Monday, April 1, 2013



As we were preparing to leave Sydney, I got violently ill at our hotel with the Australian version of Montezuma's Revenge.  I don't know if it was the flu or too much Vegemite, but I was determined not to spoil our trip.  I was okay on the taxi to the airport but got sick again in the airport lobby and once again as we waited to board the plane to Ayers Rock.  I felt as if I were going to pass out, but I was resigned not to do so.  I marched through the jetway with a singular determination to get to my seat before that happened.  I did so, and Dianne asked the flight attendant to reserve a bathroom on the plane for me.  The Qantas people were great!   I didn't need it until an hour or so into the flight, and thankfully, the rest of the flight was uneventful.  However, I was restricted to a diet of bread and water for a few days.  Australia was settled by convicts, so I considered this a classic Aussie diet. 

AYERS ROCK--ULURU (or is it the other way around)

Ayers Rock, which is also known by the Aborigine name Uluru, is an enormous sandstone rock formation more than 1100 feet high and about 6 miles in circumference.  This World Heritage Site is a sacred place for the native Aborigines, specifically the Anangu people.  Nearby is the Kata Tjuta ("many heads" in the native language) rock formation which the rest of the world calls The Olgas, or Mount Olga.  We hiked over, under and around these rock formations in the heat of the Australian summer.  When hiking we were constantly warned about poisonous snakes lurking in the brush. 

We visited several small caves in the huge rock, where the Anangu people have been drawing pictographs on the walls for the past 22,000 years.  We were told they used them as "schools" to educate the kids.  Both Uluru and the Olgas are considered sacred to the Anangu. 

We had to bring plenty of bug spray.  Signs are posted asking tourists not to climb Uluru although people do so.    There is a chain rope leading up to the peak.  I don't like heights, and we didn't attempt the climb although, as I said earlier, we did hike some of the trails.  It is quite hazardous to climb, for two reasons:  there are steep grades, and in summer it gets extremely hot--50 degrees (that's 122F for us Americans), and there is no shade or water, and probably nobody to rescue you.  Several tourists each year die climbing Uluru, either from heart attacks or falls.

Uluru is remarkable in that it appears to change color at different times of the day and year.  The surveyor who sighted it named it after his boss, Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia, in 1873.  Understandably, the natives never accepted that name although the name Uluru has no particular meaning in the local language.  In 1993, the government officially gave it its dual name, Ayers Rock/Uluru, but reversed the names to Uluru/Ayers Rock in 2002 at the request of the Tourist Association in Alice Springs (to appease the natives?).

Ayers Rock Airport (AYQ) is located in the town of Yulara and is hundreds of miles from anywhere, in the Australian outback.     I looked out the window as we approached the runway, and I thought we were landing on Mars.  Yulara pretty much consists of the environmentally friendly Ayers Rock Resort with 4 hotels, a campground and a small shopping center, all serviced by shuttle buses.  They have car rentals, but you can't go very far.  There is a highway linking to Alice Springs about 300 miles away, with no services in between.  Greyhound buses make the trip in 5 1/2 hours.  You can also drive to Perth from there, but it's over 1000 miles by 4 wheel drive, on the mostly gravel Great Central Road.     Driving the Outback at night is strongly discouraged--car rental insurance doesn't cover collisions with kangaroos. 

Our hotel, called the Sails in the Desert, is very modern, bright and airy, and upon arriving, we headed straight to the dining room where I could begin my diet.  Dianne and our travel companions ate sandwiches, and I ordered bread and water.  My doctor once told me that the BART diet works best for my situation--bananas, apples, rice and tea.   But for kids, it's called the BRAT diet.  Regardless, the first three hours of a diet are always the easiest.

In my condition, I slept most of the afternoon, but we signed up for the Sounds of Silence dinner at sundown at Ayers Rock, or was it Uluru.    The dinner under the stars was an exotic barbecue buffet featuring barramundi (a fish), kangaroo, crocodile and other delicacies as well as Australian wines.  The bread and water I had was very good.   But the others enjoyed their dinner.  We were entertained by a young man playing the didgeridoo. 

After dinner, when it got dark, our guides snuffed out the candles on the tables, and we were treated to one of the best views of the night sky as one can get anywhere in the world.  We could see the Milky Way with the naked eye.  You can't do that anywhere near a populated area.  We also had the pleasure of viewing Jupiter through the telescope.

Our guide had a laser pointer to point out the 5 stars of the Southern Cross (Alpha through Epsilon) and the bright Alpha Centauri, the closest star to Earth.  He showed us the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud.  It's hard to tell them apart.  You can't see this stuff in the Northern Hemisphere.  They don't look like much without a telescope, but you can still see them.  For amateur astronomers, this is really, really, heavenly!

