I'd been excited to go to Alice Springs and Uluru since last February, when I met a French woman while I was in Tasmania visiting my friend Erin. The French woman told me:
"I'm taking a journey to the Alice Springs," in that way that English-second-language-speakers often speak, which I so love. Alice Springs...I thought. Sounds so...mystical...
As I listened to her talk about her trek, which sounded like a pilgrimage of the most epic proportions, I thought: I wanna go to Alice Springs! One year later, here I am.
I've just returned from a 5-day camping trip in the desert. Right now, I'm writing to you from the groovy hostel where I'm staying in Alice Springs, Alice’s Secret Travellers Inn. Far and away the best hostel I've stayed at so far. Swimming pool! Laundry! Nice people who don't look like they're eyeing your shit to steal it!
I'm penning this from a tiny room in the hostel named "The Jungle Room."
It's a little sauna of a reading nook beside the pool. It's swelteringly hot (97 degrees outside, and no AC in the Jungle Room), but it's quiet in here, I'm surrounded by books, I have a nice view of the pool, and there's no one here to bother me, so it's perfect.
I feel like Hemingway in his little treehouse hut in Key West, FL.
Here's a pic of my set-up in the Jungle Room:
So, I went on a 5-day camping adventure in the Outback to see Uluru, and shake off the shackles of civilization.
I've written a bit about each day below, complete with pictures, of course.
Here I am on Day 1: Wide-brimmed hat atop my head, and looking ready to conquer the unknown. (Clearly, it was an unknown, because I wore sandals instead of boots, not thinking about snakes .)
Don't I look happy, naive of what's to come, and clean?
In the following days...hygiene took a pretty severe dip.
The following days were very much of the "roughing it” variety. I was perennially covered in my Outback special secret beauty blend: a mixture of red dust, sweat, sunscreen, and insect repellent. Hair – sometimes washed, often not.
(You'll note there's no picture of me from Day 5.)
On Day 1, everyone was picked up from their hostels/hotels by the guide and bus driver, Shannon, around 6 am.
He slightly resembled Joey from the TV show Friends and spoke with a very thick Aussie accent. If there were a soap opera called Outback of Our Lives, Shannon would probably play the dashing and mysterious bachelor who lives on a camel farm.
Throughout the trip, he had some quips he often used when talking about the heat and the flies (both of which were prominent and trying):
(And imagine these being said in a very thick – sometimes completely incomprehensible– Australian accent:
"I'm sweatin' like Michael Jackson at a Wiggles concert..."
"I'm sweatin' like JFK in the back of a convertible..."
"I'm sweatin' like R.Kelly at a Spice Girls concert..."
[of the flies swarming him] "I wish I'd gotten this much attention in high school..."
"It'll only take one more of these flies to send me to the mental institution..."
When everyone was on the bus, Shannon welcomed us with the first of what-was-to-be countless spiels on safety:
“...if youze feel sick or faint when we get to the way Outback, youze need to tell me RIGHT AWAY. The rock, Uluru, will always be there, you’ve only got one life though — don’t risk your life and die of heatstroke just to see a rock....Youze need to have 2 liters of water on you AT ALL TIMES. It’s the end of February which means it’s dead hot. If you don’t tell me you’re feeling sick and then you faint and you’re on the ground for 30 minutes, that’s 30 minutes we could’ve spent driving to the hospital.”
Yippee! What an auspicious start.
On our long drive to Uluru (6 hours from Alice), we stopped in Erldunda, which is the most central part of Australia, according to Shannon. "The actual center of Australia is nearby in some guy's backyard," Shannon told me, as he was filling up the bus' gas tank.
"Are we going there next?" I deadpanned.
"No, it's private property," he said.
I know, Shannon. I know.
Note to self: Shannon - sarcasm - no go.
Tracks was one of three books I packed for the 5-day trip; this was not so much ambitious as it was stupid and space-consuming.
Here I am holding it against the backdrop of the Outback from our bus:
It's the story of a woman, Robyn Davidson, who went on a solo trip through the Outback with her camels in the 1970s. I saw the movie version of it a few years ago and really loved it. I thought it'd be apt to bring the book into the Outback with me.
When I wasn't reading on the bus, here's what I looked like. (Pic taken by my Swedish seatmates, who found the look hilarious.)
I'd wrap myself up like a burrito in my REI sleeping bag and conk out.
Throughout the trip, we had long stretches of hours and hours driving around, and with our daily 4 am wake-up calls, I needed little catnaps on the bus.
