Uluru and Kata-Tjuta

As we drive up to the giant rock formation we exclaim in wonder how amazing Uluru is. And thus we started our trip to Uluru! After the five-hour drive to Uluru we finally got there and boy were we ready to stretch our legs! At an art gallery in Alice Springs I had bought a boomerang and I decided to throw it there. I got a bit nervous about hitting someone so decided to put it it away a bit later. Soon it was time to eat. At the campsite there was a little kitchen and we decided to eat there. We also met a few nice people while we were eating.  My sister, my Mom, and I had bought some mint chocolate Kit Kats and we decided to try them out. We’ve never tried mint chocolate Kit Kats before. The Kit Kat’s were very yummy. Then we decided to go to sleep in our swags. Swags are basically sleeping bags on a cot and both are in a canvas bag. The next morning, we woke up, drove to Uluru after eating some muesli and yogurt and went to the dunes hike. After that we went to the guided tour. Before the tour I had to go to the bathroom. The bathroom was about 300 meters from the trailhead and I had to go. By the time I got back the tour had started. The guide told us all about the rock and the aboriginals (the natives to the land) who lived there. I will not give any spoilers about the tour, because you have to find out about it yourself! After that we went to the Kata-Tjuta formation and basked in its awesomeness. This is a formation that is sort of like Uluru, as in a few big rocks sitting in the desert, but totally different from Uluru. The rocks are more like a few giant boulders that have been dropped from the sky unlike Uluru which is one giant mesa. They are conglomerate rocks whereas Uluru is just sandstone. The next day we had to leave the giant rock sitting in the desert, Ayer’s rock, Uluru! And that finished our trip to Uluru.




Now I think that I should tell you a few facts about Uluru. The first is that some people call this giant rock in the middle of the desert Ayer’s Rock. THAT IS THE WRONG NAME! The correct name is Uluru. You might be wondering why you shouldn’t call Uluru Ayer’s rock. The reason is because the aboriginals, those who lived there, explained that Uluru is a sacred site and we should call it by its proper name.  Two, at a certain hike you can climb Uluru. DON’T DO THAT! The natives to the land ask that you do not climb the rock because Uluru is a sacred place and you are not supposed to climb on it. Also at the Mala hike at ten in the morning is a free ranger tour. Do it. The reason you should do the free ranger tour is that because it is fantasmariffic. Guided by an aboriginal ranger, he tells you all sorts of stuff you would not have known about the rock, gives you an in-depth insight on the traditions held by the rock.


In which I follow the signs and apologize to the crocodiles.

Well, what can I tell you about the Litchfield park tour that the kids haven’t already done? The crocodile feeding part of the tour was touristy for sure – I did read ahead of time that the jumping action that is exhibited is a natural one for the crocs. They also feed them very little for a crocodile and make them work for it, so it’s not their only source of food, and of the over 6000 crocs in the river there’s only about 150 that feed from them and even those feed sporadically with the tour, so there’s plenty of wildness around. I loved the experience, and especially seeing the raptors feed up close, though I have to admit I feel a little weird about the whole thing hence the need for me to justify myself. It’s just not totally natural. But, oh man, I will never forget the sound a crocodile’s jaws make when they snap shut. 

The other part of the trip was visiting the swimming holes, which were absolutely stunning. I’ve never gone somewhere where you jump into a natural pool surrounded by waterfalls that feed into it. Fun fact: it’s the dry season and hasn’t rained in months, but the waterfalls are fed because the stone surrounding them is a porous sandstone that soaks up water during the wet season and then releases it during the dry! The second stop was especially nice, where there was a 10+ meter deep pool that the kids could jump into, and they did, over and over. 

And seeing the massive termite mounds was a thing to behold! There were some fresh areas that the guide crumbled away to reveal scurrying termites, who would have the hole repaired in fifteen minutes. 

The next morning we went to the excellent Northern Territory Art Museum, which has wonderful examples of indigenous art both historic and contemporary. You can really see the differences in the art from different areas. Northern Territory art was done on eucalyptus bark, and used natural pigments and many fine lines as well as larger figures drawn with the same fine outlines, whereas more centrally was the dot paintings which I talked about earlier. Upstairs they had an exhibition of Aboriginal art award winners from a yearly contest – here is one with the artist’s explanation. I love the mixing of modern heroes and ideas into with the traditional dots and plants/myths. 

