Tag Archives: Alice Springs

Cookies and Contracts and Chasms … and Poop

Winter Solstice, in real time.  The cookie baking party was a success, if you measure success by the amount of cookie dough and sprinkles and silver balls ground into the carpet.

One child took it all very seriously and worked steadily, ignoring all the others’ silliness, to meet some quota she had set for herself.  The rest of them were very silly.

None of them are destined to compete on the Great British Baking show, but that wasn’t the point.

And there was poop.  In the middle of the chaos the three-year-old exclaimed proudly from the bathroom, “I pooped!”  That did not mean she had done it in the toilet.

I hadn’t cleaned up human poop for a long time.  It’s really, really gross.

Later, the three-year-old exclaimed from the kitchen, in a distressed tone, “There’s poop!”  In an act of karmic justice, the cat had crapped on her coat, which she’d thrown on the floor instead of on the bed as the other, older, children had done per my instructions.  Someone had closed the door to the closet where the litter box was placed, also in contradiction to my instructions.

Then everybody was pooped out. The children cuddled up on the couch and read books, and the naughty poopers fell asleep.

My son’s step daughters stayed overnight.  The next day, we went for a long walk in the woods and across Beaver Lake.

That night, without cleaning up at all, I collapsed onto the new mattress that had arrived in the middle of all this and I slept through the night for the first time in years.

Still in real time.  Yesterday was my last day at my job.  It happened to coincide with a planned team retreat to a puzzle room.  Now, I can’t stand board games or “brain teasers” or Sudoku.  I am a crossword aficionado, but I was very leery about a puzzle room.

Well it was a lot of fun.  Ten of my coworkers and I entered a room and worked to solve a mystery by the end of one hour.  If it had been just me, I would still be in the room.  But we all contributed something, even me.  Then we went for drinks at a nearby pub, and that was my last day at work.

I also finished the day with a signed agreement for six months of contract work at this same organization, and an offer letter for a part-time job at my local YMCA.

It’s been dreary and cold for months.  As I write this, it’s the shortest day of the year and I am dreaming of winter travel but not getting anything done about it.

Day 8 in Australia: The West MacDonnell Ranges.

A new tour bus pulled up in front of our motel, a nice comfy one.  Lachlan introduced himself as our guide and we were off.  We were a group of about a dozen, including a family with four children, one of whom was disabled and used a wheelchair.  I give them a lot of credit for getting out there and seeing the world when it clearly took a lot of extra effort.

Lachlan was passionate about the area, so while there were only four or five stops on the official tour, he kept saying, “We’re going to stop here; it’s not on the tour but it’s one of my favorite views.” And it would be worth it.

There was a couple sitting in front of us and the wife was a loud talker.  She started every sentence with the standard Australian “Awww,” but much louder and more nasally drawn out than normal.  I could see through the seats, her husband gazing at her adoringly.

Heidi and I looked at each other silently cracked up.  It would have been annoying if we were on a five-hour drive but we were stopping every half hour.

I will never remember all the stops but I will never forget Standley Chasm.  We walked through a glade to said chasm and back, and Heidi and I agreed there was something about the place … we both felt a sensation of peacefulness descend on us.

Those Who Serve

As I write this, it’s 10am on Saturday and I have 10 people coming over in two hours to bake cookies. Yes, the Jewish aunt hosts an annual cookie-baking party for her nieces and nephs.  There is about 10 pounds of cookie dough ready to go in the fridge—gingerbread, sugar cookies, and almond dough for belated Hannukah hedgehogs. I’ll also be making latkes, so the house will smell like oil for a week.  There is flour and sugar spilled everywhere.

I went through my cupboards and closets and made a “giveaway” pile of books and gadgets and odds and ends I bought overseas and didn’t know what to do with once I got home.  There will probably be a kangaroo tea towel in this pile next year.

I bought a new mattress, a bed in a box from Walmart, and naturally it was delivered last night.  When my son arrives he will get to hoist the old one out and set the new one up.  Shh…don’t tell him.

I have a new foster cat who is very friendly and constantly underfoot so that should make everything more interesting.  My son’s two step girls, aged three and seven, will be sleeping over.  It will be dark by 4:15 and they’ll probably get bored but bedtime is 7pm so how hard could it be?

