The silence is so Loud though.

I have three windows that overlook a path which leads down to the River Almond, a haven for walkers, families, dogs and sometimes even horses. There is also a kick pitch and tennis court located there so, despite it being a dead end, cars do congregate there albeit in low numbers to use the services or access the river walk. This same path also provides a short cut to the main shopping area and industrial estate, for all of those people living on the west side of the Village. All of this contributes to a miasma of people, vehicles and animals passing by our windows, albeit colourful but with monotonous regularity. A couple of years ago we purchased shutters since many of the walkers feel the need to nosey in as they pass by. And since two of the windows are on the kitchen we might be mid meal when this happens. Not that we use them all the time but increasingly privacy has become necessary as the better weather invites increased numbers of people tracking back and forth and the peering eyes were becoming tiresome.

All of this is a daily feature of life at the Danders, except that is for Christmas Day. Not for the first time on Christmas Day I have been struck by the loudness of the silence. No one walking dogs, no-one driving past, no one out for a river walk. The silence of Christmas Day has a rich quality that conflates with the magic of Christmas morning, adding to the weight of serenity and anticipation of the day ahead. A feast for the ears. it is broken only by the clanging of a single bell from the local Church announcing Christs birth and the beginning of the service. I have always noticed this silence and valued it, appreciating what it adds to my experience of Christmas. But it’s now something we are experiencing daily as part of Lockdown and I fear not only that the magic of that one day has been stolen, but strangely I am longing for the noise, the detritus of community life to return.

The first notable silence was created by the lack of flights, we do sit beneath one of the routes into Edinburgh Airport. This is not so much about the noise but the constant sight of aircraft coming and going and the wistful envy to be aboard the ones heading out at least. The vehicles were next; the growl of the engines, dependent on the age of the drivers, signal the speed, age of the driver and make of the approaching vehicle before we see it. For some vehicles it was so regular we knew just from looking at the clock who was coming and going from the neighbours across the bridge, to the man walking dogs as a business. It is a dead end and walkers often stroll carefree on this road, the corner concealing the walkers aided by the neighbours fence, which does not provide any signs warning “SLOW DOWN pedestrians” and so we often watch heart in mouth as some cars increase the revs as the downslope appears. It can be such a hazard when you cannot see ahead of you but thankfully we have yet to experience any causing any harm. Now only the Police Cars are making that journey, prowling for any of the rule-breakers.

Lone walkers, (presumably they are heading to work given their backpacks) heads down, earphones protruding either linked to their phones by wires or Bluetooth, getting in the zone for the day ahead, have been massively reduced in numbers as the economic shutdown has taken hold. Cyclists on the other hand, have remained a constant feature, the Lycra wearing cyclists mainly, usually serious about their activity and seeking the thrill of endurance. Since we are on the R75, the main cycle path between Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Lycra wearing cyclists are fairly frequent. Now they are joined by those families eager to break the chains of Lockdown, some with helmets some without, none with Lycra, most with jeans, many with children in tow can be seen tackling the Brae up from the River. Chatter seems to cease ahead of the Brae as all energies are garnered as they prepare to tackle the steep hill or Brae leading to the choice of routes to either the east or west.

Families and dog walkers, of course have continued to feature just in greater numbers. An assortment of woolly hats, bulky jackets, prams and scooters toddle past at a leisurely pace. Even in the good weather this is the attire (we are in Scotland!) If I am in the kitchen I am 4 feet higher and look down on them like a giant. This can be quite frightening for the little ones so in these difficult times I needed to show my friendly side. I now have a rainbow thanks to my young neighbour and that delights the children as they add it to their counting list, pausing for a moment to admire it. Sometimes my grandchildren wander past out with their mum, dad and the dog. Well every other day actually. I can hear the wee tiger cub and the mermaid calling in unison “GRAN” ( please note not Papa aka the Lion, they know where the bread is buttered) as they approach in the hope we are close enough to hear them. We often make a joke that the three windows onto the path are a bit like a trip to MacDonalds. And so it is that they stop at each window to put in an order for the chocolate biscuit and a drink. Since Lockdown the shutters are gathering dust, standing open at all times, demonstrating the need for contact through a socially acceptable distance and because we now appreciate the passers by waving in, smiling and peering in as such a welcome addition to our day.

Lockdown, like any other circumstance that forces change, of course has it’s benefits. Taking the passers-by and the noisy landscape for granted demonstrates how much we relied on it in the past, and missed it when it was gone. Something so simple that puts us back in our box, longing to make eye contact with other people, longing to hear aircraft filling our skies, longing to hear and see our grandchildren for more than a biscuit.

