Operation Cassowary: The Long Voyage from Cairns to the Outback

The tour group and I engaged in a celebratory meal in downtown Cairns after a successful trip to the Great Barrier Reef. Cairns is a busy place, full of activists protesting politicians who were planning to dig holes in the reef, tourists browsing the night markets, and people enjoying the ice cream and gelato joints that were found on every corner. (No joke. EVERY corner.) Because of Australia’s climate, frozen treats are a huge venture, especially during the dry season. We hung out in a sort of Victorian-era pub, and the guides reviewed the plan for the night. As the next day would have us venturing into the depths of the continent, it was key for us to stock up on provisions and supplies… and perhaps a souvenir or two. Leaving us to our own devices, we entered the covered stalls of the Cairns Night Markets under the cover of a starry sky and the vibes of cosmopolitan shops.

Cairns Night Market was great for me, because I could indulge in some classic souvenirs and check out some new ones. The covered night stalls sold all kinds of goods, as well as spa treatments and Asian restaurants, and stores selling kangaroo leather, boomerangs (we bought some to try in the outback,) and coffee. While there, I purchased postcards, a hand-crafted magnet of a cassowary, and several affordable but comfortable and stylish novelty tees depicting kangaroos, historical facts, and the like. My favorite purchase of all was an article of clothing, yes, but it was far superior.

I was enthralled at the sight of it. Several of us guys wandered into a store, searching for some crocodile leather belts. But as we were discouraged by the outrageous costs, I discovered, by a wonderful accident, a kangaroo leather hat. Yes. A kangaroo leather hat. It was something straight out of a western, or an Indiana Jones film. This hat had a huge brim, a cross between a fedora and a cowboy hat. At once I knew I wanted it. After inquiring about the authenticity, the condition of the kangaroos and how they were treated, and ensuring this was in fact an Australian product, I placed the kangaroo hat on my head. I was set for adventure. By the end of this trip, the hat would have sweat stains, sunscreen smudges, and wear and tear from folding and stretching, but I am still alright with that. It still works, and is a constant reminder of my clothing companion that shielded me from the sun, helped me brave the deserts of the interior, and teach me to tolerate the constant presence of flies. If anything, the wrinkles and marks give it an even grander level of authenticity. It was by far the greatest and most practical purchase I made for the journey into the core of the land down under.

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The night ended with me wearing my hat to a gelato shop a block away called “Gelocchio,” where I tried some epic dragonfruit gelato, and we spent our last night in Cairns.

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In the morning we proceeded to the airport, where I ran into another epic souvenir. This was one I had heard many things about before I left for this trip. It was a backscratcher made from a kangaroo paw.

Before you call me a kangaroo hater and a cruel enemy to all innocent animals, keep in mind that kangaroos need to be culled in Australia because an overpopulation would destabilize the environment. Many kids afterwards accused me of hating these animals, when in reality, these animals are kept in check for the good of the country’s fragile ecosystem, so no real harm is being done on a huge scale. Anyways, I bought this genuine kangaroo paw backscratcher at a shop in the Cairns airport. It’s small, with tan fur, and leather palms and fingers. There was stuffing in it to keep it firm, and it was attached to a wooden stick so I could reach my back. It’s a strange souvenir, but then again, that’s why I bought it. I love it so much and it rests on display above my bed… I just realized how creepy that sounds now. (If you want one, I bought it at the domestic terminal of Cairns for 40 AUD.)

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Keeping the claw in bubble wrap in my carry-on, we boarded another Qantas flight from Cairns to Alice Springs. We would be spending a bulk of our time in the area around Alice Springs, also known as the Red Centre. Our itinerary would take us to ochre pits, canyons, monoliths, craters, and camel ranches, but today, we would land in Alice, procure vehicles and food, and settle in. This would be the most wild stretch of the operation. And it came quick; after fourteen hours, two or so seems like a mere annoyance.

