In the outback community of Alice Springs, the local Rotary clubs have held an annual "Henley-on-Todd Regatta" continuously for more than 50 years. Except for that one time in 1993. They canceled that year due to wet weather. Or, more to the point, there was water in the Todd River that year.
The regatta, it seems, is a "bottomless" boat race. It relies on a dry and sandy riverbed (and runners carrying boat frames). So, a river with actual water in it? Unacceptable.
There's much about Alice Springs that's just slightly off-kilter, often irreverent but most always good-natured. Case in point: There was a recent underground marketing promotion for the Northern Territory (NT), and Alice Springs sits as the geographical heart. The appearance of "C U in the N T" shirts, bumper stickers and other promotional materials prompted a social media firestorm. The marketing campaign also brought round condemnation from Australia's advertising watchdogs. But in Alice Springs, they generally took it in stride. Spokesmen for the NT tourism bureau took pains to note they themselves were not involved. But they also conceded to reporters that the guerrilla campaign, which featured its own merchandise site and attracted international news coverage, "Certainly did get a lot of people talking about the Northern Territory and what there is to see and do up here."
After a national advertising watchdog official declared the campaign obscene, the kerfuffle seemed to die out. Meanwhile, the T-shirts are still for sale online. And I saw people wearing them.
Not just a transit station for trips to Uluru
Alice Springs began as a telegraph repeater station, located in the red center of the continent, a connectivity linchpin between Adelaide at the southern end of the continent and Darwin at the northern end. Initially, that was really the only reason it existed. After two years and 36,000 poles' worth of line construction, the first message transmitted from Alice Springs in 1872 was a somber one. It reported that the man designated to take up the position as the first stationmaster had been located: He was dead. Apparently, the man succumbed in the December heat 100 miles from the station, trying to make his way to his new job. The man who found the body, in a rather pragmatic move, was appointed stationmaster in his stead.
The area's hardscrabble, pioneering history is fully embraced by local folks. This is a place where temperatures dip below freezing in the winter and soar to above 110 degrees in the summer. It's a place where you can see the most amazing sunsets and also be assaulted by hundreds of swarming bush flies hungry to feed on your sweat or suck the moisture from your eyes. (I saw stickers regarding a visit to the NT with the testimonial, "A Billion Flies Can't be Wrong.")
That admonition aside, my wife, daughter and I visited in the fall (April) and had no real fly problems and very pleasant weather.
For many tourists, Alice Springs is the jumping-off point for a six-hour ride to see Uluru, formerly known as Ayer's Rock. And that's certainly one good reason to come to Alice Springs. But the town has much more going for it than that.
The telegraph station buildings and much of equipment from the 60 years that it operated are nicely preserved and serve as a fascinating introduction to the town's origins. ("Alice" was the wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs when things got started in the 1870s, and the "springs" was actually just a waterhole that was near the station, another marketing embellishment.) The exhibits at the station track its full history, including significant reference to the 10 years after the station closed, when the property was used as a home for "half-caste" children. The children were the offspring of relationships between Aboriginal women and white men. The federal government decided the children should have a Euro-centric upbringing, and, in some cases, literally wrenched them from their mothers' arms and sent them off to the home. Some children never saw their mothers again.
The children's home saga was just one of the tragic outcomes resulting from a series of misguided policies between 1910 and 1970 in which indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families. These children became known as the stolen generations, and the policies of child removal left a legacy of trauma that continues to affect indigenous communities to this day.
Aboriginal Australians make up about 28 percent of the population in the Northern Territory, more than most places in the country, so it's a good place to learn about their Australia. Their history here dates back at least 45,000 years, which is remarkable in itself. Aboriginal dot painting, which evolved from sand drawings, is one starting point to learn about the culture. It is often mesmerizingly beautiful, and there are terrific galleries in Alice Springs and at the cultural center at Uluru.
Desert park and a guide to nutritious insect cuisine
Another good introduction to Aboriginal history is the Alice Springs Desert Park, a 3,200-acre environmental and cultural education facility that opened in 1997. The park, just a 10-minute drive from town, provides opportunities to learn about the desert, its plants, critters and the indigenous communities who learned the secrets of how to successfully inhabit this challenging environment. Through a variety of walking trails, the park provides exposure to the unique plant and animal diversity found in the desert. It is also culturally significant to the Arrernte people, the Aboriginal Australians who lived and raised families in this area for thousands of years before Westerners arrived. Much of the work of the park today is done under the auspices of the Arrernte decision-makers and caretakers.
