Friday, April 15, 2011

The Outback

Another trip, another thirteen hour bus ride.
This trip featured an itinerary, but the list of places and activities didn't mean a whole lot to us. How does one pack for a sheep shearing demonstration? Or a tour of the outback? A night at the local karaoke bar? What was "The Royal Flying Doctor" demonstration

It took a day of driving through increasingly spare landscapes to reach the small town of Broken Hill where we would be lodging for the next three nights. If I had ever thought to call the town where I lived a small town before, I was sorely mistaken. This is truly what it's like to live in the middle of nowhere. We cruised through the four main streets, with tall western front buildings and an ominous jagged heap of mining grounds scraping the sky behind. Picture an old abandoned ghost town, similar to the setting of a Scooby Doo movie, and that's about the closest description I can give of the sights that we saw as we pulled up to the West Darling Hotel. Once inside we were assigned our rooms and told a ghost story that confirmed my comparison. I should definitely expect Velma to lead the Mystery Gang on this case. One of the rooms was haunted by a "transvestite ghost", and another was the final resting place of someone who died of unnamed natural causes. Reassuring. I laid down for an uneasy night's rest bundled in my sweats until we woke up for an early day of sight seeing in this glorious place.

The sight seeing ended up being an hour long bus tour of this mile long town. We passed the same streets about four times each. The tour guide droned on, seeming not to notice that we were all dozing off. I think I heard more stories about his grandchildren than I did about Broken Hill.

When we stopped at the Royal Flying Doctor's however, we were immediately shocked out of our stupors with pretty graphic footage of the medical service that flies out to the remote locations in Australia to provide healthcare to those unable to reach doctor's and hospitals. It was moving and amazing to realize that some people lived so separated from cities and towns, that there were people with lifestyles so independent and removed.

After that we went to the local library for a lecture on a famous cricket player, which didn't quite move me but the next destination did. We were bused over to the mining memorial, a sobering walk through a cross shaped site with caving walls and a glass sheet of names, dates, and causes of deaths - more horrific and frequent than I could have imagined.Strangely, there was a giant bench at the end of the memorial,a bit inappropriately out of place, but we definitely appreciated that it lightened the mood a bit.

We finished the day's activities with a walk up to the sculpture gardens where Aboriginal stone structures were thrust up against the setting sun on a ridge that rolled down to a sweeping open landscape for miles on either side. We had some drinks and snacks as we followed the stone pathways around, taking in the etchings in the massive rocks, shaped and positioned into meaning that has survived insurmountable durations of time and change.

When we returned back to the hotel we ate a hurried dinner and headed to the local musicians club, the karaoke bar around the corner. I hate to admit that I did not enter into the contest, but so many Loyola students did that as a group they took home third prize, and had to split the $50 winnings amongst all twenty of them.

The next day was an early start with a tour of the mines. We donned our lighted helmets and crawled down the spiraling steps dug into the ground, holding onto the looming walls that seemed to press around us. I hit my head more times than I can count, and I'm one of the lucky short ones. We learned about the numerous causes of death in the mines, the terrible hours, and the atrocious labor intensive tasks that were confined in the dark dusty pit of the mines.

On to the Camels! We arrived at the camel farm and partnered up for some camel rides through the nearby fields. I've ridden horses before, but it was nothing like this. The camels kneeled so that we could climb on to the saddles strapped over their humps. Even so, it was still difficult for me to hoist myself up. I wasn't at all prepared for when the camel stood, and I let out a startled squeal as it bucked us jerkily, struggling to get his gangly legs beneath him. The walk was just as bumpy, we waddled with every step he took and I couldn't stop laughing. It was the strangest sensation, the camel strutting across the uneven ground, stooping to snatch some grass to chomp on while we were holding on for dear life and hoping not to be thrown off with every dip in the road. I am not ashamed to admit that this was one of the favorite parts of my trip.

Then we drove down the road to the sheep shearing farm. The man who performed the demonstration clearly loved his job, passionately explaining the lifestyle, the working hours, the assurance that it didn't harm the sheep. He sheared three different ones in front of us, proudly chucking each one back into the pens afterward. They looked like hastily peeled potatoes, naked white with uneven swathes.

We moved on to a "walk" through the surrounding landscape. The sandy ground sucking our feet in as we strolled past jutting rock walls on either side, bringing on several lion king references. We walked by rocky streams, unseasonably filled after the abnormally high amounts of rainfall Australia has seen lately. Then the real walk began. No one really knew what we were in for as we turned the steeply sloping, scrubby hills beside us. We climbed. and we climbed. and we climbed. Up crumbling rocks, through harsh prickling brambles, and on. People slowly began to fall behind, unprepared for the hike. My backpack straps rubbed my shoulders and I wished that I hadn't worn pants. When we finally came to rest at the top, I lost my breath all over again. The view was stunning, with the sun hanging low on the horizon by that time, sending streaks dancing across the depths and peaks of the ridges all around us. We sat on the rocks and watched the sun slowly setting across the endless miles of rocks, dirt, and dry prickly grass.

The descent amongst the quickly darkening sky was a race against the setting sun, and we practically rolled down the hills, kicking up rocks and stepping right onto the sharp spears of grass that embedded in our feet. Tired, sweaty, and removing thorns from our feet, we settled into the home cooked, hearty country dinner that they provided us with more gusto than I can describe. As we finally finished recovering, stomach's full and feet rested, they told us to grab our flashlights and not to look up. We walked quietly into what had become a very dark night, the blackness surrounding us as the bugs and bushes buzzed with nocturnal activity. We finally veered off the dirt road into the grass, and were instructed to click off the lights. "Now look up" our guide instructed us. There was a collective gasp as we turned our faces upward and our eyes caught the shimmering stars that dripped from their glittering coating across the deep, dark, blue sky. It was unlike anything I had seen before, each little speck of light glittering with a brightness I didn't know they owned. I spun around, trying to take it all in, to catch the multitude of dazzling dust and not let any dance away unseen. We saw the Southern cross, a constellation only visible from the southern hemisphere. When we were finally able to pry ourselves away down from the depths of the universe, we made our way back to the farm house where a bonfire was waiting for us, marshmallows and all. It had been a long day and after a sleepy bus ride back to the West Darling Hotel, I slept right through those creaky ghost fears that had haunted us all the night before with stars still in my eyes.

The next day was a little more laid back as we toured a national park and settled in to a real hotel, with television and sheets that actually seemed to be cleaned on a regular basis. We headed to an all you can eat pizza and pasta dinner before stopping in to the local brewery where we were shown the distinct flavors of their Mildura beers. We were informed of a "mystery" activity that would take place before our drive home the next day and we called it a night early to grab some ice cream and watch a movie in our room.

The "mystery" turned out to be a tour of the local winery, where we learned about the history of the wine, the different processes that go into making different kinds, and were taken through the rooms to see the equipment. We moved right on to the thirteen hour ride home, happy to return to the comforts of suburbia where shops and buses and noisy college kids filled the area, interrupting the silence and space we had been thrust into for the past five days.

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