Is This Australia or a Set From The Jungle Book?
Kings Canyon, Northern Territory
I've probably never wanted to hurl my cell phone through a brick wall or into the merciless jaws of a whirring blender as badly as I did at 4:30am this morning when it heartlessly shrieked and buzzed on the nightstand six inches from my head. It was either get up then or, far worse, hike the Kings Canyon rim in a shadeless 106 degrees. This is a place that actually shuts down to visitors after 9am in an absolutely necessary effort to prevent yuppie tourists like me from dying of heat stroke. Not wanting to be slowly cooked from the inside out on mother nature's human pancake griddle, I shuffled my way to the showers in a sleepwalking dream state. Delightfully hot water shot from the jets and I was prepared to thoroughly enjoy a revitalizing scrubbing, but that changed a bit when I noticed a spider the size of my palm calmly clinging to the ceiling a foot or two from my head. At that point it basically became a frantic race to wash and shave without being wholly devoured. I nervously looked up at least once every ten seconds to verify that my multi-legged friend hadn't moved (I have no idea what my recourse would have been if he had) and I could sense his smug satisfaction as I carefully retreated from the stall. Every one of his beady little eyes gave me a look that said, "Yeah, that's right. Who's your daddy?" Our three hour hike of the Kings Canyon rim started in the dark, which was just a tiny bit unnerving. There are no such things as safety rails out here, and climbing hundreds of loose rocks in rapid succession while sometimes only a few feet from the edge of a pebbly abyss was occasionally daunting. We witnessed the latest in a string of spectacular sunrises, and I tried to soak in every rich hue; the colors are so strikingly intense! I had seen reds, blues, and purples like this as a kid, but I thought they were reserved especially for some roped-off chunk of Arizona and couldn't possibly exist elsewhere. Countless years of water running over sandstone, quartz and silica has created some pretty interesting land formations, and they stood on display around us like a particularly well curated museum exhibit. The ground splits, shifts, and slithers in a way that makes it seem as alive as the insects and lizards scurrying across its surface. From the top of the rim we descended down a steep staircase and into the gorge. At the bottom was an eerily still black pool with a density that made you feel as if, at any minute, the water could solidify into a thick, dripping hand before reaching out to pull you into the murk, clicking camera and all. Ghost Gum trees lined the water's edge, and they are quite possibly my favorite tree, ever! A pale white powder covers their long, smooth trunks, and they have the uncanny ability to physically cut circulation to specific branches during times of drought. They'll voluntarily and intelligently sacrifice smaller limbs (easily identified as they turn to a gangrenous black) in a usually successful effort to ultimately save themselves. Not bad for what is essentially firewood without a brain. This part of the park is called the Garden of Eden, and it would've been a good name if not for the bottomless black pool of death. Back at the top of the canyon we were surrounded by hundreds of rock mounds that had been worn by water and time into the shape of top-heavy beehives. They were seen in every direction and typically massive. I'm not sure if it was the texture of the stones, the shape, or both, but they reminded me of those neato Asian temples you might see in Cambodia or Myanmar. There weren't all that many tourists around (a benefit of the lava-like heat?) and we stopped every few minutes to have a look and try to make sense of what we were seeing. There's just nothing like this at home, at least nothing I've ever seen. One kind-hearted Australian lady kept insisting that it bared a shocking resemblance to the Grand Canyon in the states. "Doesn't it look the same? Oh doesn't it??" I quietly nodded, but conferred with another American as soon as she was out of earshot. Considering that this canyon was just 1/16th the depth of our biggie it was instantly agreed that she had absolutely no idea what she was saying. Don't get me wrong, this was beautiful, but it ain't no Grand Canyon! Our day had started so outrageously early that we'd finished our hike (drenched in sweat and still nowhere near the hottest part of the day) and were lining up for lunch by 10:45am. The rest of the day was one long, bumpy slog over coarse and seemingly barren land, but the five hour ride was broken up by one extra special stop. Our guides knew I was a bit disappointed with the whimsically priced boomerangs I found at the cultural center, so they pulled over for a quick break at the Ebenezer Roadhouse. It was basically just a rusting gas station like every other roadhouse out here, but a small attached building was full of beautiful crafts all handmade by local aborigines. Every penny that you spend here is given directly back to the artists, and you could read about the creator of any particular piece that caught your eye. It made me feel like I was actually helping a local instead of just feeding a cycle of: make tourist junk, sell tourist junk, make junkier junk and see how much these schmucks will pay for it. There were dozens and dozens of intricately carved and painted boomerangs, and I could've been happy with just about any of them. Some were covered with animals or insects, and others with traditional symbols. I was a little apprehensive about getting one with symbols (even though they were the most interesting for me) because I thought they might be religious. Aborigines have lots of myths and creation stories, but it turns out the symbols they use on pieces sold to tourists are educational; meant to teach children how and where to find food in a desolate environment. Too bad I can't read them; if the bus left me on the side of the road I'd be dead in about 17 minutes. One particular boomerang design stood out over all the others, and I was beaming with pride as I forked over my 75 bucks and imagined hanging it up at home. It sure would've been great if he hadn't taken 45 minutes to wrap the thing in plastic, thereby causing a twenty person group to sit in a giant metal coffin and stew in their own desert-induced juices but...it was totally worth the unforgiving glares. A few more hours of monotonously beautiful (is that a thing?) scenery later and we were dropped off at the Hilton, our little bubble of air conditioning that makes breathing tolerable. By what I can only imagine was a major mistake at the front desk for which some trainee will pay very dearly, our free room got upgraded to a suite so big it has a doorbell. We've got a dining room, two bathrooms, a wet bar, and stunning views of the MacDonnell mountains. Gotta admit, it's pretty sweet. Of course the place was built in the outrageously bland early 90's and comes complete with a dial-tuned radio in wicker furniture, but did I mention it has TWO bathrooms?! We were pretty exhausted after getting up so early and driving so far, but we found out there was a meeting nearby and just had to go. It's funny how you can pull up to a hall in a taxi cab dead tired, then be welcomed like family and get more and more awake as the night goes on. What was really bizarre is that the hall, as in the entire building, is one big circle. I've never heard of or seen anything quite like that before, but it apparently isn't the only one and the shape worked wonders on the acoustics back before sound systems were available. Everything is a bit relaxed here because the congregation is so small and isolated, which added lots of flavor to the meeting. From the stage the chairman introducing the prayer looked over, saw my suit jacket, and told me to feel free to get rid of it because "they do things differently in the outback." I was happy to oblige! There were several aborigines and maori sisters which made everything even more interesting. I wish I'd had a chance to hear how they learned the truth, but we just didn't have the time to talk to everyone and it felt a little uncomfortable to say "hey, you stick out like a sore thumb so...what's yer story?" We were just about to make a twenty minute walk back to our hotel when a sweet older sister stopped us in the parking lot and asked if we were walking home. When we cheerfully said yes she gave an immediate look that clearly said, "no, no you're not". She gave us a ride back along with a vivacious elderly sister whose husband's life story was published in 1992. I can't wait to look it up when we get home! If he was half as feisty as her it'll be a great read. Spiritually fed but so tired I could barely push the elevator buttons, we made it back here to our little Taj Mahal and collapsed into bed. We've got all day in Alice Springs tomorrow, and then we'll catch a flight to Sydney for our very last leg of the trip. I don't want to repeat the cliche that it all goes by too quickly but...it does. Even when it's 103 degrees!
Jill The pictures are beautiful and you both look like you're having an Aussie great time!