Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Alice Springs

Anthony gave us a tour of Alice when we arrived. It has everything a city has - it has to cater to many of Central Australia's inhabitants - except size. Anzac Hill, a nearby war memorial, allows you to really see the town though, and that is when you see that there really isn't much to it. However, for something to which there isn't much, there is still a lot to do and most of that revolves around Bojangles.

We met for an all-you-can eat at Toddy's hostel before heading to this infamous saloon. Bojangles is a country themed, rough and ready spot with dancing until 2. The floor is strewn with monkey nut shells from the nuts one can grab from a barrel at the door. Seats can be hard to come by as the place is very popular. It also has a webcam going, so everyone should be on their best behaviour. No one is. Louis made a bit of a splash on the dancefloor A large Aboriginal woman came over to snag him for her group. He whispered "Save me" very piteously, but I had my thoughts elsewhere and left him to his fate. My thoughts moved rapidly elsewhere, and elsewhere again; there is a lot of scenery in Bojangles, not all of it backpacker. At one point the Cork girl from the other tour showed up and we chatted a little, but sometimes I like to see myself as the United Nations, rather than the Irish Embassy. Whatever diplomacy I adopted, however, it didn't work and Louis, Louise and I ended up walking home last. I left them at their hostel and went home.

I was to have three nights in Alice Springs and I was very happy with my Alice tourist apartment. Big, comfortable and with a small kitchen, it was a good base, though the twenty minute walk to the town centre was off-putting. The next day I slept in, or did until housecleaning knocked on the door. I took it easy, wandering around town, booking some tours for the next day, heading up Anzac Hill, and getting in some food.

Anthony, Martina and Louis were all still in town, the Swiss and American members of our tour having flown off that morning. We met up for a very nice barramundi meal, before meeting a friend of Anthony's in the Hound and Firkin. An English bar, it was a little too down at heel to be really comfortable and the live music was deafening, though their Megadeath t-shirts didn't go well with their middle of the round covers. On we went to Bojangles once more.

Once more Kofi Anan was my spokesman and when the others left I went chasing in Melanka's, a nearby nightclub that's part of a hostel. It was a half-decent place, but my rhetoric was wearing thin, so I headed back to the hotel.

Next morning I had a trip to the nearby Alice Springs Desert Park booked. They were prompt and at 10.30 I found myself at the entrance. The woman behind the counter asked where I was from, presumably for statistical purposes. I said Ireland, she said UK. I said no, she said it's all the one. Yes, like Switzerland is a part of France. I didn't press it. Being abroad tends to bring out unwelcome nationalistic feelings, and I'm not really that much of a nationalist. Instead I went to the famous Nocturnal House.

Most of the wildlife in the desert comes out at night. For this reason, the Nocturnal House is bathed in perpetual moonlight (well, I figure they turn the lights on at night). The animals - the snakes, the lizards, the Mala wallabies, the possums, the desert rats, the Tawny Frog Mouth - everything is out and about and scurrying around their glass enclosures. I spent an unhealthy two hours there. Excellent. The bulk of the park is made up of open air habitants - desert, river, woodland - with enclosed aviaries and paddocks for seeing specific creatures. The birds, particularly the wrens, were amazing. You walk into an open aviary and they flit about your head.

If you are fortunate enough to visit this park avoid the cinema feature, "Heart of Change". Proclaiming to give an insight into the development of the desert, it is actually a pretentious splurge of bombast and a waste of twenty minutes. Go down to the kangaroo paddock instead, or wait for the Bird of Prey exhibit, which I missed. Certainly leaving at 3 to avail of the bus back, I could have done with more time.

Going back to my hotel room, I eyed the small pool at the entrance hungrily, but I didn't have time for a swim as I had to prepare for...


Before the great railroad, the Ghan, connected Adelaide to Alice Springs (and on to Darwin), the only way to get supplies to central Australia was using camels. Afghan immigrants managed these huge camel trains to Alice Springs and indeed the 'Ghan' takes its name from these traders. Ironically, this same railroad put the traders out of business leading them to put their camels out to pasture. They let them loose. Now there is over half a million camels roaming wild in the Outback, often healthier in this new climate than their Middle Eastern forebears. They are considered something of a pest in that they eat much of the local greenery (precious little as their is) and their feet damage the fragile plants they trod. On the plus side, Australia now exports these camels back to the Middle East and indeed use them to fill out their menus.

