Time to Explore the Bush Country

Australia is known for its reefs, radical surfing, glamorous beaches, and fuzzy koalas, but this iconic image barely scratches the surface.

Much of Australia’s population is concentrated in the temperate (blue), tropical (dark green), and subtropical (light green) regions of the country. About 70% of Australia exists outside of these zones, in grassland and desert territories. This area is commonly refered to as the Outback.

There is no “official” start or end to the Outback. When I asked my roommates how they would define it, they answered, “The country, or the bush.” It’s the area where civilization is no longer a commonality. Take this map for example (click for a larger image):

Image from http://www.aifs.gov.au/

Geographic Remoteness in Australia
Image from http://www.aifs.gov.au/

Most of the country is enveloped in the dark blue area and classified as very remote. This is the land of dingoes, kangaroos, goanna lizards, snakes, insects, and even crocodiles… It’s also an expanse of heartbreaking beauty and amazing culture!

Feral camel populations, as mentioned in the video, have reached outrageous numbers. So much so, that culling has been resorted to as a solution.

The issue has been hotly debated, and with the culling program set to end in December of this year, demands for a future management plan come into play. There’s even a full-fledged 47 minute documentary on YouTube covering the issue: Camels in the Outback. While many look at them as a problem, some have found that camels can be used as an economic resource, bringing in tourism dollars (more on this later).

Another interesting environmental issue revolves around dingoes. In the 1880’s a fence was built across lower Australia in an attempt to keep dingoes away from sheep herds. At 5,500 kilometres long (that’s 3,417.5 miles), it’s about 3 times longer than the Great Wall of China. The fences effectiveness has come into question, but that’s a story for another time…

Image from http://dingofence.com/

Dingo Fence
Image from http://dingofence.com/

What I wanted to talk about is my upcoming trip to this desolate land! During the second trimester, we have a brief break from classes mid-August. I figured this was the perfect chance to get out and explore a bit of the countryside. I was originally debating between traveling to the Outback or New Zealand, and while I’d like to see New Zealand someday, I figured I couldn’t really say I had been to Australia until I had traveled to the bush country! Bill Bryson, an American travel author, wrote:

“[Australia] is the home of the largest living thing on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, and of the largest monolith, Ayers Rock (or Uluru to use its now-official, more respectful Aboriginal name). It has more things that will kill you than anywhere else. Of the world’s ten most poisonous snakes, all are Australian. Five of its creatures – the funnel web spider, box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopus, paralysis tick, and stonefish – are the most lethal of their type in the world. This is a country where even the fluffiest of caterpillars can lay you out with a toxic nip, where seashells will not just sting you but actually sometimes go for you. … If you are not stung or pronged to death in some unexpected manner, you may be fatally chomped by sharks or crocodiles, or carried helplessly out to sea by irresistible currents, or left to stagger to an unhappy death in the baking outback. It’s a tough place.”

In an attempt to avoid “an unhappy death in the baking outback,” I decided to book a tour. I loved the 3-day tour experience I had in Tasmania, and it’s a convenient way to travel, so I looked for another group. I decided upon the 5 Day Alice Springs to Darwin Explorer (including Uluru) Tour offered through Adventure Tours.

Tour Map Image from http://www.adventuretours.com.au/

My Tour Map
Image from http://www.adventuretours.com.au/

The tour starts in Alice Springs (the dot in the middle of the map). Alice Springs was originally inhabited by Arrernte Aboriginal people, calling the land Mparntwe (pronounced mbarn-twa). In 1862, John McDouall Stuart passed through the area with the goal to expand white settlement. By 1872, the Overland Telegraph Line was constructed, running from Adelaide to Darwin, opening up the area to colonization. The discovery of gold near the site in 1887, however, was what drove many individuals to settle in the land. Eventually Afghan cameleers came (hence the feral camel populations) and a railway was constructed connecting Alice Springs with Adelaide in 1929 and with Darwin in 2004.

Oddly enough, the town has a bit of an identity crisis in its history. It was known as Stuart until the 1930’s. Surveyor W.W. Mills, however, was exploring while the Overland Telegraph Line was being built. He named a nearby waterhole “Alice Springs” after the Alice Todd, the wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs Sir Charles Todd. Since the Alice Springs Telegraph Station was named after the watering hole, administrators became quite confused, as the station was located in Stuart. In an attempt to reduce the headache for all, the town was renamed Alice Springs in 1933.

I’ll be arriving in Alice Springs on the morning before the tour begins (since it leaves at 6:00am in the morning), and staying at Alice Springs Haven Backpacker Resort. The next morning, the tour starts off with a visit to a camel farm where we have the opportunity to ride a camel! It’s noted in our tour itinerary that this is an optional experience at our own expense, so I emailed the tour company to find out how much it would be. They responded that it’s about $5-7 dollars… As long as I don’t get spit on, it’s worth it!

After visiting the camel farm we drive to Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock. We visit Kata Tjuta and go on the Valley of the Winds Hike. Kata Tjuta is the name given to the area by the Aborigines, and means “many heads.”  It’s also known as The Olgas, and is about 30 kilometers from Uluru. It gets its name from the consists of more than 36 rounded red sandstone domes. The view of the sunset on Uluru from Kata Tjuta is supposed to be quite beautiful.

Interestingly, this land is owned by the Anangu Aborigional people who live there, and the land is enriched with history and cultural significance. There are many sacred sites, and I hope I have the opportunity to hear some of the stories that are woven into the land.

