Ayers Rock – Australia

If all you see in Australia is the Sydney Opera House—and it IS a lovely place—then you’ve missed the great Outback of Australia, epitomized by a huge red rock plopped down in the center of the country. (Aussies spell “center” as “centre.”)  Located a short drive from Alice Springs (also a great place to visit for its history, especially with the U.S. during WWII and camel riding!), this monolith is called Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, an English leader in Australia at the time.Ayers Rock public domain

History and culture combine to create almost a religious-based mystery around the rock, also called “Uluru.”  Discovered in the 1870s, by explorers seeking water, the rock had—and still has—symbolic meaning for the native people, called the Anangu, and this importance has been recognized by its more recent designation as a National Park.

While checking facts, I noticed that the word “accommodations” appears, which means the “world” is closer to the Rock than it was when I was there.  Then one was free to walk carefully around the rock and into its shadow, even to climb it.  Old etchings can be seen, but they are being seriously protected.  The reason for the change is that the Rock was damaged by foot traffic, eroding the hillside, and the Anangu protested what they considered the possible effects on the Rock.

Can one climb the rock?  Idiots used to do it every day, but that may no longer be true.

"Ayers Rock - Kuniya walk (Rock climbing)". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

“Ayers Rock – Kuniya walk (Rock climbing)”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Today, in response to protests from the indigenous people, there is a law which may have just been passed, to forbid the climbs.  A short way up the rock is a stake (or there was one when I was there) and it’s called “The Chicken Point” with maybe a different name today.  Most climbers got that far, and they’d “chicken-out”….hence the name.  (Truth in relating:  I climbed, but didn’t even reach the Chicken Point!)  Before one makes the effort to go there, check with the latest tourist advisory for the current restrictions.

A cluster of mountains (or high hills) is called the Olgas, and one can take a plane ride around and through them.  Once in a while, one sees the name in a newspaper story, but I haven’t been there, so can’t comment. Travelers I know had a great time flying into the Olgas, but check it out before climbing into the plane.  You’ll love all that Australia offers (except camel rides!) and find an affinity, perhaps unexpected, with our cousins a long air ride away.

Vegemite

Australia offers many, many wonderful things (Ayers Rock), beings (People), animals (’roos and camels), beauties (war memorials), so it’s hard to find something to really and truly dislike about visiting Australia.  But, I know something, an icon—uniquely Australian—and I will share it with you, as a warning, perhaps.

It’s Vegemite.  One shudders even writing that word.  What could be so powerful?  Is it something to wear? (No.)  Is it something to write home about? (Yes!)  Is it something to eat? (Not if you’re smart.)  The one thing it’s good for: it has lots of Vit. B.  Truth-tellers say it is “an acquired taste,” but I have learned that is code-word for something that tastes awful!   My mother didn’t raise an idiot; it even smells terrible.

Vegemite, a bread or cracker spread, is never touted as a reason to put Australia on your travel dream list.  It can also be used in gravies, soups, and stew—ruining them for me.  Not only does it taste bad, it even smells worse, unless they’ve fixed that odor. Warning: Remember now, the Aussies are known for playing pranks on visitors, so their first temptation is to get a greenhorn to try Vegemite.  Then they sit back and slap their thighs and chuckle at said visitor’s reaction.

One local comment on Vegemite: it tastes like fermented yeast that has died and puked, which while being truthful, is a bit out of order.  If you’ve tried marmite, vegemite is far worse.

Everything else on the dinner table (breakfast table, lunch table) tastes great. (Well, I’m mentally not prepared to eat Bambi, but not everyone is so fussy.)  However, I draw the line—in big and black letters—in tasting the stuff in that oh-so-innocent-looking little jar.  Vegemite may be Australians’ secret weapon; don’t share it with the U.S.

A Bus Tour Up the Red Centre of Australia

There are several ways to “see” Australia, but the one I took was such fun, I’d recommend it to you.  This memorable trip for me Down Under was a bus ride up the Red Centre to Alice Springs. I’d spent most of the night shivering, as I tried to find how to heat the blanket, which was meant to be heated.  I turned the switch on and off several times—no luck.  I finally called the front desk. (It was really cold!)

“Ah, missus, you see that other switch about halfway down the cord; you gotta turn it on, too, then the heat will come on.”

I did. It did.

