Sydney to Darwin

I wrote this article for India Today’s Travel Plus magazine. It appeared in the August 2006 issue (the issue is impossible to find online, all the links are wonky). I’m putting it here just to keep some semblance of blogging activity.

***
Looking back, the hardest part of the ~4000 km road trip across the continent of Australia was getting out of Sydney. Ajay and me were both Bangaloreans who had spent most of our lives in India, and the concept of ordered traffic came as a bit of a culture shock. We were sure that every time we took a turn or changed lanes, we were breaking all sorts of secret unwritten traffic conventions, which invariably resulted in a most unsettling polite honking. Sydney sprawls like a city that is determined to keep growing until there is no land left. After a series of wrong turns, and all manner of navigation errors, we finally reached the highway that would be our ever-present companion for the next few days.

I’ve always wanted to do a road trip. I grew up on a steady diet of semi-mythical road trips movies and fiction, and have always envied those who are able to enjoy the freedom of the open road and the travelling life. So when I got the opportunity to be part of an once-in-a-lifetime trip travelling across the entire Australian outback, I didn’t have to think twice about it. We rented a car, packed the trunk full of supplies, bought a book of maps and we were off. In this day and age, it is possible to do a trip of this scale with only a week’s preparation, while Australian history is littered with explorers and adventurers who grossly underestimated the outback.

If you look at a map of Australia, you’ll see a few towns and cities scattered in a huge matrix of nothingness. The phrase outback itself comes from Aussie slang: “out in the back settlements”. But as you travel along the roads, you will notice that there is always something. Sheep stations, wheat fields, and fences accompany you throughout the trip. But we were growing tired of tame landscapes, picturesque as they were. After two days of rolling meadows and vast seas of golden wheat fields catching the rays of sunlight, we were wondering when we would have a taste of Australia’s fabulous outback. Our adventure started properly in the well-named Broken Hill. Broken Hill is famous for its mines, its thriving art community and the quality of its sunset. We saw the mine on the way to the town but despite our best efforts to see the sunset from a suitable vantage point, it was not to be. We were distracted by the presence of a table-tennis table in the youth hostel and a few frenzied games later, it was already dark and time to pack it in. Early next morning, when remorse set in, we decided to compensate for the lost sunset by catching the sunrise at Broken Hill’s outdoor sculpture park. It was interesting, and quite surreal; to see all these stone sculptures perched up in the hills all by their own. Still, I reckon it would have been more magical during the sunset.

Leaving Broken Hill, we headed down to the Flinders National Park. Ajay and me are biologists, we’ve done our share of trekking in South Indian Forests, and we were really eager to see what the Australian forests had to offer. But first, a note on Camping in Australia. Much like the traffic in Australia is organized, so too is the camping. Here, camping means living in relative luxury. Facilities like electricity and shower stalls are normal and expected. After getting used to the shock of camping Aussie style, we set up our tent and spent the night watching out for kangaroos and emus that were circling our tent, – no doubt attracted to the aroma of Indian spices from our cooking.

The Flinders Ranges are a spectacular series of folds of mountains that constitute South Australia’s biggest natural attraction. But the jewel of the ranges surely has to be the strange geological formation called Wilpena Pound. Rising majestically into the air in the shape of huge plateau, the Wilpena offers fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. Of course, the best place to see these views is from the highest point, St. Mary’s peak. It was a long hard slog to the top, and if anyone is planning to do the same, it might be a good idea to believe the visitor’s centre when they advise you on how hard the trail is. And also, it is better to do these types of walks in the early morning, when the sun doesn’t try to peel the skin off your back.

Flinders ranges was also the last stop before we ventured into the outback proper. All the clichés are true. It is very hard to describe the outback without resorting to clichés. Endless horizons. Flat roads that shimmer into the far beyond. Bright red sand, dotted with shrubs. Bright clear skies only occasionally interrupted by puffy clouds. For the next couple of days this was the constant scenery as we sped ever northwards.