Our group numbered 17, and I was the only native English speaker of the campers. The majority of the group was from Germany. So, as you can imagine, lunch prep, cleanup, and loading supplies onto the bus was incredibly efficient and quick. I admire how Germans value efficiency.
I noted this to one German woman, Elena. She smiled and said: “Germans—we like to follow a plan.”
Oh don’t I know it. #WWII
My two trip best friends were the two other solo travelers, Rebecca and Jorge (pictured below).
Rebecca lives in Cologne, Germany, where she works as a banker; she's really into SCUBA diving and has completed over 400(!!) dives. She came to Australia after trekking around Vietnam and Cambodia. Jorge – a GoPro enthusiast – is from Bremen, Germany, and after the Outback, he's traveling to Sydney, where he'll pick up a camper van he purchased, and drive around the east coast of Australia for 4 months.
Both of them were the comic relief of the trip. Whenever we'd be hiking around, Jorge would always ask me, with a big smile on his face, "Do you think we're getting close to the coffee bar?"
One thing I love about traveling is how it challenges previously held beliefs about people and places. Case and point: I used to have a view of Germans as being a bit serious and buttoned-up and reserved.
All the Germans I've met while on this trip – and this is particularly true of Rebecca and Jorge, and my friend Birgit from the Great Ocean Road – are absolutely hilarious, light-hearted, fun, and welcoming.
(Though, it's true what they say about Germans being on time; they were always early and on-schedule.)
That first day, we all walked around the base of Uluru. Here's a brief bit about Uluru from uluru-australia.com:
"Uluru, as it is known to the indigenous Aboriginal people, is a very sacred place...Uluru is easily one of Australia’s most recognisable landmarks. It rises 348 meters above the ground, but the bulk of this rock, which has a circumference of nearly 10 miles, lies underground. In geological terms, it is known as an island mountain. Such is its rarity and majesty that UNESCO has placed Uluru on its World Heritage sites list."
Uluru was stunning, and it was blazing hot outside; the whole group was pouring sweat. We’d been told — rightly—to drink tons of water.
Shannon said: “No water — you get heat stroke and you could die. Too much water can never kill you.”
I decided not to bring up hyponatremia, which is caused by drinking too much water, which lowers your salt levels and can lead to death by "water intoxication," diluting your blood. I read an article about it in a runners magazine a few years ago, and I wish I hadn't.
We ate kangaroo for dinner that night, and it was delicious. I stayed up late talking to Rebecca and Jorge. I asked them about idiomatic expressions in German. My favorite one: "When it snows black." (Which is equivalent to: "When hell freezes over.")
As noted, 4 am wake-up calls.
We were awoken by the sounds of our guide Shannon blasting didgeridoo music from his speakers (as he warned us he'd do; "if youze don't get up after three songs," he said, "then youze have to hear me singing. And me singing is just me yelling.").
Rebecca and I shared a tent and she told me that morning: "You were telling stories in your sleep."
"Oh, god. I was sleeping talking? I'm so sorry!"
"Do not worry," she said. "I was too hot to sleep anyways."
We got up to see the sunrise over Uluru. When we arrived it looked like this:
Then, it eventually looked like this (making the early rise worth it):
Later that day, we hiked around Kata-Tjuta mountain.
Over lunch, Shannon gave us a lengthy speech about snakes, how they’re active at night and what to do if you see one, and he then pointed to a flyer on the wall that had the phone numbers listed for the area’s main snake catcher, and also the secondary snake catcher.
We then got another speech about signs of dehydration and were told we’d hear about water 2-3 times a day because it’s serious business. We were also instructed to dump a bunch of salt on our sandwiches because that’d replenish the salt loss from sweat.
We were again told to drink lots of water. But bathrooms were very far and few between in the Outback. It was a real “choose your own adventure”: Let’s see, do I choose bladder infection from holding it in?...Or heatstroke and possible death?...I suppose I’ll risk the former.
On tour, no one called me by my actual name. To the Germans, I was "Anna," to the Aussie guide I was "Annie." I corrected them all a couple times, and told Shannon only my family calls me Annie.
“Anna, which tent you have chosen?”
“Annie, I don’t want to see you wearing them open-toed shoes again. Need your boots on out here.”
I thought about continuing to correct them with “Anne,” then decided – in the words (and accent) of Bridget Jones – “Oh sod it.”
