After Sydney, I headed to Alice Springs, the hub for all Outback adventures. Most people come to Australia to travel the east coast and hang out on the beach and snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef. But for some reason that did not sound appealing to me. I wanted to see the Outback and learn about the aboriginal culture. Since I didn't have my own transport, I decided to do a 5 day tour. I am always weary about signing up for tours...is it going to be worth the money, will my tour group be cool, etc. Fortunately, the tour that I did was well worth the money. The itinerary, guide, and group were awesome. The tour was a mix of adventure, cultural awareness, history, geological formations, and best of all....laughter. I am going to try my best to capture all the moments of the tour, but I know that this blog won't give the moments justice. Let's just say...it was an experience that I will look back on and smile about for years to come. My group has all agreed about this...and our guide said we were one of his most special groups that he has had in a long time.
Upon arrival to Alice Springs, I didn't know that much about The Outback...especially the history and culture side of it. As I walked through the city the day before my tour started, it was very clear that there was a racial tension throughout. There were aboriginal people lingering around the streets corners, passed out or yelling obscenities. There was a dried up river in the city that groups of aboriginals would hang around bomb fires that they would make each night. I went for a jog around the city and then went out for dinner on my own...it was the first time in my life that I felt a little scared towards a specific group of people. The police were present everywhere and I realized the city has a bad reputation for violence and danger. I noticed that I would walk on the other side of the road to avoid walking near them...they were dirty and smelled and I was scared they would do something to me. Then I realized that it was the first time that I was experiencing racist feelings....this was very unlike me. I was being ignorant to the situation and it disturbed me that the thoughts even went through my head. I was looking forward to the tour so that I could understand these people more and figure out the complex situation that was taking place in front of me. I decided to immediately disregard the initial feelings I was having and learn as much as I could about the aboriginal culture before I cast any judgements towards them.
The tour company picked my up at my hostel at 6 am in the morning. It was still dark outside as I boarded the bus and I couldn't really see any of the other passengers. I sat between an older man and a girl who looked to be about my age. The girl was named Kate, she was from the UK and was living in Australia for a few months, taking a break from her life in the UK and getting her head together. Kate and I instantly clicked and she became my side-kick during the tour. The man was named Richard (aka Whiskey Dick for his love of whiskey...not the other reason). I don't even know where to begin with Richard, he was a 48 year old American and had started his spiritual journey later in his life because of some major experiences he went through. He was a whiskey drinking, motivating, spiritual person. He loved the outdoors and was a mix between Patrick Swazye and Crocodile Dundee. So there it was....the 2 Yankees and the Brit. We were chatting throughout the entire drive in the morning and it was very apparent that we were going to be the 3 'loud" ones of the group.
The other group members were Tudor & Sonar, an older couple from Sri Lanka and currently residing in the UK. Tudor was a doctor and would perform magic tricks for us throughout the tour. Then there was Bridgette from Melbourne. She was only 18 years old and worked on a cattle station. She carried herself like a wise old woman and didn't mind getting her hands dirty. We had the 4 Germans: Ines, Julia, Chris, Anna. Ines and Julia were friends and traveling together. Chris was your typical German "office" guy (as Ines and Julia described). He was what we would call a computer nerd I think. Anna was a sweet 21 year old who had innocence written all over. I had actually met her at a hostel in New Zealand so it was a pleasant surprise to see her again. Then we had the Italian lovers who didn't speak much or mingle with the rest of the group. I didn't get to know them very well. Last but not least was our guide, Geoff. He was 38 and had had an interesting life as well. I quickly nicknamed him El Jefe (which means boss in Spanish) so he got a kick out of that.
Our first stop of the day was at a Camel farm. For $5 you could ride on a camel, which I totally did because when else will I be able to ride on a camel. When we arrived, Geoff noticed that the back door to the truck was open and that a bag had fallen out on the 2 hour drive to the camel farm. The bag was one of the Italians and had all of her belongings for a years worth of travel. They had to backtrack to try and find it....which gave the group time to mingle and get to know each other. Unfortunately, the bag was not found and Geoff was embarrassed by the misfortune so early into the tour. The back door was faulty so we had to tie a string around it to keep it closed. (The bag was actually found the next day so everything was good to go.)
