The first part of my travel diary is here.
The in-progress album of photos from our trip is here.
Alice Springs is in the middle of Australia—in the "Red Center." It's in the middle of cattle station country and in the novel A Town Like Alice was held up as a paragon of outback civilization. Anyone remember that miniseries with Bryan Brown? No? Anyone remember the Jam song "Town Called Malice"? Same cultural reference, and you're welcome for the earworm. And that is still pretty much the extent of my knowledge of Alice Springs. We spent less than 24 hours here, and coming from Sydney, Alice Springs definitely felt like a dusty little backwater.
It had been raining heavily, so some of the roads were impassable, including the one to our hotel. Our bus from the airport had to take a detour, and the driver remarked on how rarely that happened. Everyone talked about how the Todd River usually just had a trickle of water at most. We got a quick glimpse of the backside of town from the bus, which seemed to have a lot of public housing under construction. We found that our hotel, a big, generic outpost of a chain, was about a mile away from the central business district.
At the hotel I spotted the first new birds since our arrival. They were Galahs, which look something like African gray parrots with pink heads, but they're actually in the cockatoo family.
After settling in, we started out from our hotel to explore on foot. As we left, a team of fresh-faced boy athletes were arriving. They looked like a junior varsity soccer team.
The closest thing to see was the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, so we headed there. It was muggy and buggy and rocky. The few visitors all seemed to be sitting in the cafe. The scenic trail we took was rough and wet, and not much was in bloom. I'm sure in a different season it would have been a stunning display of desert wildflowers, but as it was it just seemed like red-dirt desert. Some large, noisy honeyeater-type bird kept jumping just out of range of my binoculars. We saw a few small lizards, but frustratingly, no mammals. Tired of slapping at flies, we decided to head into town, which, based on our map-reading was quite close. We only had to follow the river to get there.
Trailing a couple of locals, we started down a path next to the river, headed for a main road into the CBD. It was only by scrambling carefully around the ruts that we avoided sinking into red mud up to our ankles. I was concerned about snakes, bugs, ankle-twisting, and being mugged. When Jane said, about four times, "We are so taking a cab home," I replied just as many times, "OK. Fine by me. No argument here." We arrived unscathed and spent some time window-shopping. Alice Springs is a center for aboriginal art, so there are lots of galleries. We looked a bit but didn't buy, mainly because tribal art doesn't really do it for either of us. It was the first time we saw many Aboriginal people; there were groups hanging out in most of the open spaces.
Then we looked for a place to stop for a beer. We decided to go into a locals' pub, even though we were nervous about whether we'd be welcome. We found an unoccupied table on the patio and kept to ourselves. As I headed into the bar to find some chips (er, crisps), I aimed a vague smile at the sunburned white guy in sunglasses occupying a table close to ours, hoping to project a benign, live-and-let-live demeanor. In a while it started to rain a bit, and the guy came over to our table and asked if he could sit under our umbrella. We said of course, and he struck up a conversation. It turned out he was an Australian who was traveling the country with his young family in a caravan. They had rented out their home in Perth and planned to circumnavigate the country in 18 months or so. It was quite entertaining to chat with him and hear about all the places, both in Australia and elsewhere, that he'd been. With family originally from Ireland, he'd spent time in Manhattan working in a relative's bar, but he'd never been to California. We told him we were headed for Far North Queensland next, and he said that's where he ultimately wanted to settle his family. He insisted we stop in to Bo's Saloon, a cowboy bar that we had decided to give a pass. It wasn't nearly as hostile inside as we had imagined it might be. Hokey and tacky, yes. Hostile, no.
We mentioned the team we saw at our hotel and wondered if they were rugby players. Our new friend Anthony told us they were Australian rules football players, and there was a big exhibition game in town that night. Part of the reason that so many Aboriginal people were in town was for the game. Apparently there are some really good aboriginal players of Aussie rules football.
After Anthony headed back to his caravan and family, we wandered a bit more, and it rained intermittently. I dragged Jane into a small bookstore that specialized in books about the area. As usual, I picked up books as souvenirs: a general natural history field guide for central Australia and an outback cookbook. While camp cooking isn't my thing because camping really isn't my thing, the recipes looked sophisticated and the photography was beautiful. Also, it's bound with a hybrid paper-hard plastic cover that, as a book production person, intrigued me. The cover is already warped, so it doesn't look like something to recommend for any future projects.
