Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Rocks of the north, part two (still no better title)

The delightful town of Elliot, NT.

We headed out of Yulara to Wycliffe Well by way of Alice Springs. Alice Springs is a strange place, and I suppose the best way to think of it is perhaps as a rather large airport security area - you know, the bit where they scan your bags, look grumpy/bored, and threaten you with deportation. Everywhere we went, we were safely removed from the dangers of sharp objects which could be used as weapons... like scissors. In fact, the townsfolk of Alice seemed to be quite proud of this achievement. After purchasing a pair of sunglasses from the local K-Mart after discovering, oddly, that the Northern Territory is a touch brighter than mid-winter Melbourne, the checkout chick offered to cut the tag off the glasses for me.

Oh! Yes thanks! I replied to her foresight filled suggestion.

Well sorry, but I can't do that. We're not allowed to have scissors here - you know, being that they can be used as a weapon and all. You'll have to go over to the returns desk.

Well then. That was me told.

I could only assume that the returns desk kept such dangerous items locked in a hidden vault, only to be accessed by the most highly trained in martial arts and possibly armed staff on duty. But no, there they were, stuffed into a desk caddy, sitting right there on the bench being within reach of my personal 'danger' zone (being my wrists, and I suppose heart, if you're that handy with a pair of craft scissors).

We hastily left the security, the more or less geographical, and indeed the apartheid centre of Australia* by way of a petrol station where a similar situation occurred, but this time the dangerous object in question was a public toilet. Strange place, Alice. Very strange place.

And with that final stop, we were well on the way to Wycliffe Well, the self declared UFO capital of Australia. Wycliffe Well lives up to its name, even if only by the number of glow in the dark figurines it houses, including a particularly enjoyable bright green Elvis. When we finally arrived after many hours of driving, we were met by a gruff man, who was looking strangely dignified for a man neck deep in fluorescent aliens and other associated space and country music themed paraphernalia.

It was actually a pretty entertaining place, tackiness and captain Gruff aside. The on site restaurant appeared to be staffed by Gruff's brother and his wife, where we were presented with our choice of chinese and western menus! - the chinese menu presented fried rice, chinese noodles and your usual staples a la black bean sauce, and the western basically consisted of your standard steak and/or fish pub grub. The chinese selections were all a little bit occa for my tastes, but VG's roo steak was pretty good. All of this was in the delightful ambiance of the dining room, complete with plastic outdoor furniture, themed wall murals, and an old bloke sitting in the corner with a roland keyboard, playing his favorite songs until he stuffed them up, at which time he would promptly go back to the start and begin again. Interestingly, the chinese menu was handed to us, with the explanation 'there's a shitload of room out here in the outback, so why on earth shouldn't we let anyone in who wants to come? Why should people and their kiddies live in poverty when we have all this room for them and their food?' And with that, we realised that these guys were a little bit strange, but in a jovial and well meaning sort of way.

We have both kinds of food... Chinese AND Western!

Roo wrapped in bacon, covered with fried potato...and pineapple. Yum yum!

The lovely little man and his Roland.

This bloke clearly stocks his bar in a similar way to how you might do your non-essential weekly shopping... 'ooh! I like the look of that! Little red hen? Ooo!', so when I ordered the Estrella, he went into ridiculous detail about what international beers he's tried, and how many of each you can drink before you fall on your arse (the Little Red Hen came it at two, I'm told). Seeing we were the first people of the night who hadn't reacted poorly to his banter (ie, we didn't back away horrified nor punch him), he took this as licence to keep chatting. He told us a delightful story about how his young asian kitchen hand had been 'very admirable' (complete with dodgy and full blown occa caricature of a chinese accent) of his ability to lift weights, and wanted to be shown how he could do the same. One thing led to another, and the barman ended up being held down on the kitchen floor, with quite the quantity of frozen broccoli stuffed down his jocks. Now if this were you and I, I'd reckon we're be pretty fucked off by such an affair, but not this guy - when he got around to fishing out the vegetables, he noticed the vegetables had thawed out, and became rather impressed as his genitals' ability to thaw, and indeed cook food. He promptly offered to reheat a couple of dim sims for us while we perused the menu - and don't worry, we needn't bother with soy sauce... after all, he hadn't washed in a couple of days.