We ourselves have also been out and about waving and smiling at others we pass at a safe distance. We have also been taking time to stop if a face appears in the window, seeking to reassure them that life is still going on despite the national crisis and if they are OK or need anything. Our daily exercise a much needed escape from the confines of the Danders, which despite being my Shangri-La, does not respond too well to the lack of people within it. And so it was we were out for our daily exercise, a good five miles moving at a reasonable pace when quite innocuously my hip went snap….. the sair leg was back again, just like that, and suddenly I could walk no further………

Christmas at the Danders

Shangri-la aka The Danders

If you have been off travelling there comes a point when you really just want to get home. Most of that feeling arises from a longing to reconnect with family, notwithstanding modern technology affords us opportunities to do that in real time more than we used to, and if I was really honest I was seriously in no hurry to get back. You miss the hugs though, the real warm connection you get from wrapping your arms around your children and grandchildren and it being reciprocated, something that cannot be achieved on video calls. So it was that I had a dilemma; I didn’t really want my trip to end but I longed for that kind of connection to my family that wasn’t available when I was still in Australia.

As we know only too well, those kinds of shows of PDA’s or get togethers are currently off limits for the time being. And so it was that we were to arrive back to a new reality. One where we were confined to barracks, quarantined, #staying home at least for the foreseeable future. A few blogs back I did write about a visit to my own home for the weekend. Gaining a new perspective on how it might look through a visitors eyes. Now I really was like a visitor, just back from a 5 week trek on the other side of the world slap bang into a new reality with nobody but the Lion to share it with.

My delight to be home, lasted all of five minutes. The silence was deafening, with only the buzz of the fridge, humming out of tune with my happiness, to welcome us back. There was food inside, so someone had been busy, but it lacked the invitation to dine, maybe since we’d scoffed too much on the plane. We simply needed to see people. These needs were unmet. We were abandoned. Alone. Do you know how hard that transition from touring with a group of 28 to enter the dismal, loneliness of the Danders is? It is normally writhing with bodies, ringing out with voices, clinking with glasses and the mastication of food.

My farmhouse kitchen table, the hub of all activities and normally brimming with people, wine and food, bore only a raft of mail accumulated over our absence and neatly sorted into his and hers piles by my daughter. There was a warmth, which I had ensured was in place through my Hive App, that greeted us on arrival. A heat that would be impressive, as we welcomed our guests inside from the wintery conditions outside, given the fact we had just arrived home. I hoped they would soon arrive to share our stories, our photographs and their presents, except that none were allowed to come. I caught sight of our cases sagging in the hallway, groaning with washing, tired from all the hauling and pulling and bulking up in the aircraft. Their newness depleted, bearing the scuffs, scrapes and ticketing labels, their own identifying memories of our trip.

The Lion opened all of the windows, inviting the fresh air to replenish the staleness of uninhabitation. He lit candles even before he had emptied the case as he returned to super OCD mode now he was home and had purpose. I stood still, listening to the silence, smelling the air, slowly gaining my bearings with familiarity. Everything static, frozen in time, just the way we left it. No ghosts of memories these past five weeks, the house craved noise and laughter but none was coming.

I thought it best to empty the cases. 8 piles of washing occupied the floor of the snug. Each aligned to a washing programme, and carefully placed according to colour, materials and dirt. The reek of sweat and sun lotion permeated the room once the clothing was released from the confines of the case. A pile of shoes, and one or two items that were never worn looked forlorn in the vacant space created by the expulsion of washing. The cases suddenly lighter as they were lugged up stairs to their final resting place at least until we went on a big trip again.

Toilet bags had been cleared of most of the contents at the last stop, with the stalwart items, always needed but never used, found their way back into their hiding place under the sink until next time. Our bedroom was such a haven, despite the thinly spread layer of dust on the furniture, our bed was inviting us back, tempting as it was I am sorry but not yet. We were still buzzing on life anticipating the opportunity to speak with family or friends who might remember that it was today we were coming home. I checked the phone several times only to find everything was in working order. No messages displayed. No cars arriving, no people passing. Silence – shattered only by the Lion trying to ignite the candles and huffing and puffing as he did so.

Day turned into Night, and we had still no real evidence of any joy that we were back. The house wrapped itself around us, warm, cosy and illuminated by warm white lights and twinkling light strips, the strengths of our very own Shangri-La were in abundance. Video calls with our nearest and dearest over, we finally accepted and embraced the comforts we were surrounded by and would sleep on our new reality, of no social contact until the next day….

The farmhouse kitchen

Coronavirus- now in my back yard!

Our final stopover of the trip was to be in Bali, the beautiful Indonesian Island, promising peace and tranquility. A place where we might re-charge our batteries before heading home. The four day stopover was all inclusive, meaning you had little more to do than summon the Balinese waiter with the press of a button to bring you a cocktail as you lounged by the sea. The beds on the beach provided a serene outlook shaded with palms, and you were entertained by the antics of the paddle board rookies as they tried to master the waves. The rush of the waves to the shore, the blistering heat and the cool long drinks affirmed for sure, we were in paradise.

