In the land of ghost people

January 17, 2016

A trip to Australia brings all that is seen in geography books to life

In the land of ghost people

Travelling provides confirmation to scientific theories. You can spend years learning about the curvature of the Earth and the lines of latitude and longitude, but it is only through travelling long distance - and that too in a short time, that the geography seen in books comes alive.

A flight from California to Fiji took us from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere, but Nadi, being in the tropics, was balmy. But a few hours later, things drastically changed. On reaching Sydney, we had firmly landed in the Southern Hemisphere, summer became winter, and we could appreciate what being close to the pole meant.

In exploration of the world, the English left their island on ships. They liked mooring their vehicles in places where the geography shaped the shore in a fashion such that the seafront could be easily converted into a port. Karachi, Sydney, Melbourne all share similar geographies that are conducive to turning them into ports.

Whereas after the invention of the printing press and the post-Renaissance period, the general inclination of the European scholars towards science, European explorers sailed to the far stretches of the world, they were pickier about where they wanted to settle down. The Europeans liked settling in places that had weather conditions similar to their native lands. In the Southern Hemisphere, only the southern tip of Africa and the southern part of Australia matched weather conditions similar to the ones found in England. If there was an indigenous population living in the area that the English chose for themselves to settle in, the natives were pushed out to make room for the newcomers.

In Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide we did not run into a single Australian Aborigine. It was obvious we had to visit the Red Centre to find those ghost people.

Ask 10 Australians what defines the ‘outback’ and you will get 10 different answers. I came up with my own definition. All areas south of the approximately 50 mile southern strip of that continent are considered out in the back enough to be qualified as ‘outback’ by the Australians of European descent. But central Australia -- known as the Red Centre, because of the colour of its soil, is unquestionably the true outback -- the unknown, the unfamiliar, the sacred place of the Aborigines.

We flew from Adelaide to Alice Springs, the gateway to the Red Centre. Coming out of the airport, it looked as if we had reached a new country. The faces had changed, and so had the geography. Red Centre’s miles after miles of wilderness lures visitors in to explore the charming land. We started seeing Aborigines at Alice airport and we could tell they were finding it hard to adopt the ways of the Europeans -- many of them were barefoot.

If human beings evolved to their present form in Africa, how did they reach Australia?

The answer is not too complicated. One hundred thousand years ago, the meaning of life was simple: survive and reproduce.

As hunters and gatherers, the search for food was taking us places. Whereas many scientists insist on a boat-theory, I believe the ancestors of the Aborigines most probably came to Australia walking. In the middle of the last Ice Age, there were most probably several land bridges between mainland Asia and Australia -- the remnants of these bridges exist today in the shape of islands of present day Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

Fifty thousand years ago, a group of hunter and gatherers slowly made its way to the present day Australia. Several thousand years later, when the Ice Age ended, a good amount of polar water was released in the oceans, and the low parts of the land bridges between Asia and Australia got inundated and so the Australian branch of human beings got cut off from its kin.

For the hunter-gatherers that had drifted to Australia, life was easy in the new place; food was plentiful. There was no need to invent new technologies for survival. The size of this human group was too small for group’s intellectual evolution based on sub-groups’ new experiments. For the roughly 50,000 years that the Aborigines remained isolated from the rest of the world, these people remained hunter-gatherers with rudimentary survival skills. Before the Europeans arrived in Australia, about 400 years ago, the Aborigines did not grow crops, did not farm animals, and had no written script. Aborigines being at such ‘lower’ rung of civilisation, the Europeans considered them a part of the Australian fauna, and not human beings. Like other wild animals, Aborigines too were pushed out of the areas Europeans picked as their abode.

Ayers Rock is the primary tourist attraction in the Red Centre. This giant, mountain of a rock, unattached to any ridge, in the middle of the desert, was formed by the pressurisation of deposited sediments by natural forces over millions of years.

It took us a five hour drive from Alice Springs to reach the Ayers Rock.

Kangaroos are synonymous with the word outback.

In Australia there are more kangaroos than there are human beings. Driving in the outback at night is always dangerous. Kangaroos become active at night and there are no fences stopping them from coming on the highway. The possibility of a kangaroo collision with the motor vehicle is so real that our rental car company had us sign an agreement allowing us to drive outside urban areas only during daylight hours.

Staying in Alice Springs, it was not possible to do a day trip to the Ayers Rock. We had to stay overnight at Uluru, the only village near the world’s most famous rock.

On reaching Uluru, we dumped our bags in the hotel room and went to see the sun set at Ayers Rock. We joined a long row of cars and RVs, tourists ready with their cameras for the magical moment. As the sun slowly set, the colour of the Rock changed, from a glowing red to a somber grey.

We came back to the hotel after capturing a few memorable shots of Australia’s premier tourist attraction.

What to eat for dinner? In the open air restaurant of the resort, kangaroo was on the menu; we opted for the novelty. In taste, the kangaroo meat was not too unlike beef, but it was a lot chewier.

The next day we first visited the Valley of the Winds and then the Kings Canyon. Both of these tourist attractions have rocks similar in composition to Ayers Rock. You can appreciate how, millions of years ago, the whole area was covered with heaps of sedimentary deposits and later the soft parts of this formation were washed away by water, leaving these mammoth blobs on today’s desolate Red Centre landscape that was once a seafloor.

And what about the Aborigines, the original keepers of this ‘sacred’ land? No, they were not at these tourist locations, not even at the Ayers Rock, even when signs after signs cautioned visitors they had reached a place that was inviolable and considered holy by the natives. Probably those marginalised people -- thrust into this modern setup where life revolves around money and they are being asked to play the game of survival through a totally new set of rules and they perhaps, were too poor to afford the steep entrance tickets of their own sacred places.

In the land of ghost people