Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

46. Reaching Alice Springs

We indulged in a rest day at Erldunda - retrieving our bikes, washing, reading, sorting out our gear - and spent most of the evening talking with two other touring cyclists, Alice and Jim. Alice was German and Jim was Scottish, and they had written a book about a previous cycle tour down the west coast of America from Canada to Mexico. They were also planning to write another book about their Australian tour, a shortened circuit up the east coast and down through the Red Centre. They gave us the impression that they loved doing it tough in order to make their books more exciting. Some of Jim's stories sounded terrific. If he can write as well as he can yarn, Jim could have a best seller on his hands.

The following morning we loaded up Elle and Mel again and headed north. We lunched by the Finke River - a small pool of green slime - after deciding to bypass thirty two kilometres of dirt which would have taken us to the Henbury meteorite craters. Near Stuart's Well we photographed a monument to the two officials and two drivers who were killed there during the 1994 Cannonball Run, an incredibly stupid car race run around normal traffic on public roads with no speed limits in non-built up areas. A classic photo, taken shortly before the accident, hangs in the Stuart's Well roadhouse. It shows the race car which crashed going sideways off the road, the driver of a family sedan just in front of it seemingly oblivious to the drama going on behind. In the foreground, the two officials who were just about to die can be seen jumping to their feet and beginning to move away. If they had stayed with the photographer, they would have been safe.

Karen being passed by yet another roadtrain

One hundred and eight kilometres for the day took us past four thousand kilometres for this leg of the trip. We spent the night at Jim's Place - the Stuart's Well roadhouse - enjoying some surprisingly good facilities which included a swimming pool and spa, sharing the latter with a family of five Unfortunately, the roadhouse showers did not match the other wet areas. They were like coffins, with no ventilation at all, so our showers actually doubled as saunas.

The ninety three kilometre ride into Alice Springs the next day was a real bastard, even for a guy like me who normally relishes the chance to battle against adversity. Hot north-easterly headwinds slowed us down all day. Forty kilometres of road-works which began shortly after we left the roadhouse reduced the road surface to two narrow lanes, sometimes less. In many places the shoulders were non-existent, with steep slopes of soft sand making escape from roadtrains almost as dangerous as staying on the road. At 1pm, still twenty kilometres from Alice, Karen and I lunched by the side of the road, having covered only seventy three kilometres in four and a half hours of riding. We rolled through the Heavitree Gap and into Alice Springs at 3pm, having ridden one thousand two hundred and fifty three kilometres in thirteen days of riding since Port Augusta, a daily average of over ninety six kilometres! No wonder I was stuffed!

My bum was hurting, a direct result of buying cheap shoes in Adelaide. I had bought the shoes at Target, liking their comfort and style and not realising the problems they would cause. Made from rubber and vinyl, they lacked decent ventilation, apart from a few ineffective pin-holes here and there. They made my feet sweat, not only causing my shoes, socks and feet to stink, but also keeping the soles of my feet moist and soft. As a result, my bike pedals dug into my soft soles and made my feet hurt, so I would try to ease the pain by taking some of the pressure off my feet. This meant I placed more pressure on the seat, and so my bum began to hurt. Standing up on the pedals helped ease the bum pain, but caused more pressure on my feet - a vicious circle! I tossed the shoes out and bought a new pair shortly after arriving in Alice.

Alice Springs is an aboriginal town. They were everywhere, and unfortunately, not always in the best of states. Aborigines are one of the main topics of conversation amongst outback travellers. They are discussed frequently because they are a constant and sometimes disturbing presence in most country areas. They are highly visible, spending much of their time on the street, but it is difficult to gain a balanced view of aborigines, as the ones we tend to see are those who are not working, and who seem to spend a lot of their time drunk. From the conversations I have witnessed and taken part in, it seems white Australians are far more comfortable when black Australians "integrate", which means when they live like whites.

My first contact with an aborigine happened when I was five. His name was Lucien, and he was smaller than me, but chubbier. My memories of him are amongst my first and most vivid, but not because of the colour of his skin. We were in the same kindergarten class together. One playtime, for a reason I cannot remember, we had a fight and he knocked out one of my front teeth. Not an auspicious beginning to my appreciation of aboriginal culture!

Alcohol is a problem for many aboriginal people in the Northern Territory, but the measures that have been introduced to curb its influence border on the absurd. In Alice Springs, pubs and bottle shops were not allowed to sell take away grog until midday, and then only with the restriction that four or five litre wine casks could only be sold after four in the afternoon. Will this stop people from drinking? Or will it only mean that they get drunk later in the day?

Alice Springs. What can I say about it? I heard a couple of archetypal stories about the aborigines at the Alice which may or may not be true. One concerns the famous and infamous Todd River. The story goes that each tree in the Todd belongs to a particularly family or group who are responsible for it. I have even heard that each tree was originally a tribal member who was transformed into a tree during the Dreamtime. According to the story, the local ambulance station has a map depicting the locations of these trees, so that when a call is received saying that Joe Black has been stabbed near Bill Brown's tree, the ambulance drivers can look up the location, hop into their four wheel drive ambulances, and rush directly to the spot. A good story, even if it may be an urban myth.

Another story told of two aboriginal groups about to have a fight. These fights can be rather nasty affairs with many of the participants requiring medical attention afterwards. With this in mind, someone called out just before the fight began, "Hey, wait! Why don't we go down to the hospital and fight there?"

The only real interaction Karen and I had with an aboriginal person in Alice Springs occurred right in the middle of the mall in the centre of town. An old, unkempt and rather smelly aboriginal gentleman, with white hair, few teeth and a grizzly beard, approached me in the street, swaying from side to side, obviously inebriated.

"Hey, mate," he drawled, staggering a little. "I bin thinkin that maybe, jusshht maybe you, ummmmm ..."
He paused. It appeared he had forgotten what he was about to say. We waited for him to continue.
"... um, could ahhh, you ummm ..."
Another long pause.
"Yes?" I prompted.
"... Ummm, could you lend, ummm, me errrr ..." The old man looked me up and down, desperately trying to stay on his feet, compose his thoughts, talk and focus, all at the same time. His eyes wandered up and down my person, as if trying to estimate how much money he thought he could get out of me. Never sartorially elegant, I waited in anticipation on his judgement of my worth.
"... lend me, umm," then a lengthy pause, "twenty cents?"
I had to laugh. It was without doubt the best insult I have ever received, and there have been many.
"No mate, sorry," I said.
"Thasssh all right, don't you worry, ummm, I be okay. Don't worry mate ..."

I looked over his shoulder at a teenage aboriginal boy who was sitting on a low wall, watching the whole episode. The boy shook his head and looked away, obviously embarrassed. Or was he shaking his head about me, because I had not given any money, even a pittance, to an obviously needy old man? Who knows?

We would spend almost three weeks in and around Alice, riding out and back through the West MacDonnell Ranges after a few rest days, and having a few more rest days before riding out and back through the East MacDonnell Ranges, after which we had a few more rest days. The number of rest days Karen and I were taking shows that we were not exactly doing it tough during our time in the Red Centre.

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