Darwin — I know, I know, the title is about Alice, but we’ll get to that — is pretty much the northernmost populated area of Australia and faces northwest, nestled up against the Beagle Gulf (after Darwin’s ship, of course), which is part of the Timor Sea. East Timor is the easternmost island of the Indonesian archipelago. I mention all this geography for two reasons, one to make the point that Darwin is a port and beach town, and the other to observe that Australia is a closer neighbor than you might have realized to Southeast Asia.
And that is important because, as a result, Southeast Asia is a major labor supply for Australia, in more or less the same way that Latin America is to the US. The waiters, cleaning staff, hotel desk clerks, etc., etc… are all Filipino, Vietnamese, and so forth. We had been sort of half-noticing this without it really sinking in; the epiphany came when I was talking to a very helpful hotel desk clerk, a pleasant indeterminately ethnic-looking 20-something woman who had answered a number of questions for me. There was something different about her that I couldn’t put my finger on, until it suddenly struck me that her speech, though very lightly accented, was American rather than Australian. So I asked her about it, and she said that she was Filipina. The Philippines of course have an American colonial background, and so their English is American rather than British or Australian despite their proximity to the latter.
The major hotels in Darwin, as elsewhere, cluster in the prime real estate closest to the beach. In this case that would be the Esplanade, a 1 1/2 mile-long strip of park land that overlooks the beach. The park is quite pleasant, only a couple hundred feet wide, and includes a number of overlooks and World War II artifacts and memorials. It is also a hangout for a large number of derelict Aborigines, who are periodically rousted by the police for public drinking. We saw quite a few of these.
At the southern end of the Esplanade are some colonial-looking government buildings (Darwin is the capital of the Northern Territories state), part of the port, and a recreational area that includes a lifeguarded swimming lagoon, the convention center, expensive high-rise condos, and a number of restaurants. Our hotel was right in the middle of the Esplanade, so we walked to that southern end two nights ago, had dinner, and took a taxi back to the hotel when a rainstorm came up.
We had yesterday morning free since our flight to Alice Springs was not till mid-afternoon, so we took the opposite route, walking to the northern end of the Esplanade and beyond, to where the ritzy Cullin Bay is located. Big mistake. Whereas our previous walk to the southern end had been at night, this one was mid-morning, and the weather was entirely too familiar, which is to say Washington-summer-like, with temperatures in the 90’s and humidity not much less. By the time we got to Cullin Bay, a little under a 2 mile walk, we were both drenched in sweat and underwhelmed by Cullin Bay itself, which is basically a yacht harbor surrounded by nice-looking low-rise condos. It did have a nice view, which we attempted to appreciate through our sweat-smeared sunglasses, and a few shops and restaurants. We basically gave it up as a bad job, got something cold to drink, and hied back to the hotel, by taxi this time.
Alice Springs is a 2-hour flight south of Darwin, deep into the interior of the Outback. The terrain, viewed either from the airplane or at ground level, is striking: an endless expanse of rust-colored aridness, enormous desert flats broken by harsh-looking escarpments and low mountain ranges, dotted by eucalyptus trees. What it looks like, more than anything else, are the photos from the various Mars landers: same sere ochre landscape, similar topography, similarly uninviting, and very dead-looking land (in the Outback’s case, but for the trees and scrubby plant life). I have it on good authority that the Curiosity rover actually woke up here one morning after a night of heavy drinking.
The paradoxical thing is that there is plenty of water, but it is all subterranean. The plants can’t get at it, hence the Martian landscape, but it is easy to drill to, so well water sustains the town without difficulty; there has never been any water rationing. Even so, Alice is really tiny. (I mean Alice the town. Alice the wife is slightly smaller than average.) It has a population of 28,000, and the main downtown area is about 3 blocks on a side. Almost all of the businesses are rental car and tourism places, restaurants, and aboriginal art galleries. (I’m sure you are aware that as a class, the Aborigines are in a pretty bad way, highly economically and socially distressed with rampant alcoholism and very high unemployment. But I’ve gotta say, the phenomenal density of aboriginal art galleries alone looks like enough to keep everybody busy. “Goolara! I need another 20 of those paintings with the red and black dots and the squiggly concentric circles!”)
By the way — I’m free-associating on aboriginal crafts here — our guide at Nourlangie Rock informed us to my distress that Aborigines do not hunt with boomerangs and, indeed, have not done so for 20,000 years. Who knew? But back to the subject at hand.
Why would anybody come here to the middle of the Outback in the first place? For one thing, there are a lot of parrots and
cockatoos in the trees, which is cool. But the real answer is: communications. The site was more or less established by a surveyor/explorer named John Stuart, who wanted to establish a north-south route across the continent. And the town became a real place of a sort in 1872 when a telegraph station was established. That put the place under the purview of the Postmaster General of Southern Australia, Sir Charles Todd, whose wife was named — you can see where I’m going with this — Alice. Todd also gave his name to one of the main thoroughfares in town (Todd St.) as well as to the river that runs along the edge of town.
Ah, the Todd River. You can see its torrential currents in the photo I took, below left. What distinguishes it from most of the other great rivers of the world is that it does not, technically, have any water per se. This does not however impede the locals from holding an annual boat race on it, ironically christened the “Henley on the Todd” after England’s famed Henley Regatta, which involves actual water.
You may possibly be wondering how one races a boat on a river that has no water at all. If so, you are not thinking like an Australian. The way you race a boat in those conditions is that you first saw off the bottom of the boat. Then you and your crew mates step in, lift it up to your waists like a giant hula hoop, and run. It’s kind of like a Fred Flintstone car without the wheels.
