Through the Eyes of an Educator: Outback Australia

by Stacey Ebert / Dec 05, 2016 /
Stacey Ebert's picture

When I was younger, my Dad talked a lot about how he loved and wanted to visit the land out west in the United States. He liked the stories of tradition, the love of the land, and the great open spaces where people and animals roamed for miles. I was often happier on the coasts, as the ocean and her lapping waves provided the serenity I needed, but I knew there was more. From the minute I first set foot in Australia, over a decade ago, I knew there was more to the country than the coast. Although my first visit and many subsequent ones hugged the coasts on the corners and in between, I’d yet to explore the open vistas of the Northern Territory, better known as Australia’s Outback. Spiritual, welcoming, enveloping, colorful, thoughtful, and filled with lessons don’t even begin to describe the land and the people of Australia’s Red Centre.

Kantju Gorge. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Outback Australia

Getting there is a lesson in itself. Travelers become students, and the land and its inhabitants, teacher. Drive, train, or fly yourself to Alice Springs and you’ll be in the most populated city of the entire Red Centre. Alice Springs has supermarkets, restaurants, hiking trails, hotels, bars, markets, malls, Gloria Jeans Coffee, and Subway. Some residents are indigenous to the land, while others have made their way here from all places around the globe. This major city is home to thousands and its economy is boosted by tourism, farming, and mining. It’s from here, in Alice Springs, that many begin their journey into the Outback. 

In Alice Springs, we visited the Royal Flying Doctors’ Service tourist facility on the original Alice Springs base. For less than twenty dollars, every half hour, there’s a tour available that begins with a view of the board that today shows real time movement of all of the planes and personnel involved, takes you to a movie explaining the history of the service, and then spits you out into a museum where you can sit in one of the planes used by the service. It was fantastic. A hologram of Reverend John Flynn, founder of the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service, ‘walks’ you through the entire story...his story. He explains his life, the idea for the service, the campaign for an aerial medical service that could bring medicine and trained professionals to those living in the Outback, and QANTAS’ involvement in the endeavor. The Royal Flying Doctors’ Service employs trained personnel who provide necessary medicine and treatment, preventative testing, ambulatory transport, and life saving measures to thousands each year. The needs of the people and John Flynn’s determination share lessons far beyond history textbooks. The visit is worth far more than the entrance fee could ever cost. 

Like the lessons from the Royal Flying Doctors’ Service, those learned from the land of the Outback will stay with you for a lifetime. The red sand you encounter throughout your visit is rich in minerals, especially iron. The glittery star-filled skies welcome visitors, and the endless expanses fill both your memory cards and memory bank. Endless hours are spent on paved two-lane highways with trucks, campers, cars, and busses of all kinds headed on a journey that is difficult to surpass. Through the countless kilometers and open vistas, there’s history. The roadways didn’t exist when the first explorers began their quest to bring connections straight through the center of the continent of Australia. Explorers like Jiles, Goss, and Lasseter spent lifetimes struggling to make their way from one place to another and back again. Out of the windows of your air-conditioned vehicle, you’ll see the cattle stations that today exist for thousands of acres, but were formed originally every 250 kilometers for a communications repeater station to be placed in order to share telegraphed messages from this expansive land with residents and the Queen of England.

There are lessons told here. In the land itself, through the stories of travelers, amidst the artistry and artwork of the Aborigines, and throughout your journey, you will learn. You might learn about yourself. You might learn about the history of the only country that is actually a continent. You might learn of its native people or even still you might learn about the environment and the impact of people upon it. No matter what, you will learn. Our journey took us to three of the most visited sites in the Outback. Over 400 kilometers from Alice Springs, you begin to see how much the semi-arid dry zone plays a role in life in the Red Centre. 

It’s difficult to digest all you’ll find in the Outback in only one day. It’s possible, but times for exploration would be constrained. Our visit was on a two-night, three-day tour run by the local company, Emu Run. We ‘stopped for firewood’, which meant putting on your fly net, jumping out of the truck to find dead wood (already authorized by the council to be used as firewood), and removing it from the land ourselves. When, in my experience, stopping for firewood meant picking up a bundle of prepackaged wood from a shop, this was a learning experience in itself, and it was a perfect way to fling me out of my comfort zone and find another way in the world. We could only take from certain spots, carry so much on the roof of the truck, and tiny twigs nor the thickest branches would work. A ten minute ‘stop’ included keeping an eye out for slithering critters, knowing what was able to be used from the land, working as a team to get it all on the truck, and, of course, watching for cars, as we were literally on the side of the road. Education doesn’t always happen in an enclosed classroom.

In the evenings, there were campfires. We could sleep outside in swags or in permanent tented cabins. If you’ve never seen a swag, picture a heavy sleeping bag set up. This is wider (for your own actual sleeping bag to fit inside) and made out of more of a burlap material with thick padding inside. You tuck your own sleeping bag inside, snuggle way down and have an extra flap of the swag that can be placed over your face in case of inclement weather, bugs, or the arrival of animals. You’re close to nature and fall asleep next to the fire under a blanket of stars. Our barbecue even included a lesson in a classic Aussie bush bread, damper. Made with flour, water, sugar, and a whole lot of kneading, this bush bread bakes in a cast iron pot set atop and underneath steaming hot coals. For me, it was the first time I ever made anything like it. We worked as a team, watched as experienced kneaders showed us the most efficient way (and one in which your fingers weren’t covered in the end), placed it in the pot, cut it in slices and shared it with friends. Ours was made as a dessert adorned with sugar and some added lemon curd, jam, chocolate, or cream when eating their damper. Shared experiences are some of the best lessons around.

