As the first rays of the rising sun caress its smooth flanks, Uluru glows red-hot against the surrounding flat scrubland. From this height, it seems every bit as iconic and seductive as the posters make it out to be. But there is no time to admire the spectacular views. Our tiny tinbox plane is already cruising at 15,000 feet (4,572 metres) and it is time to jump off. Aloïs, my tandem guide from Skydive Uluru, slides open the flimsy door of the plane to let in a savage gush of wind that almost knocks us out. Aloïs has recently relocated to Uluru, all the way from his native France. He claims to have successfully completed more than 3,000 tandem dives so far, most of them in France. I have my doubts, though, considering his youthful face and impish smile. This plane can seat exactly two people, stacked like two teaspoons, legs stretched flat in front. The roof is inches above the head with little room for manoeuvre.
Aloïs nudges me towards the open door where I am supposed to dangle my feet outside the plane. This is the moment of reckoning, the Rubicon I am about to cross. I mutter a silent prayer and fervently hope that Aloïs had not been doing drugs the previous night or nursing a hangover. I swing my legs out of the aircraft and feel giddy instantly. “Banana, banana!” Aloïs screams in my ear, hoping to be heard above the din of the vicious wind. I cross my arms over my chest, arch my back, tilt my head backwards, mimicking the shape of a bent banana. The decision to let go—of control over life and limb—is not a conscious one anymore. It just happens.
In the next few seconds, I am spinning in the air, hostage to the elements that whirl me around mercilessly. There is a rush of adrenaline and a sensory overload, a sensation like no other. The feeling is more freedom than fear. I catch a fleeting glimpse of the underside of the plane which seems to have shrunk in size. It is then that I realise that I have already fallen quite a distance. As I begin to make sense of my bearings, I find myself horizontal; presumably Aloïs is floating somewhere above me. Aloïs taps me on my shoulder asking me to stretch my arms, Kate Winslet-style in Titanic . Although the earth is speeding towards me at 140 km/hour, I feel I am floating in eternity; in fact, there is a sense of indescribable tranquillity. Yonder, Uluru beckons. After about 30 seconds of free fall, Aloïs yanks the parachute open and suddenly both of us turn vertical with a jerk. From now on, the descent is gradual, allowing me enough time to savour the delights of the outback from this vantage position.
Uluru is a unique rock formation, bang in the middle of the outback, almost at the centre of the Australian continent, in the desert province of Northern Territory. Along with Kata Tjuta, a similar rock formation some 30 kilometres away, Uluru is sacred to the Anangu people who are the original inhabitants of this vast territory. Once taller than the Andes, Uluru is now reduced to a smooth stub just 348 metres in height. It is nevertheless stunning, whichever angle I view it from. From the sky, it stands out from the rest of the landscape by its sheer ochre sheen and telltale shape. From the ground, the chiaroscuro of light and shade tantalises from afar. When I get up close, the mound changes hues dramatically from moment to moment. It can go all the way from orange to maroon with all the shades in between. The striations wrought by the elements over millennia on its otherwise smooth surface stand out in stark relief, scored and pitted by dark shadows.Aboriginal art
These patterns, as well as the rest of the outback, have inspired thousands of generations of Aboriginal art. Complex whorls, stunning spirals and cosmic patterns inspired by the star-studded night sky are recurring themes in Aboriginal art, apart from native flora and fauna. Aboriginal art is created through millions of painstaking dots in bright colours ground from native rocks, which makes it unique and pleasing. Art works from Uluru have found pride of place in some of the best known galleries and museums around the world.
Since 1873, Uluru has also been known as Ayers Rock. The Australian surveyor who first chanced upon it had named it after Sir Henry Ayers, then the first secretary to the province of South Australia. Witness to 30,000 years of Aboriginal history in Australia, Uluru, the silent sentinel, has seen it all—the coming of early humans to this faraway land, the crossing of the open ocean in dugout canoes and clumsy catamarans, the trudging through a tenuous land bridge that might have existed aeons ago. Uluru has seen the original settlers’ indomitable spirit and persistence in scratching out a precarious existence on this seemingly barren terrain; it has watched over the evolution of a way of life in which they trod lightly on this rugged land, leaving virtually no footprint; it has also been a mute witness to the more recent tumultuous and transformative history of occupation after Captain Cook landed on the shores of this remote island continent 250 years ago.
