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Retrace 1996: Alice Springs
Wednesday 18th September 1996 - 9 pm
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Here we are in yet another camping ground. This time in Alice Springs off Larapinta Drive.

A little thought about the logistics of this journey led to the decision not to go to the Olgas etc because it would mean arriving at Hermannsburg cold and possibly being unable to travel into country requiring permits etc. So it seemed best to go to Alice Springs and make contact with the Central Land Council in order to avoid backtracking. The loop road, I heard about last night, will work better the other way so we can leave the tourist attractions until last.

Last night was fitful as road trains came and went and Jack decided to sleep with us. We got away about 7 am and sat on 130 kms/hour for hours and hours. The country changed gradually from featureless gibber plains to rocky outcrops with small trees and desert oaks with distant mesa-like land forms giving a sense of space and grandeur of scale. I love a landscape without fences.

Approaching 'The Alice' we ran along beside a mountain ridge, first on the right and then on the left. Eventually fences and signs gave the gap a feeling of imminence.

Heavitree Gap

Heavitree Gap was much smaller than I had imagined - a wonderful entry point, now marred by the intrusion of motels and a camping ground. What a shame. Everywhere there were drunk and dishevelled Aborigines wandering up the Todd river bed with bottles and cans of beer. One group was sitting on the railway line. First impressions were that both the men and the women looked broken and dejected. There seems to be a uniform rotundity about the women emphasised by their thin legs.

The town itself was much smaller than I had imagined. It was also very hot. As soon as we came to a sign marked pool I dropped Susan, Emily and Jack off for a swim. Bonnie was a bit out of humour owing to the long drive and the heat, so she came with me while we went looking for the Central Land Council and Wendy's (a neighbour in Melbourne) friend Julia Munster.

The office where we applied for permits

First stop was the Aboriginal Council which looked promising. All sorts of casualties were emerging with bandaged arms and legs. Not surprisingly it turned out to be concerned with health issues. I entered with some trepidation but was quickly put at ease by a very helpful girl behind the counter who had white skin but Aboriginal features. She gave me directions to the Lands Council and made sure I understood them. It was just up the road. We were told that Julia had moved offices and had just gone into town for a few minutes so it seemed like a good opportunity to find the town centre and have a cold drink. We quickly found a Mall and sat down in a pristine airconditioned cafe and looked out the window at the passing parade. The overall impression was one of apartheid - of two completely separate cultures, neither acknowledging the others existence. It felt awkward and unnatural and vaguely embarrassing. After our drinks we walked down to the newsagent where the Centralian Advocate carried the headline Police Crack Down On Rock Louts. I thought it must be about Ayers Rock but it turned out to be about a growing problem of Aboriginal (not specifically named as such) boys in Alice Springs throwing rocks at passing cars.

I bought Bonnie a $500,000 Northern Territory Lottery ticket and myself a copy of Kurt's book. at Dymocks. The Shop assistant said that they couldn't get enough local history in Alice Springs and that the book was selling very well. She also said that Kurt was in town and that I would find him through his family at the Mitre 10 store.

Julia Munster was easy going, welcoming and obviously very happy in her work (something to do with Native Title). We talked about the difficulties I had had with the Central Land Council and a bit about The Flight of Ducks. She said she would look into what had happened to the copies of the photographs I sent. She did not have a net connection so she took a photocopy of the title page of the printout I had brought as a reference. She suggested that I keep the photographs and journal hidden as they may cause upset and offence. She also gave me the phone numbers of both the Mount Liebig Community and that of Haasts Bluff so that I could ring them before applying for permits to enter Aboriginal Land. We went back to the other office and found the permit process for The Mereenie Loop road far less onerous than I had imagined and cheap at $2.00.

On the way back to the pool Bonnie and I called in to the Mitre 10 hardware Store and asked for a 'Johannsen'. I was taken to a tall young man with Nordic skin who could have been Kurt. He was his grandson and he quickly took me to his father David who was busy extending the store by adding more space out the back. He became more and more interested. Unfortunately Kurt had just gone back to Adelaide. He was now 81. It turned out I had Johannsen spelt wrongly as Johannson so I was able to make a correction. David also said that Paul Albrecht was still in town and we looked him up in the phone book but couldn't find him. He suggested the Lutheran Finke River Mission. We left after promising to send up a printout of The Flight of Ducks.

