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. 
 

-s

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. 
-s

 

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. 

-s

In which we have a lovely day and learn not to take romantic advice from a crocodile

After the explosive events of the day before, the girl woke up and felt just fine. Eric, on the other hand, caught whatever bug she had and was out for the count. Sitting on the couch downstairs and occasionally croaking out a request for some tea, he wandered in and out of an achy consciousness. It was shaping up to be another wet day and the kids and I made a plan to go to the Aquarium and Wildlife Sydney, a small zoo in the middle of downtown which features Australian wildlife. 
This was, all in all, a fabulous day. We hopped a bus to Darling Harbour and made our way to the Aquarium. On the way we had to stop for the kids to use the bathroom and found ourselves in a lovely cafe where we decided to return for lunch, as described by the boy in his post
The Sydney Aquarium is set up pretty nicely as it walks you through various underwater environs of the Australian coast. We walked through a series of “underwater” tunnels where the rays, sharks and other sea life meandered overhead. When we stepped in, I began to say, “You know, there was this scene in Jaws 3 where-” “NOOO!! NOO!! Don’t tell me! Not until we’re safely out of here!” the boy interrupted me. He then scurried through the tunnel as quickly as he could, waiting for cracks to appear. I keep trying to get them to watch Jaws before we go snorkeling at the Barrier Reef, but they keep rebuffing my attempts. Can’t imagine why. 


The newest animal I’d never heard of is the dugong, a sort of uglier manatee-like sea mammal. Yes, uglier than a manatee. 

The Wildlife Sydney was really fun. I’d never seen an echidna before! They’re so adorable, like a hedgehog that got hit with an enlarger ray. As one of the 2 known egg laying mammals, I’ve always been fascinated by them.


 And the platypus! They had platypuses swimming about in an underwater habitat! The other egg laying mammal! Suffice it to say, there was a lot of squee happening. But then we got to the koalas! And even more squee! Fun fact about koalas I learned: when the males are in heat, they develop a musky cologne on their belly that they rub on the trees to attract the lady koalas. The zoo also advertises the largest saltwater crocodile in captivity. We rounded the corner to the habitat and looked for several minutes, wondering if the dark shape below the surface of the water was the croc. After a good five minutes of staring, I looked up to see a small sign that read, “Sadly, our crocodile Rex died.” After this we stood back and watched the other tourists search in vain for the crocodile also, which was good fun. We read the other signs around the habitat, including one that told us that Rex had been a solo croc after EATING the two lady crocs they brought in to mate with him and try to make more little Rexes. Clearly, no one had ever tagged Rex in the “love your spouse challenge”. 
That afternoon we had a tour of the Sydney Opera House and I learned there was a children’s film festival happening there that night so we got tickets for that too! Eric dragged himself down to the Opera house for the tour, looking a bit peaked. The Opera house tour was fascinating – even though the building is a famous one that we’ve all seen pictures of, seeing it in person was spectacular. On the tour, we learned that Utzen, the Dutch architect who designed the building, was fired for coming in over time and waay over budget – initial estimate $7 million, actual cost >$100 million. I don’t know why Sydney was so surprised by this; anyone who’s ever gone through a remodel would have told you to expect it. I also loved learning that there are several different types and finishes of tile that go on top of the building to maximize brilliance but cut down on glare so you’re not blinded by the roof in the sunlight, just dazzled. 

We returned in a few hours for the film festival, to find the Opera house lit up for the olympics.  So pretty. 


The children’s film festival was delightful! We caught the opening night gala and watched a series of short films either geared toward or made by children. One of my favorites was Johnny Express where an interstellar delivery guy has a package to deliver to a new planet, only it turns out that he’s a giant on the planet and unwittingly causes mass destruction of all the little green people with every step! The kids’ favorite was a film called “Bunny New Girl,” about a little girl who starts at a new school…and wears a homemade bunny mask out of a paper plate her first day. Can’t imagine who that reminds me of.