What we did in Australia was the equivalent, geographically, of flying from San Diego to Seattle, then to Utah, then to Chicago. Think about how different all those places are from one another, and it’s not hard to see the ground we covered here. It’s a big continent! I loved Sydney, Port Douglas and Uluru. Alice Springs was a good place to visit but I wouldn’t want to stay there long. Darwin, our last stop, I found somewhat charmless. Perhaps its the large number of tourists, but people there weren’t particularly friendly overall and the town is poorly laid out. That was the one place I wish I’d done a bit more research on before just staying there for 4 days – I would have instead done a longer jungle tour for a few days or maybe a 2 day tour into aboriginal country instead. One little thing I want to remember to mention is that in Oz and NZ, every single plug had it’s own little on /off switch attached to it. You couldn’t just plug something in, you had to turn on the actual outlet. I wondered if this saves any electricity or not, because if not it was an annoyance. 
Something my dad pointed out to me which I hadn’t realized is that with my trip to Australia, I’ve visited all the continents except Antartica! I guess I know where I’ll be going the next time I take off for an extended trip! 

I’ll leave this post with some of the road signs I’ve seen along the way so far, and will then catch up with our trip in Bali.

Doesn’t lopping just sound refined? Also, I think the crane and chainsaw would have been a giveaway even without the sign. 

So, there’s trucks on the road? Imagine that. MIght have been nice to see this sign BEFORE i had to pass ten of them. Then I could have been mentally prepared. 

The road! That hill! There’s an end to it! and usually it was about 100 meteres up ahead. I really thing this is a stealth campaign by proctor and gamble to break the monopoly that Colgate has on the Australian market. 

Speed bumps and cassowaries. You know, the usual. Driving skill: making sure the cassowary doesn’t become the speed bump. 

We saw neither scale of T-rex nor hair of wild kangaroo, despite the signs. It was a disappointment not to see either. 


The Darwin tour (because I do not know what the tour is actually called)

I yawned but what do you expect from someone who’s been woken up at five in the morning to go to a guided tour! The tour guide picked us up from our hotel and once all of the bus had been filled we set out on our journey! As we drove through the town, I read my book. The book that I was reading was “The Baby Sitter’s Club Book Number Three ‘The Truth About Stacy.’”

But once we got out of the city, the tour guide started talking and talking and some more talking. The only thing was that all of his talking was actually interesting and informational. I listened to some of it and the rest of the time I read. The first stop that we went to was the jumping crocs tour. I know that you are probably thinking that the tour was not fun but you are mistaken, the tour was great! And I highly recommend that you do the tour. (I also highly recommend that you read my sisters blog post) After eating some toast and drinking some tea we got on the ship that would take us to see croc jumping. The guides (for the croc jumping we had different guides) told us that we would be having a smaller boat than was usually provided. So then we walked on to the boat and let the tour guides do the work. The second croc that we saw is the picture belowDSC02675.JPG


The second croc that we saw was the biggest croc that we saw. In my mind, I was reminded a little of “Jurassic Park.” Gulp. In all, we saw three crocs. The guides were dangling buffalo over the side the boat then jerking it up just in time so that the croc did not get the meat right away. They also had to make them jump a certain amount of times so that the crocs hopefully went away hungry so they catch their own food later. At the end, they fed some meat to the sea eagle that was around and it was amazing! They also fed some meat to the kites.


After the jumping crocs we went to a little road side shop named The Banyan Tree and ate lunch there. Then after that we went to the fresh water pool. The pool was giant and I did not like it. Also the pool had rocks that you could climb on but it was quite a swim to the rocks but I still made it and only afterwards did we find out that the rocks were sacred and you weren’t supposed to climb the rocks. The next spring was up a little further and there was a rock that everybody dived off of and did it again. It was awesome! The next place we only looked at a waterfall and ate a snack. After that, we went home and that concluded our day!     the end






In which we arrive at the Red Centre, and I regress to being an anthro major

We’ve been in the Red Centre of Australia for five days now, and have had two completely different trips during that time. We started our stay here in Alice Springs, then rented a car and drove the 500km (300 mi) to Uluru (Ayers Rock), camped there for two days, then back again. For me, this has been the most profound leg of our trip yet as it has also been for Eric, who writes about it beginning with his post here.
Alice Springs is a town of 28,000 people almost directly in the center of Australia. We landed in Alice Springs on a warm morning, found our hotel and wandered outside to have a look around. Tourist Alice Springs largely focuses on a pedestrian mall in town that covers 5-6 blocks and is lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and aboriginal art galleries.

