It’s still pouring in the morning as we pack; we’re getting booted from the apartment at 10AM but the flight out isn’t until three in the afternoon, and I have this vision of the four of us at a wet table surrounded by our luggage and everybody else waiting for the three o’clock. Cindy calls Qantas to see if there’s an earlier flight. She’s disconnected twice before stomping off in frustration. I take over the phone, and somehow manage to get us on a flight that’s leaving in… we gotta go now. Our bus pulls up to the little airport and I wait for the luggage as Eric cuts through the throng of tourists to work his magic on the desk attendants. He gets us into the first class line with about a minute to spare and shortly we’re on a Dash-8, buzzing above the soggy red-and-green landscape, headed North to Alice Springs.
“The Alice” is the largest town in the Red Centre and was originally a telegraph station, stocked with supplies once a year by camel train. These days it’s home to about 20,000 people, including maybe 3,000 Americans maintaining the top-secret Pine Gap communications base nearby.
The sun’s back out, and we cast hard shadows on the tarmac as we walk from the plane to the terminal. Our luggage has been checked through to Adelaide but we’ve got a ton of carry-on items; this is a much bigger airport than the one by the Rock but it has no lockers. This is a drag, as we’re headed into town to check out Alice during our layover, and the bags are cramping our style. We pile into a station-wagon taxi, and the driver tells us to be sure to take pictures of the Todd River, which runs alongside the downtown area. Sure enough, the muddy Todd is rolling over the low road bridges, and the local Aborigines are wading through the current and hanging out on the grassy banks. We pass the low-rise downtown area and pile out at the Todd Tavern, at the end of the pedestrian mall and the spot where they filmed “A Town Called Alice.” We want to explore a little before we start drinking again. Our backpacks are heavy and cumbersome, and none of us fishes out a camera takes a picture of the overflowing Todd.
- The Todd is a “dry river”, and flows only once every ten years or so. We won’t find this out for a few days.
The pedestrian mall is an open plaza crowded with pubs, Aboriginal art shops and photo supply stores. I cling to the shade by the buildings. The four of us linger in the art shops and buy small items for gifts and decorations – little dot paintings for the office, crafted boomerangs and percussion sticks. Most of the restaurants are open-air, but mercifully one is air-conditioned and we kill an hour or so, not rushing the peculiar Australian table service.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service has been around since the early years of aviation, providing emergency medical attention for the farmers on the remote cattle stations in central and western Australia. The headquarters and museum is in a one-story rambler on a tree-lined street south of the mall, and with about an hour to work with I strike off across town under the harsh summer sun. Tours are on the half-hour and the next one doesn’t quite fit my schedule, but I come from a family of pilots and doctors so I do my part by loading up on t-shirts and bumper stickers (“Keep the Flying Doctor flying”).
Mainly this has been an excuse to dump my backpack off on Melanie for a while. Score.
I find the landing party back at the , draining pints and playing cards on a giant barrel that’s been converted to a table. The air is still and humid, and I order a pint of mid-strength; the mug drips with condensation. This day is the 20th anniversary of Australian hero Bon Scott choking on his own vomit in the back seat of a car, and the jukebox belts out a string of AC/DC classics – Whole Lotta Rosie and TNT and then inexplicably a bunch of Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes.
There’s a bit of trepidation in the group. When we land in Adelaide we’ll be picking up a rental car, and this will be the first time any of us has driven on the left-hand side of the road. Melanie’s already offered to drive us into town. I order another pint. I want to be sure I’m in no condition to take the wheel when we get to Adelaide.
Daylight Savings Insanity
Daylight Savings Time is handy in areas that can benefit from a little extra summer sun over the course of the working day. Desert dwellers don’t mind putting off sunrise, and hotter regions tend to pass on DST. Time zones run north-south. Washington DC is due north of Miami. Washington DC and Miami are in the same time zone. This is how a normal country manages the clock. Never mind that some countries (read Canada) may bump the clocks in half-hour increments; head east and you set your clock ahead, head south and you don’t.
Our 737 is en route from Alice Springs to Adelaide. Adelaide is south (and a little bit east) of Alice Springs, but not nearly as far as Ayers Rock is from Sydney. Yet according to the departure and arrival times on the ticket, the flight lasts the same three hours. We ask a flight attendant about the flying time. The flight attendant is an Australian. She’s puzzled by the numbers. She disappears for a while. Apparently the pilot is the only one on the plane who can do the DST math – the Northern Territories do not recognize Daylight Savings Time, while South Australia (along with the Southeast states) does, and we need to set our watches ahead an hour. On this southbound flight.
