Craig's Travels
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The Outback

The Australian Outback is as foreboding a place as you will find anywhere on the planet. The arid climate host's a vast desert that can stretch for thousands of miles without a trace of water. And yet in the middle of seemingly nowhere, you can stumble upon the most beautiful rock formations you have ever seen. And lo & behold, at the base of these rock formation lies a cool watering hole. Plants drink the water and grow. Animals come to eat the plants. Humans come along and build a K-Mart.

There is a constant debate as to where the outback actually starts. But once you are in the Outback, you know immediately. Every state in Oz has an Outback (no, not the steak house), and traveling inland from the coast more than an hour will usually land you smack-dab in the middle of it.

Once in the Outback, the sky becomes enormous, you can literally see mountains hundreds of kilometers away, enormous grazing fields stretch to the horizon, and the sunsets.... well, the sunsets in the outback rival any tropical island paradise. Minus the umbrella drinks and the ocean, but plus extreme heat and endless flies. I don't wantto steal any of Bill Bryson's thunder here, but the flies in Australia really do conquer your psyche more than any other insect I have ever encountered. For some reason, they are quite fond of my earwax, and try to eat it at any chance they can get. They are quite tenacious. This can be terribly frustrating. But once the sun does set, and the excruciating heat mellows to a comfortable evening, the outback is really a special place.

We spent a lot of our Outback experience in the Northern Territory. The Northern Territory is not a state, but rather a few years back the people voted not to have representation in Parliament and to remain a silent partner, observing the governing of Australia in a non-obtrusive way. This flows quite well with their hands-off attitude about most things in life.

From the moment we entered the Northern Territory, there was an odd feeling in the air. It was an eerie silence, like when you walk into a party where people were talking about you and the whole room quiets down real quick. Perhaps it was the vast openness about the place, the stretches of miles and miles and miles with nothing but emaciated cows and fat insects. But I think it was more than that. It was almost a feeling of trespassing, as if we were walking around land that we shouldn't have been walking on. And perhaps we were.

It is estimated that the Aboriginal people lived in Australia more that 40,000 years before there was any contact with white people. This is 40,000 years of hunting and gathering without any intention of getting day jobs or attending university. Much like when the European colonists settled in North America, the indigenous people of Australia were without natural immunizations to European diseases, and many, many Aborigines died from the white man's illnesses, including alcoholism. Europeans that settled Australia had their own version of Manifest Destiny and their own justifications for taking land from the native people. In some instances, British traded blankets, food and spices for large parcels of valuable land. In other cases, white people just took what they needed without compensation.

An outsider's simple resolution would be to give back the land that was taken. But this is naive. Most of the valuable land to the Aborigines is build up with cities and towns. That is no more plausible than giving Manhattan back to the Native Americans who where settled there. Instead, Australia has given the Aboriginal community large portions of desert wasteland, completely undesired by the average Aussie. That is sad. What is even sadder is what the Aboriginal people have done with this land.

As the original caretakers of the land, one would expect a great respect for the land and its surroundings. That is why it hurt even more when we pulled off the side of the road in the middle of the Outback and saw the ground completely littered with empty beer cans and boxes of wine, parts of cars, blankets and other rubbish that was just left there. When we questioned this with a local, he informed us that was where the "Abbos" go to drink and sniff petrol. One bloke from Melbourne informed us that Australia was very lenient with the dole (their welfare). Apparently, a person who is out of work can be on the dole for years with minimal effort. The dole checks are handed out on Thursdays. Thursday evening and all of Friday are busy days for Outback police officers as they round up drunks on a dole-financed binge.

Now, to be fair, there are plenty of well-minded Aboriginals. They are warm people, and there is a rich culture, which they are happy to share, if they have the right incentive. On our trip to Uluru (or Ayer's Rock as the whities call it), we learned a great deal about the local Aboriginal culture. One Aussie I spoke with felt like the natives will get in touch with their roots if there are dollar signs around. This is a typical white-Aussie attitude towards the indigenous people, especially in the Outback. Many of them are sick of their taxes going to support someone else's drinking habit. I'm sure they would rather the money go towards their own drinking habit. When you ask Aussies why the Aboriginal kids are not in school, the response would sound something like, "Oh, the darkies don't have to go to school. Normal kids do, but not them. What can the state do when the parent is drunk under a tree somewhere?"

Actually, you won't get most Australians that far on the subject. They will typically just say it is a complicated subject and move onto something I find even more dizzying, namely Cricket. But it is true; this is a complicated problem. How can the Australian government help people that don't really want help? And how can they educate a people that don't want an education? They have received land back, but they don't take care of it and continue to waste resources that they do have. It is a real problem, and one that doesn't have many obvious solutions. It is my own theory that Aborigines are used to living off of the land. Now that white people have taken the resources they were counting on for this, they live off of the land in a different way, in the form of the dole. But to take the dole away from them would really leave them with nothing. They lack the Protestant work ethic (mainly because they aren't Protestants), but should they be punished for having a different culture, a different style of life or a different work mentality from the people who colonized this country so many years ago? I think not.

So might we have been trespassing by stepping into the Outback? I hope not. But as for going to the Outback again, I don't think I will. It is too hot, there are too many flies and the whole place gave me an uneasy feeling. I sure will miss those sunsets though.

*Photos courtesy of Productive Procrastination


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