We headed for the cab stand to get back to our hotel, and suddenly cabs were scarce. We ended up sharing one with two lads who were headed back to their backpackers' accommodations with a lot of beer. They said they were in town for the footy game, and asked if we wanted tickets (we declined). They also said that 10,000 people were expected to attend the game. We drove past the stadium, which from the outside looked to me like a fairly ratty high school stadium in the US—but maybe I got an inaccurate view from my quick glance at the outside. I think we learned from these guys that the team in our hotel was the Adelaide Crows--considered the hometown team.
After a shower we went to dinner in the hotel bar--I had a yummy, messy lamb burger with Moroccan flavors. And it started to pour. And poured steadily for a couple of hours as the stadium lights glared on. Apparently the Crows lost to the Melbourne Demons, according to the news the next day. I tried to imagine the amount of mud they had to play in, and was extremely grateful that we'd taken a pass on the game.
The rain caused big chunks of the hotel ceiling to fall at one spot in the hallway and there were buckets standing in the hallways to catch the leaks, as well as helpless-looking staff, just standing around with mops, looking up.
Very early the next morning we boarded a bus to Ayers Rock/Uluru. It was a tour bus, and many of our fellow passengers were doing a tour. So we got narrative as we drove through pastureland and desert—which looked a lot like deserts in the U.S. I felt like I could have been in Nevada. I slept a lot of the way. We stopped at a camel ranch/rest stop/tourist trap, notable mainly for the flies and the awful coffee. (One of the factoid tidbits that our driver regaled us with is that Australia's outback has feral camels. They were imported for use in building the railroad and then let go, and they naturalized. So, like so many other human interventions, they're now an environmental problem. Apparently there is some market for camel meat and leather, but it doesn't really control the camel population. Urgh. I think I'd feel the same way about eating camel as eating horse--or alpaca.) The flies in the outback are so persistent that they got into the bus on people's clothing after our stops. It was a relief to arrive at Uluru (aka Ayers Rock) and check into our hotel.
Once again, due to a travel agent's screwup, they had us booked in a room with twin beds. I fixed the desk clerk with a steely glare and informed him that we wanted one bed. He calmly switched the reservation, but I was pissed, since I had called the travel agent about this and she said she had fixed all the hotel reservations. Our room was actually quite nice, with modern-style furnishings and a newly remodeled bathroom, although the hotel's buildings were 60's-era cinderblock. The architecture reminded me of college dorms--efficient, not stylish. Later that evening, the smell of rain on eucalyptus throughout the resort took both of us right back to the UCSB campus. It was a weirdly strong sense memory.
Having less than 24 hours at Uluru, we wanted to make the most of our time. We got our bearings and went to find out how to head into the park. At the visitor information center, we were shown a range of tours and a single shuttle out to the rock. Most of the tours cost well over AUS$100 per person. I was ready to throw caution to the wind and sign up for the sunset dinner tour and the dawn breakfast hike the next day, but Jane's cooler head prevailed. Instead we paid just $40 each to be shuttled out to the rock for the rest of the afternoon, and signed up for a sunrise breakfast and walk around the rock. Which we needed to complete in time to check in for our afternoon flight.
We got our shuttle out to the rock and thoroughly perused the cultural center. We learned the Aboriginal stories about the area, a bit about the natural history, and perused more aboriginal art. Then we took a short hike (um, bushwalk) on a red-dirt trail through conifers and scrub and nearly missed our shuttle back to the village. We flagged down the driver just as he was about to leave.
It rained intermittently all night, which we were told repeatedly that only 2 percent of visitors get to witness. That didn't make us feel very lucky. The good thing about the intermittent rain, though, is that it mostly kept down the flies. In the outback the flies are extremely persistent, and you find yourself waving them away from your face constantly, although it doesn't deter them at all. All over the Uluru resort village, insect nets were for sale. These are worn over your head or a hat, and they put a mesh screen between you and the flies. I didn't care how it looked—I made Jane buy a couple within hours of arriving at the resort. And it was less annoying to wear them than to battle the flies. I can only imagine how buggy it would be at the height of summer heat. Every time Jane and I were in the hotel lobby we saw a trio of older Italian ladies who were wearing their insect nets and looking for their tour bus. They didn't seem to be having a very good time, and I felt a bit sorry for them.
