Arrivals and Departures
Arrivals and departures
By Adam Gibson
A man with a roast beef coloured face in the plane seat behind me is excited as hell about his recent trip to Ireland.
“Went to Ireland and the people were just great,” he intones to the man next to him as the flight to Alice Springs primes for take-off. “Great people. Friendly! Ireland … great! Fair dinkum, loved it!” And then came the knockout blow: “In the whole week I was there, I didn’t buy one drink! Best drinkers in the world, the Irish.”
I listen and wonder… Is that all it takes? Just one week? Can you really define a place in that time? Is that enough chance to get a handle on a location? Enough chance to become an expert, to know somewhere emphatically? And is it fair to do that?
Overhearing this speech makes me unaccountably churlish. Then it strikes me why: perhaps I do that as well. Perhaps most of us do it. Perhaps that’s what “tourism” actually is. Most of us are just on whistle-stop tours, we just get a glimpse of a place and then nick off. We don’t have enough time to see the grime in the cracks, or vice-versa, but will soon be telling everyone we meet our knowing opinion of the place.
The bloke behind may be, in fact, the perfect tourist. Meet the locals, have a laugh, don’t pay for a single drink, get pissed as hell. And then you can buy the t-shirt, souvenir the coaster and go home and tell your friends your definition of the location.
“The people are rude” etc.
After all, you’re now the expert.
A quilt of farms recedes into khaki plains then to a crusty red earth that looks like an overcooked pizza base. Burnt ridges and snaky veins of sick-green dried rivers cut swathes through the shrivelled dough. Every now and then what must have been huge waterholes or creeks are visible, drying from the edges, like sores healing. Bright white salty scabs in the redness.
Flying over this country, all dazzling and sunny, I imagine being planted down there in the middle of nowhere. Nothing except the tuft of wind hitting my ears. My face getting more unshaven by the minute. My forehead sweating. My eyes crunched up tight, whatever lightness in them being turned into tortoiseshell. Would I be waiting for something? Would I be looking for something? Water? A plane flying overhead?
Can you claim to have been to a place that you’ve seen from an aeroplane? I flew over Lord Howe Island once, the reef-fringed splodge of green glowing below in the afternoon. Can I say that I’ve been there because I’ve seen it? I saw it, definitely; I can describe it in detail right now, like I just did. It’s an extreme version of my friend in the seat behind me’s idea but how can you really argue? I have been there, I have seen it. So, anyway, by extension, using that logic, I’ve now been to far western NSW and the top right hand corner of South Australia as we fly over on the way to the Red Centre.
Before we know it, the throw of descent hits our stomachs. Before we know it, the ridges of the McDonnell Ranges, which seem to cradle Alice Springs like a baby in a cot, rear into view, the hot air rising off the tarmac buffeting the plane, making the overhead compartment shudder seemingly independently of the cabin. Then we bust through the turbulence to be swiftly a few metres above the ground before plonking down so quickly and going into reverse thrust so immediately that the paranoid among us could be forgiven for deducing that Alice Springs airport has a smaller than regulation landing strip. Or perhaps the pilot is simply impatient to land after a three hour and forty minute flight, battling headwinds all the way. Perhaps he’s keen to get out of the darn plane and hit the ground for a beer or three. Like the bloke behind me loudly expresses he is.
We climb from our seats, walk to the rear door and take the stairs leading down to the tarmac. A woompf of hot air whacks me in the head and I feel dizzy and thirsty instantly. It’s my first moment in The Outback.
Arriving in a new place, I always devour the looks of the people in the airport. Their faces, their clothes, the way they hug and talk and their choice of footwear. I always look at the footwear. It’s the great indicator of the true heart of a place. And I look to see if the people are tanned, if they’re noticeably taller or fitter, if their hairstyles are of any particular note. I scan to ascertain whether they seem friendlier, check out if they say “hello” when you meet their eyes, whether they say “s’cuse me” when they bump into you with their baggage carts.
It’s easy to convince yourself that the people in any airport throughout the world on your arrival there are locals. Sure, some are, but many more are just like you: tourists. The difference is of course that they now wear the assured expressions of knowledge. They’re not wide-eyed like you any more. They’re cool and see themselves as slightly elevated. It’s all old-hat. They’ve got the place down pat and know that you, all eager on your arrival, haven’t.
In Alice Springs, this is powerfully evident. It’s not a threatening atmosphere but pushes the more modest, the more aware or perhaps the more easily embarrassed, to imitate nonchalance. It makes them dampen down most excitement about being there and calmly gather their bags and walk unwaveringly towards the toilets, where-ever the bloody hell they are, when they need to go.
All this I think about as we wait languidly at the baggage collection carousel. The “departures” look brown and more earthy, a little worn around the edges. The “arrivals” are still carrying white calves and unfreckled faces. They — we — looked unripe. We look like bread pulled out of the oven before the crust has began to brown at the top.