At the park, you can see numbats, thorny lizards and other desert creatures in a nocturnal house designed to simulate the night environment when the desert dwellers come out to hunt and forage. Or you can get up close to the birds of the desert in one of the aviaries on site. Best of all (at least for me), you can also learn about the culture and food delicacies favored by the Aboriginal people who were at the top of the desert food chain.
Consider, if you will, the nutritional value of bugs.
One of the most important foods of the desert is the witchetty grub, a white wood-eating moth larva that spends most of its life inside the roots of the witchetty bush (named for the grub, not the other way around). Indigenous Australian women foraged for this dietary staple by digging down about two feet around the base of the bush and looking for the fat roots most likely to house the finger-long grubs. They are edible raw but are said to have a flavor much like almonds if grilled, with a tasty skin and an interior consistency kind of like fried egg.
Sadly, there were no tastings the day we visited.
And then there are bush coconuts, which result from a symbiotic relationship between a small wingless insect and a type of eucalyptus tree. In infancy, the female bug hitchhikes on a young male of the species and eventually attaches itself to a tree. It then triggers a chemical reaction in the tree so that it grows a gall around the bug. The insect spends its entire life inside this roundish tree wart that can get to be the size of a tennis ball. When the wart is harvested and cracked open, you can eat the fibrous lining, which looks and is said to taste like coconut. You can also dine on the insect, which grows to the size of a cashew and is described as the sweetest part.
For special dining occasions, children's birthdays perhaps, Aboriginal women would search for honeypot ants, which look a lot like walking grapes. In arid climates, the honeypot ants act as food storage units for the colony. Living a foot or so underground, they are fed by worker ants during good times, and then during the dry season, they return the favor and feed the parched worker ants from their reserves. A park ranger, who had partaken at a honeypot ant tasting event, described them as mildly sweet and said that, like potato chips, it was hard to stop with just one.
A school district twice as big as Texas
In the Northern Territory, three towns — Darwin, Palmerston and Alice Springs — account for 75 percent of the territory's population. Take them out of the equation and you have a population of just 60,000 people sprinkled across an area that encompasses nearly 550,000 square miles. Think of an area the size of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah combined. Then take away about 99 percent of the people who currently live in those states, and you get to the Northern Territory definition of sparsely populated.
(In the Northern Territory, there are individual cattle stations — we would call them ranches — that are larger than the entire state of Connecticut.)
In this vast space, getting children who grow up at these remote settlements to school will never be something that can be solved with buses. Instead, for more than 65 years, the Alice Springs School of the Air has been helping to meet that need.
The school began in 1951 as an outgrowth of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which used two-way radio to provide medical services to remote settlements and cattle stations in the outback.
The School of the Air serves children who live too far away from schools in the territory to get there on a daily basis. Currently, there are about 140 elementary and middle school students, some from cattle stations and others from remote indigenous communities. They all come together a couple of times a year for a few days in Alice Springs so that kids who have mostly only known each other through Skype-like connections can get some actual face time with schoolmates. For some children, these infrequent school visits will require a 12-hour one-way truck trek on mostly dirt roads. The teachers also make annual pilgrimages out to the bush to meet with kids and their families.
Since 2007, most of the schooling has taken place via the internet, enabled in remote locations with satellite dishes and computers, which replaced radios. You can observe classes in action at the center, with lively video exchanges back and forth between the teachers in studio and the children scattered through the territory.
The more you travel about in the NT, the more physically aware you become of how disconnected and remote life here can be. A few years ago, my wife and I met several women who were hiking together along the ocean in southern Australia. They were all from Alice Springs and were a little surprised by how many other people they encountered on their hike. We asked them where they usually went on holiday, and they talked about loading up in 4-wheel drive SUVs with their kids and heading off on camping trips to NT points of interest in the bush. On one outing, after several afternoon hours of driving through very hot desert terrain on a dirt track, the woman driving the lead car said she saw a whirling circle of fire shoot past her. Turns out it was a tire from the second car in their two-car caravan that had flattened, caught fire and spun off from the rim. The women said they spent several hours sorting things out in severe heat by the side of the road before another vehicle happened by to assist.
