Saturday, August 31

Flock of galahs

Flock of galahs


The galahs descended en masse at about 6:30 this morning, making a huge but delightful racket. No need for an alarm clock out here.

The dawn was lovely. It was quite cool this morning, so it’s necessary to dress differently during the early hours than at noon.

At breakfast, I struck up a conversation with a delightful woman, Dorothy, from Melbourne, who is in her late 60s, but sharp and fit. She has, of course, seen even more changes in Australia and the world than I have, and we talked about the non-improvement we felt much of this “progress” was brining in some areas. We discussed literature, economics, travel, and much more.

Boiling the billy can

Boiling the billy can

Together, we wandered down to where Alec was boiling the billy for morning tea and preparing a new batch of damper (a simple bread cooked in a camp oven buried in the coals). Dennis, the young man from Ireland, joined us for a while, and we talked of the world and how our wandering had brought us all here.

Eventually, we parted company, and I went on a horse-drawn wagon ride, to view a bit more of the area around the homestead. There is very little traffic out here, but even so, cars passed by a couple of times. I was greatly impressed with the superiority of traveling by wagon. It suits the place.

I walked for about an hour after the wagon ride, wandering through the splendid red landscape. Trees and shrubs thronged both dry creek beds and the occasional waterhole. The branches were more often than not filled with birds, and kangaroos and camels lazily grazed near the waterholes.

Waterhole

Waterhole

At lunchtime, I headed for the homestead bar, where I was joined again by Dorothy. Over lunch, we continued our morning conversation, lingering over tea once the meal was finished. It may not seem that I’m staying wildly busy here, but it’s nice to slow down for a bit–and slowing down suits the place. One finds it hard to rush in the land of no time.

But, eventually, we did part company, and I set off to explore a bit more. I had picked up a walking map of the area at the office, and it advised that one take water if out hiking for the day. It also instructed hikers to let the office know where one was heading–just to be safe. So I stopped by the office and told them that I’d be traveling in the direction of a couple of rock formations noted on their map. I then picked up my canteen, filled it, and took off on a long hike.

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August 30, part 3

Old Homestead interior

Old Homestead interior


Around 9 o’clock, we gathered in the homestead lounge to hear Alec tell us tales of the settling of this area, and about some local Aboriginal customs. He had lots of Aboriginal artifacts: hunting and fighting sticks, shields, coolamons, spear and woomera, digging sticks, and didgeridoos. What made the evening even more fascinating was Alec himself. He’s half Scottish and half Aborigine. His great-grandfather was John Ross, who explored this area, and for whom Ross River is named. (Alec is Alec Ross.)

Alec has had quite an astonishing life. He was taken from his Aboriginal mother when he was age 2. (It was believed at the time that half-white children should be brought up as whites.) He was raised in a camp up north, until the Japanese started bombing it and everyone was evacuated. He left school at a fairly young age to become a droving cook (the cook on a cattle drive–Australian cowboys are generally known as drovers and the moving of cattle was droving). He’s a big man, well over 6 feet, and powerful, so to earn additional money, he began boxing, and he became the number one contender for the Australian heavyweight title. A half brother in Alice Springs read about him and contacted him, to let him know he had family in the area. He was 37 when he finally met his mother. Sadly, se died soon after.

Alec went on to build a good life. He has won awards as a gardener, and he has three sons who are top soccer players in Alice Springs. Now, he’s happy here at Ross River Homestead, teaching bush cooking and boomerang throwing, telling tales at night in the rustic lounge, and pretty much making sure things go well and everyone is getting the most out of their time here. Just guessing, but I can’t help but think that the strong sense of family among those who work here at Ross River would appeal to the little boy who grew alone.

Alec is not the only person here with family ties to the area. One of the stock girls, Natasha, is a granddaughter of the Greens, who first envisioned this place as a holiday accommodation back in the 1950s. It adds to the sense of history here, that the staff is so connected to the place. (And I’m grateful to the Greens for their vision. I love this place.)

