On Easter Monday we took both kids down to the skate park with their scooters. It was the first time we had let Tommy loose on the ramps, and he was utterly fearless, zooming up and down the gentler gradients and even attempting a couple of the steeper ones. Maisie had to up her game as she had someone to compete with!
In the evening I went to see ‘A Bigger Splash’, a sultry tale of partner-swapping and intrigue amongst the glamorous summer folk of a rocky Italian island. The casting was enticing (Tilda Swinton played a rock star, Ralph Fiennes her sex-crazed former agent and lover) but the film was disappointingly less than the sum of its parts.
Neil’s Easter break extended till Tuesday (and Maisie was in childcare) so we had a day to hang out with Tommy! We went to see another of the free kids shows put on as part of the comedy festival. The (Belgian) group performing were called ‘The democratic circus of Belgium’ and their clever spin on an entertaining selection of juggling, tap-dancing routines and magic tricks, was to frequently ask the audience to vote on what they wanted to see next. Two choices were always offered (one of them was occasionally ‘a lecture on the history of democracy in Belgium’!) and the audience voted by holding up a red or yellow card. Towards the end of one juggling routine we were asked whether we wanted to see a spectacular finish or a damp squib, and the audience voted overwhelmingly for the fail!
We walked down to ACCA to see their latest show, which brought together eight newly commissioned projects by emerging Australian artists. With Tommy in tow we had to walk through quickly (he isn’t good in galleries!), but that was fine as there wasn’t much of interest. The most entertaining pieces were both sound sculptures – one was a series of metal archways on castors each rigged up with a differently pitched drone, which changed pitch depending on its proximity to the other arches (you could move them around yourself); the other was four great sheets of paper cascading down the wall of one room which would periodically vibrate rapidly making a thundering rushing sort of noise. Tommy was pretty spooked by it!
In the evening Elizabeth and I went to see Rich Hall’s comedy festival show. He was very endearing, and had many clever, perceptive and entertaining things to say about American politics, late fatherhood and living in Montana, also several funny songs about IT and dogs (he did repeat his greyhound song of last week!) but he didn’t really make me laugh this time, which was a shame!
Sonya returned on Wednesday. We started the day with a delicious breakfast of courgette fritters and immaculately frothed milky coffee at our favourite well hidden vegan cafe in Balaclava, then caught the train over to Williamstown. We wandered round the beautiful Jawbone marine sanctuary (site of some of Victoria’s only coastal mangroves) and followed the bay round to the Williamstown docks. We were hoping to see the Sea Shepherd fleet, but when we got to the wharf where they are moored, it turned out that all of them (there are 4) were at sea!
Tommy, at least, enjoyed a close-up view of a couple of tug boats. We caught the ferry back into the centre of Melbourne, past the container port (which was the busiest I’ve ever seen it, with 6 ships in dock!). I thought Tommy would be thrilled to be at sea, watching all the boats and building works (they are currently constructing a new port big enough to load the new super-container ships), but he wasn’t happy! He only perked up when we went under the great road bridges and he could shout excitedly at the cars passing over our heads.
In the evening Sonya and I went out for a dinner at Uncle (our reliably excellent local Vietnamese restaurant), and then dashed into town for the first of two comedy shows we had booked in that night. First up was Hannah Gadsby, who had impressed me a couple of years ago with her hilarious slide-show on the rise of the selfie and art history. This time she decided to tackle Taylor Swift and all her inspirational nonsense. She briskly picked apart Tay-Tay’s lyrics (inclement weather seems to be her favourite hackneyed metaphor) and shot down her claims to have been the bullied under-dog. Hannah told stories of her own childhood in Tasmania, never fitting in, spending her weekends rummaging in the dump with her father; and about her many bizarre encounters with dogs. She was clever and funny, but my Taylor Swift knowledge was too patchy to fully appreciate what she was doing!
Next up was Simon Munnery. The audience was tiny, which made the atmosphere slightly tense to begin with, but his gentle eccentricities soon warmed everyone up. He started out with a series of increasingly ridiculous opening lines, told several odd tales about being on tour (the funniest of which ended with him accidentally fondling Ben Elton’s shoe), and quibbled with common misuses of the English language (his daughter’s use of ‘like’, and phrases such as ‘new and improved’). Familiar bits of North London often made an appearance in his tales, which was a bonus!
On Thursday Sonya, Maisie, Tommy and I went to visit the Chinese Temple which is currently being built on a desolate site between a cement works and a railway bridge in the industrial suburb of South Kensington(!). I last went over a year ago, and since then, a large and ornate new pavilion has been erected alongside the main temple (and construction is still ongoing).
