Stories from the Outback: Part 1

I have been to Tasmania, Sydney, and the Great Barrier Reef. With my flight home coming up in October, it was time to check another locality off my checklist of must-do’s! The Outback!

This was my first completely solo trip. When I went on my Sea Turtle Volunteer Trip to Costa Rica, I did travel alone, but my dad was there to help out with a bit of the planning. I planned, booked, and went on this trip my myself, though I never felt alone. I met some great people and saw some amazing sights along the way.

My trip started off with a 9am flight to Alice Springs. The problem with this flight, was that the train from Warrnambool (where I go to school) to Melbourne (the nearest airport) didn’t arrive in Melbourne until 9:50am. This meant that I had to catch the train into Melbourne the day before, arriving around 9:45pm and spending the night at Melbourne Airport. Ahh, the comfort of sleeping in random locations… I ended up finding a cushioned bench near Krispy Kreme and camping out there for the night with my iBooks app (super handy!). Given the nature of airports and the voiceover reminding me every 15 minutes not to leave my luggage unattended or with a stranger, I never fell asleep, but I did find a hidden Mickey in the ceiling! (There’s always an upside! Haha!)

Hidden Mickey? You be the judge!

Hidden Mickey? You be the judge!

I checked in to my flight around 5am, boarded a bit before 9am, and arrived in Alice Springs around 2pm.

My first view of the outback from the airplane

my first view of the outback from the airplane

I stayed at Haven Backpackers, which is the hostile pick-up location for the tour group I would be joining the next day. It was a decent hostile and close to the grocery stores and shops. I walked around for a few hours and journeyed up to ANZAC Hill.

ANZAC Hill

ANZAC Hill

ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps. This location is dedicated to them and gives you a birds-eye view of Alice Springs.

The next morning, I was supposed to meet up with my tour guide at 6:10am. They were a bit late, but it was all good! I was on a 5-day Alice Springs to Darwin with Adventure Tours. My tour was basically split into two parts. The first part of the tour was a 3-day tour around the Alice Springs area, and the second part was an overnight drive up to Darwin. For the first part, I was in a tour group of 24 people.

our tour bus

our tour bus

Our first stop of the day was a camel farm, where we had the chance to ride a camel. It was a bit gimmicky, but I wanted to ride a camel in the outback and this was the only chance I was going to get! After choosing between the two camels, I was informed that his name was Sparky. (I chose him because I was told the other one likes to bite.)

me and Sparky

me and Sparky

You sit in the saddle and lean back while pushing your legs forward. If you don’t, you’re more than likely to fall off. They get up by standing on their back legs first and then their front, so its kinda like a Tilt-a-Whirl as you rise up into the air.

success

riding Sparky

They have the camel walk with you down one side of the enclosure, and then on the way back, they have the camel run. I think the guy said that when camels walk it’s about 5 km/hour and when they run its about 12 km/hour. He told me to let him know if I needed to slow down, which wasn’t going to happen! It’s not comfortable when they run though! You really fly up into the air! It’s basically hang on for dear life or fall off the back-end! Despite my klutzy nature, I managed to hang on!

They also had a pet dingo at the camel farm. I’m not sure why he was their pet, but throughout the trip I only saw one wild dingo (briefly before we left our second camp site), so this was the only picture I have.

dingo

dingo

Our next stop was to collect firewood for our campfire later in the evening. I thought it was slightly odd, but we basically pulled over to the side of the road in the middle of the bush and were told to go out and collect sticks… so we did.

Our campsite was pretty decent. It was amazing how cold it got at night though! It was above 80˚ during the day, but at night it would get down to about 40˚. Thank goodness the sleeping bags we could purchase from the tour group were super warm!

our first campsite

our first campsite

the grill and exterior of the kitchen

the grill and exterior of the kitchen

the kitchen interior

the kitchen interior

my tent

my tent

the tent interior... not gonna lie, I did look under the beds for snakes before I marched in, and I was partially disappointed I didn't find any

the tent interior… not gonna lie, I did look under the beds for snakes before I marched in, and I was partially disappointed I didn’t find any

After unloading our stuff at our campsite and lunch, we headed out to Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas. We also saw sunset at Uluru, or Ayers Rock.

Kata Tjuta or the Olgas

Kata Tjuta or the Olgas

Geologists explain that these rock formations were originally formed by the Peterman Ranges (which are to the west of this area). It is said that the Peterman Ranges were worn down and eroded by water, causing sand to fan out in one area and stones to fan out in another, which built up over time. These areas were eventually covered by sea, and the seabed compressed the sand and stones, forming it into rock. The sandy fan became sandstone and the stony fan became conglomerate rock. Eventually, the sea dried up and movement of the tectonic plates caused these formations to fold and tilt. The stoney fan tilted slightly and became Kata Tjuta, while the sandstone tilted 90 degrees and became Uluru. This is why, when you look at the formations, you see lines running in different directions through the stone (horizontally on Kata Tjuta and vertically on Uluru).  It’s rather interesting.

