‘Palya!’ (Welcome)

Bear Bear and Roxie contemplate Uluru just before sunrise


When we arrived in Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) the sign read “Palya!” (Welcome).

Wherever we travel in Australia, we’re continuously welcomed onto lands owned by the local indigenous population—in English, in Kriol, in Pintjantjatjara. “Welcome to country,” says the Aboriginal guide “Welcome,” reads the sign at Kata Tjuta, “Welcome,” says the Aboriginal artist in Hermannsburg. “Welcome.”

To receive this from a people whose lands have been taken, whose children have been stolen, whose culture was—for so many years—denigrated, does not cease to surprise me.

The world comes to Uluru, this majestic rock that began forming 900 million years ago when much of central Australia was a sea. They come by plane, by bus, in cars pulling camper trailers, like ourselves.

Uluru: close up the caves and canyons are revealed

“Palya!” reads the sign, and then, a request: “Please don’t climb”.

This is a sacred site. Yet every day travellers and tourists ignore the sign and climb Uluru. 35 people have died climbing the rock. On our first night there three people were stranded at the top and needed rescuing. Why does the white person always have to claim it, climb it, stick a flag on top?

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Times are changing. 20 years ago when Lee first came here as a backpacker, he climbed Ayres Rock, completely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on a sacred site. These days there is a large cultural centre explaining the significance of Uluru to the Anunga people. When you walk around the rock, signs point out, “the teaching cave” and “the kitchen cave” and special sacred areas where you cannot take photographs. A lot has changed in two decades. Everywhere we go indigenous names replace settler names. It feels as if a new wave of respect is passing over this vast continent.

My own children have never heard of Ayres Rock and wouldn’t dream of trying to climb Uluru. Instead, we walked and cycled the ten kilometres around the big rock. Magic.

Uluru at sunrise

Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)

These rocks, about 40 kilometres from Uluru, turn purple in the evening light. The four of us went on a long varied walk here, which was equally, if not more beautiful than Uluru.


Warrtaka (Kings Canyon)


After four nights near Uluru, we travelled on to Warrtaka, where—yes, Alicia!—we heard the dingos howling at night. They also traipsed through our campsite, looking for food.

While there, we did the popular “rim walk”. It was a cloudy day, thankfully. The sun is strong in the desert even when it’s not hot.

On the initial steep ascent, R said, “Mama, a wheelchair couldn’t get up here. Why don’t they make it for a wheelchair?”

“Well,” I paused, for the thought had not occurred to me that this rugged 5.4 km walk should be wheelchair accessible. “It would be a bit hard to make a ramp up this mountain,” I explained.  She was nonplussed with my answer—a future disability advocate in the making??

R climbs up to the rim walk.

The walk was other-worldly.


We saw numerous “ripple rocks”, evidence of the sand shaped by ancient tides when the earth was warmer, the poles weren’t frozen and shallow seas stretched into much of central Australia.

Large dome rocks surrounded us. At the centre was an oasis, “the Garden of Eden”, green with plant life and in stark contrast with all that dry red rock.

Oasis at Warrtaka

Ellery Creek Water Hole


After three nights at Warrtaka, we carried on back to the West McDonnell Ranges and camped at Ellery Creek Water Hole, where it was just us and a two or three other campers and a billion flies. There were flies in our eyes and in our ears, flies wandering into our nostrils, flies making suicide jumps into the pancake batter. They all disappear when the sun goes down, however, and the sky reveals about 7,000 stars.

Ellery Creek Water Hole proved a deliciously cold place to swim and we had two beautiful long lazy bush days there.

Home school at Ellery Creek

The waterhole was serene—a large oasis with two orange craggy cliffs either side, and a lone gum tree near the top of one cliff. A heron fished for most of the day in the shallows, undisturbed by our girls playing in the water nearby.

I’m reading We of the Never Never and there’s a quote in the book about travelling in the bush that—although written over a hundred years ago—feels apt today:

Sixty-five miles in three days, against sixty miles an hour of the express trains of the world. ‘Speed’s the thing,’ cries the world, and speeds on, gaining little but speed; and we bush-folk travel our sixty miles and gain all that is worth gaining—except speed. –Aeneas Gunn


On the Road to Alice


Tennant Creek

The heat was relentless in the Top End and so we headed south, towards Alice. Our first stop was another hot springs: Mataranka. When it’s 39 degrees, 34 degree water is actually refreshing. The springs, under a forest of palm and paperbark, were a lovely turquoise colour.


Dad and K in Mataranka Hot Springs

While in Mataranka, we poked our heads into the replica house featured in the film version of We of the Never Never. I’m now reading this 1908 novel, full of outback characters, written by Jeannie Gunn.

Then it was back on the road again . . . . It’s nearly 1200 kilometres from Katherine to Alice down a long, mostly straight road that cuts through the desert, or if not technically desert, very arid country.

We had a welcome rest at Daly Waters, the famous outback pub. Middies were a bargain $3.50 at happy hour and they gave the kids a lengthy activity booklet so that we could enjoy said beers in the shade. It was still well over thirty degrees at half five in the afternoon.