The next morning we awoke early while the weather was still cool and made the two mile hike over beautiful, but extremely rocky terrain into Walpa Gorge in the Kata Tjuta National Park.  Walpa means "windy" in the local native language.  The Aussie Bush hats, also called Swaggies hats we wore came in handy.  They are waterproof and collapsible with a leather chin strap and a snap up brim, the type Indiana Jones would wear. 


After two days at Ayers Rock, I was feeling a little better.  the shuttle bus took us back to the tiny airport for the Qantas flight to Alice Springs (ASP).   The security guy at AYQ got spooked when we forgot to declare the aerosol bug spray in our carry-on bag.   It seems pretty unlikely that a potential terrorist would go all the way to Alice Springs to commit mayhem on a mostly empty airplane, but you can't be too careful.  The flight went without incident. 

Smack in the God-forsaken middle, the Red Center, of the Australian continent is Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory, which is so sparsely populated that it is not even a state.  Alice Springs sits in a valley surrounded on the East and West sides by the ancient MacDonnell Ranges which were once as lofty as the Himalayas.  Like Uluru, Alice Springs is hundreds of miles from any other populated area.  Today, Alice is a city of 25,000 of which about 20% of the people are Aborigines.  They had outnumbered Europeans (Whites)  until the mid-1930's when the railroad was established.    The reason the town is there at all was the need for a telegraph which they built in 1872 to connect Adelaide on the South coast to Darwin on the North coast so it could be connected in turn to the British colony in Singapore. 

Alice Springs straddles the Stuart Highway which runs North and South through the heart of Australia.   It was named for the explorer John McDouall Stuart, the first European to make that trek across the Continent.   It took him 6 tries until he finally got it right in 1862.  On the first 5 expeditions, he and his men were forced to turn back for various reasons--mutinies, scurvy, lack of water, extreme heat, hostile natives, etc.  Stuart's expedition opened the way for the telegraph. 

The Stuart Highway had no speed limit, at least in the Northern Territory until 2007.  It wasn't patrolled by police either.  Now it is, and the limit is 130 km/hr (81mph).  Years ago, the Stuart Highway hosted a Cannonball Run.  It was cancelled after a Ferrari lost control and ran into a crown of people, killing four. 

Running parallel to the Stuart Highway and the telegraph is the 1851 mile long Ghan Railway, from Adelaide to Darwin.  Alice Springs is the halfway point.  The trip takes 54 hours with a 4 hour layover in Alice Springs.  The railway was named to honor Afghan camel drivers who opened up the unexplored interior of Australia.  You pay extra for luxury.  The Legendary Ghan, as it's often called, is considered one of the great train journeys in the world.   We think of famous ones like the Orient Express or the Super Chief, but this one is right up there.  You can sign up for different classes of service (Gold or Platinum) and have your dinners prepared by chefs at the Queen Adelaide Restaurant Car, serving salt water barramundi or grilled kangaroo fillets.  It's not cheap--the cost for 2 in Platinum is about 3500 bucks apiece plus meals.  If you're a backpacker and take Red class, it's significantly less, but you have to sleep two nights in your seat. 

The telegraph was built by Sir Charles Todd who ran the show with an iron hand.  The two rivers in town, neither of which have any water in them, are named for him--the Charles River and the Todd River.  Sir Charles had a wife back in Adelaide named Alice (Lady Alice Todd) who had the good sense not to come here.  His hope was that if he named the town for her she might show up.  She didn't.  I thought about the famous song by Arlo Guthrie who shares a birthday with me.  I scanned the telephone directory for Alice's Restaurant, but the closest I could find was Alice's Vietnamese Restaurant.  We didn't eat there.

There really is a spring in Alice Springs, buried under the sand in the river.  Kangaroos can smell water, and they burrow in the sand to get to it.  We saw quite a few of these burrows in the sandy river bed, and had to be careful not to trip in them.  When it rains, which is not very often, the rivers do fill up with water.  When it doesn't rain, like the February day we visited, it gets really hot, close to 120F.  The big red kangaroos bask in the shade, but they hop off if you get too close to them.

Alice Springs is famous for the Todd River Race, a regatta subject to cancellation if there is water in the river because the boats don't have bottoms.  Essentially, the teams of competitors operate the boat race similar to a rowing regatta except that they run in the dry sandy river bottom holding the boats over their heads.

Aside from the casino, which I'll discuss later, and the Anzac Hill Memorial, Alice Springs is best known for two peculiar Australian institutions--the School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor's Service. 


