Browsing articles in "Travel"
Apr 3, 2017

Walking Through Timeless Landscapes

As I hiked, an indigenous man asked me if I felt something in the landscape. It was a loaded question in that we were both aware his forebears would have walked through the valley for generations. As an interloper to the Northern Territory, mine had clearly not. Nevertheless, I knew enough of Luke to call him a friend and understood his curiosity was devoid of prejudice.

Our differing ethnicities was not our only point of difference relevant to the conversation. As a Christian, Luke holds a strong belief the landscape was created by a higher being. The elegant walls of Palm Valley in the Finke Gorge National Park certainly rival any structures made by sentient beings and it is easy to see the magnificence of God’s creation in its red rock canyon.

Mpaara Hike at Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

My distinct lack of faith provided me with a different perspective. I could also see the magnificence of the landscape, but could not see the handprint of the many gods believed to exist. Instead, in my mind I could see the epic scale of erosion that had taken place over many thousands of years. The work of water and wind was evident throughout the National Park. As we walked the path, I was acutely aware of the tiny fragment of geological time I was spending in the gorge. The walls had stood thousands of years before me, and would continue to stand long after I am forgotten.

We were taking a group of indigenous students on a hike. Their excitement about going camping was palpable as they hurriedly investigated anything and everything they could find. One of the beauties of hiking is that it stills the mind. The regular cadence of steps smoothes the peaks and troughs of emotion and even teenagers find a level of calm and introspection. Conversations become slightly deeper and more thoughtful. Barriers and facades are deconstructed.

Hiking through Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

Two of the young men we drove from Alice Springs to Palm Valley had family that still lived in small communities near to Finke Gorge National Park. It was gratifying to watch them walking beside the oldest river in the world and see them as the latest in a very long line of family with a connection to this land. I hope they felt this too.

Rangers had spoken to us about the Red Cabbage Palms growing through the valley. A remnant of an earlier time, the nearest relatives to this species are over 850km away where rains fall more regularly than the arid Red Centre. I pointed this out to the fellas, but was met with a level of apathy anyone who is accustomed to teenage males will be familiar with. I, nevertheless, remained impressed by this stroke of natural fortune.

Overlooking the Finke River as it flows through Palm Valley

Our ambulatory efforts were rewarded when we reached the top of the escarpment overlooking the Finke River. The ranges on the opposite side were rich with the intrigue of caves, colour, flora, and the evidence of historic waterfalls. I tried my best to explain how the river flowed through underground aquifers and only peered above the surface occasionally on its long journey. Eyes glazed at my descriptions of the density of underground soils with the water taking the path of least resistance. My knowledge of hydrogeology is significantly limited, but I was still amazed at the ability of water to flow into this waterhole on display far below us.

I was perhaps more responsive when the educational experience flowed in the other direction. One of the guys pointed toward some dark clouds threatening beyond a ridge and said “kapi pulka” – big water in his native Luritja. Finke Gorge National Park straddles country shared by Luritja and Arrernte people. Other indigenous groups also hail from nearby. A discussion ensued about water – “kapi” for Luritja and Pitjantjatjara but “kwatye” for the Arrernte more common near Mparntwe/Alice Springs. Sources of “merne” (food) were pointed out, both floral and faunal.

We spoke about school, family, football, people, home, music. People told stories, asked questions. We compared native spinifex and invasive buffel grass. As the only non-indigenous person around, the metaphor was not lost on me. Some of the fellas walked faster, as though in a hurry to see if something better was up ahead. Others needed encouragement and goading as though right where they stood was good enough.

Standing atop the escarpment of Palm Valley, Finke Gorge National Park

There are a few places I have been in the world where despite seeing countless pictures, I was still enthralled and amazed when I finally laid eyes on them. Uluru is definitely one. I have been three times in my lucky life and each time I have been enraptured. There is just something about being there.

