What keeps a place off the beaten path? Is it distance, unpopularity, a culture of reclusiveness? Maybe it’s all three. But if you add up the sums and pieces of an obscure destination, it sometimes produces a question; why the hell would anyone else want to come here?
The wheels of the train ground to a halt on a stretch of hot red outback. From my window, I watched sparse patches of bush grass and empty ponds of dry gray pebbles broil just on the other side of the glass.
These extended pauses on the 28 hour ride to Alice Springs are some of the few lingering reminders of how daunting a task it once was to cross 900 miles of desert. It also gives my legs time to fidget wildly.
While people like me enjoy the comforts of an air conditioned rail car, the push between nature and human progress continues outside. The hoof path that once threaded its way towards a dusty watering station has been upgraded to one meek train track. Occasionally the train will pull onto a rail switch, and sit, sometimes for hours, in order to give a freight train the right of way.
So, by relying on what would barely pass as 19th century technology in the United States or Europe, I’m able to wonder if Alice Springs still carries the same edge-of-the-earth characteristics I had hoped from looking at it on maps. For a continent roughly the size of the United States, smack in the center, there is usually only one town listed. Alice Springs. A destination half the size of Euclid, Ohio or Monroe, Louisiana, is listed like a world capital. Why on would Rand McNally do something so perplexing?
But as my rubbery legs touched down on soil for the first time in over a day, I discovered something different from an isolated town in between a great sandy desert and the middle of nowhere; I found that the world had gotten there first.
A folly of Alice Springs’ city planners was the unconscionably short sighted decision to allow the K-Mart company to position itself as the first recognizable object, business or landmark, to travelers arriving via rail. And I mean the first very object. After 28 hours of staring at very little beyond red earth and the occasional kangaroo, my eyes were pleading to take in a fresh sight, any sight really; a tree, a landmark, possibly a piddling body of water. But positioned directly next to the rail platform was a commercial establishment so universally recognizable, that I could have sat at home and enjoyed practically the exact same view.
Hesitating for a moment, I decided that this global logo would not deter me from giving Alice a fair shake, especially when the alternative was spending 28 more hours on train ride north to Darwin. So I picked up my rucksack and began a trek into town.
Within minutes, I began to question my decision to forget my tube of sunblock on the train. While my skin had been able to withstand the sun’s best efforts up until this moment, the scars of a solar bombardment could be seen on the tomato-red faces of every non-indigenous townie and proprietor. In an effort to confront the sunlight, sprawling sheets of woven nylon hang in the air from tall structures, forming an umbrella over the sidewalks. But for some odd reason, these canopies never form a straight path, requiring pedestrians to walk in a zig-zag fashion, bouncing quickly from one nylon tarp to the next. Any part of town that doesn’t feature these shady benefactors goes untrekked. At one point, I stopped on an exposed square of black asphalt to photograph a particularly flamboyant banksia flower, only to realize that my shoes were melting.
I eventually made it to the Alice Springs board of tourism to find out more on what there is to do in town. A cheery lady with a beetroot red arms handed me a tourism book from a carousel on the counter.
“Are you staying here long?” she asked.
This was a question that I had somehow overlooked. I originally had planned on spending a few days taking in the sights, enjoying the extraordinary isolation, before securing passage to Uluru. Now having parsed through a travel brochure that included directions to such offerings as K-Mart, McDonalds, and Blockbuster Video, I decided to make my way toward the closest travel agency.
It’s important to mention that Uluru, formerly called Ayers Rock, is not as close to Alice Springs as one would assume from a map. In fact, Uluru is 450 km away from Alice Springs, a solid six hours by car. This makes Alice Springs the travel hub for the world’s largest monolith almost by default. I was unable to avoid this “middle-manning” in any logical way; the residents of Alice Springs have known this nugget of information for long enough to structure the town’s entire economy around getting people to and from Uluru in a fashion most beneficial to the town’s tourism prospects. I researched everything, from rideshares, to car rentals, organized tours, even looking into the cost of flying into Uluru’s airstrip, which was about as pricey as one would expect from a runway for tiny prop planes.
Prop planes aside, it’s difficult to comprehend how empty Australia actually is. It rivals the continental United States in geographic size, yet has less than ten percent of the population. And because every major city rests within 100 miles of the coast, the remaining Australians exist mostly as rumors; dotting massive cattle farms that stretch into the vast deserts of the interior.
A great example of Australia’s empty interior comes from the Royal Flying Doctor Museum, located in the middle of town. I must say that the Museum is one continuously splendid exhibit. Patrons can tour full-scale replicas of the airplanes that fly patients from staggeringly isolated corners of the outback to safety, view films on the history of the service, and purchase souvenirs that are pricey, but send a portion of the proceeds to support a cause deeply rooted in good intentions. I examined a map that displayed the gaping distances that these planes have to cover. The Alice Springs branch covers the entire Northern Territory, which makes up an area roughly the size of Nebraska and both North and South Dakotas. On top of this spacious on-call range, the service operates almost entirely on donations, helping to justify the bloated price on the pack of postcards I was examining.
