Is Ayers Rock and the red center of Australia really worth the trip?

Is Ayers Rock and the red center of Australia really worth the trip?

Is Ayers Rock Worth it
Is Ayers Rock worth it? Many people have asked me this question during the years. I still remember the day I discovered Uluru’s existence. I was eight or nine years old and I was watching a documentary on TV. I remember being puzzled at the idea of a huge rock placed in the middle of the desert. I also remember the disappointment in finding out that Ayers Rock, as it was generally called at the time, was far, far away from Italy. From the European point of view, Australia is a far and expensive continent to reach, let alone a rock placed right in the middle of the Country’s desert, thousands of kilometers from any major city. I concluded that I would probably never see it. So imagine my astonishment when I finally reached it.

Is Ayers Rock Worth it

Some say they have seen it so many times on postcards, photos, calendars and tv shows that once on the spot they did not seem to find anything new. Others are disappointed because they find it less red than the photographs on the advertising leaflets. Some are moved by its complexity, by the water flowing along its walls and the cool shaded puddles beneath the eucalyptus. I personally belong to those people who when they are in front of an world famous tourist attraction (see Eiffel Tower, Coliseum, Big Ben, Sultanahmeth etc.) are caught up in the Japanese syndrome. I am referring to those people who unplug the optic nerve from the brain to connect it directly camera. But this time I tried to make an exception. I didn’t take too many pictures, as they could never compare to those on books and advertising. I tried to enjoy the place. We saw the rock at sunrise and then engaged in the 10km ring walk around it. Uluru left me speechless. The rock is much, much more than the beautiful pictures on leaflets.

All around it there’s creeks, irregularities, strange shapes on the surface, ponds, groves and caves with rock paintings. Uluru haven’t been the house and the “church” of the Anangu people for tens of thousands of years for nothing! What could have been more sacred ten a ginormous monolith which provides water, food, shelter and refrigeration in the middle of a murderous desert.

Is Ayers Rock Worth it

This was until that William C. Gosse did “discover” the rock in 1891. Open to tourism since 1936, Ayers Rock (Gosse had the brilliant idea of appointing such a geologic rarity with the name of the late South Australia Governor) now hosts up to 1,000 daily visitors. At least since 1985 the rock has been formally given back to the traditional landowners, who renamed it Uluru and are now an active part of the park management. Nonetheless, the Australian government still holds a lease on tourism for the next 70 years.

Even more surprising than Uluru are the treks to Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon. Even if it’s usually framed as “in the middle of nowhere”, Uluru is actually very close (in Outback terms, obviously) to other unique rock formations. Kata Tjuta, where we walked on sunset, right after being regurgitated off the Great Central Road, is a Bornhardt like Uluru.

These are rocks that resisted weather erosion while the world around them collapsed under the force of the elements. If Uluru looks like a lonely mountain, Kata Tjuta (“many heads” in Anangu) looks more like a mountain range. In the midst of its rounded peaks, you’ll find falls and gardens, leaping kangaroos and colorful parrots.

Kings Canyon, three hundred kilometers north of Uluru, also looks like an oasis on Mars. Its steep vertical walls and rocky peaks conceal a verdant gorge and a natural freshwater pool.

I think that what makes Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon unique and inevitably magnetic, is the incredible life that they shelter in such a prohibitive territory as the Australian desert. It is not difficult to figure out why Aborigines consider them sacred since the beginning of time. The presence of water alone, in such dry places, makes them magical. Even nowadays, the journey to reach these rocks, be it by plane, on a bus tour or crossing dirt desert roads, is so hot and tiring to look like a spiritual pilgrimage. Surely the brave nomads that come from the desert score the highest points! And don’t have to pay the entrance fee. So is Ayers Rock worth it? Definitely yes. It’s actually quintessentially Australian.

And what better way to get out of the mystical heart of Australia than taking another dirt road with our Mitsubishi Delica? We came from the desert and we left from the desert. This time we drove off the short but impetuous Giles Road, a shortcut to Alice Springs very far from tourist buses and the giant caravans of the locals. That night we camped in the bush, alone under a blanket of stars, and for once we felt in the center of the world, and above all, thousands of miles from Japanese tourists.

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Things I’ve learned from life on the road during my Australian Working Holiday

Things I’ve learned from life on the road during my Australian Working Holiday

working holiday australia

Twenty-four thousand kilometres of road tripping
Twenty nationalities encountered on the road
Nine months of work
Five States
Four climatic zones
Three oceans
Two lovers
One van

Oh-man, my Australian year was intense! We mostly spent it travelling. In every way that a person can travel. We roamed through forests, deserts, steppes, big cities, countryside, pastures, beaches and mountains. We also worked quite a bit, with jobs that ranged from burning fields to serving tables in a sailor attire, from smashing rocks with a tractor to cleaning toilets, from cooking for a crew of starving cowboys to housekeeping in an ocean front hostel. My first year of long-term travelling teach me many lessons, that’s sure. So here are some of them!