Mr Dim Sim himself!

From here, we were off into the Top End, which I'm told is anything in the Territory further north of a joint called Renner Springs. This place, like about 80% of the 'towns', 'locations' and anything else with signage we passed until Darwin, was actually nothing but a roadhouse., a dog, and perhaps even a chicken. We only stopped at a couple of these on our trip, usually for fuel or water, but I have to say that they're absolute little gems of places! Before heading off, I was preparing myself for a journey of pretty sketchy food until darwin - dodgy pub fare... you know, cheap steaks, more cheap steaks, sausages, and probably something involving bacon. Figuring this, I prepared myself for the best of these offerings I could stomach... in fact, I was quite relishing the opportunity to compare and rank the ever crappy - but always interesting - pub prepared spag bols... but the closest I came to such a meal the entire trip was a place doing nachos with bolognaise sauce slopped over the top... accompanied by fishbowl margaritas.

Does drinking with snacks get any better than this? I think not.

The reality was surprisingly different - the food pretty much everywhere, from fine dining setups in the middle of lush wetlands to the sketchiest of motel restaurants in the middle of the desert were all serving the same thing - huge lumps of barra, huge fillets of roo, and something salady with a good dose of croc in it. There were usually decent looking scotch fillet steaks for you to fall back on if you weren't all that keen on indigenous animal for dinner. But the roadhouses, oh, the roadhouses! They pulled us straight out of this world of kitsch dining dressed up as progressive cuisine and straight back into the good ol' days of microwaved from frozen meat pies, and, on one occassion I was delighted to note, rissole and sauce sandwiches, refrigerated for your convenience! They of course all offer the full complement of flavoured milk varieties to go with your meal selection.

The stretch from Wycliffe Well to Katherine was a rather enjoyable one, complete with a trip to the Devils Marbles, the Daly Waters Pub, and the most amusing 'tea house' I think I will see in my entire life. The stop at Daly Waters was a given, as I tend to think if you're going to go driving up the middle of the country, you should make sure you visit at least one divey little pub complete with underwear stapled to every surface. The Daly Waters Pub definitely ticked off that checkbox. The real surprise though was Frans Teahouse, about twenty minutes or so up the highway from Daly Waters. This was an exciting moment for a number of reasons - for starters, seeing two things which aren't rocks or campervans in the space of twenty minutes is a bit of a rarity on this road, and secondly, actually bothering to stop at two such places on the tail end of a multi-day driving session seemed even more amazing - but it was definitely worth it.

The Daly Waters pub. I still can't decide if the building is sinking into the
ground, or if I just took a terrible photo...

VG attempting to 'wizard' the Devils Marbles, perhaps?

Frans Teahouse is not exactly what I was expecting. For an hour or so, we'd seen roadside signs advertising the place, dinky little things with "Frans!" in a faded cursive script tacked to the odd fencepost. The Lonely Planet guide for the NT described it as a delightful teahouse right on the highway, specialising in fantastic home made pies and scones. Again, what it turned out to be in reality was a little different. We eventually located Frans after some confusion, and parked out the front, next to one of many handwritten signs filled with many misspelled and wholly capitalised words, all underlined. None of them seemed to make much sense, now I think about it. So we ventured in to find a strange little setup of basically a caravan type annex, surrounded in plastic outdoor settings. And more handwritten signs. At this point, there was no real sign of life, so VG ventured forth and rang a bell with another sign attached to it indicating something along the lines of Fran might be asleep, but you should ring the bell, because Fran really won't mind. After a few bell rings, and a yoo-hoo or two, Fran had not appeared, but we could hear Fran hard at work washing dishes inside. VG stepped into the first of the annex rooms and yoo-hooed a little more enthusiastically, to have Fran come out and use some kind of crib to ensure VG stayed well outside of the little annex, where she was apparently not to be allowed.

