Yes, there is chicken!
Tuesday, 13 October 2009
Alice Springs Resort
Alice Springs, Australia
Today (well, really yesterday relative to when I am actually writing this, but to be perfectly precise, I am talking about Tuesday, October 13) we left Melbourne and flew to Alice Springs, smack dab in the middle of the Australian Outback, in the so-called Northern Territory. It was a jam-packed day, forcing me to delay telling you all about it until today!
First things first: we flew QANTAS from Melbourne. Here are two interesting factoids for you. QANTAS (no U) stands for Queensland and Northern Territories Air Service, and they are pretty much a monopoly for intracountry air travel here in Australia. There is starting to be some competition from Virgin Blue, but mostly it’s the Big Q. Second of all, QANTAS rocks! When we checked in for our in-country flight, we did not have to show any ID (perhaps this is a result of being part of a tour group, but it’s still dandy convenient!), nor did we have to remove our shoes prior to security. There wasn’t even any of this silly zone boarding--it was a Southwest style “Get your ass on the plane.” Since I am a speedy sort, I was one of the first in line and didn’t have to fiddle-fart with the slow people who can’t seem to heft their 80 lb carry-on into the overhead “locker” (that’s what they call them here). Then, as if all this weren’t luxury enough, they actually served us a real snack on the 2 ½ hour flight: a quite tasty chicken salad sandwich with “rocket”, which I think is lettuce. I’ll have to ask about that one. I’m not sure I was completely hungry, but on the theory that it might be a while till lunch, I ate it and enjoyed it with my Tim-Tam cookies that Lisa, our tour guide, handed out this morning. YUM! She equated it to the Oreo of Australia, but I think it’s better: two chocolate wafer cookies schmeared with chocolate filling then dunked in more chocolate. I am definitely a fan. (I was not so much a fan of the Cherry Ripe she also distributed due to my keen dislike of coconut. I tell you, there is no truth in packaging any more: anything named Cherry Ripe should taste like cherries and only like cherries--none of this coconut crap.)
I had a window seat on the plane (unusual for me, an inveterate aisle denison, but this was beyond my control), and so got to look down on a lot of Australia. Another factoid: Australia is 104 square miles smaller than the land mass of the continental United States, and 85% of the population lives along the coast. I can see why: it is desolate in the middle part. Brown and empty as far as the eye could see, which from the vantage point of a Boeing 737 flying at about 30,000 ft was pretty damned far.
Anyway, we arrived in Alice Springs, where the local time is 1 ½ hours behind Melbourne. I do not understand this all. However, I guess when you are out in the middle of the never never (as they say here in Australia…you and I would call it BFE, 40 and plumb, etc) you can pretty much declare it to be whatever time you feel like. Alice Springs is named for Alice Todd, the wife of Charles Todd, the man in charge of erecting the first transcontinental telegraph line across Australia. Apparently when the workers got here, they believed there was permanent surface water here in the Todd River (build a telegraph line, get your name on everything!), so they established a settlement. Turns out not so much on the water. In fact, the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, the annual bottomless boat race held here in Alice Springs, was cancelled in 1995 due to there being water in the Todd River! Ironic, eh? There is a permanent American expatriate population of about 2,000 Yanks here in Alice Springs because the Pine Gap listening post is here. For those of you that saw “The Right Stuff”, this is where Dennis Quaid went to be able to communicate with the Apollo astronauts. It is still in use today, and is the primary listening post for all the signals coming from the Middle East theater. However, only janitors and gardners work there, according to their declared occupations. You would really think the US government could come up with a better cover story, but still…
Our first stop in Alice Springs was a dream time luncheon held out in the bush. We had lunch and listened to a very informative lecture about the history and anthropology of the native Aboriginal people from a bloke (I’m trying to pick up the local lingo!) named Con. There was actually chicken for lunch, so I can truthfully report that I have technically enjoyed Alice Springs chicken in Alice Springs, Australia!
Con told us a lot of interesting facts about the Aborigines, such as the fact that they originated in Sri Lanka and have been in Australia for over 40,000 years, much longer than any white people. They are a nomadic and communal people who share everything amongst them. Also, there are only eight male and eight female names total in the entire Aboriginal naming system. That’s gotta get confusing when you are calling the kids in to supper! Also, Aborigines do not have the concepts of heaven, hell, gods, etc, so when someone dies, they perform a several day “sorry business” ceremony (not unlike the Jewish custom of sitting shivah), at the conclusion of which that person’s name is never mentioned again. It is as if he or she never existed.
There were several Aboriginal women there demonstrating their traditional artwork, the so-called dreaming or dot paintings. I bought a beautiful one of rain and lightening dreaming from an Aboriginal woman named Peggy. The Aboriginal people do not like to be photographed, but will consent to having their picture made with the artworks you buy as proof of their authenticity. There were so many beautiful works to choose from--it was a tough decision, but I made it quickly lest one of the oldsters in the tour group snatch it away from me!
