There’s something about Alice

Well, it is quite something to be thrown back into the thick of it, and quite something again to be thrown into the thick of it in the thick of it. With a hop, skip and considerable jump there could be no pretence of being in England anymore. No tranquil ponds and croquet-worthy lawns, no afternoon teas and broadleaved avenues, no ubiquitous sarcasm and cling-filmed sandwiches. Just right bloody ripper sunbaked Straya with Utes and flies and glad-wrapped beetroot sangas and drongos in high-vis and Aboriginals under trees, with rarely a hipster in sight.

That probably does Alice Springs an injustice to be fair. While there are plenty of Utes and flies and a fair share of drongos, it struck me what a right multicultural melee Alice is. An African taxi driver took me to my resort hotel, filled with – among others – softly-spoken British baby boomer couples and their lairy transatlantic cousins. Here an immaculate receptionist of Southeast Asian heritage checked me in and I passed what passed for a chambermaid from the Middle East. Later, on the way into town for a bite to eat (friendly Asian service again), I strolled along Todd Street Mall to the sounds of German and French backpacker accents and something more rarely heard in other Australian towns and cities: Aboriginal dialects, which are many and varied. For better or worse, it really is a right little melting pot in the middle of nowhere.

There is an oasis town aura to Alice – albeit a little rough around the edges – which perhaps draws these people in. Approaching from north, south, east or west it is probably the first place with a Woolworths and Kmart for a thousand miles, or something stupidly noteworthy like that. You can finally get a cappuccino, but do beware. And there are public showers so you can attempt to wrench off layers of sand and dirt and flies that have attached to your skin while ploughing through the Oodnadatta Track in your big fuck off truck. Frankly, if only more towns in Australia had such facilities, it would have been most welcome.

alice01On the other hand, natural oases appear more limited. The Todd River is mostly a river in name only. Usually it’s just a dry, wide, and sunken swathe of sand meandering through town, almost as if a dreamtime serpent had once there slivered. It is quite striking and also quite beautiful in a way: grasses and short and stocky shrubs flower along its banks and a parade of River Red Gums indulge in a majestic arrangement of bulbous roots, variegated bark and twisted, stretching branches. There really is not a better Eucalypt in all of Australia, in my uneducated opinion. It just looks like it belongs here.

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As well as dry (semi-arid is the tour guide word of choice) Alice is – it will come as no surprise – frequently hot. However, having endured a scorcher of a week in Canberra, it actually felt quite pleasantly temperate for my stay. A nice ambient thirty degrees with a bit of a breeze and occasional cloud cover. Pah, call this hot?

Anyway, venturing into the outback from Alice – once work duties have been completed – it doesn’t take long to feel a long, long way from anywhere and anything. You can sense it would be really, really nasty on a proper hot day. Flies would multiply tenfold, crickets would pulsate loudly before passing out, the cracked earth would literally bake a goanna, while giant birds would circle for unsuspecting Englishmen lost in their quest to find a tea shop.

Fortunately, this particular Englishman was on a minibus tour today, taking in the West Macdonnell Ranges. Not the entire length of the ranges mind, because they stretch virtually uninterrupted for something like five hundred kilometres. Technically there are three separate ranges in the ranges, if that makes sense. Named after British conquistadors who got a bit lost, I suspect. I cannot remember, because instead of taking in everything the tour guide was saying, I was kind of mesmerised by the almost repetitive pattern of sweeping ridges rising from scrubby red plains.

Scenery passing by the window, I noticed how once every few kilometres the ridgeline dips and is eroded to varying degrees. In some spots this has created a significant gap and a way through to the north, sometimes narrower than an American tourist. This is where waterholes and gorges form – Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery’s Big Hole and the like – providing opportune stops for purveyors of sightseeing day tours. They are stops worth making, for there is an air of magnificent serenity in such sheltered grandeur.

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Further down the road there are some ochre pits, imaginatively marked on the map as ‘Ochre Pits’ (it is a rare thing indeed to find any ambiguity whatsoever in modern Australian place names). The pits offer evidence of mining long before unscrupulous Queenslanders and Chinese corporations arrived. I never realised how rare ochre was, this being one of only nine such pits in Australia. Quite coincidentally I had been to one other, down in the Flinders Ranges, a couple of years ago. And I remember just as many flies there as there were here today.

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Beyond noon and the sun was starting to become a little fiercer and, of course, the flies had been stoked into action. Time for a cold beer and a feed I would say. And quite astonishingly there is a place just for that. At Glen Helen Gorge – which really does appear in the middle of nowhere – someone has decided to build a resort. It’s not your resort in the Abu Dhabi or Port Douglas sense – think more shack-like and rubble-strewn. But it has a pub, a pub with cold beer, along with a plethora of touring essentials like fly nets and trail guides and fridge magnets. And just down from the pub you can stagger down to the next waterhole.

