Love & Loathing In Alice Springs

I had wanted her for years. I kept meeting her former lovers, still spellbound from her presence, and I knew that she was truly hot. She has golden red features and is passionately worshipped by black and white alike. So spirited is she, that yet no one has known her depth. So honestly, beautifully brutal and indifferent is she, that both women and men draw their last breath with her. And yet, I had to embrace her – I had to be inside her, if only just once: I had to go to Alice…

Now where did that image go?

What was I getting into this time?

ALICE WAS A GUY

There is no denying it; Alice Springs is a female town. And let’s be honest about it; as far as towns go, she ain’t too pretty. We love her and she will suck you in with her incredible charm, but her looks, well, they will just have to grow on you.

Her straight and barren streets get you lost in a grid of buttoned-up suburban houses and except for the feeble curves of the dry Todd riverbed, Alice is very straight and fairly boring to behold. But houses and streets and cars and shops, are only Alice’s latest layers. Before she got her name from a telegraphist’s wife, her name was actually Stuart.

That’s almost a hundred years ago now. She weren’t too pretty then, either. That was her pioneer macho phase, where suddenly thousands of desperate white men with guns and cattle and pieces of paper, decided to scratch out a living in the desert (and maybe a bit of gold).

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A landscape from just outside Alice Springs.

NO PROPERTY – NO PROBLEM

They needed a place for transport and trade, and as fate would have it, they put up a telegraph station for their “singing line”, right in the middle of a songline junction. Black fellas’ pathways have always crossed on this sacred site. White fella only slapped a bit of tarmac on them and proceeded to squat the place and call it theirs.

Trying to be a town in a desert is a pretty terrible idea. Maybe that’s why the original locals, the Arrernte people, never built a town in their tens of thousands of years of belonging to this place. They call Alice Springs for “Mparntwe” – ‘Meeting Place’ – and they don’t claim to own her, they only look after her.

On Arrernte land there are 8 different “skin-names”. Each skin is a tribe and a story about the country it belongs to. Each tribe has a right to travel, but it’s also the caretaker of it’s neighbours’ land, by way of their complex kinship structure. You are, so to speak, related to the land. No property – no problem. Different story now.

australia day

FRESH WOUNDS

The last Aboriginal family in Australia to be exposed to the wicked ways of the white man, came out of the Gibson Desert near Alice Springs only 30 years ago, in 1984. I presume they had been hiding from the slaughtering of their people and protecting their culture. When they finally came out, they encountered a world where blacks and whites live in the same place, yet in different realities.

White fellas rarely see 50.000 years of culture and accumulated knowledge, when they look at a black fella. They mostly see a shadow of their own guilty conscience. They don’t see a person who speaks maybe 4 or 5 languages, with English as their last. They see someone who doesn’t even know how to speak the national language.

They see a bunch of drunken black guys and a few black women, hustling for coins and sleeping on the grass. They are right in your face with their wooziness and their cupped hands, so that’s what you see. What you don’t see is why: The extreme difference between their culture and modern Australia; the brutal change they underwent in just a few generations; the deep pain of losing their land; the influx of ignorant, cashed-up tourists ready for a piece of Abo-Action. Enter yours truly…

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Getting a bit of camel loving before meeting up with Alice.

PORTALS AND CAMELS

I had been getting my rocks off at a psychedelic festival called Wide Open Space, far out in the desert. After 4 incredible days there, I got a ride to Alice Springs with a smoking hot camel-herder from Quebec (In case you didn’t know; Australia has wild camels). She was radical in that sweet and unassuming way of the unintentional Buddhists of this world.

Marie had moved to the Red Centre after meeting her camel-crazy Australian partner on a roof-top restaurant in India. Being already a jewellery-maker, an acupuncturist, a psychologist and a world traveller, I guess it didn’t seem far off that she’d also be a camel-herder and lord knows what else.

En route to Alice, we suddenly came upon a whirlwind of dust. “See that spiral?”, she said in her cute French-Canadian accent; “they say that these are portals that can move a person! Last year there was a boy who disappeared, and he was found several hundred kilometers away, only a day later, and apparently he’d walked into a whirlie”.

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If it wasn’t for the bit of mountain round the back, Alice would be flat and straight all over.

HEART-TROUBLE…

Marie also told me about the ridiculously high prices of property in Alice, and about the art of surviving on dates and camel’s milk for months in the desert. But all I could think of was the swirling portals.That morning I had read in the local paper about a lost dog in the unforgiving Gibson Desert. “Maybe that’s what happened to him”, I thought in my car-dazed head space.

The paper had also spoken of “heart worms” – a parasite killing local dogs, eating up their hearts from the inside. I suddenly felt a tug in my own little heart, as we finally pulled up in Alice Springs. Somehow it already felt like some kind of love story, but I just didn’t know what sort of heart-trouble I was getting into…

BLANK STARE – DESPERATE SMILE

That first night, Alice gave me a blank stare and saw yet another dumb tourist, only here to use her to get closer to her prettier sister, Uluru. I wasn’t any different to be honest. I was determined to see the red rock. So were everyone else at the unofficial German backpacker embassy that I ended up staying at. The conversation seemed to revolve around tour operators, internet connections and powdered soup.

