A few years ago, I took a contract in Central Australia. Just for three months. I was single (again) and had a hankering to hit the road, start anew. I packed the Corolla full of everything I needed and everything I didn’t and took off down the Stuart Highway.
It wasn’t my first time in the Centre. I’d enjoyed a couple of Beanie Festivals in Alice Springs over the years, recorded a few stories for Triple J, walked some of the Larapinta Trail. But Alice Springs had always left me gulping for breath. I found it difficult to wrap my head around the reality that I was thousands of miles from the sea in any direction. I’d thought it more stark than beautiful.
I was wrong.
In July 2010, I fell hard for Alice Springs. I discovered the joy of big skies and big country. Sheer cliffs; gorges and swimming holes in the desert. The famous clay pans. I learned to find the peace I associated with the ocean in the East and West MacDonnell Ranges. I’d sit up on the hill near Telegraph Station and watch green and yellow budgerigars play in the white gums and ragged stretches of rock disappear into the folds of the horizon.
I even walked along the Todd River singing In A Big Country, a Scottish one hit wonder that somehow wound up on my playlist:
I’m not expecting to grow flowers in a desert
But I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime
In a big country, dreams stay with you
Like a lover’s voice fires the mountain side….
The infatuation got more fully formed the day I walked up Mt Gillen with my friend, Trang. Covered in sandy boulders and a pink flowering weed called Ruby Dock, it looked like another planet. It was a hot day, but on top of Mt Gillen the air was cold and the sky was blue and all was beautiful and right in the world.
Alice Springs felt like a friendly and colourful place to park myself for a few months; full of characters ordinary and extraordinary. There were road train drivers and ringers, developers and cowboys. Bureaucrats and bird watchers. Traditional owners. Real estate agents in ‘80s era power suits who told me smugly that the rental vacancy rate was less than 1 percent, which was good news for them but pretty shitty for me. Aboriginal mob came into town from places I had to learn to pronounce: Titjilaka, Amperlatwaty, Atitjere. There were tour guides and sculptors, coppers and journos. Legal Aid lawyers pulling suitcases full of briefs along to court. Children rode bikes down the street. Teenagers ruled Billy Goat Hill. And from Eastside to Ilparpa, there were plenty of earnest young (and old) things), all dressed in a uniform of short-brimmed Akubras and beards or dresses with leggings and desert boots.
People in Alice Springs cared. They joined in. They marched down streets and held town meetings and made parade floats for the Desert Festival. They raced “boats” down the empty Todd River. They showed films, played music, hosted cabaret nights, protested against uranium mining, planted heritage seeds, held Open Gardens. They were members of Rotary or Apex or the Lions Club. They elbowed each other out of the way to get the best pickles at the Old Timers Fete and to buy Aboriginal art at Desert Mob. People waved to each other. In the correct season they played footy or cricket, softball and netball. They danced late into the night at Annie’s Place and drank when it was Happy Hour and drank when it wasn’t. They went to see John Williamson play at the Memo Club. They crocheted blankets and wore beanies and adopted camp dogs.
In the freezer section of the supermarket, you could find trays of chops next to chunks of kangaroo tail. Sturt’s Desert Pea bloomed on roundabouts and verges. Train tracks for The Ghan ran through the middle of town. There were locally grown dates and Vietnamese market gardens; peanut shells on the floor and saddles on the walls of the local night-spot, Bojangles. Every so often, the Todd River would flow with the rain, and then overflow, flooding causeways and cutting off the golf course. And with the rain came the wildflowers. Pussy Tails and Mulla Mulla flowered on Anzac Hill and right through the Botanic Gardens. There were paddy melons on scrappy bits of walking paths and on the red dust roads leading out of town; the melons looked like tennis balls scattered up and down the Plenty Highway. I never was sure if you could actually eat them. There were more cafes than Darwin, good coffee and more lesbians per capita than any other town in Australia.
It all felt warm and vibrant and inclusive and yet it also wasn’t. The night I arrived, I turned on the TV in my hotel room to find Four Corners telling the story of Kwementyaye Ryder, an Aboriginal man who had died one year earlier. He was bashed and kicked in the head, attacked by five young white men out on the town and full of grog. Kwementyaye Ryder had died in a river bed five minutes away from my hotel room. The next day, I walked back into Alice Springs sunlight and under those big skies but I couldn’t get his story out of my head.
As a blow-in, it was almost impossible to get a full grip on the complex Alice Springs politics of race and land and history and culture, of alcohol and money and having and not having, but I felt its presence. It was in everything, everywhere. It was in the Kwementyaye Ryder case. I felt it at the Aboriginal town camps, which were tucked into corners around town: Mount Nancy, Hoppy’s Camp, Little Sisters. In heated arguments about council by-laws and over a Freemason sponsored statue of explorer John McDouall Stuart with a rifle in his hand. In the vigilante styled leaflets left in my letter box and in angry missives to the Alice Springs News. It was in the art, on the paper beneath the water colours that followed in the grand tradition of Albert Namatjira, in the number plates and pieces of scrap metal painted over by Tangentyere artists.
And the spectre of alcohol loomed large: on Friday and Saturday nights in town, in the taverns close to where I lived in The Gap, in casual, late afternoon domestic violence and in the empty green cans and wine bladders left behind in the Todd River bed.
Alice Springs was a small town, too. The pharmacist would tell me he’d been listening to me on the radio, as he handed over my prescription medicine. I went to get a massage and my therapist turned out to be the affable Murray Stewart, then Deputy Mayor. I was much taller than he thought I was, listening to my voice on the airwaves. I got that a lot. One lonely afternoon, I burst into tears on a walk around the Olive Pink Botanic Garden and then had to smile and wave at five people I knew. I found myself using the word ‘intense’ a lot, too much, in an effort to describe the people, the heat, the flies, the landscape, the arguments, the politics.
Work was challenging. Romance was hard to come by. I briefly dated a podiatrist, who I pressed for gruesome stories about amputations and gangrenous, diabetic feet and then was sorry that I had. Finding a place to live proved to be difficult and expensive. Petty theft was rife. In my first week, the teddy bear I’d had since I was a kid was stolen from my hotel room, along with a bag of toiletries. I hoped it was just a lonely hotel maid, not a more sinister stuffed-animal kidnapping ring. My apartment complex came under siege by bored teenagers during the school holidays. They’d jump the fence and break into houses, cars, whatever was going. I still have the “A” they scratched onto the back window panel of my car.
A for Alice Springs?
I got insomnia. My old mates Depression and Anxiety decided to unroll swags on my living room floor and settled in for the long haul. I started to become sick. And with that, Alice Springs and I broke up after just three and a half months.
“It’s not you. It’s me,” I told Alice Springs.*
I hoped we could still be friends.
It was time for me to head back North, to re-tread the Berrimah Line. I came home, to humid, sweaty, ocean-hugged Darwin.
Maybe Alice Springs and I will get back together one day. I hope so. Maybe we’ll watch the sunset over the East Macs and laugh about everything that happened in those few strange and surreal months, when I was new and young, brave and afraid, impatient, lonely, hungry and naive all at the same time.
*OK, it was a little bit Alice Springs. But mostly me.