Our resort was within a gated community of around 17 hotels, our Hotel, the Melia Bali, was a grand affair with several restaurants, bars and for the strenuous among us, beach and pool activities to keep the calories at bay. We were initially unaware that somewhere close by a British Woman had died from Coronavirus and when the story did reach us it did little to provide any real context of the scope of the virus now, as opposed to when we left Britain in February.

This tragedy had occurred the week before we arrived and may well have resulted in a slightly stricter regime at immigration when we arrived on the Island. On immediate entry to the immigration hall we had to sign a declaration that we had not experienced any symptoms. Signing this with your name, passport number and next of kin was obligatory and somewhat sobering. Then we were placed through a screening process where those of us with high temperatures would be turned away. We had experienced screening at several airports along the journey but not as vigorous or individualistic as this. It raised the tempo considerably for us but not in a way that threatened our holiday. News items from Australia suggested that Australians should not travel to Bali. Being in our bubble I wondered what the drama was with this, since, as I have said, we had no context for it. Australia then went into lockdown preventing anyone arriving in the country from travelling onward, requiring a 14 day quarantine.

As we sipped our daily cocktails, oblivious to the reality, the world continued to collapse around about us. The waiters here provided constant hand sanitiser all around the hotel, other than that overt gestures that Coronavirus was crippling the country were absent, it was pretty much a non-event, if you were a tourist. Apart from the low numbers in the hotel, to us life was pretty much as it had been for the past 4 weeks, a holiday. How painful it would be when we were kicked into touch in just a few days. Lots of information from my kids, seemed to suggest that we might need to isolate when we got home. I scoffed at this claiming the UK had gotten things a little out of proportion, after all we were in areas also affected and life was going on as normal? Was it not? I’m ashamed to admit we were in a total bubble and it was going to be a very hard floor that we hit when we finally came back to earth.

As we cruised at around 35 000 feet from Bali to Glasgow in nothing short of luxury, we sipped champagne and munched on filet steak, watching the latest movies on ICE oblivious to reality. Little did we know what we were coming back to. Of course we had seen the FB images of empty shelves in the shops, but put this down to our eccentric behaviour as a nation rather than it conveying any real sense of crisis. As if to re-affirm our nonchalance to the matter in hand, our arrival at Glasgow Airport did nothing to dissuade me of my belief it was all a storm in a tea cup. We careered through the Airport unhindered with only customs seizing the chance to upset us by checking our luggage. How disappointed they must have been when they realised we had little but cases full of dirty washing. No-one quizzed us on where we had been, no mass screening, a swift check of the passport and out to our waiting driver to head home. If things were as bad as our children were suggesting how could this be the case?

The reality hit me when the grandkids were kept at a distance, because we had been on a flight and abroad in countries where the virus had claimed lives. My daughter, who is studying to be a Nurse, was somewhat more in the know than me. We realised, very quickly that self-isolation was the only way we might get to see our grandchildren. We sat alone in our home for seven days, watching the news and catching up to the place everyone else was already at. I ventured out to the shops, since the cupboards were almost empty and could hardly believe the shelves were so low. Someone commented that “at least there was bread” as if it was an unusual thing. We had been transported to another planet, I thought.

You know when you’ve been fast asleep and wake up suddenly, you get a bit confused trying to recall how you get here and got into bed. It was much the same as that for us; what was this world we were now living in? It was clear the bubble we had been part of during our holiday had finally burst – and it was traumatic. Slowly during our week of isolation I finally appreciated what needed to be done. I have to say it took us a week to actually process the information and get the message. A week later on the Monday night we were in Lockdown and that was any time with the grandchildren well and truly scuppered.

Life has altered dramatically in the space of five weeks. No Mass ( during LENT!!!), no social gatherings, social distancing between neighbours and all our family over 70 locked away in their little houses with no-one to see them or hug them. It’s a devastating time for many. But we have been so fortunate to even have had a holiday at all, many cannot get away, losing money in some cases. All the trips we had to look forward to are also gone now but at least we had one that was pretty amazing.

How will we cope? What will life be like in isolation for so long, will there be new ways to live our lives? Will we seek out contacts through social media? How will we shop for our every day needs, when all the slots are taken for months on end? Every day, in this new reality of mine, I am grateful for my health, grateful for our NHS staff and Care Workers, all of the shop workers and delivery drivers, pharmacists and teachers, social workers and police officers, dealing with the reality of this awful crisis. Meanwhile I am still trying to get my head around what it all might mean? I have now well and truly admitted that Coronavirus is now in my back yard.

