Monday, August 17, 2009

What I Did On My Holidays

You know, I think I forgot to mention that while the floor was being sanded and polished, we pissed off to Alice Springs for a week. Natalie had a medical conference there, and it seemed like a good opportunity to organize a family outing.

Alice Springs -- generally just "Alice" or "The Alice" if you wanna sound pretentiously like a character in the kind of movie that Bryan Brown or Paul Hogan might infest -- is a desert township pretty much in the centre of Oz. I'd never gone out to the centrelands before, so I was looking forward to it. Warily, yes, but looking forward to it.

Unfortunately, we couldn't manage to fit The Big Red Rock into the itinerary. But I reckon we got our money's worth.

That's the Smaller Son there, under the shower cap. We got up at four in the goddam morning to make our flight, so by the time we hit the hotel in Alice, we were pretty well shagged out. Didn't help that it was 4C and pissing down in Taz, but brilliant sunshine and 28C in Alice. (You Yanks can do your own conversions on the temperatures. I'm too busy to mess with outdated systems of measurement.) The Smaller Son mooched around the room for a while, but once he discovered the shower cap, everything was just fine. He sat down and took in some cable TV cartoons, secure in the knowledge that his hair wasn't going to get wet, nosirree.

Natalie had three days of medical kerfuffle to attend, which left the kids and I to our own devices. The hotel was about a kilometre and a half from the centre of Alice, so we opted to go walkabout. That's the famous Todd River the kids are standing in, right there. Looking pretty much as it always does. You get a lot of dry riverbeds in Oz, but most of 'em -- well, you'll see that the trees are gnarled and bent from seasonal flooding.

Not in the Todd. I walked up and down that river bed, crossed it about a dozen times on foot... and I still can't tell you which way the water flows when it's there. If it ever is.

Plenty of birds out in the desert. Those are galahs. They watched us from the treetop as we shuffled through the dust into the township proper.

Alice-The-Town is... well, small. There's an open-air mall. And a cinema, where the kids and I caught the latest Harry Potter flick. (Snape kills Dumbledore. That's pretty much the entire plot right there. Other than, you know, a lot of teenagers getting hormonal.) Alice is also dry and dusty and hot. Even in winter. We drank an awful lot of water, hung out in the shade when we could, and took things very slowly.

The photo above is -- honest truth here! -- the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens in Alice Springs. Yep: carefully tended desert flora. You know how you can tell where the Botanic Gardens stop and the desert starts? Well, there's this fence... and that's it.

Sturt's Desert Pea: there were a lot of lovely flowers around the place too. The desert around Alice isn't your hardcore sand-dunes and stony plains kind of thing. It misses out on being a veldt due to the lack of grass coverage, but there's a generous supply of shrubbery, and quite a lot of life. Mind you, I wouldn't want to be caught a mile or two outside town without a few litres of water on me.

I can't even recall the name of this parrot species, but the bird posed so nicely for me... Actually, I really enjoyed doing a bit of bird-spotting. I did a lot of that, growing up in Far North Queensland, and it's kind of a habit. Coming to Taz was fun because I was seeing new species for the first time in years and years -- and going to Alice was even better, because there were many birds I'd never seen before. The ringneck there was only one of many.
A local acquaintance of Natalie's took the kids and I to the "Old-Timer's Fete". That's kind of a big social occasion in Alice, it transpires. You wouldn't know it, as an outsider - it's a typical fete, with cake stalls and sausage sizzles, the inevitable bouncy castle, junk stalls, and the odd ride... the kids were excited by the whirly teacup ride, so I threw 'em in. Why not?

Interestingly, the name "Old-Timers" refers to the charity for which the fete is a major fundraiser. The fete is held in the grounds of the "Old Timers" place -- the major retirement centre in Alice. I laughed like hell at the name. It's wonderfully typical of outback Australia; blunt, accurate, direct and honest. No "Shady Acres" or "Sweet Gardens" or any of that shit -- it's the Old Timers' Place, and that's all she wrote.

Yeah. What can I say? You take the kids to the fete, you gotta expect this kind of thing.

