Posts Tagged ‘Alice Springs’


Shadows under Hermannsburg

December 10, 2008

A short piece about Alice Springs. It’s a strange thing; but two years in Alice left me with deeper imprints than more than a decade in Canberra. It can be a hard place to love, Alice, but I loved it.

In her flight from ruined love, she drove across the desert to where the road ran out. Though wrenched with hurt, she still noticed the lines of red river gums, guarding the flow of long dead waters. She drove too fast through a landscape torn from time, the oldest in the world. Once she almost crashed, before she was ready, swerving away from a giant lizard sunning itself in the middle of the highway.

She came to the place where the road ran out, and turned into Hermannsburg. The place ached with menace. Rubbish, forbidden streets and abandoned cars were everywhere, but the air was somehow silent. No birds, no breeze, no lowing herds; no bells, no children’s voices. The barricaded police station was blind with dirt and dust. Not a soul was to be seen, except when she called at the single store. There, the driver of an empty tourist bus, hastening out with his cigarettes, watched her cautious entrance with incredulity. Out on the concrete steps the eldest were gathered; poor, blind, afflicted, crouched in unknown ceremony. The place smelled like an opened grave. She was observed without expression. She left without speaking.

Then she remembered the trees she’d seen on her way to where the road ran out. Destroyed by fire or other blight, they mimicked the broken forms behind her, misshapen, distorted by time, memory, ancient loss. She’d wondered at them then; now she thought she understood.

That night she went out into the desert; laid down and slept under the limitless lid of the sky, with the brilliant stars, in the the arc of space. She dreamed of the trees. She saw each tree release its imprisoned spirit from a blackened embrace. Clean straight limbs emerged from the twisted branches. They were healed, and danced.

A little distance from where she slept, four figures unfurled like flags, stood upright, and rushed towards her.


Back in Canberra — back blogging

January 14, 2007

Me and Francesca the cat survived the return trip to Canberra — Ceska rather better than I, if anything. She knew where she was directly she stepped out of the cat cage: took a look around, had a couple of sniffs, and said to herself, ‘I’m home. Thanks for nothing. And where’s my food? Get to it!’

She’s probably forgotten the time she brought in a Western Brown snake for me to admire. It’s only the 9th deadliest reptile in the world, but just a toy to her. The snake man I got in to catch the thing said it had enough venom in it to kill seven adult humans, but cats are almost immune to snake bites. She knew that, of course, but I didn’t.

A nasty piece of work which was returned to the Central Australian desert where it belongs

I was going to stop blogging, at least for a while, but this thing has affixed itself to me like an arm, so after I shut the site, I had to resurrect it almost straightaway with a new WordPress theme.


Last post from Alice

January 9, 2007

Goodbye to Alice Springs as of today. It’s been interesting. When I came here a couple of years ago, the air cracked with heat when you touched it. It’s not the same now, for some reason, although it’s still hot enough. The mountains are green from the winter rains, which somehow seems ridiculous. I’ll be back in a year or two, when it’s the Red Centre again.

Thanks to those who’ve visited and commented over the past year or so. This site will self-destruct at midnight on Friday 12th January 2007, or any time time prior.

Update: Reconstituted two days later.


Drying out in Alice

September 10, 2006

A couple of weeks ago, here in Alice Springs, the bottle shops at Coles New World and Woolworth’s ran out of their last stocks of four-litre wine casks. Selling four-litre casks is interdicted now across all liquor outlets in Alice. You can only buy two-litre casks. And in a few weeks, from October 1st, you will only be able to buy one two-litre cask per person at any one time, and then only after 6 pm.

When you ask the bottle shop attendants why the restrictions have been imposed, they look at you in disbelief, then smile quietly and take your money without answering your question. “Must be a tourist”, you can see them thinking.

Of course everybody knows why the ban has been implemented. Drunken violence is epidemic in Alice, but only in a part of Alice — the Aboriginal community. Everyone here knows this, too. The ban, which applies to everyone, is the latest attempt to curb the violence.

One might ask — if the problem is limited almost entirely to Aboriginals, why not restrict the sale of cask wine to Aboriginals only, rather than inconvenience everyone? Answer: you can’t do it. It would be racist, discriminatory and contrary to fundamental human rights. Alice would be pilloried from pillar to post.

One might also ask — is this nonetheless not a return to the discredited paternalism of the past, when the whites forbade Aborigines’ access to liquor? Well …. discussions about indigenous issues in the big cities usually turn around this and similar abstract concepts: the background issues of colonial dispossession, self-determination, reconciliation, so forth. I can tell you these things mean almost nothing up here. All the familiar ideological and sociological arguments go out of the window somehow. The people who care have lives to save, and the need is pressing and urgent. It can’t wait while we determine the patterns in the wallpaper.