To us, it seemed a perilously close brush with real catastrophe, with small children in tow, no less. But for the women hikers, it was a fairly typical weekend adventure. They said the NT had much to recommend it, but that visiting vacationers should bring great tools for changing tires, and they should expect their trips to be very warm, quite remote and occasionally subject to unexpected adventures that might kill them. The abandoned remains of multiple vehicles we encountered on driving trips in the outback seemed to confirm this as good advice.
The benefits of raising orphan baby kangaroos
When the sun settles low on the horizon and the heat begins to dissipate, the desert really starts to come alive. One unique place to experience this is at the kangaroo sanctuary just outside Alice Springs. Three nights a week, just before sunset until it is pitch dark, Chris "Brolga" Barns leads small groups of visitors through the bush of his 180-plus acre wildlife sanctuary for red kangaroos. More than 30 of the animals wander about as you meander around. Barns, who previously worked as a zookeeper, started on this journey back in 2005, first using his home as a makeshift rescue center for baby 'roos.
Kangaroos are not exactly endangered in Australia. There are more of them — something like 25 million — than there are people in the country. But it is clear that kangaroos and cars do not get on well, and you see a lot of them as roadkill. Barns discovered that very often the highway victims were mothers with joeys that were still alive and protected in their pouches.
So he started rescuing the babies. And then in 2009, he bought some land and began building his sanctuary, fencing most of it himself and living on the property in a tin shack with no plumbing. The shack still serves as ground zero for his tours (and there is still no bathroom). In 2011, the BBC discovered him and later produced a series in collaboration with National Geographic documenting his life and rescue mission. They called him Kangaroo Dundee.
The series was a huge hit. There have now been three separate "Kangaroo Dundee" series that have been broadcast to more than 90 countries. More are in the works. In person, he is every bit as engaging and charismatic as his onscreen persona. He is this very tall, ruggedly handsome guy in a bush hat who tells fascinating stories about kangaroo behavior while gently cradling baby kangaroos swaddled in pillowcases or loading joeys into custom shoulder bags (handy when you need to take your baby kangaroo on trips to the market). This profile seems to have made a significant impression on many of his female viewers. After the first series aired, he received scores of marriage proposals.
Visitors to the sanctuary come on a single bus. The sanctuary is largely unmarked, and there is no staff on site; Barns meets the bus himself. He introduces himself by his nickname, Brolga, which is also the name for a very tall Australian crane.
A couple of years ago, Barns married a local girl and now lives in a house with air conditioning. But he said he still spends a portion of most evenings, even when there is no tour, at the sanctuary, feeding the mob as the sun goes down and observing what's up as the mostly nocturnal animals stir to life.
His goal is to return as many of his young charges as possible to the wild when they grow up. He also continues to raise joeys at his home, and he has a squad of volunteers around town who also foster orphaned baby kangaroos. Just picture a number of small kangaroos wearing disposable diapers (with a hole cut out for the tail) hopping around the living room and you have an idea of life at some of the foster homes.
Perhaps the most endearing thing about Barns is his passion for what he does. He loves talking about kangaroo habits and behavior with visitors. He continues to live fairly simply, reportedly investing much of what comes in from the tours into plans for an animal hospital. He has also rescued several camels and has expressed a desire to do more.
Now, camels are an invasive species in Australia, brought over before motor vehicles were an option and then, in about the 1930s when cars took over, many were just released into the wild, where they flourished. You see camels around Alice Springs. The Camel Cup, the Kentucky Derby of Australian camel racing (so to speak), is held in Alice Springs. And there are lots of camel tours.
In the outback, there are currently estimated to be more than 400,000 feral camels. The government actually culls the camel population from time to time to keep it from getting too out of control.
So then, why do they need rescuing? Barns told a reporter, "I don't judge something on whether it's prolific. If it needs help, you look after it."
Visiting the kangaroo sanctuary had been on my wife's bucket list for years. She avidly tracked activity at the sanctuary on Facebook. When you visit, everyone gets an opportunity to hold a joey for 10 minutes or so as you walk about the bush while Barns talks, as the sun fades and the stars start to take ownership of the sky. I didn’t expect that experience to be all that remarkable, but it was. A baby red kangaroo normally spends the first eight months mostly in its mother's pouch, popping out from time to time to eat some grass or discover the world a bit but then jumping back into the pouch. They like it there, and as they snuggle in comfortably against your chest, you feel their warmth. From time to time, they look up at you most appreciatively. It's very soothing.
That said, I'm probably not quite ready to move to Alice Springs and volunteer to foster baby kangaroos.
But I fully understand the appeal.