Australia: Dreamtime

Thursday Oct 3

Manuel almost died five years ago.
He is an aboriginal man, 50 years of age, who, like many indiginous people, drank too much. He basically drank himself to death. After a 17 day coma, he actually survived. But the doctor told him “One more beer and you’ll die.” Manuel managed to not touch a drop of alcohol since then, and to turn his life around. He now offers a unique, cultural experience which we, as visitors to his country, thoroughly enjoyed. In most places you have no opportunity to interact with locals, and taking photos is not allowed. So when we read the advertisements for Top Didj Cultural Experience, we decided to give it a try. “It might be tacky, it might be touristy,” we thought. But it turned out to be fun, interesting and worth the money.
When we showed up at the art gallery, at 9 AM, we found a gallery and a store full of local art and giftware to browse. But we also found two tiny baby wallabees which we could pet and cuddle.
Then the ten or twelve people in our group, walked to a large outdoor shelter, sat in a circle and met Manuel. He told us about his life. How he was born in the bush, welcomed into the world by the women of his clan with smoke and rituals. He talked about hunting barefooted, living in small shelters and being eight years old when he saw his first whitefellow. (Caucasians are whitefellows, aboriginals are blackfellows.)
He explained family life, how clans can not marry within too close a circle of relations. How families go to other regions to meet families with suitable girls, which are promised to a certain boy at age 4. Once they reach 13 or so, the couple start living together. They don’t know the marriage ceremony. But, he said, much of their tradtional way of life, music, dance, painting and even language will no longer exist in a few more years. “Nowadays,” he said, “young people come home, sit in front of the TV with a Cola and that’s it.” We saw the exact same thing in Nunavut with Inuit people and their culture. But there they seem to have more support to hold on to language and culture. Here there is, apparently, none.
I love their term ‘dream time’. It refers to life before and after your current life. The ancestors live in dream time. 
Manuel showed us how to paint a traditional turtle and kangoroo, using a certain number of lines and colors, dictated by his clan. If you know about aboriginal art you can tell which clan, family and in which region made a certain painting.
He showed us how to make fire in the bush and how to spear a kangaroo. He actually still goes into the bush these days to find his own supper. “I have learned,” he said, “that you always have to work for your food. Either by hunting it. Or by working to earn money before you can buy it.”
The hanting sounds of the didgeridoo lingered as we left the dusty town of Katherine behind us on our way to Western Australia and, hopefully, cooler temperatures than the 40+ degrees here. 

The Cucumber Police

Friday Oct 4

Australia is paranoid about anyone bringing in invasive species: animals, flowers, trees… amything. And understandably so. In the past anything that was brought in, flourished and took off with a passion. Cats. Rabbits. Blackberries. They’re all out to conquer native plants and animals. I was utterly amazed when, upon landing at Sydney Airport, we were told to remain seated with our seatbelts securely fastened. Then the flight attendants opened all overhead compartments and proceeded to spray the entire inside of the plane with pesticide. My mouth had dropped open in disbelief but I quickly closed it and actually huddled under my scarf and tried not to breathe. The smell reminded me of the long banned Flit sprays my parents used in mosquito season. I come from Salt Spring Island where, if you so much as whisper the words “Round Up” people gasp and stare at you.
Having now been in Australia for a while, I am slightly more sympathetic. Think of it the other way. What if we, inadvertently, brought back Australian flies? Heaven help us. The buggers could easily come aboard airplanes inside our nostrils or riding inside our ears. Whereas Canadian flies are polite, almost apologetic if they land on your arm, Australians flies insist on a close personal relationship. They like your mouth. The closer the better. Your eyeballs are fine too. So if there is a chance of importing Australian flies to other parts of the world, perhaps we should spray all airplanes…
Last night we crossed the border between Northern Territories and Western Australia. And there we met the Cucumber Police! They have a real border station and uniformed guards who are out to get your veggies. I’m not sure what exactly they are looking for, but they seem to live in fear of your potatoes. I surrended two wrinkled oranges and some limp lettuce. But that wasn’t enough. The guard boarded our camper and proceeded to go through all cupboards. Two blushing tomatoes were caught in the act and arrested. An innocent zucchini was hauled off as a common criminal. A cold, baked potato was handcuffed and contained. Even the banana peels from the garbage got a life sentence.
Those guards do a good job protecting their state, I’m sure. But I’d hate to spend my life confiscating carrots.
Come to think of it, perhaps they should train all those rabbits. I’m sure they’d sniff out every last carrot from every passing camper van.

A Continent Crossed!