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August 30, part 2

Red rocks and ghost gums

Red rocks and ghost gums

Wildflowers

Wildflowers

I delighted in the red rocks and red earth, trees and grasses and kangaroos. I wandered near riverbeds that were lined by river red gums and, on the whole, dry, but not always, and waterholes were always a good place for birds and animals. Strolling between hills, I rejoiced to see the ghost gums dotting ragged hillsides, their white trunks standing out so distinctly against the red rocks and brilliant blue sky. Wildflowers dotted the red earth in many places. It was all so beautiful.

At one spot, I came across the remains of a small stream, with little left to show what its extent must have been in wetter weather other than the sculpted “waves” in the sand that showed the patterns of the water that passed through at some point. My eye was caught by a glimmer at the bottom of several of the little dips in the patterned sand, and I scooped a bit up and folded it into a bit of paper, so I could get it identified later. I had assumed perhaps a bit of pyrite, or “fool’s gold,” but Jeff assured me it was real gold. However, he explained that it was so fine and so spread out that one would need to vacuum up the entire desert to collect enough to make even a few dollars. Sigh. Still, it was fun to have, so I folded my tiny bit of red dust back into the piece of paper with which I’d retrieved it, and tucked it into the pocket of my suitcase. To me, the red dirt was more valuable than gold anyway.

As evening approached, I headed to for the dining room of the wonderful, old, wood-beamed homestead building. The homestead was settled in the 1890s, and this building dates to that period. It has, of course, been updated a bit, with electric lights and running water, but it is otherwise still beautifully preserved and evocative of a different time. Still, there is talk of further updating the homestead, perhaps not this building but everything else, making it more of a resort, adding facilities that will delight the teens I heard moaning that there was “nothing to do here.” Pity one can’t make people understand how worthwhile it is to simply reconnect with nature and its beauty. Sigh.

Dennis, an Irish lad I met on the bus in from Alice Springs this morning, joined me for dinner, which added lively conversation to a pleasant meal. I had kangaroo as an entrée (worth noting for U.S. readers, in much of the world, including Australia, an entrée is, as the name truly suggests, a way of “entering” the meal—i.e., an appetizer—then what Americans call an entrée is called your main course, or just main). It was marinated in wine and ginger, so I couldn’t really tell it from nice beef—which probably helped. But I had to try it. For my main, I had grilled barramundi, the splendidly meat, white-fleshed fish to which I’d been introduced on my first trip downunder. It was fabulous. For dessert, one could hardly have anything more classically Australian than pavlova—also yummy.

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Friday, August 30

I awoke well before dawn to the singing of birds. The room was warm, but when I stepped outside, the air was a sweet, gentle cool that never seems to exist any time other than dawn.

I packed quickly, in preparation for my departure, then glanced at my watch and got a shock. I’d set my watch back the 1/2 hour for the Centre’s time zone, but not my travel alarm. No wonder it was still so dark out. Well, better early than late.

Then out the door and out of Alice Springs, on my way to Ross River Homestead, in the East MacDonnell Ranges–new territory for me, as I’ve previously only been in the West MacDonnells. I was pleased that not all the road was sealed. As I noted in my book, a sealed road may be easier to drive, but an unsealed road seems to better suit this place–rougher and more natural.

We drove for about 45 minutes, out along the dry Ross River, with the spinifex, desert oaks, gum trees, and mulgas all around us, and the ragged, red mountains rising up behind. We passed a camel-crossing road sign and several dry creek beds, and then finally pulled in at the Ross River Homestead.

This is paradise.

Ross River Homestead

Ross River Homestead


The only sounds are the wind in the massive desert oaks around the homestead and the cries of the noisy minas and galahs. The hills rise around us, and the fragrance of the bush fills my nostrils and my heart. Kangaroos and camels are about, the sun is shining, and I could stay here forever.

The cabins are wonderful: all wood, with stone floors. They look rather plain from the outside, but are really charming inside.

Cabin interior

Cabin interior


I was given a little tour and introduced to the staff: Burt, Alec, and Jeff, who is the manager, and was then directed to a damper-making lesson given by Alec. Once the damper was made, we enjoyed billy tea and damper around the fire. In any other setting, this might seem touristy, but here, it’s simply perfect. This was followed by whip-cracking and boomerang throwing lessons. After that, we were on our own.

