Saturday, 11 September 2010

The Ghan, The Alice & The Rock

Hello from Alice Springs!

I arrived in Alice on the Ghan Railway, which runs from Adelaide in the far south to Darwin in the far north. The journey between the two is just over 48 hours, and the main stop in the middle is Alice, so I got off here for a few days in the red centre. Despite the fact that 24 hours on a train is appealing to almost no one, it was a fabulous way to see the outback and the vaste amount of Australia that is totally unpopulated. The sunset on the first day was a mixture of burnt orange and dusky yellow, which gradually gave way to this incredible lilac light that you can only truly find when you are in the middle of bloody nowhere. The Ghan itself is quite nice really - despite being in the most economy seats (most people opt for tiny cabins) there was loads of leg room and the seats reclined quite a long way. The man in the seat next to me (who was large and mustachioed) disappeared during one of my naps and never returned, so I had a bit of room to myself. One of the funny things about such a long trip is that you can take people watching to the next level - instead of glancing at the people walking past the window of Starbucks, you get to see a window into a day in the life of your train buddies. My favourite was Lanny, who was about my height, had a huge flower arrangement in her hair, two pierced eyebrows, two nose rings and bright blue finger nails. She was about 70. Nearby were a Japanese couple who had three pairs of shoes each around their feet, including (but not limited to) trainers, crocs, slippers and heels. They also seemed to have brought a kitchen with them, as across the 24 hours I saw them produce 2 loaves of bread, 1 pot of jam, 1 squeezy mayo, 2 whole lettuces, 4 tomatoes, 4 pints of milk and a box of cereal. Very strange.

I have worked out that the train takes so long for 2 reasons - it chugs along at about 60mph and it stops for up to 3 hours at a time randomly along the route. One such example was at Port Augusta (a town I can safely say is not worth visiting) where we were told we could 'explore the station and not stray far' for an HOUR. Never one to find a barren station all that interesting, I trotted off to town and got myself some dinner before returning to find that some people hadn't even left the train! Back en route we were treated to regular tannoy announcements about our whereabouts and sights outside (shrub, shrub, shrub, wild horse!, shrub, shrub) which was amusing. We were invited at the start of the trip to have our photos taken with the train crew, who were each introduced with a round of applause. To my shock a queue formed and people were duly snapping pictures of the crew - so that gives you a little idea of what they are like. I can only assume this is for the Americans. (By the way, none of these photos are my own as I have been an arse and forgotten my camera cable!)

In the morning when we woke up we were in the outback, which is very nice if you are looking at it from an air conditioned train, but not so nice if you are stranded out there on your own as it is one of the most hostile environments in the world. If the heat doesn't kill you, the snakes, spiders and other such beasties probably will. The outback does have a rugged charm of its own, though I can't imagine swapping my leafy dreams of suburbia for a small station out here. The earth is richly red which is of course one of the iconic elements out here. All in all, The Ghan was a great way to see some of the middle of Oz, and I can look forward to another 24 hours of train when I shimmy up to Darwin on it tomorrow.

Alice Springs is the biggest town for hundreds of miles, which ought to lend it some charm, however I have not been greatly moved by this place. My hostel, The Haven (clearly a misnomer) is close to town which is great, but the atmosphere is a little lacking and the bathroom in my dorm smells like swamp. I had to tell the disdainful voice in my head (which had started up a round of oh god, oh god) to shut up, and I reminded myself that I am woman, I am invincible etc etc. The first person I met here was a Brit from Harrow of all places so it was obvious from the start that I am going to meet many, many Brits. I made some friends with the girls in the dorm and we went out for a beer and whathaveyou which was great. Unfortunately they all left at 5am the next day, so I spent Friday wandering around Alice on my own, which was surprisingly good. The shopping sucks but I went to the Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame which was so good. It is only small and run by volunteers, but in the middle of rural ish Australia there is a place dedicated to celebrating the fantastic achievements of little-known women who worked the land, fought for Aboriginal rights and raised scores of orphan children as their own. It was lovely. I left feeling very inspired and feministy. I then dropped into the Reptile Centre (despite hating most reptiles on the basis of fear) and was told not to worry if a big lizard was strolling around the place, and that I could stroke his back (!) but under no circumstances was I to touch his head or tail. Lovely. I stared uneasily at all the most deadly snakes snoozing in their tanks, and hoped there were no parceltongues strolling around for a Chamber of Secrets sort of a moment, then went outside to meet Terry, who is a saltwater croc from Darwin. He was not very friendly but he obligingly snapped his huge jaws in my direction for a photo. They did a talk too, and I managed to shake off my fear and hold a beared dragon and let a blue tongued thingy lick my face! Australia is doing funny things to me clearly. I also (much to my own surprise) volunteered to hold Barry, a huge olive python, who promptly wound himself around my body and licked my neck. I am so proud. I am woman!, etc etc.

Yesterday I took a day trip out to Uluru (also called Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (also called The Olgas). The park out 460km southwest of Alice and it is the equivalent of driving to Newcastle from London for a day trip (clearly foolish as Newcastle is best at night). However two five hour coach trips did not scare me (24 hours on a train makes 5 hours seem like a picnic) so I left Alice in the dark corners of 5am to head south. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are both very sacred to the Anangu Aborigines, who have lived in the area for 10,000 years plus, and it is generally regarded to be one of the key things to do on a trip to Oz. I met an Aussie called Janine on our tour and we got on like a house on fire which was great. (I have learned that I am a great person for sharing - I love to share experiences with everyone, and when you have no friends in a country thousands of miles away, you have to befriend everyone in sight in order to do so. It also helps because it is not easy to take a pic of yourself in front of a huge landmark without some help.) Anywho, we headed to Kata Tjuta first of all and went for a walk around it. It is quite different to Uluru as it is made up of several domes (Kata Tjuta is in fact Anangu for 'heads many') but it is also very impressive, and it has a great presence. The whole area around it is wonderfully tranquil.

Uluru is however the main attraction and it is exciting to see it standing solemnly on its own. It is such an iconic, familiar image that you cannot help but stare at it. It is so sacred that the Anangu ask you not to climb it, but unfortunately idiot people ignore them and there is now a visible white scar on the face of the rock where they have walked. We went for two walks around the base with our guides (which was great as there were only 10 of us in our group)and saw lots of Aborginal cave paintings. There are so many stories behind the rock - every crevice, wave or indent has a tale behind it (often of an angry snake or a naughty lizard). It is very powerful, that is for sure. We had a sunset BBQ (the sunset that never happened due to a thick cloud base) and headed home, watching Crocodile Dundee en route - a movie that, despite being iconic, has very little in the way of a plot. Once we were back in the middle of nowhere, the clouds lifted and we could suddenly see thousands of stars and the milky way. I don't know if it was the rock, the stars, or the exhilaration of the day, but I felt charged with energy, and spent the last two hours of the trip staring up out of the window at the perfect sky.

1 comment:

  1. You make me smile Ashley! And have taken my mind off my horrible toothache (self inflicted which is the worst part as I vainly opted to get my teeth whitened!) Your experiences sound fabulous. Partly inspired by your determination to do what you want and convention be damned, only inspired by my own sheer unhappiness in London, I have quit my job. I'm moving back to York in a month and the thought makes me soooo happy. Not as happy as if I'd stomped around Uluru with you though...Keep blogging xxxxx