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The Northern Territory, Up Over Down Under

From Melbourne I flew directly into the 'Red Centre', the desert heart of Oz, deep within the vast expanses of the Northern Territory. Here lies the stark beauty of Uluru, or Ayer's Rock. Somewhere along the way from Alice Springs to Darwin, this dry red land transforms into a lush tropical region, a region entering into the tail end of the rainy season when I arrived. In between I scrambled over many rocks, hiked many miles, soaked up Aboriginal lore, swam beneath waterfalls, and ate an ant's ass.

The Northern Territory. Say this without pausing: Nworth Un Tear It Tree. There, now, isn't that better? Even though NT became a state in 1978, they have kept their name and still refer to one another as Territorians. NT is vast, with a population of only 120,000. Maybe 80,000 of those live in Darwin, plus a few thousand in Alice Springs. The rest are scattered all throughout. It is a land of extremes, desert below and tropics above. Rugged and independent, the Territorians are their own breed.

The copper sphere gave off pale, shifting glints as it was struck by the last rays of the sun that came through the great stained-glass windows. Were its tip to graze, as it had in the past, a layer of damp sand spread on the floor of the choir, each swing would make a light furrow, and the furrows, changing direction imperceptibly, would widen to form a breach, a groove with radial symmetry -- like the outline of a mandala or penticulum, a star, a mystic rose. No, more a tale recorded on an expanse of desert, in tracks left by countless caravans of nomads, a story of slow, millennial migrations, like those of the people of Atlantis when they left the continent of Mu and roamed, stubbornly, compactly, from Tasmania to Greenland, from Capricorn to Cancer, from Prince Edward Island to the Svalbards. The tip retraced, narrated anew in compressed time what they had done between one ice age and another, and perhaps were doing still, those couriers of the Masters. Perhaps the tip grazed Agarttha, the center of the world, as it journeyed from Samoa to Novaya Zemlya. And I sensed that a single pattern united Avalon, beyond the north wind, to the southern desert where lies the enigma of Ayer's Rock.

Excerpt from Foucalt's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco.

Ever since reading this passage, I have wanted to visit Ayer's Rock, or Uluru as the Aboriginals call it. The land on which it resides is owned by the Aboriginals, and jointly managed with the Australian parks service. There is a 'resort' area near the rock where the many many pilgrims stay for their visit to the rock. Unfortunately there is a bit of a monopoly in this regard, and prices can be high. Dissenters are free to take their business to any of the other establishments hundreds of miles away. If it weren't for modern bitumen roads and a small airport, Ayer's would be a difficult destination to say the least.

As it turned out, this normally parched land had just experienced several days of rain before I arrived. As a result, what would normally have been a landscape of deep reds and light browns (hence the 'red centre') was now exploading with life, producing a wonderful contrast of green flora against the red soil and rocks. For the most part, the surrounding land is very flat. Then, out of nowhere, the monstrous Ayer's Rock juts up out of the earth. It's called a rock because that is what it is -- a single piece of rock, feldspar-rich sandstone to be precise. From ground level it is around 2.2 miles long, 5.6 miles in circumference, and 1141 feet high. I say from ground level because they say at least half of the rock is beneath the surface. I spent a few hours walking around the base of the thing.

Uluru is a very sacred place to the tribes in the area. All along the base there are areas of rock art and ceremonial sites. The rock itself is a beautiful orange/red with sweeping slopes, furrows, and pockets from wind and water erosion. Just about every feature on the rock has some role in the Aboriginal stories from the Dreamtime. Some of these areas of the rock you aren't supposed to photograph because they are so important, so integral, to the surrounding environment that the Aboriginals find the notion of lifting the image out of its context abhorrent.

There are great big boulders and sheets that have fallen from the rock, forming all sorts of caves and boulder fields. The rock has many ledges, beneath which you can see fused columns and formations resulting from the slow, but relentless, motion of water. At several places around the rock there are more or less permanent waterholes where rain collects on the rock and falls in cascading multi-stage waterfalls. Surrounding these pools are usually groves of trees that whisper in the breeze, very peaceful. The red, sweeping features of the rock reminded me very much of the petrified sand dunes you see near Moab, Utah, although on a more grand scale. Although there is a very steep climb to the top of the rock, the Aboriginals prefer that you do not climb since it tramples the paths of some of their ancestors of ceremony. (Actually, I think it also has to do with the fact that if you die while climbing, the whole tribe goes through a big mourning period since they feel somewhat responsible). I chose to respect their wishes in this regard, and contented myself with the base walk.

