Australia

Uluru view

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We’re part of a backpacker tour headed to Uluru, what was once known as Ayer’s Rock – the rock that sits almost in the dead centre of Australia.

We’ve been driving for 5 hours, and have seen three things: red earth, dead trees, and road. On and on and on – the landscape is a permanent loop of three ingredients.

I’m beside myself with excitement when I spot something new:

“Did you see that tire?”, I say to Rose, as if I’ve just laid eyes on an ancient artifact.

“OMG. A beer bottle! You see it?”. I repeat this maybe once an hour – and Rose, when she’s not sleeping which is where I normally find her, replies:

“You could bury someone out here and they’d never be found”.

I look at her slowly, slightly concerned. “UM. Do you want to talk about something? Here. I’ll start things off: I think you may be reading too many serial killer crime novels”.

She smiles, and looks out the window at the horizon. Two minutes later, she’s pointing:

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“There it is!”.

It’s an amazing sight, I think made more remarkable from the absence of everything around it. Out of miles of red earth, as flat as a frying pan, a huge massive blob rises, sitting there looking like a football (the American version) designed for giants.

The thing is: while of course everyone is busy clicking away with their cameras, the images can’t convey the transition in the landscape from nothing to a huge something. There’s no signs or hints there’s a rock coming, then Ta-da. Where the hell did this thing come from?

As we approach, we also learn it’s not alone. An adjacent rock formation is equally amazing to see: called Kata Juta – it sits a few kilometres away from Uluru, and has the appearance of a series of spaceships.

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Our tour is a three day deal, where we’ll walk around both Kata Juta, Uluru, and another outcropping called King’s Canyon. Both nights we’ll sleep under the stars in the outback version of a sleeping bag – a Swag – basically a canvas body bag that holds a sleeping bag.

On our first night out under the stars, our tour guide, seeing that our entire group had no idea what they were doing, decided to have some fun for himself. As we all laid out our Swags, people began asking, if there were snakes and dingos around. After hearing some howls in the distance, one question was answered, which then left snakes.

Our guide then explained, if each one of us took a stick and drew a line around our Swag, we’d create an uneven piece of dirt, which a snake would notice and retreat from. Everyone looked at each other, wondering if it was a load – some even openly critical: “Should we chant as we do it?”.

Yet, for all the criticism, the amazing part was that everyone did it, even as they complained they didn’t think it was accurate – no one wanted to take anything for granted.

Once everyone had drawn lines around their Swags, our guide went for the icing: “If you’re really worried about it, you could sprinkle salt around your Swag to also keep scorpions away”.

Immediately, in one fell swoop, the entire group traded in their critical faculties for a salt container, and poured it around their Swag. To an outside observer, each person’s sleeping spot now looked like a shrine or the site of a voodoo ritual with a body bag surrounded by a halo of markings in the earth and a moat of salt.

It wasn’t until the next morning that we realized we were a punchline. After we kicked away our salt lines after breakfast, to preserve the joke for future tours, we headed to King’s Canyon – a red rock outcropping that reminded me of images I’d seen of the Western US (Arkansas, Nevada). The views were phenomenal:

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We were out for three hours, and it was ultimately an exercise in taking home poster photographs. You could more or less point your camera in any direction and come up with an amazing piece of earth or odd formation:

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After touring the Canyon, we headed to the first of the two main events the next day, bright and early to beat the sun: Kata Juta. Immediately, as we approached, I couldn’t believe the scale of it:

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It’s so big that I found sitting between these huge formations, while walking across red earth, felt like we were in our own Mars landscape – with the one exception of a blue sky that was so deeply blue and rich, it almost seemed like a Pantone colour.

But, the big draw, even though it’s not the same size as Kata Juta is of course Uluru. And, it didn’t disappoint. Up close, I thought it was even more impressive. We set out and walked around it’s base, which, to give you an idea of its size, is 10km.