While we drove to Alice Springs, on at least two occasions, we came across packs of camels. They stand for a moment, gaze at you and then move off, but they make a striking sight especially when they cross the road before you.

At Kings Canyon I had a chance to ride a camel, but it didn't fit in with either our driving or drinking plans (a 6am start). Alice Springs on the other hand provided me with reasonable time and opportunity. I went on a sunset ride.

I stood outside my hotel at 5.15 awaiting my pick-up. And waited. And waited. Half an hour later, after I had just gone in search of a phone number to call, the minibus turned up. They had been to another hotel by mistake. The only other person who had signed up for the trek was a trim 40-something German called Inga. Our guide, and driver, outside of explaining the mistake didn't say another word the whole drive to the camel farm, a silence he was to maintain for much of the whole evening.

The camel tour, a 13 camel affair, is owned and run by Marcus and his wife from their slightly ramshackle farm. As we arrived a stark naked two year-old ran out to meet his father. Kitt is the youngest member of the outfit and both he and his mother joined us for the trip. Holding on to his t-shirt from the back, his mother set him down at the front of her camel where he sat like a lord. Given that he has been riding since he was 8 weeks old, he showed no concern whatsoever.

I was the first to mount up and as the camel brusquely stood up, I confess to a moment's wonder at what I was doing as I shot up into the air. Only a moment though, because once I stared around from the height, I felt really comfortable. Marcus adjusted the stirrups as I'm not the tallest, but there was really nothing for me to do but hold on to a bar and remain upright. Each camel is clipped to the one in front using a plastic pin through its nose. Once one moves the next follows automatically, though this doesn't always stop one (my camel, for instance) from wandering to the side to strip a tree of leaves.

There were five camels on our jaunt; Trillian, the second I cannot remember, Greyhound, Anna (my steed), and a spare, Odin (blind in one eye and apparently quite stupid). Odin, being stupid, took a shine to me and had a habit a nuzzling up to my leg. I'd pet him and he'd yawn at my hand. The inside of a camel's mouth is very strange with peculiar, pointed protuberances coated the inside of its cheeks. It must provide some sort of protection against the twigs and thorns it regularly strips from trees, along with any leaves, as it wanders by.

It wasn't sunset and wasn't going to be sunset while we rode, but the bare, red desert was still beautiful. Tammy, the black and white sheepdog, kept jogging around our legs and pointing out the local kangaroos. Every once in a while she'd run into one of the puddles still dotted around the sand from the afternoon's downpour. Her activity was the only strenuous work being done though. Riding a camel is kind of like those miracle exercise machines that do the work for you. Rolling from side to side you can feel your sides being stretched and compressed and the muscles building up a healthy ache. Whether I could do this for a day I am not sure, but an hour was fine and that was all we were travelling for.

Occasionally Marcus's wife would mumble something to Inga, but for the most part I heard nothing. Even when Marcus suddenly dismounted and took our cameras for a picture, he scarcely spoke. To be honest, this was fine by me. Sometimes some quiet time is what you need. After a half an hour we turned and headed for home, the married couple exchanging Kitt every now and again.

Reaching the farm, the other camels all lined up to welcome us as we came back in, well us or just their compatriots. It should also be borne in mind that it was dinner time. Cutting the twine on some bales of dry hay, Marcus's wife encouraged us to throw armfuls to the waiting camels. Kitt to got in on the act, though he got a little scolding when he kicked Roger, a former racing camel, in the head. Throwing the grass was probably the messiest part of the whole evening. I had heard camels were "dirty, smelly things" (the hotel proprietor), but getting hay in the hair was the only justification for the shower I had when I got back to the hotel.

Martina from the Groovy Grape tour was still in town and we had agreed to meet for dinner. She was determined to have a kangeroo steak. Given my evening, I just had to have some camel and a nice big camel sirloin is what I had. Beautiful! Apparently this meat is very good for you, but it also tastes wonderful, as well as being very tender. No fat, just juicy red meat. With all apologies to Odin, I'll be having it again if given the chance.


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