Next stop was King's Canyon. it reminded me of the red rocks in Southern Utah. Cliffs of red stone everywhere. We hiked through them for a few hours while Geoff explained the geological features and how they were created, etc. We came upon a watering hole where we had the option to take a dip. Geoff also asked us to take a few minutes of silence and listen to the winds and trees and wildlife around us....As we were doing this, Richard decided he wanted to take a swim. He got undressed down to his white underpants and walked his way to the watering hole. We all watched him in silence thinking to ourselves "This dude is kind of crazy, huh?" As he went to take his first step into the water he slipped on the moss and slammed into the ground. It was by far one of the funniest moments I have seen on my trip. Here we were in silent mode, being one with the land and he is walking around in his underwear and then completely eats shit into the water hole. The brilliant thing about Richard, is that he does not get embarrassed. He explained to me that he spent his first 40 years worrying about what others thought about him and he was going to spend the next 40 being weird and not giving a damn about it. This is why I loved Richard! Anyways, he didn't even skip a beat and continued swimming as we all looked at each other wondering if we should laugh or continue being in silent mode. I finally couldn't hold myself and started chuckling. We didn't know each other well enough to burst into hard laughter...but it would be a moment that we would soon laugh about throughout the rest of our tour. When Richard got up, he had this streak of green moss on his ass from where he slid in....I will never forget that moment! After Richard got out of the water he started walking around the area and stumbled across a part of the land that was off-limits because of re conservation. Geoff quickly yelled to him to get off that part of the land. Richard then tripped over the fallen conservation sign and then almost tripped over his own feet. Kate and I just looked at each other with our eyes filling up with tears....Richard was going to be a liability the next 5 days...crazy "Whisky Dick" Richard.
That night we arrived to our camp site and as a team, we cooked dinner and set up camp. Richard had some whiskey and Kate had some wine so we all had a few drinks and mingled some more. This was the night that I had my "typical American" moment. I was talking to the Germans and explaining how I visited Germany with my family when I was in the 8th grade and how we rented a car and drove on "The Autobahn" (in a thick German accent). The German girls started laughing hysterically and pointed at me saying how I was such a typical American. I was so confused and didn't understand what was so funny. Anna explained that all Americans talk about "The Autobahn" as if it is this one grand street in Germany where people drive on as fast as they want. I agreed..."well yeah...that is what it is, right?" They laughed again and said "I bet you think we wear lederhosen ever day and have houses filled with cuckoo clocks, too." I felt silly because "autobahn" actually means highway and there are numerous ones throughout Germany. It isn't this one particular street there. It was a funny moment because I make fun of people who think Texans ride horses to school and wear cowboy hats everyday and here I was doing the same thing to the Germans. Good times...good times!
We slept in "swags" which are heavy duty sleeping bags under the stars. Most everyone was already asleep as I got into my swag except for Richard. He was doing meditation breathing on the table and looking over us. I still didn't know much about Richard at this time and thought he was a bit peculiar so I just said goodnight and got into my swag. About 15 minutes later I heard him walking around the camp fire and blessing the campsite. He was chanting and praying that the bad spirits would leave us alone tonight, etc. I was laying there like (WTF is this guy doing??). Finally I drifted to sleep....
