Friday, January 09, 2009

Freedman Down Under: Outback Sideways

So we pick up the story in Melbourne early on Sunday morning, when Wifey and I are driven to the airport by the Rippa, to board our (shudder) low-cost airline flight to Alice Springs. The night before, we had made a pretty valiant effort to eat our way through the Limor's legendary meat fress, and we were feeling the burn. Meat sweats, bloating, and just not enough of the right kind of fibre to help such a mass of protein on its way. And now a 2 1/2 hour flight with the legal minimum seat pitch and 200 selected local and international hoi polloi in close proximity. Just the thing.

After a flight that was uneventful due to everyone's inability to move from the knees up, we touched down in Alice Springs. First thing we noticed was the greenery - there has been a lot of rainfall recently, so as much as semi-arid territory blooms, this was doing so. One downside to the recent precipitation is the number of flies. We fought through a couple of clouds of the little buggers, picked up our Hioldguy Betz and headed off to the hotel, a pleasant enough affair near the edge of town. More bugs on offer, including these cricket/grasshopper things who spring around your face a lot and then sit dumbly on the pavement waiting to be crunched underfoot.

A little pootle into town reveals a whole load of Aboriginal daywalkers just kind of hanging around the place, intense heat and a bunch more bugs. It being 11am, and with some fairly immovable lumps of meat deep in the recesses of the bowel, we do the only decent thing while I am still in treif mode, and go into the only open restaurant (KFC), where we work our way through the Batsman's Bucket in short order. This is a $25.95 coronary-in-waiting, and with that much grease, it slips down real nice at that time of day. All 16 pieces of chicken, 2 large fries, large bottle of fizz and crate of coleslaw.

We waddle off for a little tour of Alice, starting with an abortive trip to the Cultural Precinct, which turned out to be shut until 8th Jan, so I missed out on my chance to see the fab works of Albert Namatjira and visiting the Aviation Museum. We made the best of the day by going on tours of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the School of the Air (ie where Outback kids learn via radio and internet). Very cute girl giving the talk at the latter, grew up on a cattle station miles away from everywhere, shows that inbreeding really can work sometimes.

Speaking of which, it turns out the Aboriginals have had a practice stretching back a few thousand years that each person is allocated to one of 6 groups at birth based on a look at genealogy, and can only marry someone from a determined other group, which helps keep the gene pool reasonably open. This is especially important given that numbers have dropped below 300,000, and intermarriage bringing in new bloodstock is not all that common. Jews of Britain, take note.

Still doesn't make many Aboriginals use toilets instead of shitting on pavements, and certainly has not encouraged the use of showers and baths on a semi-frequent basis. Apparently this is because of a cultural aversion to "wasting water". Now camels are known as the great "ships of the desert" and retain vast amounts of water, apparently capable of rehydrating at the rate of 200 litres imbibed in 3 minutes. They also make surprisingly good pie, when braised in stout and served with chips, as Wifey found out down at Bojangles in downtown Alice. Having still not had a good poo since the combination of Limor's and the earlier finger lickin' goodness, I was not in the mood to partake.

Anyway, the following day we headed out into the Macdonnells, a range of mountain ridges that extends for a few hundred kms out of Alice and into the middle of bumblefuck. Given the 100km per day restriction on the car, along with our general laziness, we got as far as Trephina Gorge, in the East Macdonnells, where we took a long hike culminating in a dip in the waterhole at the foot of the gorge. After that, we were quite knackered, what with temperatures already being in the high thirties, and having made a 7am start, quite a feat for the likes of Wifey and me, so we sauntered back via a couple of other nice little stops, complete with me going for a good paddle at Emily Gap - or was it Jessie Gap? All these girly gaps I have been diving into whilst on this trip... wow, that wasn't contrived or lewd at all.

The plan was to have lunch outside, but the flies were just infuriating: Wifey's discovery of his inner guru means that I too must practice equanimity towards all creatures great and small. This doesn't stop me squishing a few of them when he's not looking.

