Tuesday, May 06, 2008

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day Five

As you might have noticed by now, this is more a collection of rambling things that I thought about while on this trip than an exciting and action-packed travelogue...

Day Five:

On Day Five, we drove out from Alice Springs to our next stopping place: the Ayers Rock Resort, just outside the national park that is home to the famous rock itself. A word about names here, by the way... I'm not sure exactly who Ayers was or how his name got attached to this particular geological formation, but of course it had a name long before anybody ever gave it his. The original inhabitants of the area called it Uluru, which means "meeting place," as it was (and still is) a place where various local groups would meet for important religious rituals. You still see "Ayers Rock" used in many contexts, such as the name of the resort town, but all the official signs and such use the original native names. As I understand it -- and I'm sure the politics were way more complicated than I'm making it sound -- the land containing the national park was ceded back to the aboriginal people a couple of decades ago, and they are now renting it back to the Australian government on a 99-year lease. (I'm told this extended lease is a common sort of arrangement in this part of Australia, though usually it's the Australian government leasing land to ranchers.)

When you're actually in the national park, by the way, there is a very strong sense of being constantly reminded that, yes, you are on aboriginal land, on the sacred site of an ancient culture, and that your presence, while tolerated, is something of an intrusion. On the other hand, while it's not remotely a tourist-trap kind of place, there are also, inevitably, many signals that scream "Welcome, tourist! Come and see everything! Spend money!" The resulting feeling of cognitive dissonance pretty much encapsulates the post-Imperialist world in a nutshell.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I was going to talk about the trip from Alice Springs. This was a fairly long drive -- something like five hours, I think -- and I was prepared for a stretch of boredom, or at least for a chance to do some reading. (I had a paperback copy of The Origin of Species that I carried around with me for the duration of the trip. I thought it might be rather cool to finally get around to reading that book in a place with such an interesting evolutionary history. Which it was, but I didn't exactly end up having much reading time, so I didn't finish it until the flight home... by which point it had become rather badly battered, poor thing.) Turns out that boredom wasn't a problem, though. Partly this was due to Linda the tour guide, who would periodically chime in with information or jokes or music, partly due to the fact that a couple of stops broke the drive up nicely -- more on the one that wasn't a lunch break in a minute -- and partly because the view out the window held my attention remarkably well. The vegetation looked enough like what we have here on the New Mexican chaparral to feel pleasantly homey, but with the red sandy soil that said vegetation was growing in, the result was a sense that something very like my home desert had been transplanted onto Mars. It was weirdly fascinating.

I was also peering out the window hoping to see some wildlife... I realize that, when I talked about driving along the Great Ocean Road on Day Three, I neglected to mention that we did get a very, very brief glimpse of some wild koalas high in the trees. I was really hoping to see wild kangaroos somewhere other than on a plate, but, like most desert animals, they're mostly active at dusk, so our late-morning/afternoon drive was sadly kangaroo-less. Well, except for a couple of roadkill 'roos along the side of the highway. We did see lots of birds, though, including a couple of eagles munching away on aforementioned roadkill. Australia seems like a great place for birds... I knew they had wild parrots and cockatoos, but I didn't realize they had wild cockatoos hanging out in the middle of cities. I saw them pretty much everywhere, though. Well, everywhere except the outback, so apparently I'm digressing again.

Speaking of animals, the non-lunch stop we made was at a place that offered camel rides. For five bucks, you could climb up on one and they'd lead it around the yard for you. I didn't go for this, myself, as I don't even care for horseback riding, but several other members of our tour group did, and it was fairly entertaining to watch. Here, have a camel picture:

After the ride (the bus ride, that is, not the camel ride), we had some time to kick back at the hotel, then we drove into the park to view the eponymous rock in the setting sun. Very pretty and colorful. Not quite Grand Canyon-in-the-sunset levels of pretty and colorful, perhaps, but a beautiful sight nonetheless. Plus, there were snacks and wine.

And then it got dark. And I realize that I forgot to mention something about Day Four, too, which is that it marked the first day (or rather, night) in which I was able to get anything like a proper look at the stars of the southern hemisphere. Which, frankly, was one of the things I was most excited about on the whole trip. I had a southern star chart (which someone, rather wonderfully, slipped into my mailbox at work before I left), and I pleased myself enormously by discovering that I could identify Alpha Centauri (our nearest stellar neighbor!) and the famous Southern Cross quite easily. And then I stood there like an idiot for ages gaping at Orion, good old familiar Orion, which was upside down. I mean, I knew it would be, but seeing it like that was just bizarre. Orion's sword had become Orion's necktie! Actually, standing there gaping isn't precisely what I was doing. In fact, I was hopping around and pointing at things in the sky and exclaiming and twisting my head around to look at things upside down so I could identify them better, while passerby no doubt gave me a wide berth, and my friend stood there smiling in tolerant bemusement.