There are many groups of Anangu Aboriginal people in this area, but all of them belong to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara families which share a common culture and language. Each of these groups is territorial, but had frequent interactions with each other, especially during ceremonial occasions. The Aboriginal people are not tribes as we call similar people elsewhere on the planet. They have no chiefs, only family elders in whom reside a treasure trove of secrets of their ancestry and culture. This precious knowledge is not shared lightly. The younger members of the family have to earn the right to imbibe it in bits and pieces.Kata Tjuta
While Uluru is better known, Kata Tjuta, a multi-domed rock formation also known as Olgas, is the more sacred of the two sites. The Anangu believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside in these rocks. Kata Tjuta is where the initiation ceremonies of the male members of the family are held, while Uluru is exclusively for the female members. It is to Uluru that the women come to give birth. It is out of bounds to men, although nowadays tourists are allowed to climb Uluru if they so choose, much to the chagrin of the traditional owners of Uluru who consider the mound inviolable. There are signboards entreating tourists not to climb, although they are often ignored.
Despite living in this region for over 30,000 years, the Anangu left no footprint on the land. Among the Aboriginal people, there is no concept of ownership over the land; instead, they believe, they belong to the land. They wore no clothes, hunted and gathered food, but just enough for themselves for the day; there was no concept of squirrelling away anything for the morrow, nor the desire to pass on anything to the next generation, except knowledge and skills. They built no houses and had intimate knowledge of the various plants and animals that inhabited this seemingly inhospitable terrain. The bounty of the bush kept them nourished and thriving. Every adult male, even today, is adept at throwing spears, while every woman knows where the juiciest berries are to be found. Back at the resort, I sign up for a crash course in bush tucker, in which tourists are shown varieties of roots, berries and barks which go to make up the daily diet of the Aboriginal people. Their favourite game is the monitor lizard, which thrives in these harsh landscapes. It has striking patterns, like a tiger, on its bright yellow skin. Intimate knowledge of every plant and animal in this seemingly arid land has been the key to the Aboriginal people’s survival.
The Kata Tjuta National Park, which houses both Uluru and Kata Tjuta, was handed back to its original owners in 1985, but the Australian government, realising the tourism potential of the area, took back the park and the adjoining lands on lease for 99 years from the native owners. After all, 400,000 visitors come to Uluru every year. There do not seem to be too many Aboriginal people working in the tourism industry, though.
While virtually all Aboriginal groups have been mainstreamed to an extent, it is not clear how they feel about the changes that have overtaken them in the past 250 years. Of course, they no longer roam the outback naked and many of them have been converted to Christianity and are, in fact, devout churchgoers. How they preserve and practise their own culture and traditions in the face of tumultuous changes that have overtaken their community remains a deep mystery.
I join a tour of the Aboriginal lands, generally out of bounds for other visitors, to learn a little more about the life of the natives. We are joined by an Uluru family member—he calls himself Bance—who narrates some of the Uluru traditions and customs to a rapt audience. He tells us the story of Paddy Uluru whose valiant struggle was instrumental in claiming this land back from the colonisers. He is critical of the Australian government’s decision to allow climbing on the sacred mounds. According to Bance, all that his people want from the Australian government is to be left alone to lead their native way of life. I am disappointed that we are still not allowed access to any indigenous communities and have to be content with Bance’s narration.
The secret to surviving in the outback is to know the location of the waterholes. However, these had to be protected from wild animals which could foul up the elixir of life. It seems modest, but then the number of Aboriginal people using these waterholes is also small. Bance leads us to a waterhole right in the middle of the arid desert. We have lively avian company this afternoon. A huge flock of zebra finches is already perched on the shrubs surrounding the waterhole, chattering away noisily. A lone cockatoo waits patiently on an adjacent tree. This being the only waterhole for miles around, these birds have no option but to wait for us to leave.
Australia is home to some of the most venomous creatures on the earth, including the taipan snake, sharks and box jellyfish. The outback has its fair share of dangerous species, some exclusive to the region. However, after the advent of the Europeans, many introduced species such as rats, rabbits, camels and toads overran the landscape and destroyed the native mammals and other creatures. Attempts are afoot to reintroduce species of malleefowl, common brushtail possum, rufous hare-wallaby, bilby, burrowing bettong and black-flanked rock-wallaby. The woma python is the stuff of many native legends and can be spotted around the two sacred mounds. The thorny devil, another quintessential outback creature, is also endemic to Uluru.