Returning to Alice, we devoured our picnic lunch on the strangely fly-free balcony of our villa (perhaps the trail of scattered, shattered insect corpses of a previous moment of unequanimous behaviour on my part had the desired effect), took a long schluff and dip in the hotel's bougainvillea-draped pool, followed by a mooch into town, where we finally bought some fly nets. Then we took in some dinner at Bojangles again - Bo's Aussie Outback Mixed Grill, which describes itself as a "beaut combination of buffalo medallions, camel kebab, kangaroo fillet, emu sausage and crocodile rissoles served on a bed of garlic mash with chilli quandong sauce". Tasted mostly like chicken, beef, lamb and other things I can get at the Golders Green Deli, hence my belief that this treif "wildcard" experiment is just that...

The following morning, we headed off on the 3 day Rock Tour group trip, for a bargain $295. Firstly, I should mention that we breakfasted on these amazing limited edition Toffee Crunchy Nut Cornflakes - easily better than any of the bushmeat I've had out here. So we got on the minibus and met our guide, Beej, a glorious stereotypical native of The Alice. We then did a tour of hotels and hostels, collecting a Yank, 2 Swiss, a Dutch girl, a Brit girl, 4 Germans, a Turk, a Frenchie, and a family of 5 Swedes. We pottered out to King's Canyon, where we took a lovely hike that included a spectacular emergence into a gorge with a deep waterhole for swimming and general lizard lounging.

Beej turned out to be an excellent guide, and we even converted him to the ways of the flynet, for the first time in his 33 years of living in the Red Centre. Shows how bad it was, or perhaps how many we attracted. He talked about the various aspects of geology, nature and Arrernte (local Aboriginal tribe) mythology that came together to form the canyons and monoliths we saw, and ensured we were well fed on chicken satay and rice in the evening, as we settled down in swags by the campfire.

What with being so very far away from everything, we all lay awake under the big sky, spellbound by just how many stars there turned out to be up there. I snuggled up to Wifey, but he was having none of it.

The next morning, up not long before sunrise for a trip over to the Olgas, which are a variation on the more famous Uluru/Ayers Rock monolith, and in many ways much more spectacular. By the Arrernte name of Kata Tjuta, these strange knobbly heaps contain within some impressive views of more gorges and canyons, complete with some nice wildlife, and with an amazing ability to totally destroy my walking boots.

As we set off on the hike, I began to wish I had laid down some of that funky shoe glue in the welts, but had never got round to it. Gradually the crack between the rubber sole and leather upper started to fill with pebbles, twigs and dust, until like some cartoon hobo, I was walking along with the whole front flapping away. After tripping and swearing my way for a mile or two, I resolved to use the emergency sewing kit to temporarily stitch the top and bottom together, but was not factoring in the drizzling sweat and accompanying thousand flies who wanted a bath.

So I hobbled my way around most of this stunning walk, with the soles completely removed and the uppers of my shoes held together with the remaining shards of insole by my socks being wrapped around the outsides. Meanwhile my sweaty sockless feet absorbed the crunchy, pointy rocks underneath as best as possible, while Wifey helpfully kept telling me to be equanimous.

Later on, we went on a visit to the Uluru cultural centre, learned more about how the Aborigines came over from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea by boat somewhere between 25,000 and 65,000 years ago (and have yet to wash, by all accounts), lost David the German, wound up at the foot of Uluru for a quick look at one of the waterholes that forms by collecting the water run-off from the top of the the rock, where we saw a rare perentie lizard baby. There are apparently only about 50 perenties left in the wild, so this is a real coup.

Then we found David the German, headed to the viewing point to cook up some spag boloroo (yes, that is pasta with minced Skippy) overlooking the rock at sunset. Very nice but we didn't get the really spectacular orange glow of the picture postcard. This didn't stop the archetypal group of Japanese tourists taking a gazillion photos and quaffing a champagne buffet. We entertained ourselves with a brief guitar strum with new group member British Matt, and a little sing-a-long of Waltzing Matilda.

On the coach back to camp, we were treated to Beej being posed the best question of all time from British Laura:
"Did the Aboriginals leave Asia because it was shit?"
Mulling over this profound question, wondering if a T-shirt in one of the Aboriginal languages, saying "We're only here because Asia was shit" would be a best-seller.

Another night under the stars, fit 19 year old German girl insisting on sleeping just nicely in my eyeline, on top of her swag, wearing just a little vest and some snug Hello Kitty knickers... doesn't get much better than that. Up before dawn, down to Uluru again for sunrise breakfast, delightful PB&J sarnies on tasty fruit loaf, with swigs of orange and passion fruit juice. Then a 10km circuit around the rock, where Stephen and I romped home in first place, due to the front-runners mysteriously disappearing.