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And, side after side revealed something unique, including various spots where you can see Aborigine cave drawings, and other sacred spots where they continue to hold rituals today.

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Interestingly, it’s not merely the name change of the rock back to its Aboriginal name that is the only instance where cultures seem to be crossing, and in some ways creating tension. On paper, Uluru is Aboriginal land, and they’ve leased it to the Australian government for 99 years, allowing tourists to see it.

However, as part of this deal, the Australian government also allows people to climb the rock, while Aboriginal groups oppose it – and have huge signs at the entrance to the climb, asking people to reconsider and respect the spot as being sacred ground. Yet, tour group after group bypass the sign and wander up – which is no small feat, since the pitch is really steep. Apparently 37 people have died climbing it – but it continues, despite this and despite Aboriginal opposition. (note the guy below wearing “Just Do It” shirt at the entrance to the climb, who’s holding his back, seemingly reconsidering Nike’s advice)

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It’s a weird scenario – since the Australian government is saying it’s okay. The more conscientious tour organizers side with the Aborigines and don’t encourage their groups to climb up, even though it’s sanctioned as being okay by the caretakers of it (Aus Gov’t).

In any case, Uluru itself was amazing to see, and while I’d initially said going out that, I’m sure I’d never go back – I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

And that brings us back to our furry friends. On our first night in a hostel in Alice Springs, we heard something about a wallabie feeding area. We wandered over, and it turned out – there was an area where wild wallabies, come down at dusk off the mountain, looking for food. It was really cool – they lined the hills and bounded down, one after the other and in unison, allowing us to feed them.

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Later that night, we walked back and spotted some kangaroo bouncing around the edge as well.

That soon brought an end to our red earth and rock experience – next we were headed to a land of asphalt, glass towers and symphony orchestras. While Canada boasts a hockey player of the same name who’s made an impact on the international stage, Australia’s city attracts people from around the world, which after a few days there, was easy to see why.

Next stop Sydney.

Scuba Doo

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Cairns. Pronounced “CANS” by Australians is one of the main launching points to access the massive stretch of aquarium that heads South for about half the length of the country on the East coast – The Great Barrier Reef.

Rose was here 16 years ago as a backpacker, and almost didn’t leave. The promise of nightly parties, cheap beers and competitively priced kebabs was too hard to pass up. But, to her credit, her self-imposed internment happened after she had spent three days diving on the thing, which, based on the huge number of tourist outfits and souvenir shops in town with Reef paraphernalia seems still to be Cairns’ main raison d’etre.

With years and years of diving experience to the Reef, what struck me most about the various dive companies in town was how streamlined their operations are. On past dive expeditions we’ve done, Rose and I are invariably asked to show up early at the dive shop to get fitted for our gear, and then are on a boat with maybe 10-12 other people. This isn’t us seeking out an exclusive group, but the norm for general admission.

In Cairns, some boats are going out with up to 200 divers and snorkellers. 200! This means 200 + tanks, 200 plus scuba suits, 200 plus BCDs and 200 lunches. I was thinking we were about to get on a converted oil tanker.

While the ship was not the ocean going leviathan I imagined, and we only had 70 people on board, it was still a massive machine with two decks, all the equipment ready on board (no need for early fittings), a hydraulic deck to lift up a zodiac boat and plop it in the water, two surface to air missiles and a harrier jet (ok, not those last two).

What was most remarkable, however, was the efficiency of the whole operation. This was not a dive experience. We were products being assembled in a dive factory. As things kicked off, groups were ushered into stations to be sized up by crew who picked out everyone’s correct shoe size for dive boots, wetsuits and BCDs.

Once that was sorted, the “unguided” groups -i.e. people going without a staff dive-master – of which we were one, were told to assemble into one room for a quick rundown of the reef.

We were next ushered on to the back deck to get suited up, told we’d be in the water in the next five minutes, and those of us who were turning colour, were automatically given barf bags.

