Random Play by Graham Reid

6

No Town Like Alice

I always miss the big ones: we were flying back from somewhere when the All Blacks went down in the last World Cup, and the one before that I was in Madrid looking for a sports bar that had rugby on the big screen. (ho ho ho)

Even the Irish pub was screening some minor European soccer and it was two days before I finallly read on the Herald website about a nation in mourning and so on.

Being far away lends perspective however: such things as a loss in the rugby seem less important than we often think they are.

And last night at Bojangles pub here in Alice Springs -- where they did have the Big Game on the Big Screen -- it was interesting that only maybe a dozen people out of the press of locals and international tourists even cast an eye towards the game.

The match was played out to a soundtrack of Cold Chisel (Flame Trees stilll a great song), Jimmy Barnes, AC/DC, a bunch of young guys bellowing along with "we don't need no education", various Stones and Creedeence classics, and a swag of Aussie pubrock I couldn't identify.

Ready-mix Bundaberg'n'Coke by the bottle was cheaper than beer, and this pub with its memorabilia-crowded walls did a fine and loud trade. People ate and drank and smoked (yep, smoked inside!) and somewhere in the background Robbie Deans was being hailed a hero.

Even though I had gone with the sole purpose of seeing the game it too for me sank into the background as I spoke with an interesting guy who had come to this remote place -- as far from Sydney as Auckland is -- to be a tour guide.

At the turn of last century Alice Springs (then called Stuart I think) had only 30 European residents. Today the town has a population of a little less than 30,000 (a significant percentage European but a highly visible Aboriginal population) and caters for 250,000 international visitors a year.

My new-found mate laughed about that: "This place gets by on the myth that it is close to Uluru," he laughed, pointing out that the Big Red Rock was actually as far away from Alice as the top of Scotland from London -- and that the drive was rather more featureless, dry and unforgiving.

That is where I am heading tomorrow but I'm going the long way and going to take three days to get there.

I love deserts and this region does them very well and with great breadth. This morning I drove five minutes east of town and the tarseal ran out. It was corrugated dust as far as I could see. I turned back after the fifth burned-out car in the low scrub of spinafex.

Yesterday and today however I have given over to smalltown Alice which strikes me as about the size of Kaikohe. It is an interesting place: there are about a dozen art galleries devoted to Aboriginal original work which I have become increasingly interested in these past few years -- but the effect is somewhat diminished by community rubbish bins and tables in cafes also being covered in the dot paintings of the people of this region.

And I find it uncomfortable looking at these painting (which go for anything upwards of $6000) in galleries mostly staffed by Europeans while outside the local people sit in the parks and streets looking forlorn. I feel even more uncomfortable when a man my age holds out is hand and says, "hey boss".

My mate at the pub said it was best not to jump to too many conclusions when I asked him about that and why there were so few Aboriginal people in the pubs.

They were outdoor people and liked to sit in the parks and beside the road, he said. In many ways they live much as they have always done despite wearing tracksuits in the heat and sitting in small circles on what I take to be hot dust. Maybe.

But that doesn't quite explain the public service announcement on television warning people not to sleep on the roads. Or the number of people aimlessly drifting day and night.

Right now a local Aboriginal band has started up in the park across the road ("one, two, three, go") so I'm off to watch that for a while, later I'll buy more bottled water (it's a cloudless day in the low 20s, it is winter) and maybe take some photos of the Todd River opposite where I am staying.

That is where they hold the Henley-on-Todd annual regatta. I'm told that twice in the past 20 years or so they've had to cancel it because there was water in the river.

Yep, this is a very different place.

Sort of puts things in perspective, I think.

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