Alice Springs is well known for bad tempered shop assistants. This is stated on the ‘Reasons to move to Alice Springs’ website as one of two bad points about the town. (The other one is lack of accommodation). So I wasn’t phased when the girl at the Youth Hostel was blatantly hostile – I had already lowered my expectations. The YHA is a bit special though – a former outdoor theatre, it still runs movies every night in the central courtyard – and tonight was a documentary on Albert Namatjira, the Western Arrernte artist.
Halfway between Adelaide and Darwin, Alice Springs is spread out on either side of the Todd River on the northern side of the MacDonnell Ranges. They say that you know you are a resident of Alice when you’ve seen the Todd River flow 3 times – its usually dry. The MacDonnell Ranges are most famous for their quartzite peaks and gorges, and some of the valleys contain fossil evidence of the shallow inland sea that once dominated Gondwanaland.
At the eastern end of the Alice is the Larapinta Trail, one of the best extended walks in Australia which follows West MacDonnell ranges and and harbours many aboriginal sacred sites of the Arrernte people.
8pm on Sunday- Todd Mall. I ventured out to forage for food – but something didn’t feel right – the hairs were standing up on my arms and I kept thinking someone was behind me. It felt dangerous. I could hear a man yelling in the distance, and up ahead a lady held up a dot painting indicating I should come and look. Another lady was wailing and shouting “hello, hello” into the doorwayof an expensive looking restaurant along the mall. It was the only place open that I could see. I asked her why she was wailing and she pointed to an old man with a walking stick sitting over near a quiet street. Her English wasn’t that good, as for most people in remote communities, English is a third or fourth language: “My cousin – he can’t walk , we need the taxi money. Come and talk to him please.” Something told me it wouldn’t be a good idea to do that, although I felt distressed for her. So I went back asked the bad tempered youth hostel reception girl what I should do and she looked at me incredulously. “Was she Aboriginal?” She asked when I stated my question. “Yes” I replied. “Well du’h – NO – don’t give them any money. If you’de gone over there they would have probably robbed you.” Oh.
Since many remote communities in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory instigated alcohol bans, Alice Springs has experienced an influx of more than 1000 Indigenous people, which has led directly to increases in crime – including robberies, break-ins and alcohol fueled violence. The Northern Territory Anti Discrimnination Commissioner has agreed that Alice is experiencing a problem and becoming a city divided on racial lines. But you won’t read about this on any tourist website. I know because I looked – desperate to find something that would give an insight into the strange energy around Alice, best described as a prickly anticipation, a feeling of someone invisible listening on an empty, echoey stairwell. I did find this amazing superbly written article on the alcohol related social problems in the Northern Territory by Anna Krien – Booze Territory – the Crisis of Alcoholism.
I got back to the hostel in time to nab a fold out beach chair and settled in to watch the Albert Namatjira documentary. The ABC also have a great range of doco’s to watch on their website here, including one called Desert People about some family goups living in the Gibson desert I really recommend this one.
Monday morning was the first day of work in Alice – attending training in the conference room of a fancy hotel on the other side of town. I checked in at the accommodation – Lassiters, the casino- where my work colleauges were staying. The fancy hotels were all on one street next to each other on the other side of the Todd River, a bit out of town. It felt a bit like a gated community. I suddenly thought that I would miss the rude receptionist and the youth hostel.
The training I went to was run by an outgoing and talented Bundjalung man called Russell, from the Mt Warning area near Byron Bay (NSW). Russell works with a well known Indigenous training company specializing in cultural awareness and rolling out gov programs to Indigenous communities. Russell said there are two types of people – desert people and salt water people. Which are you? He asked everyone there. I said “I am salt water”. He said “Watch out – the salt water people get trapped in the desert”. This was true – all the people I met at Yulara were from the coast, came for a year and stayed 5 or 10.
After work, back at Lassiters Casino, some people I knew who were at the training sat down to play black jack at the casino. I’d never played before and spent half an hour and $20 learning the ropes from Derek* a work colleague from another agency. Then I left. It didn’t really interest me that much, plus – with the dream about the career/plane crash in my mind I was watching what I did and what I drank.
The following night at the popular Casino restuarant it was Rump Tuesday – and most of Alice Springs seemed to be there. Also, the town was filling up with people coming in from remote areas for the All Stars footy match on Friday.
On the way through to the restuarant on the second night I saw Derek at the black jack table. I could tell he was pretty sozzled. 5 hours later on the way out I saw him again – he was still there at the table. I went up to say goodnight and with a shock I realised how out of it he really was. I have never seen a man so drunk. Slowly stewing and sweating in pure alcohol, and a twisted white face like something rotten in his past had come back to haunt him. The face of a practiced alcoholic. How had I never noticed that before? I went back to my room worried. Its easy to die when you are in that state. I felt the same prickly feeling that I got in Todd Mall that Sunday past.
After 10 minutes I decided I’d better do something. When I went back to the casino room to get Derek from the table, I noticed an old Arrernte man in a cowboy hat leaning on the rail behind the players , watching. As I walked past him he burnt into the side of my eyes. I was nervous because I’d never gone to get a drunk man out of a casino before. Maybe this was a bad idea, I was thinking. Perhaps the Arrernte man thought so too. He didn’t stick around for trouble and walked past me out the door in slow motion. Derek was sitting at the blackjack table with 2 shady characters taking his money, play by play. They took off like crows when I arrived at the table. After a bit of haggling I convinced Derek that it was a good idea to leave now. He led the way to his room with me giving him little pushes on the way to hurry him up. He was laughing and staggering a bit and when we got to his room I told him to go in and lock the door and not to come out again – that I would be watching from the room upstairs.
Later that night I felt the dark shadow pass over the dry river bed. It woke me at 3am. I opened the balcony door and stared into the darkness, toward the outline of the huge River Red gum trees in the Todd and I knew the Arrernte man was out there, sleeping in his own camp around the fire. We looked at each other. I held a crystal in my hand and asked for the shadow to keep going. To leave Derek alone. He had something pointed at him. The Arrente man saw everything – the cards, the broken gambler, the fire in the dry river bed, the shadow. He saw me. The shadow kept going out to the desert. It didn’t stop for Derek.
The next morning I dropped the crystal and it broke into 4 pieces. I decided to ride a bike to Anzac hill, that rocky outcrop that overlooks Alice Springs with the fragments from the main crystal. I heard that with crystals, you just do what you are guided to do with the fragments which contain the power of the whole crystal. I decided to bury the fragments on top of a large quartzite rock That I knew would broadcast a healing over Alice Springs. Well that was my wish anyway.
Here is the song Wiyathul by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu.
From up here I could see the escarpment of the MacDonnell Ranges, the one in my dream. I saw where I fell off backwards and watched the plane crash. It’s hard to say what that dream meant- except that something happened, something changed in me since my first foot on the red dust near Uluru 4 days before. It’s not fully conscious yet, what ever it was that happened here.
Pyschogeography maps the lines of energy that link up places, inhabit spaces, rocks, towns, rivers, invisible pathways – ley lines, songlines. Here we will find traces of art, dancing, ceremony – life. Vibrations exist and wait for the geomancer to detect.
Violence too, leaves its mark. Although the original pyschogeographic journeys were urban in nature, in this NT adventure I’ve been mapping the energy of the centrilian superbasin, the desert and desert towns, eavesdropping on the ancients, drifting purposefully across the red centre and listening to the silence. The last 5 postings are a record of what I found.