The Ghan- great train journey of Australia

From the get go the anticipation about the journey on the Ghan train was a reflection of the importance of this part of the trip. Not that we were great train enthusiasts, on the contrary nothing could be further from the truth. Despite residing only 15 minutes from the famous Cantilever Forth Rail Bridge, a couple of hours from the infamous Harry Potter Glenfinnan Viaduct and a short drive from the author of Trainspotters there is no way we might be classified as enthusiasts. But there was something about the prospect of an overnight train journey through the outback that brought out the romantic in me and I think the promise of romance in any form is not to be sniffed at when you’re this age.

The railway line that links the South of Australia, Adelaide, with the North, Darwin, has taken many years to complete. In 1929 the Adelaide to Alice Springs stretch was completed but it would be 1980 before it was completed to Darwin. Katherine, just south of Darwin, did have it’s own line linking it with the City in the North but the railway line that completed the journey from Alice Springs was a long time in planning and completion. Having visited the terrain there it is easy to see why it might take some time or indeed some enthusiasm. The Ghan journey takes 54 hours travelling a total of 2 979 kilometres. Not all of the journey is confined to the train, for the tourists booked on it, there are stopovers in Alice Springs for 4 hours and Katherine, 3 hours to enable you to explore the precious landmarks on route to Darwin.

The name, the Ghan is disputed, but thought to be a shortened version of the Afghan Express, this story predicated on the first passenger to make the long journey who was allegedly an Afghan. The popularity of the train journey when it was first launched was not entirely fulfilled. Many thought the whole prospect of travel by train to the North was a bit of waste of their time. Delays were often caused through track washouts. Other’s believe the Ghan was so called after the camels imported from there who would take travellers onward from Alice Springs long before the track was completed. Whichever you prefer the Ghan creates a majesty, mystery and the promise of a journey of a lifetime, should you choose to do it. I won’t lie the scenery along the way is monotonous and bland, the only added interest are the termite hills and how innovative their design, shape and colours were. Other than that it’s desert.

We were boarding the Ghan from Alice Springs at 1730. The train station was buzzing with excited travellers, while train staff offered us complimentary drinks of the non-alcoholic variety. A solo artist was paid to strum his guitar covering Passenger and Ed Sheeran songs as he hopelessly tried to drown out the constant shrill of excited chatter from eager passengers. The Ghan was privatised in 1997 and the company who operate the Ghan “Journey Beyond Rail Expeditions“ meet and greet you in the Alice Springs train station, their navy blue trousers, bush hats and blue, cream and burgundy striped shirts smartly identifying them among the colourful characters waiting to travel. Dining times and room numbers allocated we wandered outside to survey the Ghan in the metal.

There are two locomotives providing a hefty 132 tonne pulling power, bright red in colour it stands aloof, nonchalantly waiting for things to get going. Coming along behind are just a few Annie and Clarabelles (Thomas the Tank engine fans I apologise), 38 carriages in shiny stainless steel making the average length of the train about 774 meters long. Doubtless a bit much for Thomas or even Big Gordon to pull. There was a constant stream of people walking back and forth along its lengthy carriages, dwarfed like ants against this huge monster, diminished even further by the lack of a platform. Every passenger was keen to have a photographic memory of the giant locomotive pulling them north to Darwin. We noticed one of these hopefuls limping along with a walking stick, halting 200 meters from the front he appeared to turn back, exhausted by the sheer length and searing heat. I sympathised with him, given my experience with the hamstring injury so I stopped to talk to him. Having established he was trying to get the obligatory picture I introduced him to the delights of airdrop and shared mine with an ecstatic new German friend.

Suddenly the bell tolled and automatically all 38 carriage doors swung open and an access frenzy began. A steel step ladder had been slotted into position easing our entry and standing astride the pavement and the ladder was our carriage host. The parrot was ours, a tall slim young man, with a warm welcome and nervous smile. We had a room J2, which was near the entrance and he directed us to wait in our cabin until he arrived before we left. We got our first glimpse of inside the train as we navigated the narrow walkway almost sideways as we searched for our cabin. At first sight it’s hard to imagine how James Bond fought so violently with Jaws in the train scene from ‘The Spy who loved me’ when you consider the actual size of the room. A comfortable bench seat covered in pale green embossed fabric backed onto a walnut facia, concealing the top bunk, that would later be our sleeping arrangements. There was approximately 2 feet between the seat and the facing wall that neatly contained a mirror, wardrobe complete with safe, refuse bin and door leading to the all important en suite. Within this little cubicle were an array of high quality shower gels, shampoos and conditioner to use with the shower. A shower curtain fixed with bright ribbon and a stud to the wall caressed a rail that circumnavigated the space and neatly consumed you while protecting the loo and sink while you showered. Towels were concealed behind a frosted glass cupboard sunk into the rear shower wall. All perfectly bijou and still relevant despite being designed in the 60’s.

