Saturday, September 19, 2009

Alice: A Red Heart more than mere stones

ODO 88 500

Firstly, wow. Or as I've been finding myself gasping this afternoon - 'Wow. Fucken wow.'
Secondly, Alice rocks.

As you will read, or will have read, the Stuart Highway into Alice from the north is a great ride. Arriving in Alice itself though is no major spectacle. The rocky outcrops that dot the town, or jut out into 'the Gap', are peculiar, but far from spectacular. They're... rocky outcrops! It's when you head West (or perhaps East) that you realise the beauty of the Macdonell Ranges of which they are a part.

Now, I'm no rock man (normally a tree guy....), but the sheer geology of this place is astounding. There is more variation in 100km of the Macdonell's than in 1000km of Great Dividing Range. That impression might be as much due to the presentation - which if staged could only be described as impeccable, or better yet divine. This is the outback, and the only thing which is completely regular is the inclination of the road, so it might be misleading to think in terms of perfection and fallability.

Not far West out of Alice, as the valley opens up and the range bears itself to view you can see exactly why the Tjikurpa (Dreamtime) story ascribes the ranges to caterpillars. A bit further on you find yourself exclaiming 'now THAT is how to do a rocky outcrop!'. Then a eucalypt-lined 'river' bed, and before you know it you're turning off towards the national park.

The new valley the road meanders up is - despite one's disbelief - even more beautiful than the first. It's here that you are struck with awe at the geology behind this range, the immense violence the rocky ranges represent. Layers of sedementary rock thrust themselves vertically into the sky as ridges beside the road. At the Ghost Gum lookout you read about the different layers of rock that make up the gorge below, and how the top layer (about 100m tall) previously resided 2km to the north.

The geological forces have been weathered by rivers like the Finke, 'possibly' the oldest in the world at around 100 million years, not that it often looks much like a river. The 'semi-permanent' waterholes hidden among gaps in the ranges really allow you to feel the word 'oasis' in a way that no definition ever will.

And the trees... ah yes no landscape can really excell without some beautiful trees... the weathered, wry old souls out here have their backs turned to the winds of time just as everything else does. 'If they could talk...' the cliche goes - you would probably have to sit and wait a while, because the long stories they have to tell, they would be in no hurry to part with.

And that was just a short trip on a Friday afternoon!

I'd heard positive things about Alice - from people that have lived there. Nobody else that has passed through has had much to say about it. I am bemused as to why not. Far and away, it has been my favourite stop of the trip so far.

As I had heard, Alice doesn't have a high proportion of long-term residents. It isn't temporary like Cairns is - the tourists were really quite thinly spread while I was there - but everybody you speak to (or at least all the young people) can count the number of times they've seen the Todd run on the one hand (2.5/year, apparently). The abundance of the 'new' local makes the whole scene immensely approachable, though everybody has their own explanations of the town's charms. Many look outwards, to the town's desert surrounds - whether it is a communal love of the outback, or the sense of isolation.

Another perk is the town's surprising cosmopolitan feel. It only has 20k people! But it has more life than most towns of five times that size. So many people I spoke to arrived in Alice expecting a quiet life, but found themselves busier than ever. Whether it's the music, the art, the sporting or environmental events - there is a deep layer of community activity which is more reminiscent of uni than a regional hub. The Aboriginal aspect to the town is so much more savoury than in many other places. There is a synthetic vaneer to the tourist operations of Todd st, but the next street over there are galleries which don't have 'Aboriginal Art' plastered on the outside, because when it isn't marketted to the tourist dollar the label gives way to its conversation with contemporary art more generally.

Alice is closer to Newtown than Bourketown, and I can assure you that can not be a bad thing.

If you're looking to get away then you could do a lot worse than coming to Alice.


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