Thursday, 4 August 2011

Alice Springs

Almost smack dab in the middle of Australia is a wonderful town - Alice Springs. I arrived there in the early morning hours of Saturday, May 26, 1962 and stayed until Wednesday, November 14 of that same year. While not situated in the Simpson Desert it is not far from there and, therefore, hot and dry.

The town is bisected by the Todd River which, for most of the year, is a 'river' in name only. Most years the river remains dry throughout the autumn, winter and spring months with heavy rains falling only during the summer. 1962 was different, though. Twice during my stay heavy downpours occurred in the hills to the east of the town - and the river actually was a river for a few days. The road across to the East Side - where Barry and I lived - was a paved ford across the river bed. While the river ran 'dry' I frequently crossed it by simply walking in a beeline towards my destination. When it flooded, though, I was forced to use a foot bridge beside the ford.

To the south and southwest of the town is the Macdonnell Range. Being from Canada I was used to seeing mountains that were snowy peaks. These mountains were very old, geologically speaking, so the tops - while jagged - were worn - and, in sunlight, reflecting many different hues. Very similar to the terrain depicted in photos of the desert areas in Arizona and Utah. Those of you who have seen the film "The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert" will have noticed how beautiful are the colors of those rock walls - continually changing hue as the sun progresses across the sky.

For Barry and I - the lad whom I met during the train ride north - our first task was to find work. As it so happened, our arrival preceded the annual 'Town Fair' and the local pop bottling plant needed extra help. I was put to work cleaning and washing used bottles for recycling. I had to learn how to extract broken straw, cigarette butts and other detritus (as well as stale pop) out of the bottles so they could be refilled. A very 'yucky' job!

That work lasted for only two or three days and then we had to look for something else to do. Barry was quite a sturdy fellow so he found work with a cement contractor laying curbing along streets in a new subdivision. For me it was a longer wait before I was hired as the bookkeeper at Connellan Airlines - a fleet of Cessna and Beechcraft aircraft which carried mail, freight and passengers to the outlying cattle and sheep stations, supplied flights for people who needed to come into town, and took tourists for birds-eye views of the Outback. If any readers have read Nevil Shute's book "A Town Called Alice", Eddie Connellan and Alice Springs figure largely in that yarn.

There was a man whose memory is revered there - the Rev. John Flynn. He was a Presbyterian missionary who settled in Alice Springs in the early part of the 20th Century. It is he who is credited with creating the "School of the Air" and the "Flying Doctor Service" in the outback. The first was so that children of families out on the Stations could receive a government accredited education while remaining at home, and the second was a system by which ill and injured people in the outlying areas could receive proper medical care.

In his memory a beautiful church was erected on Todd Avenue - the main street. While I was there the church was completely full for the Sunday morning service and many people attended a film and slide evening each Monday. His memory is so revered that almost all visitors dropped by the church AND attended the film show. That was one way to get to see what life in the Outback was really like.

One of the films was about the construction and dedication of the John Flynn Memorial Church at which Queen Elizabeth II officiated. Those of us who assisted with the film evening waited in amusement for one scene in that movie.

When the church was dedicated all of the local people became involved with the preparations - including the local Aborigines. This particular scene showed an Aboriginal woman out hunting for food. In her hand was a stick that she was using to remove sand from the base of a shrub. She found what she was looking for, dropped her stick, picked up a wriggling 'witchety grub' (a type of caterpillar) and popped it into her mouth. Many of the tourists groaned and turned away from the screen while we 'locals' laughed!

My next blog will be dedicated solely to life in the rooming house where Barry and I lived but, as our roommates became very much a part of our lives, I will now share one part of our experience with them.

On the August Long Weekend (the British Bank Holiday weekend), some station owners/managers in the Harts Range area (northeast of Alice Springs near the Queensland State border) held an annual horse race. Practically everybody who lived in that area went up there for the weekend - including a large group of us. We traveled in a number of vehicles .Two of the guys drove up in a pickup with all of our luggage - and especially the sleeping bags - in the back. Most of us who rode in cars arrived in good time but there was no sign of the truck and its contents.

They appeared the next morning having overshot the turnoff from the highway and then, on the return trip, overshooting it again! Five of us were riding in a Morris Major - a girl driving, another girl riding beside her and three men in the back seat. I, being the slimmest, rode in the middle while the other two - burly men - rode on either side of me. We had no choice but to sleep as we were in the car and, when one of us turned, all of us had to turn at the same time!

One of my most vivid memories of that weekend was the next morning. We awoke to find ourselves beneath a huge gum (eucalyptus) tree. Hundreds of wild budgerigars were hopping about the limbs and chattering up a storm! I thought of my oldest sister, Alda, for whom Dad built a large cage in which she raised budgies when she was a girl.

The truck with the bedding was not the only vehicle that was missing - so were a couple of the cars that were traveling with us. Eventually everybody showed up and we watched the horse races together.

I noted with interest that most of the jockeys were aboriginal lads - and they certainly could ride! At the conclusion of the races a cup was presented to the biggest winner - and that was a very impressive piece of hardware!

Working for Connellan Airways meant that I could avail myself of free flights when an aircraft went out on a special run to deliver or to pick up somebody. This happened one Saturday. Two tourists booked on a mail run flight while two women had booked a trip on a plane into town from the homestead. As a Cessna has four seats (one of which is used by the pilot) another plane had to be sent to accommodate the incoming pair. The pilot chosen to fly the extra aircraft invited me to go along for the ride. It was spectacular! I enjoyed it so much that I was invited to go along on an afternoon flight too.

There had been a number of hard showers over the previous days so what I saw was magical. Instead of brown barren terrain there were patches of vivid green speckled with flowers. The second mail run was to the south towards the South Australian border. The pilot was having trouble in spotting the windsock at the landing strip (all flying by those small planes out there was visual with no instruments used). He had an idea in which direction the Station (house and outbuildings) was in so he flew that way until he spotted the plume of dust behind a land rover which was being driven out to meet us. As we got lower Cam - the pilot - spotted the windsock and down we came. That was one area where little rain had fallen so everything looked barren to me. However, the station manager commented gleefully how much rain had fallen and that the cattle were fattening up nicely! You could have fooled me!

There was a movie theater in town with a program that changed twice a week. From the outside one saw the usual marquee and ticket booth, Inside was a snack bar and the washrooms. However, to enter the theater proper, the doorways led to the outside and rows upon rows of lawn chairs. The screen and the movie projectors were adequate and many of the movies - near to being 'first run' - were quite good. However, with no roof, one could see the stars and the hordes of flying insects attracted to the beam of light going from the projector to the screen. If the movie turned out to be boring just try to count all of the moths and other insects in the beam of light!

There was an amateur theater company in Alice Springs and they put on a production of Shaw's 'Pygmalion'. I was with a group of people who went to see it. Two of us had seen "My Fair Lady" so, while on our way home, we remembered lines and began to sing the appropriate songs from the musical version.

I loved my stay in Alice Springs - but Barry had left to go out to Perth and I promised that I would meet him there. Also - summer was coming and it was getting hot. I gave notice to my employer and to my landlord and left on the train on November 14.

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