For our first night, we’ll be sleeping under the stars. Camping! I’m looking forward to it! I’ve heard the desert can get quite cold at night. You can provide your own sleeping bag, or Adventure Tours does sell them for $30. I asked about this, since I’m an international student and probably won’t be able to bring an entire sleeping bag back to the United States with me. Apparently, if you need to get rid of your newly purchased sleeping bag, Adventure Tours will take them to the Salvation Army for you. From there, they make their way to the homes of Aboriginal families in the area. Not a bad idea! If that’s where it ends up, it’s $30 well spent in my opinion.

Day 2 begins with a walk around Uluru at sunrise. A cultural walk with an Aboriginal guide is scheduled for us to learn more about the Mala people. “Mala” are rufous hare-wallabies, and though they once inhabited this area, they are now extinct in the wild.

European settlers sealed their fate by introducing new predators, such as cats and foxes, and by altering the natural fire regime. For the Anangu Aboriginal people, the Mala hold a special spiritual significance. In their culture, they believe that the Mala have watched over and guided them from the rocky crevices of Uluru. They celebrate the Mala through culture, story, song, and dance. The Mala are thought to have influenced their everyday relationships, plants and animals, and even their understanding of how they should care for the land. I find cultural stories and legends fascinating, so hopefully I’ll be able to hear a few more on this part of the tour. We also visit the Uluru Cultural Centre to check out the Aboriginal arts and crafts before our day comes to an end.

After that, we head to Watarrka National Park in Kings Canyon where we set up at our exclusive campsite for the night.

The next morning we have time to wander around Kings Canyon. We’ll see the Amphitheatre, the Lost City (which apparently got its name because the sandstone formations resemble Aztec cities),  the Garden of Eden (thusly named because of the natural spring waterhole that has formed at the bottom of a chasm, surrounded by local and exotic plants), and South Wall.

By nightfall we head back to Alice Springs and spend the night at a hostile.

On day 4 we cross the Tropic of Capricorn on our drive to Karlu Karlu, also known as Devils Marbles. Karlu Karlu, which literally translates to “round boulders,” are also owned by the Aboriginal people, as it has a sacred significance to them. It gets its name because of the round, granite boulders that are oddly stacked on top of each other all around the valley. Geologists have determined that these strange formations were created when molten rock surged upward through the crust and solidified under a layer of sandstone. Over time, the sandstone was worn away, and the odd granite structures remain. They form a home for creatures like Fairy Martins, goanna, and Zebra and Painted Finches.

Devils Marbles  Image from http://goaustralia.about.com/

Devils Marbles
Image from http://goaustralia.about.com/

We stop in the town of Tennant Creek before beginning our overnight ride to Katherine.

On the morning of day 5, we head to Nitmiluk National Park, which is operated by the Jawoyn Aboriginal and Northern Territory Government. While here, we will be visiting Katherine Gorge, which was established as a national park in 1962. Before the 1960’s, it is said that non-native visitors to the area greatly upset the balance of nature. According to the Jawoyan people, Bolong, a rainbow serpent, was disturbed. Bolung is said to live in the deep pools in the second gorge, and represents both life and destruction though lightening and flooding monsoons. The Jawoyn people’s food sources were scarce and their way of life was threatened. Until 1964, even when employed in the cattle, food, tobacco, and clothing industries, their pay was lower than that of non-aboriginal workers. Eventually these practices changed, being granted Australian citizenship in 1967, and gaining independence, full wages, and better work conditions with the acceptance of the Aboriginal Land RIghts Act in 1976.

Katherine Gorge Image from http://www.waytoaustralia.com.au/

Katherine Gorge
Image from http://www.waytoaustralia.com.au/

Today, the Jawoyan people operate the park, working to educate their children and the public about their ways of life, nature, and conservation. Tradition is very important to them, and they still hunt and fish in the area. The Jawoyan law is still respected and taught. I’m hoping to pick up some interesting cultural stories from the experience.

While at the gorge, we have the option to take a 2 hour breakfast cruise at our own expense or to go for a short walk to Baruwei lookout and take some photos.

At the end of our time here, we head into Darwin to end out tour. Darwin is the capital city of the Northern Territory and was founded in 1869. The harbour was originally discovered by John Lort Stokes, the Captain of the Beagle. The ship name might be ringing a bell for those of you who are science-minded… Stokes named the harbour after his former shipmate, Charles Darwin. As with many areas in the Outback, the town’s growth really took off with the discovery of gold in neighboring areas.

Interestingly, Darwin played an important role in World War II. It was the location of the first enemy attack on Australian soil in February of 1942, when it was heavily bombed by Japan. More than 243 people died, eight ships were sunk, and 24 aircraft were demolished. Over about the course of a year and a half, over 60 air raids took place over Darwin.

Darwin bombing in 1942  Image from http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/

Darwin bombing in 1942
Image from http://www.australiangeographic.com.au/

Eventually, with the end of the war, Darwin was able to regain its footing and establish a local government. Cyclone Tracy, however, wreaked havoc in the area, taking the lives of 66 people while injuring thousands more. It ended up being the site of the largest airlift in Australian history when over 30,000 of the 45,000 residents were re-located to nearby cities. Many of these people, however, returned to Darwin.

It seems to have had a rocky history, but an interesting one at that. Lately things seem to be looking slightly better for the city. My flight leaves at 2am, so I’m sure I’ll have a bit of time to wander around the city and check it out.

I can’t wait for this trip! I’m looking forward to the cultural experience, nature hikes, and camel rides! I’ll hopefully come back with some great pictures and stories to share! Stay tuned!

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