Alice Springs. I knew little about it except that it was in the middle of a vast country. It held a mythical status in my mind, maybe because it was named after a person—in this case, the wife of one of the men who built the overland telegraph line. There were no springs in Alice Springs except underground. If you were dying of thirst and you could make out the outline of a river in the desert, you could secure water by diffing down six feet through sand and rock. The rivers never flowed above ground unless there was a flood. Perhaps that’s why it’s usually referred to as just Alice.
“They have something called the Henley-on-Todd Regatta every year,” Heidi chuckled, “where they race ‘boats’ on the dry riverbed.”
Alice is also the midpoint of the legendary Ghan, the train that runs almost 3,000 miles (4,828 kilometers) from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north.
Originally called the Afghan Express, it was built for the British by immigrants from what is now Pakistan, who imported camels from India and Afghanistan to help with the job. The camels did very well. In fact, Australia now has over a million of camels running wild in packs in the outback.
I had checked out the Ghan and it would have cost me about $700 to get to Alice from Adelaide. This didn’t line up with my plans with Heidi but I would definitely go back and do it someday.
First, we had breakfast.
Someone had taken the trouble to decorate the stairwell of the motel with painted scenes from nature.
“You wonder if they were taking the piss,” Heidi said as she traced the names Boobialla and Cocky Apple with her finger. Taking the piss means “to joke mockingly.”
Each of the three mornings we ate breakfast in the motel restaurant, we sat for over an hour drinking coffee and talking. This is my favorite part of traveling—spending lots of time with people I like. Heidi and I talked about our families, our jobs, our pasts, our plans, travel, men, news, culture, and everything else.
Finally we stepped out into the heat of Alice to get our bearings and find the Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum.
Alice struck me as more of the Wild West. Now, obviously I never lived in the Wild West and don’t even know exactly what I mean by that except it includes images of cowboys and Indians and dusty towns with saloons and lots of drinking and gambling and perhaps a gun fight. There was none of that in Alice that I saw, except for the dust. The people were definitely scruffy—I guess it would be nicer to say they were casually dressed. It was a contrast with Sydney, where men wore expensive suits and shoes and women sported skirts and heels.
There were a lot of Aboriginals, and many of them were barefoot. Their feet must have been tough to withstand the heat of the pavement. There were also plenty of Aboriginals dressed like the rest of the non-tourist population; that is, as bus drivers and students and shop keepers.
I am not Aboriginal nor an expert on Aboriginal culture. I have felt guilty writing about what I observed, when it could be construed as negative. It is my understanding that Aboriginals are plagued by the same troubles as many Native Americans: Obesity and its attendant health problems, alcoholism, domestic violence, and poverty. Beyond these statistics, I don’t feel like their story is mine to tell, beyond what I saw firsthand.
And about drinking in Australia. My expectation had been that everyone would be guzzling Fosters and stumbling around in the streets. This was also an impression several of my American and British friends shared before I left.
I think this impression came from our encounters with Aussies in London and elsewhere. Once I thought about it, these had been mostly young people living away from home for the first time. I should have known that they didn’t represent the entire Australian population, who didn’t appear to drink any more than Americans.