Sat, Sun, Monday Oct 5 -7

We did it! Crossed the entire continent! Left the east coast at Rockhampton and today we made it across the Outback to Australia’s northern west coast! We are in Broome, WA. I had read about a touristy, crowded town but on Saturday afternoon most things were closed and the streets were half empty. Strolled through a tiny Chinatown at 37º. Finally found something I wasn’t able to buy anywhere in the Outback: knitting needles. I had made due with a pair of chopsticks but now I can make more proper sleeves for the sweater I’m knitting. Campground is very close to the white sands of Cable Beach, supposedly one of the top 5 best beaches in the world. But not any nicer than our gorgeous Oregon beach!
“Can I swim here?” I ask in the campground office. “Sure,” says the lady. “Is it safe?” I want to make sure.
“Sure,” she says. Then adds, “Just the odd hammerhead shark and a croc last week.”
I did not swim.
Aussies are such wonderful, lacksadaisy characters! Most men in the Outback are rugged cowboys. When you stopped at a roadhouse, hundreds of miles from anywhere, you see families buying an icecream, roadtrain drivers going for a meal and everyone else just getting petrol. I saw one guy get out of his car. Must have been 65, 70 years old. Standard bush clothing: rugged hiking boots with wool socks. Sleeveless vest showing heavy biceps.
Suntanned face in the shade of a leather cowboy hat (called a bush hat). This one had a long thin, white ponytail and instead of the standard dusty shorts he was wearing a long purle sari wrapped around his waist.

On our second day in Broome we got up at 5 AM for a long, 8 KM, walk on the beach before it got too hot. Lovely.
Spent the rest of the day doing laudry and cleaning the camper. Beat lots of red dust from the pillows and even mopped the floor.
We still grin as we sit by the pool, reading a book. Kees keeps saying “If this is retirement, I can handle it!”

But on Monday morning we continued our drive south. It’s kind of a bummer – no sooner have you made it to the gorgeous beaches of the coast or you need to go back into the desert. More than 500 KM from Broome to the next town. Same long straight roads through shrub and red earth. Even knowing that the coast is about 15 KM on your right, doesn’t help much if you can’t see it. The distances here are amazing. It kind of reminds me of Nunavut, Canada’s Arctic region. If those remote, isolated villages had roads connecting them, it would be similar to here. Hundreds of kms to the next town. And it’s easy to miss the one roadhouse in between where you can get gas. Often it literally is one building. But some places on the map turn out to be one shed with the name spraypainted on it. Have even seen several places that show on the map and are one big truck tire on the side of the road with the name spraypainted on it. Perhaps there’s a cattle station somewhere off in the bush. But you can’t see it from the road.

We followed the bright red track into the bush. It led to brilliant blue sky and a pure white beach: Eighty Mile Beach, which is actually 221 KMs!
They sure could use more surveyors in Australia. Not once have the distances on the maps and on the signs and on our odometer been the same.

Eighty Mile Beach. Life doesn’t get much better than this. White sand and an amazing array of shells. Turquoise waters. Little white waves to play in. Not really swim because of sharks, but still nice. Kees took a long walk, I searched for and found gorgeous sea shells. Watched the sun set with a glass of wine in the sand.

Tuesday Oct 9

Decided to stay another day. The alternative is to drive another 750 KM. It’s some 500 to a town that does not sound attractive, then a roadhouse at 750 KM, after which it will be another full day to Exmouth, the next wonderful beach. So we’ll stay here for another day of shell searching.

It never ceases to amaze me how quiet these campgrounds are. Most campground are pretty much like parking lots. No privacy, the neighbors are mere feet away. Yet there is no noise at night. No people talking. No music. Just the tjirping of crickets.
North American campgrounds are much nicer, with large sites and usually much green between units. Here you are just lined up and right next to each other. But the facilities at the campgrounds here are amazing. Each one has several, usually very clean, bathroom units. There’s always a laundry room with washing machines and large sinks. Many drying racks to hang your clothing. I’ve never seen to many campers doing laundry all the time, everywhere. All the lines are usually full of clothing but also towels, sheets, quilts and blankets. It seems to me that Aussies are the cleanest campers on earth.
Each campground also usually has one or more camp kitchens. These have a large stove, a bbq, a sink, microwave, fridge for tenters to use. Especially in the heat it’s nice to cook here instead of in your own camper.

By now it is Wednesday and we’re driving, driving… Just went over 10,000 KM on this trip. Spent the last two days on the perfect, fabulous  Eighty Mile Beach. Kees hiked long distances while I picked gorgeous shells.
But as soon as we’re on the road again, it’s windswept flat land with stubbles. Long stretches of road, road trains and a million traffic signs that say “floodway”.