During our drive through the scrubland, we came across several wild dromedaries, introduced from Afghanistan over 200 years ago. They have since gone feral and roam the outback, daring anyone to approach them. They are as curious as humans, never taking their eyes off our vehicle until we drive out of their sight. Lochie, our guide, tells us they are more dangerous than dingoes and can outrun the fastest among us. A lone emu darts across the mud track we are driving on, and we also sight three bush turkeys. A few wallabies hop about in search of insects. In the evening, the howl of dingoes could be heard in the resort although none was seen.
Uluru has been a tourist attraction since 1936. The 2,834-km-long Stuart Highway, connecting Uluru to Darwin in the north and Alice Springs and thence to Adelaide, originally a mud track, was sealed in the 1980s, bringing in hordes of Grey Nomads, Australia’s own version of baby boomers, now in their sixties and seventies, who throng the outback in their caravans, campervans, trailers, fifth wheelers, motorhomes, and so on. Grey Nomads spend most of the year, sometimes several years, on the road, moving from one campsite to another. Uluru, Alice Springs and Darwin can also be reached by air from Sydney and other Australian cities now.
Tourism has also brought modern trappings to Uluru. You can even ride around the rocks in a souped-up, fancy Harley Davidson or watch exhilarating sunsets while sipping champagne. Camel safaris are popular with the visitors. Yulara, the town where the resorts are located, is exclusively for tourist benefit. And despite its location thousands of miles from any major town or port, the Ayers Rock Resort, which runs all the lodgings in the region, offers every conceivable comfort to the visitor—from air-conditioned rooms to international cuisine, which includes, not surprisingly, several Indian dishes. After all, quite a few of the catering staff are of Indian origin.Alice Springs
If you wish to experience the outback in all its rawness, Alice Springs is the place to head to. An isolated outpost in the centre of the map of Australia, Alice Springs is the quintessential frontier town. Its colonial structures wear a weathered look. The streets are wide, sprawling and free of traffic, but this being a desert town, there are few trees around. Located in extreme wilderness and surrounded by little more than spinifex, a form of desert grass, over a 1500-km radius, the town’s name, however, is a misnomer. There is no spring anywhere in the vicinity, just a dried-up creek bed vaingloriously referred to as Todd river. As for Alice, after whom the town is named, she seldom visited this remote settlement where her husband, Charles Todd, Postmaster-General of South Australia, braved the unforgiving outback to lay the first overland telegraph cable across Australia in 1871.
In the 19th century, communication between England and Australia used to take three months. Ships were the only lifeline between the Crown and its remote colony. There was an urgent need to speed up communications if the colony was to be governed effectively from London. The telegraph was already well established in other parts of the world and could provide the much-needed link to this remote colony down under. So, the British government sent Charles Todd, a well-regarded astronomer, meteorologist and electrical engineer, to set up an overland telegraph line from Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin on the northern coast.
The 3,000-km-long telegraph supported by 36,000 timber poles was considered an engineering feat at the time. Messages would henceforth be relayed in Morse code, all the way from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs and thence via undersea cable to Singapore from where it travelled to England through the already existing telegraph line. The original telegraph station in Alice Springs has been preserved intact to commemorate the pioneering spirit of a people who overcame heavy odds to build the cable across mostly barren territory. Timber poles had to be brought from the coastal areas since nothing but spinifex grows in the outback. The pioneers, however, came head to head with the resident Arrernte people, who probably came to Central Australia some 50,000 years ago. They once roamed these lands free and fearless but today work in cattle stations or as domestic help in the households of the new settlers.
The shed adjacent to the telegraph station is a museum. It is, in fact, located in “The Bungalow”, where Aboriginal and mixed-race children were housed as part of an unfortunate experiment to mainstream them. The museum has priceless photographs of Aboriginal children under the care of Topsy Smith, herself an Aboriginal woman. The Bungalow continued to exist until 1942.