In the Australian Outback, most people live on huge ranches called "stations".  Each station covers literally thousands of acres and can be bigger than New England.   Obviously these folks live far apart, and building schools for the children would be impractical.  The solution is to outfit each station with a computer linked to the school.  The School of the Air was created in 1951 in Alice Springs to serve these far flung children.  Until the rise of the Internet, the children were connected to the school by short wave radio.  Today, the kids connect online each day for their lessons.  They have tutors, usually family members, to help out. 

Currently, about 122 kids are enrolled, some of whom live as far as 800 miles from the school.  They send in their homework by email.  The teacher flies out to visit each kid every couple of months.  The school recognizes that social interaction is part of the learning process, and the kids do get together at the school every few months for a few days.  The good thing here is that studies have shown that the education these kids receive is as good if not better than that from a traditional school. 

The school built a modern Visitor's Center in 1996, which we visited.  It houses a museum showing the history of the school as well as the TV studio.  When we visited, a part time teacher, a personal trainer, was conducting the physical education class, performing aerobics in front of the cameras,
kind of like the Jane Fonda workout tapes, in front of a live camera.  We donated some books to the school.

The school has a Signature Wall on which students and alumni are encouraged to write graffiti or paint their names or drawings.   A prominently displayed graffito is an artwork by Rolf Harris depicting him sitting on a kangaroo.  Harris, now 83, one of the benefactors of the Visitor's Center, is a legend in Australia.  Those not familiar with his name may remember his 1960 recording, Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport, in which he plays sound effects on the wobble board (which he invented), and the didgeridoo.    Harris  is also renowned for his artwork--he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II for her 80th birthday.  Other signatures on the wall include The Wiggles, who appeal to pre-school kids who probably can't read them.    Until now, I didn't know they were Australian. 


The "Flying Doctor" provides emergency and primary health care for those living in the remote regions of Australia.  Because of the distances involved, it is not practical to build an emergency care clinic or hospital near the widely scattered stations.    The RFDS employs 61 airplanes at 21 bases in Australia, with over 1100 employees.  These prop planes cost $6 million apiece.  The RFDS is a non profit organization, supported by the Australian government, the local states and territories, as well as from fees and charitable donations.    They fly doctors (and nurses) all over the Outback to treat sick patients.  Instead of coming to the doctor, the doctor flies to the patient.  The airplanes are outfitted with the latest medical equipment that you would find on any modern ambulance in the event the patient needs to be transported to the hospital. 

The RFDS was the brainchild of Rev. John Flynn who was commissioned by the Presbyterian Church in 1912 to look out for the needs of people in the Outback.   As a missionary, he was witness to many tragic circumstances arising from the lack of medical care.  He went on a public speaking tour to drum up support for the enterprise which got off the ground in 1928.  

Our guide took us around the Visitor's Center where they showed us a film about the history of the RFDS and asked for donations.


About a quarter mile down the street from our hotel, the Crowne Plaza, was Lassiter's Hotel Casino.  There's not a lot of night life in Alice Springs, so after dinner, we decided to walk over to the casino.  It's a nice modern building, but it's not Las Vegas!   For example, it has no video poker, but it has 17 table games including roulette  with a single zero, a feature favorable to the player.  It also has blackjack and a craps table where I won a few bucks and got out while the going was good. 

The casino has about 300 slot machines, many in penny denominations.  This is definitely a low roller casino.  Most of the gamblers we saw were Aborigines.  The Aborigines receive monthly royalty checks from the government for the mining companies using their land.  When the checks come in, many visit the casino.  Like Native Americans, many of these folks abuse alcohol, and the government has established programs in efforts to combat this.  The problem is that jobs in the Outback are scarce.  Sadly, most of the white Australians we met describe the Aborigines in the same way white Americans used to describe Blacks before the Civil Rights Era.    A culture of dependency has been created, and the Australian government is at wit's end what to do about it. 

Dianne and our travel companions, Mike and Dorothy found a couple of hot slot machines.  A large group of Aborigines gathered around and began playing also.  Before long, we were all yelling and cheering and high fiving every small jackpot and having a good time.  The beer was flowing freely.  We made lots of new friends!


The next morning, we visited a public park where an Aborigine family was creating its dot paintings.  In this area of the  country, the Aborigines sketch out a design and fill in the colors with multicolor dots.  We watched them as they dipped their round paint brushes into a cup of the desired color paint and literally punched dots on the canvas.  Dorothy negotiated and purchased two of the paintings, which they rolled up for her.  I took her photograph with the Aborigine family.  The styles of Aboriginal artwork is different in other parts of the country.

The Telegraph Station Museum has an exhibit featuring the history of the Aborigines who had to be resourceful to live off the land.  The telegraph station was set up like a fort, with gun holes in the walls, to protect it from hostile natives.  As it turned out the local Aborigines were peaceful, and the guns were not needed.  