I felt lucky again on that day in Finke Gorge National Park. Not many people from Burramine South get the chance to walk through Palm Valley. Fewer still get to share the experience with people who have a deep and historic connection to the land. It was a beautiful and poignant question from Luke. Did I feel something in the landscape as we hiked through it? Yes. It made my soul feel good and my spirit soar.

Oct 16, 2014

A Toothless Tiger In Alice Springs

Tiger Airways suddenly stopped flying to Alice Springs on July 22. Tigerair Australia CEO Rob Sharp insinuated that the decision was due to a lack of demand.

“The commercial reality is we are a volume business and to build a sustainable business in the Australian domestic market we need to see a sustainable level of demand for our services,” Sharp said in a media release on May 2.

Sharp’s comment significantly simplifies the economics of the decision and blames the consumer for not purchasing Tiger’s product. But this over-simplification allows Sharp and Tiger Airways to painlessly exit Central Australia while leaving residents short-changed.

The beach at Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Tourism NT spent about $700,000 promoting Tiger’s services to Alice Springs. Tiger Airways negotiated with Alice Springs Airport and the Northern Territory Government to ensure a collaborative approach prior to flights taking off in April 2013. Tiger Airways was eager to use the opportunity for marketing when it announced services from both Sydney and Melbourne would occur four times each week. Despite the significant use of public resources and the marketing benefits to Tiger Airways, the good news barely lasted a year.

Put simply, a review of Tiger’s network concluded that the plane and staff being used to fly to Alice Springs could make more money on a different route. The decision to no longer fly to Alice Springs was not because the route is unviable, but because there is more money to be made elsewhere. It is potentially more lucrative for Tiger Airways to focus resources on taking a greater percentage of a busy route, for example Sydney-Melbourne, than a stable route into Alice Springs.

Sharp explains this in terms of growth.

“We remain focused on building a sustainable platform for growth, which includes measured growth in line with consumer demand,” Sharp said.

A full plane flying into Alice Springs four times per week has no ability to “grow”. But increasing a percentage of market share between Sydney and Melbourne allows for the potential perpetual growth shareholders and boards so desire.

A dingo on the drive into Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Since Tiger Airways stopped flights to Alice Springs, accommodation occupancy rates have plummeted. After being in business for over 10 years, backpacker hostel Annie’s Place closed after battling to fill their rooms. Part-owner Janice Knappstein highlighted Tiger’s decision as a huge factor.

“We went down to about 25-30% occupancy rate,” Knappstein told ABC Local Radio.

General Manager of Tourism Central Australia Jaclyn Thorne said similar problems were occurring across Alice Springs.

“Everybody is having a challenging season, they’re around the 40%, 50% occupancy at the moment and that’s been in the last month or so but certainly before then they were having some good occupancy rates up to 80%, 90%,” said Thorne to the ABC.

But it is not just Tiger Airways’ departure that is creating problems for Alice Springs’ tourism industry. Decisions made by Qantas and its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar are also having an impact.

Qantas now has a monopoly on flights to Alice Springs from all major Australian cities. With no competition there is little price pressure. Rather than let Jetstar create competition on the Alice Springs route, Qantas allowed their subsidiary to serve Uluru with its low-cost flights in direct competition with rival Virgin Australia.

From June 29, Jetstar began flights direct from Melbourne to Uluru return four times each week. They also increased the number of flights from Sydney to Uluru return to four times each week. Less then one month later, Tiger ceased their four weekly return flights from each city to Alice Springs.

Although Uluru and Alice Springs are 468km apart, the decision by Jetstar immediately had an impact on tourists flying with Tiger to Alice Springs. But it had little impact on the Qantas services to Alice Springs, and ultimately strengthened Qantas’ monopoly.

Cooling off at Ellery Creek Big Hole, MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory

Uluru was recently announced as the most expensive place to stay in Australia. In a survey of hotels worldwide, it was also announced as one of the most expensive places to stay in the world. The resort at nearby Yulara has a monopoly on all layers of accommodation, from camping through to luxurious. The resort is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation and managed by Voyages Hotels & Resorts.