At lunch, one of the Germans spotted a snake. “Everybody STAY AWAY!” shouted Shannon. “That’s a brown snake. One of Australia’s deadliest. You'll be dead in 20 minutes.”
The snake catcher was then called. (Think of what you’d imagine an Australian snake catcher living in the Outback to look like; you’re probably right on).
Speaking of animal life, I forgot to tell you about the flies...
The flies were unbearable every single day we were there. I wished I’d bought a fly net to put over my hat. Vanity kept me from doing it, but I quickly regretted not buying one at the convenience store. I would’ve preferred to sport the below headgear than deal with the swarm of them that surrounded each of our faces at nearly all times.
My German friend, Rebecca, said it best: “give me three days of flies and I will confess everything.”
Meaning, they’d be an effective form of torture.
Candid moment of displeasure captured here, by Rebecca, after I'd swatted away a gang of flies:
And you know things were bad when, on our final day, tough, stoic, 400+dives-diver, Rebecca, said: "I'd rather die than be out here with these flies another minute." She paused. Then said: "Well, like a natural death. Not a gun to the head, you know?"
And when things would get really bad, I’d drape a shirt over my head to keep them away. Like this:
I’d rather die than wear one of them things on me face,” Shannon told Rebecca when she suggested he wear a fly mask on tour (like she did). Shannon said:
“I’m meant to be this tough Aussie bloke in the Outback!” He said with a smile.
It later got me thinking about gender pressures, and how when people raise their sons to have a narrow perception of “manhood” and what it is to be a man, it can be to the huge detriment of them. I think the world would be a much better place — and Shannon would enjoy his job a lot more — if men were raised with the notion that it’s a good thing to be vulnerable, and reach out, even if it means looking “weak" (be it in the form of the use of a fly mask or otherwise). Why do you think suicide rates are higher among men worldwide? In part, for some, I believe it's to do with fear of reaching out for help.
It goes both ways, though. I think girls should be raised with a broader perception of "womanhood;" they should be taught that it’s okay to be the strong one, the tough one, the loud one – the one who speaks up, knows the right answer, and is smart.
There’s a great TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Part of it was sampled in Beyonce's song "Flawless." Adichie says: “...we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller...”
In the Outback (and in life in general, but especially here, where the divide feels greater to me, and the opportunity to buck stereotypes is ripe), I’m trying to be — as Gandhi famously said —the (gender) change I want to see in the world.
So, I speak loudly and clearly, move the heavy crap (our lunch table, for one), be okay with knowing the answers and being right, and be the brave one who leads the way up the mountain.
I know how self-congratulatory and navel-gaze-y the above sounds.
That's all. I'm not going to qualify it or apologize for it. I just want you to know that I know.
Being alone out here, traveling on my own, has me thinking about these kinds of things a lot. Which is a good thing. In NYC, I make my days so crowded and exhaustingly busy, because, in part, “busy” is a weird status symbol of its own. That’s true many places, but it feels especially heightened in NYC. I like not being as busy out here. It gives me time to really think – and also, not have to speed walk all the time.
(Post edit: Tour guide Shannon—a day after he made the comment about needing to be "a tough Aussie bloke: – told me that one day, a few weeks ago, the flies were so bad that he started to cry.
I’d judged him– and decided who I thought he was in one fell swoop, based on one thing he said – far too quickly. I was embarrassed when I realized that.)
And now, a pictorial ode to Shannon...
Shannon leading us up a mountain:
Shannon leading us through some brush in the bush to get to a gorge:
Shannon showing us a snake:
Shannon posing for a picture with his most vocal and question-asking camper:
"Devastated" is perhaps too strong a word to use—but I was seriously disappointed with my planning and dates selection when I realized, after booking the tour, that I’d be in the Outback on one of my favorite nights of the year—Oscars Night.
(Twice in my life, the Oscars have been on my birthday; my two favorite nights combined into one nearly made my head explode with joy.)
I’d watch the highlights when I got back though. I was especially excited about the nominations received by The Favourite, A Star is Born and The Wife.
It was a good year for women in movies, and for greater representation in general.
Who knew? Mainstream America will go see movies starring (crazy rich) Asians and films with all black (panther) casts, and films in which the lead is a female. You’d think Hollywood would’ve caught onto all this much sooner; change is a marathon, though, not a sprint. (Probably read that on an inspirational poster in a library somewhere.)
Thankfully, I was able to catch up on the winnings and highlights when I got back. I loved Lady Gaga's acceptance speech for Best Original Song for A Star is Born.