The bus was full for the tour which would take several days, ending up in Alice.  On the way, we stopped several nights in adequate motels, but it was our lunch times that were “interesting.”  (You always know when someone says something is “interesting” that it’s probably something you’d want to miss/skip.)

Three of us (women, of course!) were “selected” by our guide to make the lunches when we stopped. So the daily lunches fell into our gentle hands:  a district attorney from Louisiana; “Sis” Moyle with whom I still correspond; and me. Sis loves to travel and she’s been to the U.S. several times, but we haven’t been able to re-connect.

Each noon stop saw everyone else rambling around, while the three of us slapped sandwiches together, cut cake or pie for dessert, laid out bottles of soda, and dared anyone to complain.

We had a genial tour guide—a young fellow (fella) with a sense of humor.  One day he asked me what time did I want to be “knocked up.”  I couldn’t answer, until a New Zealand woman told me he meant “what time did I want him to knock on our motel room door.”   Another morning, he climbed aboard the bus and said to us sitting in the front seats.  “I got really pissed last night.”

I was instantly worried—always the ‘fixer-upper’—“Gosh, what happened to upset you?”  I wondered which one of us had made him mad.

“Nobody upset me.  I had too much to drink and I have a headache.”  So who says the British and the U.S. Americans speak the same language?  We don’t!  Well, not completely.  (There’s a book series about two guys operating a traveling library bus through the British Isles that’s great fun to read where language is concerned.)

With sandwiches and camel rides conquered, more or less, I decided to take a plane ride around the area.  The plane reminded me of a WWII spotter plane, and my never-great-airplane-courage almost failed me, but I’d decided to do it….so I did.  (I only climbed a few feet up Ayres Rock….but it’s a fascinating place to visit.)

For medical people and teachers in the U.S., there is considerable interest about two vital groups that meet the needs of people far from hospitals and schools.  The Flying Doctor Service and the Outback School System.  Computers and cell phones may have cut into the latter, but one can’t take out a bad appendix via computer. Although, knowing the Australian spirit, I’ll bet that’s been tried in a dire emergency.

Australia is a large country with an amazing history and unusual beauty. And the people are strong supporters of the U.S.  Memories of WWII may be fading a little, but it’s still there, and stories are told of crucial U.S. help during the war.  War memorials are “big” in more than one way in Australia; they make your heart swell with pride to see the courage and determination featured in their memorials, as well as their appreciation of the U.S.  (Take a tissue. Make it two.)

Going for a Ride on a Camel?

Suggestion: Read the book about Alice Springs, “A Town Called Alice,” before going there. It’s an enjoyable “oldie.”  When I was in Alice Springs, I decided to take a ride on a camel.  After all, as an Oregon rancher’s daughter, I’d had horses all my younger life.  Flicka, who once nipped my chest when I cinched up her saddle;  Shorty, a trained rodeo horse, who, if I leaned one way, as though jumping off to hogtie a calf or steer (I never did that), his horse-memory brought him to a screeching halt. (Yes, I slid off him several times);  Bonnie, a tall black mare who was lazy, except when she spotted a stray piece of baling wire—and stopped cold. (Yes, I went over her head several times; she didn’t like standing water, either.)

But that day in Alice (as one usually calls Alice Springs), camelsI just knew riding a camel would be simple.  I climbed aboard the kneeling camel—kneeling on all four legs. (No one warned me about how camels get up from their kneeling positions.  I think Aussies (a name they aren’t fond of) get a big kick out of watching ignorant people do dumb stuff.  Camels don’t get up as you might expect, so I was taken unaware when this one jolted up on its front legs, throwing me nearly off  backward, then quickly jolted up on its back legs, throwing me forward—I may have that sequence backwards.  At least I stayed on, but it wasn’t pretty.  And I heard the muffled laughter, also not pretty.

However, the Aussies are big-hearted, big-hugging, and big-singing friends of ours, to match the big land they inhabit.  And they raise the biggest, tastiest Granny Smith apples in the world.

From Unwanted to Undefeated

England had a problem—small in area and densely populated, there just wasn’t room enough for those who ran afoul of the law, to use an old phrase.  What to do with those convicted of stealing horses, stealing food, highway robbery, etc.  English leaders looked around and found the ideal spot—thousands of watery miles from the green, rich land that was England.   Australia.