I hiked and photographed till lunch, and then I hiked and photographed until 4:30. The bird life is unbelievable around here: majestic wedge-tailed eagles, tufted pigeons, pied butcherbirds, noisy minas, ruby-breasted mistletoe birds, pink and gray galahs, and splendid, bright green parrots that Jeff, the manager, later told me were Port Lincoln parrots. There were many others I didn’t know, as well. Apparently, the northern and southern bird habitats overlap here, so there are more birds than one might reasonably expect to find.

Port Lincoln Parrot

Port Lincoln Parrot

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August 29, part 3

The weather is hot, and the heat radiates off the red rocks, making today’s hiking even warmer than the air temperature alone would indicate–which made a quick hike to the shower block seem like a necessity. I had a bit of time before the barbecue, so I spent some time perched on the bed in my room, recording the day’s events. The door to my room was propped open, to let a little of the evening air blow through, as it had gotten roasty during the day. In the category of “everything is relative,” a boy walking by looked in and exclaimed, “Wow. Beautiful room. How much do the nice one’s cost?” (I told him and learned he was staying in the dorms that are available here. So I’m guessing “nice” means “no bunk beds.”)

I went for a walk along the Todd River, to just look at the Alice, and to watch the gorgeous sunset. Noisy birds were everywhere. The watercourse was lined with river red gums. It was wonderful.

The barbecue was at 8 o’clock, and the food was abundant. They offered classic Aussie barbecue fare: spaghetti, salad, grilled onions, grilled potatoes, and tough steak, along with one free glass of wine. Not bad for $6.50. They did have kangaroo, as promised, but the cook said you had to order it ahead of time. I was actually rather relieved. I’m fond of kangaroos, and I hadn’t quite gotten my head around the idea of eating one.

The crowd was fun, but very young, and almost all British, including my students from the bus ride. We all shared tales of our various travels. One young man spoke enthusiastically of the adrenaline rush he’d gotten from bungee jumping. I suggested that if he liked adrenaline, he might enjoy the riding trip I made through the mountains, during my first visit to Australia. I described some of the adventure, and the young man, wide-eyed, exclaimed, “But that’s real danger.” I don’t think I let it register on my face, but his reaction surprised and amused me. “So you only want artificial danger?” I queried. “Well, yeah,” he said with emphasis and incredulity that I even needed to ask. The two thoughts that flashed through my mind were that he seemed mighty young to be aware of his mortality and that it seemed like a real waste of adrenaline, using it for something not real.

Storytelling wound down after about an hour, and the young men’s attention shifted from me to the slender, pretty, mostly blond young women who were clearly wondering why a considerably older woman was of such interest. It made me chuckle, but it also gave me a chance to gracefully depart. The bus for Ross River will be picking me up at 7:30 a.m., and a good night’s sleep is always a good thing before moving on.

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August 29, part 2

I signed up for Toddy’s afternoon tour to Simpson’s Gap and Standley Chasm and was soon roaring out of town in the Toddy’s bus. Clouds dotted the brilliant blue sky, and it was a glorious day. As we passed through Pitchi Ritchi, I did notice that there was a motel now on the site where I had camped during the “flood tour” from my last strip. It made me wonder what other changes I’d see. Still, the surrounding rocks were still dramatic and dynamic looking.

My pulse quickened a bit, as we rolled into the red land. On my previous trip to Australia, though I had already been in the country for more than three weeks by the time I got to Alice Springs, it was here in the Centre that I began to really transform–and truly fell in love with Australia. And now, finally, having succeeded in beginning my life over, I was coming back to the place where it started. But would I feel the same about it as I had during that first, seminal visit? It didn’t take me long to learn the answer: absolutely.

What a gloriously beautiful land this is. It hardly seemed possible that eight years had passed since I was here, in the (almost) unchanging Centre. The red earth rolled away from the road, dotted with mulgas, corkbark trees, desert oaks, and ghost gums, bounded in on one side by the dancing red wall of the MacDonnells.

