Monday, June 9, 2014

To the Outback: A guest post

Guest post by Ryan
                Terra Australis is the name of a theoretical continent that can be found on European maps made between the 15th and 18th centuries. Aristotle first posited that, for all the known landmass at the time (Europe, Asia and Africa), there must be some landmass of similar proportion in the Southern Hemisphere. Aristotle lived and died before Christ. As we all know, the Americas were first documented by Europeans upon the arrival of Columbus in 1492.
Terra Australis Incognita, 1593 map by Gerard de Jode.

As the Europeans raced to "discover" and claim new lands advanced quickly in the next couple of centuries, it seems that some mapmakers just went nuts with Terra Australis Incognita. After finding nothing but water at the southern tips of Africa and South America, more and more scientists jumped on board with the idea of a supercontinent to the South. The Dutch landed on Australian soil in 1606, but didn't seem very interested in the land. They were happy to report that they had found a new continent and, for the time being, mapmakers were content to draw an enormous blob on the bottom of the globe called Terra Australis. Maybe they weren't content. Maybe it drove them mad, going their whole lives and never really knowing what was out there. Think about that next time you casually fly to Venice on Google Earth and virtually walk the streets frozen in time.
                The southern counterweight they were looking for is what we now know as Antarctica, combined with the landmasses of Oceania. Australia was just the first big island they found and the name stuck. Don't get me wrong, Australia is enormous. Almost 4.5 times bigger than the state I've been living in: Alaska.
I wanted to get a feel for just how expansive the land is, so I needed to see the Outback go by slowly. I figured 24 hours on the train would be enough to experience the vastness of the desert. And I wouldn't have to keep my eyes on the road or worry about finding petrol for a rental car. But first, I flew to the center of Australia to see the iconic rock, Uluruor Ayers Rock as it was formerly known.
                I flew in to Ayers Rock Airport and took a shuttle to the campground. Uluru is a great example of how a park should be laid out. Several miles away from the natural landmark are the airport, town, and resort. At the rock itself, nothing but a parking lot, a toilet and a trail. Not even a park ranger to be found.
But I didn't go to the park that day. I paid $35 to set up my tent on a patch of grass and hopped on and off the shuttle that makes a round of the circular resort every 15 minutes. Ayers Rock Resort offers several different options of lodging accommodations and dining. I went to the Desert Gardens Hotel first and had a couple of $20 cocktails in the air-conditioned lounge. Eventually, I found my way to the Pioneer Lodge, which I found much more suited to my tastes. Cheap onion rings, relatively cheap beer and bottles of wine for sale until 9:30. There was even live entertainment, one lone guitarist singing half-assed renditions of Journey and Barenaked Ladies songs. Just my kind of joint. The Pioneer is where the employees go when they get off work, having no other options out there in the desert.
                The next morning I woke up in my tent and wandered down to the pool. It happened to be exactly 8am, just when the gate to the pool was unlocked. I hastily hopped in. I didn't need to shower, just a dip in the pool would be fine. I resurfaced and my mouth sent a confused message to my brain—something was off here. The pool was saltwater. I'm not sure if that was one of the many unexpected Australian quirks that are delightfully surprising to a foreigner or if saltwater swimming pools are a new trend I haven't encountered before.
                No memorable trip is complete without a snag or a hitch. Mine turned out to be a doozy. When I went to book a shuttle to Uluru, I found that my credit card was declined. Luckily, I had Drew's cell phone. I called Mandy and she was able to finance the shuttle, a camel ride at sunset, and another night at the campground. It was not an easy process, but we got it done after a few phone calls and emails. Helping me throughout the morning was a girl at the front desk named Taylah. Not Taylor. Her name tag said Taylah, and she signed her name "Tay". She explained that I still needed $25 in cash to buy a National Parks Pass. I tried the ATM at the petrol station (again) and got nothing. So, how do I come up with 25 bucks in a few hours? Well, about 10 years ago I worked a summer in Yellowstone National Park pumping gas and washing windows. If there were such a thing as a professional windshield washer, I would still qualify. So, I picked up a squeegee (or whatever they're called here) and asked each driver as they got out of their cars if they would like their windows washed. Most declined. The ones who said yes, I washed their windows and did not ask for money. Nobody was giving me tips, but I still wouldn't ask for one. Finally, a guy pulled up in an especially dirty van and I posed my question. He responded, "Sure you can wash them, but I'm not giving you any money." I explained my predicament and he said he had some extra park passes and I could have one for $20. He probably worked for the resort and got them for free. I gathered up all the loose change I had, still a couple bucks short but he rewarded me with the pass nonetheless.
