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AUSTRALIA'S OUTBACK

To really get to know a person, they say, you must look into his heart. The same may be true for countries and continents. Australia, for example. You can enjoy the quaint, European-like charm of Adelaide or the glitzy sophistication of Sydney or the laid-back casualness of Cairns. But, notes writer Hugh Findlay, "to really get to grips with the country, you must get away from the cities . . . It's in the Outback where you really find Australia - the endless skies and red dirt, and the laconic Aussie characters."

These vast expanses in the interior are sparsely inhabited; only about 13 percent of the total population lives here, mainly on isolated sheep and cattle ranches called stations or in the semi-traditional clusters of the Aborigines. Hardy folk they are, who can make peace with the harshness and find beauty in the plainness.Unique flora and fauna have also claimed a niche - plants and animals that can live on little water: kangaroos, wallabies, enchinas, lizards, gum trees. More often than not dry beds mark the places where rivers flow for a season. This is not really a desert, naturalists point out, just a place of "unreliable rainfall."

Above all, the Outback is the place of the Dreaming, where the mists of history swirl. It is the place of legendary exploration and heroic feats.

And there, in the middle of the Outback, is the heart of Australia - a town called Alice and a rock named Ayers.

Our journey into the Outback began in Adelaide, on board the historic Ghan. The 22-hour, 967-mile trip from Adelaide to Alice Springs is considered by many one of the world's greatest train journeys. Today it is done in air-conditioned comfort, amid private sleeper cars and plush lounges - on time, on schedule; if anything, over too soon. A far train whistle from earlier days, when the Ghan was most famous for its slowness and unreliability. This same trip could take anywhere from three days to three months, courtesy of flash floods, rugged terrain and relentless termite damage to the train cars. On one memorable occasion, the train was stranded for two weeks in one spot; the enterprising engineer had to shoot wild goats to feed the passengers.

The first train of the Central Australian Railway reached Alice Springs in 1929. Before that, the lonely outpost was served by camel trains imported from Afghanistan. The train was immediately dubbed the "Afghan Express" in their honor, and the name was later shortened to the Ghan.

The train trip covers more than just distance. It also bridges a cultural expanse. At the beginning there is Adelaide, once described by New Yorker magazine as "possibly the last well planned and moderately contented metropolis on earth." At the end, there is The Alice (as the natives call it, never just Alice, always with the), probably Australia's most legendary town, made famous by Nevil Shute's book, "A Town Like Alice," which was in turn made into a television series.

With a population of more than 20,000, Alice Springs has respectable size. But like any town that grew up in the wild, it remembers its roots. Born as a remote telegraph outpost when it was decided to run a telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin in 1872, by the time the first train came, there were only 200 people. The town was originally called Stuart, but the name was later changed to honor the wife of the Superintendent of the Telegraph.

Today, from the top of Anzac Hill, we thought the Alice looked a little like St. George, a flat little valley surrounded by red-rock hills. It survives thanks to mining, cattle and tourism.

For tourists, there are entertainments aplenty. Todd Street has been turned into a mall, filled with shops offering boomerangs, Aussie hats, T-shirts and a variety of Aborigine arts and crafts. There are museums, including Adelaide House, opened as a hospital in 1926 by one Reverend Flynn (today Alice Springs is served by the famed Flying Doctor service); and Panorama Guth, offering a 360-degree painting of the surrounding area in addition to other art displays. Nearby camel farms offer bumpy rides; and for those willing to rise before the crack of dawn, hot air balloon rides over the surrounding Outback provide a chance to watch for hopping kangaroos and to perhaps see the markings of sacred Aborigine sites.

But, of course, the thing that draws most visitors to Alice Springs is its proximity to Ayers Rock (some 280 miles to the southwest), the world's largest monolith, and fascinating not only because of its geology but also because of its ties to the Aboriginal culture.