Standley Chasm

Standley Chasm

We stopped first at Standley Chasm. This being my third visit to the spot, it hardly seemed necessary to shoot a whole roll of film–but maybe I missed something the last two times. Hiking in, along the winding path that leads to the chasm, I saw my horse head stone, though it was broken, and I again found the burned out trunk of the old gum tree that had four new gums growing out of it. Reaching the chasm, I wandered between the tall, parallel walls to the tumble of rocks on the far end. It was as if no time had passed.

Simpson's Gap

Simpson’s Gap


Next we headed for Simpson’s Gap. Aspects of it looked the same, particularly the distinctive gum tree spreading its arms at the entrance to the gap, as if in welcome. We only had a short stop here, so we hiked in and hiked out, without much time for exploring, walking mostly along a footpath constructed since my last trip by inmates from the nearby Alice Springs Gaol. I was a little disappointed, as the walkway takes a bit of the romance out of the place. However, it does make for much easier going than slogging through the deep, soft soil of the sometimes riverbed. And the wonderful, worn rocks have not changed, and I delighted in those.

During the drive, we passed many sights that were familiar to me, including the memorial grave of John Flynn (Flynn of the Inland) and the famous Namatjira twin ghost gums. The driver was just that: a driver, so he said nothing about our surroundings.

The others along on the day’s drive were almost entirely British university students, mostly young men around 20 years of age. Since no information was being shared by the driver, I began to point things out and relate what I knew of the mountains, gorges, plant life, and sights. I began quietly, speaking only to those near me, but found an eager audience, and I was soon surrounded. I was, of course, more than delighted to answer the questions with which they peppered me as we blasted back across the 50 kilometers to Alice Springs and Toddy’s.

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Thursday, August 29

It was still dark when I got up this morning. I finished packing, dropped my key in the drop slot at the front desk, and headed for the front door, where a taxi was waiting for me.

We drove through the city and out along the river. Away from downtown, Brisbane is largely unchanged. The dawn was glorious. The just-past-full moon still hung in the deep blue sky. Mist was rising from the river. Opposite the moon, a silver and pastel sky brightened until the huge, orange, fireball sun topped the horizon. It was splendid.

Brisbane airport is hugely spacious and filled with plants. At this early hour, I breezed through and out to my gate. We took off on time for Sydney, heading out over the ocean and nearby islands before swinging south.

Clouds among the mountains

Clouds among the mountains

We followed the Great Dividing Range, and below me, the mist-haunted mountains looked beautiful and green: dark green of forests, brighter green of paddocks, fields, and clearings.

Out over the red land

Out over the red land

In Sydney, it was an easy stroll to the gate for my flight to Alice Springs—and then out over the broad, red land. My seatmate on the flight was a delightful woman from the office of Aboriginal Affairs. By the time we landed, we were well enough acquainted to happily share a taxi into town.

My heart sang as we crossed the rust-colored miles to town and nearly burst as we passed through Pitchi Ritchi, the pass through the MacDonnell Ranges that admits passengers from the south into Alice Springs. It’s unbelievably good to be back.

We reached my destination first, Toddy’s Backpacker Cabins, and I was dropped off. Toddy’s offers a level of accommodation equal to some of the places I stayed toward the end of my previous trip: clean, safe, cheap, laid-back, friendly, and very basic. I was shown to my room across a broad yard and then given a tour of the facilities, including the shower block, barbecue area, small shop for necessities, and laundry. The furniture in my room is a bed, a chair, and a large, strange wooden contraption that appears to have been designed to hold a couple of backpacks. The floor is linoleum, which makes sense given the pervasiveness of dust. There is a hand basin (cold water only, but still, nice to have water in the room). But it is enough.

The yard is littered with 4WDs, and a dog was sleeping in the dust as I passed. The clientele is pretty young, and the staff appears to be a mix of young locals, young Europeans, and older Aborigines. This place is perfect for Alice Springs. A bonus I quickly discovered is that these folks are really into the whole outback experience. They offer cheap tours, bike loans, and if you can get six people together, George, a member of the staff here, will drive you anywhere you want to go. Plus tonight, they’re having a barbecue (with kangaroo on the menu). Could hardly ask for more.

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