After cooking a massive meal that wholly 11 smart-phone-clinging 20-year-old’s cautiously refused, I quietly resorted to the nearest pub for a nightcap. Of course, the pub was full of frazzled friends from the festival, all nurturing a 3 day hangover with some excellent beer, all of us scheming to rent some cars and hit the desert in search of Uluru. like some impromptu tribe.

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Not that drags are all boring, but Alice’s main drag is, well, a drag.

The next day I loitered in Alice’s convenient embrace while I left it to others to sort out a car. I found her one and only proper café and went for a stroll down her swanky mall full of aboriginal art galleries and gemstone dealers. She might be posh, but not enough to hide the fact, that Alice is a practical girl. Everything you need as a visitor, can be found within a 5-minute walk.

That fact proved very helpful when, just before sunset, I realized that I had lazily missed, not only one, but two cars and had no other choice but to hitch-hike into the desert. I quickly stocked up on food and made a sign to go with my desperate smile.

 

FAR OUT AND LUCKY

Let me put this into perspective for you: From Alice you drive on the southbound desert road for three hours, then you take a right and go for another 2 hours. That’s if you keep a comfortable 120 km/h average and stop for the best fries south of Alice (read; only). Houses are so few that they get their own mention on the map, and they come with a petrol pump and a greasy diner.

Local authorities advice against driving at night because of the risk of hitting wildlife. My flight back to Sydney was only 36 hours later and I knew it was downright stupid to attempt to hitch so far, just before nightfall, but lo and behold: In the nick of time, I got a lift all the way!

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Stefán is another quintessential Alice-character in that he is the last guy you’d expect to live here: Born and raised in a Mexican village, he met Alice years ago on a holiday and loved her so much that he found himself a job with a local NGO and has lived here ever since.

My benefactor was Stefán, who was going all the way to the Uluru camp-site, where my friends were already putting their last tent pegs in, so it couldn’t have worked out better. That night, our festival-family took over the camp kitchen, and I jammed with a gem of a gorgeous girl on a sax so earnest that my heartstrings nearly snapped.

Travellers often talk from their soul, and spiced up by a bottle of undiluted Ricard and somebody’s last bud, we suddenly all had only just met but always known each other.

 

HANGING WITH THE DEAD

We got up early to appreciate this famous monolith changing hue in the flaming sunrise. From the viewing point we saw the imposing Kata Tjuta rock formations and decided to explore them first before getting up close to Uluru. We went to the Valley of Death. At least that’s how it felt to me.

Going up a beautiful gorge, I slowly felt more and more encumbered in my spirit. Memories of dead friends arrived in my mind and the whole area was eerily quiet. Moved by spirits of the dead and unborn, I went by myself and shed a tear from somewhere I didn’t know existed.

These places hold such power for its indigenous people that they may only approach them under certain circumstances and by certain gender. I’m not quite sure if I was in the right place, but for what it’s worth, I felt it strong and with respect.

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The imposing Kata Tjuta rocks, also known as “the Olgas” for some obscure colonialists greandmother’s sakel perhaps.

ULURU UPLOAD

Finally it was time to see the main attraction, and I can’t say I was disappointed. Towering 348 meters over me, this giant would take a couple of hours to walk around. Of course, climbing it is all the rage. The indigenous owners don’t exactly promote it, believing that only certain men in certain circumstances can see what the top is like.

Yet in 1964, white men put up a hand rail to the peak and a flag to top it off. 35 people have so far died from the fall. Many more have sent back pieces of the rock that they foolishly took home with them. Bad luck is said to follow those who steal from Uluru…

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The shadow of these tall rocks create a micro-climate where vegetation and dreams grow equally lush…

I stayed on the ground in the shade of the rock faces, carved with Aboriginal art, and furrowed from the flow of half a million years’ worth of rainwater. I certainly hadn’t expected greenery and cool pools of water, but what really blew my mind was the role this rock played for the people who used to live in its improbable ecosystem.

With the beautiful and wild-spirited sax-playing girl, and a switched-on brother from American tribes, I felt connected in awe and emotions. We had each lied down right next to Uluru and no doubt received a healing session and an upload from the mother. Walking away from the Rock, I felt a quiet bonding and a gratitude for having shared this moment with two such special and beautiful people.

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My one good snapshot of Uluru in the sunrise.

STUCK IN THE DESERT

My visiting hours were now over and I had to deal with the fact that it was now late afternoon and I was 440 km away from my early morning flight. Since I hadn’t come on a tour bus, I had no choice but to stick out the old thumb and hope for the best. Half an hour later, a guy from Tahiti took me to the next roadhouse about 120 km away. It turned out he had once been to my home-community of Christiania in Denmark and once again the world was big and small at the same time.

And then I got stuck… 4 hours later and 50 cars had passed me by – every single one of them displaying that weird shrug with the upward palms, which basically means; “I’m too scared to help you, even though I have a spare seat.”

