Sunday, 12 January 2014

Up the red centre - Chapter 15

The next part of our journey would take us up through the red centre as far north as Darwin before heading to the east coast. My year working holiday visa didn't run out until November and it wasn't yet May. This was the only time constraint that I had, and it felt wonderful. If I liked a place I would stay longer and if I didn't I'd leave. Life was as simple as that. Of course, there was the issue of money but I still had quite a wedge of savings left.
The first stop was a place called Coober Pedy which lay 850 km to the north of Adelaide along the Stuart Highway. The town is referred to as the opal capital of the world because of the vast quantities of this precious gem stone that are mined there. My sister had travelled to Coober Pedy during her trip around Australia and she told me that I simply must see it, for it's weirdness factor as much as anything else. In the back of my mind I was convinced that I was going to find the biggest opal ever discovered and then travel for the rest of my life on the money that I made from it. This unfortunately didn't happen although I did find the biggest opal in our group which I gave to my mum when I met up with her in New Zealand six months later. I actually found the opal at my dad's house when we were clearing it out in 2012 after his death. Curiously my mum had shoved it inside one of her bed side lamps sometime before she died in 2002, and I was lucky to find it at all.

Coober Pedy is an incredibly hot place and for this reason the houses or dugouts, as they are referred to are built underground. The town got its name from the Aboriginal term kupa-piti which literally means "white man's hole". The hostel that we elected to stay in was called Radekas and it was also built underground. This made it cool in so many ways. On our second day there we took an organised tour that showed us the sights of the town. These included a desert golf course and a visit to Crocodile Harry's weird and wonderful dugout.

Originally from Latvia, Harry spent many years hunting crocodiles in the north of Australia before heading to Coober Pedy to try his luck at opal mining. The underground kingdom that he had created was a wacky and wonderful place with statues, paintings and a plethora of strange objects littering his dwelling. I imagined it to be the type of residence that Dali, Picasso or Guadi would have crafted if they had lived in Coober Pedy.  Coober Pedy and especially Crocodile Harry's garden had the air of a post apocalyptic nightmare. I wasn't surprised to find out that Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome had been filmed there.

As we were finishing our trip of Coober Pedy we came across a sight that tugged on my heart strings. On the periphery of the town a group of about 40 Aboriginal people had amassed and they were all sat against a wall in various states of drunkenness.  Our tour guide waltzed passed them as though they were invisible as I am sure in his eyes they were. As I walked passed them one particularly drunken guy raised his beer to me and said "G'day bud", I waved back at him and then wandered on just like everybody else, but at least I had a conscience about it. Over the next weeks on the way up to Darwin I was to see lots of Aboriginal people and ninety percent of them were completely hammered. I thought it very sad that people had invaded their country, taken their land and introduced them to alcohol but now they were only seen as a annoyance, a drain on resources or even worse invisible.

On the way to our next destination of Uluru known more commonly as Ayers Rock I fell into a deep sleep on the bus. It was one of those bus sleeps that you laugh at the person opposite you for when it happens to them. You know the ones that I'm talking about! The kind of sleep where your neck rolls around in circles and you drool so much that it leaves you de-hydrated and groggy for the next few hours after you've woken up. The kind of sleep where you head slaps against the window and threatens to wake you up and then the driver hits a bump just a little bit too hard resulting in your head smashing into the window with such force that you wake up instantly. You wake up so fast in fact that you catch the guy opposite you sniggering away with his shoulders going up and down like a demented hyena.

I awoke instantly as my head crashed into the window of the bus, so instant in fact that I caught the guy opposite me laughing like a demented hyena. As I looked up, Ayers Rock was there in front of me, or at least I thought it was. It's weird when you've seen something so many times on post cards, biscuit tins, photos and the likes it feels as though you've seen it already even though you have never actually been near the place. I had the same feeling when I saw the Statue of Liberty for example or when I saw the Sydney Opera House. And I was having the feeling now as I gazed at what I thought was Ayers Rock.

