A Town Like Alice

It was strange arriving in Melbourne again after my trip round Tasmania. Only 5 weeks earlier I had flown in to Tullamarine Airport for the first time, shattered by jetlag, my internal body clock still somewhere over South-east Asia. This time it was quite different. The flight took just over an hour, and I watched the patchwork fields of central Tasmania recede beneath us, replaced by the deep blue of the Bass Strait, flecked with whitecaps. Soon the coast of mainland Australia came into view – a long beach, curving around the base of the continent and away into the distance, stretching as far as the eye could see. I thought about the huge landmass that lay to the north, from this southern, temperate tip up through the central deserts to the tropical north, and remembered the comment of the boat pilot off the coast of Bruny Island a few days before: “It’s 2200 km south to Antarctica from down here, and 2600 km north to Alice Springs.” It was a not-so-subtle assertion of Tasmanian ‘otherness’, a little jibe at the mainland’s expense. Closer to Antarctica than to the red centre of Australia – and even then, Alice is only halfway up the country.

Alice Springs… it was an iconic destination. I’d first encountered the name as a 9-year-old in the library at school, where there was a shelf of red faux-leather ‘classics’. Amidst the Trollope and Dickens and Austen nestled a book whose title was picked out in gold: A Town like Alice, by Nevil Shute. For some reason it caught my attention, and I was soon absorbed in a tale set in wartime Malaya, of a group of British women taken prisoner by the Japanese and marched up and down the peninsula in search of an internment camp (based on a true story, though the women were in fact Dutch, and it was Sumatra, not Malaya). Along the way (spoiler alert) one of the women, Jean Paget, meets an Australian prisoner of war, Joe Harman. He regales her with stories of his homeland – the space of the outback, the harsh beauty of the desert, and most of all, a small town nestled at the heart of it, Alice Springs. Moved by the women’s plight, Joe steals some chickens from the Japanese commandant, but is caught and crucified on a tree. The women are forced to watch, then marched away, believing him to be dead. But Joe survives, and in the chaos of the post-war world, he goes in search of Jean. Arriving in London he learns she is no longer there, but has gone to Australia. They are reunited in Alice Springs and move to the small fictional town of Willstown in Queensland, Joe taking a job as a cattle station manager and Jean starting a number of businesses in the hope of improving the town’s fortunes and turning rugged Willstown into a miniature version of Alice Springs – a town like Alice.

Nevil Shute was British, but, dismayed by the post-war decline in his native country exemplified by austerity and, as he saw it, growing socialism in the founding of the welfare state, he decided to emigrate to Australia in 1950. A Town Like Alice was written in the same year, and reflects many of his aspirations: the hope of a new start, the creation of a better society, where through hard work and self-sufficiency people could improve their lot. Before the Second World War Alice Springs had had a population of just 500 and was extremely remote, but the town had boomed in the wartime economy and drew in settlers from all over Australia. It was too remote for Nevil Shute – he settled in Melbourne, that most European of Australian cities – but it exemplified the ideal: the rugged, pioneer spirit; the establishment of a genteel society in harsh surroundings, along largely British pre-war mores; a new life. It was the remnants of the colonial dream in a post-colonial world.

Where the Aborigines fitted into this bold blueprint for a new society isn’t entirely clear. Alice Springs is known as Mparntwe to the local Arrernte people who have lived in the area for at least 30,000 years. Referred to throughout the novel as ‘boongs’ or ‘abos’, Aborigines are portrayed as basically decent but unreliable, different somehow, using different shops and bars to the whites, as befitting Australia’s unofficial apartheid of the time. Today approximately 25% of the population of the town is of Aborigine origin, and nowhere in Australia better illustrates the collision of cultures, with consequent, highly visible casualties, than Alice Springs.

Prior to 1980, when only unsealed dirt roads led to Alice, it would have taken over a week to drive there from Victoria. Now, in 2014, Google Maps estimated it as a three day drive: eight hours to Adelaide, nine-and-a-half to the mining town of Coober Pedy, and then a seven hour drive from there up to Alice Springs. Heading west from Bendigo we passed through the endless undulating Victorian farmland, dotted with a succession of small towns – Newbridge, Donald, Horsham, Bordertown. Each was well designed for passing traffic, with a cafe or two, places to park just outside, and always a public toilet nearby. The road was called the Sunraysia Highway, which made it sound like a Cambodian casino, and it was a standard single-carriageway tarmac road, with the painfully slow Victoria speed limit of 100 kmh (62 mph). Why, in such a vast country, it is necessary for the authorities to impose a limit of such glacial slowness on motorists is hard to fathom – not least because as soon as you cross the state border the limit goes up: to 110 kmh (68 mph) in South Australia, and then a giddy 130 kmh (80 mph) in the Northern Territory (they’ve always done things their own way up there.) We were glad of it in the NT, anyway – mile after mile of dead straight road going on for hours.