Of all the strange places we saw during the trip, none could top the oddness of Coober Pedy. Even before you get into the town proper, you realise that you are close, because the surrounding land is pockmarked with curiously conical piles of earth. This is because the place is a mining town, devoted to the unearthing of Opals. It’s Australia’s top opal producing area. But the heat is oppressive here, and the only way to survive the heat is by burrowing into the ground. Consequently all the buildings in Coober Pedy are underground. Even the church is underground. We checked in for the night in an underground motel, and I’m afraid I couldn’t stop myself asking the motel manager for a room with a view…a witticism that was surely heard too often, because the motel manager immediately turned to my companion and started talking about cricket.

By now we were right up to the fabulous Red Centre of the continent and the most iconic of monoliths awaited us. Just a few km before Alice Springs, we turned off the Stuart Highway to take a look at the World’s Largest Monolith, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock). After missing so many sunsets throughout the trip, I was determined not to miss it at Uluru, especially because rumour had I that Uluru sunsets were almost guaranteed to produce such a spectacle of light that virtually every photograph you took would be post card worthy. Unfortunately, in my zeal, we got there 4 hrs before the actual sunset. We spent the time idly watching the hordes of tourists getting up near the massive rock and getting photographed. And to add insult to injury, when the sun finally set, it did so through a bank of clouds.

We took a brief look at the other monoliths- the Olgas,- before it was time to hit the road again. The next stop was Alice Springs, or as the locals call it, The Alice. After a string of small towns, it felt nice to be in a medium sized town, with real coffee rather than the unmentionable brown liquid that passes for coffee in the roadhouses. It also felt good to get closer and closer to the Tropic of Capricorn. Ajay pulled out his GPS unit and calculated approximately when we would be crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. We passed it, and I was just commenting that it was strange not to see any marker or sign saying that we were then crossing a great Aussie landmark (the Australians are very proud of their landmarks), when we just passed a huge metal globe that tilted in the sky at an odd angle.

Our next stop, Katherine, is famous for crocodiles, and the 1998 Australia Day flood that submerged most of the town. It’s also on the edge of the awesome Nitmiluk Gorge, where the Katherine River flows through towering cliffs. From the air, it looks like a shattered land, and all the fractures run in straight lines. We went for a ‘mild’ hike, designed to not tire ourselves out too much because it was quite late in the afternoon and because it looked like rain. In the end, it was more rain than we bargained with. We almost ended up getting caught in rising stream water at the bottom of a waterfall, and then having to spend the night out in the open because the small creek that we’d crossed on the way in had now swollen to a sizeable stream. A frantic river-crossing later, we straggled into camp, soaking wet and very grateful for all the nice facilities that the campground had.

We headed further north, taking a deviation towards Kakadu. Kakadu is a World Heritage listed National Park, and an old familiar for all tourism brochures and ads advertising travel in Australia. We went there expecting to see huge tumbling waterfalls and marshlands, but it was the wrong season. In the Northern Territory, there are two seasons: the wet season and the dry season. We were there in the wet season, which while interesting in its own right, also meant that most of the roads were off access to our poor two-wheel drive car. Nevertheless, there were enough accessible places in Kakadu to keep us busy, including slow boat rides on the now rising marsh waters and spectacular viewpoints along the giant escarpment called Nourlangie Rock. Nourlangie Rock also is the site of several caves containing aboriginal art. Litchfield National Park, on the way to Darwin, proved to be equally interesting and much more accessible. It reminded us of the tropics in India, with a large forest canopy, beautiful waterfalls and streams everywhere. The leeches and ticks were another reminder, but they did nothing to detract from the beauty of the place.

Litchfield is close enough to Darwin to make it an attractive weekend destination for tourists, which made our last leg of the trip quite quick. Before we knew it we had left behind the outback and breezed into the downtown area of Darwin. Darwin is a strange city, that is not quite of the outback and not yet a cosmopolitan hub, though it does its best to give you that impression. The roads are crammed with European backpackers and amidst all the attractions and discounts, we even spotted a modern rickshaw service ferrying people up and down the main drag. Darwin was a satisfying end to the trip, preparing us for the last stop in the cycle: a plane flight back to Sydney.