The Parrot arrived to advise us where everything was and how it worked, clearly for the non-inquisitive who would not have explored the minute they arrived in their cabin. Once we had passed his muster we were advised we were free to join the bar carriage and when we returned from dinner that night he would have our beds ready to enjoy our overnight ride in the train.

All drinks and food are included in the package and this made for a jolly atmosphere. There are currently two packages on the train; platinum (we were not this) and gold. It’s all inclusive and according to the staff, the food and drinks are the same in both packages just the sleeping accommodation differs. Our single passengers had a roomette but much to their consternation no en suite. The elegant antelope on our trip had made a really relevant point about paying extra as a single traveller for second best accommodation. It did seem a bit unfair. One of the staff, a tall peacock from Prague, advised us she had travelled in Red service as a back packer which was the no frills side of the train but this service had long since been dispensed with in favour of the gold and platinum premium paying passengers.

As this monster got under way, we let our excitement get the better of us and cheered, raising a glass of whatever we had in our hand to a right good trip…….and whatever awaited us.

 

Alice Springs- final stop in the outback.

The romance of Alice Springs, which I derived from the film ‘A Town called Alice’ fell flat on its face when we finally arrived there. Of course this wasn’t the Springs of the film, we would catch that a bit later when we visited the old Telegraph Office. In fact the key elements of Alice Springs trip were the visits we experienced on day two, but I’m getting ahead of myself let’s start at the beginning.

From the Stuart Highway we eased into Alice Springs through the narrow gorge between the East and West MacDonnel range of mountains. En route we were informed that Americans form over 1 000 of the 28 000 people that reside here mainly working out of Pine Gap a joint defence facility, one of three in the world, the others being located at Quantico and Yorkshire in the UK. The other place of interest was the maximum security correction facility just on the outskirts of Alice. Although Lassiters Hotel here is worthy of mentioning since it is where Priscilla Queen of the Desert was filmed.

Our hotel was situated on the edge of town with a meandering footpath along the dry as a bone River Todd, which was dry owing to the low rainfall in the area. We were informed it had not rained since September 2019, but despite this drought it was to rain while we were there. Aborigine families congregated by the river each evening in small groups of about 10 or 12 in number. In Alice we saw many more of these indigenous people than previous stops and it was an insight to the challenges that they experience. Many, unable to cope with western diets are plagued by diabetes, kidney problems and alcoholism. It is a sad indictment of the assimilation into Australian society that this has failed so spectacularly. Not that they need to assimilate of course, but western life has impacted on their health even if other elements have not impacted on their lifestyle.

The tigress pointed out BoJangles, on the left hand side of the current road we were on and proposed that it might be worth a visit then continued to draw our attention to potential restaurants and other places of interest in the town. The town resembled an industrial estate, with flat roofed buildings some adorned by beautiful murals of Aborigine life. The idyllic pictures did not appear to reflect the reality for most of the indigenous people we encountered. Finally dropped at our hotel the evening plan was a bush tucker barbecue and pick up in less than an hour. The long drive from Uluru over we were glad to find a great welcome at our hotel.

Our second day at the Springs was considered by us to be a bit of marching time until we boarded the Ghan, we had three stops to endure before then. But we were wrong these visits were equally fascinating. The first was to the School of the Air ( the world’s largest classroom). Based on the Flying Dr’s model the idea of educating children in the outback was first started in 1951. It covers an area of 1050 square kilometres and those children who are 50 kms from a school are eligible to enrol. The first lessons were communicated by two way radio but the internet had vastly advanced the quality of teaching interaction and individual lessons. Children are supported at home by a home tutor, sometimes the parent, and will spend a week in the school three times a year collectively with all the children. In the Northern Territories this is about 101 children eligible from 4 and a half years old. Each child is furnished with around $18 000 dollars of equipment including a satellite dish, computer, printer and web cam. Aboriginal children currently make up one third of the children in school. This model provides good outcomes for children who are attaining above average against those who attend school. We bought a book to donate to the library and dedicated it from our granddaughter’s (the mermaid) school in Livingston Village.

The trip to the Telegraph Office was the romantic aspect of Alice Springs I was hoping for, small buildings retaining the original furnishings and equipment. These were free for you to wander around in and gave a real sense of the life that early settlers here had to endure in the heat. The ‘spring’ aspect of the town was in fact a soak and not a spring at all but some how Alice Soak didn’t have the same appeal. Although given the amount of alcohol we saw locals consuming perhaps the factual name was more appropriate.

We then were transported to the Royal Flying Doctor’s service which came into operation in 1917. They cover an areas of 7 million kilometres in Australia and about 800 kms in Alice Springs. The RFDS have 40 aircraft in the fleet and 23 bases across Australia with an annual budget of $304 AUD. We had a great experience in both facilities and were about to embark by coach to our final stop on Anzac Hill when it came to light that the driver had kerbed the coach and the door would not open. We had now to wait for the repair service to arrive and who knew how long that might take.