The remoteness of the resort make it an expensive operation to run. Voyages must, of course, charge accordingly. The Indigenous Land Corporation have little incentive to risk degrading the World Heritage Listed region by opening up more land for development. Thus, the monopoly and resultant expense are likely to remain.

In the same survey, Alice Springs was named the cheapest place for hotel accommodation in the country. Alice Springs is as remote from Australia’s major cities as Uluru. With numerous types of accommodation to choose from, there is no hotel monopoly in Alice Springs.

Mt Gillen's escarpment overlooks the town of Alice Springs, Northern Territory

There is a great deal more to Central Australia than one giant sandstone monolith. While Kata-Tjuta is near to Uluru, to travel solely to these incredible sights significantly diminishes the Centralian experience. Further, these icons of the Red Centre can only remain affordable for tourists when serviced by a vibrant Alice Springs and Central Australian community. By flying in and out of Uluru and not exploring beyond its environs, tourists contribute to a decline in other Centralian locales. In turn, this impacts on the future affordability and availability of Uluru.

But, for their part, airlines “servicing” the region need to look beyond their petty competitions. Qantas, Virgin, Jetstar and Tiger need to temper their knee-jerk reactions to each other’s short-term decisions. There must be a greater understanding that the viability of flying to Central Australia depends on a multitude of inter-related factors. An airline’s business does not operate in isolation. Nobody will fly the routes at all if it becomes too expensive to stay in a hotel when there. A renewed focus on providing a service to the community is vital for tourists, residents, and businesses alike.

Aug 28, 2014

In The Footsteps Of Pheidippides On The Roads Of Alice Springs

Read the preamble here.

It must be said that Alice Springs is fantastic for running. Mid-winter days are clear and cool. Flat, concrete paths weave alongside the ephemeral Todd River, and clear, undulating trails meander throughout the rocky hills. The views from Anzac Hill and Mt Gillen impress. I would encourage anyone to take a look. We can easily negotiate meals and accommodation. My last long run took me past the Telegraph Station and I set off exploring. I stopped by our new home for sustenance twice. But after 36km, my pains, aches and doubts returned. Again, if I didn’t do the marathon this effort would have been for little.

The dry river bed of the ephemeral Todd River, Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Counting and numbers are a fact of life in the marathon game. For the initiated, my watch told me that I usually ran 4:00-4:15min kilometres. This speed would see me finish a marathon in less than 3 hours. But my two >30km runs told me if I ran this pace I would be at risk of struggling during the latter stages. Some great advice is to ensure that the second half of your race is faster or equal to the first half. To make this happen I had to slow down. For the final fortnight of training, I concentrated on running at speeds 30 seconds per kilometre slower than I was used to. My new goal was to complete the marathon in about 3 hours and 15 minutes.

My pre-race anxiety centred on two things. The first may surprise. People don’t expect Alice Springs to be cold, but the clear skies, low humidity and elevation mean that during winter it is often below 0°C overnight. It warms to around 20°C in the sun, but the cold wind bites. It takes much more energy to keep warm than it does to keep cool, and for this reason I was concerned. From the local Salvos I picked up a jumper and beanie, and I bought new gloves. I thought and re-thought my race attire. The second was fuel. I knew I would need food regularly. Organisers placed a drink station every 3km and we were able to give them food and drink so they would have it for us at the stations. My plan was sound but untried.

I have to sing the praises of Alice Springs once more (again, happy to negotiate meals and a bed, drinks on the Bugler). The running community were so keen to hold a fantastic event, they assisted in any way they could. I called the  running club president and he patiently answered questions. I arrived late to registration the night prior and was met with smiles. People went out of their way on the morning of the race to ensure that a blow-in like the Bugler was comfortable. But I wasn’t. I had to run 42.2km.

