Sunday, 13 July 2008

A week in the desert

Before last week, I'd never set foot in the Northern Territory. Nor had I flown over the red centre. I'd either lived in, or holidayed in, or passed through seven out of eight states but never the NT. Finally, thanks to the opportunity to travel for work, I made it to to the centre. To Alice Springs.

It was a wonderful trip. Four of the five days there were admittedly taken up mostly with work but they allowed enough of a glimpse of central Australia, a place that's rich in history, mythology and beauty. I really want to try and capture my impressions so indulge me please while I write about it and show lots of photos! Feel free to just skim the photos.

To leave this vision of clouds and lush forest behind, near Sydney, head up above the clouds and come down several hours later to my first ever view of the central desert was powerful. 

Photos taken from a plane aren't easy with a small digital camera, but I was pretty excited to try and get what I could.

I'd almost lost the window seat early on when a South American women tut-tutted at the start of the flight and made pointed remarks about how she REALLY wanted a window seat. Well, I was about to face three hours flying over central Australia for the first time. There was no way I was giving up my seat. I know, I know - she was a foreigner and it was her first time too but you know, I don't know when I'll make it back either.

I sat for a while feeling bad while she huffed next to me. But the moment the plane took off, she put on eye patches and asked for a blanket!  So much for craving the window seat. She just wanted it so no one would disturb her for toilet breaks etc. I was incredibly glad I didn't give up my precious window seat! Visions like this awaited.

What amazed me about the desert, which I later learned is the size of Europe, is that it wasn't the same all the way. It changed. At times it looked like this, with rivers snaking through it (oddly enough) and and other times, it was just red sand stretched out to the horizon with nothing distinctive but the sand blown into ocean wave corrugations.

Finally (after much crocheting - yes, I managed it and no one paid the slightest attention to me brandishing a bamboo hook!) we spotted the spectacular Macdonnell Ranges which surround the town of Alice Springs.

Oh, before I reach Alice, you have to see this. Not far from landing I saw this large rock in the earth and my heart skipped a beat. I snapped photos. Was it? Could it be? No, really?

A kid sitting behind me called out, 'Mum! It's Ayres Rock!' I was SO glad that was him and not me because I almost grabbed the arm of the sleeping South American woman beside me to get her to see Ayres Rock.  Imagine if I'd woken her up to show her a big lump of rock that I'm told is nothing like that famous landmark.

I arrived around lunch time and the dry heat hit me the moment I stepped out of the plane. As an indication, in Canberra, winter temps are averaging around 8C (46F). Each day in Alice, we had the most glorious weather hovering around 20C/64F. Bit of a difference huh? 

The light was bright, the air dry. As dry as the Todd River which locals were quick to tell me rarely fills up. As part of the river lay across the road from the Crowne Plaza hotel, I made the most of getting the chance to check it out and take some photos.

I really was staying right on the edge of town which was quite funny considering that when I arrived, I asked the nice cab driver to take me to the 'city'. No wonder he scoffed. I really had no sense that Alice was so small (pop 26,000) and the river so very dry.

It must be spectacular when it's flowing. I want to go back in the wet season and hopefully see it as it should be, although you can't deny that a dry river bed has a character all its own.

And here's where I spent the rest of the week, after exploring on the first day. The Alice Springs Convention Centre at the end of the road which faces the river bed, just a short walk from my hotel and framed beautifully by part of the MacDonnell Ranges.

Amazingly, I was able to knit all the way through the conference. I was really only there as an observer, given our department had sponsored part of it. I wasn't required to do an awful lot except for in the breaks when I had to work on our department's booth. But even that was only moderately taxing. 

During one session, I sat beside an Indigenous woman who was crocheting a blanket in the colours of the Aboriginal flag. She was delighted, I think, when I asked her if she'd mind if I took a photo.

We both agreed keeping your hands busy throughout those long sessions helps keep you focused. 

Look Julie, here's your Purple Trainwreck yarn in Central Australia. Bet you never thought it'd land there!

On the last night, we were taken to a remote cattle property for a dinner under the stars and drove through the desert on a coach at sunset to get there.

I didn't get tired of looking at it. You can't. It's another world. An African American man from Virginia who I met at the dinner told me that the desert reminded him of New Mexico.

The dinner was held outside, in the cold night desert, on what I learned was a disused film set. That was a little disappointing for me. The little buildings around us seemed so authentic. I felt like such a tourist. But you know, that's what you get I suppose when you're there for an international conference.

Still, it makes for nice photos that there was such beautiful scenery all around us.

I took my clapotis out that night. I thought she might like to see the desert by night and boy was I glad I did. I'm not one for keeping warm on the dance floor, especially not at a work function, so I was glad for the warmth and comfort of a wrap.

Someone said to me there that surely, as a Canberran, I should be used to that kind of cold. Well, yes, but we don't often stand around outside in the cold in Canberra. Nights are for being inside, wrapped up in layers and keeping toasty warm in the central heating!

And really, that's about it, except to say that I loved Alice Springs. I went with all sorts of pre-conceived ideas, mostly that Alice Springs would be crawling with rednecks who would hate tourists. Sure, they're there. And there's a terrible feeling in the town that the Indigenous people get a hard time (they're banned from most pubs, for example) but the people I met were friendly, even in the supermarket line. 

Locals were keen to tell stories and to make you welcome and the Indigenous people I met, mainly at the conference, were just the same. People are proud of their town and I would go back, as a proper tourist, in a heartbeat. In fact Sean and I are already talking about it. But in winter of course. Those soaring summer temperatures are not for us!

One final story. I ate kangaroo one night at an outback pub called Bojangles. Not so surprising. I've eaten kangaroo before. But to a four year old, it must be pretty amazing. I rang Adele and Will the morning after and told Will the story. He laughed and said it was crazy. Imagine if I'd had the camel pie I was tossing up on the menu!

And so finally, I am home. Sean missed me a lot but coped well. I got regular reports on meals he cooked such as steak with roast potatoes, or rice and tuna dishes. I love knowing I can go away and leave him to look after himself like a grown up. 

Tonight, he's cooking me a birthday roast lamb. Today I am 36 and contrary to popular opinion, not staggering around in a state of shock at my age and apparent childlessness. I am ok. I've had a lovely trip, have great friends, a wonderful husband and a good life. Many things to be thankful for, not least of which is a Monday off in lieu because I worked Saturday. I'll be sleeping off the birthday wine, no doubt.