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Refreshed, you may like to take a post-lunch dip and float on the waters that have collected in the hollows of Ormiston Gorge, ten minutes or so up a side road from Glen Helen. Or, like me and several others, you may wish to feel the full force of the early afternoon sun on a short but steady climb to an overlook. Perhaps it is the sweat from collective hordes of visitors that gathers in the open air swimming pool several hundred feet below?

Still, it is all worthwhile toil, for the view is pure red heart of Australia stuff. With trails and river beds and curiosity beckoning on every rocky ridge top, you can begin to see why Aboriginal tribes were prone to wander. For food and water for sure, but there is also something captivating and enticing about this landscape which is hard to describe. It wants to lure you in, to see what is around the next corner, and, in doing so, to fool you into a frazzled state of bewilderment and possible death because you are not part of it.

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Thankfully, an air-conditioned minibus was enough to tempt me away from disappearing into a chasm, but I have made a mental note of the Larapinta Trail – or parts thereof – for future reference.

The pleasingly cool bus happily commenced its return to Alice with another waterhole stop – where you could invariably change into swimmers, bathers, togs, swimsuits or just go stark bollock naked – to come. And then, what will later be re-created as an episode of pure outback horror for some, commenced. A puncture, hordes of flies, hot afternoon sun, circling vultures, probable snakes, likely serial killers. Would we make it back in time for our dinner reservations? What about our flights tomorrow? What if we get eaten by kangaroo zombies? Anyone want any lamingtons? AGGGHHHHHH, lamingtons, help!!

Mercifully, the tyre got changed, with just a little help from yours truly. Being the only male of a certain age on the bus I felt obliged. And a touch heroic, vanquishing the oily grime from my hands with a wet wipe from someone’s handbag. What. A. Man. We still might make the waterhole stop now, and not have to eat lamingtons to survive. Unless we get another puncture, but what are the chances of that?!

alice07And so, ten minutes later with a flat front right, someone opened the lamingtons while others flagged down help to get a message back to Alice for another bus to be despatched. Certain overseas visitors couldn’t fathom that there was no mobile reception here, and it was not as simple as getting a rescue helicopter so they could still make it in time for their dinner reservation. One hour in, an extended family resorted to playing the ABC game and I desperately hoped they would ask me to join in. Two hours, and restlessness heightened. People needed to pee in the bushes and generally say what they would have done differently with the eternal benefit of hindsight and no experience whatsoever travelling in the Australian outback. A man with binoculars scanned the road on the horizon, each occasional sighting of a vehicle bringing brief hope before its despair.

Two and a half hours in, one more vehicle sighting provided another glimmer of hope. With sunlight dipping, the time when kangaroo zombies stir from the caves was nearing. I had resisted the lamingtons thus far and wanted to keep it that way. The vehicle slowed and revealed itself to be an identical minibus, apart from some livery telling us it’s the airport shuttle. Jeez, that’s some transfer, so let us hope it’s for us.

And of course it was, for this isn’t really an outback horror tale at all, just some inconvenient episode that soured a fine day but will find use in a vacation anecdote (or maybe even an inane post on an obscure blog). It may have already appeared on Trip Advisor, thanks to the ruining of dinner reservations. And of course, it’s just another reminder that you’re back in Australia Neil, the real ‘Straya. And there aint a lot you can do about anything in the real ‘Straya, so suck it up, maaaate!

Australia Driving Green Bogey Photography

Advance to 2016

The best way I can describe a thirteen hour flight from Europe to Asia is that it feels like one elongated sigh. Tentatively sidestepping countries that may be a tad hostile to flying objects creates a convoluted route, and ample time to mull over life’s little niggles. Like why won’t my seat fully recline? And what possesses airlines to have one hundred movies, all of which are at best mediocre or at worst starring Tom Cruise? Worse than that, the selection of ‘comedy’ contains no trace of wit whatsoever, churned out direct from Hollywood with copious amounts of canned laughter. Six hours in, zigzagging the Middle East, I can understand why the Scotsman in front of me downed wine after wine. And never shut the f**k up.

So I was undeniably a bit delicate and frazzled arriving at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, but pleased to be on solid ground. It was now – somehow – eight in the morning on New Year’s Eve. Usually I would march through various sterile checkpoints and stride ten miles by travelator to board a plane for a further nine hours of frustration at 36,000 feet. This time, though, I was embarking on the luxury of a stopover, and a new spot to see in a new year.

You know you are no longer in England when you are whisked at high speed in spacious and air-conditioned futurism to the middle of a city somewhere over the horizon. All sleek glass and swish whooshing noises as stunted palm trees and suspiciously golfy-looking estates flash past in a blur. You also know you are no longer in England when you turn into a gasping pile of sweat traipsing through an inner city jungle. Despairingly unable to check in to hoped-for luxury so early, KL had me bright, hot, and early.