just a little far away from home

 The most striking thing I noticed about the mall, however, was the clear demarcation between the tourists (almost all white) and the aboriginal people walking around. Despite it being a weekday during which school is in session, there seemed to be many young aboriginal children walking around with their families. There generally seemed to be a lot of aboriginal people walking around doing, well, not very much of anything, and obviously very poor. I had known about aboriginal people prior to coming to Australia inasmuch as I knew they existed and had been oppressed. I didn’t know much about the current socioeconomic state of Aborigines at all. (Side note: While I’m aware that there are many different language groups of Aborigines and they are not all the same, the problems facing them are similar enough for my purpose here.) 
While I’ve traveled plenty to developing countries and seen the absolute destitution of communities there, it is always shocking to me to see that degree of poverty in a developed country. The closest I’ve gotten to seeing it in the US was when I spent a month at Whiteriver, a Native American reservation in Arizona. 
On this day we walked around the mall, finalized our car rental plans for the next day and then went to a wonderful Aboriginal art gallery which was marked by a focus on cooperation with the artists, so that they were fairly paid for their work. We spent a lot of time talking with the owners, Ric and Karl, about the art in their gallery, Yubu Napa, and how they approached the artists in a fair and respectful way and how many of the gallery owners in town would be dismissive of the artists or pay them a pittance or worse, in alcohol. We fell in love with a beautiful piece of art, titled “Budgerigar Dreaming” and bought it for our home. It represents how the indigenous people would search for waterholes in the land and the walkways between them. As it turned out, the artist is the one currently in residence at the Uluru gallery, and we were able to meet her later there, which was very cool. 

The history of Aboriginal peoples begins, over 30-40,000 years ago, though for the purposes of the current situation it starts with the entry of the British population. The nutshell version of this is that the Aboriginal people had been doing quite well for themselves until the arrival of the British in the late 18th century, who brought diseases that decimated the native population and regarded the Aboriginal people as less thaqan human. The British also began to annex land for themselves as they did not feel the Aborigines had any concept of land ownership and then drove the Aboriginal people off their prior territories. The Aborigines were nomadic to a degree but largely stayed within their territorial area – while they did not have a specific home as we think of one now, they did have a large area which was their “home base”. British people brought grazing animals to the land, which reduced resources for native animals and plants the Aborigines depended upon, and provided easy hunting for the Aboriginal people which enraged the settlers. 
Later on, many mixed race aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families to be sent to educational “camps” and instructed in the ways of the civilized Europeans. Needless to say, these were not pleasant places to be and stories of abuse are rampant. The practice ended only as recently as 1969. Aboriginal people didn’t have the full right to vote until 1964! Does any of this sound familiar? It seems to me nearly identical to what happened in America with the Native American population there, at least when looked at with broad strokes. 

Aboriginal populations today have high rates of poverty, poor health, and a shorter life expectancy than non-Aboriginal populations. Only 59% complete education to a 12th grade level. Substance and alcohol abuse are rampant in the communities. More darkly, domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual abuse including sexual abuse of children is rampant, and felt to be under reported even so. Even worse, some of the articles I’ve read suggest that this is now so entrenched in culture that it is felt to be normal and not seen as bad by many communities. A few articles I’ve read have said that even prior to colonization, violence and abuse were part of Aboriginal culture, and that it has only magnified with the poverty and alcoholism of the current community. 

Our tour guide at Uluru, James, who is of the Anangu, said that the school in the area only went to 6th grade – for further education they would have to move to Adelaide, and even then the school located there was of poor quality. Many aborigines today do not possess a high degree of literacy, which prevents them from having jobs. Moreover, there are cultural issues which don’t mesh with the western world’s expectations – James told us of an example where he put in for his two weeks leave to go home for a ceremony. Six weeks later, the ceremony was still ongoing and had not completed, however he had to basically tell his grandfather that he had to leave else he would lose his job. When he came back, there had unsurprisingly been a lot of tension with his bosses – where had he been for those four extra weeks? Amazingly, he didn’t get fired – I can’t imagine any job where you could just not show up for four weeks! The government has now authorized “ceremony leave” for five days at a time, which doesn’t seem enough for man Aboriginals. To me, this anecdote demonstrated the significant cultural gaps that exist. Still…it’s a largely western world that we live in now and there has to be some way to find a balance between the two. 
I’m aware that all of this is from a outsiders perspective, and that I’m sure I’m barely scratching the surface of anything. The overall impression I have of Aboriginal culture is that of an impenetrable society, and yet it’s deeply sad to see people living as many of them currently are. I’m not invoking the idea of the noble savage or to suggest that Aboriginal peoples lived in a pristine world in harmony with nature and themselves before the white man arrived, but only to say that the current situation is troubling. 


