Sunday, August 9, 2009

Australian Outback

Darwin is not a huge place, so 4 nights there is plenty enough to get a pretty high resolution scan of it. All the eating, walking around and baking under the sun aside: this is Australia. It took me five minutes of looking off a pathway amid some mangrove-like bushes, before I found my first poisonous spider. The crocodiles eat a few people every year. On all the beaches I found warning signs encouraging people to stay the hell away from the water because of box jellyfish, which even when not lethal, can apparently offer you some of the nature's most extreme roller coaster rides of pain that last for several days.

Nice, long beaches, though, so I suppose it can be worth the risk for some.


Get off the track, get bitten by something nasty.

Something strange about this bird...

Sea level moves around several meters with the tides.

Beautiful sunset in Darwin.

It's not a bad place on any account, but while there, you don't really escape the feeling of the rest of the civilization being pretty damn far away, both Sydney and Jakarta being about 3000 kilometers away, and I've noticed that my perverse yearning for solitude requires me to stay in well-populated places, lest I start getting jittery.

So what do I do?

Why, jump on the Ghan and head out into the outback, of course!

The Ghan.

Darwin -> Alice Springs.

Alice Springs.
It's far away from everywhere else on the planet.
Termite mounds.

23 hours through an increasingly desert-like landscape, and I arrive to Alice Springs, a town in the very core of Australia. I guess it tells something about the locals that they aren't all sure about the population of the place, placing it somewhere between 25.000 and 30.000. A very independent lot, they are. I know some people in Finland, who'd feel right at home. (except for the climate, of course. Now is the winter season, so while the day-time temperatures climb to around 26 degrees and night-time temperatures drop to around 0, during the summer it can get as hot as 45 degrees.) You can buy some pretty reasonably-priced aboriginal stuff in Alice Springs, compared to the rest of the country, and even though most of the aboriginal souvenirs are pretty rubbish in my untrained eyes (they are a hunter-gatherer culture, after all), I did nab me a nice didgeridoo against my earlier lamenting on not being able to buy one. It should be on a boat heading to Finland, as I write this. :)

My somewhat suspicious motel in Alice Springs.

Speaking of aboriginals, there's really no nice way to put this in, so I'll just say: good lord their women must be the ugliest creatures on the planet! I mean, damn... Most of them at age 20 and up look like bloated corpses dragged out from a lake after having marinated there for a week or two. I'm sure there are exceptions, but I'm just commenting the ones I witnessed out there. :)

So, back to Alice Springs~

Most of it looks and feels like a little countryside town because that's exactly what it is. But it has recently gone through a bit of a change due to tourism, which now lubricates the area with a few hundred million dollars every year. Go there by train and experience the enormous scale of the outback firsthand, stay a couple of days and then fly back out - perfect. The aforementioned souvenirs are cheaper than in the big cities and eating is pretty good, too: the other day I actually managed to eat kangaroo, camel and crocodile, all during one single meal. :) The biggest attraction in the area is undoubtably Uluru(Ayers Rock), which pulls in almost quarter of a million tourists every year, proving once again that if there are gods, then we human beings are their idea of a joke. It took 4.5 hours by bus to reach Uluru from Alice Springs, stopping in between to laugh and clap hands at a piano-playing and ear-splittingly howling dingo.

Shut up, dingo, you sing worse than I do!
Kangaroos couldn't care less about me.

To give you an idea on how arid the outback actually is: We passed through a couple of cattle ranches on the way. These pastures - let's just call them that - can be 1.5 million acres in size, and on a good year they can support up to 6000 heads of cattle. In most years it doesn't really rain, though, so the head count maxes out at around 600, leaving some 2500 acres per moo-moo to chew cud on. It would be too expensive to build fences around these vast grazing grounds, so what the good people making their living there do, is use water holes to control their beasts. Apparently a cow doesn't wander further than 16 kilometers away from the nearest water hole, so they just leave the animals be, and when they need to catch them, they simply build "water traps" around each water source that allow the animals to enter, but prevent them from leaving - like fish traps. After 24 hours they've usually managed to catch 99% of all animals in the whole area, including kangaroos and other wild beasties, making the technique a lot more cost-effective than chasing single animals around with 4WDs.

Another example would be the few rivers that criss-cross the plains: a lot of the time they are all turned inside-out, bottom at the top, water underneath. When you come across them, they look like dried up riverbeds, but if you dig a bit, you'll hit water eventually, sometimes several meters underground, sometimes only a foot or so. Finke river south from Alice Springs is one of these often inside out streams, heralded by geologists to be the oldest river in the world.

Me and Lasseter highway snaking through the endless outback.
Red sand.
Mt. Conner. It's almost as tall as Uluru, but was born in a completely different way, when softer rock eroded from around tougher rock.

From a great distance Uluru doesn't really look like that much, because it slopes just enough to make it look like a semi-normal hill from certain directions (like the Lassiter highway that takes you to it). It is, however, taller than Eiffel Tower and its circumference is almost 10 kilometers. It's a huge block of sandstone, littered with caves, old aboriginal paintings and funky natural shapes. The aboriginals own the place, but "allow" tourists in for the moneyz, asking them only (nicely) to respect the various sacred places around the rock by not taking photos of them, entering them, or in fact, climbing on the Uluru itself. Tourists, of course, do whatever they damn well please. Sometimes the aboriginals take a stricter stance, though. Some ways from Uluru stand the Olgas, a collection of fruitcake-textured (they really are, at up close you can clearly see the whole thing is a row of huge domes compressed from different types of rubble, as opposed to Uluru, which is just a sandstone layer cake, flipped partially on its side) mountains, the biggest of them at 500+ meters even taller than Uluru. A few years ago a single aboriginal teenager wanted to spend some quality time alone in the Olgas, and the entire collection of mountains was closed for 3 full days so that no one could bother the boy. Would have kinda sucked being a tourist visiting from 15.000 km away at that time.

Sunset there was pretty phenomenal, the blue sky slowly turning towards orange and purple, while Uluru found all new shades of red.

Uluru at daytime.
And Uluru at sunset.
The Olgas.
So there. :)
Nice little detour, all and all, but I'm happy to jump on a plane to Sydney, nonetheless. I've wanted to properly visit that city for quite a long time already.

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