Advertisements

Care to mentally map your city?

Imagine if you were walking in an unfamiliar area of town and suddenly you realized that it was very dark and the shadows looked distinctly unfriendly. But what if you had a map— a map that clearly marked out entire sections of the city as safe, or peaceful or even scary.

Such a map would be dramatically different from normal maps, in that the data being presented is no longer merely objective, but also subjective. Welcome to the new world of psychogeography.

Psychogeography is an umbrella term used to refer to a number of different ways to explore cities and towns. This new field is still emerging and like any new genre there is still a sense of uncertainty. Most definitions hover around the issues of maps and people’s responses to urban spaces and surroundings. The most accessible one is as follows: Psychogeography is the hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge environments.

 

But there is a basic thread running through all the various versions of psychogeography, and that is the generation of maps. These are maps that challenge all preconceived notions about maps. Psychogeographic maps presenting maps that may or may not be objective.

A case in point is ‘mental mapping’. These are maps generated by individuals walking along areas in the city and recording emotions. The resulting map is more than a physical record of distances travelled, it is also a record of the internal state of mind of the map maker. Other kinds of mental maps include maps made from memory alone. Some maps even overlay several such mental maps and the final result is a unique perspective of hitherto familiar areas.

The newness of this field also leads to widely differing methods of map making. By far the most commonly used method is something known as “Generative algorithms”. This involves the establishing of a predetermined method of walking, and the psychogeographers follow such algorithms in order to explore the city in new ways. Typically, the rules for walking would involve just a series of instructions such as turn right, and then the second left, etc etc, and soon the participants would end up in places they would never have consciously chosen to go to.

Another example of this new way of walking is using a map of, say, City A, and follow it in City B. Or by randomly following a person on the street and observing the route he/ she takes.

While these projects seem to push the boundaries of maps further, one is tempted to ask what use is it all? For this we have to wait and see. But for sure, the city will no longer be something that lies in-between their houses and offices, instead there is likely to be a renewed interest in the concept of being an urban dweller.

Dinesh Rao

Another example of this new way of walking is using a map of, say, City A, and follow it in City B. Or by randomly following a person on the street and observing the route he/ she takes. A similar project, called ‘The Man in the Crowd’, was initiated by the group Glowlab (http://www.glowlab.com/lab/), and involved a 24-hour walk in which two participants, linked by text messaging via cellphones, drifted separately through the city in an alternating pattern according to the movements of strangers.

(Published in the Deccan Herald)

Scavenging for dead prey

In a recent paper to the scientific journal Nature, Jamel Sandidge describes a surprising deviation from what is generally known about the feeding habits of spiders.

The brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) considered one of the most poisonous spiders, and found throughout Central North America, typically attacks the prey, injects venom and returns to the prey at its leisure in order to consume it. This behaviour is markedly different from other wandering spiders, which use vision, stealth and strength to subdue prey. Sandidge observed the brown recluse frequently attacking dead insects and retreating from live insects. He then set up a series of experiments in the laboratory and offered the spiders a choice between live and dead mealworm larvae, crickets and waxmoth larvae.

In 84 per cent of the trials, dead prey was preferred over live prey indicating a clear preference for scavenging over hunting.

If the brown recluse spider, considered as an opportunistic feeder, starts preferring dead prey over live prey, the number of insects available to it increases enormously.

Experimenting by feeding the brown recluse with Dead cockraoches poisoned by other spiders, cockroaches killed by insecticides and cockraoches dead for long, Sandidge observed that consuming dead prey confers substantial advantages to the brown recluse spider, especially if either the stage of decomposition of the insect or the manner in which the insect died does not affect the spider.

By employing scavenging as a primary method of ingestion, the spider reduces the amount of energy invested in subduing the prey. Consequently, a large number of spiders can flourish in urban environments where dead prey are frequently encountered due to the use of insecticides.

