Alt Uluru

 


 

David Whitley’s travelling partner was sceptical about the merits of Australia’s famous big red rock. And then she walked around it...

“Well, it’s just a big rock, isn’t it?” Katrina, it is fair to say, was excited about our drive-through-the-Outback adventure, but didn’t quite get why Uluru was so special. OK, we pretty much had to go there if we were heading through central Australia, but paying to stay at the severely overpriced resort and taking a six hour round trip out of the way was of debatable merit. I knew differently. I’ve been to the artist formerly known as Ayers Rock before. And I know what those who fly in, take a picture or two and fly out are missing out on.

Everyone has seen the postcard shots of Uluru. Many realise that it changes colour depending on the light, and many know that sunsets and sunrises featuring the big red rock can be pretty spectacular. But that’s just one of the rock’s faces you’re seeing. Walk around it, and you see many, many more – each one thoroughly striking. Black streaks formed by water courses over the millennia stripe the sides, chasms have been carved out and caves have been gouged into the almost 90 degree cliff faces.

Some parts appear as a heavily pockmarked face, an acne-ridden teenager that makes Stephen Hendry look like a Clearasil model. Holes remind of damaged plaster that has been attacked with a sledgehammer. The kinks, bulges and hollows form a vastly different shape at every turn. From one angle, Uluru looks like a dome; from others it looks like a series of corrugated ridges or the break-outs of a jelly mould.

Some parts are weathered to the point of appearing scabby; others seem firm, smooth and mighty. Formations and features set the imagination running wild – you start seeing whale’s tails or the heads of ET, Darth Vader and a disgruntled/ constipated man.

The contrast with the plain Uluru rises from is dramatic too. Although this is the desert, vegetation does pretty well out here. The branches of spindly white-trunked trees add a touch of menace, like snakes lashing out wildly from a Gorgon’s head. Salt bush covers the least fertile soil, while more impressive beasts clamber higher where they can. The red dirt is sprouting an oasis of green, but the rock itself is starkly barren except for a couple of hardy pioneers trying to grow in narrow cracks where rainwater occasionally flows.

Aside from occasionally debating whether a formation looks like a snake’s head or a fish, we walked around for just under six miles in an entranced silence. To the local Anangu people, Uluru is a sacred spot. Others bleat on about its spirituality. I’m an old cynic who doesn’t buy into that sort of nonsense, but it has a certain magic about it that cannot be described in words or pictures.  It’s far more than just a big rock, and once you’ve walked round it, you’ll understand why.

As my sceptical compadre neatly put it, “Wow, I’ve fallen under its spell.”

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Ayers Rock Resort

 

Flying Docs

 


 

 

In Alice Springs and Katherine, David Whitley discovers how people living in the remotest parts of Australia remain attached to the rest of the world.

 

The real Outback?

On my journey through Australia, I have been travelling across what I deem the Outback. In reality, I’ve been sticking to the main highways with the odd diversion up a short gravel track. It’s still more than many Australians will cover in their lifetime, but I’d be deluded if I tried to convince myself that I was really living the Outback life. For a reality check, a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Centre in Alice Springs is in order. The RDFS is a truly remarkable organisation, and one that literally keeps the people of the Outback alive.

 

Flying Doctors

For some people living in remote Aboriginal settlements, cattle stations and roadhouses, the journey to the nearest hospital with adequate facilities can be measured in days rather than hours or minutes. The Flying Doctors provide an essential lifeline, and run regular emergency missions to dirt airstrips in the middle of nowhere which are being lit up with car headlights. That’s the showy part of proceedings, but the more mundane day-to-day tasks are equally as vital as the nick-of-time airlifts. The Flying Doctors also distribute medicine chests to key spots such as police stations, pubs and homesteads. The drugs inside are labelled with numbers so that people have to phone for diagnosis rather than self-prescribe, while body charts are divided into segments so that the ill/ injured party can explain what hurts and where. The Flying Doctors also run regular preventative healthcare clinics amongst the Aboriginal communities on their patch – and for the Alice Springs base, 90% of the 30,000 people in the area it covers are Aboriginal.