It’s chaos, and I anticipate utter exhaustion on Monday.  Here’s a “before” photo of my dining room, complete with cookie cutters, every kind of thing you can sprinkle or spread on cookies, and tins ready to fill with cookies.  I will share some during- and after-photos in the next post.

I hope you are enjoying the year-end, whatever latitude you are in and whatever holidays you celebrate, or don’t.

There was more to learn about Australian military history as Heidi and I walked into town.  “There’s an RSL Club,” Heidi pointed out.

I believe RSL stands for “Returned Service League,” and it’s similar to a VFW Club in the US, where Veterans of Foreign Wars hang out.  I wonder where the Veterans of Domestic Wars go?

And it had a museum—this looked very exciting—but it was closed, forever.  “They must have moved to a new location,” Heidi said, disappointed.

Across the street there was an intriguing building behind a barbed wire fence and an American flag flew alongside the Aussie one.

“Why would the US air force be involved in monitoring seismic disturbances?” I asked.  “I mean, seismic disturbances don’t happen in the air.  I bet it’s a cover for a secret UFO project.”

“Oh yes, most certainly,” Heidi replied.

We stopped at a Woolworths, or Woolies as Aussies call them. Similarly to Target, Woolworths is something different in Australia than it was in the US before it went out of business.  In Aus there are Woolworths gas stations and another version that was more like a Walgreens but with groceries and alcohol.  We swung by the motel and grabbed some coffee mugs, then made the pleasant hike up Anzac Hill, where we watched the sunset and had a discreet mug of wine.

It was a beautiful view and the weather was perfect.  We talked about our family members who had been in the military, and Heidi told me more about her mother’s experience during World War II and subsequent move to Australia.

“We have at least as many refugees in the world now than there were at the end of World War II,” I commented.  “And yet it doesn’t feel like we’re at war.  Now we kill people with drones.”

“I know,” said Heidi, “You know we’ve got service members fighting, but it all feels so out of sight.”

It became dark and we were the last people on the hill.  Suddenly the sky lighted up in the distance with purple and orange Aboriginal patterns and I wondered if I was hallucinating.

“Do you see that …” I asked Heidi.

“Yes!  I think it’s a laser light show at the Desert Park; I saw it in a brochure.”

We agreed to go see it the next evening, then we carefully made our way down the hill in complete darkness until we saw a sign from another familiar-sounding business.

History, Great and Grim

I hope I don’t sound critical of Alice.  The place reminded me of another country town where I have spent a lot of time—Lanesboro, Minnesota—where my son Vince lived for years.  It had the same combo of hardy blue-collar local folk, a sizable airy-fairy artist contingency, and a population that lived among but apart at the same time; in Lanesboro it was the Amish and in Alice it was the Aboriginals.  I never spoke to an Aboriginal in my month in Australia.  I never had an opportunity.  I would have loved to hear their perspective on their place in Australian society.  But I’m sure they’re beyond tired of being interviewed and researched by curious white people.  I’ll make a New Year’s resolution here to read two books written by Aboriginal authors in 2019.

We walked along a deserted road under a fierce sun in intense heat.  We had seen a sign that said, “Alice Springs Telegraph Office” but it hadn’t indicated how far.  We’d been walking for 15 minutes and there were no further signs.

“It’s a car culture out here,” I observed.

“But why is there a sidewalk?” Heidi pondered.  “I looked into renting a car but it would have been stupidly expensive.”

Thankfully we had slathered and sprayed on sunscreen and donned our hats and sunnies, or we would have been baked red in minutes.  I was happy to strike this obligatory pose since it was in a bit of shade.

We weren’t so far away from civilization that Heidi couldn’t get a signal and Google the number for the telegraph station.  She called and they assured her we would reach them in a matter of minutes.  And we did

The Alice Springs Telegraph Station is a historic trust site.  We paid a small admission fee and joined the tail end of a walking tour.  This is the eponymous (underground) spring.

The guide explained the difference between Ghost and River Red gums.  I immediately forgot.  There are hundreds of different gum species.  All I know is that they’re all glorious.

One of the greatest engineering achievements of the 20th Century, the overland telegraph line ran from Darwin to Adelaide. That’s a long way.  The Alice Springs station was the halfway point and was completed in 1872.