Kata Tjuta (notice the horizontal lines)

Kata Tjuta (notice the horizontal lines)

Kata Tjuta (you can see in this boulder that fell off that it's made up of a bunch of stones all compressed together into conglomerate rock)

Kata Tjuta
(you can see in this bolder that fell off that it’s made up of a bunch of stones all compressed together into conglomerate rock)

After walking around Kata Tjuta we drove a bit to get to Uluru at sunset. It was really neat to see the rock change colors as the sun disappeared below the horizon. At one point, Uluru seemed to emit a glow.

Uluru (notice the vertical lines)

Uluru (notice the vertical lines)

Uluru

Uluru

Uluru (glowing!)

Uluru (glowing!)

Uluru

Uluru

After sunset, we headed back to camp to prepare dinner and had a campfire. The next morning we were up before dawn (5:15am) in order to get out to Uluru for the sunrise.

Uluru at sunrise

Uluru at sunrise

As the sun was still coming up, we started a walk around the base of Uluru. It took about 3 hours to walk around the entire thing. It was quite amazing. From a distance it looks so smooth, but there were quite a few pits, caves, and markings. Later, we found out that all of these “blemishes” have a meaning to the Aborigiony people. They all have an explanation in their stories and culture. Many of these stories center around their version of creation, called Tjukurpa, and involve Kuniya (Woma python), Liru (poisonous snake), Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) and Lungkata (Centralian blue-tongue lizard). In many of the cave paintings you can find these sacred animals. As you go on your Base Walk there are signs explaining some of these stories. I’ll rewrite a few here for you, simply so you can gain insight into the culture and to help preserve my own memory.

Kuniya and Liru:

“When you walk around Mutitjulu Waterhole you are surrounded by the presence of the ancestral beings – Kuniya the woma python woman and Liru the poisonous snake man.

Minyma Kuniya the woma python woman came from the east near Erldunda. A bad feeling grew in her stomach–something was wrong. She had to go to Uluru.

Kuniya created inma (ceremony) to connect her eggs together. She carried them to Uluru in a ring around her neck and placed them at Kuniya Piti.

Manwhile, Kuniya’s nephew arrived on the other side of Uluru. He was being chased by a war party of Liru (poisonous snake) men form out near Kata Tjuta.

He had broken the law in their land and they were sent to punish him.

The Liru men threw spears at Kuniya’s nephew. One pierced his thigh and many others hit the side of Uluru.

One Liru warrior, Wati Liru, was left to care for the injured python man. But he did not do his duty and left the injured man on his own.

Minyma Kuniya realised that her nephew had been injured and was not being cared for properly.

She raced to Mutitjulu Waterhole and saw Wati Liru high up on the cliff. She called out to him about her nephew, but he only laughed.

Minyma Kuniya placed her wana (digging stick) upright in the ground in front of her. Kneeling down, she picked up handfuls of sand and threw it over her body, singing and making herself stronger.

She was creating inma (ceremony) to help her confront Wati Liru.

Kuniya moved towards Liru singing and dancing akuta–a dance step used by women ready to fight.

Kuniya hit him once over the head with her wana. He fell down but got back up. She hit him a second time and killed him.

Kuniya then went and found her injured nephew. She picked him up, dusted him off and carried him to Mutitjulu Waterhole.

She created inma and combined their two spirits into one. They became Wanampi, the rainbow serpent, who lives in and protects the waterhole today.

This story teaches a traditional form of payback punishment–a spear to the thigh. the punisher must then look after the injured person until they are well enough to care for themselves.

It also teaches about women’s intuition and that a woman may use force to protect her children.

This is a powerful story, Kuniya is a powerful woman.”

Waterhole

Mutitjulu Waterhole

After reading the story, it gave the area a much more sacred, historical feel to it. This is the waterhole that is said to be home of Wanampi, the water snake (Minyma Kuniya and her nephew’s combined spirit). It is said that Wanampi lives there still today and has the power to control the source of the water. It is also the most reliable source of water around Uluru. The Anangu (the Aboriginal people) would sing “Kuka kuka” in the hopes that Wanampi would release the kapi (water) and fill the waterhole.

where

where Kuniya drops to her knees

According to one of the signs, this marking is where “Kuniya changes into human form and creates inma (ceremony) to make irati (poison) to punish Wati Liru (poisonous snake man) for not looking after her injured nephew as he is culturally required to do. You can see the imprints of where she drops to her knees, plants her kuturu (fighting club) in the ground and scoops up sand to throw over her body, protecting herself from poison.