Everything you need can fit in a 50L backpack

While traveling long-term I learned to get rid of the superfluous. Everything that you own has to be carried around, sometimes even on your back. We bought a van as soon as we got to Australia, but even if its storage space was larger than a 50L backpack, it had to be shared with utilities and gear. Living on the road makes you reflect on how many unnecessary things we cumulate in our spoiled westerners lives.

You won’t always love the road

While I loved the ghost towns of the outback, the endless expanses of cows and sheep, roadside sleeping and waking up with the sun, I also hated the endless drives, the humidity in the van when it rained, the broken back, the confined space, the flies, the heat. Long-term travelling can also get boring after a while, I swear! But this will be the subject of another post.

Living on the road creates many more occasions for learning and meeting interesting people than living in one place.

We’ve been surrounded by friends and alone like hermits. We changed five houses, bought and sold a van, a surf, two bikes and a pair of shoes. We dived to see the corals and we searched the sky to spot the eagles. We have seen kangaroos, koalas, goannas, crocodiles, opossum and a whole lot of marsupials of every shape and size. But most of all, we shared the road with such a diverse humanity that we would have hardly ever met otherwise.

We worked with cowboys from Queensland. Lads that in their twenties are already married with kids and leading giant cattle stations. We lived with the nomads of Coral Bay, who sold everything in exchange for a motorhome and a seasonal job by the ocean. We mixed with the Melbourne hipsters, with their festivals, horse races, and trendy restaurants. We talked to Aborigines, either sober or not, and with Australians who never left their island and asked if Milan was by the ocean. But also with other Australians that have travelled the world and worked as agricultural pilots in Tanzania. We met Israeli vacationers and exiled Iranians; Korean dishwashers and Nepalese bartenders; Italians who took the working holiday in Australia for the Erasmus in Spain and, above all, we met many, many Chinese.

Even when the situation looks desperate, remember that behind every defeat there’s an opportunity

In Melbourne I changed five jobs. Each time I had to scout for a new one, I cycled the whole city and its suburbs exploring hidden lanes, ethnic enclaves and outlet districts. I had a laugh with shopkeepers, drank coffee with coffee makers and always ended up finding a job after the other, meeting new people and finally finding myself invited at two Christmas parties on the same day.

No matter how much you know that racism is wrong, it is always around the corner

In Melbourne I worked in a restaurant for a while and I soon learned that Chinese customers where the toughest. Because of the huge cultural difference, they treated the staff in a way that in the western world was considered impolite at best. Chinese table after Chinese table that treated me like a slave, I discovered that slipping into racial hatred is easier than you might think. Staying true to your values can be difficult when people keep calling your attention by snapping their fingers and shouting orders every five seconds.

I experienced what does it mean to be treated as an economic migrant

We moved to Oz in 2013, while in Europe (and in Italy in particular) the economic crisis was still raging. Although we went to Australia to explore (working was just a way to sustain our travels) we were often judged as economic migrants. The immigration policies also started to tighten that year because of the government shifting to the right. I have been reconfirmed that there are a thousand reasons behind migrating but only one behind the intolerance: ignorance.


It contributed to define my European identity

I learned that Australia is beautiful but I can’t live there. I missed Europe as much as I missed my family and friends. It is part of my heritage, my culture and myself as a person, and living so far from my loved ones and from my continent it’s not an easy choice. Spending one year in another western country yet so different from my own helped me put into perspective the issues that we have in the Old Continent and to value its culture and beauty. Even if I’ve been back for three years now, I still appreciate Italian and European wonderful scenery and distinctive customs and traditions with tourist eyes (at least most of the time :D). Last but not least, comparing myself to Australians I noticed how closer we are between us Europeans. I spent my childhood and youth being defined as the one from the little village, then the one from Bergamo, then the Italian. In Australia all this regional differences seems to fade away in the big picture.

Travelling is addictive.
You can overdose and get sick about it,
but once you’re hooked you can’t help it.
The siren call of nomad life
will always sing
in the back of your head.

