Back then, I was single and ambitious and hungry for something that I couldn’t name. When a short-term radio gig came up in the Centre, I didn’t just raise my hand my hand to go, I reached with both arms and pulled the opportunity hard into my chest. I wasn’t sure how long I’d be there but I prepared for a new life. I sorted things out with a boy, went back to Canberra to see my family, bought some imitation Ugg boots. I packed up my car and drove 1500 kilometres down the highway.
That new life would last three months, maybe four. “Lost my shit” would be the official wording for what happened in that time. And I haven’t been back since.
As I get off the plane with Mr and Baby Tea, I realise I’ve forgotten my sunglasses and I squint into the sunlight. It’s a bright, cold August day in the Alice and the wind whips my wrap around dress open on the tarmac. I’m trying to keep my dignity while holding a baby and an overflowing handbag. And I’m nervous. We’re not here to exorcise my Alice Springs demons per se; Mr Tea has work and we both have friends to catch up with. But as we drive out of the airport in our hire car, being a bit of a basket case in Alice Springs is all I can think about.
The dramatic scenery helps with the naval gazing. Craggy ochre rocks, ghost gums, red dirt. Just before we drive into town, there’s The Gap. It’s like the East and West MacDonnell ranges set out to swallow Alice Springs but ran out of belly room just at the last moment. Appetite sated, the ranges left a space just large enough for the Stuart Highway to snake north through the town. Driving into The Gap, we’re dwarfed by the orange cliffs rising up on either side of the road. I find myself shivering, partly in awe and partly because no matter how bright the sun is, it’s always cooler on that piece of road right in the shadow of the ranges.
The Gap. It’s also where I used to live, in a unit on South Terrace opposite the dry river beds of the Todd.
I tell Mr Tea as he drives our hire car, packed to the brim with a week’s worth of baby paraphernalia.
“You lived in The Gap? Must have got a bit rough around there sometimes.”
It did. Sometimes.
We’ll come back to The Gap, but first a spot of Sunday driving on a Saturday. I want to take Baby Tea through the West Macs, down to Glen Helen and Ormiston Gorge.
Our road trip begins with a brief stop at the Larapinta shops to grab some drinks for the road. Just your standard Territory corner store: racks of fluorescent plastic toys, columns of soft drink and tinned steak and kidney pies on a dusty shelf. The opposing wall is coloured with the bright foil of every imaginable flavour of potato chip. The girls behind the counter are gossiping. One of them has a new man and the thrill of it overflows all the way to the drinks fridge.
Girl 1: He was telling me some of the stories from his truck last night, it was so cool. And whenever I said something, he’d say, “Roger that!”
Girl 2: That’s cute. And also, weird.
Girl 1: Yeah, I know. Because his name IS Roger.
Driving out of Alice Springs is exhilarating. The road moves you from suburbia to the desert in just a few clicks; the houses make way for yellow and black signs warning of wild horses. I like that some of them have been gently doctored. In one, the horse wears a top hat; in another, she rides a skateboard. Same with the children crossing signs. My favourite has the silhouetted boy and girl holding a bag full of gold fish, as if they’ve just returned from a county fair.
You never expect the desert to be full of colour but it is. Especially this winter, the rains have brought out the wildflowers in force and on the drive out to the West Macs the greens, pinks and purples bounce off the rocks onto an electric blue sky. There are mulla mullas, desert roses and my favourite poached egg daisies. Even the weeds are pretty, with patches of ruby dock dotted along the road.
I remember the flowers from when I was last here. Wildflowers laid out like carpet from Telegraph Station to King’s Canyon. I spent hours taking macro photographs, trying to capture persistent ants clinging to the inner petals. Other memories surface, too. I remember spinifex pigeons conducting elaborate mating dances and a chatter of budgerigars swarming us near Ormiston Gorge, resplendent in green and gold. I went bushwalking most weekends back then, found relief in the hard rocks pushing into my feet despite my sneakers. I remember learning the word selfie for the first time on my last West Macs road trip with girlfriends. Back then, we had make-shift esky (read: a polystyrene broccoli box from Woolies) keeping the beers cold. Now I’m breastfeeding in the car park, sporting a fiancé and rocking a pram that’s not quite a 4WD, it doesn’t really cut it on the scrabbly paths down to Glen Helen gorge.