Before the people next to me had a chance to heave, our group was led to the back platform at the water’s edge, asked to lift our feet one at a time, at which a staff member fitted on our flippers, tapped us on the foot, and told us to jump.

Sploosh. We were off the assembly line.

That, it turned out, was the most exciting part of the dive. Rose has said when she was here 16 years ago, it was bursting with colours and teeming with fish, which was undoubtedly because she took a three day tour, living on a boat that staked out different areas of the Reef.

Unfortunately for us, we only had one day, which meant, I think, we got the Bing-Bang-Boom treatment of “Here’s the Reef. Ok, good? Let’s go back to shore”. ┬áThe visibility wasn’t the greatest, and there weren’t a ton of fish swimming about, but it was still fun to get in the water. For me, diving in Komodo created a high bar for everything else – which admittedly, may just be vivid in my memory because I nearly drowned doing it.

So thanks to that extra effort, I think I’ve accumulated a few exclamation points tattooed to that experience in my memory – giving it marquee status as THE DIVE to judge against.

Nevertheless, that wasn’t the end of our time in Cairns. Next we took to land, for a day tour to see one of the oldest rain forests in the world.

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While it may have held the title as the oldest rainforest, I think New Zealand’s win out as the prettiest for all their lushness and deep green colours. However, what came next, even New Zealand, for all its natural beauty and wilderness couldn’t top:

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Kanga-fuckin-rooos!

I was starting to wonder. We’d been here five weeks, driven past the many kangaroo silhouetted signs on the highway, and hadn’t spotted a single hopper. This time around, as part of our day tour, we were guaranteed to not only see them, but get up close and feed them, inside a wildlife refuge:

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Seeing them up close, the only reference I have to describe them is that they are like hopping donkeys. Bizarre, entirely unique animals.

As we both stood in place with food in our hands, and a group that was Rose’s height started hopping towards us, I was thinking I was headed for YouTube infamy: seconds away from being kicked in the nuts by a kangaroo to give himself and his pals better access to my food bag.

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Thankfully no harm done. They were tame, and well rehearsed in their roles as supplicants to tourists.

The same went for their smaller brethren: wallabies – that were also in the same spot, and had also learned not to slice open tourists’ hands for feed. Although, it makes me wonder how many bandages the trainers had to go through to get to this point.

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Before the day was out we were also taken to see the animal that made two Australians famous, – Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin – plus earned B film infamy for its many starring roles as an unrelenting human eating machine that saws through everyone on screen until it meets its demise, in grand cinematic fashion, invariably from an explosion but not before the hero gets to share his line to dispatch it, something like: “Hey Ugly. I’m taking you back to the Stone Age” or “You pimply prehistoric piece of shit! Swallow this” or right to the point: “See you in a while, crocodile”.

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As our tour guide emphasised, its vicious B-film reputation is also its real world reputation. Wearing a microphone as he steered our boat down river, he embarked on a dramatic monologue in which he impressed on us just how mean Australian crocs are by using a flurry of synonyms for the world “BITE” – “They TEAR at flesh”, “RIP apart their prey”, “They can CRUSH a skull”, “CHOMP right down on a leg, breaking it in two”, “CHEW you in half”.

It was like listening to a football coach talking to his team at halftime.

After hearing the litany of ways the crocodile was able to take us out, we were amazed when we got to shore, that a woman was walking along the shoreline with a fishing rod – the exact spot where crocodiles love to hang out, and we also learned “SHOOT outta tha watah like a rocket at 50km/h and drag its prey back in as quick!”.

All of us were staring at this woman, jaws dropped, cringing at the idea that she was seconds from getting snagged right in front of our eyes. Thankfully she made it back to the dock in one piece and we headed home, staring at every river’s edge we passed, sure that a crocodile was under there waiting.

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In any case, this would be the last we’d see of crocodiles, but not our furry pouched friends. Next stop Uluru aka Ayer’s Rock, where we’d spot wallabies outside of tourist walls, in the desert, along with nothing for miles and miles on end, until a huge something. And then a massive something else.

