Got a lift out to Alice Springs airport with guy attached to Elkes, who smoked in the van on the way and charged five bucks per passenger. It seems NT has relatively lax smoking laws. The waiting area is nice, one can sit outside in the shade. Quaintly one has to walk out onto the tarmac to get on the plane. There's none of the hermetic Sydney Airport stuff.
Got the Rock in time for sunrise. Walked around the base. There's a waterhole out the back, and plenty of rock paintings. I'm not sure what the guides meant by the Aboriginal languages lacking a written form; the signs can be quite sophisticated. If one squints one can (supposedly) find an image of Lasseter's camel, dating from the 1920s.
Headed back to Alice Springs, checked into Elkes. The room had a TV, 8 beds, 3 people, a kitchen and a bathroom. Civilisation!
Went out to see the Olgas (Kata Tjuta), walked along the Valley of the Winds. The guides gave an overview of aboriginal society: the oral tradition (stories) communicate how-to and law information, modulated by the level of experience of audience. The uninitiated, and that by default includes non-Aboriginals, get children's stories. We saw the Rock at sunset, from afar.
We drove past not-the-rock, Atila or Mount Conner, which is a horseshoe-shaped flat-topped mesa tableland. It's on the privately-held farmland of Curtin Springs.
Once again, up before sunrise after a crappy night's sleep. It's amazing how little you need on holidays; I function quite well on bugger-all when I'm not stressed. Checked in at the co-located Adventure Tours office, and grabbed some breakfast from Melanka's bar, conveniently trading from 5am or so.
We got new guides on this trip, fortunately — if only for diversity. I got the impression that the various chaperones have their pet likes and dislikes, and hanging out in central Australia is a majority dislike. (Conversely, the Alice-Darwin trip gets a thumbs-up for unfathomable-to-me reasons.) Paul was new to this gig; he was a bit fresh-faced and green, but affable and more adept than his verbal foot-shooting would lead one to believe. Steve was the old hand, adopting the Woody-Harrelson-in-Natural-Born-Killers look, topped off with rose-coloured coke-bottle-lensed glasses. This was not a reassuring motif for a bloke who's you out to the middle of nowhere, but completely at odds with his world view.
This time the bus was small, with hardly any leg room or anywhere to stash your bag.
First on the list of to-sees was King's Canyon, a big crack in the Earth with all kinds of weirdly-named places: The Ampitheatre, The Lost City, The Garden of Eden. There's a waterhole there, and being winter and in a shady spot, it was bloody cold. I didn't try to swim, but instead watched a pair of ducks bilk the international tourists out of their junk food.
The final day of the Darwin to Alice bus trip. Some distance on from where we spent the night the group went through a mine exhibition where an old hand explained the historically dodgy business of extracting gold from the ground.
From there we pushed on to the Ti Tree art gallery for lunch, and then onto the Devil's Marbles. These are pretty much a bunch of rocks sitting in the middle of nowhere, and while it's pretty weird it gets a bit tedious after a while — there's nothing in particular to do, apart from wandering around, and with a tour group it's a bit impolite to do this for the hours and hours it'd take to check the place out properly.
Alice was still a hellish few hours in the bus away at this point, which was when Jimmy decided to treat us to a few rounds of hyper-bingo.
It turns out that Adventure Tours has an all-too-familiar relationship with the backpacker elysium Melanka's ("Skanky Melanka's" according to Marty). After scrummaging for my bag and checking in I would've been my usual skeptical self and given it both barrels if I hadn't been hanging out for a shower. I shared the room with this pair of boys, barely out of school, who gave me the impression that the Danish rugby team would be world-beaters if only they had one.
The biggest anomaly at this place was that it had the backpacker bar in Alice, and somehow they'd managed to find some absolutely stunning girls to run it. Well, that's what I thought until the games started and one of them morphed into a dominatrix, egged on by the others. The prizes were alcoholic, of course, and it was at this point that I realised that the N.T. is somewhat less anal than N.S.W. when it comes to the gentle coercion of others into enjoying your inebriation with you.
The beer selection was a strange N.S.W. / Queensland hybrid, the like of which I've only seen in places catering to tourists on the north cost of N.S.W. — dare I call it the worst of all possible worlds (remember I'm thinking about before I came to Sweden.): Victoria Bitter and myriad XXXX variants. No Carlton Draught, even.
The verdict: don't bother doing the Darwin to Alice trip. Either go to Darwin or go to Alice. In my humble opinion there's nothing worth seeing that can't be done in a day trip from one or the other centre. Putting it another way, spend your time checking out Kakadu, Arnham Land or Darwin itself rather than in a vehicle on the Lasseter Highway.