At the homestead, there are strongly worded notices dotted everywhere. Beware of the dingoes. Books on this stand are FOR SALE! Rock specimens for your eyes only. DO NOT TOUCH. The last bit is underlined as well as in capitals, so geologically minded thieves must abound in these parts. Even the bathroom dispenses instructions. “Please be economical. One sheet is usually enough,” says the paper towel dispenser in ticker tape.
Tourists wander around with fly nets and deliberate over burger options. I overhear one of the bus drivers imparting toilet door wisdom to whoever will listen:
“Any day you wake up’s a good day. If you don’t wake up, don’t worry about it. That’s what I always say.”
And you know he always does.
Back in Alice, we’re staying in The Gap but away from my old stomping ground, in a slick set of units designed for tourists and FIFOs. We pull in after dark and even Baby Tea falls asleep quickly, so full marks for our working holiday so far.
When we wake up, three of the cars in the downstairs car park have been broken into but not ours. Some would say it’s luck. Others would say it’s because there were no coins visible in the console, glinting under the streetlights. No IPhone sitting on the front seat. No promising looking esky strapped onto the back seat. But I know it’s not luck, not the paucity of parking change or the central locking. It’s Alice Springs, opening up her arms to me again, saying welcome back. Welcome. Back.
Mr Tea goes to work and I take Baby Tea on little outings. We visit my old office and beloved former work mates. Walk up and down the Todd Mall. Find a pop up bakery at the old Residency on Hartley Street. Picnic at the Old Telegraph Station and watch the galahs. Well, I do. Baby Tea grabs fistfuls of grass and leaves and gets as many into his mouth as he can before I protest. We marvel at the sand pit at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, another first for Baby Tea. We catch up with old buddies; some of them have kids now, too. My friend Nic has two boys who give me a preview of my life to come. We walk around their bush block and the kids proudly show off the rusted Kingswood out the back. They put plastic snakes and spiders in our path, make elaborate battle lines with their plastic soldiers, slam the Totem Tennis around for a bit and then put a series of balls (cricket, soccer, AFL, golf etc) in a meticulous line, ordered from biggest to smallest.
I wonder what might have happened if I had stayed on six years ago, if I hadn’t collapsed in a heap. Would I be bringing up little boys in the wintry Alice sunshine?
Later in the week, we decide to order some take away for dinner. I browse restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor. A traveler from Tulsa, Oklahoma recommends the barramundi at one hotel restaurant. Fresh from the Todd River, a local specialty, she says. Delicious. We pass and order pizza, vegetarian, from down the road. It comes with tinned mushrooms. In one bite, I’m back on the south coast of NSW, aged seven or eight, and learning to cook from an old Women’s Weekly Cookbook with my Nana. She was a fierce advocate for microwave cooking and a long-time connoisseur of veggies in a can. We served up our attempts at ‘Modern Italian!’ on her favourite china plates. The pizza tastes like those ‘80s memories.
Saturday rolls around. It’s Territory election day and we go to cast our ballots around lunchtime. The party faithful thrust how to votes into our palms from the edges of the council car park.
“Keep them, we’re from Darwin,” says Mr Tea.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone else that,” quips the ALP volunteer.
In the late afternoon, there’s a stillness. The ballot papers are still being shuffled and counted and troopies start to wind their way out of town, swags strapped to roof racks. I wander through The Gap while I wait for results. Past youth centres and churches, past the Finke River Mission. Best dressed of the day goes to an elderly Aboriginal man in stockman get-out, all gleaming silver belt buckle and pressed jeans, a bright turquoise shirt with tassels and a spotless Akubra. One street is punctuated with purple bougainvillea and cycad palms, a suburban oasis. There are oranges overhanging one fence, so close I can almost pluck one off the tree. And there’s a clutch of kids eating chips in the gutter next to discarded bottles of booze and playing cards.