There was a heartbreaking exhibit about a 1930s campaign that forcibly removed children born of Aboriginal mothers and white fathers from their homes and institutionalized them in Alice Springs.  The idea was to expose them to European customs and give them a “proper” education.  Which meant they lost out on education about their maternal culture.

This was a replica of the home for “half caste” children. It would have been freezing at night and scorching during the day.

Some of the children were traumatized for life, while others said being given an English education was the greatest opportunity they could have been given.

We walked around and peered into a  ye olde timey blacksmith’s shop, post office, and stables, which had a plaque telling the story of the camel’s arrival on the continent.  Camels carried a year’s worth of supplies to Alice Springs.  Their arrival must have been an annual highlight in an otherwise solitary and harsh existence.

We had paninis and cappuccinos in the office/gift shop/café, where I bought some wombat hats and a CD with Australian folk music that I have thoroughly enjoyed since, in place of listening to the news in my car.

We asked about walking back, and to our surprise learned there was a straight path into town that would take us no more than 15 minutes.  Hurrah!

“The bus takes a very circular route, so walking is faster,” explained the guy at the desk, who was Canadian.

A few minutes out, some Italian guys yelled “kangaroos!” at us and pointed to nearby rocky hills.

“They’re actually Rock Wallabies,” Heidi said helpfully, but the Italians mansplained no, they were kangaroos.  The critters were so well camouflaged that my photos couldn’t capture them.

There were also plaques inlaid in the walkway that chronicled other sad episodes in Australian history.  This is only about half of them.  I thought “confrontation” and “emergency” were great euphemisms.

A Night on the Town

Heidi and I returned to our motel to rest up before hitting the town for the night.

After working on my swimming skills all summer, I had looked forward to staying here because it had a pool.  But the pool was indoors, next to the parking lot, with no natural light or even a potted plant to make you feel you were in nature, and it was too small to swim a lap.  It was surrounded by concrete topped with artificial grass and two lounge chairs.

When searching for accommodations with a pool, always look at photos of the pool.

Heidi had made all the arrangements for our time in the centre and I was grateful for that.  Not being able to swim was no big deal.  I would have plenty of opportunities on the reef.

Our only plan for the evening was to check out a restaurant, Sportys, that Heidi’s Aboriginal exchange student from Alice had recommended.  Alice is a small town so we found it right away.  There was nothing else, really.  I ordered a steak salad that came with wilted, brown lettuce and “steak” that was really processed beef lunch meat cut into “steak”-shaped strips.  Our server was a young guy from Orlando, Florida who was clearly thrilled to be anywhere but there.

“I’ve got a one-year work permit and I’m hoping I never have to go back!” he effused.

“Do you think he’s gay?” I asked Heidi when he’d skipped away.

“Hmm … yes?” she laughed.

“Do you think he’s The Only Gay in the Village?” I asked her.  This was a reference to a skit from the old politically incorrect comedy show Little Britain, in which comedian Matt Lucas plays the eponymous Only Gay in a tiny Welsh village.

Alice didn’t seem like a place our waiter was likely to meet an Australian to marry so he could stay in the country forever.

It was dark.  We sat on the patio and watched passersby: groups of young people with beer cans in their hands, men who looked like they’d been cleaning out sewers or dumpsters all day, Aboriginal teen moms with strollers and toddlers running free.  The streets weren’t well lighted except for the main pedestrian drag, which had a fantastic art installation involving swirling Aboriginal patterns projected onto the sidewalks and neon sculptures that resembled insects.  This was accompanied by new-age music emanating from nowhere and everywhere.  The streets leading away from the main street receded into darkness.

We wished our waiter good luck, then sauntered out into the night.  All the shops were closed except for Target, which is not the same Target as the US chain but which has the same logo.  “Target sell mainly clothes and small household items,” explained Heidi as we did a walk through.  It was a warehouse-style store, but with red Target logos everywhere.

That was our whoopdeedoo night on the town; there was nothing else to do.  This was okay with me since I can’t stay up past 9pm anyway.

Heidi had an ambitious plan for us the next day.

“We’ll take a bus out to the telegraph station, then we should be able to visit the School of the Air using the same bus route.”

We procured a schedule, enough change to pay the fare, and searched and asked strangers for directions for half an hour until we found a bus stop.  The bus came quickly, and we paid our fares.