The long and lonely road during the Alice Springs Running Festival Marathon 2014

The marathon is best related in chronological fact. In the pre-dawn light we set off and I immediately picked my way through the 42 competitors. As I settled into my 4:30min/km pace, I followed four others. I became a touch emotional due to the relief of finally beginning something I had thought so much about. The first 15km ticked by. The field gradually elongated and I was able to run my own race. I ate at 6km and 12km and told myself it would count later. I was all about running faster in the second half.

I awakened from my running stupor when I noticed I had made ground on fourth place. Dogmatically concentrating on a negative split, I had expected others to do the same. When I realised he was flagging, I told myself not to increase my exertions because it was inevitable I would catch him. Sure enough, I drew level and chatted for a moment. Another first-timer, we encouraged each other before I headed off.

Just over half a kilometre before the turn-around point, the race leader passed by on his way back. I clapped and encouraged him while secretly hoping disaster would befall him. Another guy went by, and then the leading woman. All three appeared to be well in advance of me and I continued to concentrate on regulating my speed.

As previously, I noticed that I was suddenly making ground on third place. Instead of seeing blacktop stretching away, I was seeing the well-worn soles of the leading female. I planned to slow and talk, but two road-trains meant I only offered a few words of encouragement as I slipped by and hunkered down against the trucks’ slipstreams.

Oddly, as I ran into 3rd my anxiety increased. Not wanting to relinquish a podium finish increased the consternation. Mrs and mini-Bugler were on hand to support. I pulled in to the 30km drink station for a quick stretch and some race updates. First and second were a long way ahead. Fourth was not long behind and fifth was a way back. I was going well. But 12km is still a bloody long way to run.

Farewelling the Ross Highway after 37km of the Alice Springs Running Festival Marathon 2014

To my mind, little changed for the remainder except discomfort. I had told myself that half-way in distance is a fallacy, because half-way in effort begins at about 30km. By this stage my left knee was regularly nagging at me and a blister was expanding on my right foot. I tried to adjust my gait. I stopped to stretch on a couple of occasions. But no matter what, I had to keep running.

At 37km the news was as good as I had hoped. Unless I collapsed, third place was assured although I had little hope of catching second. The guy manning the drink station was encouraging, but wasn’t keen to run the remaining 5km. I couldn’t stomach the food and drink that I had prepared.

There was no elation during the final kilometres. No sense of relief. No overwhelming satisfaction of achievement. Only the ache in my knee, the pain in my foot, the exhaustion in my legs and the thought that I still had to keep running. After 41.4km, even 800m felt like a long way.

I feel silly about the congratulations that have come my way. In my first attempt I came third in 3:11:46. I won $200 and I have the bronze medal. I almost caught the guy who came second. The race doubled as the Northern Territory marathon championship. Despite only being a resident for 2 weeks, I am the second best Territorian marathoner in 2014. I have the silver medal.

Crossing the line of the Alice Spring Running Festival Marathon in 3rd place. Relief.

I feel silly because there are stories more incredible than mine. The 33-year-old winner was running his 49th marathon, flew back to Sydney and is flying to Adelaide next weekend for his 50th. He has a goal of running 100 marathons. He runs 14km every day. Incredible. One guy turned 71 on the day and was running his 73rd marathon. Unfathomable. Another man has three kids, is a few years older than me, and at his first attempt ran an amazing time of 3:30 with a cramping hamstring. Impressive. The winners of the 10km and half-marathon ran times I could only hope to. Respect. The winner of the female 10km was 13 years old and finished in a shade over 40min. Wow. A friend of mine had planned to run the 10km, but on a whim in the morning decided to do the half-marathon and she finished 7th. Boom.

I think I could have spoken to every participant and found a story worth telling. And perhaps that is the point. Running has its inherent beauty in its simplicity. You only need a road or a path and a pair of runners and your story will be worth telling. But I am glad to give my legs a rest. And go back to the gym. And ride a bike. Maybe I’ll even play footy again.