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That time when I was a Cowboy in Australia

That time when I was a Cowboy in Australia

Well, I have to admit that the title might be slightly misleading. My boyfriend was the cowboy, I was the station cook and this is the story of our jobs in a cattle station in Australia. It was the boiling July of 2013 and we were in rural Queensland trying to complete our share of regional work to get our second year visa. We spent a month in Strathmore Station, a huge property 500km inland from Cairns. It has been one of the craziest job we ever undertook (and I can speak for both here) but it gave us some of the best and craziest memories of our Australian year. Here is my account from 2013.


work in a cattle station in Australia

When a calf testicle flies over your head, it makes a swish like a cartoon bomb: a prolonged hiss followed by a splash of mud and blood exploding in every direction. When I raised my head I crossed Monkey’s amused look. He was smoking a cigarette, covered in blood up to his elbows, while working on a calf placed in front of him, legs in the air.

Of course “Monkey” is not his real name. At Strathmore Station, all the jackaroos (the cowboys) earn a nickname sooner or later. Fluffy is the chubbiest, Gangles is tall and lanky, Chris became Uncle Fester because he is Swedish pale, Alex is Alì for his Tunisian origins, Sofien is just Sully, his real name too difficult to pronounce in the mumbling Queensland dialect. Andrea became Mario, for some obscure similarity with the Italian video game hero. I’m just Ssebrinah, or Cookie, the cook.

Strathmore Station
is the largest estate
owned by a private
in Queensland.
It’s as massive as
2,5 millions football fields

We are about twenty people here: a dozen of Australian and European jackaroos, two helicopter pilots, a mechanic, a guy for the maintenance of the station tracks plus three or four road train drivers who come and go. As you have probably guessed, I’m the only woman (excluding the dog), in a 2.5 million acres estate (the farm we worked for in Western Australia counted “only” fourteen thousand acres).Strathmore Station is the largest estate owned by a private in Queensland. Roughly, it’s as massive as 2,5 millions football fields. Most of the workers are contractors that come just for the mustering season.
If you are new to the livestock world, “to muster” means to collect as much cattle as possible in order to select which animals to sell, move, mark, castrate, vaccinate, etc. In smaller stations, mustering is still made on horseback, with the help of dogs. However, this “cowboy mode” is impracticable in vast properties such as Strathmore. Here cattle are gathered with the cross effort of quod bikes and helicopters.

work in a cattle station in Australia

The concept of moving herds with a helicopter was so absurd that I had to try. The day that Mike the pilot offered to take me with him, I took my camera, a handful of motion sickness pills, and I jumped aboard. My Nikon has sure been of great use, but unfortunately I can’t say as much for the pills. Mike’s chopper looked closer to a mechanic dragonfly than to an aircraft made for actual flying. With zero doors and seat belts that look like those of an 80’s Fiat, “stability” surely isn’t among the features that I would quote to describe it.

The first thought I had
during the vertical
take-off at 100km/h
was: well, that’s how I die

Especially when Mike started for his unpredictable chase of cows: nosedives, lateral swings, screws, sudden bangs, leaps. I think I’ve been up there for three hours before I vomited what was left of my breakfast. A positive record according to Mike. Not too bad anyway, considering that the first thought I had during the vertical take-off at 100km/h was “well, that’s how I die”.  But let’s get back to the flying testicles:

work in a cattle station in Australia

So, how is it to work in cattle station as a backpacker?

Well, if you ever manage to ask my ex-boyfriend, I’m sure he still has plenty of military-like stories for anyone that would listen.
The boys work non-stop from sunrise to sunset under the boiling sun of the southern hemisphere dry season. They move the animals in the midst of perennial red dust and extremely large and not human friendly cattle. Kicks and wounds happen on a daily basis and nearly-death experiences are as punctual as electricity bills. In the yards, the Australians (everyone is under 30 but has been working in the industry for 10+ years) spend the days ripping each other pants, pulling dung, eating raw bull balls on a dare (no joke) and so on.  You know, all those playful pastimes that solitary men like so much. And of course the backies are always selected for the worst chores.

The back stories of the Australians that work here are all very interesting. Some, under the most unlikely goatee, tattoos, or mirrored glasses hide an open mindset and incredible travel experiences. Others have had such an absurd life that they can’t be blamed for how they act. Charlie, the head stockman is twenty-eight years old, has four children and a fake leg because of a bull chase gone wrong at the age of sixteen. Monkey is twenty-seven years old and bounces his head in rhythm every time a song passes on TV. He often sneaks into the kitchen to secretely steal the sweets. Before becoming a jackaroo, he was a crab fisherman. He dived as deep as thirty meters using just a rubber tube to suck air from the surface. Unaware of the meaning of decompression, he quitted his job when the veins of his arms began to burst. The last one broke a month ago, while he was working with cattle, hundreds of miles from the sea. The flyng doctors came to pick him up. Fun fact: in Australia sometimes they use planes instead of ambulances.