Alice Springs used to be called Stuart, after John McDouall Stuart whose northward push from Adelaide in search of pastures for cattle opened up the outback to white settlers. Today, Alice Springs supports a stable population of around 27,000, not counting the Fifo (fly-in, fly-out) miners. Australia’s economy owes not a little to the minerals mined around this town—tin, gold, manganese, zinc, uranium, titanium, vanadium and bauxite—not to mention two gas fields, Dingo and Palm Valley, which fuel the gas turbines that electrify Alice Springs. The best way to access these mines is to keep Alice Springs as the base and fly into the mining areas on workdays and hence the term Fifo.
There are also camel stations in the outback. Originally, camels were brought to Australia by Afghans, Pashtuns, Sindhis, Punjabis and Pathans. Now camels are reared mainly for tourism. In fact, many have escaped into the wilderness where they have become feral.
In the evening, I head to Earth Sanctuary World Nature Centre where the Falzon family runs an eco-tour company to showcase the treasures of the desert. What better treasure than the brilliantly starlit night sky that only a place like the outback can serve up? There being no ambient light, the entire Milky Way stretches all the way to the horizon. It is an indescribably stunning sight which brings alive the cosmos which one had only visualised hitherto. Ben Falzon conducts a crash course in identifying the entire cast of the zodiac. Of course, this being the southern hemisphere, everything seems topsy-turvy. We sit around a campfire and hear stories of the outback told engagingly by the brothers Ben and Dan and even bake soda bread in the campfire! We round off the night with music from didgeridoos made of PVC pipes. It was truly a magical night, itself alone to make travelling to Alice Springs worthwhile.
Survival in the outback requires not only adaptation but also innovation. How do you reach education to a handful of settlements scattered over 1.3 million square kilometres (three and a half times the size of Germany or twice the size of France), most of it unconnected by road or rail? For over 65 years now, satellite broadband has enabled setting up the largest classroom in the world, so to speak, to reach children between the ages of four and 17 living as far away as a 1,000 km from Alice Springs. Classes can stretch up to an hour each, and each week the students get nine to 16 hours of lessons delivered remotely by trained teachers. Currently, there are about 135 students, mostly from remote cattle stations, but also include a sprinkling of indigenous children. From time to time, the students physically assemble at the school to get to know their classmates better. A teacher from the school visits every child at least once a year. The school is funded by the Northern Territory Department of Education.Royal Flying Doctor Service
Another innovation is the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) which renders medical aid to far-flung communities using small airplanes, which also double as ambulances and ICUs. Started in May 1928, it was pioneered by Reverend John Flynn, a Presbyterian who wanted to provide a “Mantle of Safety” to the inland people who lived in far-flung areas bereft of any medical facilities. When John Flynn began his missionary work in 1912, there were only two doctors serving an area of 300,000 square kilometres in Western Australia and 15,00,000 square kilometres in Northern Territory. Today, the RFDS has 1,225 employees, including pilots and medical staff, and 67 aircraft, mostly Beechcraft and Pilatus PC-12, at its disposal, operating from 23 bases. Of these, 38 are fully equipped ICUs. At the visitors’ centre in Alice Springs, there is a real-time live map in which one can see the locations in which the RFDS is active at any given time. The RFDS has clocked more than 20,000 hours of flying and has provided emergency medical help to nearly 300,000 patients scattered all over the outback. Above all, the RFDS is funded by trusts and voluntary donations and is truly a testament to the determination of the medical profession to bring health care to far-flung communities.
I drive up the Anzac Hill to get a bird’s-eye view of the town. Despite its modest population, Alice Springs is spread out and is not exactly a walkable town. Todd Mall, the swanky shopping complex in the town centre, has many shops showcasing Aboriginal art. A few of them are run by the communities themselves.
Alice Springs was an important military station during the Second World War. Pine Gap, the joint military base of the United States and Australia, also known as “spy station”, collects data on ballistic missiles and develops early warning systems. It is a hush-hush place, around 20 km away from Alice Springs.
The town is a pit stop for the Ghan, a luxury train service that connects Adelaide to Darwin. From the top of Anzac Hill, we see the Ghan parked in its station. The Alice Springs Desert Park is a star attraction that houses the fauna typical of the outback. On my last day at Alice Springs, I climb into a hot-air balloon which floats over the magnificent Macdonnell ranges. The sun comes up from behind the range to illuminate the outback.