 500 people, which gets a share of tourists’ fees. In exchange, they let people climb their sacred site, about 50% of the time (mostly limited by weather but occasionally for ceremonial purposes). The climb is up the western end and requires pulling yourself up a 45 degree angle using a chain handhold. About once a year, someone dies from a fall or a heart attack. (Closed for temperature over 95 the day we were there.) The alternative is walking around the base, to view the cracks, holes, stains waterholes and caves all caused by the rare rains that do fall, creating waterfalls down Uluru’s mostly vertical walls. In addition, some of the sheltered areas along the base were/are sites of Aboriginal rites or were classrooms where grandparents used wall paintings to pass on knowledge and traditions to children, while parents hunted and cooked. The natural colors and simple symbols used in this instructional material as well as the dot painting technique used to draw in the sand are the basis for the art now sold on canvas in the nearby cultural center.

Our guides’ comments regarding the history and status of the indigenous population were revealing. They are consistent with the history of European-indigenous relations described in a book called, Nowhere People, which is a history of racial relations in Australia. We heard a number of comments that suggested a belief that Aborigines are not as evolutionarily developed as people of European descent. This was a dominant viewpoint and directed government policy in Australia for most of past 200 years. Darwin’s theories were used to perpetuate the idea that Aborigines were a more primitive form of human. It is only since modern genetics and DNA testing that such ideas could be disproved. I prefer the theory that Aborigine culture has persisted continuously for over 30,000 years in a model of tribes surviving by hunting and gathering as being a function of environment. Lack of wild grains (e.g. wheat, rice, corn) that could become crops or large herd able mammals (horses, oxen, etc) seen in other parts of the world. Without agriculture, development of stationary homes and larger communities didn’t occur. At the same time, we learned of complex culture, knowledge and skills developed to survive.

This was our first family camping trip. For sure not our last, given that we all found things we enjoyed in an environment was more challenging than anything we could find in Minnesota in the summer. I would compare it to winter camping, which I (unlike my brother David) have carefully avoided. We all experience it so differently and we are learning about each other as we suffer and enjoy (although not always the same things). For example, finding lizards in the dining tent or half-dollar sized insects in the bathroom was fun for Emily but not for everyone else.

A quick list of the things we did: sunrise and sunset viewing the Rock (not ideal because of clouds), hiking, camel rides, and Emily and I took a brief helicopter tour.

Back in Alice Springs, we completed our Outback exploration by a tour of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which provides air transport for medical providers that serve the Aborigine communities and remote cattle stations (ranches) many of which are hundreds of thousands of acres. In addition to our standard visitor’s tour of the facility, I was able to chat with the local medical director for central Australia, an area of 1 million square kilometers. He was very generous with his time, for over an hour sharing stories of the clinical, cultural, ethical and administrative challenges in providing remote medical care, especially within cultural norms that are nearly impossible for Whites to infiltrate or understand. He also confirmed my impression that the Outback is a rare destination for Australian tourists, although I am thankful that we included it our itinerary since it is as large in the history and landmass of the country as it is home to a small fraction of the population.