So, I clambered up steps and dawdled down hills and crossed roads that were of questionable safety, unexpected u-turns being a favourite of hundreds of mopeds per minute. Eventual refuge emerged in one of many shopping malls, wonderfully air-conditioned and extravagantly Christmassy. And to think I had the naivety to assume Christmas was done and dusted; here it was bigger and more opulent than ever, and with a mosque or two just down the road. Still, grand extravagance seems to have been all the rage in KL over the last decade or so, encapsulated in the shiny Petronas Towers stretching into the sky above Santa’s grotto.

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Extravagance of a kind was waiting for me back at my hotel once I could – with the utmost relief – check in. There was a pool and gym and chandeliered lobby with lots of people in red uniforms and gold buttons feverishly milling around seeking tips. There was a water feature and sweeping driveway for parades of taxis and eight elevators to propel you to the 27th floor. A floor with city views but the most famous of the towers obscured. A floor with room and king bed and satin sheets and probably the most deserved afternoon nap ever…

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…the city was still there and still in daylight when waking and I calculated that any New Year’s Eve fireworks would largely be obscured from this spot. Thus the option to see in 2016 in my pants with a bag of peanuts lost some of its appeal, and meant I had to put in the effort to go outside again.

kl02In the end I’m rather glad I did, because I saw a few different parts of the city and discovered a more chaotic and odorous KL, more befitting of one’s expectations of being in Asia. Luminous signs and satay sticks on smoke, bars with Bintang and bang bang, street sellers trading in ancient arts and iphone cases. I was offered a massage on at least fifteen occasions in the space of twenty metres and a tacky umbrella at every alternate shop. It was raining now, and threatening to dampen the wait until midnight.

When in KL, do what it looks like many of the Lumpens do. Head to a mall, never more than half a kilometre away. Revel in the cool, dry air and twinkling diamonds of Christmas. Take five escalators down to a gargantuan food court and then another hour to decide which sublime looking bargain concoction to eat. In the end I chose Japanese, content to fulfil my Malaysian quota over the course of the stopover.

By ten the rain had stopped and I ventured back out into the night air to establish exactly where to watch fireworks. Logic dictated somewhere around the Petronas Towers, and I practically circumnavigated the perimeter of its adjoining park to suss out the opportunities. Eventually I came to a halt, joining an amiable throng of people lining the banks of a feature lake. Music was playing and coloured fountains were bubbling and projections were being beamed onto buildings, one of which handily had a giant digital clock. There was enough space and a clear view and even a little cooling breeze and I immediately thought this would just not be possible in Sydney at 11pm on 31st December.

kl03Only with ten minutes to spare did locals and visitors rise to their feet, counting down the final minute of the year. Phones and tablets floated above heads, forever capturing the last ten seconds of 2015 and the first few of 2016. Almost everyone pointed shiny screens at the towers, waiting for the bangs and sparkles. The clock struck twelve, the bangs rang out and the sparkles were, oh, behind you.

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Now very happily in 2016, the first hour of the year was spent trying to avoid inadvertently photobombing selfies while taking a very gradual, processional walk back to my hotel. What was an easy entry became a more congested exit, but there was a jovial aura, strangers were friends, the crowd was cosy and the blaring of cheap plastic horns was incredibly annoying. My mind said SHUT. THE. HELL. UP. But good manners and New Year cheer ought to persist for at least an hour, I feel.

I enjoyed the final day of the year immensely and was glad to have made the effort to see in 2016 in a different place. The first day of the New Year commenced uneventfully – subdued even – and I was in no rush to check out early and embrace the mugginess. Farewell five star comfort and hello hours of walking and pausing and dodging traffic and cooling off in every mall stop available. First mall for iced coffee, second mall for lunch (a highlight-worthy Nasi Lemak), third mall just for the hell of it. Across from this, the monorail took me laboriously to a further mall, acting as a glorified transit tunnel towards the Botanic Gardens.

kl05Any city worth its weight in Ringgits can only be judged by the quality of its Botanic Gardens. Here they were – for the most part – divinely lovely. In spots shadily cooling, tropically exotic, elegantly coiffured. A few quiet roads intersected with meandering paths and crossed ornamental streams. Most welcome though was the relative peace and calm, a sanctuary in what can be a busy, noisy, pungent place. And surely that is all you can ask of a city’s Botanic Gardens.

kl06Heading back down into humid chaos and occasional grime of the city I unexpectedly stumbled onto Kuala Lumpur’s Central Mosque. I like it when random stuff like this happens in places you have never been before. I may not have chosen to go there, but here I was now, and appreciative I was of the geometric architecture and alignment and symbolism crossed with a concrete styling worthy of Plymouth city centre post-war brutalism. You were welcome – as a non-Muslim – to visit inside and be guided around the place. The only stumbling block was the thought of taking of my shoes, and subjecting an entire religion to the smell of my by now equatorial flavoursome feet.