Daly Waters used to be a refuelling stop for Qantas flights from Sydney to Singapore. Now it’s full of travellers. We camped overnight and hit the road again the next morning.


We drove to Tennant Creek, where we visited a museum of early pioneers, gold diggers. Interestingly, they made the floors of their houses from ant hills, patted down as these proved cool and kept the dust down. We’ve found a plethora of pioneer museums and monuments on our trip, all emphasizing how hard these overseas settlers had it. I can’t argue with that, but there don’t seem to be quite as many museums on the original inhabitants of this country, who’ve been here significantly longer. 

Devil’s Marbles/Karlu Karlu

Devil’s Marbles, or, Karlu Karlu, is one exception. We stopped for lunch at this significant site for the Alyawarre people and I read this story about the people believed to live inside the caves and underneath the rocks here:

They’re real people like us. You can see them. A long time ago I went with my billycan down to the creek here to get some water. One of these secret people came out and started playing with me. I couldn’t go away.

My mother came and got me, saved me. After that we never camped at this place again, never. They’re kind these secret people, but they can make you mad. They can change you into one of them. They can say, “Follow me,” and you can’t go back.

It happened like that for my cousin. He disappeared. The old people made a big ceremony, singing the ground and the rocks to make them let my cousin come back. We lost that song now. We’ve got no song to bring children back.     —Senior Traditional Owner

At the end of a long driving day–500 kilometres–we finally reached Alice and cooler climes. Alice Springs is another misnamed town, as there are no permanent springs there. The Todd River runs through town, but that was—like so many rivers we’ve crossed in Australia—dry as a bone. Alice is an interesting town with a population of 25,000, many of whom are indigenous. There are bookstores and cafes and a low-key market once a month in the town centre.

At the Desert Park we learned about the reproductive system of the red kangaroo. When the female gets pregnant, she can halt the growth of her foetus for up to a hundred days or until she has a better food source. We saw an amazing bird show, where a barn owl flew silently overhead and a buzzard opened an emu egg with a rock.

Red kangaroo lazing at the Desert Park
K holds an Emu egg–half a kilo of protein (if you can get inside)

We spent two nights in Ormiston Gorge, 135 kilometres west of Alice. This was a stunning spot and a beautiful swimming hole. K and I did a long walk through the gorge, up and around it. They’ve had rain in the centre over the last few months and so there’s a surprising blanket of green and an abundance of wildflowers.

Ormiston Gorge, NT
R bundled up at Ormiston Gorge–ahhh, to be cold again!

Then we went back to Alice, where there were storms-the first rain we’ve seen in nearly three months. That night, a tree came down in the caravan park, crushing a four-wheel drive just meters from us and ruining one couple’s holiday. Good luck it didn’t come down on our canvas tent!

The heavens open in Alice

I did a big shop, we packed up, got new moulds for K’s hearing aids, and were back on the road.

imageNext stop . . . “Uluru, baby!” says R in the back seat.

Scenes from the Top End

Florence Falls, Litchfield National Park
Termite Mound, Litchfield National Park
Yellow Waters Cruise at Sunrise, Kakadu
Sunrise, with darter
Lily pads
The South Alligator River (a misnomer) is home to thousands of crocs
Nourangie in Kakadu–home to Aboriginal rock art that is thousands of years old
Nourlangie rock art
Gunlom Falls, Kakadu
39 degrees: a hot hike back down from Gunlom
K, R and Lee cool off in Edith Falls


Clouds cover a searing sun as we enter into the “build up” before the “wet”
Douglas Daly Hot Springs
green tree frog in the toilets (there are far fewer since the cane toads moved in)
Katherine Gorge–no swimming or kayaking because of recent croc sightings
R reaches to point out the Top End



A Typical Morning in the Top End

5.30 I wake to the sound of birds in trees—a pair of barking owls, the screech of a cockatoo. It’s dark. R is next to me in bed and, on the other side, Lee. It’s the coolest part of the day—just cool enough to have a sheet on top of us.

5.45 I zip open the tent and see the last of the night’s stars. K is sitting in a chair outside the tent reading her kindle by the light of a lantern. She’s six books into the Little House on the Prairie series.  “I love the detail, Mom,” she explains and then tells me in Auslan about the Christmas they had after the blizzard of 1876. It all feels such a long way from the Top End in 2016.  And yet, there are similarities in the way these characters lived as pioneers 140 years ago and the way we’re living now.  K, who identifies with Laura, is completely absorbed in this family of daughters and Ma and Pa, who live on their own in the wilderness in such close quarters, with only each other to rely on.

6.00 I light the mosquito coil and make a cup of tea, then crepe batter. We’ve been on the road nine months now and I feel I’ve reached a sort of Zen state of camping. It feels natural to live like this, directed by the sun and where it is in the sky. I have all that matters to me here in this campsite: my husband and two girls. There’s no rush to get to school, no pressing emails to answer. Life is unhurried, deliberate.

6.15 R wakes and comes outside for a koala cuddle.  We identify the birds in the gum tree above—northern lorikeets, different from the lorikeets in Sydney—and mark them in our bird book. I serve crepes with canned peaches (we’re out of fresh fruit).