Talk soon

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The Island Zoo

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“Remember. JUST LET HIM COME TO YOU!”.

We’ve arrived on Russell Island, a tiny little spot – 8km long, sitting off the coast of Brisbane on the East coast of Australia, and Rose is nervous.

I normally broadcast anxiety between us – but at this moment, she’s taking the lead, and while I admit my bias for anxious reactions, I think she’s on to something.

We’re about to meet our housemate who we’ll be in charge of for the next five weeks of our housesit – a 60kg German Shepherd. All we know at this point is his name – Zaroff – and that he’s recently been neutered. Also this: after a brief Google search on his name, we found that one of the top results was “man-eater”.

Fantastique.

Standing in the driveway while Zaroff’s owner calls him out – I have visions of a five-week housesit that will take the shape of the Middle East conflict in which Rose and I section off one part of the house, giving Zaroff the other, while occasionally crossing the border to toss food into his bowl then running back over before he takes a chunk out of my thigh as retaliation for a human having the balls to take his balls.

As he emerges around the corner, he runs right into Rose, head down, nuzzling himself into her leg. He then spots me and jumps up in excitement.

His paw – the size of a softball – is coming towards me, and I’m having second thoughts about Rose’s advice. Zaroff lands at my feet, shoves his head into my thigh and insists I pet him until my arm goes numb.

Ok. No man-eater. And, no need for a demilitarized zone. At least for conflict.

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As it turned out, he was more or less attached to our hip, and wanted to be in whatever room we were in. If we left to get groceries on the mainland, he’d rush out of the house to meet us.Unable to wait for the garage door to rise fully – he’d squiggle underneath as it opened and, once clear, would gallop towards us like a rugby player lining up an opposing player who’s carrying the ball.

And on the few times when the wind was howling – he jumped up on the couch, hoping to remain as inconspicuous as only 60kg German Shepherds can be.

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But this was only the start. We’d also signed up to tend to 13 chickens:

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2 peacocks

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2 miniature horses (we were told they’re not ponies!)

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And flocks and flocks of wild cockatoos and parrots.

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In short, we were zookeepers. When not preparing feed, we were brushing them, walking one of them, planning their menus for the next day and cleaning up trails, pathways – really, entire highways of chicken shit. It seems according to their evolution, chickens are not required to stop before they open the hatches. They can walk while bombing away.

Impressive time saving technique. But what are they using this extra time for? I looked into the eye of a chicken while she pecked her feed and while she may well have been plotting an insurrection, I’m more prone to think this was her internal dialogue:

Fucking corn!
Corn. Corn.
MMM, that’s good fucking corn.
CORN.
I’MA eat that.

For now, I think we’re safe from a chicken riot.

However, not all our time was spent egg snatching and poo shovelling – we also ventured ashore to explore what sights we could find on the mainland. One day we headed to Brisbane where we walked, full blast into Australian prices, paying $9 for the privilege to enjoy this saucisse:

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The city is also full of independent coffee shops – and it smelled incredible, but we decided to salivate for free instead of lose our lunch money to a single cappuccino. Aside from the prices, thought Brisbane was a nice spot.

We also went farther off our island to a nearby island called Stradbroke, where we watched surfers come in. There was also a seal lazing about that was so camouflaged from everyone that a beach patrol put a pylon in front it of it as a placeholder so you didn’t walk on it.

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Plus, we followed a boardwalk down the coast and stared East, out at what would next be New Caledonia (I think):

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After returning to our housesit for a wrestle with Zaroff,

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who Rose nicknamed the “Russian bear”, which I’m not sure why, because he’s pretty shitty at riding a bike, we called it quits on the itsy bitsy 8km wide Russell Island.

Next stop, Gargantua. Time to explore what lay to the west of us – a country and a continent – starting underwater at el Reef le Great.

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