Monday, June 15, 2009

Alice and West

Alice Springs was the obvious place to start. It’s the only town of any size in the Red Centre of Australia. At 30,000 or so people, it has all the necessary services: airport, truck rental, and stores (food, field guides, souvenirs). It’s a real town that largely caters to tourism. I thought that it would be a good place to get over jet lag.

Given the distortions of my body clock, my impressions of Alice are hazy. It’s tucked just north of the west-east trending strike ridges of the MacDonnell Ranges. The airport is south of the hills; we arrived in Alice per se through the dramatic piercement of Heavitree Gap, which is just wide enough for the two lane road, the Adelaide-Darwin railway, and the Todd River. The MacDonnells rise a thousand feet or so above the town. The sedimentary cliffs should have been pretty, but jet lag tunnel vision and lack of local orientation kept me focused where I was going and what’s immediately around me.

Reorientation to Australia. Look right, then left when crossing roads. Walk on the left side of the footpaths and sidewalks. Drive on the left; be very aware when entering roundabouts. It was comforting to shop for food and supplies at Woolworths; I’ve been in equivalent stores all over Australia. I know what brands I like. Finally, someplace where I knew where I was.

The influence of tourism on Alice is obvious. The downtown core has a high density of aboriginal art galleries, many of which sell very powerful original works. Paul did his part to support the Australian economy here. The pedestrian mall features a number of tour agencies and internet cafes. There are also the standard curio shops selling the same Australiana souvenirs that I’ve seen in Perth, the Pilbara, Sydney, Hobart, etc. The gradient of young backpackers increases to the west towards the youth hostel. I’ve heard French, German, Japanese, and possibly Russian being spoken.

We picked up a Nissan Patrol 4WD on Monday. It’s a decent vehicle, a little mushy in the suspension and steering, and the shift gates are a tad fussy. A wider wheel base than the Toyota FJ 100s I am used to. The hire company also provided gear; cook kit, table and chair, and swags. We filled the remaining space with food, gear, and water bottles.

Before setting out, we spent a half day at the Alice Springs Desert Park. It’s a sort of combination botanical garden and zoo. It does a superb job of presenting the major ecological zones of Central Australia within a walkable setting. I wish I had been less jet laggy, I would have absorbed more. The biological context is just different enough from the Pilbara that there was much to see and learn. I pretty much failed. Nonetheless, it was rewarding to wander through a series of small aviaries and see a wide variety of birds, to get a feel for the local species of spinifex (softer) and wildflowers (similar). The nocturnal house featured a colony of bilbys; these are sort of a rabbit-like marsupial that’s almost extinct (due to feral cats). The only odd part was a recurrent sense that this was a created landscape. I don’t know when the Park was opened, but the majority of the vegetation zones had to be installed; all the plants thus were about the same size. It lacked the range of young to old plants that occur in a native landscape, and it was not established enough to look “real”.

On Tuesday we headed west from Alice into West MacDonnell Range National Park. Our route followed a major valley between a couple major ridges of resistant sandstone. For some reason the road is called Larapinta Drive. This amused me, I think of a “drive” as having houses on it. Here it really was a drive, a route to new and interesting places. The main NP attractions are the stream valleys which have cut north through the Ranges, cutting narrow and scenic gorges. We stopped at several of these: Simpson Gap, Standley Chasm, Ormiston Gorge. They were each dramatic in different ways, ranging from the narrow notches at Standley to an outright canyon at Ormiston. Each stop was at most a few hours hike. Time to take pictures and learn a field protocol for fussing with all my camera gear. Also reflexive geology; observing the rocks to understand their sedimentological and deformational history. More orientation.

A first night’s bush camp; a chance for Louis to get oriented to how we do things. First, find the right off road spot. Make sure the truck is parked safely. Collect wood for fire, dig fire pit. Choose swag out spots and lay out gear. Assemble table, cook gear, and chairs. Enjoy happy hour while some one cooks.

A clear night, lovely to be back under the stars. Very cold, to be expected in the desert. I woke up to make use of a nearby bush, and discovered that my swag and gear were covered with frost. In the morning we all discovered that swags aren’t the best cold weather gear. While they kept the frost on the outside, their canvas sides also trapped much moisture inside. My sleeping bag verged on wet. The pad under me was damp. We had a leisurely breakfast while the sun dried everything out.

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