Charlie has a fake leg since he was 16
because of a bull chase gone wrong

Ricky turned seventeen two weeks ago, but he has been working here since he was fifteen. Frank is no longer working, he’s serving four months of jail for truck and road offenses. In short, they’re tough guys. You forgive them the constant sex talk and the bad habit of drowning all of my meals in barbecue sauce. They’re nice guys in their own way, as long as you don’t have to work with them fourteen hours a day of course.

So, what does a girl do in cattle station?

She works in paradise. That’s what she does. My day starts at 7am (boys’ begin as early as 4.30am), and by 9.30 I have to cook breakfast (smoko) for anyone working in the yard near the house. Once I’m done with cleaning I’m free until I have to start cooking dinner: by 3.30pm if there’s many people, 5.30 if not. In the afternoon I usually bake cakes, I lazily handle irrigation, I feed the pig and the hounds, I play with the dog, and scare the occasional cow out of the garden. I spend the rest of the time reading between lemon trees and Banksia flowers, white parrots and kangaroos that nap in the shade. They say that the lagoon is populated with crocodiles and pythons, but so far I just encountered a lazy goanna in the garden.
If it was for me I’d stay here forever, but Andrea is becoming tired of “slavery” (100 AUD per day, working dangerously from dawn to dusk). So, because we have finally completed the eighty-eight days of rural labor that the government requires to apply for a second year visa, tomorrow we will load the van and leave for the East Coast! From Cooktown’s tropical forests we will slowly move southwards, waiting for springtime to warm up the long road waiting in front of us.

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Setting paddocks on fire. My farming nightmare in Australia

Setting paddocks on fire. My farming nightmare in Australia

This article was written in 2013 about my farm work experience in Australia. I was working in Bedford Harbour Station in Western Australia. 

14,000 Acres – The extent of the wheat and canola farm we work in (the property stretches for 20km and is 10km wide)

5km – The distance separating our house from the manager’s. We are the only people living here, the others are part time contractors that come and go.

7days – Working days of the week

70h – The average of working hours in a week

120km – The distance to the first inhabited town (the first 40km are on a dirt road)

54kb – The speed of our -very expensive- internet connection, which brings us back to the ’90s

4000 acres – The area to burn by the end of the month

farm work experience in Australia
This is our current situation in figures. Agriculture is not a joke. The survivors you meet on the road try to warn you, Instagram feeds of friends working in the paddocks leave no doubt but, truth is, you are never quite ready to forced labour until you are in it.
The job consists of weaving randomly in the fields with the ute, one driving while the other one holds a fire-starter-bucket out of the window to burn the straw lines.  By lighting up spots of straw here and there, the wind should do the rest and burn all the straw away. Obviously, it is never the case. That’s why we keep going back and forward through the smoking fields to “fill the gaps” which means burning everything like no tomorrow. As if this wasn’t stressing enough, when you burn the edges of the fields you have to make sure that the fire does not spread to the bush, degenerating into a massive fire. In short: the most relaxing job ever.



farm work experience in Australia

Well, it seems trivial to tell you about how terrifying it is to live with fire paranoia, working all day in the smoke, constantly smelling of diesel. I spend my day twisted out of the window, while holding the bloody fire starter with two hands because it’s too heavy. While in the meantime my boyfriend and/or the manager scream at me because I’m missing the lines / I can’t drive / I don’t understand what they say.

“There’s not much else to add,
it’s a nightmare.
Not to mention that when
the bush takes fire,
it’s a living hell for real.”

I hate every minute of this and I complain about it all the time. I’m unbearable and I know it, but I can’t do anything about it. It’s the worse job I ever had. Worse than standing motionlessly in a conference room for hours, worse than cleaning toilets, worse than hustling till morning in a night bar, worse than dealing with sclerotic children, worse than anything else I’ve ever done.

I’m sending so many silent prayers to the bush for not taking fire that I’m practically turning religious. But I won’t quit. Even if we are running out of food because we don’t have time off to go shopping, even if we come back from work so tired that we barely find the strength to eat and go to bed, even if we have to collect the drinking water from a fountain 2km from our place because tap water is not safe…

farm work experience in Australia
farm work experience in Australia

And I do it for one and only reason: When this job will be over, I will be rich. Richer than I have ever been in my life. I will have earned in a month much more than I earned in a year by working as a hostess. Forced labour won’t last forever and should allow us not to work for a while. The money will also fund our desert crossing! On the Great Central Road fuel can costs as much as 2.5 $ per litre!

Update: Since the boss promoted me to the fanciest ute, my life has improved a lot. Now I drive a new Hilux with a radio, air conditioner and an INTEGRATED FIRESTARTER. No jokes. You just push a button from inside of the car and the thing hooked behind the pick-up sparks fire! This way I light everything faster, with zero effort and without breathing almost any smoke. I also drive the tractor from time to time now. Things are getting better and our escape is closer.

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