Frommer's senior editor Maureen Clarke and host Kelly Regan chat about Clarke's recent trip to Australia's Northern Territory. Beginning with her initial awe over the Red Centre's big blue sky and paprika-colored ground, she goes on to discuss meeting Aboriginal artists and their gallery dealers, camel-racing, and eating spatch-cock. Listen in as Clarke offers us a glimpse into the Northern Territory and Alice Springs, and also gives the scoop on Sydney and Manley Beach -- including tips on how to get there, advice on making the most of a trip to this huge country and suggestions for handling the long flight.
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- Daytrip: The West Macdonnell Ranges
- Entertainment: Sydney Opera House
- Activity (ideal for kids): The School of the Air
- Camping Spots: Kings Canyon
- Art Gallery: Mbantua Gallery in Alice Springs
- Climbing: Ayers Rock in Ooleroo
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.Announcer: Welcome to the frommers.com travel podcast. For more information on planning your trip to any one of thousands of destinations, please visit www.frommers.com.
Kelly Regan: Hi, and welcome to another conversation about All Things Travel. I'm Kelly Regan, Editorial Director of the Frommer's Travel Guides. I'll be your host. My guest today is Maureen Clarke, a Senior Editor here at Frommer's. Maureen has just come back from a two-week trip to Australia, and she's here to give us the lowdown about traveling in Sydney and the Outback in particular.
Maureen, welcome. Thanks for being here.
Maureen Clarke: My pleasure.
Kelly: You just came back from Australia. Tell us a little bit first about where you went.
Maureen: My husband and I were in Australia for two weeks. We were in Sydney in the beginning and end of the trip, and we were in the Outback, the Northern Territory Outback, the Red Center portion of it, for a full ten days.
Kelly: OK. You're somebody who's traveled extensively now for several years. I've known you a long time, and this was your first time in Australia. So tell me, as someone who loves to travel and who's been to many different places, what struck you most about Australia when you first got there? What was about it that felt very different?
Maureen: The first thing that struck us was the sky. Big sky. Even in Sydney when we stepped out of the airport in this urban center, the sky is this vast dome. I don't know why it has that effect. And the air was so clean, and even the ride into the city was pretty.
The sky gets so much more intense when you get into the Red Center, because it's framed by this paprika colored, burnt orange colored dirt everywhere you look. And you've just got this vast blue dome over you. It's a different blue than I've even seen in the Caribbean, a bluer, clearer blue. And the stars. Everybody knows this, the Southern Cross is down there. I've been in the southern hemisphere before, but I don't remember seeing the stars as bright. A lot of things are outsized there. The landscape has this vastness to it.
A lot of the people we met had this open, friendly scrappiness. Kind of, they can handle anything, and a lot of ingenuity. Just an open, friendly helpfulness, but with maybe more of a critical edge than what you see in people here. Almost like they was a bridge between the Americans and Brits somehow.
Kelly: You mentioned starting the trip in Sydney and ending it there as well. What was your favorite part of the city? Are there a couple things you think people just shouldn't miss when they go there?
Maureen: I think it's one of the most beautifully situated cities I've ever seen. It's a touristy thing, but the first thing I would recommend people do is the Sydney A and P Tower. It brings you up, I can't even say how many stories, but you get the lay of the land from there. You can see the water is everywhere. If I had more time, or if I ever were to move there, which I would love to do, I think I'd buy a kayak my first week there. Because you're right off the sea, but you're off the sea through this series of straits and water passages and you get into these bays.
Sydney isn't actually far back from the sea, but you can take the ferry. You can see just how close it is. It's through a narrow passage. When you go to the top of the tower, you get to see what an integral part of the landscape is, and even the way the city functions. The water plays such a critical role and is such a presence.
Kelly: And riding the ferries is a really common thing to do.
Maureen: I was going to recommend taking the ferry to Manley, because if you do -- I mean, take any ferry. You can't be in Sydney for even a day without taking one of the ferries. But if you go to Manley, it's on the ocean.
Kelly: At the beach.
Maureen: You get to see the passage that comes in from the sea.
