After a fleeting visit to Tasmania, and a quick switcheroo at Melbourne airport, I flew to Alice Springs. I felt well prepared as to what kind of a place I was going to find there, having read Bill Bryson's account of Alice Springs in his book Down Under - which appears on most backpackers must-read list - but I was actually pretty shocked by the reality of the situation in the Northern Territory. I think it's fair to say that in Metropolitan Australia I found most people to have quite a measured attitude towards the plight of Aboriginals, and the importance of indigenous land rights and reconciliation by White Australia; but in the outback, where these two worlds collide, attitudes could not be more polarised. As in other towns in Country Australia, there is a genuine problem with alcoholism and petty crime on the streets in Alice Springs, perpetrated mostly by Aboriginal folk who have been rejected by their communities for one reason or another, and so local (white) authorities respond to this with a heavy police presence on the streets, only adding to an unhelpful atmosphere of suspicion. The apparent indifference towards the realities of modern Australia exhibited by Aboriginals, and a general unwillingness to make an effort to become employable, only fuels the discrimination and exclusion perpetuated by white employers, the like of which the federal government is overtly taking action to try to stamp out. Many Aboriginals simply feel that this is their land, and that whitefellas have no rights to be building a city there; many white Australians resent the favourable rights enjoyed, and in their opinion abused, by Aboriginals, and so there is a complete distrust between the two communities. This distrust is has become so entrenched through the generations that it frequently manifests itself as hatred, and the two communities simply walk past one another in the street as if the other didn't exist. It is a serious problem and nobody seems to have any idea how it can be solved.
I stayed in Alice Springs for two nights before leaving on a three-day tour of the outback, and whilst I disliked the city a lot, I had a good time there, met some nice travelers and got a whole bunch of things organised. There is a great party atmosphere in the backpacker community there, so I just dived in and had a pretty wild 48 hours. But, the most rewarding thing about having taken a massive detour thousands of kilometres into the centre of the continent was coming face to face with Uluru (Ayer's Rock), Watarrka (Kings' Canyon), and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas).
My friend Sarah Chapman had told me that visiting Uluru was really the highlight of her last trip to Australia, and so I have her to thank for turning the idea of a trip to Uluru into a reality. I went on an organised tour with Emu Run Tours, which was excellent, and my group was made up of an awesome set of backpackers from all corners of Europe. There was a lot of driving involved (even Alice Springs is a good 6-hour drive from Uluru) but we had a cool 4WD truck and entertaining tour guides who did their best to break up the journey with amusing anecdotes and a potted Aboriginal history. We camped out both nights just in swag bags under the stars, which was exactly the kind of bushcamping experience I was hoping for, even if we did have a pristine toilet block with hot showers just around the corner. Uluru was certainly pretty special, and undeniably majestic during sunset as the shifting wavelengths from the sun were reflected off the rock, but the real treats on the trip for me were the walks through the Valley of the Winds at the Olgas, and the walk at Kings' Canyon. The problem with Uluru is that it is just a big monolithic rock basically, so doesn't really throw up too many surprises, whereas the other two sites offer amazing treks through varied landscape juxtaposed with the endless backdrop of the desert. There were times when climbing through the canyons when it was really difficult to remember where you were, and I often felt like we were on an island. We were, of course, on an island of sorts, perched upon the only visible object in a vast red sea that stretched to the horizon in every direction. The outback of central Australia really is an incredible and unique place.
With Tasmania and Uluru under my belt, it was time to head back to Melbourne one more time and pack up the Cakmobile for the journey West. This was going to be a journey of epic proportions, over 3000km, all the way to Perth. First stop: Adelaide.