Some confused garbling later, Fran was off to the kitchen to make some scones, damper and coffee for us, pretty much refusing to allow us to order anything else. Bemusedly, I sat down at a table (as ordered), and started flicking through a laminated notebook, figuring it was a guestbook of some description, as some sign or another had promised. What I actually had my hands on, it turned out, was a convenient and thorough guide on how to properly butcher your camel, should you have one. Each cut of camel meat (including tail - you should discard the last third or so of it by the way) was carefully detailed and depicted in both diagram and photography. Now I have to say I was delighted by this, but VG not so much. Our scones, damper and coffee arrived, and we tucked in - the food was every bit as good as promised, and there were no bits of camel to be found, which I suppose is a good thing to achieve in the food service of scones. Not long after, some more tourists arrived and were duly instructed by Fran to sit down and talk to us while she made them an unrequested coffee. We were sure to recommend the scones to them, as if they had any more choice in the matter than we did.

Visitors book? IT'S A TRAP! A CAMEL TRAP!

We later arrived in Katherine, where we would stay for a day and check out the spectacular gorge, and then, we would soon say goodbye to our friend the Stuart Highway and head off into the wonders of Kakadu before winding up in Darwin. Which I'm sure you'll hear all about in part three...

Katherine Gorge looking pretty. And big.

The Rantolotl.

And now, a little side note on part one and part two that just didn't seem appropriate for the 'offical' parts;

There's a hell of a lot to be said about the racial tensions that exist pretty much as a way of life right through the territory. For some reason, I'd always placed towns like Alice Springs an Katherine, and even Tennant Creek somewhere along the lines of your standard regional town, just a but dustier. And this is kind of true - but what you don't see in places like Wangaratta, Geelong and Albury is such a clear cut racial segregation of a town, with each side of the colour barrier kind of getting by, pretending the other doesn't exist. In Alice, the shops were entirely staffed by europeans, and the sharp objects and toilets unavailable because they had to coexist with the local indigenous groups. The streets were filled with the black, the buildings were filled with the white. And that extends beyond just the shops and the schools - in Wangaratta, if you were on the dole and had to resort to state housing, you'd get just that - a house. In Alice, and indeed most of the Territory from what I can see, if you're black and in that situation, you end up in a 'camp'... a 'community' set up by the government, well away from town, with the most basic of accommodation and amenities. So basic, that when they built these fibro shacks in the 70's, they didn't even bother to put in basic plumbing - but that's what Today Tonight's next expose on those naughty aborigines won't tell you.

This blog isn't really the time or place to get into the nitty gritty details of how fucked this country is, particularly in relation to our treatment of the indigenous, but I really do need to mention some of this stuff as a bit of a sidenote if nothing else, because it was such a mentally domineering aspect of our trip, and it does certainly leave me wondering about how a country can allow - and I mean allow, because we were only two of the thousands of Australians that saw the red centre these school holidays, and saw this settled but unwilling segregation - an entire race, indeed the traditional owners of this land, to live in conditions that I would relate to a refugee camp in Palestine, in apartheid, right under our noses? We then have the gall to measure these massively displaced people against our own institutions of schooling, of welfare, of healthcare, by the standards we would apply to it, having grown up in nice suburban homes with an education and a future. And tell me, how exactly do indigenous get work in the Territory in any position other than 'indigenous tour guide', when every person in a uniform, in every shop, or information point was white as day? For fucks sake, it's one thing in Melbourne, when the indig population is virtually nil, but in the territory, where it's above 27%, how, just how can you turn a blind eye to all this?


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