When you touch down in Alice Springs, it feels like the Wild West. If the opening sequence in Red Dead Redemption had John Marston stepping off of a plane instead of a train, it would feel similar. You are surrounded by sand, desert, and ridges of stone all around you, and it is the desert for real. Only once before in my life had I stepped off of a plane right onto a tarmac, in Portland, Oregon, and that felt weird enough. But here, I felt like an explorer disembarking into a foreign climate. There is one sign that says “Terminal” in front of you, and a little walkway into the smallest airport I have ever been in. I’m certain there weren’t more than twenty gates. The baggage claim was deserted, like the whole literal desert surrounding us. There were a few signs talking about aviation history and the Northern Territory’s role in defending the area from the Japanese, and that was all. A few more minutes of agonizing waiting allowed us to board our shuttle into the city… town.

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Alice Springs was, if my memory serves me correctly, inappropriately named because someone thought there were flourishing springs in the area. There aren’t, but instead a dry riverbed filled with dirt and sand that looked more like one of those tranquil Japanese gardens. We drove into downtown Alice Springs, and it felt like the end of civilization. To our left were the tracks to the Darwin-Adelaide train (I really want to ride it one day) and huge ridges of the MacDonnell Ranges. We entered the small downtown of Alice Springs, which had a post office, some fast food joints, and a shopping center. And that was about it. We waited there in front of a sandwich shop as I delivered some postcards from Cape Trib. Inside the stores, I had my first interactions with Aboriginal Australians. It was unfortunate, to say the least, to see the conditions of poverty the indigenous peoples of the continent suffered, and are still suffering today. Certain aspects of colonialism and many counts of post-colonialist discrimination have not been kind to these ethnic groups (for example, the deeply disturbing Stolen Generation, where Aboriginal children were kidnapped, forced into Australian schools, and encouraged to abandon their traditional way of life… this proceeded for a large portion of the twentieth century.) It was frankly depressing to witness these difficulties and seeing the poverty in these out-of-the-way communities, and I sincerely hope that the rise of tourism in the region and a new appreciation for Aboriginal culture and art lead to more awareness and understanding to the social problems that have burdened the indigenous people of the country. During this trip, I hoped to experience and understand Aboriginal culture. The next few days would take me to see the food, worship sites, and sacred lands of the Aborigines, and it was wonderful to appreciate the customs and traditions of these cultures. For any historian who seeks to know the people and culture of Australia before colonization, a journey into the Red Centre provides an unparalleled insight into the rich and fascinating world of Aboriginal Australia.

For an introduction into the Red Centre, our seasoned guides sent us into the MacDonnell Ranges in our safari jeeps to see the Standley Chasm, a terrific laceration in the desert. We parked at a visitor center, and walked down a virtually empty trail between arid trees until we entered a canyon at the bottom. Standley Chasm lets you walk across a bed of small rocks and large boulders. On either side of you, there are gigantic tan and orange rock cliffs with tree branches jutting out. If you look all the way up, there is a thin sliver of sunlight raining down on you. Less than a day in the Northern Territory of Australia and these untouched sites already made me feel like Indiana Jones.

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We returned to Alice Springs, and summited ANZAC Hill at sunset. ANZAC stands for the Australia New Zealand Armed Corps, which fought and lost heavy casualties in the dreadful bloodbath battle that was Gallipoli in World War One. Driving up the hill in the center of Alice Springs, there are plaques off military confrontations and memorials for the soldiers past. At the top, we watched the sun descend over the city, surveying the small town from a keen vantage point. It was a grand intro to what seemed to be a nonstop adventure movie.

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We settled into our lodgings at a drive-in motel that resembled Gilligan’s Island. There were decent rooms, Internet access, and sliding doors, and they served as a cool place to sleep in the scorching heat. We settled down with some Indian food and went to sleep. I wanted morning to come as soon as possible so the real fun would begin on the road to Uluru.

 

 

 

 

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