We were now into this trip by about 2 and a half weeks, we had bonded at the barbecue and amalgamate anticipation for our trip on the Ghan was evident. So when the door refused to open more than a few inches, the team spirit we had been nurturing over the past few days kicked itself into action. The Lion and the Liverpudlian leant their backs into the 10 tonne coach (our luggage included maybe nearer 12 tonnes) above the wheel arch and tried to lift it. Yep share your views, crazy alpha males; however this strength finally reached the brain cells and was diverted to pulling the door a few millimetres more. They then looked around for a skinny person able to ease their way inside and start her up and release the door. A few pairs of eyes fell on me momentarily but I knew they were being kind as they quickly dismissed that idea. Then out of no-where the horse whisperer stepped up on behalf of the team to take on this particular challenge. And it was a challenge but there did seem to be a match between her delicate frame and the space to get inside. With space to spare she lithely slipped between the door and the frame and was inside in a flash. The driver, a female with bright pink hair, watched amusedly as she tried to speak to the company on the phone and we waved at her incessantly to get the instructions as to how we might start this beast up.

The horse whisperer sat on the bouncy driver’s chair, seeking guidance from the driver, then deftly put the keys in, pressed a button and started it up, releasing the suspension that raised the bus and opened the door. A loud cheer of delight went up from the group as we finally boarded the bus and paid homage to the horse whisperer who revealed all of the confidence came from passing her HGV some years ago, you just never know what talents people have up their sleeve. As we all piled in, we kept asking if she would also drive the Ghan if it broke down.

We had a short visit to the moving tribute at Anzac Hill with memorable and informative signage that provided a summary of the war and conflict many had fought in and lost their lives. A fitting tribute looks down on the sad and desperate Alice Springs . We made one final stop before we headed to the Ghan and that was to BoJangles.

BoJangles is the local hostelry, used predominantly by the Aborigines whom the owner fiercely protects from prying cameras. But this grubby little pub was full of character and interest, from the boots on the ceiling, the coffin of Ned Kelly and the gun inset into the bar. every wall, every corner had something to catch your attention. As we prized our flip flops from the stickiness of the floor we enjoyed being part of a group in this little pub, and caused quite a stir among the locals. But it was a sad indictment on social policy in the country to see how the indigenous people are living. It will be difficult to reconcile difference and live in harmony here. We left the Springs with mixed feelings about the trip to Alice and what the reality of life for the poorest in this area was really like. Only the Ghan promised to divert us from this tragedy…….

The School of the Air Alice Springs

 

The Red Centre- the desert of Australia.

The book by Nevil Shute ‘A town like Alice ‘ was later made into a film with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch, It was my first introduction to the outback of Australia, albeit a synthetic one. In reality it is an unforgiving place; intense heat and the ever present interminable flies. There is little sign of habitation or people other than a scattering of Aborigine’s, cattle farmers, outback stations, police stations and watering holes. We had a 6 hour trip on a coach from our hotel in Yulara to Alice Springs with the promise of stopovers in places of interest on the way. Thankfully the Koala was still in charge of the drive so I knew we would be filled with information and facts along the journey.

You just cannot get your head around the size of the outback, in one of the presentations we went to they superimposed Central Europe into the outback and it swallowed Europe up. There are only two roads in and out; the Lassiter Highway from the south and the Stuart Highway from Uluru travelling North. John McDouall Stuart, I learned from the Koala was a fellow Scot born in Dysart in Fife, he came to Australia to escape a broken heart; catching a surreptitious glimpse of his girl hugging another man and unable to handle this rejection it set off a chain of events that would see him become a legend in Australian history.

Stuart was a surveyor turned explorer and the first man to reach the Northern Territories and make it back in one piece, he identified and named many of the elements he discovered in the area; the rivers and mountains in its landscape, often on behalf of his benefactors. There are markers to him almost everywhere in the area including a giant statue in Alice Springs. The Stuart Highway as it is now called is the main route north, we would rejoin it when we left Katherine and use it to get through Darwin, but for now we were driving along it toward Alice Springs.