This is the first organised tour I’ve been on in my life and I’m feeling slightly condescending, yet also humble. Condescending because I always am when I see tour groups being led by their noses to this place or that; humble because that’s in fact what I’ll be doing this time.
My girlfriend and I catch the tour company’s courtesy bus into town from the airport. Two motorcyclists, I believe taking advantage of the legendary “no speed limit in the Northern Territory” (there is in fact one in this area near Alice Springs, I later find out), zip past us if we’re standing still. The bus driver dryly notes “a couple of temporary Australians” without missing a beat in his opening spiel. He tells us that the sandy area full of twisting trees running along beside the road is actually the Todd River.
“If you see it flow three times you’re considered a local,” he says. (A line I later realise is trotted out by every second person in Alice.) Right now, it looks like the upper edges of Bondi Beach, creamy golden sand running through clumpfs of red river gums. Then he says: “But don’t go walking along there… The friggin blackfellas will go beserk at ya.”
We look out the window and see groups of Aboriginal men and women sleeping here and there under trees. We turn back to each other and raise our eyebrows in surprise at his comment.
The driver is a sunburnt blonde-haired fellow named Greg in his mid-20s. He has a big gap between his two front teeth and reminds me a little of Ron Howard when he was Richie Cunningham in Happy Days. He speaks confidently about many aspects of Alice Springs. He tells us about the tremulous relationship between the whites and the Aboriginal population in Alice, how the Heavytree Gap, the pass through which the main access to town is achieved from the south, got its name and was formed, and also names a couple of good places to eat and drink in town. He strikes me as a real expert on Alice and I imagine he’s probably lived here all his life and knows the town inside out. It’s only later that day I discover he’s been here for just two weeks after moving from Victoria to work as the tour company’s airport bus chauffeur.
We’re dropped off at our hotel and find that the accommodation is a series of low-lying self-contained bungalows. We’ve gone to a little expense so as to avoid the nightmarish connotations of the phrase “backpacker-style accommodation”. We’ve eschewed the shared dorm rooms and the socks drying on the window sills and opted for more comfortable surrounds. Not that anything would take long to dry here. It’s 42 degrees and everything feels sandblasted. You couldn’t even cry if you wanted to. We go for a swim in the pool and are dry before we reach our towels.
Soon after we catch a bus to town, forgetting that it’s midday on a Sunday. The only people in Todd Mall are scattered groups of dishevelled blacks and bewildered and hot tourists almost audibly thinking “we came all the way for this?” The tourists wander around, nervously eyeing the Aborigines under the council-erected shade pergolas and trees in the parks and on seats in the mall.
I myself am also drooping, wondering where the action is.
We catch the bus back to our hotel, asking Greg where he’d recommend we go for dinner and perhaps a beer that night.
“What about the Todd Tavern?” I say, remembering the pub we’d seen at the top of the mall.
“Todd Tavern?” he replies. “”Nah, give that a miss mate. The Animal Bar’s there.”
“Animal Bar?” I say.
“Spot where all the blackfellas go,” he says. “Get pissed, fight, smash fings up.”
“It’s called the Animal Bar?” I ask.
“What,” I say, “is it officially called that?”
“Dunno if it’s officially called that but that’s what it’s called,” he says. “Couple of the blokes went there a while back. Got stared down, followed into the dunnies, a blue and all that. Shit. If you go there, stay in the other bars at least.”
It seems there’s no qualms about calling it the Animal Bar, political correctness yielding to a disgraceful realism which is clearly really racism.
That night, when we’re going back into town, I ask the cabbie about a good pub for a beer, again mentioning the Todd Tavern. The physical size of Alice makes it necessary for a cab service but there’s just a small enough population for that cab service to stay personal and therefore be a strong touchstone of the town’s psyche.
“The Todd Tavern?” the cabbie says. “Hmm, alright ‘cept for the animals in the Animal Bar.”
“What’s the story with the Animal Bar?” I ask, my conscience troubled by the ready use of the phrase.
“All the blackfellas,” he says, “get yerself in trouble there.”
“Mate, ya darn’t wanna gah in there orroight?,” the cabbie says. “Well ya can gah in there butcha mightn’t come out. If ya gah, gah in wif an extra pack of smokes cos ya warn’t come out wif any, lemme tell ya. I’m not racist but I’m tellin ya tha truth.”
Had he been in there himself, I ask.
“Me? Ahh yeah … in there? Course I been in there.” But he didn’t even appear to convince himself that he had.
This story will be repeated to me several times throughout our visit and after all that, we want to go to the Animal Bar. For whatever reason, we never do. We go on our five-day camping trip and are given a taste of the Outback, climbing this canyon, looking at that ancient rock art. When we come back to Alice the disparate tour party is keen to hook up for a beer that night to celebrate our return to “civilisation”. I mention that we could possibly meet at the Todd Tavern.
This is met by loud and immediate protestations from the tour group. “We’re not going to the Animal Bar,” they chorus, almost as one. After all, they’re now the experts on the place.
They know all about the way things work here.