Stepping out of the museum and into the blistering heat, I decided to duck into the first place with air conditioning, which as a kicker, happened to be a bar. A young lady with cracking skin behind the counter greeted me with a sigh.
“I’m sorry, but we can’t serve full strength beer in the Northern Territory until after 12 o’clock.”
I don’t always find myself with a desire to drink before noon, but in the Australian outback, drinking is one of the two local pastimes, the other one being unsuitable of mention to the average, non-sheep loving individual. And being a rather particular man, I chose the task of gauging how much oat soda I could consume. And after looking around a room full of dissatisfied patrons sipping on half-strength beer, it seemed I was not alone in this endeavor.
“Any idea why not?”
She frowned and pointed toward a crowd of aboriginals gathered alongside a bench outside. “These blokes would drink themselves to death if we did.”
Earlier jaunts into the outback had given me a sense of sympathy for indigenous Australians that goes far and beyond Alice Springs. At the very least, it’s important to mention that there is a visible second class to Australia, and it’s glaring who makes up most of it. Critics of aboriginals will cite the rampant alcoholism, public litter, and drunken fights that clog up the hospitals. And it is hard to deny that if you walk through any park in Alice Springs at any time of day, you will find groups of aboriginal men passed out, encircled by a ring of empty beer tins. I asked a mutual friend working in Alice’s main hospital about this, and she sadly agreed. “Whenever the hospital runs out of wheelchairs and saline bag stands, we walk over to the park and retrieve them.” When I left through the hospital’s main entrance, there were about thirty patients smoking cigarettes, all of them indigenous. I noticed a trail of medical equipment and followed it to the closest park.
But the important flip side to this topic is the tremendous amount of racism that has dictated Australian policy towards its indigenous population. At no point will you see indigenous Australians in any bars, restaurants or working in any shops. Whether it’s by their choosing or the preference of the business owners, I couldn’t find a case of white and indigenous living or working together in town, save for the hospital. The whole issue seems to be intentionally overlooked, like the really old guy who hangs around nude beaches.
So instead of beginning my exploration towards the bottom of a beer glass, I rented a bike and rode to the Alice Springs Desert Park. The Desert Park offers the chance to experience a variety of desert climates, which range from “swelteringly hot”, to “you are literally cooking in your shoes”. But despite the very similar life-sized dioramas, the Desert Park did manage an excellent job of revealing the abundance of life that manages to survive in the intense heat: Shrubs whose roots extend deep into the earth to tap a thin pool of groundwater, beetles that raise their scarab shells like ship sails to catch droplets of moisture in the wind, as well as kangaroos, who appear to drink nothing at all.
Alice Springs takes on an average of only 11 inches of rain per year, so water is in higher demand than any good or service. When explorer John McDouall Stuart stumbled upon the region we call Alice Springs in 1861, he saw what is now referred to as the Todd River and immediately deemed the banks of its waters to be an ideal setting for the construction of a central outpost. But by departing so quickly for Adelaide in order to report his findings, Stuart never witnessed the almost instantaneous evaporation of the river, which dries out entirely for over eleven months each year. In many respects, it’s a coincidence of historic proportions that Mr. Stuart managed to wind up on the banks of the Todd during such a small window of opportunity.
So while John Stuart received the credit for the town’s existence, he never endured a return trip, which was probably for the best. Journeys involving this town were guaranteed to take months, and something as basic as a navigational error would result in death. Today, the highway and freight trains have lessened the gravity of the town’s isolation. Thousands of tourists pour into Alice’s streets each day, and once their eyes adjust to the sun, they soon discover that there is almost nothing to do but drink beer, relish in the isolation and plot their escape.
And while fleeing from Alice Springs is a far safer and readily available option today than any point in history, the inaudible isolation that I and many of my fellow travelers seek, is slowly shrinking under the volume of individually-sliced, commercially-packaged thunder that increasingly shakes the sandy red floor.
This is a catch-22 in some ways for a traveler. The wanderlust gene residing in every person who makes a conscious choice to venture into the desert is also a host for the spread of a globalized commercial presence. Every step I take spreads causes a Kentucky Fried-pandemic; extending into the smallest spaces and corners, and transforming a dusty radio dish town with a splash of a river into the world’s hottest gift shop. It’s a cursed fate of sorts, I suppose.
I rent a car with a pair of Germans, and set out for Uluru. I can only smile at the distance they’ve traveled. It’s entirely possible that an argument exists, capable of dissuading that inevitable sense of uniformity. I think back to the train platform in Alice, and a full-sized statue of a camel transporting its rider, shielded from the storms of sand in scarves and cloaks, as close as possible to its destination. In many ways, the world needs to be explored, and new places need to be seen in order to put the things we know into perspective.
But presuming some idea of entitlement towards a return to a simpler time when children played safely in the streets, pies cooled unmolested on windowsills and clichés grew on trees like bright red pesticide-free apples the size of softballs, is a paradox that I may just spend a lifetime chasing. But on that next ride, I can only hope that I will get there sooner.