The other thing I highly recommend, and it's not in our book yet, is the Sydney Opera Bar. It's on the lower concourse of the Opera House, which is that fantastical building that you must see if you're going to be in Sydney even for a day. You can sit indoors in this plush, red space with this curved glass wall, in basically the basement of the Opera House, that looks out onto a terrace that's right on Sydney Harbor with a view of the bridge. And if you sit outside, you have a view of the Opera House as well.
But the best thing -- Sydney Opera House has great performers, jazz, funk, blues. We heard this opera-trained chanteuse singing over recorded beats. There was a drum machine, there was a DJ, and then there was this opera-trained chanteuse singing over it. And we hung there for hours. The best thing about it -- I think it's a perfect entree to the city.
It's the best-positioned place, I think, in the city. But when the crowds leave the Opera House at night, they promenade past this curved glass wall that is the outside of the Opera Bar. So you can sit there and watch all these Sydney sliders coming by dressed up. It's fantastic. And the food's very good too. Fancy bar grub, but very well done. Don't miss it. First night in Sydney, go to the Opera Bar. You get to see the vibe of the city right away. Better there than almost anyplace else.
Kelly: So leaving from Sydney, and going out to the Outback. And people might not be aware of this, but just to clarify, the Outback is not an actual location in Australia. It's an over-arching term that encompasses the vast majority of the interior of the country. You were saying that 80% of the country is Outback.
Maureen: It's basically the size of the mainland U.S., and 80% of it is considered Outback. We were in the Northern Territory Outback and the southern end of it. Not the northern end, toward Darwin, but the southern end which they call the Red Center. It's there that you get unending orange dirt, blue sky. I was fascinated by this stuff called spinnefex. It reminds you of kudzu or something. It's like a bush, and it's very dry. It's this incandescent, almost green color, like yellow, like the way wheat can glow at a certain time of day. It glows but it has a green tinge.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Maureen: It rained, strangely enough. The rivers in the Northern Territory Outback usually don't have water in them. They're just old, dried-up riverbeds. And it rained torrentially for about a week while we were there. We could see, a few days after the rain, you could see a brightening in the spinnefex. It was a little more green and a little more incandescent. And set against this red dirt and blue sky, I didn't get sick of looking at it. And that's pretty much all you look at for ten days, and I was still so taken by it.
Kelly: Is it pretty sparsely vegetated? Does it feel desert-like when you're there?
Maureen: It has lots of vegetation. The vegetation's dry looking. I guess it has to be moist enough to allow the vegetation, but it makes everything look more dry. We were driving more than 1,000 kilometers, and you're seeing the same basic ingredients in the landscape. But somehow it's almost like you have these little micro-environments. The basic ingredients are configured differently as you drive from one spot to the next. And the terrain is pretty varied.
We drove through the West Macdonnell Ranges, which is mountainous. Other places it was flat. Other places it felt dune-like. So it feels pretty varied. We were in Alice Springs, which is a town of 30,000 in the middle of the Outback. It's the biggest town in the Outback. They have two institutions there that I highly recommend that I might not have entered into if people hadn't told us, "don't miss these." It's the School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctors Society. They're both products of the vastness of the landscape.
The School of the Air is this program set up so that kids who live on cattle stations 1,000 kilometers outside of Alice Springs, and the farthest student is 1,000 kilometers outside Alice Springs. He can go to school with other students in Alice Springs. So they have this rigorous system set up where they dispatch a kit of schoolwork once every other week, I think, to these kids. These kids have tutors, and they used to do it by radio. Kids would go to school by radio.
Kelly: Oh, wow.
Maureen: So they'd take part in the classroom discussions. They would be able to talk to their teacher on the spot. They would have to do a lot of work on their own at home. They mail back their homework. They have this elaborate system set up that's been in place, I think, since the 50's.
Now they do it all by computer. So the kids who live, say, 1000 kilometers outside Alice Springs can sit on their computer monitor and watch the kids in the class.
Kelly: What do you get to do when you're there? Do you get to visit the schools?
Maureen: Yeah. You see the classroom that is actually in Alice Springs, where most of the kids go. Then you see the gizmos that they use to communicate with these kids who live in outlying areas. You meet the teachers, and they talk about how the program works. The kids are in the top ten percentiles.