I was giving up hope and waving goodbye to my flight. But just as the starry blanket draped itself around my fate, a beat-up old car showed up with 5 Pitjantjatjara-speaking black fellas. Squeezing the 4th guy into the back, they made a space for me and off we were. Saved by the bell.

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In a merciless desert, deep in the heart of Australia, sits a single solemn mountain of a rock. A sore thumb in the flat surroundings. Representing Aboriginal Australia with its sacredness and, with its inaccessibility, the arduous journey of the colonizing pioneers. Getting there is half the experience and the arid open land makes for a very contemplative context.

ABORIGINAL RESCUE

Over the next 1½ hour, I had a rare glimpse into contemporary Aboriginal life. Kari was the oldest and he was the driver. He also spoke more English than the rest, which wasn’t saying a lot. Gestures and an open mind goes a long way, though, and Kari was curious about my origins. “You mob have snow and animals?”, he wanted to know, and “how long takes the sky plane to go there?”.

I told them all about Denmark, and they told me all about their community and showed me a film from last month’s ceremony. Kari had once been to Sydney, he told me; “You lose your family there”, he said. In the distance we caught a faint shimmering light and Kari explained that this was his community – Imanpa. “We have 200 people and lotta kids, and a school and a clinic. Big enough place for me!”.

I joked that in this dark desert, the distant lights looked like Sydney anyway, and the back row proudly laughed at the comparison. We shared whatever snacks we had among us and proceeded to teach each other our languages.

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Uluru is full of strange nooks and crannies. One cave had the kitchen area, another one the elders’ hangout. A low ledge served as a dormitory and drawings and carvings all over the place made for school books and probably graffiti too.

WHAT ABOUT HELLO?

I’ve often heard people describing some Aboriginals as curt and abrupt and in this language lesson I understood a bit more about that. I asked how one would say “hello” and Kari had to really think about that. Finally he said: “Come here! That’s what you say, not ‘hello'”.

I honestly didn’t know where they were going to drop me off, but at this point I was hoping they would take me to their camp. So I was doubly darned when they dropped me off at yet another spooky Roadhouse. But then I understood that they had actually taken a 100km detour for my sake.

That, and for the reason that the mob wanted beer. I was happy to purchase it for them, but drinking is a problematic issue in these parts, and although most people think it’s a black man’s vice, the law applies to whites as well, so I couldn’t help them out. They still got out and shook my hand goodbye, though, and they told me to stop by any time.

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An example of an Aboriginal painting made with the incredible dot painting method. The artist is Darlene Devery from Arnhem Land.

ROADHOUSE SLAVERY

The roadhouse was sleepy and void of life – this time I thought I had really stranded. At least the barman turned out to be yet another festival head, and thankfully he informed me that the very last bus from Uluru to Alice Springs, was about to pull in for a toilet stop. I had a beer and a look around at the impressive Aboriginal art collection at the back.

The manager was setting up a display and showed me to a workshop where, only hours before, some of Kari’s neighbours from the Imanpa community had been busy making artwork for the roadhouse management. “We pick ’em up ’bout twice a week and bring ’em ‘ere for painting”, he said with a thick Centralian drawl; “we pay ’em by the canvas, everybody happy!” I wasn’t too convinced. Aboriginal art sells for very good money, but the artists seldom get their fair share. This place smelled like exploitation to me.

The bus driver stripped me for my last cash, in fact, the barman had to spot me a fiver for the made-up ticket price. What could I do, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place, so I happily climbed into the tourist coach and let myself be transported back to sweet Alice.

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A last look from the plane down onto the plain planes of Australia’s Red Centre.

COMING OUT IN ALICE

I happened to know about a house full of anarchist queers in the middle of Alice town with a couch on the verandah for travellers in need. So, just before midnight, when I hit her streets again, I called up my friend Miri and asked for directions. Alice was in a raucous mood and I sensed her pain in the still air, shredded by occasional drunken arguments and sirens passing by.

An unmarked car with a cage on the back seemed to be picking up intoxicated Aboriginal youngsters, but I couldn’t make out what the story was. A dingo skidded across the road and somewhere a door slammed. A bottle smashed against the road.

Gangs of black guys loudly fell over each other’s legs. I asked the clerk in the 24 hour shop. if all of this was normal. His reply was chilling; “This ain’t nuttin’ bro’. Black fellas are sweethearts. It’s the tourists making the real trouble. I’ve seen stuff most people wouldn’t believe”, he finished and gave me the straightest of stares.

Miri’s house strengthened my impression that Alice Springs might be Australia’s lesbian capital. I guess Alice isn’t actually too straight anyway, and that’s OK with me. I love people, whatever shape, form or direction they have.

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And I happen to love Alice too. I might only have spent a few nights in her company, but there is something about Alice that makes curious people open their hearts, perk up their ears and roll up their sleeves. Years of travelling have taught me how to tell a final goodbye from a see-you-later, and when I watched Alice disappear underneath me, as I took to the sky in my Sydney-bound plane, I knew that this wasn’t the last time I would be with Alice…

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. martinkargaardthomsen
    Jun 04, 2014 @ 02:53:30

    sMUKT!

    Reply

  2. Danon Jewellery
    Jul 29, 2015 @ 20:30:42

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