Those hats... there was a market in the Todd St Mall on the Sunday. A little Vietnamese bloke was selling all sorts of odds and sods, including the iconic basket hats. Now, since the boys are huge samurai flick afficionadoes, there was no possible way I could avoid buying them basket-hats so they could play at being ninja. And they did, oh yes. A lot.

It's weird how people respond to kids in costume. The locals and tourists alike just couldn't seem to believe their eyes. Three kids in basket hats: people pointing, and smiling, and laughing, cameras snapping... the kids have long since learned to take that kind of thing in their stride, because Natalie and I have never bothered to try and restrain their instinct for dressing up and playing games. And why would you, anyway? But I have to admit: it got a little wearying for me, acknowledging the endless stream of delighted outcries, etc. "Yes, the boys watch a lot of samurai movies. They like this kind of thing... Thanks. Cute. Yeah, I suppose so..."

I wish other parents would let their kids off the lead a little. It gets a bit embarrassing having people stare at mine!

We went to the Desert Park once Natalie was done with her medical stuff and we'd managed to rent a car. The Desert Park is maybe 10k outside town, and it's extremely well set up. Very educational, even for me - I learned a lot about the Australian desert ecosystems, and the critters living in them. That's a barn owl, by the way. It's part of the rather well managed "Birds of Prey" show. If you get out to Alice at all, you shouldn't miss this place. One hesitates to call it "cool", because it was actually hot as all fuck, but it's really good.

That's a Tawny Frogmouth ignoring the camera there. It's a big nightjar. They occur all over Australia. I'm really fond of them - they're marvellous birds.

That's... erm... that's... ahhh, fuck knows. But it's pretty, right?

And that's the Mau-Mau, playing in the red dust, shielded by her fine new Ninja basket hat.

We took a walk out to Standley Chasm in the Western McDonnell ranges. Fantastic walk through a dry riverbed into the ancient, red-rock bones of the land. The place is still owned by the traditional dwellers, and it's well maintained. Beautiful walk, too. I like the way the sunlight filters down on the Mau-Mau in this shot.

Farther up the creek bed, Smaller Son hid from the heat under a big rock. The kids loved this walk, bounding from rock to rock, climbing like monkeys and goats, racing ahead, finding new things to show us... and once again, all the other walkers and visitors were vociferously charmed by the microninjas and their hats.

It was interesting greeting the other walkers. Natalie counted six different languages, not including English. I guess winter is a popular tourist time around Alice. Makes sense: I hate to think what the place would be like in summer.

Standley Chasm itself - a gap, cut by water, in the McDonnell Range. One small ninja contemplates the grandeur of nature...

And there was a reptile centre in Alice, too. It seemed like a good idea. They were really friendly, and there's a bit of a show-and-tell time, so the kids got the chance to get hands-on with some of the less dangerous of Australia's reptiles. That's a blue-tongued lizard right there.

...and that would be Jaffa, the Central Tree Dragon. I've never seen one that shade of yellow before.

Heh. Smaller Son likes lizards, but he was a little nervous about Jaffa. (A bit bigger than he's used to.) He held onto the thing for about twenty seconds, then quite without warning, he simply dropped it in the lap of the bloke next to him.

Fortunately, the bloke was comfortable with lizards, and was actually in the waiting-to-handle circle... but the sudden appearance of Jaffa in his lap caught him by surprise, and he just about leapt out of his seat. Poor bastard. I suppose I should have warned him about my kids.

That's an Olive Python drapped around Elder Son's neck. Beautiful snake. I'm glad to say the kids were quite comfortable with her, once they got over a little bit of early worry.

That'd be a Shingleback.

The Mau-Mau had a chance to get up-close and personal with the little olive python too. My hands are in the picture, yes - but not because I feared for the Mau-Mau. The snake was beautifully accustomed to human handling, and well fed. No... I was worried that in her excitement, the Mau-Mau might inadvertently hurt the poor snake.

Anyway. That'll do. I've spent too long on this crap anyway. I'm busy reloading my study, backing up files, sending emails, and half the day is gone already. I've still got raspberry canes to plant, fences to erect, laundry, cooking... so I'll cut it short: we made it home. It was nice. Alice Springs was interesting, but I'm not gonna be looking for real estate there in any hurry.