Something has to be done. Levels of violence against Aboriginal women and children are horrific — in the transients’ camps, in the old dry river bed that runs through the town, in the outlying desert communities. Nanette Rogers, Crown Prosecutor at Alice for 12 years, recently disclosed on the ABC’s Lateline program how horrifying they are. There are crimes here that I could not bring myself to describe to another person.

Every day on the streets here you see women walking like the dead, the living spark beaten out of them. Every day you see the children: straight as lances with marvellous smiles at the age of 10, bent and broken by violence and substance abuse at 20, and all too often dead at 30 or 40.

And every day, you see the slow cavalcade of human wrecks shuffle up from the bad end of town, heading for the bottle shops which open at 2 pm, buying their two- and four-litre casks and taking them back to their ruined houses or down to the Todd to drink and drink and drink until they’re senselessly, mindlessly, murderously drunk.

Every day in Alice Springs the heart breaks more, a little more. Or it becomes indifferent.

I say bring on the liquor bans, and let them be for all of us. It may work, it may not. But it might just mean that fewer Aboriginal women and children get raped and assaulted and murdered by drunken, predatory males, and fewer infants get bashed in utero, later to be born with deformities and disfigurements that will kill them before they reach puberty. For that, we should be able to put up with a lot more inconvenience than having to wait till six for our chateau cardboard.


Painting the red centre

February 13, 2006

Albert Namatjira Mount Sonder, MacDonnell Ranges
c.1957-59 watercolour and pencil on paper
National Gallery of Australia


One of the best things about being in Alice Springs is that you’re in Albert Namatjira territory. Taking the roads and trails through the West MacDonnell ranges is like walking through one of his luminous watercolours. Namatjira, the first Aboriginal artist to achieve international fame, died in 1959, but you see his fingerprints all over the landscape, almost as if he created it.

When first you look at his paintings, you think the colours are too strong, too dark, as though he were trying to paint in oils. But Namatjira painted his ancient landscape down to the bone. He knew its hard ribs, black hollows and blue shadows better than anyone. The West Macs are like that, deeply and indelibly inked. Wherever you look, they define the boundaries of vision, wave upon wave of rock, corralling the red sand. At their feet the desert stretches out in the heat like a cat, its dusty flanks spotted with spinifex, scratching at the wall of rock that rims it.

They change endlessly, the West Macs. At times an ocean of stone, pitching and rolling, making you dizzy; at others, the huge scarred backs of rock bulk like behemoths, slow-moving enough to seem motionless; sometimes the ridges drop to the desert floor like curtains, three or four deep. At other times a single escarpment lopes alongside, keeping pace and distance, with a cockatrice crest, racing you home.

The light is amazing out here. In the furnace of days you feel the scrape of its blades. Reach your hand into it and it splinters like glass, releasing the heat’s thunder. The air shakes with it, painting the land red, and the red earth paints it back. The air is red. Everything is red. You can taste and smell the red. On calmer days, when the land is ribboned with cloud, the light changes; it softens, becomes milky almost as mist. The harsh lines of rocks lose their edge, their aggression, and crumble slightly. The Macs could even be dozing, while the air is quiet, and the sun’s knives scabbarded.

Approaching Alice from the west, with the sun falling, you see one of Namatjira’s ghost gums in the middle distance, tall as two storeys, darkening the ranges behind it; a white arm thrust unexpectedly out of the earth almost to the elbow, skeletal fingers twisted with age or memory, dazzling in the horizontal light. It could be the only thing awake in this part of the Territory.

At Heavitree Gap, eons ago, the bluffs broke apart like breadsticks. Now they open up to a whole procession of ghosts, spilling down into Alice. Probably Namatjira himself is among them, driving his battered old truck back and forth between Alice and the baking hot Hermannsburg mission he was born at. Crowding through the Gap come other ghosts: once-were bikers, once-were hippies, once were lost and longed for. They came long ago and stayed, aging into Alice: almost solid forms now, amid the tall and young and the transient millions; faintly and translucently limned, here and there, as if they’d somehow caught the glow from the bone-white tree out in the scrub; as if they, too, had suddenly remembered.

And among the ghosts, the black shadows that slip away, down to the old dry river bed to sleep – a sleep as deep as the roots of rock, as their ancestors’ embrace; to sleep their grief and unalterable hurt at the loss of their blessed, matchless land, inseparable from dreams, the land that one of them, Albert Namatjira, also dreamed, or perhaps was dreamed by.


Returning soon….

February 12, 2006

Meanwhile, enjoy this —

The most beautiful tree in the world: the tallest ghost gum in the East MacDonnells.

Change your angle of look to see how it glows against the range behind it.