Few societies have been as inextricably tied to the land as are the Aborigines. They are thought to have migrated from Asia back when land bridges connected Australia to Indonesia, probably about 40,000 years ago. And while it is easy to lump them all into one group, actually more than 500 different dialects and languages separate them into clans and tribes. The Anangu, as they call themselves, have lived in the areas surrounding Ayers Rock for at least 12,000 years. They were hunter-gatherers, whose wisdom and skill enabled them to live off the land, but in harmony with the environment, never hunting or harvesting an animal or plant to extinction.

Traditions, rituals and laws link the Aborigines to the land in ways that are sometimes hard for those not born to the culture to understand. These people have no recorded history, only vague misty accounts of the Dreaming, a time before the coming of white men, when the world was young and the creative processes stirred.

A study of Aboriginal myths, says writer Karl Strehlow, is like entering a "labyrinth of countless corridors and passages." There is an endless accumulation of detail to explain every aspect of the world.

According to these myths, creation of the world and all that is in it took place in the Dreamtime. Every feature of the landscape is the result of actions of one or more ancient creative animal or human beings. And everywhere across the landscape, tracks of ancestral beings give religious significance to the land in ways that run deeper than just the surface features. Each clan has various sites of particular spiritual import, places to which spirits return when they die; and it is the responsibility of each clan to maintain and protect these sites so ancestral beings are not offended.

Nothing is more sacred than Uluru, the Anangu name for Ayers Rock. For every feature, every line, every crevice of the rock, there is an Aboriginal explanation of how it was created in the Dreamtime. Numerous caves contain examples of early rock art. Legends explain the presence of plants and animals. The story of the lizard women, for example, tells of Djauan women who were turned into lizards to escape wild dingos. Sadly, they became lizards forever and had to live out their days among the rocks. "Well, it was a good place for lizards, and still is," writes folklorist Jean Ellis. "The lizards who live there now are timid and easily frightened just as the first ones were."

The storytellers say that the woman who first raised the alarm was not turned into a lizard, but a stone sentinel to keep watch for the ages. And when visitors come and see this lookout rock, "maybe someone tells them this story. Then they try very hard not to frighten the many little lizards that scamper nervously among the rocks."

Since 1985 Uluru National Park has operated under joint management between the Aboriginal owners and the Australian government and includes not only Ayers Rock but also the Olgas, a cluster of 36 domed peaks 39 miles away. Access is restricted to some of the sites that are most sacred to the Aborigines. But hiking trails and nature walks provide visitors a chance to see and appreciate these geologic features. At one place, intrepid trekkers can even climb Ayers and walk for a ways along its spine. And those who want a different perspective of the rock can take a motorcycle ride around it, perched somewhat precariously behind a burly, bearded, leather-jacketed, Harley-driving Aussie. His advice? Chill, ma'am!

The park is home to 150 different kinds of birds, 22 mammals and 400 plant species. To see it now, it is hard to believe that this was once a wet, tropical climate. Much of Central Australia, in fact, was under water until 600 million years ago when the sea floor was thrust up and then eroded away. Ayers Rock (sandstone) and the Olgas (conglomerate) are the only relics of this immense sedimentary bed. Both are just the tips of tilted strata. Two-thirds of each formation is still underground, but Ayers has been tilted 90 degrees, and the Olgas about 15 degrees - mute evidence of powerful forces that once worked here.

Ayers, named for an early premier of South Australia, is about 11/2 miles long and rises out of the plain to a height of 1,142 feet. The Olgas, named after - of all the unlikely people - Queen Olga of the German Kingdom of Wittenberg (who knighted Baron Von Mueller, who in turn financed the Ellis expedition that brought the first white men into the area in 1872) look from a distance like a handful of marbles, rolling along to the tempo of the Dreamtime.

One of the most amazing things about both is how they at once project an aura of timelessness and yet seem to be ever-changing as light and conditions change.

Ayers Rock can change color from deep scarlet to molten gold to delicate lilac to powder blue, depending upon the sun and time of day. So perhaps it is not surprising that the Aborigines see it as the home of the Rainbow Serpent, the fanged and bearded creature with scaly skin reflecting all the colors of the spectrum, who furrowed out the riverbeds as it crawled across the Outback, finally to settle at its very heart.