In the spring of 2002, I spent two weeks trekking through the Australian Outback. Our party included myself, a retired naval officer for a guide, and eight other backpackers eager to touch the desert sands beneath their fingers.
Adelaide was our starting point, amid the rolling grasses of the parched landscape, soon giving way to the towering peaks of the Flinders Ranges.
Along the way we spotted lizards and camels, ancient cave paintings and even a prehistoric trilobite, revealed in the rock only when soaked from a few splashes of our bottled water.
From there we made our way across the vast plains of dry scrub and pale salt lakes, with temperatures sometimes soaring into the forties.
Though our Jeep Landrover was equipped with air-conditioning, our Aussie guide thought it would use too much fuel – and gas stations were a luxury around those parts. The air conditioner remained off.
It wasn’t until the end of the two weeks that we spotted the source of our main destination – Ayer’s Rock. Thrusting out of the desert like a citadel of sand, the rock was impossible to ignore even a hundred miles away.
When we eventually reached the monolith’s base, we spent the day hiking its exterior, and settled in by evening to watch it change colour in the sunset. But we weren’t alone.
As we watched, tour bus after shining tour bus pulled into the parking lot, their driver’s leaping out almost before the wheels had stopped. They threw together lavish tables of wine and cheese, as their golden-aged charges toddled out of the bus and into their lawn chairs.
Our Aussie guide leaned over, “Doesn’t seem right, does it?” he said. “Them blighters fly in from Sydney, eat their cheese, drink their wine, then bugger off as if they’ve seen all there is to this place.”
I nodded, feeling that familiar twinge in stomach – where I separate my experience from that of the other. Between these rich fakers, and my own thinly budgeted authenticity.
But was it really authentic?
Can I honestly claim that my experience was superior to theirs, even though the similarities were glaringly obvious?
After all, I had purchased my ticket through a backpacker’s travel agent. I had hopped into a well-packed Landrover among a number of other adventure-seekers, eager to experience what the Outback had to offer.
Examined on a level of pure utility, there didn’t seem to be much difference between my two-week desert trek and the aging wine drinkers who came only for the sunset show. Both of us endeavoured to escape the mundane existence of Western society and venture out to explore the world, and both of us were catered to by our niche market of travel specialists.
As I reflected more on my experiences in Australia, I came to understand Paul Fussell’s famous quote,
“The anti-tourist deludes only himself. We are all tourists now.”
That’s not to make the sweeping generalization that all tourism is hollow and without authentic meaning.
My own experiences in Australia, Europe, Fiji, and beyond have certainly proven “real” to me. The red earth of the Outback was real to me. The giant cockroach hiding in my diving shoes was certainly real to me.
Yet there were times when I felt my experience was a little too guided; a little too sanitized. Even though I felt like I’d strayed from the tourist track enjoyed by older, tamer crowds, was it really any different?
How far must one venture from the beaten path to find true “authenticity” if it even exists at all?