It really resonated with me. I don't have ambitions to be an EGOT-bound pop star/singer/actress/fashion icon, but I love Gaga's ethos and outlook about hard work, and feel it can be applied to any goal – not just ones in the arts.
And I wanted to share because it might resonate for you, too:
"...And if you are at home, and you're sitting on your couch and you're watching this right now, all I have to say is that this is hard work. I've worked hard for a long time, and it's not about, you know...it's not about winning.
But what it's about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. There's a discipline for passion. And it's not about how many times you get rejected or you fall down or you're beaten up. It's about how many times you stand up and are brave and you keep on going..."
The Day of Missing the Oscars, otherwise known as Day 4 of the camping trip, we woke up and drove to a lookout point overlooking Mount Sonder. It was beautiful and quiet.
Our 4th and final night, we slept in sleeping bags under the stars. The "swags," as they are called, are like sleeping bags and they're covered in canvas too, to protect you from the elements. So it's like a personalized mini tent (pic below).
We set them up in a wagon-like circle.
Camping under the stars ...sounds so idyllic, right? Remember, though – I'd been hearing all week about the plethora of snakes and scorpions and dingos in our surrounding areas. And unlike the swag pictured above in the first pic, ours were not fully enclosed; so: easy snake access.
I nervously stayed awake, listening for threatening sounds (I did hear a pack of wild dingos howling, so that didn't help things). I eventually fell asleep, though woke up a few times throughout the night. And each time I did, the clouds that had been there earlier, when I first went to bed, had cleared, and the stars were astounding – the brightest, most beautiful, glittering starry night I'd ever seen.
The view almost – only almost – made risking my life to deathly snakebite worth it.
Blessedly, Day 5 finally came.
I'd been eager to get back to civilization for most of the week, but when the end finally came, I was a bit sad for its arrival. It's like when you're reading a book and you don't get into it until the very end. And from the beginning, I was not looking forward to being without wifi for 5 days. It ended up being good, though; it felt like an effective cleanse.
And as soon as I returned to Alice Springs I chucked my laptop and iPhone into the Todd River while loudly singing "Goodbye Love" from the musical RENT. (Kind of like Andie does in The Devil Wears Prada when she tosses her phone into the fountain at Place de La Concorde in Paris.)
The morning of Day 5, we went on a tour with an Aboriginal man named Craig.
He told us about the history of Aboriginals in Australia, and the history of the treatment of them by white Australians, which was (and continues to be) shocking, terrible, and such a stain on Australia's history, in the much the same way of the history of slavery in the U.S., and the treatment of Native Americans.
Until 1967, Aboriginals in Australia were not classified as human. They were categorized in census data as "plant life." When Craig's brother and sister were born, they were classified as "fauna" and "flora." Aboriginals had their land taken from them, their children taken from them beginning in 1880 for the purposes of "integration," and a number of other terrible and culturally insensitive things have occurred over the past couple hundred years.
In Aboriginal culture, one is part of the land – they belong to it. The land does not belong to them. So, to have that land claimed as the possession of white Australians was a special kind of hell and cultural destruction for their community.
Tour guide Shannon told me that Aboriginal culture and history isn't really taught in Australian primary schools. "If they taught it, they'd have to tell the truth. And the truth is really ugly." As has been noted by other Australians I've spoken with – in general, Australia's acknowledgment of what has happened to Aboriginal people is pathetic at best. Comparable to how some people in the U.S. – as well as some American books and films – perpetuate the false narrative of "the happy slave."
There's not enough room in this email to give you a solid overview (and my blood pressure has been rising steadily in writing the above, so I should put a cap in it), but it's well worth reading up on Aboriginal history.
Here's Craig showing us some traditional Aboriginal sand drawings:
I was happy that I finished the book I'd brought, Tracks, on Day 5. On the last page of the book, Davidson writes this bit, which I loved:
“The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.”
In a few hours, I'm heading to the airport to fly to Perth, where I'll be for my birthday (2/28). (Or shall I say...my PERTH-day?)
I share my bday with my Irish Twin, my older brother Kevin, who is surely reading this – because he reads every inane email I send him, and watches every YouTube video I send, without fail. So, I'll take the opportunity now to sing his praises:
He's the most kind, wonderful, smart, hilarious, and loyal person. He's the type of person who you can always count on, and I'm so lucky and grateful to have him not only a big brother, but also as a friend.
Here we are at the opening night of a Star Wars movie in NYC in our matching Tauntaun shirts:
- Outback Annie/Anna