Rolling Up Ayers Rock
“A man who didn’t stick to the path fell off the mountain. There wasn’t much left of him when he hit the bottom because the surface is so abrasive.”
–A friendly warning from a Greyhound Bus driver at Ayers Rock.
I knew I was in trouble when I began losing my grip.
I had gotten almost all the way to the top of the rock face when I started to slide ever so slightly backwards. Try as I might, I couldn’t get a firm grip on the top of the rock, and I knew I was losing ground even as I swung my right leg wildly, desperately searching for a foothold.
I was having visions of extensive abrasions on my arms and legs from the slide back when I saw a white-gloved hand reaching down offering me salvation from a nasty fate. When I looked up at my savior I saw a petite Japanese woman who had more determination than sense. I was afraid I’d pull her down with me and then where would we be? At the last minute a man scrambled up the rock around me and extended his hand, allowing the two of them to pull me to safety.
Granted, the bottom of the rock ledge was only eight or nine feet below me and my life wasn’t in danger, but I had taken the tour-bus driver’s warnings as gospel and was afraid of what would happen to my bare arms and legs if I slid back down. Unfortunately, no one else on the tour did and none of them fell as they scaled the rock so they gave me hours of grief when I returned to the bus.
They also abused me for my ability to fall asleep on buses no matter what was going on around me. I’d slept through rutted roads, heavy rains and hairpin turns. I had an excuse, though. I’d spent all night riding from Adelaide, didn’t get in until 6 a.m., couldn’t get a bed until 2 p.m. and only got an hour’s sleep before going out on a sunset tour of the rock. I stayed awake just long enough to find a seat, exchange niceties with the German woman I sat next to, then nodded off. I don’t know why, but when I woke up I felt a need to apologize to the woman on the off chance that I might have unintentionally rested my head on her shoulder. I didn’t take it as a good sign when she not only would not reply, but also moved away from me as quickly as she could when we got off the bus.
There were a few moments of semi-consciousness on the bus, though. I remember seeing the mountain for the first time and feeling like an ant sitting on the lip of a dinner plate staring across at what looked like a reddish-brown pile of mashed potatoes. No matter how close I got, the feeling never went away.
The rock is a site of cultural significance to the Aborigines and a sign at the bottom asks tourists not to scale the mountain, but I couldn’t resist. As it turns out, the first 15 minutes of the hour-long climb is the worst because the grade is so steep that hikers must hold on to a chain to keep themselves from falling over and rolling downhill. Even the area where I stumbled is child’s play compared to the first part of the walk, which takes its toll on a third of the climbers, who give up and walk away.
The only other scary moments I experienced as I walked up the mountain came when I heard a series of screams. At first, I thought they were the bloodcurdling yells of someone about to fall over a precipice. As I neared the end of the hike I discovered it was a bunch of short Japanese woman who were so buffeted by winds blowing across the exposed areas of Ayers Rock that they screamed each time they were assaulted by another gust.
And the people on the bus abused me for something as simple as falling and getting stuck on a rock. They also taunted me because of my reaction when the wind blew my hat off. Knowing that some few visitors died chasing their hats, I decided to simply wave at my flying hat and yell “goodbye.” It seemed like the smart thing to do.
The pass I booked through Greyhound also took me on a sidetrip through King’s Canyon; one of Australia’s other natural wonders. While the canyon isn’t as large or impressive as the Grand Canyon, its size is what gives it its charm. Sure, there are promontories, but the best parts are the bottom and a swimming hole, both of which are extremely easy to reach in a few hours.
One of the nice things about solo travel on such jaunts is that I could hang out with whoever I wanted as I walked along, trading stories with people as I saw fit and keeping to myself when I wasn’t feeling quite so sociable. By the end of the hike I had hooked up with 20 year-old Toshi from Japan, 23 year-old Kirstie, and Mary, a first-time backpacker at age 60.
Mary told me she and her husband had talked about going to Australia for years, but he never got around to it. So, when one of her friends announced plans to travel down under, Mary went along and left her husband behind. After three weeks on the road she invited her husband to join her and they met up in Melbourne. Her story made me hope that I’m just as ambitious when I reach 60.
The long, lonely miles between King’s Canyon and Alice Springs are perfect for sitting in a bus and snoozing, but I was too restless to nap. I had hoped to leave the country by my birthday (March 3rd), but it was two days away and Cairns, my departure point in the northeastern corner of the country was half a continent away, so I paced the aisle of the bus, meeting the few passengers who managed to stay awake as the miles rolled away beneath our feet. The group included a couple from Edinburgh, Scotland who planned to marry after returning from their year-long holiday, Mary and her husband, two kindergarten teachers from Austria, a 23 year-old from Holland who wouldn’t let me forget about my troubles at Ayers Rock, and a Swiss woman who had the strangest way of telling time I’d ever heard. When I asked what time it was right after meeting her she said, “It’s 10 minutes to half past 11.” Strange, very strange.
By the time we rolled into Alice Springs I was getting along so well with Stephan from Holland, Toshi and the two teachers from Austria they invited me to celebrate Stephan’s birthday. He didn’t know the town well, but he learned there was an exotic restaurant he’d wanted to eat at for years, but couldn’t because Holland didn’t have any. Even better, it was all-you-can-eat night. Music to a backpacker’s ears. I was swept up in his enthusiasm until we rounded a corner and I realized where we were headed.
I guess Pizza Hut may be exotic to some, but I was hoping for something local. Still, it was all-you-can-eat night.
The company more than made up for the taste of home, though. We frightened some of the small children in the restaurant and amused each other with tales of our travels and our favorite foods. When Toshi saw Jell-O at the salad bar he brought some to the table and told us “We have this in Japan, only softer.” I told them about the strange things I had seen and heard in hostel dorms. Then Stephan told the group about his first impression of me and how amazed he was that I could just get on a bus and fall asleep on the shoulder of a woman I didn’t even know.
How embarrassing. It was bad enough I did it, it was even worse to realize that other people noticed. For good or ill, I knew it wasn’t the last time I’d do something so embarrassing, but that didn’t make it any easier.
As we left the restaurant, one of the teachers looked in my direction and said “do a horse,” as if I were one of her students. Fool that I am, I complied. Then she asked me to “do a cow,” which I did. Although she wasn’t quite as impressed with that imitation, she still asked me to do another.
“Do a cock,” she said.
It took me a while to stop laughing. In fact, the last time I laughed so much at an accidental double entendre was when a girlfriend’s grandmother responded to a practical joke by saying, “Oh, David, you’re such a tease.” When she realized she’d said something off color, she tried to correct it saying, “I guess I pulled a real boner there.”
The teacher didn’t get the joke. It’s understandable, given that English is her second language and it’s hard to know all the slang in a foreign language, but her travel companion figured it out immediately. Still, American English does seem to be one of the few idioms that prefers the use of “rooster” over that of cock.
Once I stopped laughing, I told her to ask again.
“Do a cock,” she said in a manner suggesting I was a student who said something so rude she wasn’t going to dignify it. She was a kindergarten teacher after all.
I know I shouldn’t have done it, but it was such a perfect opening I couldn’t resist being a wiseass.
“Oh, please, baby, baby, baby, please, baby, baby.”