The bus to Alice Springs flew up the Lasseter Highway and across the 1 million acre Curtain Springs Cattle Station towards the MacDonnell Range. The bus driver had a mixed cassette of country type love songs and we listened Roy Orbison, a bit of Elvis, as the spinifex and blackened mulga flashed past. The deseert here had the trampled feel of thousands of hooves . Couldn’t see any cattle though, and that was because apparently there’s only 1 head of cattle for every 2 -3 acres. With years of drought, the isolation, the heat, the freeze, its not exactly an easy life for people or cattle. The owner Peter Severn came out here in 1957, and recokons he saw 6 people in that first year.
In the south west corner of the station is the forbidding Mt Connor. All the bus driver would say about Mt Connor , as we stopped for photos, was that, unlike Uluru, the local Anangu people wouln’t go near it. It was greatly feared. I did a bit of research and found that the local stories attribute Mt Connor, or Attila, with the Ninya, or Ice Men. They come out on dark winter nights from the depths and make long expeditions across the desert, freezing waterholes and laying frost down. The Anangu would sing the Ninya back to their dark place of origin on Attila, to encourage the sun to warm the day. (Thank you Andrew Dwyer – the Cast Iron Cook).
Then where the Lasseter Highway becomes the Stuart Highway we made a stop and switched buses and drivers. Our new bus driver seemed anxious that we not be bored with our trip, peppering his conversation with – ‘it’ll all be over soon’ and almost all his stories ended in death: “So and so was a farmer in the region he achieved this and this – but he’s DEAD now”.
Also this cautionary tale: “someone mentioned it must be easy to drive on a nice straight road like the Stuart Highway – well I can tell you that many journeys on this road end in DEATH. If its not the camels, or the roos or the dingos, it’s the boredom that’ll get ya – all it takes is an overcorrection and the car will roll and you’ll DIE”.
My friend Paul died in exactly that way on this same highway just north of Alice – a fact of which I’d been very aware since I got the assignment to come out here and dreamt of the plane crash in the desert, and so I had a little cry at that story. I wondered if the driver recently lost a loved one and was seeing death everywhere as a consequence like me. (See What I think about when I think about Kevin).
Anyway, all monologues were stalled as our bus driver put on the movie Red Dog, turned up really loud, and everyone was forced to listen to it because it wasn’t like a plane where you have individual screens and headphones, there was a tiny telly up the front of the bus and speakers above every seat that couldn’t be switched off. I contemplated sticking a panty liner over the speaker on the roof above me to block out the soundtrack. I like Evie by Stevie Wright as much as any Australian, but not neccesarily blasted out in a small space where I can’t escape. It alters the mood when you’re forced to listen to something. Ah but the tourists. The germans may never have heard this song – and everyone should.
So I watched the passing desert accompanied with a concoction of Australian musical hits of the past and some twanging guitar music. It made me feel like I was in a corny movie about a dog in the desert. The passing landscape looked like this:
After the movie, the bus driver told rude drinking stories, and mentioned the fact that up until recently the Northern Territory had the biggest drinking quota per person in the world. He seemed ambivalent about this fact, sounding very proud of the record and yet shaking his head and saying, yes well probably nothing to be proud of. There is a brilliant article in The Monthly by Anna Krien about the alcohol crisis in the NT – I really recommend it .
The driver then recited a bawdy and beautiful poem, famous in the NT, about stubbies. For those that don’t know, a stubby is the colloquial name for a beer can in Australia. The poem involved a man who drank too many stubbies and thought he was kidnapped by aliens who looked like gorgeous women. They took him to their spaceship and ripped off his clothes and licked him all over and then he woke up and saw it was the family dog licking him. Ha ha!
As the bus drove through Heavitree Gap and into Alice Springs I suddenly recognized the MacDonnell Ranges escarpement as the cliff in my dream weeks before. The burnt orange browncoulour, the flat top, the jagged blocks of rock, the town below. I the looked around for a potential situation that might turn into a screaming career ending metaphorical plane crash, but all was quiet in Alice Springs on a Sunday evening. A bit too quiet.
Final story – The Gambler – on Sunday.