IMG_3071

a sign explaining the significance of each marking in this section of Uluru and how it ties in with the story (click the photo for a larger image–you’ll be able to read it)

It was rather fascinating, walking around this area. There was also a small cave with Aboriginal paintings, Mutitjulu cave.

cave and paintings

cave and paintings

A sign explained,

“This is the family cave. For many generations, Anangu [Aboriginal] families camped here. The men would hunt for kuka (meat) and the women and children would collect mai (bush foods). The food would be brought back here to share.”

There were paintings all over the inside of the cave. The sign read,

“The colors come from a variety of materials, Tatu (red ochre) and untanu (yellow ochre) are iron-stained clays that were very valuable and traded across the land. Burn kurkara (dessert oak) provides purku (black charcoal), and tjunpa/unu (white ash). The dry materials are placed on a flat stone, crushed and mixed with kapi (water).”

If you look closely, you’ll be able to see a snake painted. If I remember correctly, it’s the yellow outline towards the lower right. They’re a bit difficult to see, since they overlap each other, but many of the painted images were used to illustrate the cultural stories around the campfire.

cave paintings

cave paintings

Here’s one of the guides available online to several of the symbol meanings.

The had several guides for sale at the Cultural Center, but you were banned from taking pictures here and I chose not to purchase one. There were several areas throughout our Base Walk in which we were banned from taking photos. These areas were considered especially sacred by the Aboriginal people and they did not want them displayed elsewhere. It was rather interesting.

There was also another cave nearby.

cave

cave

According to the sign,

“Nyiinka (bush boys) camped in this kulpi (cave). A nyiinka is a boy at the important stage in life where he is ready to learn to become a wati (man). Nyiinka are taught by their grandfathers and separated from the rest of their families for this period. Traditionally the nyiinka stage could last several years until a boy proved his hunting skills, self-reliance and discipline.

The boys would look through the small hole, watching for kalaya (emu) or malu (kangaroo). They could see the men hiding in the trees with their spears and would watch how they hunted.”

If you look at the photo above, you’ll see the little hole. The history of this place was just remarkable!

Here is another story depicted along the trail:

Lungkata:

“The western face of Uluru reminds us of Lungkata, a greedy and dishonest blue-tongued lizard man who came to Uluru from the north. 

Wati Lungkata the blue-tongued lizard man came from out near Kata Tjuta. he travelled to Uluru, camping halfway at a waterhole. 

At Uluru, Lungkata camped in a cave high on the western face, looking out over where the Cultural Center is today. 

Langkata hunted around the base of the rock. He was hungry and tired. At Pulari he found a wounded kalaya (emu) dragging a spear from another hunt. 

The lizard man knew the wounded bird belonged to someone else and it would be wrong for him to kill and eat it. Yet he was a fat man and saw it as an easy meal. He killed the kalaya and began cooking it. 

Two Panpanpalala (crested bellbird) hunters who had wounded the kalaya were following its tracks. The tracks led them straight to Lungkata and his fire. 

The hunters came up to him and asked, ‘Have you seen our emu?’ 

Hiding the pieces of kalaya behind him, Lungkata told the two hunters he had seen nothing. 

The disappointed Panpanpalala men walked away and followed the kalaya tracks again. they knew Wati Lungkata had lied to them. 

Meanwhile, Lungkata gathered up what he could carry of the emu and ran westwards to his cave high in the rock, dropping pieces of meat behind him. 

You can still see the kalaya’s thigh as part of Uluru. 

The trail that Lungkata left was easy to follow, and the two Panpanpalala caught up with him. they made a huge fire at the base of the rock under his cave. 

The greedy and dishonest thief choked on the smoke and was burnt by the flames. He rolled down the side of Uluru, leaving strips of burnt flesh on the rock as he fell. 

As his flesh came away, lungkata became smaller and smaller until eventually he became a small, solitary stone. The smoke and ash from the fire still stain the side of Uluru’s steep slopes above Langkata’s body. 

This story reminds us what happens to the greedy and dishonest.”

At this location on the Base Walk around Uluru, we were not allowed to take pictures because of the sacred meaning it held to the people, but it was interesting to hear the story. Here’s a section of rock from an area where we were allowed to take photos that looked somewhat similar…

Uluru

Uluru

There were so many unusual flowers in the area too.

flowers

flowers

When we got to the end of our base walk, there was an area where you could climb Uluru.

to climb, or not to climb?

to climb, or not to climb?

