Cheap travel Australia Northern Territory, how to travel in Outback Australia, student travel Australia
By: Steve Elliott (justin) 2012.01.09
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You start in Alice Springs, heart of the Outback. Australia's middle is desert suitable only for a mining outpost or as a place for America to test nuclear bombs.
Miles and miles of thin, pale grass separated by dust and gnarled, bent, broken trees, all of it blown back by a strong, hot wind that pierces the interior.
This is the belly of the Northern Territory, the bush. Dry, unforgiving. The Northern Territory accounts for only one percent of Australia's population but twenty percent of its land. It is a place clearly not meant to be populated by humans. But here it is, in the heart of the NT, a small city, which with the exception of a military base built inland to withstand a Japanese attack on the northern shores during World War II, mainly serves a tourist trade.
Small busses shuttle from a smaller airport the men and women who have come here to begin their journey into the Australian Outback, to see the Red Center. Here is the largest Aboriginal population in Australia. They own much of the Northern Territory, including Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. In Alice Springs the difference in incomes is painfully obvious. The whites live in sturdy houses where air conditioning units perch in the windowsills and laundry hangs from the lines. The aboriginals live in shacks, clothes strung across the fences. Everything starts here, an oasis, a traveling point. The Aboriginals who have left or been exiled from the safety of their communities lean against the stores in dusted denim pants and torn-up gym shoes, saying nothing to the tourists who walk the streets stocking up on water and Powerbars.
I meet a girl at The Backpackers Hostel named Kathy. She's from Canada, wears tight shorts, a sleeveless shirt, has thick legs, a smooth belly and long brown hair. She talks like someone who has always been beautiful - that is to say incessantly, knowing you're listening because everyone always has. Most of what she has to say is absurd. She's afraid of the Aboriginals, they're dark-skinned and they don't work; Americans are boring because you've already seen them on television. When she gets back she's going to leverage her skills in public relations for optimum career advancement.
I stay up late, drinking beer and listening to her talk. In the back of my mind I ask myself what I'm doing, but it's the desert. In the morning I see her again in the cafe. We're waiting for our respective buses. She still looks good and I wonder if she wants to sit down and give me another rundown on the Canadian version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but then her bus comes, the sun rises over the hills, I take another drink of coffee, and she is gone.
The desolation of the Australian Outback is mind-boggling. Miles of red sand punctuated with small, dry bushes for as far as the eyes can see. All of the roads are named after explorers who didn't make it. Adam, the bus driver, makes jokes over the speakers, "What's the difference between Australia and yogurt? Yogurt has culture." I've left Alice Springs for its main attractions, Kings Canyon, the Olgas, Uluru - a 900- mile trip.
I fall in with Marc, a nurse from London, Adam who lives in The Backpackers and whose close-set eyes and pinched nose betray a direct lineage to an escaped convict and a sheep, and a young, blonde Australian girl named Rebecca. We're camping, exploring, hiking miles everyday. Rebecca and Marc place a rubber snake on me while I am sleeping, everybody knows that isn't funny.
Today we're off to the Olgas and tomorrow we'll finish in Uluru, the worlds largest pebble, nine kilometers around. The natives ask you not to climb Uluru but the white Australians don't care about the natives except when the aboriginals steal their cars. The Aboriginals don't care for the white Australians either. For fifty years the Australian government took away Aboriginal children to teach them, inoculate them and raise them as white people. The parents tried to hide the children in attics and closets. It didn't work out, and now the stolen generation exists separately, with their own medicines and their own traditions on their own land, and visitors are not welcome. Meanwhile, the reports I get from the guides describe a culture of "petrol-sniffing alcoholics. Doing the kids a favor. Sure, all fair and good. But they did steal my car." I'm from inner-city Chicago and I've never seen racial disharmony as strong as this.
I split a case of beer last night with some Swedes and now I'm walking through the Olgas, the dancing rocks, with Rebecca. She complains of foot pain. I tell her I'm going to give her to the Aboriginals for a painting and a necklace.
Rebecca is from Queensland, Australia and hates Aboriginals. So does the tour guide. People keep telling me to climb the rock, the aboriginals don't mind. But the Aboriginals clearly mind. At the cultural center there are signs everywhere; "Please do not climb Uluru." The nearby gas station sells two T-shirts, both referring to Uluru's European name, one says "I climbed Ayers Rock," the other says "I did not climb Ayers Rock."
"They get enough money. $2.75 of your admission price goes to the 300 Anangu living nearby," Adam says. My first thought is, well, it is their rock. My second thought is that broken down this comes to about a million dollars a year, which sounds like a lot, but it's actually less than $4,000 a person. Hardly enough to play the stock market or buy a house in Oakland. My third thought is, where does the rest of it go? Park admission is $16.25.
It's easy to see why Uluru has so much significance to the Anangu tribe; there isn't anything else. Barren land for thousands of square miles except for a couple of really impressive rocks and then Uluru, a towering, solitary monolith, a gigantic, one-piece red stone looming 348 meters over the most flat, desolate land imaginable. The walk around the base is nine kilometers. As you approach it you can't stop looking at it. You don't want to stop looking at it. You've seen it on every brochure, every travel guide, a big red rock in the middle of nowhere, but it pulls you. It's exactly what you expect, yet. . . It's a hundred million years old, the last remainder of what was once the largest mountain range in the world. It's impossible not to feel a connection to it, even for a cynic. It's the only time I've ever seen an inanimate stone and felt like I was visiting a relative.
I walk the base of Uluru with Rebecca, still determined to trade her for valuable indigenous artifacts. It's raining, hard, which is strange because this is the desert. We stomp through puddles up to our knees and the water comes cascading down the side of the rock in twenty or thirty raging, cacophonous waterfalls. It is stunning. It defies description. In the caves there are ancient Aboriginal drawings and many areas are roped off, sacred, please don't photograph.
The Anangu were given their land back in the 80s, but only on the condition the rock remain open for tourism. The Anangu are a very secretive society, passing myth and tradition on to their children through dream stories told at different points in a person's development. The signs at the cultural center and around the rock continually remind you that this is their rock, that what they say is true, that you should listen and learn. But they don't actually tell you anything because the stories are sacred and you are not Anangu. They also request that you do not climb the rock, as it is disrespectful, but that request is ignored by 150,000 people every year. I wasn't going to climb the rock, I had decided. Anyway, rain what it is, nobody gets to climb today.
Four days and six long hours later we return to The Backpackers for pizza and beer. I was unable to get a decent price for Rebecca. As it turns out she's here on behalf of a tourist agency so she's in a hotel instead of a dorm like the rest of us. After a few drinks she invites us to watch Temptation Island. Rebecca is dying to know if Billy is going to stay with Mandy. Personally, I'm hoping to find out where Kia buys those cool-looking shirts. Tired and enthralled, we watch the television oblivious to the irony of watching pretty people sipping exotic drinks at a five-star resort after our trek through one of the least-developed areas in world. Now I know how Captain Cook felt when he came upon Botany Bay after months at sea. Tonight I'll sleep a fit sleep, a smile playing across my lips, deep in the red center.
For more info on the outback, check out our travel Australia page.
Photos by NTTC