Australia: Three Favorite Things

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It’s hard to sum up eight weeks in a country- but I’ll try.

Three Favourite Scenic Spots:

  1. Uluru- obvious. Probably our favorite thing in all of Australia.
  2. The Great Ocean Road, west of Melbourne- especially the Twelve Apostles area. I had seen photos of them but I was completely unprepared for how big they were in real life.
  3. The Whitsunday Islands, particularly Whitehaven Beach

    Bob models a "stinger suit" at Whitehaven Beach

Three Favourite Attractions:

  1. Hunter Valley Zoo. We kept fondly reminiscing about this place for days and weeks after we’d visited.
  2. Horizon the Planetarium, at SciTech in Perth. This planetarium runs the most advanced software in the southern hemisphere- actually, the program is still in beta. We enjoyed getting a tutorial on the southern night sky. Very nice planetarium, interesting movies, knowledgeable staff (and the rest of the museum was a blast too!)
  3. Art Gallery of New South Wales- the free tours here were excellent. If you can’t make the tour, they also offer free audio downloads.  They have a great collection of Australian art.

Three Favourite Foods:

Dip in sour cream, then sweet chili sauce

  1. Potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chili sauce. The best bar snack EVER.
  2. Burgers or sandwiches with “the lot” (the works.) In Australia this means lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese, a slice of beetroot, and if you’re lucky, a fried egg and a slice of caramelized pineapple.
  3. Fish ‘n’ chips. We tried them all over the country, and our favorite was the fried basa in Bowen, Queensland.

Three Favourite Animals:

  1. Little penguins (at the Penguin Parade)
  2. Koalas (in any zoo or preserve)
  3. Tropical fish (at the Great Barrier Reef)

Three Favourite Wineries/Breweries:

  1. Paxton Vineyards
  2. The Monk Brewery
  3. Irongate Estate

Three Favourite Aussie Slang Terms:

  1. Bogan– the Australian version of a redneck.
  2. Budgie smuggler– the very cheeky term for a man’s Speedo swimsuit. Unfortunately, more common than we’d like.
  3. Too easy! This little phrase can be used anywhere, anytime, especially if you are a B&B owner in Townsville.

Why We Didn’t Climb

For some people, the highlight of a trip to Uluru is the opportunity to climb it. “The Climb,” as it’s known, was first popularized in the mid-twentieth century by tour operators. To some Australians I’ve talked to, Uluru is The Climb. After mentioning that we visited Uluru, the next question is often “And did you climb it?”

The answer is no, we did not. Even if we had wanted to, we probably couldn’t have: summer in the Outback is so unforgiving that the National Park service closes the climb from 8 a.m. in December, January, and February. (That means you must have started by 8, not finished.) It’s also closed when it’s windy, wet, covered in cloud, when thunderstorms are nearby, etc. The days we were there were so windy that the climb was closed, so there’s never a guarantee that you’ll be able to climb. All these rules are put in place for safety reasons, yet people still die. As of our visit, forty-three people have died on Uluru.

There is a more important reason that we didn’t climb. The local tribe, the Anangu, don’t climb it because to them, it is sacred. Remember their version of the creation story? They believe that Uluru was created by a deity, an ancestral being, and to climb is to disrespect Uluru. And climbing is bad enough, but getting hurt or dying is even worse- that’s defiling it. It’s not hard to understand, really. Imagine how you would feel if someone ran into your church, knocked over everything on the altar, and ripped down the Cross. Or, as one of the park rangers said to me, if someone came into your house and died in your living room. Places are special, they can even be sacred, and it’s unfair to treat Uluru differently. Unfortunately, until 25 years ago, the Anangu did not have any say in the matter. They did not own their own land; it had been seized by white settlers and the government. Now they own it and help to manage Uluru along with the National Park service. The Climb is still allowed, for the time being. The Anangu remember how it felt to be disrespected, and they don’t want to disrespect visitors to Uluru by banning the climb outright. They know that most visitors have traveled a long way at great expense, and they don’t want to disappoint those tourists who have spent a lot of time and money getting there. However, their wish is for you to consider their viewpoint, and not climb Uluru.