However, in the early Twentieth Century, the white Australians treatment of these people was quite shameful.  The youngsters were forced to leave their families and learn European customs.    Years later, studies were made, and, like anything else, some adapted well and others didn't.   Despite their relatively small numbers, the Aborigine culture is alive and well in Australia. 


We flew out of the small Alice Springs (ASP) airport where there was one person in line ahead of us.  Qantas domestic flights are very comfortable, with ample legroom, even in coach.  They serve you lunch and drinks.  They don't have jetways in the Outback, so you have to walk on the hot tarmac and up the stairs to the plane.  It was Valentine's Day, and we wanted to celebrate at a romantic restaurant.  The holiday is widely celebrated in Australia also--we learned that when we attempted to make reservations. 

Perth, by the Indian Ocean, is the most isolated large city in the world.  It is 1200 miles from any significant populated area.  It is closer to Singapore than to Sydney.    If you dug a hole in Chicago through the center of the Earth and out the  other side, you'd be near Perth. 

The city is outrageously expensive.  We stayed at the Hyatt Regency.  We were dismayed that the best restaurants in town were all booked up.  We couldn't even get a reservation at McDonalds, but Dianne didn't want to eat there anyway.   Eventually, we were able to eat in our hotel where they had an excellent seafood buffet.  By this time, I was able to eat normally again.   The restaurant served an excellent Australian wine, Xanadu Cabernet Sauvignon from the Margaret River south of Perth.

Like much of Australia, Perth was originally built by convicts--in the 1850's.  It languished for many years until gold was discovered in the 1890's in Kalgoorlie ( I love that name!), 370 miles East, and prospectors beat a path to the area.  A harbor was constructed in Fremantle, about 18 miles downstream at the mouth of the Swan River, to accommodate them.  Today, Perth has many fine Victorian era houses.  The Swan River is about a half mile wide in Perth.  You have to be careful on the river banks at night because the crocodiles come out.  Fortunately, we didn't see any.   From our hotel room, we were treated to a wonderful view of the river.  Our cruise ship sailed from the port at Fremantle. 


Our ship pulled into port at Port Hedland on the Northwest coast of Australia.  This is not normally a tourist destination.  In fact, Eyewitness Travel doesn't even mention it in its 600 page book Australia. 
Port Hedland is essentially a company town of 15,000, operated by BHP Billiton, an Australian mining company.  It may not be a tourist destination,  but it is the largest cargo port in Australia.  It is known for mining and refining iron ore for shipment to China.  Indeed, parked next to our ship was a large Chinese ore carrier.

The town was originally surveyed in 1863 by Captain Peter Hedland who explored the harbor with the intention of building an export port.  He reported it was a good landing site with fresh water, but he forgot to mention you could only enter at high tide because of a sandbar.  Years later, in the 1890's, they dredged the sandbar and built a jetty, creating the port.

We arrived on the hot humid morning with the temperature around 40 degrees (104F).  Aborigines have lived in the area for at least 20,000 years and were obviously good at finding shade and water. On our part, we didn't plan to stay very long.  One reason was that a tropical cyclone named Rusty (Jones?) was bearing down on Port Hedland, and in fact, the next day it flooded much of the town with some loss of life.  Most of the people had been evacuated.

Because of the extreme weather, attracting workers for hazardous mining jobs is difficult.  We met a lady on the ship who visited her son who works in Port Hedland.  She told me that Billiton pays common laborers six figure incomes.  The workers are ferried to the Outback for 8 days at a time where they stay in luxurious air conditioned mining camps with swimming pools and spas.  They live in 8 X 8 rooms called dongers with A/C and a refrigerator.  They eat in a communal kitchen with 5-star food.  The salaries are relative because property values and rents are astronomical.  A modest house can cost $1 million, and rents go for $2000 per week. 

We stopped at a small market where local Aborigines created and sold their artworks.  The paintings are significantly different from those in Alice Springs.  We liked the Alice Springs style better, and we didn't buy any. 

The most exciting annual event here was the Blackrock Stakes which raised $1 million a year for local charities.  The competitors, either individuals or teams, from all over Australia would push wheelbarrows loaded down with 11 kilograms of iron ore a distance of 122 kilometers.  Unfortunately, the bureaucrats ended the fun by taking away the punch bowl about six years ago.  They created new rules restricting the use of the highways and other things, and the city fathers decided it wasn't worth the aggravation.  One Tom Christophersen  managed to complete the race in 9 hours and 20 minutes wearing only one shoe.  A diligent search of the Internet yielded no additional information about that.  Was he missing a leg?  Did he lose his other shoe?  Which Tom Christophersen?    There are two--one is an avant garde artist and actor in Sydney, and the other is an engineer with BHP Billiton.  Until the real one comes forward, this may be lost to history.

NEXT:  Exotic Bali


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