In which we find ourselves alone in a rainforest

The last thing we wanted to see in this area was the Daintree Rainforest. Listed as an Unesco world heritage site, it is the largest rainforest on the Australian continent and contains an impressive number of species in it. 
There are many tours to take to the rainforest, and while I considered these for the guided aspect, they are not cheap. Given that we’d spent a lot of cash on the Reef tour and that we could go through the rainforest on our own, we chose to drive up and see ourselves about the place. 
The rainforest is only accessible from the south by driving your car onto a ferry which ports you across the river. Immediately after you cross the river you are in dense rainforest. You can’t see further than maybe 10 feet into the forest in any direction, other than the road ahead. There’s signs all over like this: 

Which mean, “Cassowary crossing”! I’ve been taking pictures of fun signs I’ve seen here in Australia and will compile them all at some point. 
We took the first turn off and found an area with a guided Boardwalk tour and also a 2.7 km hike through the rainforest which the sign said was for “Adventurous people only.” Well, are we adventurous or not? Off we went into the muddy red trail. About 5 minutes into the trail, you are in deep rainforest. You hear loud cackling birds, small cheeps, song birds (one sounded like “pomp and circumstance”) and occasional scurry sounds. The forest floor is cool and shaded, with light just peeking through the upper canopy layer. There are no people around at all, and there were times I was pretty scared, especially when there would be a loud kee-rak cry just off to my left. The eerie thing is, because the animals all live in the canopy, you don’t see any of them, just hear them. 

We drove a bit further down and went onto a couple more boardwalk trails which are well trampled by people. My favorite was a strangler fig, a tree which grows when a bird poops in the canopy and its seeds push roots all the way down to the floor to take root and then the seeds put out vines to encircle the tree. Eventually, the original tree rots inside as the fig kills it, leaving only the sculptural cage of the fig. So beautiful.

Near the end, it seemed that we weren’t going to see a cassowary in the wild after all, despite all the road signs, but then just off to the side there one was! We pulled over to get a picture but didn’t want to get too close. There was a small cafe there and the owner and her friend came out to see, asking each other, “Is that Nelson?” “No, it’s a female.” I love that they have names for the cassowaries in the park. Lulubelle talks a bit about cassowaries in her post

That night we watched Michael Phelps win his 20th gold and the stunning USA gymnastics team, before turning in for the night and for an early morning flight to Alice Springs and our camping trip to Uluru. 


In which we swim with the fishes, and live to tell the tale

As I’d said previously, the main reason I came to this part of the country was to see the Great Barrier Reef! Once we got here, it turns out that Eric doesn’t like boats and thus didn’t want to go along! He instead took a side trip to Mossman Gorge, which he talks about in his post here. 
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral system in the world, and is about the size of the country of Japan! It is constantly under threat from pollution, tourists (like me), overfishing and most importantly, climate change. This year there were headlines all over the world about another possible mass bleaching event due to warmer than usual ocean temperatures. Coral bleaching is when the coral, due to stress, expel the algae that lives within it and with which it has a symbiotic relationship. While bleached coral isn’t dead, it’s more vulnerable and may not recover. I was worried about heading out to the reef only to see massive fields of bone-white coral, but that thankfully wasn’t the case.
The kids and I boarded a boat and headed out. The wind speed was 20 knots or so which means nothing to me other than that the ride out felt like a roller coaster! None of us got seasick, thankfully. On the way out, we saw 2 humpback whales breaching off to the right! So amazing to think of these large creatures making their way in the ocean so close to us. It’s one of the things I love about snorkeling so much – on the surface all you see is brownish water, and the minute you put your head underneath an entire hidden world opens up to you. I’ve gone scuba diving once and loved that too, but you have to be 12 for that so it wasn’t an option this time.
We snorkeled at 3 different sites on Opal Reef. The boy did fine but the girl had some difficulty with her gear for the first dive, and kept stopping and yelling to me, “I’m having a very salty experience!!” She ended her snorkel session a bit early, which I have to tell you was fine by me since it meant I could really enjoy the rest of it. Parents, you know how it is – you can’t always fully pay attention to whatever it is you’re there to see if half your attention is on making sure your kid is okay and not, oh, drowning in the Pacific Ocean. It was beautiful underwater. There were bright parrotfish, sunfish and some little iridescent blue fish that swum about in waves. I saw giant clams, clownfish, and sea cucumbers! 
The coral, well, it wasn’t all that brightly colored to tell you the truth. Not bleached, but not brilliant. One of the tour operators gave a talk on this later – as it turns out, the bright colors we’re used to seeing in pictures are obtained by using a strobe flash and can’t be seen by the naked eye, especially on a cloudy day. If you can see bright colors underwater, that is bad and a sign of stressed coral. All the coral we saw were largely healthy shades of pale orange, pink, green and brown. I’ve read some reviews of other snorkel sites that say the coral is very bleached, and I wonder if it’s because they wrongly think, as I did, that we should be seeing luminous colors underwater. 
The second dive site was also pretty. I gave my underwater camera to the girl so she’d be more into it given her tough time the first dive… And then all of a sudden I looked down and saw one of the batteries fall out and sink to the bottom of the ocean. The camera flooded with water as did the SD card, and all the pictures I took on my first dive were lost. Sigh. I began to be frustrated by this, but then realized that I could either focus on the frustration of the loss of the camera or let it go and enjoy myself, and I had to choose the latter. Which means, dear readers, no pictures from this outing! 
By the third dive, the girl had gotten the hang of things and the sun came out and we could really see more colors of the coral! I had really wanted to see a reef shark or a turtle, but none were to be found this day. I stayed in the water as long as I possibly could, to just feel like a fish for one day and see them darting through the coral. We rode home, briny, happy and tired. 