There were all sorts of lizards and bugs along the walk, but one in particular I found fascinating. There is a type of beetle in the area that does what any sensible beetle would do when threatened: stands on its head. I have no idea why, but whenever you mess with them they lean down and put their abdomen up in the air. There are other beetles in the area that will loudly emit noxious vapors when disturbed (these I encountered sometimes at night around the campsite), so maybe these beetles somehow pretend that they have a nasty payload. Amusing, at any rate.

On the way back to camp we caught a lizard on the side of the road known as a 'thorny devil'. These lizards look remarkably similar to the horny toads of the U.S., and share similar traits. Covered in spines, they stay pretty low to the ground with their tails swooping straight up into the air. In this position they snap up passing ants, up to three thousand in a single feed. On the back of their neck they have a lump of fat that is supposed to be a decoy head in case a predator goes after them. They are just so similar to the horny toad that I wonder if they are actually related or if it is a great example of parallel evolution, where similar environments produce similar adaptations.

One morning I arose very early and joined hundreds of other pilgrims to watch the sunrise on the rock. Watching the sunsets and sunrises are very popular activities here. The sunsets are spectacular; long after the sun has gone below the horizon a purple nimbus hovers above the opposite horizon. Right on the horizon is a deep blue. As you look higher, the blue shifts to a magenta color where the sun's rays are still passing through the upper atmosphere. For sunrise, the effect happens in reverse. Once the sun crests the horizon, the entire eastward face of the rock glows a deep earthy red and rapidly brightens. It is truly a beautiful sight so long as you can tolerate the neighboring nimrods who insist on using flash photography for pictures of a dark mountain.

There is another group of rocks in the region called the Olgas. I visited these as well, but they are not a single rock. The Olgas are these big rounded hills composed of an aggregate sandstone. Rounded granite and gneiss stones, from pebble to basketball sized, are cemented together into rock that looks like huge chunks of red peanut brittle. I spent several hours walking around, up canyons, over surrounding flatlands, and down rubble-strewn slopes. The views were wonderful; with all of the green from the recent rain, the rounded rock hills looked like huge red whales breaching in a green sea. During the walk I encountered a four foot long goanna. I managed to get pretty close to the long-necked critter, and could have caught him. In spite of my keen observations of the Crocodile Hunter handling goannas, I chose not to see what this specimen's claws and mouth were capable of doing to my forearms. I contented myself with catching and releasing a couple of smaller skinks and lizards along the way.

In between the Ayer's Rock region and Alice Springs there is an area known as King's Canyon, on the McDonnell Ranges. Anyone who has seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert would find the canyon familiar since a few scenes were filmed here. The area is crisscrossed with thousands of perpendicular fault lines, like a big grid. As water eroded around each square of this grid, the rocks became rounded humps. Seen all together, these humps look like lost cities of some sort; in the Aboriginal stories they are the 'cat men'. The area is composed of two types of sandstone, underneath which is a layer of shale. The shale holds water in the porous sandstone. In some areas the rock eroded so deeply that it penetrated this water table, producing oasis in the middle of the desert; many of these hidden pools of water are permanent and whole ecosystems depend on them. King's Canyon was formed from water flowing through these layers. The head of the canyon is walled in with enormous sandstone cliffs. Near the head, where the cliffs join, is a beautiful, deep oasis.

Interestingly, the sandstone at King's Canyon is actually white, like the white sand beaches from which it was formed. The red colors come from dust that blows over from the iron-laden rocks of Ayer's Rock and the Olgas. If you break the red sandstone open at King's Canyon, it is a pale white inside. With weathering and dark algae, the cliffs and rocks sport a lively interplay of reds, blacks, grey, and white.

After that I was off to Alice Springs. The land rolls on and on, punctuated by occasional cattle stations separated by hundreds of miles. All throughout were sightings of wild horses, camels, and kangaroos. The camels are left over from the Ghan shipping route between Darwin and Adelaide. Some of this route was by an extremely unreliable narrow gauge railroad (due to the floodplains), some sections were by road trains, and other segments were serviced by camel trains run by Afghanis. The Ghan railway was eventually rebuilt (still incomplete) in standard gauge, above the floodplain, but one of the noteable last appearances of the old railroad was in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Anyway, some of the camels escaped and now Australia sports a very healthy population of wild camels. These camels are highly regarded back in the desert countries from which they came because of their disease-free status and genetic diversity. The history of the Ghan route is rich and fascinating. (And yes, I saw some modern-day road trains -- semi trucks pulling three or four trailers.)