It is clearly a well-funded project – the carvings, statuary, murals, tapestries etc. are beautifully made and plentiful. But it is always pretty much deserted (there were only a couple of old Vietnamese men and a few builders around), and graffiti has started appearing on the exterior walls.
Maisie and Tommy were fascinated by everything – the prayer ribbons hanging from the paper blossom trees, the ceremonial bells and drums (it was hard to stop them from having a go!), the (rather inviting!) offerings of fruit and flowers, the great gods and goddesses in their ornately decorated shrines (Maisie took a fancy to the ‘angry red-faced’ one), and the hundreds of tiny identical gold and red lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
In the afternoon we headed back into town to catch another of the free comedy performances. Four French clowns dressed as a SWAT team emerged from the top of one of Federation Square’s crazy-paving building walls (see picture!) and proceeded to abseil down in a variety of silly ways, before bumbling through a series of stealth manoeuvres involving rubbish bins, ice-cream and stranded teddy bears.
Maisie thought it was the funniest thing ever, guffawing loudly and frequently exclaiming how silly they were! Tommy was just as fascinated by the large crowd, and put on his own (happily fairly endearing) show.
On Friday Sonya and I flew to Uluru (Ayers Rock) for a whistle-stop tour of the Red Centre. The trip started well when we were moved to the front seats of the plane, from where we had clear views of the vast desolate expanses of red sand and rock, with the occasional great swirling tranche of white (salt lakes – pictured is Lake Eyre, the largest lake in Australia on the rare occasions that it is full of water!)…
…or neat incisions of black (mines). As we were descending, the plane did a full circle, to allow everyone a good view of the rock!
Our cheery tour-guide (/cook/driver/DJ/first-aider!), Dan, met us at the airport and we joined our party of 23 (most of them in their teens or early twenties, and German/Swiss, Scandinavian, English or American) in the cosy mini-bus.
We drove straight to Uluru, first stopping off at the cultural centre, where we learnt some of the local Aboriginal creation stories (only the simplest versions of the stories are shared with non-aboriginals, those that are taught to 5-year-old children), and about the early colonial forays into the desert, and the years of negotiations that have led to the local aboriginal groups taking back ownership of the area and helping train non-aboriginal national park staff.
There were also lots of fascinating details about flora and fauna, the various desert terrains, and the many types of bush foods and medicines. Anything remotely edible was harvested – tiny grass seeds or shrivelled fruits would be ground up into flour and mixed with water to make bread. The only numbers the aborigines needed were 1, 2, 3 or many (if the men went hunting, they would be lucky if they caught 3 kangaroo, say, and the women gathering plants would always harvest ‘many’ fruits or grains).
As we started our first walk around the rock, Dan told us a little about the local aboriginal art. The desert art is perhaps the simplest and most codified in form (the dot paintings) – and it was that way because there was so little time to paint (the business of survival taking up most of every adult’s waking hours).
We had a look inside a small cave where traces of C19th (and earlier) aboriginal paintings still survive on the unexposed rock. The paintings served educational purposes – there were the concentric circles of waterholes, the tracks of kangaroo and emus, shapes of leaves and snakes (tight waves for venomous snakes, larger curves for non-venomous ones) and a sprinkle of ochre spots indicating the Milky Way (which we had wonderful views of every night!).
The ground at the foot of the rock was carpeted with swaying white/gold grasses, tiny purple flowers, small fruiting shrubs (we spotted the bush plum), and a variety of glowing green trees such as desert gums and oaks. Armies of tiny (and not so tiny!) ants snaked across the path, and we walked through clouds of butterflies (browny oranges with flashes of blue, and brilliant lime green) and dragonflies. A trickle of water dripped down the rock into one of its many water-holes – Dan said that he’d only seen that happen 3 times in his several years of leading tours. The reason for the unusual lushness was a series of recent storms – and in less than a month it will all have dried up again.
The rock itself was magnificent – it really is so unlike anything else as it is simply one massive boulder – sand that was fused together millions of years ago, then forced up out of the earth (at an 80 degree angle, hence the almost vertical striations) by a huge geological event. It is thought (although no-one knows accurately) that 90% of it is still under the ground. The sandstone was originally a whitey-grey colour, but soon after it rose from the ground, a cloud of iron dust swept through the desert and coated it. Over the years it rusted, giving the rock its amazing distinctive colour. It really does glow at any time of day.
The texture was like clay, or skin, or ice-cream, with great gashes like wounds, and scars and crevices (all of which are accounted for in the aboriginal stories of the place – a wiggling scar represented a snake, a great crack was where a female elder had smote the rock in anger).