The landscape is on repeat in the Red Centre and comprises mainly desert Oaks, spinifex (grass) and desert heath myrtle. Occasionally, but hard to see, cattle are sometimes roaming around or taking shelter from the blistering sun. Cattle farms are the main source of employment and income. Cattle stations can vary in size; we stopped at Curtin Springs Station which is a million acre cattle station. It’s position on the highway has allowed it to diversify according to the rising numbers travelling through. It manages to combine the onerous task of cattle farming here with ecotourism providing much needed watering holes, food and accommodation. The owner, now 93 is still living, his place reminiscent of his take on life and filled with humour everywhere you look; “ soup of the day” was beer, toilets marked Sheilas and Blokes told a pictorial story of Romeo and Juliet. While the showering facilities might look a bit sparse these are as close to luxury as your going to get in the outback. In the bar, a bottle of the ‘ f*****g good port’ kept the tourists amused and engaged in conversation for the short time they were there. While out in the beer garden the locals handled snakes or talked about the caged emus they keep. We had a swift beer here but not too much that would require us to need to sample the toilets.

Rounding up the cattle for feeding and watering on such a vast area of land could prove to be a bit of a challenge, so the Koala advised. The farmers operating on the Pavlov dog theory had educated the cattle to round themselves up. Watering holes were sought out by the animals and once they had entered the coral it triggered a mechanism on the gate that prevented them leaving. Some animals were shipped out to feed, there is so little here that fattens them. Farmers tended to select cattle that could adapt to their surroundings; the Belgian blue or Murray Grey cattle, for their small heads that mean easier births therefor less interventions and their ability to survive on very little water. This reflected the adaptive needs of survival in such a difficult terrain. Camels also roam freely here but despite my best efforts we only saw a few at Curtin Springs that were corralled ready for action should we want to foray into the Red Centre on camel back. Thankfully this was a short stop and we boarded the Koala’s bus with air conditioning and no flies in favour of the camel tour.

Standing alone at the entrance to Curtin Springs was a blue tree, not naturally blue but painted bright blue, it had no foliage and was an oddity amidst the greens and reds of the desert. On closer inspection the plaque along side the tree advised that this was part of a wider initiative called the Blue Project, to draw attention to mental health and wellbeing. The project aims to support people by providing them with a sign that in this area it is ‘ok not to be ok’, that people will support you. This initiative is now across Australia, although this was the only blue tree we had seen thus far, to heighten awareness of mental health. Incredible to see the family thinking of others in this way. Now some of the fun things around the site took on an entirely new meaning as they had almost all triggered a conversation with someone. Clever.

Our next stop was at the secluded Lake Amadeus, a salt lake, located in the midst of desert behind the sand dunes that occasionally line the highway. Amidst this repetitive bush terrain it was a sight for sore eyes, around 100 km in length it was named after a French Monarch at the time of it’s discovery. Bright white among the red terrain it was a spectacle we would have missed had we travelled the highway unescorted.

The expedition to the Northern Territories by Stuart, and others who were unsuccessful such was the unforgiving landscape, in the 1830’s was principally to scope the potential for development. Particularly for development of enhanced communication links between the North and South but so much more was discovered on this trip. Now 12 Microwave repeaters between Adelaide and Darwin enable better Television and communication links for the people there, but back in Stuart’s day it was essential to the development of the nation and his torturous expedition to the North facilitated much needed telegraph stations across Australia in remote areas and started new towns, such as Alice Springs Their inception in 1860 reduced the time it took to communicate with the UK to 5 days.

Our last stop before Alice, was the geographic centre of Australia, Erldunda. A cattle station, small zoo, toilets and petrol station are the only things of interest to see here. I wonder what Stuart would have made of it all, he returned to Scotland after all this hard work only to discover his sweetheart had been wishing a cousin well before he went off to war and not cheating on Stuart. I pondered the irony behind his expedition, whether the communication links we have at our fingertips today had been around in Stuart’s day, a text message or FaceBook plea to explain away this misunderstanding might have kept them together and the Red Centre would have remained undiscovered for another few years. Stuart died in London when he was 50 years old, far away from both loves of his life.

The blue tree project

Uluru- the Aborigine’s land.

One of the main benefits of an organised tour such as this, is not just the organisation and efficiency by the tigress but the knowledge and experience of the guides selected to drive us around. Our trip to Uluru was always going to be a highlight but the driver/guide for the 4 days we were in the Outback was exceptional. The Koala wore stereotypical Australian attire, I have no doubt to add authenticity to the tourist experience; bush hat, boots, shorts and khaki shirt, but it was his passion, love and knowledge for all things outback that provided the trip with real integrity.

We flew from Melbourne to Uluru in a tightly packed flight that took about 2 hours. The arrivals hall was tiny, in comparison to some airports we have been through, it had one luggage belt reflecting the number of visitors actually arriving here by plane. It is best to go to the toilet on the flight since the toilets at the airport consist of half a dozen chemical cubicles placed outside the actual terminal. I abstained but those who did go quickly turned green after the visit. As an alternative method of travel you can of course take the train to Alice Springs from Adelaide followed by a 6 hour drive to Uluru or if you fancy it take a camel. Camels were introduced to the outback in the 1860’s but having been set free when the railway was complete between Darwin and Alice Springs this short sightedness led to around 200 000 non native animals roaming freely and destroying everything in their wake.