Sent via ship, suffering terrible care and quarters, the male and female convicts still alive after a journey halfway around the world were dumped on Australia’s unwelcoming shore.  Generally unskilled, uneducated, and unwell, these men and women survived by pure grit and guts, and ultimately formed a nation with patriotic ties to England.

A land of strange animals, equally strange natives living there, and a kangaroo-in-australian-zoodepressing difference in climate, soil, and at a serious distance from markets in England, these convicts (often just guilty of not paying a “head tax,” or of fighting) set to work—where everything was so new and different.  “Vive la difference” sounds easy to say; but it was hard work for these transplanted English. To be wrenched from your small, settled homeland to a gigantic land miles and miles from anywhere: must have been discouraging.

But, today’s blokes are a happy lot. There were enough women criminals to help them establish homes, hire workers who were used to the weather—the aborigines—and set about replicating what they could of green, lush, rainy England in this large expanse of untamed land.  Today, Aussies drive and walk on the “wrong side” just as the English do.  They treasure old recipes of familiar puddings, and they celebrate the periodic visits by the British royal family.  Australia’s national flag is red, white, and blue.  (Sound familiar?)

some-sheepWine-making, sheep raising (wool), and tourism are three of the staples of Australia’s economy.  Today, it’s a popular tourist destination.  Just remember that the “wrong side” of a street or sidewalk is the “right side” to the locals.

Let’s Take a Super trip From Sydney to Perth, Australia—Part 2

Every little train station we slowed for had signs that warned “don’t get off the train; there won’t be another for 24Indian Pacific Perth Western Australia hours.”  Of course, I got off the train at one isolated stop; the train started up, and the GQ writer who was with me, yelled, “Run.” So I ran and the train went faster; so I ran faster.  Caught the train, but I didn’t get off again for several stops.  The next morning, I had my tea and biscuit by 6:15 (and this is my ‘holiday’?); by 7 I’d seen my first real true kangaroo then a second one, then a third one.  The red soil through which they hop is very shallow and crowned with gray bushes.  One can see why one needs a million-acre ranch to run sheep or cattle.  (This was in mid-March, the end of the summer down under.)

Water and hills encase Adelaide, the capital of South Australia; it is called the City of Churches, and is considered a well-planned city.   If you like cricket, surfing, fishing, and wine—the area is known for its German immigrant wine-making knowledge: red, port, and white wines—this is the city for you.  The stop here was long enough for an hour tour of the city.  It cost $6 Aus.  From here, the Ghan, another train route, runs north to Alice Springs, a 24-hour ride through the red heart of this country….called, appropriately, its Red Centre. (Yes, they spell a few words differently than we do.)  (On another trip to this country, I took a bus trip to Alice Springs, where I rode a camel…okay, for 10 minutes…but that’s another story.)

By the way, Australians love Americans; they know we saved “their bacon” in WWII; the Japanese were breathing down their necks, and we came to help.  There are amazing war memorials in Sydney and other large cities; take a tissue. Or two. (We still have some military installations in Australia, I think.)Australian flag

The trip across Australia offers beautiful sunrises.  When the steward is bringing tea in the middle of the night (well, almost), and the land is so flat, one gets to see amazing sunrises with a bouquet of colors—rose, salmon, yellow, gold, cream, blood-red….created by some combinations of the atmosphere in this wonderful country.

(By now, you’re wondering how I can recall so much detail….easy, I wrote a paperback book, ‘Round the World Without Reservations, which included this trip; you may be able to find a copy on re-sale places online. (I spoke—and sold copies—at every retirement home in Southern Oregon after the book was finished; I’ve kept one copy….and, no, I don’t get any money from that book.)

Back to Australia.  Have you ever had champagne jam? I hadn’t, so this was a breakfast treat. We made a stop at a town…well, not a city…called Cook, where the train station sign said, “If you’re Crook, come to Cook” on one side; on the other side it said, “Get sick, our hospital needs money.”  “Crook,” by the way, means “ill or sick.”  From here The Royal Flying Doctor Service provides emergency aid across the Nullarbor Plain.  Flies are everywhere out here, so one gives the “Australian salute”: a habitual brushing of one’s hand across one’s face.  The closest town is 500 miles away, so the 200 people who live here were glad to see us, because the train brought necessities for them, and once a year, it’s a rolling “sleigh” for Father Christmas.

