Near the start of our 6-hour bus trip from Alice Springs to Uluru (Ayres Rock), our driver Gordon pointed out that if we were to get off the bus, leave the road and walk westwards, we would be more likely to encounter the Indian Ocean than to encounter another human being. And that'd be something like 2000km later, so much more likely again would be a lingering death in the desert. At first I didn't think too much about this - I've read a dozen similar parables from just about every book I've read on Australia. But now that I found myself in the desert for the first time, I looked at things a little closer. I imagined doing exactly what Gordon described. The thought occurred to me that even if I just wandered for 30-40 minutes westwards, I wouldn't be too sure that I could even make my way back to the road, as I could distinguish no landmarks. And if I couldn't find the road, then I might as well be half way to the Indian Ocean as far as my chances of survival are concerned. Northern Territory, where both Alice and Uluru lie, makes up a little shy of one fifth of Australia's area, but has a population of only 210,000 people. Or put another way, NT is 20 times bigger than Ireland, with 20 times fewer inhabitants. The very idea of providing universal mobile phone coverage here is preposterous, so anywhere outside of major population centres, you can forget about phoning for help.
And yet this road through the dead heart of Oz serves as the boundary between some of the various cattle stations (cow farms to you and me) that operate out here. These can encompass enormous areas - approaching the size of Belgium, or Connaught (and making the latter look like bounteous meadowlands). Occasionally we saw cattle, alone or bunched in twos or threes, meandering around the bush, grazing on who knows what. Maybe the word desert is misleading here. It's not the Sahara, with nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye can see. If you look from the road, you'll see lanky trees to a height of 4 or 5 metres in some places, bushes and scrub occupying the middle area, and course grasses in the foreground. Only occasional glimpses of red sand can be made out. But when you step into the landscape, you realise that all that vegetation is thinly spread out, and 80% of the space is bright oxidized red sand. This is why the cattle stations are so damn big - around here, a single head of cattle needs 2 square kilometers (200 hectares) to feed itself. This is almost the definition of marginal land. As we move closer and closer to Uluru, the cattle stations fall away. There's clearly just no point in trying.
I'm glad we spent a night in that shithole of Alice Springs (there you go Dunc, self-censorship lifted ;-) if only because the journey by bus sets Uluru into context in a way that flying directly to its airport could never do. It's far away from everything and everywhere. We spent the next 2 days visiting two major sites: The Olgas (Kata Tjuta) and Ayres Rock (Uluru), and Letizia has outdone herself with the photographs this time. The walks we did were not terribly strenuous though in the heat, and constantly beset by flies, even small efforts took their toll. Poor Nina and Sara: they've been marched up and down over the last 3 months, but they are still going strong. What really helped their resilience this time was the purchase of two really cute hats that look like they're straight out of Crocodile Dundee. They couldn't believe their eyes when their normally cautious parents loosened the purse strings a little and treated them to these hats. They wore them proudly up the gorge between the Olgas, and around the base of Uluru at ungodly hours of the morning. A great investment. I suspect you won't see a single picture of them from here on in without the hats.
Sunset on the rock is truly beautiful, and it does change colour continuously as the sun reaches the horizon. The place where most people watch it from isn't too busy - you can certainly get away from the noise if you want to. But it's not a spiritual experience - and I'm not just saying that because I'm the crusty old Cartesian my wife describes me as. It's a beautiful sight, it's a relaxing experience, a great backdrop for a glass of wine and a stupid grin, but sunset from Fraser Island will remain with me forever.
Before coming to Uluru I had read of the handover of 1985, when the government of Bob Hawke decided to recognize the title of the indigenous people of Uluru (the Anangu) to this land. I was looking forward to seeing a part of Australia that was in the hands and under the management of the first owners. This was pretty naive of me. When the handover took place, Uluru was already a National Park at the time, not to mention a popular tourist destination. The deal reached between Hawke and the Anangu hinged on the condition that the Anangu lease the land back to the federal government for the next 99 years. There was no visible sign of black ownership anywhere. There were plenty of references to local culture and lore from the (white) guides and in the resorts literature. But then again, in modern Australia, such references are everywhere. You'll find Dreamtime stories related to the creation of the moon and the stars in Sydney Observatory but it hasn't been handed over to the long-eradicated Eora people. It seems that it will take many more generations - maybe longer than a 99-year lease will provide for - for the aboriginals to assume the real day-to-day management of this, or any other, large project.
The Anangu never lived around Uluru - it wouldn't support a permanent human presence. They visited for special occasions, like rites-of-passage ceremonies. They would also come after rainfall and make the best of the increase in edible flora and fauna (digging up honey ants seems to have been a favourite treat in this area), but like most aboriginals, they moved around to allow the earth to recover and regenerate, sometimes giving it a helping hand by setting fire to it before leaving. (In case this sounds a little crazy, firestick farming has only recently begun to be understood scientifically as an effective way to convert scrub into grazing - supporting the kind of wildlife that the aboriginals liked to hunt.) In a harsh environment like this, where man made no pretension to conquer nature by farming, but instead had to make do with living within its limitation, the aboriginal population itself rose and fell, matching the numbers of animals and plants that it fed on. It sounds primitive, but population control is a complicated matter, and one that modern societies would do well to learn (says the man with two kids).
To those who voted for us to go to Uluru, thank you. I'm very glad we went, and would have regretted missing it. In fact my only regret about going is that we didn't spend another night and go to see King's Canyon. But I think a 17% budget overrun is quite enough, don't you?
I've got one more blog in me before we leave for New Zealand on Saturday - something to summarize the Australian experience if that's possible. Thanks for continuing to follow the blog (or indeed thanks for visiting if you've just arrived).
Without any attempt to relate this to anything I've just written, spare a thought for this gentleman:
We encountered him on the road to Uluru from Alice. Those are camels that you can see there, and they are harnessed to the motor-less carcass of some old car. What you probably can't see are the solar panels on top, and the laptop inside. Apparently this guy has been wandering the backroads of Australia for over a decade now, sustaining himself with casual work wherever he stops. He's German apparently, and before the car, he had an old cart whose wheels were big enough to allow him to travel along the dried river beds. Now he has to content himself with sharing the road with the likes of us. For all I know, the chap has his own blog out there, but I'm stuffed if I can find it. Next time you think it's a crazy dream to up stakes with your family and travel around the world for no good reason, remember - there is always somebody out there crazier than you.