I’d booked a hostel in central Adelaide called The Guesthouse, which looked to be conveniently located for the road out of town the next morning. It seemed to be a public holiday – the city was eerily deserted by the time we arrived in late afternoon, but we found the streets around the Central Market to be bustling with people out for dinner. There were a great many Chinese about – the area seemed to be the local Chinatown – and we picked up some Tiger Balm in a Chinese supermarket, then chose a restaurant called China Chilli for dinner which seemed to be popular. Deservedly so: it was some of the best Sichuan food I’ve ever had: spicy hot chilli beef with onion and peppers, and Chicken Kung Pao (or Gong Bao, etc.). As we sat outside cars growled up and down the road, and we witnessed a minor road rage incident between a white couple and a Chinese man in a large Mercedes 4WD. “Check the numbah!” he yelled at them. “Check the numbah, check the numbah!” I assumed he was referring to his number plate, which said B3NZ 001. They seemed equally nonplussed, and eventually he drove off with a screech of tyres and a sulphurous puff of catalytic converter. The crowds ambled by, and eventually we made our way back to the hostel and our room, which smelled of Harpic loo cleaner, to be serenaded by the mechanical clank of the traffic light countdown just outside the window, with its laser beam pulse sound on the pedestrian green light. It was not a restful night.

South Australia is a bit of an unknown on the map, lacking the brashness of Queensland, with its beach resorts and rugged sense of identity, or the bold frontier spirit of the Northern Territory. Adelaide itself is quite small for a city, with a population of just over a million, and there aren’t really any other major urban centres. When I asked a South Australian I had met what there was to see in the state he went quiet for a while, then mentioned the Flinders Ranges National Park. “Other than that,” he mused, “there’s a whole lot of nothing.” We contemplated the concept of a whole lot of nothing together for a while in silence, and then he said, as an afterthought, “Oh yeah! There’s Coober Pedy.” This small, improbable settlement owes its existence entirely to opals, which are mined here – “noodling”, as local parlance has it. Indeed, on the map of Coober Pedy there exists a purple-shaded area just outside the town with the description “Public Noodling Area”, which had me intrigued for a while, until I found that it meant nothing more than pegging out a claim and digging for opals. Situated in the far north of the state, Coober Pedy’s climate is so extreme that many people have taken to living underground, and this has become an attraction in its own right – hotels and hostels offer underground rooms which have a constant temperature in the low 20s C, even when it can be in the mid-40s outside.

Having driven through a whole lot of nothing for nine hours it was a relief to finally arrive in Coober Pedy. Google Maps had come up with an interesting direction: “In 536 km, turn right.” We duly did so, and arrived at Radeka Backpackers. The room itself was described as ‘budget underground twin’, though it was more accurately hollowed out from the hillside. Inside rough-hewn rock formed a glittering mica ceiling, and it was indeed cool – as well as very dark. There were apparently two options in town for dinner: a Greek place (turn left) or John’s pizza place (turn right). I had been dreaming of moussaka and Greek salad for several hundred kilometers – we found that in the desert we craved fruit and salad, both of which were in short supply – but on reaching the end of the road just prior to turning left we heard an extraordinary noise. At first I genuinely thought it was a flock of galahs or some similarly raucous local bird; it was a harsh screeching cry that went on and on. Then we saw the source – a group of Aborigine women were having a row outside the Greek restaurant. After five weeks in Australia these were the first Aborigines I had seen, and it was a depressing spectacle. They were all at it, making a tremendous row, their multi-syllable language combining to form a continual babble. All were drunk. Eventually one woman broke away from the group and made her way downhill, barefoot and clad in a dirty dress, all the while keeping up a stream of yelled abuse at the others, who returned it. A police car drew up alongside her, two white cops, one male, one female. The window came down. “Excuse me!” I heard the male cop shout. In response she lifted an arm and pointed back at the crowd by the restaurant, yelling all the while. The police car did a U-turn and pulled up next the group. It was a thoroughly dispiriting scene, and we decided to turn right and have pizza instead. Down by the pizza place, outside the entrance to a mine a young couple sat in a ute and argued loudly. “What is it with this town?” I said. “Everyone seems to be having a row.” Fortunately in the pizza place they weren’t – it was full of families who had stopped in town for the night, due to the complete absence of anywhere else to stay, and locals popping in to pick up a takeaway. All the staff seemed to the Filipino. They were quickly efficient, with the air of people who have got used to keeping their heads down, and they swiftly brought our order of frozen lasagne and oven chips with a minuscule garnish of salad, everything in Coober Pedy having to come nearly a thousand kilometres by road up from Adelaide.