If you look in the center of the photo, you can see a small fence that runs up the rock. It was closed on the day we were there, due to the high winds. I find it interesting, however, that the Aboriginal people ask you not to climb Uluru as a matter of respect to their culture.

Though since October 26, 1985, the Anangu (Aboriginal people) have ownership of the land back, it remains on a 99 year lease to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service. As soon as the lease is up, the Anangu are closing down the climb.

A nearby sign reads:

“We, the Anangu traditional owners, have this to say: Uluru is sacred in our culture. It is a place of great knowledge. Under our traditional law climbing is not permitted. 

This is our home.  As custodians, we are responsible for your safety and behavior. Too many people do not listen to our message. Too many people have died or been hurt causing great sadness. We worry about you and we worry about your family. 

Please don’t climb. We invite you to walk around the base and discover a deeper understanding of this place…

…For visitor safety, cultural and environmental reasons the park is working towards closing the climb permanently. 

An old way of thinking? Since the 1940s Uluru has been promoted as a place to climb. Organised tours traced the explorers’ steps, planting a flag at the summit. This act of conquering evokes strong emotions of pride, achievement and ownership. 

Challenge your perspective. Is it right to continue, knowing what we know today? Is this a place to conquer – or a place to connect with?

We invite you to open your hearts and minds to the power of this landscape and the mysterious Tjukurpa. 

This place has a story…come on a journey.”

Instead of the climb, we went on a guided walk with an Anangu man, Vincent. He told us several more stories from his culture and pointed out several plants that are used for medicine. Some had quite interesting smells!

a plant used for medicine

a plant used for medicine

explaining some of the cave paintings

explaining some of the cave paintings

telling us the stories of the Anangu people by writing symbols in the sand

telling us the stories of the Anangu people by writing symbols in the sand

markings in the side of Uluru where men had sharpened their spears and weapons

markings in the side of Uluru where men had sharpened their spears and weapons

I could go on for quite a while about the cultural history of this place, but I already have, so I’ll move on!

After our tour we visited the Cultural Center. We were not allowed to take photographs, but it was basically a museum displaying the Anangu culture and artwork. They even had artwork for purchase and a woman painting outside. I wish we had a bit more time to spend there, but it was time to drive to our next campsite near Kings Canyon.

We made a stop along Lasseter Highway at Mount Connor, also known as Fool-uru. Many people drive out into the outback, see Mount Connor, and head home, thinking they have laid eyes on the famed Uluru (hence the nickname).

Mount Connor

Mount Connor

We also saw Lake Amadeus, a dried salt lake (or what remains of it anyway). At the moment, it’s pretty much just a salt plain.

Lake

Lake Amadeus

We arrived at our second campsite, unloaded,  prepared dinner, and tucked in for the night. We would be in for a 4 hour hike through Kings Canyon the next morning.

my tent

my tent

tent interior

tent interior

the kitchen

the kitchen

Kings Canyon was gorgeous! We started the morning climbing some quite steep steps, and no one can deny we got our cardio in this day!

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

It’s hard to give you an idea of the sheer size of this place, so you’ll just all have to go and visit for yourselves! I took sooooo many pictures of rocks! Haha!

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

Kings Canyon

I think we were supposed to stay together as a group, but some were obviously better hikers than others and ended up going ahead. Our Adventure Tours guide, Mel tended to hang towards the back to make sure everyone was doing okay.

At one point, Sarah and I (another girl on the tour) decided to sit and wait for the rest of the group to catch up so we didn’t get too far ahead. After about 15-20 minutes, we started to think something was wrong. After going back a little bit, we realized that we had walked on a “turn around” portion of the trail. It was still along the main path, but the rest of our group probably walked straight past us, opting to skip the turn around path! Oops!

We half-sprinted (as best as we could) along the main path to get to the waterhole. We couldn’t decide if they had already taken their break at the waterhole and gone on or if we should go down that pathway in the hopes that we’d find the rest of our group waiting there.

Thank goodness we went for the waterhole, because there they all were! We didn’t get much of a rest, but we found them! If all else would have failed, we knew to follow the blue arrows back to the car park, but talk about a little bit of a side adventure!

The mounds of sand you see here are basically fossilised sand dunes and rock domes. It was rather interesting. The Luritja people say that the domes are young kuninga men who traveled through the area during the Tjukurpa (or Dreamtime).  Kuninga is the Lunjitja word for the Western Quoll, an Australian marsupial.

sand dunes

sand dunes

After about 3-4 hours, our hike came to an end and it was time to head back to Alice Springs. Most of my tour group went their separate ways after this, but 3 other individuals and I went on to complete our 5 day tour up to Darwin. We spent the night at Haven Backpackers in Alice Springs to meet up at 11am the next morning.

Part 2 coming soon…

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