The Road to Alice

Google maps will not plot a route from Kings Canyon to Alice Springs. There is no direct road unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and want to go 40 mph (64kph) over corrugated surfaces for six hours.  The only place to see along the way is an Aboriginal community called Hermannsburg, population 600.  It’s the birthplace of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira.  This is the monument to him; I was okay with not stopping to see it.

We took an indirect but smooth route.  In five and a half hours, there were no towns and no landmarks, only sand and spinifex and a few scrubby trees in a landscape that varied from flat to undulating.

This is a photo from an Australian Broadcasting Company promo for the “Secret Sex Life of Spinifex.”  That must be fascinating.  I’ll be sure to watch it someday.

There was no Internet.  The Canadian guy, who was sitting diagonally from me, finished his novel after an hour and I could feel him eyeing my New Yorker magazine. I felt his pain.  I had another issue in my backpack and I handed it over.  Heidi snoozed while I read a very long article about Rudy Giuliani.  Yawn.  I read one of my Somerset Maugham short stories and tore it out of the 800-page book to lighten my load. Four more hours.  I took out my souvenir kangaroo-themed notepad and jotted some notes to jog my memory for blog posts later.  Usually I can kill time by making lists.  To-do lists, to-buy lists, people-to-call lists; but I couldn’t summon the energy.

It may sound excruciating, but this was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  How often are you cut off from outside communications, and from anything to do except read or write—and even those are challenging due to the slight vibration of the bus, and because I felt brain dead as the bus soared monotonously through the desert like a plane flying over the Pacific.

“Brain dead” sounds bad.  I like to think of it as my computer being shut down—for the first time in months or maybe years.  For a few hours I had nothing to say, do, or think.  This ennui somehow felt good and right and overdue.

After four hours we reached the one human-built place to stop, Eldunda Roadhouse, which bills itself as the “Centre of the Centre.”

It was a Wild West place, and I don’t mean in a Disneyworld kind of way.  This was the real thing—a barely-stocked grocery with uninteresting souvenir t-shirts that looked like they’d been there since 1972 and a petrol station peopled with Wicked Campers, whatever that meant.

There was a bar.  I would have loved to have a cold beer because it was a million degrees outside, but there wouldn’t be a bathroom until Alice.  There was a barefoot group of Aboriginals roaming around, hollering at each other in Pitjantjara.  Were they loaded, or just bantering, in high spirits?

There was a motel; I’m sure it was worth whatever it cost if you were in danger of nodding off behind the wheel.

Of course there was an Emu farm.

As in most other places that advertised free wifi, I couldn’t connect to it by the time we had to leave.  Was it a slow connection, or my iphone?  Heidi let me connect to her hotspot so I could see how many people had liked my photos on Facebook.  So important.  When we first arrived I noticed my sense of desperation to connect.  Now it had decreased to a mild curiosity, and I was okay as we drove off into the desert again and the connection vaporized.

Meg pulled into Alice and began dropping us off at our accommodations, which ranged from luxury hotels (for the British Aussie family) to a backpackers hostel (for the German girls and Swiss couple) to a three-star motel (for Heidi and me).  We had only spent one full day and two nights together, but it felt like a week.  Nonetheless, there were no lingering farewells as we tumbled out of the bus to seek hot showers, AC, and clean white sheets.

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