We all woke up to the sunrising. I mentioned to Kate about what I heard Richard doing the night before, but we both agreed that we had slept really well...so maybe his blessings did work. This was the day that we were going to Uluru (Ayer's Rock). I am going to call it Uluru from now on because that is the aboriginal term and the community is trying hard to bring back to aboriginal names to the land. The history and culture of the aboriginals is so complex that there is no way I will be able to explain everything I learned on the tour in this blog. I only learned a tip of the ice burg and it was so incredibly interesting that I could spend years traveling around the Australian land gaining more insight into one of the oldest cultures in the world (if not the oldest..still up for debate). Aboriginal findings date back to 40-50,000 years ago!!!! There were 1000s of different tribes covering the lands and each had their own dialect, stories, customs, etc. They lived off of the land and the land provided back for them. They worked as a community and the men and woman respected each other because they knew they needed one another to continue on. Depending on what day you were born decided your name and what skill set and responsibilities you were given. For 1000s of years they roamed the lands up until the 1800s when the white man came to Australia. The white man brought with them cattle and started cattle ranches. The aboriginals had never seen a white man before and they never had to compete for resources of the land. The cultures collided and everything that the aboriginals lived for were taken away. White man introduced alcohol which changed the entire dynamic of the aboriginal tribes. Their bodies could not digest the substance easily and it caused major violence and disturbance within the tribes themselves. Many kids were abused and mistreated. Missionaries soon moved in to help "solve" the problems. There were good things and bad things that came from the missionaries....they did help the mistreated children, but they also provoked new religion and the curiosity changed the way the aboriginals have taught and learned the culture for 1000s of years. The racial tension continued to grow deeper and deeper and a lot of aboriginals got a bad rap because of the substance abuse. Even my guide, Geoff, explained that a majority of Australians grow up with this racial view of the aboriginals. He did as well and it wasn't until he moved to The Outback that he started to understand the complexities of it all and have a better understanding of the people. Finally, a few people in the government realized that the white man messed up and started giving the aboriginal people money for the harm done. They thought the money could be used to build communities and get their lives back together. The government treated the Aboriginal people as one group, even though there were 1000s of different tribes with specific needs and vastly different from one another. Aboriginal people never lived in houses before and didn't use money. This just gave them more accessibility to alcohol and drove them farther away from their roots. It really wasn't until tourism began and the outside world took a major interest in the aboriginal culture for the government to seriously take a look at the situation. Now that the government had a chance to make money on the aboriginals, and had the expectations from the outside world, they decided to try to work with the aboriginals and bring back some of the culture. Uluru is an area of land that the aboriginals won back in court. However, since it is a National Park area, the government still has a part of what happens on the land. The aboriginals don't have the infrastructure to handle all of the tourism so the government leads that area. Basically, the government still controls everything even though it is aboriginal land.
I know that is a lot of information and that isn't even half of the complex situation that I learned. Geoff was really good about making us think about the situation and explaining the history and why things were the way they were now. He fell into the same racial tension that a majority of others did and it has taken him a few years to think differently. He said that next time you see them in town don't judge them on the way they smell or look and if they are drunk...have an open mind and understand the situation that has led a lot of them to this stage. Also, this is only a small fraction of the people and they give a misconception of what the culture is really about. The mentality is changing for the better but it will take years for any major progress and it is the tourism and education of the visitors that are the ones truly helping. Aboriginal culture is still hardly addressed in Australian education and I think that is the first place that it should be addressed.
UUuuuggggg! It was so frustrating to learn about all of this and see exactly where the problems started, but the entanglement of issues from all different directions made me realize that there were no easy answers or solutions.
We spent that whole day walking around Uluru and hearing spiritual stories that the aboriginals would tell based on the formations. For lunch, we had a traditional Barbie overlooking Uluru. I had given Geoff a hard time about the perfection of a BBQ since I was from Texas. So, I was quickly nicknamed "Texas" and he put me in charge of the barbie for lunch. I must say...it was a pretty good meal :) After lunch we visited the aboriginal community center which was run by aboriginals and white men together. I browsed all of the art and crafts (the art is some of my favorite that I have seen and someday I will own some pieces in my home). We went to a lookout to watch the sunset over Uluru....the rich red color of the stone came out as the sunset reflected off of it. For dinner, we had kangaroo spaghetti for dinner and told more stories around the campfire. We reflected back on the day and the interesting things we learned. Geoff told us to draw some art in the sand the way the aboriginals did to express how we were feeling that night.