I stop in at my old unit complex on South Terrace. The letter boxes are still overstuffed with junk mail, the fence covered in For Lease signs. I poke my nose through the fence and expect it to smell like I remember: fresh paint, wet woollen jumpers, burnt dinners, sandy bricks. Like melancholy. It does and it doesn’t. I cross the road and there’s an old stroller marooned in the middle of the Todd River, wheels caked with sand.
It’s getting colder now. I blow on my hands and spin on my heels, head back down Gap Road. My last stop is Piggly’s, perhaps Alice’s most iconic mini mart. The only other person in there is Robyn Lambley, one of the sitting Territory politicians. We’ve met before. I smile at her and she smiles back, a polite, wide grin of I-don’t-remember-who-you-are-but-yes-this-is-a-very-small-town. She’s buying ice cream. Sara Lee Ultra Chocolate and Blue Ribbon Vanilla.
It’s either victory or commiseration dessert; we’ll know for sure in a few hours.
By Sunday, there’s a new government and our little family is a wreck of illness. Mr Tea has gastro, Baby Tea is fighting off a fever and I’m a mess of snotty cold. My head feels like the next door neighbours are taking it in turns to jack hammer the concrete drive way and then play Matchbox 20 full-bore.
But we take Baby Tea to the Alice Springs Desert Park. The sparse beauty is staggering: the ranges rise above us and there are sprinklings of Sturt Desert Pea at my feet. We walk past the dingoes, through the nocturnal house of malas, bandicoots and thorny devils and go to watch the birds in an outdoor amphitheatre. There’s a curlew and a barn owl and a wedge-tailed eagle. They whistle and swoop and flap through the crowd in a way that is terrifying and fantastic at the same time but my cold is so filthy that I. Can’t. Even. Cope. With. Life. Anymore. Why, Alice Springs? Why? Haven’t I suffered enough? My self pity is palpable.
After the show, we pick up the pace because there’s a hire car to return and a baby to wrangle and a plane to catch, but we pass by the emu enclosure and stop for a second. The emus are not shy. One of them strides confidently to the fence, head jutting towards us, all you want a piece of me? Her feathers shimmer in the wind and with an occasional shake. She suddenly jerks her neck over the fence and I jump back with a squeal.
But Baby Tea is mesmerised. He stares at the emu for a couple of minutes and then lets out a peal of giggles. The emu studies Baby Tea and keeps opening and closing her beak. Baby Tea studies the emu right back and giggles again. It’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen. He waves his hands as if to say, “Just look at this giant, prehistoric bird, would you! Tremendous! Do other people know about this?” We start to giggle, too, just a little at first, and then we laugh properly.
My sinuses are still thumping when we hurry back to the car but my heart is cracked open again. My Alice Springs demons have been properly banished, once and for all. Really, they never had anything to do with Alice Springs, anyway. As the lady with a Namaste number plate told me at the shops that time, wherever you go, there you are. Those old friends, I can count them off on one hand: Anxiety, Loneliness, Depression, Self-Loathing and Insomnia. They still drop by, no matter where I live and work. In many ways, I realise, Alice Springs made me. It was a crossroads of sorts, a time in my life when I had to decide what was important and who I wanted to be. And almost one year to the day after I left, I met Mr Tea.
Alice Springs. Central Australia. Those ochre-coloured MacDonnell ranges. The beauty of this piece of country shoots through me as we drive back out to the airport. Back through The Gap. There might be passive aggressive notes and break ins and sad, forgotten strollers in sandy river beds but there are so many more poached egg daisies and old friends and strangers who could be friends, if you let them. There are elderly cowboys with silver buckles. There’s a truck driver who says “Roger that!” even when his name IS Roger and there are fluorescent skies that go on forever. You can find small town familiarity, ice cream gossip and menus with barramundi that may (not) be from the Todd River. And there are emus.