The first thing we do when we get to a campsite, is plug the van’s power cord into a little post to give us electricity inside. Free camping sounds like a nice venture, but it also means no facilities. And when it’s +40 degrees, you do want your air conditioner on.
I’ve never traveled with so many items before that need charging. We have a cell phone (here called a ‘mobile’) which is great for making local calls or for our kids to reach us if need be. The boys also gave us an emergency thing with which we can text (but it takes us half an hour to type ‘help’. It also works as a tracking device in case you never hear from us again. IF we turned it on and IF it is charged.
Then there’s the GPS which tells us where to go. This is a lifesaver in big cities, which we are short of here. Unless the GPS is a bit outdated. She keeps yelling at us to “turn left now!” when there is no road to the left. Finally she sighs and says ‘turn around’ but we know we are on the right track. We argue a lot with our GPS but tolerate her for the times she got us out of trouble.
We also have a laptop so that I can work on manuscripts, update our blog, download photos, etc. The camera, of course, needs to be charged regularly too.  And the iPad is the device we use most often, to quickly check email, skype with the kids and my sister and brother-in-law, find a campground, and much more. We love having the iPad. As long as it is charged it has proven to be our best way of communicating with friends and family. We bought the iPad specifically with this trip in mind, thinking it would allow us to bring 100 books with no problem. However, I have not found the iPad all it’s cracked up to be for reading books. In airplanes you still have to shut down any electronics for quite a while, even in airplane mode. You do run out of battery power, something you never need to worry about with a real book.
At home, before we left, I had started to read Bill Bryson’s book In A Sunburned Country. I didn’t want to lug this thick book around so I thought I would borrow the e-book from my local library. Brilliant idea, right? Well, by the time my turn on the waiting list came around, I was in the Outback with virtual no internet access. I saw an email informing me that I had 3 days to downloaded it before the book would go to the next lucky person on the waiting list. I never did find enough internet to download a book. After about a week, all I managed to do was put myself on the waiting list again. And, hurray, one day I was entitled to borrow the book again AND had access enough to download it onto the iPad. I was able to read most of the book this way, but when an e-book is due, it magically zips back into cyberspace. Taking all of my notes and bookmarks with it. So… I still much prefer a real book, thank you very much.

Then there are two iPods with music and a tiny but powerful speaker. That one has been worth the investment. We sing along loudly as we travel down the endless roads.
It’s a day job to keep all of this charged. All of this is plugged in, wit
h the use of an adapter, to th Australian outlet we have in our camper.
BTW, many Australians around us put up  large rectangles of solar panels in order to charge much more than we own: iceboxes full of beer. And fish. TV’s, computers, and whatever else waits inside their cravans.
The one thing we own that doesn’t charge anymore is Kees’ razor. And so he grows a beard.
Tomorrow… we go unplugged. We plan on camping in a national park, which means no electricity, no water. Just us on the white sand beach. Maybe we’ll see some electric eels…!

What’s In A Name? In Australia: lots!

Our dessert after the desert: Indian Ocean beaches

Australia has the best place names ever.
I always liked the Alaskan town called Tok. But Australia has one better:  Bukbukluk!
Did you know that the town in Alaska called Chicken, was originally called Ptargiman. But no one knew how to spell it so they changed it to Chicken.
Australia also has the following gems:
Humpty Doo.
Kakado.
Jimbalakudunj.
Tom Price.
Monkey Mia.
Wurrumenbumanja.
There’s a town called Wishbone and a place called Useless Loop.
Wouldn’t you love to see a place called The Bungle Bungles? It’s a area of unusual rock formations.
If you had enough pieces, and if you were allowed names  in Scrabble, wouldn’t you love to use Koombooloomba?
Goondiwindi and Toowoomba are not far from each other.
The longest place name is a hill in the south called Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya! Say that one fast.
Many names here are, of course, British. Wales, Victoria, and so on.
But there’s also a bit of Dutch history, especially on the west coast where Dutch sailors either came ashore on purpose or by accident. We are near a town called Zuytdorp. There’s also Dirck Hertog’s Island. Today we visited Vlamingh Lighthouse. And of course Tasmania was named for the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman.
We saw a great t-shirt. It had a sign post pointing to: DIDYABRINGYURGROGALONG. Have to say it out loud to get it…
For now, we are on our way to the Ningaloo Reef. I can’t wait to see it, no matter how it is spelled.  

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