The Lutheran Church was near the pool but it was locked up so I dropped off Bonnie who was now pretty hot and rang The Mount Liebig Community after getting no answer from Haasts Bluff. A woman with a London accent answered the phone and said that everyone was gone from Haasts Bluff and Mount Liebig including her husband who was the administrator, but that I should still put in an application. Thinking that this must be normal, I headed back to The Central Land Council where I was no longer a stranger. There, a dark eyed woman was very helpful and even suggested phrases I could use to explain my purpose in entering the restricted country. An odd one was traverse the country. A somewhat archaic term which made me think of the public service and sounded quite odd coming from an Aboriginal. Having filled in all the forms she asked when I wanted to go. She seemed quite amused that I might expect anything to happen within a 24 hours. Actually I had no expectations at all.

On the way back to the pool again I called in to the Strehlow Research Foundation which was quite close to the Johannsen Mitre 10 Store. It was an award winning, architect designed building of curved white colour-bond metal. Perhaps symbolically, it had been designed to frustrate any attempts at entry. The unknown and unmarked entrance was as far as possible from the car park and there was no way to get from the car park to the building without trampling over a native garden or following dead end walk ways, and finding the way blocked by a wall or a locked door. Eventually after walking almost completely around the building I managed to find the entrance and was greeted at reception, "Yes, brother".
I explained that my father had known Strehlow etc."Would there be any chance of seeing his field notes?"
"No chance! - but wait here I'll go and ask someone."

A kind woman in green appeared (Chris ?) and ushered me into an office. She left me for a few minutes while she attended to a 'researcher' who wanted to be let out. The bookshelf was full of familiar books about the central Australia including the banned Mountford, Nomads of the Australian Desert . I felt that I needed to establish my bona fides and this seemed to go smoothly. She was at great pains to say how careful they had to be to ensure objects or secret/sacred information did not fall into the wrong hands or were not seen by the wrong eyes. She seemed keen for me to talk to the Director of the Foundation, David Hugo, and we arranged a time for tomorrow morning. She agreed with me about the building and said she often watched people through the office window clambering over the garden looking for a way in.

Before going back to the pool I drove up to the top of Gallipoli Hill and observed the changes that have taken place since the 1933 panorama of Alice Springs. It is a hard place to describe - for some reason (probably the number of colour-bond sheds) it reminds me of Fyshwick in Canberra but with a different population. It probably sounds perverse or even pretentious, but the way the rocky outcrops come right down into the town reminds me of the olive groves in Florence and is definitely a pleasing feature. Looking back, behind the town, up the Todd River there was an endless procession of Aborigines moving in both directions between groups sitting in the shade of trees some carrying cartons of beer.

Looking back to Heavitree Gap over Alice Springs

Back at the pool, Susan was sunburnt and Jack was playing with a group of Aboriginal children. Apparently, an Aboriginal boy had asked if Jack would bring his ball into a game. After a while Jack wanted to take the ball back to the pool. The boy had punched him in the mouth and attacked him for being white - not a good introduction to native Australia. Amazingly he had persisted in spite of a thick lip. He is a resilient character.

We went back to the Mall which was closing down and had a cold drink while we discussed the evening's options. There were drunks everywhere. Out of the window I watched an elderly Aboriginal woman driving a completely besotted man away from a group of men with a stick. His head was bleeding so she must have meant business. After a fruitless search for somewhere to have dinner cheaply, we opted for our own pasta at a camping ground. This turned out to be next to the Strehlow Research Foundation and was the closest to town, besides, I was able to negotiate a few dollars off the price($23.00). It is extremely crowded with German backpackers and seems to have a large permanent population who live in caravans.

Earlier, we felt like a bottle of cold beer so I drove into the town centre and found a drive-in pub. The place was mayhem. A fight had broken out at the entrance and a large group of Aborigines were gathered in the darkness where two women were screaming abuse in Aboriginal language. I drove in beside them and acted normal, wondering what would happen. I was totally ignored. When I asked the the man at the bottle shop if this was a normal night. He muttered about his taxes at work and how it was left to him to keep them in order. I then realised that I had not seen any police anywhere.

The overwhelming feeling here is that this is a divided and troubled town. But, of course, these are just impressions. Obviously there are complex and profound observations to be made about what must be extremely complex issues. It fits what I imagine to be Apartheid. The state of the visible Aboriginal population is just appalling. I'm not shocked, but I am disturbed by it. The sheer hopelessness of it - the foreignness - the sadness. Perhaps it is because the numbers of wasted people make it so evident and it would feel more comfortable if it was hidden. I really don't want this to be my responsibility. I feel as though I have come from another era - with no understanding.

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