After lunch we headed to the hotel briefly. Let me just say that we are apparently staying in the nicest hotel in Alice Springs, the Alice Springs Resort, and while it is nice enough, it is not the Grand Hyatt, that’s for sure! We freshened up, then headed back out to the Alice Springs Desert Park to learn about the animals and ecosystems of the Outback. Let me boil it down for you: it’s hot, it’s dry, there’s lots of lizards, lots of marsupials of varying size, a few species of predatory birds, and lots of big-ass poisonous snakes. That pretty much covers it.
Dinner last night was an Outback barbeque, again hosted by Con. We drove out into the big nowhere (frankly, I was glad we were in a large group, because in the movies these types of scenarios usually end with the luscious American lass getting axed by the serial killer!), where somebody had constructed a picnic shelter type arrangement. The evening was absolutely delightful. Con kicked off the evening by demonstrating how to make a traditional Outback campfire dessert called a spotted dog, which was basically a sweet quick bread with currents and red wine mixed in. He baked in in a Dutch oven over the coals. Believe me, his techniques are not approved of by the head baker at Empire Edibles: he didn’t measure anything, much less weigh it! It was literally a handful of this and a glug of that! My overly anal retentive baker’s heart was seizing in terror, especially when he didn’t even grease his Dutch oven. I couldn’t argue with the end result, however: drizzled with a little golden syrup, it was quite yummy, if a little smoky tasting. I asked him if it ceases to be a spotted dog if you actually prepare it in an oven (and measure stuff!), and he reassured me it did not, that he frequently makes it for his grandkids that way. Perhaps I will have to find a recipe and try to replicate it for you.
A friend of Con’s, a singer named Barry Skipsy, (Skip for short) entertained us before and during dinner with traditional Australian songs. It was obvious that he and Con are old friends who have been doing their tourist act for a long time because their schtick, while a little predictable, was truly hysterical. Of course we had to sing a round of “Waltzing Mathilda”, which, while not the legal national anthem (“Advance Australia Fair” for those of you following along at hom), is considered by most Australians to be their national song. I think it is very telling of the Australian national character that this song is really about a suicidal hobo dancing with his bedroll, don’t you? In addition to his guitar, Skip brought along two native instruments for us to play: a wobble board and a lagerphone. The wobble board is very simple: a thin piece of flexible MDF board that you flex in rhythm with the music and it makes a “wop wop wop” sound. The lagerphone was a little more complicated. It was a broom handle to which were loosely screwed dozens of beer bottle pop tops, and when you shake the stick they jingle almost like bells. That’s not all, though, because you can create accents by whacking a board at the top with a serrated stick, or pull the serrations across an “alyuminium” rod. Very complicated, that one.
Now, to the food. More chicken, of course, but the big news: I ate KANGAROO! I bet you didn’t think I would do it, did you?? Well, you were wrong, because I did and I can report that it tastes nothing like chicken! It actually was quite tender and tasted like sweet beef. Not bad at all. Con and Barry told us the government is trying to encourage Australians to eat more kangaroo (apparently it’s low in fat and cholesterol) because it is a native meat and the animals are considered pests, sort of the equivalent of deer for us. Plus, eating more ‘roo means fewer cattle need to be raised, which is better for the local environment. In fact, you could say that ‘roo is a “green” meat!
We wrapped up the evening with star gazing with Andrew, a local amateur astronomer. This was some serious star gazing, people, because it was not only dark out there, it was damned dark. Ink dark. Can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Developing pictures dark. You get the idea. Anyway, with no light pollution on a perfectly clear night, you could see everything beautifully. I actually spotted the Milky Way on my own--it’s never been that clear or obvious to me before. Andrew also showed us several constellations, including Scorpio and Capricorn, pointing out the stars with the ULTIMATE geek toy: a laser pointer with a 5 km range!!!! He actually had to be carefully not to point it near a plane coming into the Alice Springs airport, it had that much range. I asked him about where one could procur such a device (imagine my geek street cred if I showed up to a meeting toting one of those puppies--no one could ever complain they couldn’t see what I was pointing at!), but sadly, he said you actually have to have a license to buy one in Australia. Bummer. He also showed us the pointer stars for the Southern Cross, but said that it was too low on the horizon to see the actual constellation. He did say we’d be able to see it really well in the morning when we go ballooning.
That’s right, tomorrow is the sunrise hot air balloon ride. That’s right, friends, by the next time I correspond with you, I will have crossed an item off my bucket list. I’m so excited I don’t know whether to scratch my watch or wind my butt.