From Alice Springs I flew straight to Darwin, from desert to tropics. After the arid air, the humidity was suffocating. It felt like home. I immediately set out on a four-wheel drive tour of Kakadu National Park. This region is tropical, with wet and dry seasons. I arrived at the tail end of the wet season, in what the Aboriginals call the 'knock 'em down' season since the more powerful afternoon storms flatten the spear grass. Although it can be very dry, during the wet season the area is composed of huge wetlands, flooded rivers and billabongs (parts of the river system that are connected during the wet season, but isolated like ponds or lakes during the dry). The difference in water levels can be up to a dozen feet from one season to another. As it turns out, the first Crocodile Dundee was filmed in Kakadu National park. If you recall, at one point he was walking along dry land and pointed up to the remains of his boat, lodged up in a tree. That's one of the areas through which I passed, except the water was there. It really can rise and fall that much.

So before entering Kakadu proper, we inspected some of the area wetlands and went on a crocodile cruise. We piled into a big flat bottomed boat and motored up the Adelaide River, looking for wild crocodiles. We found several, and the guide coaxed a couple of them near the boat with tasty scraps of chicken and fish on a long pole. The crocs were leaping out of the water after these morsels. Seeing the crocs in their natural habitat was well worthwhile, and I gained a new appreciation for the grace of these predators.

Most 4WD vehicles in Australia are real beasts, decked out with all the bells and whistles including snorkels. I had been wondering about the snorkels, and I soon found out why. During the wet season, many of the roads in the NT have floodways rather than bridges. A floodway is an area of the road where water is expected to flood right over the road. Packed into our 4WD, hoss trailer in tow, we crossed over several floodways in the park. In some cases water was shooting up over the whole vehicle as we crossed floodways up to three and four feet deep with water. Meanwhile, our two guides are telling stories about how if the water gets too forceful and starts pushing the truck off the road you have to open the doors to flood the inside of the vehicle -- this adds enough weight to keep the truck on the road as you cross. No thanks. Thankfully we did not attempt to drive through any crazy water like that.

Instead, we reached one point where the road up ahead was under about seven feet of water. So we did the sensible thing and took a boat to another truck. This was an informative boat ride through the billabong system of the Magela River. The aboriginal captain told us all about the flora and fauna of the region, as well as the various uses of some spears he had in the boat. They have these particular barbed spears called 'punishment spears', and aptly named they are. Under Aboriginal law (at least in the Arnheim region) if you commit a crime you get stabbed with a punishment spear. The region of your body that gets stabbed is determined by the nature of the crime -- it could be an ankle, thigh, arm, shoulder, etc. For something particularly bad, such as murder, the spot might be the middle of your chest. So this nasty barbed spear gets jabbed clean through the chosen spot, and then yanked back out, along with whatever tendons and meat it encountered along the way. Then you are left on your own somewhere out in the wilderness so that you have to make your own way back (assuming you haven't been exiled). Here's the catch: If you run away from the punishment or try to avoid it, then one of your relatives such as your brother will have to take the spear treatment. This spear treatment is still practiced to this day; as you can imagine, crime rates in the Aboriginal communities are extremely low.

After the boat tour we headed up to a beautiful escarpment above the wetlands called Ubirr. There was a preponderance of Aboriginal rock art here. Layers upon layers of art, some of which depicts ancient (and now extinct) animals. Each bit of art tells a tale, a bit of the life of the artist. Mostly the art was of regional animals, but some was of ancestral beings from the Dreamtime. We climbed up these cliffs for an amazing view over the wetlands, looking into Arnheim land (Aboriginal owned). This escarpment also made an appearance in Crocodile Dundee. Down in the billabongs, thousands of birds were feeding, and on the horizon storms loomed as the sun set.

We stayed at a small hostel of sorts that first night, shared only by a bunch of baramundi fisherman. Baramundi are these huge fish that populate the area rivers, and seem to be the primary object of lust for regional sportsmen. That night I shared all sorts of fish stories with a couple of colorful blokes named Pete and Ratsack.