The next day we woke up really early to drive out and watch the sunrise at a lookout where you could see Uluru and Kata Tjuta. After that we drove to Kata Tjuta (which is a mountain range of sandstone/conglomerate domes). The area is sacred to the aboriginals, but they have opened up 3 of the domes for us to walk around and visit. Geoff continued telling us the spiritual side of the area and then the geological reasoning behind the formations as well. We hiked to an area called the "Valley of the Winds". Richard walked away on his own and looked as though he was meditating. Later he told me how he was listening to the spirits out there and they were angry and wished people would not talk so much. They just wanted to rest...day after day..everyday of the year there are people stomping all over the sacred area and talking...not noticing the true beauty of silence. This got me a little worried because there have been many situations where people have taken rocks from Uluru and their lives were filled with badluck. I hoped that we didn't disrespect any of the spirits at Kata Tjuta. The last thing I needed on my travels was bad luck.
Today we would lose half of the group who only signed up for the 3 day tour. We would also change into a smaller safari jeep and 2 new people would join us. Geoff was disappointed about adding new people because this is the stage of the trip where you advance into a more intimate group and he was afraid the new comers would not mesh well.
We said our goodbyes to our new friends and wished everyone well. The group condensed down to Richard, Kate, Ines, Julia, Anna, and Me. We all got along well and were excited to spend 2 more days together. We all were uniquely close to one another even though we had only known each other a couple days. Even Geoff commented how neat it was that we all got along so well. The newcomers were Becks and Dave. They were both from Sydney and pretty nice, but their personalities didn't click well with any of us. To say it nicely, Becks was a know-it-all and they were pretty in your face about everything. We had all been in The Outback for 3 days and were pretty chilled out....they were wiry city folks who jumped in. I am a pretty tolerant person and try to stay positive all the time, and they even got on my nerves a bit. However, we all tried our best to welcome them to the group given the circumstances.
We transferred all of our belongings to a small safari jeep and headed out to our next stop. About 1 hour into driving a rock hit the back window and it shattered. We had to make-shift a window cover with carpet and tarp. Then, Geoff realized he forgot all of his belongings in the other truck....you could tell that Geoff was frustrated with the entire situation, but he handled himself well and managed to tuck us into our swags that night and send us off with an aboriginal bedtime story.
This morning we took a cultural walk with an aboriginal named Craig. His family had gone to court for 8 years and managed to gain back some of their tribal land from the government in the 80s. He was of mixed race and his grandfather was a white cattle man. They grew up farming and raising cattle and still continued that on the land, but now they were able to incorporate their tribal customs back into their lives. The aboriginal community that he was from lived back on the land again. Craig was a captivating speaker who had a lot of passion of continuing the knowledge and education of the aboriginal people. He was slightly out casted at first when he started doing cultural tours on the land, but he felt that the awareness of the history and culture was important to helping to bring those customs back. We went hiking and he showed us cave paintings and drew stories in the sand. We went hunting for fossils and he explained the rituals and customs of his specific tribe. He also talked about incorporating the aboriginal culture into todays world. There were many things that I learned that day, but one thing that sticks out to me is they way that Craig never blamed the white man for how life is today. He didn't show anger or defeat about how history had taken place. Yes, the aboriginals had been through a devestating past, but they too needed to help themselves to continue on. He explained that there were good things and bad things to the situations that took place and that progression was only natural. There was no way they could go back to the way things were in the 1800s because of the awareness they now had of the outside world. So instead of mourning about it the rest of his life, he is doing what he can to continue the culture and rituals with the way the world is today. He hopes that the aboriginal culture continues on for many more years to come and that it doesn't become extinct like many of the world's past civilizations.