The reason that's relevant to Day Five is that there was supposed to be an optional star party thing the previous night, which turned out to be unavailable, a fact at which I expressed great disappointment to Linda. Well, she happened to stumble across a flyer somewhere at the resort advertising a "night sky show" at the tiny Ayers Rock Observatory and offered to book me in for it. So of course I went. It was basically just an astronomer giving a very, very basic-level talk, and letting people look through a telescope at various star clusters. (Also the moon, which really is an awesome sight through a reasonably-powered telescope, and Saturn, which is just pretty.) As basic-level astronomy talks go, it was pretty decent, although I give the guy points off for going on about astrology and pointing out everybody's star signs. I suppose it's considered a way to get people who know nothing about astronomy interested by relating it to something they are familiar with, but I can't help but disapprove on principle. Especially as the guy claimed he would "totally discredit" it later, and then apparently forgot to do so. Oops. Still it was enjoyable nonetheless, and I could tell that the people there were getting something out of it. One couple asked the astronomical guide to settle an argument: "The moon isn't visible in the daytime, right?" they said. "So when it looks like you can see the moon in the day, that's just a reflection, right? It can't be the actual moon? Or is it?" Oh, man, that level of... of not-looking-up-at-the-sky-ness, and not-understanding-the-universe-ness, it just makes me sad. Not mad at people for being ignorant, or contemptuous of them, or anything, just sad. How can you have an amazing, wonderful thing like the moon around and not even pay enough attention to it to know whether it's supposed to be there or not? At least they did get their explanation: yes, the moon is visible during the day. And I am re-confirmed in my belief that these kinds of public talks by scientists are useful and important.

For myself, I learned how to find south by the stars in the southern hemisphere, which is not nearly as easy as finding north around here. Something in the back of my brain is utterly convinced that this is vitally important knowledge to have, even though I'm honestly not sure I'm ever going to make it back to this side of the planet, let alone find myself in a position where I'm going to have to navigate by the stars. I suspect that's the same part of my brain that is convinced there's an actual chance of my ending up as a Doctor Who companion and that I need to know where the vulnerable spot is on a Dalek. (Aim for the eyepiece!)

Unfortunately, this night, and the few others we had under clear desert skies, were not in fact good nights for stargazing, as the moon was nearly full and completely washed out some of the more interesting objects visible in the southern hemisphere. Meaning I still have not seen the Magellenic Clouds. I'm thinking that just might be the thing that will eventually persuade me to go back...


  1. the eponymous rock in the setting sun
    All your English teachers would be proud.

    I was able to get anything like a proper look at the stars of the southern hemisphere
    That has to be the coolest thing you've ever done - and I'm giddy just reading about it.

    I had a southern star chart (which someone, rather wonderfully, slipped into my mailbox at work before I left)
    You have wonderful coworkers.

    (Also the moon, which really is an awesome sight through a reasonably-powered telescope, and Saturn, which is just pretty.)
    Our campus astronomy dept. holds a monthly event for general public at the observatory. I've only been to one, in which I, too, got to see Saturn through a telescope and the moon through nothing but a pair of binoculars, for heaven's sake (no pun intended), and I was utterly amazed by how much I can't see with just my eyes.

    I am re-confirmed in my belief that these kinds of public talks by scientists are useful and important.
    Not to mention blog posts. ;)

  2. All your English teachers would be proud.

    What, of "eponymous?" That ain't even a big word. ;)

    That has to be the coolest thing you've ever done - and I'm giddy just reading about it.

    You'd probably have been laughing if you'd seen me, though. :)

    You have wonderful coworkers.

    I really, really do. I'm not even sure who left it there... Probably the person who was waxing all rhapsodic at me about the southern sky just a few days before, though.

    and I was utterly amazed by how much I can't see with just my eyes.

    There's a reason why the invention of the telescope is credited with changing not just the field of astronomy, but our whole conception of the universe. Look at a light in the sky closely enough, and it becomes a place.

    Not to mention blog posts. ;)

    Yes, although, except for that one time I tried to explain parallax, usually not blog posts by me. :)

  3. Incidentally, did you try any Vegemite when you were there?

  4. I couldn't quite bring myself to eat any. It just didn't look like anything I could legitimately recognize as a foodstuff. My travelling companion did, though. She spread a little bit on a piece of toast, chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then carefully moved set aside and said, "Well, I'll add that to the list of things I've tried." :)

    I did bring a little packet back with me as a souvenir, though.

  5. That was a wise choice. I note that your companion did not make any judgmental comments. I thought it tasted like used motor oil.

  6. The look on her face said it all, really. It was highly comical. :)