“Five more dollars,” demanded the driver, who appeared to be Somali.

Heidi showed him the bus brochure, which stated the fare in black and white.

“No, five more dollars each,” the driver insisted.

We fumbled and coughed up five dollars, then he performed some sleight of hand, insisting we needed to pay two more, then he gave us some change back.

“I think we were just scammed,” I said, “but I’m so confused I don’t think I could argue for our money back.”

Heidi was steaming.  When we got to our stop 20 minutes later, she stood in the bus door to keep him from closing it and calmly argued with him.  He didn’t budge.

“I’m fairly certain that’s the only bus,” she remarked, “So we’ll be walking back to town.”

Royal Flying Doctors

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is something of which Heidi, and all Australians, are justifiably proud.

There were many people involved, but the RFDS was inspired by poor Jimmy Darcy, who was thrown from his horse on a cattle station in 1917.

“What’s a cattle station, versus a farm?” I asked Heidi.

“I think a station is just bigger,” she replied.

I looked it up.  America’s biggest ranch is 2,300 square miles (6,000 kilometers), while the largest Australian station is 9,300 square miles (24,000 kilometers)!  These spaces are unfathomable to me.

From the RFDS website:

“Kimberley stockman Jimmy Darcy suffered massive internal injuries when his horse fell in a cattle stampede. An 80-kilometre ride on a dray over a rough track took him to the nearest settlement of Halls Creek.  Darcy needed immediate lifesaving surgery and with the nearest doctor thousands of kilometres away, Halls Creek postmaster Fred Tuckett had to perform emergency surgery.

“It was 2800km from Halls Creek where a doctor in Perth, Joe Holland, instructed Tuckett via morse code how to carry out the surgery.  Tuckett was afraid he’d make a mistake – that he’d kill the injured man – but Dr Holland told him if he didn’t act Darcy would die anyway.  Using his pocketknife, Tuckett made an incision above the pubic bone as the stockman’s brothers tried to ease his agony and shoo the flies away from the blood.  Tuckett worked for hours, cutting and stitching, stopping every few minutes to check the doctor’s telegrams.

“The operation on Darcy’s ruptured bladder was a success but the 29-year-old stockman was weak and now suffering from malaria.  Dr Holland boarded a cattle ship that took an agonising week to reach Derby and then spent six days in a Model T Ford held together by leather straps, bumping and thumping his way across the desert to save the stockman’s life.

“Aborigines help push his car across river beds and up sandy banks and he endured tyre punctures, radiator leaks and engine stutters.  At one point he had to use the rubber tubing from his stethoscope to siphon the last drops of petrol from a can.  The car finally conked out 40km from Halls Creek.  Dr Holland walked for two hours to a nearby cattle station and then rode through the night to reach the town at daybreak.  Jimmy Darcy had died a few hours earlier.

“For days, newspaper readers around Australia were gripped by the story of the young stockman’s desperate struggle for life.”

One of the people following the story was a Presbyterian minister, John Flynn, who was ministering in the outback and had witnessed similar tragedies.  He had recently received a letter from Clifford Peel, a medical student.  Peel was also a pilot and suggested using the relatively new technology of aeroplanes to get medical help to people in remote areas.  A year later, he was shot down over France.

A hundred years later, here’s a live map of RFDS flights in the air.

Originally, rural folk were provided with a chart of the human body, a medical kit, and a pedal-powered radio.

They would describe symptoms and doctors and nurses in Adelaide would instruct them in what to do.

The radios also allowed folks to gossip with their neighbors 300 miles (500 k) down the road on the next station.

Today, the RFDS docs and nurses do a lot of preventive education and telemedicine, but they still fly when necessary to aid anyone living or traveling in the outback.  We watched a cheesy hologram of an actor overacting as Rev. Flynn.

We checked out an RFDS plane; it reminded me of those little rooms at IKEA where everything you need is compactly in its place, only instead of storage for macaroni and shoes here it was scalpels and IV poles.

There was a quilted homage to Rev. Flynn.  Winters are long in the outback.

Even though it was a small museum, there wasn’t enough time to see everything because we had two more places on our list and they both closed at 5pm.  I lingered over some nice tunics on sale in the gift shop but had to settle for a handful of 3D postcards.

Alice, Sans Springs

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.

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.