"Guys, guys, wake up we're here", I shouted to the lads. Slowly Mark, Kev and Adam opened their eyes to see what all the commotion was about. "It's Ayers Rock - look there in the distance." I told them with the enthusiasm of a kid who's just glimpsed
Blackpool tower for the first time. We all cheered. "Madness waking up to a sight like that", Kev chirped in, and we all had to agree. "Looks much flatter than I thought it would look", Mark interjected. I was about to respond to his comment with "don't be a cock Mark" when an Aussie guy a few seats in front of us shouted "Ya fuckin dumb Poms, that's not Ayers Rock it's Mount Commer." And he was right it wasn't Ayers Rock at all but a mountain in the same vicinity called Mount Conner. Mt Conner, in case you are wondering resembles Ayers Rock in colour and in shape to some degree but Mark was right it was much flatter. As if a giant had swooped down and cut the top off it.

As it happened we couldn't have gotten that close to Ayers Rock anyway because there was a 40 square mile area around the rock which we had to pay $20 to enter for the day. All of the accommodation was located outside of this exclusion area and had been since the early 1970s when the government relocated any establishment that lay within the boundaries of the zone that they'd created. This annoyed our group greatly because it meant that we would have to hire a car for the day in order to get anywhere near the rock. After all we were backpackers and everybody knows what a bunch of tight arses backpackers are. It would not surprise me if some backpackers have refused to pay the fee even though they have been on a bus for days to get there. And it would surprise me even less if those people were Israelis (any backpacker will know what I mean).

Ayers Rock or Uluru (Aboriginal name) as it is now officially known is an extremely sacred place to the indigenous people of the area, the 
Anangu. They believe the area to be inhabited by the spirits of their ancestral creator beings known as Tjukritja or Waparitas. The Anangu don't even climb the rock because it is so sacred to them and they prefer it if nobody else climbed the rock either. This has been a bone of contention between the tourist board and the Anangu leaders for many years. Of course, we ignored their wishes and climbed the rock anyway. Personally speaking there was no way that I was travelling all the way there to stand and stare at it from the base. Spirits, or no spirits.

Besides being sacred there is also an element of danger involved in climbing the rock. It was pretty damn steep to be fair and a rail had been erected to help people up. Many people (35 as of 2013) have died climbing it although I am not sure how they died. I guess that the majority of these deaths could have been from heart attacks judging by the age, size and physical ability of some of those people making the ascent. It was even a struggle for us, and we were fit young guys. Watching our dear scout leader Mark struggle back down was a sight to behold. "Hey boys, boys, wait please boys", he shouted at us as he worked his way down the rail. He was so slow in fact that a large queue built up behind him and most of them were at least twice his age.

"Look at our intrepid leader", I said to Kev as we fell about in hysterics.

That night we joined thousands of other campers who partied the night away at the Uluru camp ground. The atmosphere was electric it felt more Miami Beach than middle of the red dusty outback, but sure enough there in the distance was the huge chunk of red rock that everybody had come to witness. It was no great surprise, what with this being Oz and all that barbecuing was the main focus of the attention. The camp ground even came supplied with hundreds of large coin operated barbies which were permanent features. I thought that this was a splendid idea and wondered why I'd never seen it in other countries. Mind you I couldn't see them lasting two minutes in
England without somebody either stealing them or smashing them to pieces. They'd probably be in someone’s back garden in Barnsley, Birkenhead or Brixton within a few weeks of them being installed.

We ran out of alcohol pretty early on in the evening so I went to the main shopping square to buy some more. As I was walking across the square I heard a whistling coming from a bush, quickly followed by the words "hey bud, yeah you bud!" Either the bush was talking to me or there was somebody in it trying to attract my attention. Like a fool I went to investigate. I was confronted by very drunk Aboriginal guy who had a $20 note in his hand. "Here bud, take this bud and buy me a slab of VB", he practically ordered me, giving me little manoeuvre to refuse.

I must admit that I was a little perplexed as to why he couldn't do it himself but anyway it all seemed rather arcane and therefore exciting. I purchased the slab of beer for him and was sneaking back across the square with it when all hell broke lose. A loud whistle was blown and before I knew it I had been grabbed by three policemen who had apparently been watching my every move. For the next ten minutes I was intensely questioned about my motives for buying the beer before being cautioned to never do it again. Meanwhile, my friend in the bushes ran off as quick as lightening. So much for his loyalty. The police who were themselves Aboriginal were trying to make a stance on alcoholism in the community so I guess that's a good thing. Just a pity that such extreme measures had to be employed.

