The end of the Barkly Highway was in sight. It was as miraculous as meeting the end of a rainbow but without the well-earned pot of gold. On the contrary, our arrival in Warumungu meant parting with a whole pocket of cash and draining our banks dry for more oil. By this point, Jenny was gasping like a thirsty animal and practically convulsing with dehydration so we had no choice but to splurge. Once we had nourished her spluttering engine, we proceeded on with our journey, turning south at the intersection onto the Stuart Highway. We intended to reach Alice Springs as soon as possible therefore our mission was to prolong sleep, dive into the nearest repair garage and thrust a mechanic beneath the tired, groaning bonnet of the Land Rover.
Our route west was over. It was a beautiful time of day to change direction as the sun hung low behind us clinging on to the last stretches of blue sky and causing brilliant bursts of gold light to dance over the red soil. We were fully enveloped in the vast desert now, rumbling ahead into the middle of Australia in our unpredictable, oil-burning beauty of a car. Our next stop was Tennant Creek.
Now I would say that 98% of the ‘tenants’ in this creek are from Aboriginal descent. It was until this moment that we hadn’t encountered many native Australian people, but indigenous communities are scarce along the East Coast. It is unlikely you would find many surfing in Byron Bay or sunbathing on Rainbow Beach: It is far too overpopulated with tourists. The further north you travel or the more inland you roam, there appear to be greater numbers of indigenous people.
Rumbling through Tennant Creek in the dark was an unusual experience. We appreciated that Jenny was extremely loud, but the directed glares from street-walkers were not of bemused interest or fascination. There was a distinct air of resentment and animosity that cursed the streets and plagued us. Passersby would glower; some raised their middle fingers and shouted obscenities our way. It was unsettling and made us feel instinctively vulnerable. It was as though we had trespassed on their territory as we had done hundreds of years ago, ready to rob them again of their homes, rights and privileges. We can only blame ourselves: The British are shamefully responsible for wiping out half the Aboriginal population, destroying close-knit communities and claiming their lands as our own. Despite this, the world has grown and years have passed. In some act of atonement however, the Australian government are paying for the expansion of Aboriginal communities by erecting new homes and offering benefits and money (at the expense of the Australian taxpayer) to live a more stable life. So why is there still a feeling of mutual dislike or misunderstanding between indigenous people and other races in Australia? As we thundered through the main high street, I had time to collect my thoughts and recognise my own empathy as I watched in despair as Aboriginal groups skulked around barefoot in the dark. It was as though they had no purpose or any intent – they were ambling carelessly, many of them staggering. It’s clear that the easy accessibility of alcohol and drugs has rendered these poor people helpless and dissolved them into a community of drug-users and alcohol-abusers. Of course, this is not consistent with every Aboriginal community, and some states may be worse than others. I am speaking from my own account and the general consensus of the Australian people whose views and experiences were shared with us on our travels.
We also learned that the Australian authorities are no better in the Northern Territory. We were initially comforted at the sighting of a police car stationed on the side of a road, knowing that any potential crime could be controlled and safety restored. But then we discovered the cops on duty were in fact boozing outside the Bottle-O, blind to any crime around them. Their likely thought process: If you can’t beat them, join them. We bought a crate of beer from a short, bald man who resembled an oversized baby and then swiftly hopped back into the car, ploughing on to that night’s luxury retreat: a campsite near the Devil’s Marbles conservation reserve.
The Karlu Karlu Devil’s Marbles are a collection of large, red boulders in the Northern Territory and an iconic delight to travellers and tourists. Most of the conservation reserve is protected under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act. The Devil’s Marbles evoke many tales and legends and hold a spiritual place in the hearts of Aboriginal people. One tradition tells of ‘Arrange’, an ancient ancestor that roamed the area. He crafted a hair-string belt and dropped piles of hair on the ground that transformed into the large, red boulders we see today. Another belief is that the Marbles are actually fossilised eggs of a Rainbow serpent…
Matt and I arose before the sun and drove from the campsite to the Marbles i.e. a nest of fossilized serpent’s eggs. We were naturally the first to arrive so we pulled down the pot and gas stove from our ‘kitchen’ and boiled some morning tea. We then took our places on an Eastern facing Marble, wrapped our chilled hands around our steaming mugs and waited longingly for the warm rise of the sun as we indulged in the bliss and tranquility of outback Australia.
Dawn broke. The sky transformed into a vast painting of lilac and rose hues stretching as far as the eye could see. The dust on the red boulders shimmered in the light, dazzling our morning gaze. We sat peacefully for a while, inexplicably subdued and content in each other’s company. Before too long, we shifted ourselves off the rock and meandered our way along the self-guided tracks between the Marbles. Matty was the first to discover a burned-out car that had been abandoned between the rocks. We guessed it was the likely fault of some uncultured bogan or tourist with no environmental respect. However, Australia faces the issue of Aboriginal burning. Many Aboriginal people torch houses, cars and forests to protest their rights and demonstrate a political indifference. All it does though is reinforce a cultural division in an unnecessarily extremist way. A few years ago, the Australian flag was burned by indigenous protestors in Canberra chanting “Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.” It is an eternal resentment born from injustice that can never be forgiven or forgotten. We found many burned vehicles abandoned on the sides of roads as we traversed further through the country; a sobering reminder that there are some human mistakes that cannot be undone and some even time cannot heal.
Matty and I packed up our morning tea kit (oh so British!) and said goodbye to Devil’s Marbles. We were back on the road ready to continue our very straight drive to Alice Springs, with the essential stopover at unusual service stations such as the one at Wycliffe Well. This little roadhouse was labelled the UFO Capital of Australia, renowned and proud of its many extraterrestrial encounters. Inside the little service station and restaurant, the walls have been plastered with newspaper cutouts to document the strange UFO sightings, for example ‘floating cigars’ and ‘flashing lights’… of course with no plausible explanation other than alien activity!
Naturally, the road to Alice Springs had to be a journey of enchanting obstacles (or serpent marble eggs) and supernatural, extraterrestrial mystery. What other strange phenomenon would appear as we neared Alice Springs? A bustling white rabbit in a tight jacket offering us more oil? Or the Queen of Hearts supplying us with a whole new engine? Alice is a wonderland after all: The possibilities were endless.