This is an annual spectacle. But sadly — and I swear I am not making this up — they were forced to cancel the race two or three years ago because an unseasonal rainfall had actually put some water in the river. Australia is almost certainly the only place on Earth where a boat race could be canceled for this reason.
As you can tell from the very existence of this event, the locals have an unusual mindset. This became pretty obvious to us within five minutes of our arrival, as we were met by the van driver who would take us to our hotel. This fellow, slim, bald, 70-ish, either has very few friends or very many, or had possibly recently been released from a lengthy stint in solitary confinement, because during the 25 minutes he was in our lives he was not silent for more than 20 seconds total. We heard about the book he was writing, his encounter with the Dalai Lama, his five children including his daughter who is a professional bicycling champion, and his wife who ran off with the daughter’s cycling coach. Alice Springs is full of local color like this, and I am not referring to the ubiquitous red dirt.
Our first activity here, which we were looking forward to in a big way, was to be a hot air balloon ride at dawn. We were assured that this was spectacular, drifting over the dawn-painted red desert above herds of kangaroo, and well worth having to wake up at 3:30 AM for a 4:00 AM pickup from our hotel. (The balloon launch site is an hour or two from here.) But alas, a phone call at 3:25 AM informed us that a front had moved in and the winds were too high to fly, and so the outing was canceled (and cannot be rescheduled since we depart for Ayers Rock early tomorrow). We were very disappointed but I wasn’t prepared to argue the decision; if there are high winds in the Outback — and a quick glance out the window confirmed that there were — then a hot air balloon is probably not where you want to be. Oh well.
This left open the question of how we would spend our day in Alice Springs, boating on the Todd River not being a practical option. Our first stop was the Olive Pink Botanical Garden, a small garden of desert plants about a ten minute walk from our hotel. It was a pretty spartan and not especially impressive affair, though it did have a small cafe and patio that seemed to be the hangout for the local hippie population who couldn’t make it to Portland, Oregon. More interesting, as it happens, was the eponymous Olive Pink herself. She was a well known botanist and fervent activist for Aborigine rights from the 1930’s through the ’60’s. She was also — and this is the real Australian part — a full-throated moonbat head case. She was constantly badgering the government to change airplane flight paths because she was convinced she was being spied upon from the sky, and she would periodically cut off the water supply to certain flowers in the botanical garden who happened to be named after politicians whose votes she disagreed with. If she were alive today she would be a Congresswoman from North Carolina.
Our next stop was a very unusual and interesting one: the regional headquarters of the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). You have very possibly heard of them, as they provide airborne emergency medical service to the thinly-populated interior of the continent, which comprises about 80% of the land area. RFDS operates a fleet of 63 planes distributed among 21 regional bases, of which Alice Springs is one. (Fun fact: those 63 planes makes RFDS the third largest civilian air fleet in Australia, after Qantas and JetStar.) The planes, all identical, are large single-engine jobs that can carry up to five people and a bunch of medical equipment. They typically carry a pilot, one or two nurses, one or two patients, and a doctor if one is needed immediately on site. We went into a mockup of one, which was configured with stretchers. The visitor center included a wall display that showed a real-time map of where all of 63 planes were.
The RFDS was founded in 1928 by Rev. John Flynn, who for very good reason is a local hero in isolated places like Alice. As they built the organization they developed some very sophisticated techniques and logistics for providing care, some of which were on display. For example, they developed (and we saw) a standardized drug kit that they would leave all over the place, in which the bottles of medicines had numbered labels instead of names so that they could prescribe by radio to people who were not particularly literate: “Take two pills from bottle #11 every half hour till we get there.” Today they fly something like 6 million miles and treat a quarter million patients annually. A very interesting visit and an impressive organization; you can read about them at http://www.flyingdoctor.org.au.
In 1948, a woman named Adelaide Miethke, who was an executive with the RFDS, had the inspiration that if it was possible to deliver medical service to remote regions, then it was possible to deliver education as well. And so the School of the Air was founded and broadcast its first lessons via shortwave radio from the RFDS facility in 1951. Now it is a separate organization and, as it happens, our next — and also very interesting — stop.
We visited the School of the Air’s Alice Spring studios and watched a lesson in progress. The teacher was making full use of video technology: there were multiple cameras (one pointed at a horizontal whiteboard that he could write on), as well as a green-screen background with superposed graphics as needed. It is all in all a remarkably sophisticated operation, currently serving 140 students from kindergarten through 9th grade, with a geographic range from southernmost Australia to (in one case) Papua New Guinea. Originally they supplied two-way radios to the students — in some cases pedal-powered (!) if the students had no electricity at their remote homestead — but as you would expect they became an all-Internet operation several years ago.
It is certainly the most complex online education I have seen: aside from a full schedule of interactive online video sessions with a teacher in a studio, there are actual books and physical accoutrements — art kits and such — that the school sends out in sync with the lessons. The students write actual papers that are sent back and graded, and there is both individual and group online discussions of same. Their sets of books are cycled out so that at any given moment each student has the books he or she needs for the appropriate lesson stage. It is all meticulously planned, scheduled, and executed; we were quite impressed.
So that’s been our balloon-free day in Alice Springs, and I guess I’d have to say that unless you’re into desert camping (which a lot of people are) you probably don’t need much more than that here. Tonight we are going to dinner at the locally famous Bojangles Saloon, which is renowned for its over-the-top Outback/Wild West decor, e.g. the bar stools are Western saddles. And tomorrow we are off to Ayers Rock.