I eagerly returned to the camp site to tell my tale to the others. However I was halfway though the tale when Kev stopped me to ask where our beer was. In the all the excitement I had completely forgot to buy it. We opted to get an early night instead because we had to catch the first bus out the next day anyway. That was it for Ayers Rock/Uluru. It had been fun but it was time to move on.

There are a few places in the world whose very name conjure up romance and mystique,
Casablanca and Timbuktu immediately spring to mind. Our next destination was also one of those places. Alice Springs, or Alice as it is also commonly known lies in the geographical centre of Australia near the southern border of the Northern Territory. The town became internationally famous after the publication of Neville Shute's novel "A town like Alice" in 1950. This was certainly the reason that I found out about the towns existence. Back in the late 1970s my dad had borrowed the book from our local library and he had somehow knocked a pot of brown paint over it. The library had made him purchase the book which had infuriated my mum. Anything that incurred a cost caused my mum to have a major meltdown. So that was my story about Alice Springs and now I was on my way there. Funny how life works out isn't it?

The town itself was a typical outback type of place which felt quiet and lazy. The
Todd River which ran through the centre of the city was completely dry and there were lots of Aboriginal people hanging out in the dry river bed for some inexplicable reason. One drunken chap tried to fight me as I walked past him too closely, although he fell over with the weight of his own punch. This was the first time since I'd been in Australia that I had felt threatened by one of the indigenous people and I could have hardly called it threatening really. I am sure the guy couldn't even remember the incident 20 seconds later.

Although there is evidence that the Arrernte Aboriginal people had inhabited the area for at least 30 000 years (it baffles me how we can know this) the European settlers didn't arrive on the scene until the 1870's. A telegraph station was completed in 1872 which linked
Adelaide to Darwin and Great Britain. This station was sited close to a permanent water hole in what was a normally dry Todd River. The settlement became known as Alice Springs after the wife of the Post Master General of South Australia.

We took a day trip out to the springs and the telegraph station and I must say it was all quite charming. A very wild west feeling to it. Impressed as I was with the station itself I couldn't help being more impressed with by all the seemingly tame wallabies that hopped around the landscape with very few cares in the world. I'd never really seen wallabies before and they struck me as looking like kangaroos that had been left in the washer too long.

Quite by coincidence we happened to be in
Alice Springs right in time for the annual Camel Cup. This is an event that first began in 1970 on the dry river bed of the Todd River and has continued to run ever since (albeit in a different location.) Basically, a shit ton of camels turn up in a field and people bet on them racing. Just like in horse racing the jockey sits up on the camels back and whips him to make him go faster. A carnival atmosphere surrounded the whole event as I am sure it would at any event that took place in such a remote location. The locals came out in their droves and alcohol was drunk by bucket load which came as no great surprise, this being the Australian outback and all.

Such was the drawing factor of the Camel Cup that we bumped into practically every backpacker that we had met over the past few months including the couple that I had met on the way to see the Crying Game in Adelaide. Their names were Andy and Daniela and they had gotten together whilst picking apples in
Victoria. Andy was from Wales and Daniela from Holland. Little did I know at this stage that within three years all three of us would be living in Holland and spending quite a lot of time together. Once again, I reiterate, funny how life turns out!

Somehow Andy and I ended up in a team together for one of the days events. This event was named the chariot pull or something like that anyway and it involved pulling a contraption that slightly resembled a chariot in that it had two wheels and a standing platform. Also in our team was a Dutch guy called Sander who I had never met before but who I was to bump into again when he was randomly sat next to me in a restaurant in Dahab, Egypt some seven years later (Yeah, I know it's weird).

There were at least another ten chariots in the race which all seemed to have strapping Australian guys pulling them. These guys were enormous. If you've ever seen the guys that play Aussie rules football (or is it rugby) you'll know what I mean. Most of their legs were longer than Andy's body and this was accentuated by the fact that they were all wearing shorts that could only be described as hot pants. What is it with the Aussies and those little gay shorts that they wear? I mean, come on boys sort it out, it's not right and it's not proper.