Maureen: Of the national school system. And it just speaks to the distances. Also, I don't know if Quantas got its start this way, but some of the earliest uses of Quantas planes, which meant the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, was to dispatch medical help to people who live so far from any kind of town center where there might be a hospital.
They still have this elaborate system worked out where every little small community has a doctor kit. The drugs don't have names on them, they have numbers on them, so that people can't self-medicate. They have to communicate with the doctor in the nearest hospital who tells them, OK, you have a bloody nose. Take number five in this dosage. If the situation is dire, they send a plane from wherever the nearest hospital is to go and pick up the patient and bring them back to the nearest hospital.
It might be how Quantas got their start. If it wasn't how they got their start, it was one of the earliest and most common uses of their planes. You go through this little quaint museum and they tell you about the history of it, and it really speaks to the landscape.
Kelly: You spent some time in Alice Springs, but then you ventured back into the Outback. When you were out there, I think you were camping for awhile.
Maureen: Yeah, we camped in Kings Canyon. We started in Uluru and Kata Tjuta, the classic red monoliths in the middle of the country. From there we took some organized trips, which I had never done before. It works really well in the landscape there, because it's just so big. It helps to have someone knowledgeable about the landscape telling you what you're seeing. Tailor made tours were especially good. The groups were small. The guides were very knowledgeable and gave you your space, and yet brought the groups together at the same time. We also met interesting travelers, the kind of travelers you wouldn't expect to find on group tours. We took a group tour to Kings Canyon and camped in torrential, lashing rain. Then we came through the West MacDonald Ranges, driving, driving, driving, driving from one place to the next. We flew from Sydney to Ooleroo, our airdrop. But then from there we drove the rest of the distances.
Kelly: What kind of critters did you encounter while you were out there?
Maureen: As we were driving by along the roadside, we saw wild kangaroos. We saw wallaby. We saw camel. We took one hot air balloon ride and we puzzled for a while over what these enormous splotches were on the ground below us. They were camel hooves. We rode camels too.
Kelly: So you rode camels.
Maureen: We rode camels. They're a great way to get around this terrain, but they stink and they have this nasty white, thick phlegm in the corners of their mouths.
Maureen: And they make the most infernal noise I've ever heard from an animal. Like somewhere between a lion roaring and the earth groaning. It's just god, awful. And we went to these camel cup races.
Kelly: And where were those?
Maureen: In Alice Springs, every year they run this ludicrous and fantastic race. This year Imparja, some local broadcasting company, sponsored the Imparja Camel Cup. Somewhere like 15 camels per heat race. They have maybe five races during the course of the day. And these are mostly wild camels that locals have brought in and tamed and taught to ride, some more successfully than others. You line these camels up at the starting line, and basically the race starts once you've gotten the last stubborn one to finally sit down.
Maureen: You know, three of them sit, and then it takes another five minutes to get the last few to sit. The second one sits for a second, and then they fire the gun and the camels are off. In one of the races one of the camels threw its rider within the first 20 paces. A couple of camels in each heat clearly were more into it than others.
They go fast. I don't know the kilometers or miles per hour, but I don't want to misquote the number here. They go faster than I would be willing to ride.
Kelly: To go on a camel.
Maureen: Yeah. They have a lot of amateur riders. Some of them just stop midway down the track. They don't want to race anymore. The common cry during the race is, "Loose camel! Loose camel! We got a loose camel!"
Maureen: The ambassador of Afghanistan was there, because I guess a lot of the camel population is from Afghanistan. So he was there in his fez officiating over this ridiculous event. One of the sideline things is having people imitate the noise that the camels make, and prettiest camel competitions.
Maureen: It was a hoot and a very classic Alice Springs type event.
Kelly: When you were camping, did you have to worry about spiders or scorpions or stuff like that?
Maureen: We were on the lookout for snakes. We didn't get any kind of dire warnings like that, and we were in very strong tents, fortunately. The poles were driven deep into the ground. If I had been in a standard tent, I would have worried in this wild rainstorm that took place while we were sleeping outside.
Kelly: And tell me about the food. What kind of food were you having?
Maureen: The food was much more sophisticated than I was expecting, even in the Outback. The best thing I had there was this elusive game bird. I still haven't gotten a handle on exactly what it is. It's called spatchcock. And when you ask them what it is, they say it's a game bird. One woman told us it was chicken. Another told us it was just a kind of game bird. But it's got the plump succulence that the very best pork has. I've never tasted fowl that was this plump and juicy and succulent.