 

RDFS base visit – Alice Springs

A visit to the base is utterly engrossing. Come on a weekday and you can watch the controllers in action, while comparing modern equipment and resources to those the RDFS had in the past is an eye-opener. The 1958 medical cabinet has a nice bit of cocaine in it, while the pedal radios used to keep the line open to the doctors up to 600km/h away would have been of limited use if you’d just broken your leg.

 

World’s biggest classroom. 

Another insight into Outback life comes a lazy 1,000km or so up the road in Katherine. The School of the Air here boasts that it is the world’s biggest classroom. And given that its catchment area is three times the size of the UK, this is probably a fair call. Yes, that was three times the size of the entire United Kingdom. When we show up, there are precisely zero children in the building, but the teacher is plugging on regardless. With pupils living up to 1,100km away from Katherine (and even further for those based overseas in the likes of Kazakhstan and East Timor with their miner/ charity worker parents), turning up every day just isn’t practical.

 

Schooling by satellite

So instead, children living in Australia’s most remote spots are home-tutored (usually by their mother) and have proper school lessons conducted via satellite. The set up is remarkable – the teacher sits in what looks like a radio studio, using cameras to point to what she’s talking about.The kids, meanwhile, interact by satellite phone and a little chat frame in the bottom of the screen. It’s a high-tech set-up and, by and large, it works. That said, choir practice can be a little interesting with the phone lag... Up until 2006, this was all done by (rather crackly) radio. But now the kids can see the teachers during lessons. It’s a huge leap forward, and watching the system work brings a tear to the eye. It’s a privilege to come across children that cherish their school lessons and the interaction they bring to their lives. It’s also yet another amazing achievement in taming some of the harshest, most isolated country on earth.

 

More photos here

 

Greatest beach

 

 

David Whitley heads north of Byron Bay to learn why Australians are so proud and protective of their beaches

Australia’s attachment to the beach is something that cannot be explained in adequate terms anywhere else. The rest of the world likes the beach, but nowhere else is it such an integral part of the psyche.  Australia is a country where people will happily give up their weekends to volunteer for lifeguard duty, and surf-lifesaving clubs bicker amongst themselves about which was set up first. 

If you want to rile an Aussie, um and ah about the quality of Australia’s beaches. Say that they’re good, but no better than elsewhere in the world. After all, there are great beaches in Asia – or the Pacific Islands, or South America, or the Caribbean, or… 

You won’t get that far, of course. Equivocate for a couple of seconds, and the diatribe will start. “Aussie beaches are the best in the bloody world, mate.” Then they’ll reel off a list of brilliant beaches; gradually wearing you down until they find one you’ve never been to or heard of. “What, you’ve never been to Bungabunga Cove? Well go to Bungabunga Cove and then tell me that Aussie beaches aren’t the best in the world.” 

Of course, a lot depends on how you define a great beach. Miami’s South Beach is world class for people-watching. Others go by whiteness of sand, size of waves and length (incidentally, the world’s longest beach is in Bangladesh). And in truth, it’s often the case that the most famous beaches aren’t the most impressive. This is certainly the case in Australia. Bondi Beach tends to underwhelm if you’ve had it built up – it’s famous because it’s the closest to central Sydney rather than Sydney’s best. Whitehaven Beach in the Whitsundays is absolutely stupendous for its looks and squeaky white sands. 

But it’s clogged with daytrippers getting their photo taken, and you can forget about swimming or surf. Neither of these really represents the Great Australian Beach. For that, you have to get in a car and veer towards the coast when you realise you’re safely out of tour bus range. Just north of Byron Bay, I pulled the car up outside the Brunswick Heads Surf Lifesaving Club. I walked through the gap in the vegetation on top of the dunes, and emerged on the Brunswick Heads Main Beach. There were a couple of people doing yoga, and a couple of people walking their dogs. They were barely noticeable in the grand scheme of things, though. The epic sweep of the sand dwarfed them. 