We went into the women’s cave, where the women would prepare food, grinding seeds to make bread. The caves were a life-saver on a 50 degree day in the desert – it could be up to 20 degrees cooler inside there. We weren’t allowed to photograph the men’s cave, which is still a sacred place. Within it were three strangely shaped protuberances – said to be three elders who permanently look after the place. Nearby was the children’s cave – their school – covered with instructional paintings of plants and animals.
Just before dusk we drove to the official sunset viewing point (along with every other coach party in the area).
It was a big event – most of the tourists had a glass of champagne in one hand, and a table loaded with canapes within striking distance (we didn’t!).
Sonya and I got as far away from the hoards as we could and made friends with a tiny dune lizard as the rock burned an ever more vividly coppery red on the horizon.
It was at its most brilliant just as the sun disappeared, and within minutes shadows had crept up its sides reducing it to a dull terracotta (which still perfectly set off the pink and blue-grey lines of the Belt of Venus).
We arrived at our campsite in the dark. Dan rustled up a kangaroo bolognese (enjoyed by all – I am already a fan of the meat!) and everyone rolled out their swags for the night. I had decided that I was just too old to sleep al fresco, so had booked Sonya and I a tent! It was a relief to have a tiny bit of our own private space (and we didn’t have to endure a chorus of snores or worry about snakes).
Dan woke us at 5am the following morning. We had to pack and eat breakfast before dawn so we could make it to another viewpoint (thankfully within walking distance!) to watch the rock regain its glow.
It was nice to be awake before the flies (they were a horrible nuisance – apparently they were introduced along with the colonisers’ cows).
After the party atmosphere of dusk, dawn was a more serene experience – everyone was quiet as the stars gradually extinguished and the deep indigo of the sky turned turquoise with subtle swathes of pink.
The rock looked especially mysterious – moonlike in texture – as the light began to pick out its wrinkles and pockmarks. Kata Tjuta (‘Many Heads’), our next destination, was bathed in a spectacular peach glow.
It was a half hour drive there, and the air temperature was already hotting up (the paths are closed when temperatures reach 35+ degrees) as we started our trek through the ‘Valley of the Winds’.
Kata Tjuta is another spectacular rock formation that emerged from the ground at the same time as Uluru. Although it is the same colour (dyed by the same cloud of iron ore), it is very different in form – a jumbled series of giant lumps and bumps, and formed from conglomerate (fused rocks), so different in surface texture too.
Hidden between the humps are green valleys that were once prime hunting grounds for the aboriginal peoples (kangaroo and goanna were the main prey). And for this reason, it was the sacred place for the men (with Uluru being the special place for the women).
The walk was pleasantly strenuous, taking us up steep slippery rock faces high into the clefts between curving red cliffs and down scree-like paths into flat valley basins…
…green with grasses, flowering bushes covered with fluffy yellow blossoms, and pretty clumps of flowers, including the ‘pretty-but-useless’ pictured.
As I walked I disturbed many crickets – I managed to track down one particularly well camouflaged specimen (pictured!).
On our way back to camp we stopped to take photos at a viewing point in nearby dunes (colourful – with lots of tiny silvery and purple flowering succulents).
A huge spider had made a web under the viewing platform canopy, and baby spiders were just hatching out of its egg sac!
We also enjoyed views of the incredible desert oak – a tree which sends its roots down 85 metres to the water table. While the roots are working their way down the tree looks like a sorry sort of Christmas tree, but as soon as they hit water it starts growing branches. Many of the specimens we were looking at were over 150 years old!
After a lunch-time barbecue, we set off on a 3.5 hour drive to King’s Creek, where we were to stay the night. I loved driving through the desert – there were so many different terrains – my favourite was a gently rolling heavily wooded area.
In other places great red rocky escarpments went on for miles, and sometimes little dunes rose from the flattest of plains. We stopped for a photo in a red sandy dune overlooking a great salt lake, and the heavily eroding ‘Mount Cooper’ (which reminded me of desert scenery in America).
In the late afternoon we stopped to collect mulga wood for the evening’s camp fire. It was a bit scary plunging through the tangled woodlands, the branches swathed in spider webs (Dan warned us to look out for them – many of them are poisonous!).
We arrived at King’s Creek Station at dusk. It looked familiar, and we learned that it was where many of the camel-training scenes from the recent Aussie film ‘Tracks’ were filmed. A baby camel was grazing placidly with a few cows. He was the prettiest camel I’ve ever seen and very docile (he was happy to eat from everyone’s hands).
The mulga wood burnt fast and furiously (see picture!). After 20 minutes or so, all that was left was a bed of extremely hot coals, and this is what Dan used to cook our supper (chicken stir-fry and damper!) on, in big soot-blackened pots. After our tasty repast, he led us on a night walk to a completely pitch black spot where we could enjoy a sky glittering with stars. The Milky Way was so bright and clear. Other constellations were quite hard to spot as there were so many extra stars within and around them!