Making Aussie bush bread, damper. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Outback Australia

Our days were filled with all the good kind of dirt. We greeted the morning with a sunrise hike around the base of Uluru (Ayers Rock). As the dark turned to light and the colors rose in the sky, the entire face of this monstrous rock formation changed before our eyes. It was literally as if the rock was awakening from a deep sleep. The rocky terrain became a clear path, the layers of rock shifted with color and shadows, and photos were taken from every angle. As you walk around the base, there are aboriginal stories shared about sections of the rock. There are even spots where no photos are allowed, due to the fact the sites are considered sacred and that the Aboriginal population may be living in a nearby location. Respect for people, culture, and land is palpable. Hikers are quiet as they take in all of the history, legacy, and love of the experience of Uluru. Stopping to read each parable, quote, and story takes time but is worth the wait. The Aborigines teach patience to their young and believe that once this is learned, all will follow. Here, you understand why. There’s also the spot where many have chosen, against the wishes of the Aboriginal community, to climb Uluru. The trail of feet has worn away the color of the rock and turned the red dirt to white. This hike is ‘at your own risk’ as guides nor natives are required to help you if you get hurt on the climb. Consider how you’d feel if travelers or tourists took to one of your sacred or spiritual sites and wanted to climb to the top? Today, even guides and the local councils discourage climbers and they are working together to be able to eventually ban the climb altogether. The National Parks Service works with the Aboriginal community here. This lesson in politics, a community-minded nature, and respect for ALL cultures is one worth sharing with the entire world.

Uluru. From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Outback Australia

Not far from Ayers Rock is a second rock formation. Kata Tjuta, which means ‘lots of heads,’ has steep climbs and endless vistas from each angle. The hike is far more steep than that of the one around the base of Uluru, yet filled with lessons all its own. The most colorful site in the Outback was Kings Canyon. Filled with auburns and greens, rocks and streams, inclines and straight shots, Kings Canyon enrobes its hikers in seas of trees and layers of rock. Bring your stamina and sturdy walking shoes and hike down into the Gardens of Eden. After watching the colors of the rock change as you descend, have a snack by the water and take in the beauty surrounding you. In Kings Canyon, you can even geocache. It was my first time participating in this world geography-based treasure hunt, but I was able to be a part of an exchange of items with people from around the world who find geocaches, put in and sometimes take out an item, and add their names to a list of countless others. The endless outdoor classroom is one filled with continuous lessons. Listen as the stories of the canyon and the rocks are shared. No matter where you are in the Outback, there’s a spiritual connection to be found. 

Geocaching! Through the Eyes of an Educator: Outback Australia

On your way to or from your Outback journey from Alice Springs, there’s a stop, smack in the Red Centre, that’s worth a visit. One of the original cattle stations, Erldunda Roadhouse, welcomes travelers with a bar, restaurant, toilets, photos, food, Internet, and an emu farm. Here, you can hold an emu egg to feel the texture, check out the size, and be surprised at its color. Emus come straight up to their onlooking humans to watch them as much as the outsiders are looking in. For no fee, you can enter the gates, grab a bit of feed, and have the emus nip at your hands. Or, if you’re up for a bit of an adventure, stand in the center of the flock as the caretaker places fruit and vegetable scraps in a circle around you. You won’t wait but a few seconds until you are surrounded by hungry birds chowing down on their snacks as you wonder how on earth you might ever get out of the fray. You know they’re there, but they don’t even begin to notice you. This lesson in patience and respect for all animals was mixed with, again, flinging myself out of my comfort zone, since for me this was the first time I was ever surrounded by emus. This was experiential learning at its best.

Surrounded by emus! From Through the Eyes of an Educator: Outback Australia

My students always knew I had a love affair with Australia. They knew how I felt about experiencing different cultures, trying new things, learning by doing, and that lessons come in all forms. They knew that I thought first-hand documents were better when provided by living testimony, that eating a traditional dish taught to you by someone of that culture could teach you far more than solely the taste of a new cuisine, and that interactions and experiences are often remembered more than something you once read in a classroom. Each one of these aspects was met on this adventure. The journey to the Outback is not for the faint of heart. It’s remote, covered in all things nature, and beats with the heart of tradition. It’s steeped in Aboriginal culture, whose teachings and lessons reach even the most stoic of observers. Here, the natural elements reign supreme, and people learn that living off of the land means giving back as much as it does taking. These lessons transcend backgrounds and culture. They share patience, teach compassion, provide comfort, and reveal an understanding not often spoken of today. Bring water, sunscreen, a fly net, and an open mind. The Red Centre is waiting for you, welcoming to all, and offers far more than you ever imagined. 

 

Stacey Ebert, our Educational Travels Editor, is a traveler at heart who met her Australian-born husband while on a trip in New Zealand. Stacey was an extracurricular advisor and taught history in a Long Island public high school for over fifteen years, enjoying both the formal and informal educational practices. After a one year 'round the world honeymoon, travel and its many gifts changed her perspective. She has since left the educational world to focus on writing and travel. She is energetic and enthusiastic about long term travel, finding what makes you happy and making the leap. In her spare time she is an event planner, yogi, dark chocolate lover, and spends as much time as possible with her toes in the sand. Check out her website at thegiftoftravel.wordpress.com for more of her travel musings.
 
All photos courtesy and copyright Stacey Ebert