To my left, a breakwater in the distance signified the entrance of the Brunswick River to the Pacific Ocean. To my right, I could see Cape Byron. Well, just about anyway – the sand stretched for miles and miles. It was too early for the surf lifesavers; there were no flags up to swim between. Instead, there was a raw majesty in the savage waves, breaking multiple times before they hit the shore and spray spitting off them as they hit a climax. The sand wasn’t raked, there wasn’t a sunbed in sight, and the only building to be seen behind me was the surf lifesaver’s hut. 

This is what people mean by the Great Australian Beach. Something so wild and ferociously mesmerising, on such a scale, yet with only the barest nods to human ‘improvement’. I stood entranced, losing all sense of time. I’ve no idea if it’s really the best beach in the world or even Australia – there are many along the coast that are similar – but the power and the edge-of-the-world aura does it for me.

Disclosure: In Byron Bay, David stayed in the very cool authentic Airstream Trailer at the Atlantic Guesthouses as a guest of Destination New South Wales 

 

Pittwater

There really is no escape from the wildlife here. One of my friends hides in the hammock to avoid the one metre long lizard as it walks across the deck. The wallabies bolt across the track as you head down to the water. It’s a battle to keep the possums out of the rubbish bin. And forget about leaving your breakfast unattended for even a moment- the cockatoos will swoop in and take it from you.

You’d think I was in the bush in the middle of nowhere. But I’m not. I’m still in Sydney.  Pittwater, in the north of Sydney, is one of the city’s stunning and often overlooked jewels. About 90 minutes on the bus from Central Railway station, the collection of inlets, bays, coves and islands makes it feel as if you are a million miles away from the city that lies just over the hill.

While the waterline is rimmed with multi-million dollar mansions and holiday homes on the coastal side, a series of small communities nestle into the bays around Ku-ring-gai National Park accessible only by water.  Hiding there amongst them is one of Sydney’s best-kept backpacking secrets: Pittwater YHA.  

Donated to the park back in 1950s, the hostel is an old rustic building nestled at the top of the ridge overlooking Morning Bay. It is only accessible by public ferry from Church Point, and all food and drink needs to be brought in. The hostel is about a good 15 minute walk uphill from the wharf, which means that often you’re sweating once you’ve finished dragging your groceries up the hill. There are multi-share dorms, a larger shared room, and one double room.

Heading up behind the hostel, there are a series of bushwalking tracks through Ku-ring-gai National Park, which spreads out for kilometres on the edge of the city. It’s the perfect way to experience the Australian bush without straying too far from the city.  One of the favourite past times is to take a kayak and paddle across the bay to the other side, where there is a small white beach that comes and goes with the tide. If I’m feeling more intrepid, I’ll paddle up past the private wharfs and follow the cove as it curves into the mangrove swamps.

During low tide, the mangroves reveal a different world. Small shoals of fish flicker between the upturned roots, and on the exposed sandbanks, bright red crabs scurry out to catch their dinner. To see them, it’s an exercise in patience. You have to stop paddling, stay still and they’ll emerge from their holes. When you sit there on the kayak, you begin to hear it: the sound of the Australian bush- the ticking hum of the cicadas, the whooping cry of the currawong, the haunting laugh of a kookaburra and the crack of a eucalypt branch as it snaps off into the brush.

Pittwater isn’t the place to come if you are wanting to party until dawn. But if you’re the type of person keen to watch the sunrise, often the managers will walk you up there with torches before dawn to watch the sun come up across the water. It’s an incredible sight as the water glows pink and gold, accompanied by a rising chorus as the bush wakes up. If you’re keen to explore the other communities, the ferry sets off from the mainland once an hour or so during daylight, completing a loop around the bay and island. The trick is that you have to hail it, by sticking a bright red flag in a pole at the end of the public jetty (in the past, many an unknowing passenger have waited for a ferry that never came). Nearby, there are Aboriginal rock carvings and bushwalks to waterfalls and rocky outcrops, surfing beaches and coastal communities.