The aim of the race was for one person to stand in the chariot while the other two pulled him for a distance of a hundred metres up the field. The chariot would then have to go around a cone before the person in the chariot was replaced by one of the people pulling. There would then be a dash back to the start/finish line where the whole debacle would end. As we stood on the start line I looked at all our competition and wondered what the fuck I had got myself into. It was obvious all the attention was going to be on our chariot because we looked so out of place. I was willing the race to be over so that we could be put out of our misery.

When the race started we amazed everyone including ourselves by the taking an early lead. By the time we got to the cone we were a good ten metres in front of everybody else. It was a most incredible scene. I could hear the guy with the megaphone egging us on 
"and the scruffy backpackers have made a flying start" -or something like that anyway. I was even starting to have delusions that we were going to win. This was going to be the perfect way to make up for an incident that had taken place when I was eight years old. Please allow me to digress.

It was the Broadway County Primary sports day in 1977 and I had been entered for one event. This event was the sack race which I thought that I had an outside chance of getting a certificate for. I would have been happy with third place to be honest. My mum even came along to witness my moment of glory. This was a proud moment for her since I was generally such an under-achiever in all disciplines. She'd even brought Scamp our Alsatian-Labrador to help spur me on.

The race started and against all odds I took a flying lead. By the halfway point I was way ahead of my nearest rival and on my way to certain glory. That is, until Scamp spotted me and decided that he wanted to offer me some special encouragement. Breaking free from my mum Scamp came bounding across the field, leapt at me and totally knocked me out of my sack. By the time that I was on my feet again I was in last place and had to face the humiliation of the crowd’s rapturous laughter.

So 15 years later back in Alice Springs I was determined to make up for that day. As we approached the cone at the 100 metre point a cloud of confusion descended upon our team. We had failed to discuss which way around the cone we were going to go. Andy attempted to go to the left of the cone and I attempted to go to the right of the cone. The chariot went first one way and then the other before toppling over. Sander was thrown out of the chariot and all three of us ended up in a heap on the ground. The crowd obviously loved it and went wild in their applause of our actions. By the time we picked ourselves up we had already been overtaken by at least 20 long legged monsters in hot pants. It was like I had magically gone back in time to that fateful day in 1977.

It was time to get out of Alice and head north, and what better to place to spend a few days recuperating from our chariot pulling failure than Mataranka. Mataranka is famous for two things, its hot springs and the fact that it was the setting of the book "We of the Never Never". This autobiographical novel which was written in 1902 by Jeannie Gunn tells of her experiences living at the Elsey Station close to Mataranka (the first woman to do so.) By all accounts the book is supposed to be excellent but I must admit that I've never never read it (sorry for that awful joke).

Andy and Daniela had decided to join our band of four until we got to Darwin at least. Once in Darwin Daniela would head to Western Australia whilst Andy would join us on our voyage east to Queensland. But that was all in the future, for the next few days we were all going to chill in the beautiful hot springs which were located right next to our camp site. We arrived in Mataranka as the sun was setting and immediately pitched our tents. Then it was directly to the hot springs for an evening bathe. Fortunately there was no curfew on the pool so we stayed in there until our wrinkled skin could take no more. It was one of those wonderful travel moments. So magnificent in fact that I used my mental camera to click an image of it. It is now stored in my brain for all eternity - well until I'm dead at least.

That evening the resort came alive with live music well into the night. The bands played on a small amphitheatre and it would have been the perfect end to the perfect evening - had it not been country and western music that they were playing. Oh well, I guess we couldn't have it all.

The next day we went for a walk through the jungle-like terrain that surrounded the springs. As we approached the Roper River we saw a sign which read "Estuarine crocodiles inhabit this area - DO NOT enter the water." Now with the hindsight of more than 20 years I am not proud of what I am going to tell you. The lads dared each other to swim across the river and back right next to where the sign was. At this point the river (or it could have been a small tributary pool) was only a width of about five meters. But with the threat of being eaten by a crocodile it seemed more like 20 meters. Looking back now I can't believe that we actually did this but the four of us jumped from the bank of the river and swam for our dear life. And I have to say that it was the scariest thing that I have ever done or ever intend to do again. I feared for my life with every stroke that I made. Once back on the river bank the exhilaration was out of this world. I had never felt so alive.

