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Bonding in the Great Australian  Outbacks

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Nitin with the Outback gang.
All Around the World with the Most Travelled Indian
By NITIN GAIROLA 
If you ask me what the best part about independent travel is, then I would say it is making new friends from around the world. And these bonds can be boundary-less and strong as you meet each other under zero pressure and zero obligation. This is not a stressful work environment or even a school or college reunion (where people carry an old image of you) and it holds no formalities or jealousy undercurrents like that at a large family gathering. This is you re-born, a person without a past and free to be anyone they can be. There is no one to judge you.
Jamie does the SRK pose, without knowing SRK.

Here I will take you on a journey down under through the Great Australian Outbacks. After visiting Australia’s east coast and its big cities, I had a choice with the rest of the trip. The choice was to either go up north to Cairns to visit the Great Barrier Reef and descend into its azure waters or to go to the red center of Australia – The deserted Outbacks, considered to be the heart of Australia. It’s a part-bushy, part-barren place that is called home by a few white settlers and by the aboriginals who carry their ancient stories (desperately) from generation to generation. It’s also a desert full of poisonous wildlife. No prizes for guessing where I finally went.

When the campfire in the wild goes wild.

As I was flying over these deserts to land in Alice Springs in the middle of the country, for a moment it felt like landing on Mars. The landscape was actually a rusty red hue. Upon reaching Alice Springs I caught up with a few fellow travellers and next morning we were out on the road by 4 or 430 am. I hit it off well with the guide and driver, Ben, who was a very knowledgeable bloke and I sat with him in the front seat of the van (since I was travelling solo). From the front seat I also got an great view of the desolation ahead and I noticed a thing which I notice in most deserts – which is that drivers wave at each other as they pass by. I guess you need to be friendly in the desert, when that other person can be your only savior for miles and miles.

Jumping for joy and why not.

We did some fantastic hikes in the canyons (such as the King’s Canyon and Kata Tjuta) and best of all, our group of 21 started bonding with each other. I guess being this far away from our homes and phones (no network coverage) has its benefits. We had raised our necks upwards and were actually noticing everything around us, including each other. We had campfires at night, lit from the wood which we had collected from dead trees, cooked our food on that fire and I am not too sure what all went inside my stomach. At night we slept in sleeping bags (called swags) under the Milky Way and a million stars, not to mention the Southern Cross constellation that can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere. I am not sure if Ben had some anti-venom, but we were really sleeping on the ground and the Outback does have its fair share of creepy crawlies, snakes, mean cats and dingoes (large wild dogs). Anyway we were too tired to ask so many questions after being on the road or hiking, so we literally hit the sack (or swag).

Celebrating in a pub in Alice Springs.

In this Outback tour, while we saw and did some amazing things, the highlight has to be Uluru or Ayer’s Rock. It is considered to be the symbol of Australia and now I know why. Generally these over hyped places are a letdown, but when I witnessed the world’s largest monolith change colour as the sun changed its position in the sky (all the way till sunset), I was mesmerized. And I am a person who generally keeps things understated (other than my ‘Most Travelled Indian’ name), so when I say I was mesmerized then I must have been.

The desert adventurers in King’s Canyon.
In the morning we went around Uluru, saw some ancient (and not so ancient) rock art on its lower surface and then one of those strange incidents happened when you realize that there are two sides to every story and the truth is in the middle.
Sleeping in swags in the open wilderness.

One tour member and now a very close friend, Jamie, wanted to climb to the top of Uluru. It had been done by others before and there was no particular ban on it then (there is now) but our guide Ben was dead against it. He said that the rock was considered sacred by the aboriginals and climbing it was a sign of disrespect. Now I can understand why Jamie was so drawn to it. He is a real sporty chap and actually goes on hunting trips in the wild back home in Canada. He also eats his kill but after cooking it, of course (he is not like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Hollywood’s ‘Revenant’). But jokes apart, before we judge him for his hunting, it must be made clear that he has a license to do so and he consumes his meat or provides it to the local community (which is far kinder on animals than purchasing factory farm meat sold in bulk in super-marts).

Nitin on a sandy & bushy part of the desert.
So for an outdoorsy person like him, I knew that urge would stem from the challenge of climbing a mountain (monolith in this case) rather than to show disrespect. But Ben did not understand this and while he was livid, the unstoppable Jamie went ahead nonetheless. I did play a part in helping Jamie in his Hamlet moment – ‘To climb or not to climb’. Being the sincere person that he is, he agonized over the call (if he hadn’t cared, there would be no agony at all).
Collecting wood for the campfire.

He confided in me and I told him to answer one simple question without thinking. I asked “What would you be more disappointed by? Going home and regretting that you didn’t climb Uluru or going home and regretting that you did?” Jamie knew the answer right away and in fact he wrote a wonderful article about this experience in his ‘travel & photography’ blog: www.thebarefootperegrine.com

Flying over Mars.

That evening on the way back there was silence in our van and I did feel bad that many in our group had judged and ostracized Jamie, since Ben had good convincing abilities. It also showed me that most people don’t have their own thoughts or opinions but that of others who influence them. We saw a storm in a teacup, but such storms have plagued humanity on scales much larger than tea cups (think of all the wars fought by ordinary family folk under the influence of a few). However, once we were back in Alice Springs, the group celebrated their Outback adventure in a local pub. That was the moment, (when I was a few Foster’s down in the land down under), that I thought about all the great people I had met and who were now my friends (but not all stood the test of time). Anne and Peter from Netherlands were two lovely people as was Lisa. We also had a very kind hearted middle-aged couple from Canada and then there was Becca too. And while Ben was a bit over the top in Uluru, he was an idealist and a good man at heart, who knew his history well. Just that he did what many intelligent people inadvertently do – which is to make hasty judgements. I am glad I heard Jamie out and didn’t judge him in that moment. And I found a real friend for life.

Uluru-The symbol of Australia.

PS – This feature on friendship is in memory of a childhood friend, Abhimanyu Mukherji (I used to call him Abhi) who left this world exactly 3 years ago on 14th June ’21.

(Nitin Gairola is from Dehradun and has travelled the natural world more than almost any Indian ever. He has set world travel records certified by India Book of Records, has written for Lonely Planet, and holds National Geographic conservation certifications. He is also a senior corporate executive in an MNC and in his early days, used to be a published poet as well. More than anything else, he loves his Himalayan home.)