In which we finally get to warm weather and are captured by the Australian Authorities (in a way) 

We had a travel day from Sydney to Cairns, our first domestic flight of the trip! The most salient feature for me was that not a single person checked my ID. Anywhere. We arrived in Cairns and immediately felt an unfamiliar sensation…warmth. After 10 days of drizzle and cold this was a welcome change. We went to find some lunch, when the boy said his stomach wasn’t feeling well. We all knew by now where this was heading, except for Eric who said “I think your stomach doesn’t feel good because you need to eat more.” I asked, “have we learned nothing from our experience last week?!” And the boy ate nothing, which turned out to be a wise decision shortly after this. 
My main interest in going to Cairns was to be able to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. However, whenever I told people I had planned to go to Cairns, the universal reaction was a groan of disgust. An Aussie friend of ours told us that we should at least go to the Daintree rainforest if we were going to go there. I did a little searching and found that there’s a town called Port Douglas up the coast from which one can do rainforest and reef tours, and booked there instead. Thank God. We pulled into Cairns just for a bite to eat and immediately hated it. It had all the charm of the Jersey Shore, and I don’t mean the nice part of the Shore. No one was friendly, the buildings were ugly, and you know how you can just get a feel from a place? Cairns did not have a good one. 
We got out as quickly as we could and drove to Port Douglas, with a slight pullover for the boy to throw up, after which he was much improved and immediately starving. Weird bug. Our hotel in Port Douglas is an incredibly nice 3 bedroom suite overlooking 4 small pools and with a hot tub on the balcony! Sweet! Port Douglas, as it turns out, is a tony little resort town where we fit in juuuust fine.

  The next day we took a day off from ‘traveling’  and just went to the beach, where we saw all these cool patterns made with little sand spheres! I later learned that these are made by creatures called sand bubbler crabs. I thought they made the little balls by digging their holes and then spitting out the sand, but it turns out this is how they eat! During low tide, they emerge from their burrows and sieve the sand for meiofauna which they eat, then expel the unwanted sand in neat little balls. As they do this radially from their burrow hole, it forms incredible patterns in the sand. They’re efficient little critters and can cover the entire beach in a few hours of low tide. 

We’ve been spending our evenings watching the Olympics, which is another experience in Australia! Given that the focus is on Australian athletes we’re seeing all sorts of fun events that are not featured at all in the US. Our favorite has becomes women’s rugby sevens! I have NO IDEA what is happening during the game, but there is SO much action on the field it is fun to watch. Also, those women are tough as shit. Especially when you compare them to the lame men’s soccer players who seem to whine and cry when they stub their toe every five minutes, it’s impressive. We’ve also watched a fair amount of fencing, horse jumping, trap shooting, and water polo! 

We also happen to be here during the Australian census time, and apparently even international tourists are supposed to answer! Here’s some of my favorite questions: 

So many white ethnicities! Eric answered “German” and “Czech.” I like that there’s just “Australian”. We don’t have that option in the States, now do we? I also liked how Salvation Army is a common enough religion to be on the main list. 

And I’ll leave you with my two favorite questions.

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