I guess the other thing, if you look spatchcock up in the dictionary, it just says that it's split and grilled. So it's a fowl, a game bird, or a chicken that's been split and grilled. Which it was, but the meat itself was just fantastic. We also had kangaroo. Tough. We had camel. Tough. I ate a grub.
Kelly: A witchetty grub. Which is...
Maureen: About six inches long, white, puffy, caterpillar-like, as big around as a dime. I always swore that I would never eat one of these. I would eat crickets. I would eat maybe even those Korean embryo birds that are still in their shell, but never a grub. I have to say I ate it under immense peer pressure, and it was cooked in the bush. And it was not the least bit disgusting.
They come from the roots. We went witchetty grub hunting with some Aboriginal people, and they come from the root of this bush. They actually have this truffle-like earthiness. They tasted like scrambled eggs with truffle.
Kelly: But it was cooked.
Maureen: Yeah. When uncooked -- someone stepped on one of them, and this yellow egg yoke type stuff squirted out, and I will do my best to never eat a raw grub, because it looked vile. The Aboriginal women said it tasted like egg and it tasted like chicken. So I'm guessing raw it must taste like chicken. Aboriginal people like them with tea.
Kelly: Raw with tea?
Maureen: Raw or cooked, they like to eat them with tea. That's what they told us.
Kelly: All right. That's a new variation on high tea. So while you were in the Outback, you also visited a number of Aboriginal art galleries in Alice Springs. Can you talk a little bit about the kinds of pieces that you saw? I mean, were they sculpture or paintings? And do you have tips for people or budding collectors who might want to buy Aboriginal art to take home?
Maureen: Well, we went to a gallery called Mbantua Gallery, which is in Alice Springs. And if you go to their website, mbantua.com, you can see the artwork from people in this community called Utopia. So we went through Mbantua Gallery. We got to go to this Utopia community and various outstations there, where these Aboriginal artists live. We went with the gallery owner to drop off new canvas and paints and pick up their most recent work to bring back to the gallery.
And so we got to see where the artists lived, and we got to talk with them, which is a tricky undertaking. You can't tell if their English is limited, or if it's just their unwillingness to entertain a barrage of questions. Their contact with Americans is limited. Most of the work in the area where we were was dot painting. In the community that we visited, I can talk about specific artists. My favorite artist was a woman they called Minnie Pwerle. It's technically pronounced "Pula." Minnie Pula. She passed away last spring but her work's been compared to that of a pretty famous Aboriginal artist named Emily Kngwarreye, I think is her name.
She paints what some people say are some of the oldest existing painted images out there. The Aboriginal culture there is 50,000 years old. So this is some of the oldest paintings. Some of the oldest painted images are these images that women would paint on their breasts during the women's ceremony. So one of the three main things Minnie paints are these images. They're loopy. They're horseshoe-shaped with lines going through them. And it's what would go on women's breasts. The colors are fantastic. You can find them on eBay, even, where they authenticate the work. I'm an amateur, but from what I know, the way they authenticate the work is by photographing the artist holding the work at the end. And they interview the artist about what they were painting.
So Minnie paints that, and she paints what are called bush melon dreamings. They paint dreamings, and each artist tends to have a dreaming that is theirs to paint. So she paints bush melon dreamings. She did wild oranges, too.
Another woman from that community has showed in Paris. Her work has fetched tens of thousands of dollars. Her name is Gloria Petyarre. She's still alive, and she goes to Paris to her openings sometimes. She paints these, they look a little like ferns. They sit in the middle of the canvas. They're on a giant canvas, and they plop down on the middle of it and paint these designs out from wherever it is that they're sitting. She creates these beautiful, undulating, fern-type patterns in beautiful colors.
Minnie's stuff is a little more wacky. It's also so contemporary looking. It's wild that this stuff is being done by this woman who's had no formal training. She's said that she had no formal training. Because you could walk into a Chelsea gallery and it wouldn't look out of place in the least.
Kelly: So if people wanted to, they wouldn't necessarily need to buy something while they were there. They could be looking when they get home.