Many tourists never really get to this part of Australia and you can understand why. The heat, the flies, the desolate landscape might not offer you the kind of tourist experience you are after. However the regal beauty and majesty of the Uluru and Kata-Tjuta mountains in the National Park are truly breathtaking worthy of worldwide appreciation. I have to admit that although Uluru was well known to me, the other, and arguably more interesting, Olga’s (aboriginal name is Kata-Tjuta) was completely new to me.

The new town of Yulara was created in 1976 to provide a corralled resort outside the National Park, primarily to counter environmental damage being caused by the unmonitored tourism near Uluru. Now under single ownership the facilities there became fully operational in 1980 and in addition to a shopping mall (more of a mini-market) post office, bank and restaurants it includes a range of accommodation from backpackers hostels to the five star Sails of the Desert. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to where we stayed. It was around this time (1980) the government handed the land back to the indigenous people after a toughly contested fight through the courts. These famous landmarks now reinstated to their original names, the government retain their support through its status as a National Park. Yulara , the new town in the desert with a population of 1.9 thousand, was our home for the next few days.

The koala collected us from the airport and took us directly to Uluru, as we circled the rock slowly he informed us of the history of its ‘discovery’ by the English and the Dutch. How the intrepid explorers claimed the land as theirs and named the rocks after Henry Ayers in 1873 and The Olga’s after Tsar Nicholas 1st’ daughter paying back their financial backers. Not only was the Koala knowledgable about the rock he told us about the desert heath myrtle carpeting the desert with amazing fire retardant qualities so valuable in halting the spread of bush fires here. About the spinifex grass that drew silicone from the earth into its blades, making it sharp and uncomfortable to sit on but invaluable to the aborigine people who thrashed it to release its resin to use as glue. Tall and withered looking desert oaks might be thin and scrawny in appearance but they survived in the dry, hot desert through a tap root drawing water deep down from what they call upside down rivers in the area.

The rock looks so different up close, pictures don’t really do it any justice, and most of it is underground. It is an inselberg, we were advised, an isolated rock hill that rises abruptly from the ground. Bit like a pimple on your face. It does change colour too, we saw that happening, a true chameleon in action especially during our sunset viewing. Although that viewing was made quite difficult by the fly nets we had to adorn to be able to spend any time whatsoever outside. Incredibly at this isolated location the tigress laid on Prosecco and nibbles with little portable seats to line up as we watched the infamous sunset. This event made all the more romantic by 10 000 flies trying to scurry up your nose, scramble into your ears and slide into your mouth. I was considerably challenged when it came to drinking my Prosecco through the fly net. I frequently forgot to lift it up only for more flies to detect the sudden moisture and surround me. The net had the effect of a cheese grater when you tried to force food through it, once more sending the flies into ecstasy and leaving me starving in the desert in the process.

Kata-Tjuta was a larger collection of different sized rocks; around 36 to be exact. Considered to be a sacred men’s area this is thought to be the reason for so little to be known about its history and the folklore that the aboriginal people associate with this area, unlike Uluru. However at least you could get out and walk through the magnificent Walpa gorge with the heads of mount Luru and Walpa stretching to the sky on either side. Along the gorge we saw camel droppings, tadpoles swimming a rock pool, grass growing and flowers blooming despite the arid conditions. The wind howled around us at one point, a warning from the spirits to tread carefully along the rough terrain. When you stopped looking down at where to place your next step the mighty rock face, smooth yet grainy, closed out the sunlight as they towered high into the skyline. Flies, despite the nets, buzzed incessantly around the orifices and we showed reducing tolerance for this pest seeking refuge in the bus at the earliest opportunity.

Our final night was spent having bush tucker at a remote barbecue where we were served best steak, baked tattles, salad and copious amounts of red wine while the band played Waltzing Matilda. Later I was part of a skiffle band arrangement of ‘I come from a land down under’ by Men at work largely uninhibited by the flies (or the red wine) who are adverse to the dark. Boomerang shows, bread making for bush bakers and bonding among the best group ever we trundled off to bed sozzled and satisfied.

Uluru-a poem

Desert heath myrtle carpets the red sand. Lone desert Oaks look so barren where they stand.

Spinifex with silicone tips seem almost out of place among the vast red desert that could be in outer space.

Uluru standing stoic amidst the desert sands, chameleon in the daylight and certainly never bland. The desolate unforgiving rock back in Aboriginal hands.

Awed by its majesty,the colours and its grace carving out the stories that give mystery to this place. Blowing gentle breezes that cool the sweltering brow, calling out like spirits voices to whom aborigines must kow tow.

Blistering heat aside, the beauty cannot hide, the rock of Uluru.