There’s no denying the Aussies love their beer—but it wasn’t beer that caused the delay problem….our train hit a cow.  But these folks are quick to handle problems well.  A couple of hours later we continued the trip to Perth.  Beef was on the evening menu, but since it had been printed up days earlier, we cleared the kitchen staff of deliberate bovine homicide…and people made all the expected jokes at dinner.  At least we hadn’t hit one of the many kangaroos who sometimes raced alongside of the train.  Bouncing and jumping, they were fun to watch.

Our next major stop was at Kalgoorlie, but we were late (the cow) so the planned tour was shortened.  I chose instead to walk through the town, in rain and darkness, worrying about the young Japanese student who was venturing too far from the train.  Kalgoorlie is big time in Western Australia.  It is called the “Queen of the Golden Mile,” sitting on the richest square mile of land in the world…gold mines.

There were two very much older women in the compartment across the aisle from mine.  The steward, who’d noticed my interest in them, told this story.  About twice a year, their family puts “the grannies” on the train from Sydney to Perth, where they stay for a time, then they take the train back to Sydney. And repeat the trip in five or six months. Hmmm.

It’s 4,348 kilometers from Sydney to Perth.  Since I’m speaking of numbers, traveler’s checks (or cheques here) are not too welcome in small towns, as we found out when we had a few minutes to shop in the places we stopped.  Exchange what you estimate you might need from Sydney to Perth…not too much unless you are an inveterate shopper….and wait until Perth.  Everything on the train is paid for, except for a final tip to the steward.  It takes some time to get the cars (autos) off the train, where people had stashed them in storage.

But Perth is worth the trip.

Let’s Take a Super Trip from Sydney to Perth, Australia – Part 1

There are probably five great train trips in the world (one in the U.S., one in Canada, one across Russia, one in China) but the most fun is the one straight across Australia from Sydney to Perth.  (When that plane was lost last fall and rescue planes flew from Perth, at least I could picture where they were.)

The Sydney station is smart, clean, and people are so helpful.  (Sydney has done things with water that San Francisco probably wishes it had.) This trip is taken twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays, but the schedule may have changed. It leaves at the decent hour of 2:30 p.m. This would be after you have seen the Opera House, walked the Jail district called “The Rocks,”  visited Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair and walked the friendly streets of Sydney.

I’d suggest springing for a compartment on the train, because the trip takes three nights and days. (They keep your larger luggage in a storage room.  The berth is six feet long; your door won’t fully open if the bed is down.)  A courteous steward will check with you early.  “Do you want tea before breakfast tomorrow, mum?” I said yes.  Then he warned me:  “I’ll bring the tea and some biscuits by at 6 a.m., mum.”  I nodded, knowing the tea would be tongue-scalding hot; the Brits and Aussies certainly make it truly hot.

I paid roughly $750 U.S. for the ticket, which included all meals in the Queen Adelaide Restaurant, where you have the same table partners throughout the trip, which makes it really nice.  Beer and wine are extra; tea and coffee available at no charge, day or night. (Price is undoubtedly higher now, but so worth it.)  Here are some dishes in the posh dining room: Beefsteak Euabalong with oyster mushroom garnish.  Roast spring jumbuck, Barramundi and teriyaki glaze, mango desserts, truffles, tiramisu ice cream wedge, Vienna nougat. There was an avocado pear and bush tomato coulis salad.  (I don’t know; don’t ask, and it’s their spelling.

All cars are non-smoking, with a tiny walled-off section for each lounge for smokers.) Both smoking areas were full, so I joined the young Japanese boy sitting alone in the empty first class Queen Adelaide Restaurant.  Another young man was a GQ writer, who was in West Africa with the Peace Corps, and the one thing he wanted, after macaroni and cheese and peanut butter, was a subscription to GQ.  And now he wrote for that magazine to find out why people took trains.  Why didn’t they just save money and go ask people in the nearest Amtrak station?  Or better yet, I thought, how can I get his job?

And there was the Inner Peace Lady.  I thought she said Greenpeace, and I had moved into my Protest-Nukes-and-Save-the-Whales mode when she started talking about crystals, self-actualization and The Celestine Prophecy.  I thought she’d said Celestial Prophecy, but after we got that sorted out, we had an extensive New Age discussion.  But for an Inner Peace person, she was the angriest person I think I’ve ever met.