We had to be ready for our morning hike around the rock at 5 a.m., so we turned in early and watched TV. The winter Olympics was still on, and Australian Lydia Lassila won a gold medal in aerial skiing. The media coverage of her win was delirious.
Our tour guide for the dawn patrol was a wiry old character named Barry. He took very seriously all the rules and regulations, such as carrying our permits anytime we were on park land. He also told us at great length many of the things we had already read or heard, such as why it's really discouraged for visitors to climb Uluru. (For one thing, it's steep and dangerous and lots of people die. But we got chapter and verse about why the Aboriginal residents don't want visitors to climb.)
When we started out it was pitch dark. Barry took off his shoes to hike barefoot, since some of the trail could be muddy or have puddles (in his words, the trail could be "squashy"), and he said he'd rather not get wet shoes and socks. Then he took off at a blistering pace. Jane and I don't walk slowly, and we had to hustle to keep up. I'm not sure why he took off so fast, because eventually he slowed down. However, we had let him know that we had to catch a shuttle to the airport shortly after noon, and we wanted to make sure not to miss it—he wouldn't commit to getting us back in time, but we figured the brisk pace was aimed at keeping us on schedule. The possibility of missing the shuttle and our flight lent a little edge of tension to the whole outing.
Eventually it began to get light, but we seemed to be on the wrong side of the rock to see the sunrise, or it was too overcast for a blazing display, or something. At any rate, the sky gradually lightened and we were walking next to an enormous monolith of a red rock, but it didn't turn gold or purple or anything. It's imposing to view at a distance, but in a way there's more to see when you get close up. There are waterfalls and fissures and caves. Although it looks smooth in the photos, the sandstone is really soft and rough. One of the first things I noticed was holes in the rock with whitewash below them. Lots of animals use holes in cliffs as burrows or nests, but the white streaks below the holes made me think birds, and probably falcons. So I was looking forward to asking Barry about them.
Ol' Barry told us about the mountain's geology, about the plants and the recent human history, and ALL the Aboriginal stories related to various sites around the rock, but he really was not big on wildlife. I suppose most people who visit Uluru are most interested in the history and mythology, but I would rather see a few good birds. Although large areas are not off-limits, there are lots of spots around the rock where it's prohibited to take photos. The guides stop you promptly if they catch you pointing your camera in the direction of these sacred sites.
When we stopped for breakfast (which was pretty spartan), Jane asked Barry about the glossy black birds we'd been seeing. He ID'd them as fairy martins with no further elaboration. I said I guessed the holes with whitewash were probably raptor nest holes, and he said, "Nope, all our raptors nest in platform stick nests." OK, so what *does* live in those holes, Marlin Perkins? I actually was too shy to pursue the topic, and he didn't volunteer any information. One bird that we asked for an ID on actually prompted a story. Barry said this flycatcher-like bird was a Willy Wagtail, and told us that the Aboriginal people consider them to be gossips who will eavesdrop on your conversations and then spread stories about you. He said he has seen native kids clam up and turn their backs when a Willy Wagtail comes near. When we saw them later in Cairns, they certainly had an air of being busybodies, racing around and flicking their tails.
With the sun fully up and shining on the rock, there was lots of bird activity. I thought I spotted more than one species of swallow, including one bird with iridescent blue feathers and a bright blue gape. My best guess is that this was a tree martin, maybe an immature.
I had to lag behind the group quite a few times after the halfway point so I could look at birds, and then had to trot to catch up with our group. That let me get a good look at a rainbow bee-eater, a really amazingly colored bird. Jane missed this one, although I commanded her to get her binoculars out and look for it.
Finally, as Barry was droning on with yet another myth related to some rock formation, I finally saw a raptor, so I rudely put my binoculars up and tuned Barry out. It was a falcon, with a moustache like a kestrel but not as small. It turned out to be a brown falcon.
We saw petroglyphs
and watering holes and waterfalls and caves, and Barry told us lots and lots of stories. We circumnavigated the rock, and Barry delivered us back to our hotel with time to spare before our shuttle to the airport. It was on to Cairns, which, Barry warned us, was in the middle of monsoon season.