The next morning, emerging blinking from our subterranean cavern, we stopped off at the IGA supermarket to pick up Strepsils and tissues, as I had become afflicted with a cold in the night. The supermarket was vast, and clearly under the management of a 21-year-old, since at 9 in the morning the soundtrack was belting out dance music which had the thoroughly appropriate shouted chorus: “This is ridiculous!” We drove around the deserted side streets for a while trying to find our way up to the Big Winch, a local viewpoint over the town, and having reached it, and admired a collection of surreal sculptures congregated in the car park (including keyboards nailed to a pole with the logo: “White Man Totem Pole”), we were greeted by a small Chinese man who emerged from a tin hut nearby. “Come in, come in,” he beckoned to us. Inside the hut were rows of display cases with jewellery made from stones he had mined locally. Very locally – he had sunk a 20 metre shaft just across the car park. He’d been in Coober Pedy since 1979, he said, and came originally from Hong Kong. He seemed glad of the company, and prevailed upon me to smoke a cigarette sitting on the porch with him, while showing us small uncut opals he’d got from the shaft. We bought two in the end, for $5 – a small white piece of stone with a cool feel to it, and another which was shot through with flashes of turquoise. The view across the town was bizarre: large pale-coloured mounds dotting the surroundings bore evidence of the “noodling”. Wrecked cars and odd, random assortments of machinery lay about, near to houses that looked as if they’d been put up in a hurry. Apparently the dystopian movie Mad Max was filmed here; they wouldn’t have needed much in the way of set embellishment.

Heading north from Coober Pedy (turn left for Adelaide, right for Alice Springs) we crept our way across the map of Australia millimetre by millimetre. The landscape was semi-arid as opposed to outright desert, with thin, spindly shrubs and beige grass sprouting in tufts from the increasingly red earth. It’s hard to describe such a sense of emptiness. Gone were the small towns of Victoria with their cafes and public conveniences; here it was several hundred kilometres between stops, and the stops themselves were service stations with accompanying motel, known as roadhouses. In these you’d get a standard 70s-style motel room with air-conditioning (essential), a jug of cold water in the fridge (you had to buy more if you wanted it as the tap water was inevitably unfiltered from deep boreholes) and a TV with a dwindling number of channels the further north you went. Mostly, though, they provided a cool and shady spot to rest, curtains drawn against the glare outside, as three-wagon road trains thundered past.

These road trains owned the road. Everything was transported on them: three wagons packed full of sheep standing shoulder to shoulder; petrol tankers; refrigerated trucks for foodstuffs. They’d go all day and all night, running the gauntlet of the mobs of kangaroos who gathered along the verges at night and who had a fatal attraction to headlights; their dismembered carcasses lay fresh along the road every morning, picked over by crows and hawks. The road trains did the same speed as everyone else, and meeting one coming the other way and feeling the blast of hot wind as it passed made me glad I wasn’t on a motorbike. Three days to Alice, five up to Darwin, then turn around and back again, perhaps veering off for another couple of days to deliver to some isolated mining settlement. I later read that Yulara, the resort next to Uluru / Ayer’s Rock, is supplied from Adelaide by three road trains a week – nine wagons in all – which bring up everything consumed there; everything from the UHT milk that accompanies your coffee through to the cleaning products used in the hotels, the fuel that keeps the whole place going, and of course all the produce in the local IGA supermarket. Everything. In return they are filled with rubbish which is then trucked back down across the desert for recycling in Adelaide. Seeing them at night, with lights strung along their sides, they did indeed look like trains heading into the darkness, twin headlights feeling their way across the blank space of central Australia.

After endless empty kilometres we began to notice small things – anything. A distant radio mast on the horizon. An unmarked dirt track leading off into the bush. A tin can placed upon a rock by the roadside. On the rare occasions that there was a road sign we cried out “It’s a sign!” like evangelists while we scrutinised it from afar. Usually it was a road safety warning, about the importance of keeping your seatbelt on or similar. Occasionally it would say “Fatigue kills. Take a break”. But where? Then a few kilometres later would be a rest stop sign, and a lay-by with a picnic table and benches shaded on three sides from the sun. Pulling into one of these we got our first taste of the famous outback flies; they descended upon us within seconds, buzzing around our heads, crawling over sunglasses lenses and generally being annoying. We developed the continual lacklustre wave of the outback, perpetually shooing them away – but as soon as you had done so they settled upon you again. In the distance a white expanse of salt shimmered – one of the many salt lakes of central Australia which had tricked early explorers with their promise of water, and were subsequently named things like Lake Disappointment.

Dully we watched the kilometre markers counting down – small green signs saying “AS 90”. Then it was 70. An age of dead straight monotonous bitumen later and we were down to 30. The landscape began to subtly change, with rock formations looming. Squinting into the glare of the late afternoon sun, sticky with barley sugar and parched in the 5% humidity, we came into the outskirts of Alice Springs. Suddenly it was all so normal. Somewhere north of Coober Pedy we had started to notice that every oncoming driver gave a wave – keeping on good terms with the people who might just save your life if you got stuck out there. Now, in suburban Alice, the waves stopped. There were many Aborigines around, walking with the slow, swaying gait of people used to saving energy in a hot climate. We drove alongside the sandy bed of the Todd River – Sir Charles Todd, whose wife Alice had been the inspiration for the town’s name. The hostel we were booked at lay on the north bank of the dry riverbed, and we staggered in to our room, drew the curtains and lay down on the beds in the cool breeze of the air conditioner. Welcome to a town like Alice.