After the interesting cultural experience, we headed out to the Larapinta River (also known as the Fink River). Anthropologists, scientists, and geologists have dated this river back to being the OLDEST RIVER IN THE WORLD!!!! Crazy, right? It was a dried up river bed when we visited and only has water when the rains come through the desert. The last major rain was last November. On our way to the river a tire blew on the jeep. Poor Geoff....he was faced with a lot of obstacles on this tour. Fortunetaly, we were an easy-going bunch and thought that everything added to the adventure. After hiking around the Larapinta Trail, we went to go find our camp. It became dark and we had to off-road to get to the camp site. We ended up getting totally stuck in the sand. Poor Poor Geoff......the tires were half-way deep into sand and the only way out was digging. We worked as a team trying to get the jeep unstuck. As we were doing this we finally looked up to see the stars above us. I have never seen the sky so clear...it was as if we could see every star in the sky. I felt like I could almost touch the milky way.
It was about this time that I got the rumble in my stomach. My bowel movements had been sketchy since we started camping and I took a few immodium the first day because I didn't want any trouble. Well, my body was finally trying to tell me that it was time to go...I needed a toilet quickly. All of our campsites the previous nights had bathrooms that you could walk to so I really wasn't that worried. Then, Kate notified my that the campsite for tonight was not going to have a bathroom and we need to go in the bush. "Ummmmm seriously???" I thought to myself. I was pissed because only an hour ago we were at a decent bathroom, but I just told myself to wait till we got to camp and now I wouldn't even have a bathroom to go to. When we arrived to camp, Geoff told us to go over that hill to to use the bathroom and dig a whole with the shovel, etc. I asked him for some toilet paper....however, the toilet paper and been misplaced so we didn;t have any. He handed me a bit of coarse paper and told me that would have to do. Fortunetaly, the guys all left to go collect firewood and the girls remained to setup camp and start dinner. So it was the perfect time for me to go. I walked over to this hill that I thought he told me to go to and dug a hole and did my business. At the same time, a huge gust of wind came through right as I did so and I heard all the girls start chuckling because they could totally smell it. (sorry I know this is gross, but this is the story of my life). I was completely mortified....here I was in the middle of the outback with a shovel and a hole and a huge gust of wind had to come at the particular moment. I think the spirits were upset with us afterall. I made a mound of dirt over the hole to keep in any other smells and went back to camp. Later I realized I had gone in the wrong spot and dug my hole right where Geoff was planning on camping. I told him that it may be better if he chose a different area.
Our final and last day in The Outback! We went hiking through a gorge and to a place called Palm Valley, which has palm trees unique to that area only. While we were there we were confronted by a kangaroo only feet away from us. We startled him and he took off running around us and up into the mountains. We had seen several kangaroos during out tour, but none this close and personal. On our way back to Alice Springs, I sat up front next to El Jefe and we talked about our lives and the past 5 days. I couldn't believe it was all coming to an end. It was such an amazing adventure filled with culture and friends. I especially had a good time because it was nice to meet people and build a special relationship with them and then to share the experiences together. During my travels, I see and experience a lot of things on my own and it is nice sometimes to share these moments with others. We may have only known each other for a few days but we all developed an intimate bond with one another.
Geoff talked about the trip because he too noticed the ease of friendship that was developed and all the obstacles he was faced with. He enjoyed our group because we all worked together and he was there in the present with us instead of thinking of when the tour would be over, etc. (like he often thinks when he is on tour). During our tour, the song Cecilia by Simon & Garfunkle was the song that was always in our heads. We would play it on the Ipod or someone would be humming it around camp. On our drive back home, Cecilia came on the radio again and we turned up the volume and sang it all together at the top of our lungs...laughing histerically.
That night we all met up for a farewll dinner to share stories and say our goodbyes. There was a live band playing and Richard sneaked off to make a request. A few minutes later we had the band asking for us to get on stage. We were all a bit mortified, but Richard (who never gets embarresed) was standing up with a big grin on his face. He had requested Cecilia and asked that we all go and dance together. There were about 60 other people in the bar who were not dancing....but we all got up anyways and danced in a circle singing Cecilia. I was laughing so hard that I was crying.
Geoff had asked us to figure out a group name, he liked naming the groups so he could identify them. After a few beers together, it was pretty easy to decide that we would be named "Team: Cecilia"