‘Cycleabout’ through the Australian Outback
We have arrived in Alice Springs, the heart of Australia, or perhaps better said, the heart of the Australian Outback. At times it has been an arduous journey, not because of the terrain that is mostly flat, but because of the sun, the heat and the headwinds. As any pedal pusher knows, the winds can break the spirits of even the toughest cyclists. It is particularly hard for the loners who like to cycle by themselves and face the winds head on – every f…… inch.
But now we have made it to Alice Springs, the springboard to the world famed rock known as Uluru (or Ayers rock), the adventure gateway of the outback, and the centre of Australian Aboriginal culture from which the title of this piece is derived.
The Aboriginals are well known for their walkabouts. These are defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a short period of wandering bush life engaged in by an Australian Aborigine as an occasional interruption of regular work”. What better way, then, to define our journey through the outback as a ‘cycleabout’.
But to be honest, we have very little in common with the struggles of everyday life faced by the modern and past Aborignals. From what we have seen on our route, it is not a pretty picture. Their situation is similar to the history of indigenous cultures all over the world. According to anthropologists, the Aborignals have lived on this continent for 50,000 years. In the last two hundred years, their way of life has disintegrated in the face of modern culture and its technologies, massive migration from other parts of the world, and the inevitable importation of foreign diseases, including alcoholism.
The Aboriginal culture is rooted in animist beliefs, “Songlines” or “Dreaming” (a word that apparently cannot be translated into English), and the careful use of their ancestral lands. These are things that, by their very nature, clash with the way the modern world uses planetary resources. The modern way of life seems incomprehensible to the Aborignals.
What seems to be the end result, at least on the Stuart Highway, is a broken culture trying to cope with modernity. Meanwhile, Australian governments, like many other governments around the world, have tried to help. To give them the benefit of the doubt, these may have been well intentioned approaches, but in retrospect have turned out to be horrendous mistakes.
Consider, for example, the forced removal of an estimated 100,000 children from their parents from 1909 to 1969, with the cooperation of government, churches and welfare organizations. This is now referred to as the ‘Stolen Generations’, and is very similar to the residential schools in Canada.
The end product is what we have seen: drunkenness, loitering, some ugly stories and jokes from locals on how to treat the Aborignals, fear and disgust by many non-Aborignals, and certainly a complete disrespect towards the Aboriginals.
At the same time, we have been privileged to catch wonderful glimpses of their art and of the terrain which they have occupied for so long. On this land, they have been able to survive and pass their ancient knowledge from one generation to the next using ‘songlines’ or ‘dreaming’. Memorized from a young age, the songlines would then be used when going on their walkabouts (the first of which is a rite of passage), enabling them to deal with all the adversities that this continent would throw at them.
‘Cycleabout’ in Australia is like cycling anywhere. There are great joys to experience and beauty to enjoy. We face punishing elements, like crazy headwinds and high temperatures. But when the ride is done and over with, these become fond memories of the struggle. There are some unpleasant aspects of life and reality that we face that make us think, and perhaps make us learn something worthwhile. Maybe, if we are lucky, our own lives will be made richer, and each of us may even become a little better as a person than before.
As for our ‘songline’ we create and leave for future cyclists on their ‘cycleabout’ through Australia – they are written discourses and digital data, photos and blogs. They will be stored in the iClouds of large corporations that do not have much time to think about the Aborignals or any other indigenous peoples. These companies – like much of the modern world – are more concerned with product development and competition, and are leaving these people behind.