Most of the time, though, I’m just happy hanging out on the desk in the hammock, reading the book. The wallabies nibble on the front lawn, the cockatoos screech for food and eat the decking, and if I’m lucky, the lace monitor might scratch along the deck.  The place is special. It’s not about what you can do there, it is about doing nothing much at all- just appreciating being in the middle of the bush…even if you are still in the city.

 

 

By Shaney Hudson

 

Canberra

 

 

David Whitley defies local advice and heads to Australia’s national capital to find out why everyone hates it so much

 

If Australia has one over-arching national sport, it is slagging off Canberra. Tell just about any Australian that you’re going to the national capital and they’ll probably come out with a considerably more sweary version of “what on earth would you want to go there for?” Canberra, it is fair to say, doesn’t have a particularly good reputation. It is seen as a plastic, artificial city which has only one redeeming feature: acting as a holding pen for politicians.

 

I may be one of the few people in the world who actually rather likes Canberra. But then again, I’m a bit of a geek. I like going round good museums, of which Canberra has more than its fair share. The Australian War Memorial is, on its own, absolutely worth visiting the city for. The displays on World War II and, in particular, the First World War bring a lump to the throat and a tear to the eye. It’s the best, most moving museum in Australia by a country mile, and I could happily spend a day there.

 

There’s much more on offer too. The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex at Tidbinbilla goes into Canberra’s unexpectedly key role in NASA operations, while the National Gallery of Australia has a great collection of work by the very best Australian artists (most of whom are sadly unknown in the UK) as well as a good range by international stalwarts such as Picasso, Gris and Braques.

 

Then there’s Questacon – an absolute joy for anyone who loves button-pushing, interactive exhibits, giant gravity-defying slides and learning about science by chucking balls at clowns. It’s wasted on children, it truly is...

 

But despite this, you can understand where the Australian antipathy towards Canberra comes from. It’s a weird, weird place with a Truman Show vibe. It was chosen as the site for the national capital purely because Sydney and Melbourne were bickering so much about which city would get that status, and the only way to solve the argument was to build one from scratch in the middle of the two.

 

It was built to a plan drawn up by American architect Walter Burley-Griffin, who envisioned a big lake in the middle, created by damming the river. He also came up with grand buildings built around sightlines of each other (in a blatant rip-off of what Washington DC does), plenty of open space and far, far too many roundabouts.

 

It is a city designed for motorists. Motorists who know exactly where they’re going and have no intention of pulling over to check a map or, god forbid, park. Yet seeing a traffic jam in Canberra is something of a rare privilege. This is partly because the design is successful – traffic flow is king here – and partly because of Canberra’s main problem. And that problem is that there’s just too much space.

 

The city has more suburb names than houses (or so it seems). There’s nothing high rise, and it all just sprawls merrily into seemingly infinite space. Living must be incredibly pleasant – no congestion, no overcrowding, parks and nature reserves at every corner – but it doesn’t half make the city a chore for the visitor.

 

Canberra’s roads are eerily quiet. The huge pavements never have anyone walking on them. Only the car parks are full. It’s like someone has designed the perfect big city and forgotten to fill it with people. As such, it feels as ridiculous, as lost, as forlorn and hollow as a tiny child clad in clothes that it’ll “grow into”. It’s like someone hiring a huge marquee for a big birthday party and only six people turning up, leaving a vast empty chasm that any atmosphere is sucked out of. It’s a flabby, self-indulgent, twelve minute prog-rock opus that needed a producer on the shoulder, saying: “You need to cut this to four minutes if you want to get on the radio.” 

 

To create a fire, you need to rub sticks together. If those sticks are miles apart, it doesn’t work. A city needs a certain element of claustrophobia, it needs frictions, it needs people having to fight to create their own space. Maybe, when they finally fill it, Canberra will have that.