Jimmy and Marty got us up before sunrise so we could get a move on. First stop in the mid-morning (redefined, for the purposes of this trip, from my usual 11am to 9am) was the hot springs at Mataranka, a rather pretty and tourist-friendly rainforest, which saved me from needing to shower for another day.
From there we pushed on to the pub at Daly Waters, a venue with a claim to being the first / oldest-still-extant / something-or-other-alcohol-related joint in the Territory. It reminds me of the Dancin' Dingo in Göteborg, with the risque signage and attempts at oddball humour (such as the "most remote" traffic light, stuck on red). I guess the Ocker cliché is quite formulaic, and the most one can hope for is humorous instances of it, rather than new forms.
I spent the evening trying to avoid becoming entangled in inane games, most of which were initiated by the tour guides or a rather pushy dreadlocked English couple (both nurses, he in a psychiatric ward). Examples:
- Passing a spoon around the circle of people, saying "I can see the moon in the spoon", which was deemed "acceptable" if you said "cheers" to the person who handed it to you.
- Again, the focus shifting around a circle, with people having to say "I want to go from <the current location> to <somewhere> on <something>". The key to success was umming immediately before uttering the <somewhere>.
- Passing an orange from person-to-person, using only chin and chest.
- Picking up some part of a beer carton from the ground, using only your mouth.
(I record these here in case you find yourself in a similar quandry. :-)
We slept in swags near the fire, which is the first time I've managed to sleep under the stars.
The tour got underway. Yesterday both Karen and I called the company — Adventure Tours — to ask that they pick me up from her place out at Nightcliff; they'd previously indicated that it'd be no trouble to pick me up from wherever. No joy, and moreover they asked that I be at their office at 5:30am to sign in! I ended up watching the sunrise there, sometime around 7am.
I took a seat on the coach next to this Irish guy, Leo, who turned out to be the most laid-back guy on the trip, mixing it with everyone. There was also an Irish girl, Trish, along as well, and she had that killer soft Irish voice and ready smile that makes them easy to travel with.
The problem with going on these kinds of tours is that you're inevitably the only Australian on it apart from the tour guides, who will almost-certainly crank out the Ockerisms just because they can. Take, for instance, Marty from Rockhampton and Jimmy, running as far as he can from Geelong: their idea of something fun to do on the bus was lightning bingo. I tend to think of this game as merely a way of keeping Catholic grandmas off the street, for the Lord knows what these old dears are capable of and does not wish to upset the rest of his flock. Increasing the rate at which the games are played adds not one jot to it's ability to capture the intellect. Oh yes, the prize... the prize, you ask? Well, you got it whether you played or not: "free" pizza and beer at the end of the tour.
Anyway, we headed straight for the Katherine Gorge, and that was absolutely beautiful. (We were supposed to check out the Adelaide River WWII memorial, but the bus didn't stop.) Most people took canoes or the tourist boat down the river, but I and some others opted to just go for a walk along it, and for a dip. The water was the cleanest I've ever been in; you can drink the stuff and hardly notice.
Spent the night in these permanent tents at a permanent campsite; it was kinda like a zero-star motel. It made me realise that the company must be more highly capitalised than I would've expected, as they own or rent these sort of things all over the N.T. and remote Queensland.
This is all written retrospectively, from circa mid-October to December in Göteborg, Sweden.
I wanted to see either or both of the Great Barrier Reef or the outback before heading off to Sweden; I'm a bit jack of tourists and foreign students having seen more of my country than I had. In the end I only got organised enough to trip from Darwin to Alice Springs, and swing by the Rock.
I had to get up before dawn in order to catch QF81 at 8:50am, to Darwin via Adelaide. The black and white image of the Coorong (the mouth of the River Murray) in the transit lounge at Adelaide Airport was amazing; I definitely want to head back and check it out properly. (I stole this image from a government webpage which strangely vanished soon after my initial visit.)
On the flight up to Darwin I was sitting next to a TAFE administrator who was doing her stoical best in the face of massive funding cuts by the Feds.
As expected, Ann(i)e's sister Karen was still at work. I had intended to go to the fish feeding at Doctor's Gully, but was too late and so headed into town in search of coffee and shade. We met up right in the middle, near the Maccas (where else). Karen was keen to see "Mavis goes to East Timor" at the Darwin Entertainment Centre later in the night, and in the meantime watch the sun set and grab some food at the Mendal Beach markets with the rest of the itinerant population of Darwin.
The markets are something else. They have the standard kind of food stalls you'll find at any outdoorsy-market-type thing, and such uniquely N.T. ones as the road kill one with the slogan "You kill it, We grill it". They were selling <insert random wildlife here>-sausages, and of course you've no idea what's in those.