(Published in the Deccan Herald)

Peter’s city

Two angels stand guard over St Petersburg in Russia. Both of them tower more than 400 ft above the city skyline, looking outwards from the Peter and Paul fortress on the Neva River and from the Admiralty column on the mainland. As they gently turn with the wind they also seem to reflect the changes that Russia has gone through in the past few decades.

I was in St Petersburg to attend a conference and immersed myself in the city and its history. The city has changed its name more often than most but although it was for a time called Leningrad the character of the city has stayed faithful to the vision of its founder, Peter the Great. Peter (1672-1725 CE) was a man with a burning ambition to put Russia on the world map and he arguably started the process that eventually led to Russia’s superpower status. The city was built according to his specifications in 1703 CE and was designed to be on equal terms with any European city. Indeed its European nature remains the defining feature of St Petersburg.

Friendly rivalry goes on between people from Moscow, the capital, and people from St Petersburg. The latter consider themselves to be more cultured and refined than the inhabitants of Moscow, to the extent that people claim ability to differentiate between Russians born in the two places. Anna, a student of Russian literature, told me that Moscow is the real Russia, where something unpredictable happens every day, whereas St Petersburg is as normal as any place in Europe. Nonetheless, the most famous attractions of the city as well as the vast squares and plazas all bear eloquent testimony to a man who was accustomed to thinking on a very large scale.

When I told people that I was going to St Petersburg, the most common response I received was envy because I would have the chance to visit the famous Hermitage Museum. Built upon the collections of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, the museum boasts an unparalleled collection of art from all over the world. The museum consists of a series of three interlocked buildings and it houses close to three million items including paintings, sculptures, coins and archeological exhibits. I was most interested in seeing the section on French impressionism, thinking that this would be a rare opportunity to actually see a Van Gogh. It turned out that other people had the same idea, and consequently the impressionist rooms were very crowded. It was however quite entertaining watching the guided groups, especially when several tried to coexist in the same small room. I heard art commentary in scores of languages, underlining the interest of the world in this museum. If anybody is planning to visit the Hermitage, I have only one piece of advice: it is impossible for the human mind to take in all the wonderful exhibits in one day.

The Hermitage is a wonderful collection of art but for art in its intended environment, one must visit the Church of the Resurrection of Christ also known as the Church of the Spilled Blood, because it was built as a memorial on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. It is an unmistakeably Orthodox Church, complete with domes and spires and it instantly reminds the visitor of the Kremlin. The entire edifice stands like a gorgeously coloured candy masterpiece, rising majestically and incongruously from the surrounding buildings. The outside is decorated with scenes from the Bible, particularly those with respect to the resurrection of Christ, while the inside is decorated from floor to ceiling with mosaics. I could barely imagine the effort which must have been required to finish such a complex scheme of decoration. It is said that this church contains more mosaics than any other in the world.

I wandered outside the church after a while and started reading the inscriptions on the walls. One inscription was riddled with bullet holes, a reminder of the destruction that St Petersburg endured during World War II. The retreating German army trashed everything in its path so several of the wonderful buildings we see today are complete reconstructions. I went to Petrodvorets on the outskirts of the city, one of the many palaces scattered in and around the city. It has an immense system of hundreds of fountains and waterways powered only by gravity. As I was standing there looking at the impressive display, it was easy to forget that the entire palace, fountains and all, had been reconstructed based on few surviving drawings and blueprints. If anybody had needed further proof of the immense pride.

St Petersburg citizens take in their past, it is found in the devotion and care they take to restore such buildings to their past glory.

The city is built on the river delta and the Neva is an important waterway for ships to reach the Baltic Sea. The seafaring context is obvious from one of the embankments on the Neva which is decorated with huge red ‘Rostral Columns’, decorated with the prows of defeated ships, mainly from the war against Sweden. However the bridges of St Petersburg are too low for ships to pass under, so they open at night. As I headed for the bus stop, I turned to take a last look at the city and I saw not only the patient ships gliding by the bridges standing at attention under the many coloured hues of the setting sun, but also the angels of St Petersburg catching the last rays, golden angels promising good fortune to the residents of Peter’s dream city.

(Published in the Deccan Herald)