Eerily reminiscent of Meryl Streep's "uh dingo took mah baaaybeh" moment, British Matt and Yankee Bayo had simply vanished. After half an hour of waiting and driving around looking for them, we were about to write them off, as a 10% attrition rate on these kinds of tour is quite acceptable, when a coach coming in the opposite direction screeched to a halt, and deposited the bedraggled pair. Turns out they had been so engrossed in their debate on the metaphysical qualities of Uluru and the Aboriginal legends of Dreamtime that they failed to notice they had completed the circuit, and just kept on walking.

As this was the end of the tour, everyone was heading on a 6 hour drive back to Alice but Wifey and I were being dropped off at the resort so we could fly straight out to Perth. The loss of two trippers deprived us of nearly an hour of extra dipping in the resort pool, but we got a splash before supping a cool bevy in the hotel bar and heading to the airport for our trip to Perth, thankfully on Qantas. No bizclass section on this flight unfortunately, which meant we only managed Row 4, whilst Row 5 was occupied by a couple whose two young children took turns to crap their nappies every 15 minutes for the whole 2 1/2 hour flight. These were changed in situ so we all got to smell the sweet, musky delights of the underage turd.

We got to Perth, cabbed it to the Bros' surgery, got a lift from there to their rather awesome house, and basically flaked out for the next 24 hours. That brings us up to date. Rottnest Island, downtown Perth and Fremantle to come tomorrow, wedding on Sunday, down to Margaret River on Monday. Wifey promises that photos will be inserted retrospectively this side of Easter.


Anonymous said...

I think I might be the "very cute" girl you were referring to when you mentioned your time at the Alice Springs School of the Air. While I accept the compliment, I question your listening abilities: my father is a park ranger (who is actually the head ranger of Kings Canyon), not the owner of a cattle station and my mother definitely isn't my father's sister.
I find it most unappealing that you use your blog to degrade the people of Alice Springs...and I think you even managed the rest of the people in the world. Perhaps if you have so much disrespect for other people, you should keep to wherever you came from...probably living at home with your mother, who is probably your fathers cousin.

Have a nice day.

freedmanslife said...

So a date at Bo's is out of the question on my next trip to Alice? And how on earth did you even find this blog?

Apologies for the error, I must have confused you partly with the girl in the short film we watched, who was sent out to a cattle station as a tutor. The heat, the flies, the pain in my feet... it all affects the memory. Also I apologise for the inbreeding comment, because it lacked imagination, being just too obvious to make about "country folk".

Incidentally, my opinion of Alice Springs was corroborated by our guide, who is 32 and moving away, because of the deterioration of the social and physical fabric of the town. He said most young people are looking to do the same. His explanation was that Aboriginal tribes from a wide radius send their outcasts away from their communities and they end up traipsing around Alice with whatever problems caused them to be ejected. This not only upsets the white community of the town, but also agitates the Arrernte, whose land they cross, and whose relationship with the people of Alice is greatly destabilised by their behaviour.

From an urban renewal perspective, I think Alice will always struggle. To have a vibrant town based on a pleasant central area, money needs to be spent, but there is only so much a local population can support, and higher-spending tourists tend to stick to the larger hotels with their own resources on the edge of town - a chicken and egg issue.

Add to that the need to cure the social issue of itinerant Aboriginals meandering (and defecating on) the streets. Regardless of the difference of cultural opinion on the use of water to flush waste, there could be room for compromise, for example, providing and enforcing the use of poop-scoops and bags, as would be required in the UK if pets crap on the road. And there ought to be some place for these people to go, rather than sitting around aimlessly, often drunk or spaced out, waiting for a benefit cheque. It makes the place very uncomfortable for visitors, and cannot be healthy for them or the state long-term.

Anyway, in a desert, it's generally hard to have pleasant green-looking parks and fountains spring up year-round, whatever the budget. In such extreme climates, indoor with aircon is where most pasty-faced tourists want to be, and a new mall will hardly add character.

Ergo, my considered opinion of Alice Springs is negative, and so is my prognosis for the future.

If you feel differently, I'm sure the readers of this blog would like to hear your views, as would my mother, who sends her regards from the next room ;)