April 2016

We’ve had three days to explore Alice Springs and, sleepy town that it is, it has a unique charm. It’s quite a big place and, if your ideas were formed by Joe Harman describing it as a ‘bonza place’ in Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice, you might get a shock. It’s quite a bustling place, with nearly 30,000 people living in and around the town. While we had a nice resort pool to lie around, there was a lot to see and do.  

The place certainly has a history going back before World War 2; we discovered that it had actually been part of a centrally administered territory for a while, when the Commonwealth took the area from South Australia. The McDonnell Ranges, which sit just outside our window at the hotel (Double Tree), glow with colour, particularly in the late afternoons, and the desert birds are everywhere. After the deadly dry red around Marla, Alice is surprisingly green.

Of course, this is the quintessential outback town, with John Flynn’s grave on the outskirts, and the various missionary churches through the place. We didn’t get to go near the MSC/OLSH mission that is out to the east, but that kind of pioneering is still under the surface. Of course, for decades it was the Ghan railhead and the centre of the cattle industry for all points north. A reminder that it was a key base in the War is up on Anzac Hill – I probably should remind the kids that their maternal grandfather was based here. Now it is tourism central, but walking through the town are the original owners, with the whole range of types of people but – an unusual condition to those of us who see indigenous people in urban settings – speaking local languages.  

We are shopping for a piece of art for the dining area at home, and I think we are pretty committed to a piece of indigenous art from the Lands or other indigenous communities. The dominant style we see are dot paintings, but we are seeing many styles and learning as we go. It is interesting to see art that is becoming even more eclectic and syncretic – it’s not a dead tradition; but the stories behind each work and the history of the artist, often part of an extended clan of painters, is interesting to hear.

Tuesday was a lazy day around the pool, enjoying company before a nice Italian up the road; but Wednesday was the full-on road trip out along the West McDonnell’s to Glen Haven Homestead, stopping at the various points of interest along the way and swimming in the waterhole at Ellery Big Hole. Stanley Chasm was stunning to photograph, but the whole drive was a procession of sights as we drove between the ranges, which were like stone ripple parallel to our track.  

Then back through town to think about our ‘artistic investment’ – and, being us, we changed out minds. The one we liked was more than we wanted to pay, and Paula’s radar starting firing about value for money; so by trial and error we found our way to one of the better places, made friends with the owners of the gallery, and started rumbling around in the stock room. More on the painting later, but we were as charmed why ith the the story as with the painting. Bush food budgerigars will now hang over the dining room table!

It will be an early start tomorrow, dropping Aidan at Marla before the long, straight line drive to Woomera. Hope we get there in time to see the missile park!

It may be a hell of a drive, but there is something irresistable about Marla. It would never be a tourist spot, but to be in Aidan’s house and hear his stories of derring-do in the remote communities, while the outback sky arches overhead, is a special experience. Just impressions:

There has been rain north of Coober Pedy in the last month, so the drains on the edges of the road are full of green pick and every now and then, standing water is somehow incongruous. The arid lands are a stunning green that will fade to grey brown in a month or two.

Aidan says that the flat lands flooded to the edge of the bitumen: there is nowhere for the water to run, because it is so flat. You can differentiate the flat from the hills, because the creeks in the gullys are a brilliant green.

The couple of flowering shrubs in Aid’s garden are full of crimson flowers and a hundred butterflies are hovering around them in the late afternoon.


I don’t expect to write much of a blog about this trip, because a large part of it will be spent in a car at 110 km/hr. There will be a few photos, however, so perhaps a few moments are worth recording.

This morning we are in Coober Pedy, which has a landscape bearing a greater resemblance to that of Mars than any other place on the earth’s surface. To get here, we’ve driven for two days, eleven hours per day (probably ten hours of driving in total each day), which does take it’s toll, but is considerably more comfortable than a trip to Europe. Given the accident statistics, however, it is definitely not as safe! But the roads, in daytime at least, are well-maintained and we have been limiting the drives to two-hour stints, which has worked well.

It has been the usual fascinating trip through rural Australia, and you really get a sense of the winners and the losers in our agriconomy (ooh, that was a clever neologism!). From the Highlands to Yass, there are the sheep and wheat of the old country, with old towns clinging to respectability as the Hume bypasses them while old villages wither. The bigger centres like Wagga look great, and in the irrigation areas everything looks prosperous (well, not Balranald!) and Mildura seems to have found even more money from somewhere. 

We had one of the best road-trip meals at Mildura: one of the local cinemas converted to a micro-brewery and cafe. Not so micro, either, with five seasonal brews and a page full of regulars. To accompany my amazing lamb ribs I had a wheat beer flavoured with coriander: most impressed. The middle of town has a great restaurant strip, with most of the joints busy. It makes a change from the usual mixed grill or Chinese at the local services club.

The Golf is a great road car, with the wagon giving us room for luggage and Aidan’s birthday present, a nice little gas barbecue. We split the driving into shifts, so there is room for some reading, the crossword and some puzzles on the iPad. Today (Saturday) took us cross country, off the Sturt and west across the dry-lands of South Australia, passing over the major north-south highways and north of the Clare. Abandoned railways and Cornish names suggested the tin mines of the 19th Century, and the towns remain in a stupor, struggling with the regular droughts and the few good years to wrest a living from the dry hills. None of the laser-levelled paddocks of the Hay Plains here.

Then north up the highway past Port Pirie to Port Augusta, with the smelters to the right and the Flinders Ranges to the left: perhaps another trip when Aidan is a bit closer to Adelaide. Oddly, the temperature in SA is cooler than in the Riverland, closer to 25º. Port Augusta turned into a refuel and seek-and-destroy shopping expedition, so that we could have barbecue meat on Sunday night. The number of aboriginal families around Woolworths surprised us – Aidan later explained that this was because of the welfare and alcohol crackdowns in Ceduna, off to the West – no a problem but a different look in what is normally a very conventional industry town.

Six hours in and we were off on the last four and a half hours to Coober Pedy, now a pretty familiar road and, after half an hour, pretty featureless. The salt lakes, particularly Lake Hart, come along midway through the trip, and I would like to stop on the way back to get some photos. It’s greener, so there’s been recent rain, and the roadkill shows that it’s a good season. On and on through the sunset to Coober Pedy, where the apartment at the tourist park is a triumph but the service at the restaurant is a disaster, inciting a defamatory review from Paula on TripAdvisor. We should have settled for the road house, which Aidan recommended when he heard our story.

Today, it’s two hours to Marla and a catch up with Aidan. It will be good to be out of the car, and tomorrow is four hours to Alice and some time out.