So I pushed onto the frequently touted in guidebooks but underwhelming Merdeka Square, crossed a very brown stretch of water, explored the Central Markets disappointing lack of food stalls, struggled to cross complex road intersections and eventually ended up back in Bintang. Daytime was quieter and generally devoid of satay sticks. Massages appeared to be a thing of the night. Only ambling tourists and opportunistic traders lingered, while everyone else must have been at the mall.

With seemingly little left to see and do and weariness now set in, the mall became my refuge as well. I still had five hours until my flight departed, but time for some dinner and a sit on a bench and a potter around a bookshop. Endless arrays of escalators from an M.C. Escher fantasy took some strain off the feet. Christmas was still out in force, perhaps for just a few more days, but I was quietly accepting of this by now.  For all that I was starting to tire of malls, it still beats being cooped up on an aluminium tube, fighting a losing battle with headphone sockets and movies featuring Tom Cruise. I was ready to leave but also wasn’t. The tedium of the tube awaits, but at least it would deliver me – at last – back to Australia 2016.

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Green Bogey

Changing of the guard

Britain is a pretty unspectacular place. It has no alpine peaks or broad rift valleys, no mighty gorges or thundering cataracts. It is built to really quite a modest scale. And yet with a few unassuming natural endowments, a great deal of time and an unfailing instinct for improvement, the makers of Britain created the most superlatively park-like landscapes, the most orderly cities, the handsomest provincial towns, the jauntiest seaside resorts, the stateliest homes, the most dreamily-spired, cathedral-rich, castle-strewn, abbey-bedecked, folly-scattered, green-wooded, winding-laned, sheep-dotted, plumply hedgerowed, well-tended, sublimely decorated 50,318 square miles the world has ever known – almost none of it undertaken with aesthetics in mind, but all of it adding up to something that is, quite often, perfect. What an achievement that is.

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And if you are thinking that is the most masterful, evocative, and passionate paragraph I have ever written (or, alternatively, overly rose-tinted, nauseating and contentious), then you are just plain wrong. For the always marvellous Bill Bryson had that to say in a Christmas present I bought myself, courtesy of some shady international bank transfer originating in Switzerland. With researcher instinct and the preposterous suggestion that someone might a) read b) notice and c) sue me for breach of copyright, that would be Bryson (2015, p.33).

montage1aNow, back to some original nonsensical drivel, and Christmas in Great Britain finally came and went. Blink and you may have missed it. I think I was part of it – my waistline certainly attests to such – but already it seems a world away. I remember a Christmas jumper and a gargantuan dinner and a predictably endless game of monopoly. I recall a losing battle to eat my way through four types of cheese and multiple slices of ham and final dollops of clotted cream with practically anything. I recollect a Boxing Day trip to Argyle and another success to stay top of the league. This part sounds the most fantastical, and perhaps I really am just dreaming.

montage1bA fond memory persists from Christmas Eve, rain sweeping briskly through to provide a few bright hours pottering in Polperro and tackling a cloying coastal path. Sunlit and sedate, contentedly winding down towards the Christmas weekend, it was all rather lovely. With the addition of a Doom Bar in a low-ceilinged, cosily log-fired, jauntily handsome pub, it delivered a moment to cherish.

I like to think it was quite a feat for me to make it through to Christmas…November and December testing my patience for all things grey and damp. But in reality it was barely a chore. Over almost half a year I came to love the variety, the luxury of choice for walks and wanders near and far. I marvelled in some unseasonable early autumn weather and wallowed in a shifting, fading, tinted landscape. I discovered new wonders like the Jurassic Coast and sublime pockets of South Cornwall and cultural and historical hotspots of London town. I also found comfort in the familiar, the cream teas and BBC and old friends and Plymouth Sound. True, I struggled to adapt to an unending parade of TV soaps (how much Emmerdale does one really need in life?), but became wearily accepting of the indifferent coffee. I adjusted and accepted and it became the norm.

Now things shift back to Australia once more and a counter-adjustment is in flow. No bothersome soaps and plenty of amazing coffee. Warmish temperatures (not that it ever got cold in England), but still some rain. Pitiful ‘Devonshire’ Teas. An absence of a delectable coast path, but a plethora of sweeping bushland trails in its place. Happy reunions proving some compensation for forlorn farewells. A new year commences with a newish start in what feels – at this point – a new place. A novelty that will quell my curiosity for the weeks and months ahead, until England – and its people – comes calling again.

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Reference

Bryson, B. (2015). The Road to Little Dribbling. More Notes From a Small Island. London: Transworld Publishers

Great Britain Green Bogey