                I threw on my backpack and started back towards the campground when I was approached by a security guard. "We got a call from a cashier here that said-," I interrupted him, "That I was washing car windows? I'm done with that." "Yeah, that's not allowed here," he said. We nodded in agreement and I walked off. I stopped at the office to show Taylah that I was successful. "How in the world did you get that?" she beamed. I explained my brief entrepreneurship and she grinned with approval. "I'm impressed,” she said, "Very impressed."
                At 2pm, a white van arrived to transport me and a middle-aged German man to Uluru. I asked the driver about the dark marks on the left side of the rock. He sighed, probably thinking to himself, The job description said Driver, not Tour Guide. He started to explain how showers wash sediments into the valleys of the rock. Basically, he was about to explain gravity and erosion to me but I wasn't talking about the grey streaks on the rock, I was talking about the big, black pockmarks. I pointed and said "No, I mean are those just shadows?" They would have to be pretty big caves to cast such large shadows at midday but he confirmed it. "Yeah, mate. Those are shadows." Driver, not Tour Guide. He slowed down at the entrance kiosk and the ranger waved us through. They didn't even want to see my National Parks Pass. Unbelievable.
                We had two hours to explore before the driver would return to give us a ride back. The German man went one way, I went the other. Two hours is not enough time to walk around the rock, that was obvious. I would walk for one hour and then turn around and head back. Having spent two months living in Moab, Utah one winter, I've photographed my fair share of red slickrock so I didn't feel like I was cheating myself by only walking so little of the base of the rock. Of course, I'd never seen a single monolith this big and it was particularly red. I passed a few hikers, most of them wore hats with mosquito netting draped to their shoulders. I had 4 or 5 flies that stayed with me, repeatedly trying to dart into my mouth or nostrils. They weren't too bothersome in April. I was intrigued by the lesser known park I could see on the horizon, Kata Tjuta. Also known as Mount Olga, it appears to be made of weaker mineral than Uluru. The seasons have cut deep vanes in the rock. It wouldn't really stick out in Utah, but on the Outback landscape, the two rock formations are the only things in sight taller than a eucalyptus tree. If I had visited the area with a vehicle, I would probably allot one day to leisurely hiking around Uluru and one day to doing the same at Kata Tjuta.
                The same driver was back at 4pm sharp, and didn't say a word as we drove back to the campground. I then took another shuttle to the camel ranch. If you go to Ayers Rock, do yourself a favor and take a sunset camel ride. It is pricey, but worth it. Each dromedary camel in the pack is capable of taking two riders, but you can opt to ride one alone like I did. My camel's name was Rex, and he plugged along at about 2km per hour while our guide walked beside the seven camels tethered together, telling us about the flora and fauna of the desert, looking for lizards and butterflies to point out to us. Ayers Rock was ever present in the distance. The guide also delved into a bit of history about outback exploration and why the camel is far superior to the horse in a desert environment. A camel can go a month without a drink of water and their feet spread out on the sand like snowshoes, conserving energy with a slow, steady gait. Before the sunset peaked, we stopped at a clearing and he asked us if we wanted "pickies". He then took each of our cameras or cameraphones and snapped a few pickies of us on our camels. Our pack string sauntered down the trail back to the ranch.

                Back at Uluru Camel Tours headquarters, we were greeted by the other employees, three pretty blonde cowgirls (camelgirls?) and a spread of hors d'ouevres along with beer, wine and champagne. We stood around and chatted for a half hour or so, and I mentioned my credit card troubles. They packed up the leftovers from our soiree and gave them all to me. Fair dinkum.

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