Maureen: There's lots of affordable art to be bought there at Mbantua Gallery. There are so many galleries in Alice Springs. There are several different styles, and a lot of those styles are represented in different galleries in Alice Springs. The artists we met lived pretty close to Alice Springs. What they do is pretty typical of that region. But Christie's or Sotheby's, I think Sotheby's, just had a big auction of Aboriginal art in Melbourne. So you can also go to the Sotheby's website and see them. These were much higher end works, many of them by artists who aren't alive anymore. That's also a good primer of where it comes from.
Kelly: OK. Just to wind up, can you give a few quick tips for people who might be planning a trip to Australia that would include the Outback? You talked about how vast the distances are, and I think people need to be realistic about how much they can reasonably see in the time they have.
Maureen: My top recommendation would be what any trip to the northern Outback usually involves, a trip to Ayers Rock, Ooleroo. The Australian government gave Ooleroo back to back to the Aboriginal people.
Kelly: It's considered a sacred site.
Maureen: It's considered a sacred site. Climbing it is highly discouraged. It's not prohibited, but highly discouraged. You're looked down upon if you do climb it now. The company that runs the facilities that run the park pretty much is a monopoly, and it's a drag. I would say do your homework before you go there. Figure out a way to rent a car for the day so you can drive yourself to Ooleroo without having to pay. The shuttles are expensive from the hotels, and the tour buses just tend to be full of tourists.
You want to experience these rocks. They're sacred monoliths, so they're just big rocks in the middle of nowhere. To really appreciate them, I think you just have to hang out by them. It's hard to do that when you're on a tour bus with sometimes screaming school children. And it's annoying to do it on a really expensive such shuttle bus.
At this complex, which surrounds Ooleroo, you can't bat your eye without paying $10 to do it. So I would highly recommend either renting a car or renting bikes and finding a way to get yourself out there. Or planning a full day, so if you have to pay the cost of the expensive shuttle, it's at least worth the cost of getting out there. But plan time. Plan to spend at least a day or half a day around Kata Tjuta and Uluru, but on your own if possible.
I highly recommend a group tour. The distances are so great, and the landscape is so foreign and so fascinating, ancient in spots, that it really helps to be able to have someone knowledgeable tell you what it is that you're seeing. We had an excellent experience with tailor made tours. The guides were exceptionally knowledgeable. The food was very good. The tours had an intimate feel. They were small, so you could ask lots of questions and you didn't feel like you were being led around by the nose.
We had one guide named Lorrie, who is worth the trip. He's worth the cost of the trip. He was this wonderful old man who had taken so many people past these sites, and knew them inside and out. Knew the people, knew the Aboriginal people, and had amazing stories to tell. I think his name was Lorrie Razmuss.
Kelly: So plan the time, try to do it independently if you can. And finally, your last piece of advice before we go would be about the flight. It's a long flight from the U.S. You took your trip before the new security measures went into effect. I checked the Quantas website, and unfortunately, for flights that are still departing the United States, you cannot bring water onboard the flight. You can if you're flying from the U.K. If you go through security at a U.K. airport, and you are past the security checkpoint and at your gate, you can buy water past the security checkpoint and bring it on the plane with you. But you still cannot do that if you're flying from the U.S.
The water issue aside, and I think the airlines have still not determined how they're going to be providing more water for passengers, because I don't think that they've been doing that. What are your top two tips for staying sane and healthy on such a long flight?
Maureen: It's a 21-hour flight through L.A. from New York. My first piece of advice would be fly Quantas. They have these fantastic earflaps that pull up around the side of your head. The headrests flap up around the sides of your ears, so you literally can rest your head and sleep. And two, bring something to help you sleep. Take Ambien. Take something that's going to help you sleep. Drink lots of water.
Kelly: If you can.
Maureen: It might even be worth flying from the U.S. to London.
Kelly: And then getting off the plane in London and buying a big bottle of water and then getting back on the plane to go to Australia.
That's all we have time for today. I've been talking with Maureen Clarke, who's a Senior Editor here at Frommer's, and who has just come back from a great trip to Australia. So Maureen, thanks for being here. It was a really fun conversation. Join us next week for another episode of all things travel. I'm Kelly Regan, and we'll talk again soon.
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