7.15 I put hats on the girls, who are drawing now. Lee gets up.

8.15 I put sunscreen on everyone.  It’s warming up. Temperatures are predicted to reach 38 for four days in a row.

8.30 I take R to the toilet. Just outside the toilet block a snake comes right up to R’s foot. I urge her away quickly and then point out the snake, now slithering towards the wall. It’s the second snake in two days. I saw a large python in the water with me in Edith Falls the day before.

8.45 The girls and I get on our bikes (R is riding her own bike now) and cycle to the hot springs, about 2 k away. Just what you need in 38 degree weather—hot springs! There are a few people drinking VB in the clear warm springs when we arrive. They go and some local boys come by and do backflips into the water, impressing us all.

10.00 We bike back to our campsite in the heat and have a second breakfast. Lee’s done the laundry and put up the canopy. K sews in the shade. R makes a leaf soup. I read my Guardian Weekly from two weeks ago. Lee makes a bacon and egg wrap; R eats half of it.

11.30 I take K to the library in town, which is air-conditioned. We’ve been advised not to do any outdoor activities after 11 a.m. The rest of the day will be spent lazing in the shade, or in the pool, swatting at March flies (a misnomer; it’s September) and then, when the sun starts to set, swatting at mosquitos and squashing sand flies. K will write a short story about two sisters and a bush fire. We’ll read and swim and eat and talk. It’s another good day and I feel lucky to have this year away.

Deaf in Darwin

imageThe close of another sunny day in Darwin.

Our time here is coming to and end. We thought about staying longer—there’s a uni where I could get work, Lee has work, and R is loving pre-school. We have a friends here and I’ve even joined a local soccer team. imageK and R hanging out with Ben, Moe and Pao Pao on a Friday evening at Casaurina Beach

Ultimately, we can’t stay because there are few resources for deaf kids in the NT.

There’s no deaf school in Darwin, and the only deaf unit in a mainstream school was closed over a decade ago.

The Darwin Festival was on while we were here, the biggest event of the year with an amazing line up of plays and performances. Not one event during the entire three weeks was interpreted.

In July, I took R to a story time at the library that was advertised as interpreted, but when we arrived, they said, “Oh, no.  We haven’t had an interpreter here all year, but we do advertise it.”

There are three interpreters for the entire city, one full-time, one part-time and one on maternity leave. One interpreter told me that deaf kids are lucky to get an hour and a half of interpreting each week at their school. Many deaf people here in Darwin have gone “down south” for school.

I met one successful young deaf woman who attended Darwin High School—and did well there—but her parents had to put up a fight just to get her a note-taker. She didn’t have an interpreter.

For the start of Disabilities’ Awareness Week in Darwin, they had a free screening of The Penguins of Madagascar. I rang ahead of time to make sure it was captioned.  They assured me it was, so, I told K, who was very excited. We rucked up early to get a good seat, the movie started and K’s face fell. “No captions,” she said.

And it was the opening event for Disabilities’ Awareness Week?!

On a positive note, when getting new moulds for K at Australian Hearing, we met an audiologist who’s studying Auslan at Deaf NT.

Deaf NT has been welcoming. They have a small office and a big workload.

K has been attending the local mainstream school. She wanted to give it a try. In the first week, she got assessed and the Department of Education concluded that she would receive no support—zero—because she’s not behind.

If we were staying in Darwin, I’d tell them she’s not behind because she’s had a full-time interpreter, three hours a week of an amazing itinerant teacher, and one day a week at a deaf school in Sydney.

The school, Stuart Park Primary, is a lovely place—truly multicultural, friendly and positive. At assemblies they give awards to students who’ve helped clean up the playground. K’s teacher is talented and well-loved. She’s good at using visual cues in the classroom. imageThe girls head off to school and preschool.

Unfortunately, there’s little deaf awareness at Stuart Park, and being the only deaf kid in school has proved challenging.

A number of teachers don’t look at K when they’re talking and don’t put the captions on for videos. For the school concert, K was given the role of a band member and told to lip-sync three songs that she couldn’t hear. At lunch time, she can’t hear the other kids and no one signs.

When she comes home and tells me these things, I say, “Imagine, this is what most deaf kids in Australia have to go through.” And I think to myself, and this is why deaf kids in Australia are a year behind, on average, in math and reading.

I offered to take K out of school, but she didn’t want to go.  She’s not one to run away—she’s stayed for our full six weeks, and she’s managed to make friends. But during lunchtime, she chooses to read in the library because she can’t hear her friends on the playground.

Despite the fact that K has not had equal access at her school, she’s had some positive experiences and we’re grateful for the effort the school has made.

imageK ready for her first school disco, with a 60s theme.

On Tuesdays, K and I taught Auslan to her class. I interpreted the assemblies every Friday.

Our experience here overall makes me realize how the big cities are really the place to be if you’re deaf.  And yet there is a small community of deaf people making their way here in Darwin and we’ve been able to meet some of them. They like Darwin for the same reasons everyone else does—it’s relaxed, easy and warm in more ways than one.

imageCooling off in Buley Rock Holes in nearby Litchfield National Park, a popular place with locals.