Uluru: an iconic, magical, sacred landscape. A loud American tour guide shuffles slowly past us with a group of foreigners, spouting nonsense about local customs. Young people take selfies. Bus loads of people seem to arrive by the minute.
We pass the American tour guide and find ourselves alone in silent contemplative bliss. Suddenly, the tour guide appears round the corner with his booming voice, oblivious to the fact that he is standing next to a sign urging visitors to “sit and reflect” in this “quiet place of respect.”
There’s more signs at Uluru, written by the Anangu Aboriginal custodians of the land, encouraging people not to climb the sacred landscape:
“Is it right to continue, knowing what we know today?
Is this a place to conquer – or a place to connect with?
We invite you to open your hearts and minds
to the power of this landscape and the mysterious Tjukurpa.”
Despite this, thousands of tourists ignore the signs and climb Uluru each year, and the only reason that no-one is climbing today is because of the strong winds.
A few weeks after our visit, a new law is passed which will finally ban tourists from climbing Uluru.
As we join the crowds to watch sunset over the landscape, I feel empty: like I have ticked Uluru off of my tourist itinerary for the sake of it. I feel guilty for desecrating the Anangu people’s sacred space.
Was it really worth the 900km detour hitchhiking from Mparntwe (Alice Springs)? 450km there, and now 450km back again. Phew.
Whilst watching the sun set, we meet Andrew and Delma, a couple who are travelling around Australia. They agree to take us in their car, and end up getting stuck with us for two days!
We travel together to Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon, a spectacular place without the crowds of Uluru.
That night we dodge wild horses and camels, who creep silently onto the road as Andrew drives. We pull up and camp at a spot near the highway, the stars filling the night sky. It’s an experience that makes hitchhiking the Outback special: good company with new friends, wild camping in the middle of nowhere on the beautiful red earth.
We take adventurous shortcuts on unsealed roads, the red dust penetrating our lungs. It’s slow-going but so much more magical than driving on asphalt on the tourist route.
We say goodbye to Andrew and Delma in Mparntwe (Alice Springs). Grabbing food supplies, we walk to the outskirts of the city late in the afternoon to hitchhike out again. This is a definite no-no for hitchhiking in the Outback: in our experience, it’s very unlikely that we get lifts after lunchtime.
“GET OUT OF THE FUCKIN’ ROADDDDD!” a man screams out of his car window as he speeds at us.
Finally, two men pull up and offer to take us to Ti-Tree. They stop off at a drive-through alcohol store (yes, these actually exist in Australia), buy a dozen beers and proceed to drink them throughout the journey. This is not the first time that we’ve come across white Australians drink-driving, and ironically it’s usually the same people who rant about Aboriginal Australians being useless or drunk.
The men take us to Aileron Roadhouse. (The Outback is full of roadhouses, usually consisting of petrol stations, a bar, shop and a place to sleep). We sit with our driver’s friends, who are all drinking and making racist comments about the “blacks” and “blackfellas”, as well as sexist comments about their wives.
Our driver moans that Aboriginal people “can’t even wipe the snot off their kids’ faces.” I wonder whether this is the most racist comment I have heard in Australia. It’s up there with a comment a guy said on the east coast: “Don’t touch Aboriginal people in Alice Springs: they’ll give you scabies.”
The other men are just as racist, and we challenge them and talk about the colonisation of the land and the current policies of the government that cause inequality between non-indigneous and Aboriginal Australians. One old man is offended by us. “A guy from Spain came here last week,” he moans. “He was spouting nonsense too and I said ‘you’d better watch your mouth’.”
It feels good, knowing that this Spanish person has been here and that we’re not the only people challenging the racists. Because to remain silent – which many people choose to do when meeting racist Australians – is to be complicit in upholding the racism in the society. How will anything change if we sit silently and say nothing? After all, as white Europeans we will never know what it’s like to bear the brunt of racism. Surely it’s our duty, in this position of privilege, to challenge it.
Chris feels guilty later, thinking that he didn’t challenge the men enough. But it’s about striking a balance: we also need to stay safe, especially when we’re the only strangers in the village, and especially when everyone’s drinking alcohol.
The racist man has actually been very kind and hospitable to us. This is typical of many people in Australia: they welcome us into their cars or homes, and racist views surface sooner or later.
The next morning we get a refreshing lift with Laurie, an Aboriginal local. “People here can speak four languages,” he tells us.
I bet the racist men can’t speak one other language.
The next week is spent visiting beautiful hotsprings, gorges and waterfalls in the far north of Australia. Fruit bats hang from trees, and red-tailed black cockatoos perch on eucalyptus branches. Kookaburras stare at us with their wide eyes, and wallabies munch grass close to our tent. Crocodiles skulk in the waters, waiting for dinner, making us too nervous to swim. We see giant termite mounds three times my size.
We meet kind people who aren’t racist, and hitchhike with a miner who grows spirulina. We are invited into the home of people we meet in the supermarket, and we’re taken to see the stuffed body of Charlie the buffalo, famous for his role in that Australian cliché, Crocodile Dundee. We chat with First Nations women in Katherine, who are homeless because their husbands are in prison, and they’ve travelled away from their communities to visit them.
The temperature creeps up to 42°C. The rain lashes down in short bursts: the monsoon has hit here. A bolt of lightning hits the ground next to us with an almighty crash. I’m terrified.
The next day we hitch across the border from the Northern Territory to Western Australia, passing a quarantine-check. That night we wild camp on the banks of Lake Argyle.
There’s only one other group of people there, and amazingly they come from Maidstone in England, the same neck of the woods as me. We compare our Australia adventures, before drifting off to sleep on our first night in Western Australia.
I’d like to acknowledge that the First Nations peoples of Australia, their elders and their ancestors, are the custodians of the land that I have been travelling through. We hitchhiked through the Australian Outback in late 2017. I’ve used my diary to jog my memory when writing this blog.
Read part 1 of Hitchhiking the Outback here.
Read my post, Learning About Australia, here.
And read my post about hitchhiking Australia’s east coast here.