While we marvelled at the sparkling heavens, Dan told us some scary stories. One was the age-old urban myth about a couple alone in a car at night in a remote place where a serial killer is on the loose – which Dan cunningly embroidered with local details – and these were enough to convince many people that the story was true! Other (true) things he told us about the general lawlessness of the Northern Territories were more unsettling!
It was another pre-dawn start on Sunday, and as Sonya and I headed for the shower-block by torchlight, a brilliant shooting star arched a silvery trail above our heads – a magical start to the day!
A short drive took us to King’s Canyon, a dramatic sandstone gorge with precipitous walls measuring over 100m high. The first steep ascent (nicknamed ‘Heart Attack Hill’) took us to the rim of the gorge just as the sun appeared over the horizon.
The deeply striated layers of reddish sandstone (once layers of sand at the bottom of an inland sea) glowed copper in the gentle dawn light.
Dan pointed out some of the plants that were used by the local aboriginal groups for medicinal purposes – one had fragrant leaves that when crushed and stuffed up your nostril would clear sinuses (and at a baby’s birth, the leaves were burnt, creating a smoke that would help clear the baby’s airwaves).
Another medicinal plant also had more sinister uses – the milky juice from broken leaves would be squeezed into a child’s eyes to temporarily blind them if they needed punishing for doing something particularly naughty. They wouldn’t just be blinded – they would also be led far away from the settlement and had to find their way home alone!
Dan also told us about the Ghost Gum (pictured) which can choose to ‘strangle’ branches that are not doing well, depriving them of water so that they wither and drop off. He also told us about the rare ‘pygmy koala’ – pointing out a very tiny koala at the top of a tree, which on closer inspection turned out to be a cuddly toy!
Looking out over the rim of the canyon we were directed to shout in unison, and the returning echoes were very clear.
The view was spectacular – the cliffs opposite looked as though they had been cut through with a knife – but this is just how they collapse (one of the paths was closed as they reckoned another huge section is to shear off soon).
Looking out of the mouth of the canyon across the desert plains, you could see Mount Cooper (100km or so away) very clearly, and if you looked really hard (I could just about see it through my zoom lens) you could see the bumps of Kata Tjuta (300km away!!).
The path meandered through a moon-like landscape of small deeply fissured curved mounds – I’d never seen anything quite like it.
At one stage we plunged into a hidden valley – below us were great gum trees, a deep flowing creek and clumps of huge red-fruiting ferns – you could see why it is nicknamed ‘The Garden of Eden’.
A little path took us to a large water-hole at the far end of the valley, full of crazy copper-golden reflections.
It was beautiful, but it was heaving with tourists eating their mid-morning snack, loudly sharing bawdy anecdotes about their travelling exploits, which echoed around the rocky walls.
We had finished our 3 hour walk by 10am – it was confusing to look at my watch as it felt like it should be early afternoon already (the days were so long and action packed!).
We went back to the campsite to pack up, and had half an hour’s free time. I went on an insect safari and photographed as many as I could sneak up on!
The variety of colours and intricate patterns on these tiny creatures was astonishing.
Dragonflies were blue, green and red…
…and crickets sported every shade of brown, red and yellow.
The scariest insect we spotted was a giant green locust with a nasty red pointy body (the size of my hand!).
A long afternoon drive through the desert (still endlessly fascinating!) was broken up by a visit to an NGO-run aboriginal community centre with an art shop and a friendly atmosphere (where I bought two beautiful original paintings).
Later we stopped at a camel ranch, where a few of our group went for a quick trot on a camel (there are more camels in Australia than in any other country – they are exported to the Middle East!).
They also had a gentle tame dingo, and a couple of red kangaroos (they were much small than I’d imagined – about the same size as the grey kangaroos we have here in Victoria), and some brilliant lime green budgerigars (we only saw one wild one flash past in a sunset streak of liquid green).
We were mobbed by miner birds – just like the noisy miners we have in Victoria, but with slightly different colouring – the yellow-throated miner. It’s a wonderful thing about Australia – each region will often have its own very specific variant of a particular type of bird.
In the late afternoon we made it to our final destination, Alice Springs. It’s an odd place, a little slice of colonial suburbia in the middle of the desert, but with every other block or so left wild, so it is neither one thing or the other. The white inhabitants work in the tourist industry or mining, and the many aboriginal inhabitants are forced into some sort of white-fella existence. Our tour group met up for supper in a deserted bar and I chatted to some of them for the first time (it’s not really possible to get to know 23 people in just over 2 days!). They were all very nice young people, despite being obsessed with taking selfies, and having dreadful taste in music(!) – and they didn’t drink or smoke at all.