Rollin’ Up to the Rock

We weren’t going to go to Uluru/Ayers Rock, but I talked to my friend Paul Simon and he said I shouldn’t miss it. Oh wait… that wasn’t me, that was Oprah. Unfortunately, the Virginia Vagabonds are not the most famous visitors to Australia right now, but if we have to be overshadowed by anyone, Oprah isn’t bad. Our visit to the rock coincided with Oprah’s (along with a few dozen lucky American studio audience members.) I believe they got to fly out here from Sydney, a flight that only takes a few hours, but we drove over 2000 miles over the course of six days. Yes, we drove 2,136 miles into the heart of Australia to see… a rock. But Oprah and I agree-this is not just any rock.

The largest monolith in the world

The original residents of the area called it Uluru and created myths about it. The first whites to see it named it Ayers Rock, after the then-governor of Adelaide. Today it is jointly managed by the traditional owners, the Anangu tribe, and the national park service, and is officially known by both names, but colloquially by either, or simply “The Rock.” It’s no wonder there is a plethora of names- it’s one impressive rock. The neighboring rock formations, Kata Tjuta, are no less impressive. Kata Tjuta is a word in the local language meaning “many heads.”

The "heads" of Kata Tjuta

There are two theories as to how Uluru and Kata Tjuta were created. Geologists say that these big rocks are 300 million years old. Actually, did you know that the rocks themselves extend far below the ground? 550 million years ago, the rock that comprises Uluru and Kata Tjuta was part of a huge jagged mountain range which eroded into sediment. The sediment collected into certain areas. Then, 500 million years ago, a sea covered the region, and the sediment was compressed and cemented together into giant rocks, but they were still under the sea, sand, and mud. By 300 million years ago, the sea had receded, and geological activity folded the rock as well as lifted the region up above sea level. The rocks that comprise Uluru and Kata Tjuta were tilted and left sticking up above the earth’s surface (but not entirely, it is estimated that they extend up to 4 miles underground.) Weathering has produced the patterns in the rock.

Bob surveys a waterhole

On the other hand, the Anangu believe that at the time of creation, the world was a completely featureless place. Mountains, gorges, waterholes, and other landforms were created by ancestral beings, and the fact that these forms exist today is proof of these ancestors. The patterns in the rock were also produced by the ancestors, and there are stories about each irregularity. This wave was formed by a snake, they say; and this cave with what appears to be a bas-relief inside is actually the unhappy ending to a story about the hare wallaby tribe. (At the creation time, all animals were part of tribes and could talk.)

Five hare-wallaby boys forever frozen onto the wall

There was a miscommunication between two tribes, which led to one tribe becoming angry. They then led a surprise attack on the other tribe. Most everyone got away except for these five boys, whose figures were frozen onto the wall. If you look close, can’t you see that one is crouching down, and one is pointing? One is tall and thin, and one is short and fat. Very interesting. Nearby Uluru is another famous rock formation, Kings Canyon. This time, we actually weren’t planning to go there- I had heard of it but I really wasn’t sure what it was all about. However, a German guy we met at a campsite recommended it wholeheartedly, so we added another couple hundred miles to odometer and went out there. It’s sometimes touted as the Australian Grand Canyon, but in reality it’s totally different. It’s very green. Bob and I did the Canyon Rim walk, which goes from the carpark at the bottom of the canyon, up a ridge, around the rim, and down again (it’s supposed to take up to four hours but took us only two) and here is the view we got from the top of the canyon.  

Who would've thought the Outback would be so green?

Yes, we may be crazy for driving all the way into the middle of Australia just to see some rocks… but I can say, it was totally worth it.

Kata Tjuta sunset