Our journey to Katherine the next day was thankfully short, certainly by Australian standards anyway. Within two hours of leaving Mataranka we had signed in at our hostel in Katherine. I seem to remember that the hostel was a YHA although I may be wrong. I also recall that it was in a great location down by river and close to a hot spring. The owner was an enthusiastic fellow who rather manically erupted into spontaneous decisions. On our first night there he ran into the common room and beckoned everybody in there to follow him to the hostel minibus. Within five minutes we were being driven down a dirt path at an alarmingly fast pace. The hostel owner's attention seemed firmly rooted in the back of the minibus and with a beer in one hand; god only knows how we didn't crash.

A few km down the road he suddenly jumped out of the minibus and urged us all to follow him. Before we knew it we had entered a small pothole and were descending into the belly of the earth. Deeper and deeper we went through a series of caverns. The tension amongst the hostel guests was increasing by the minute. It was only when a few German girls burst into tears that the decision was made to turn back. A huge sigh of relief went through the whole cave.

The following day we hired a Jeep, strapped some canoes to the top of it and headed for Katherine Gorge. The magnificent gorge or should I say gorges (there are actually 13 of them) are located around 30 km to the north east of the city in the Nitmiluk national park. And what better way to explore them than by canoe? 

We were given quick instructions on how to operate the canoes as well as a brief lesson on the wildlife that we may see during our paddle up the gorges. Quite worryingly this included fresh water crocodiles. If ever we needed an incentive not to fall in the water this was it. As a precaution against such an occurrence our possessions were placed into watertight containers. But these weren't going to be necessary right? 

"If anybody's going to fall in the water it's going to be you," Andy shouted at me as I was about to get in the back of my two man canoe. "Hurry up," said Kev who was already in the front of the canoe eagerly waiting to begin our journey. The words were hardly out of his mouth as my right foot hit his canoe with a little too much force and the vessel capsized. Both Kev and I were submerged in the Katherine River before we'd even left the dock, and the watertight canisters containing our possessions were a good 10 yards down stream. As I re-emerged from the water I was greeted by our irritated instructor who was shaking his head in disbelief. I seem to have this effect on people.

As far as I was concerned a watery submersion was a great way to start the day. Not only did it help to wake us up but we also knew that we could cope with the situation now, in case it should arise again. I ran this by the others but they didn't really share my optimism.

I can only describe the next five hours or so as one of the most pleasurable days of my life. It was a beautiful sunny day, I was in good company (Mark and Adam) had decided not join us, and ahead of us lay thirteen high sided gorges which ran for 12 km. We were under no illusion that we were going to paddle our way up all 13 of them but we would do our best to navigate as many as we could. Our goal was to see at least half. 

We never even considered the thought that the gorges would not be connected by navigable waterways. When we got to the end of the first one we were in for a great shock. The water ended and a big pile of boulders and rocks began. The only way to get across to the next gorge was to pick up the canoe and drag it across the rocks as best we could. If only we'd known before we signed on the dotted line hey! Only joking, it was but a minor setback (it's very easy to write this with the benefit of 20 years hindsight.)

By mid-afternoon we had reached our goal. Approximately halfway up the seventh gorge we turned around and went back. It had a been a wonderful day, we had exerted ourselves physically and we'd avoided being eaten by crocodiles. Of course, this would have made an excellent story for the ones that had not been eaten, but since that probably would have been me this was undoubtedly the best outcome.

The next day we arrived in Darwin and there isn't really much that I can tell you about the place that you can't read in a guidebook. It was tropical, it was hot and sticky and it had some of the most amazing sunsets that I had ever seen. Other than that and as a quick synopsis, we got our toes sucked by carp in the harbour, we stayed in a friendly YHA with parties a plenty and it was the end point for two of the six of our merry bunch of men (and a woman.) Mark got a job working as a valet at a camper van cleaning company in Darwin and Daniela was going to head to Western Australia after a little side trip with Andy to the Kakadu national park. There was a general feeling that things as we knew them were coming to an end and this was a good thing. A new chapter was about to begin.

As our bus drew out of Darwin city centre it passed the camper van rental company where Mark was working. He spotted us through the bus window and his face was a picture of despair. I'm no lip reader but I swear that he was saying "boys, boys, please come back boys."

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