The next couple of days we visited more rock art sites and swam beneath many beautiful waterfalls. The days were pretty hot, and those swims were nice. All through the region there are termite mounds, and there are a particular variety called 'cathedral termites', for good reason. One cathedral termite mound must have been over twenty feet high. The mounds are waterproof and smokeproof, and do just fine when the floods and fires sweep through. (The Aboriginals deliberately start brush fires every year; some species require the fire in order to survive, and the periodic burning prevents larger, hotter, fires from breaking out). In addition to termites, there are all sorts of ants in the region. One that you see everywhere is called a green-tail ant. It's about the size of the black or red ants you see back in the States. The head and thorax are brownish-red, and the abdomen is pale green. Their abdomens are full of folic acid, which they use to build nests out of leaves (the leaves are folded and fused together). The guides told us that the folic acid tastes a bit like a lime, so we occupied ourselves for a while by plucking ants off of a tree and eating their butts. Okay, so I only tried one. It did indeed taste like a lime.

That night we were treated to some Australian tucker. We had crocodile, water buffalo burgers, and kangaroo steaks. The crocodile was really like a mix of fish and chicken, with the texture of pork. Tasty, but sort of tough. The buffalo burger was great -- so much more flavor than what I am accustomed to in a burger. The kangaroo steak was phenomenal. Absolutely lean, very tender, and no gaminess whatsoever. I felt a little guilty about eating a kangaroo, but dang that roo was good.

After Kakadu I headed back to Darwin. There is a movie out called Yolngu Boy about three Aboriginal adolescents from Arnheim land near Kakadu. It is a really great movie that does a fine job of illustrating the duality of Aboriginal life in modern society. The photography is outstanding, and offers many views of the escarpments and billabongs I've just described. If you can get your hands on it, see this movie.

At this point, my budget for Australia was about tapped. I hung low in Darwin, walking around and reading books. I walked down to the wharf precinct (for some reason I love wharfs). That particular day, the U.S.S. Boxer was docking for fuel and resupply, on the way to East Timor to assist in humanitarian efforts. The Boxer is some sort of huge amphibious assault ship, with a flight deck and about 1000 crew aboard. I had never seen a ship like that dock, so that was pretty much my entertainment for the day. There is a lot of war history in Darwin, since it was repeatedly bombed by the Japanese during WWII. There is a beautiful park alongside the harbor (called the Esplanade) with all sorts of war memorials. I visited the WWII oil tunnels -- big, huge tanks hacked straight out of the rock (without the use of explosives) for storing oil during the war. No longer used, you can now walk around in the tunnels and view a gallery of photographs from the war days. Other than that, I shopped around for some gear, rounded out my immunizations, and relaxed in the swimming pool. The Hash House Harriers are in town, that esteemed group of drinking, jogging scoundrels. I have had several encounters with these guys in my life; this one seems to be some sort of international gathering here in Darwin for the Easter weekend. In fact, as I was typing this I saw someone running by the window playing a trumpet, followed by several dozen naked people running, hooting, and hollering. Go Harriers!

Now I am off to Indonesia. Some day I would like to return to Australia and see all that I know I missed. I would like to see the Kimberly, visit the huge state of Western Australia, see the Great Ocean Road, dive with whale sharks off the coast of WA, see the Great Australian Bight, fully explore the north coast, dive the Great Barrier Reef, and rent an expedition vehicle for a more thorough exploration of the great Outback.

Random Hah: While in Alice Springs I was talking with an Irish bloke who had an amusing tale to tell. When he was visiting Vietnam his camera was stolen; rather than buy a new camera he found some disposable cameras, garish ones with Micky Mouse and Donald Duck plastered on the cases. So he headed into Cambodia with these cameras, where he took pictures of the truly grim killing fields. Eventually he had this film developed, and apparently the cameras were designed for children. For there, across every shot of the sombre killing fields was a happy little Micky Mouse or Donald Duck.

Excerpt from the Beer Lover's Almanac: Not too much to report in the Northern Territory. The same major Australian brands are prevalent, and they drink a LOT of it around here. Darwin is famed for it's annual Beer Can Regatta in the harbor, where all participating boats are constructed out of beer cans. Now that's a boat race!

Till next time, from somewhere in Indonesia,
Matt