I guess it’s eight o’clock as we land among the low green hills outside Adelaide; darkness is falling quickly and the cloudy skies are a deep purple. Eric and I wrestle the luggage into a giant pile on a single cart as Melanie and Cindy handle the rental car reservations. It’s dark now and raining softly as we wheel the cart out to the blue Ford Falcon station wagon.
- Pretty much every car in Australia, no matter what it looks like, is some kind of Ford Falcon.
As promised, Melanie takes the wheel – on the right-hand side of the car. Even the turn-signal stick is on the opposite side, swapped with the washer control. There’s a sticker on the windshield with a giant arrow pointing to the left – stay on the left side of the road if you want to live. The car is packed solid with all of our bags. We back out very slowly.
I’m riding shotgun, in the left-hand front seat. It’s like being 15 again, watching an adult drive, trying to plot exactly which lane to aim for in the newly-treacherous right-hand turns. Melanie tries to signal a turn and the wipers switch to high speed – it’s the other stick. We pass through Adelaide proper, a gray, British-looking city. Our bed & breakfast is on the north side of town, across the River Torrens, and we find it quickly. There’s even a parking spot right out front, and we immediatley discover the worst aspect of driving on the left: parallel parking on the left. This is absolutely impossible, what with the bulk of the car to the left of the driver… just forget it. Melanie eases the car to an empty corner up the street and we shuttle the bags down to the apartment door, then I help her navigate through the narrow one-way residential streets back around to the B&B. There’s that parking spot again, but we’re in a river of headlights, and panic grips both of us. We overshoot, run out of side streets and find ourselves on a wide boulevard circling northwest around a wide cricket field and away from town. No side streets. Terror sets in. I look back, shout “clear!” and Melanie yanks the wheel to the right, executing a graceful four-lane u-turn. When we return to where we started Eric is standing in the street, saving two parking spots. We need all the space Adelaide can offer. Ten minutes later the car is wedged firmly against the left-hand curb, and we walk trembling to the our little shotgun apartment.
The is a charming little restored one-story brick apartment at the end of a row of four townhouses, grapevines clinging to the low roof. Ancient wooden door and floors, with old wooden furniture and halogen lamps sunk into the peach-colored plaster. Eric and Cindy take the suite in the back half of the house, and we settle into the front with its living room, glass-block bathroom and kitchenette. It’s still warm and humid from the day but there’s no air conditioning as such, just a fan control which turns the entire building into a spooky moaning wind tunnel. There’s a Mexican restaurant right next door. It’s time for margaritas.
Let’s just say North Adelaide is margarita-challenged. The Mexican place does okay with the tequila, but it’s closing up so we head down the block in the light drizzle to a bustling corner bar. We find a table under a corner of the awning and Eric heads in to order a few more margaritas. He’s gone for a while. Melanie goes inside. She’s gone for a while. I can see them in there, and after about ten minutes I head in to provide backup. Eric’s given up on margaritas entirely and ordered a handful of Lemon Ruskis; Melanie’s got a blank look on her face and three salt-rimmed martini glasses filled with cloudy liquor. The bartender speaks English, but apparently margaritas are a totally foreign concept. The drinks are strangely smoky, almost as if someone poured in lighter fluid and burned it off. Just as I get accustomed to the taste I find a little salt lake at the bottom of the glass. We all switch to Lemon Ruskis.
The next day dawns gray; the wind-tunnel effect has cooled the room considerably, to the point that there’s condensation on the plaster walls. It’s a Sunday, and we decide to pass on the popular Barossa Valley wine country in favor of a tour of the less-touristy Clare Valley about two hours’ drive north of town.
- In retrospect, the Barossa Valley looks pretty interesting.
Melanie’s at the wheel again, and we pass mile after mile of shopping centers and car lots. The strip malls give way to rolling yellow-green countryside crossed with stands of eucalyptus and dotted with sheep. Mile upon mile of eucalyptus and sheep.
The town of Mintaro is little more than a crossroads; the lunch menu at Reilly’s vineyard is alluring, but it’s the off-season here, and the kitchen’s closed until March. Where is everybody? We expected Napa Valley-style traffic backups, but the narrow roads are deserted. The Jesuits at Sevenhill are closed for business on Sunday. Pauletts is open (but empty) and we buy a few well-priced bottles of red. We cut through the hills between the main roads, watching for the elusive kangaroo. Apparently everybody’s at , with its picturesque rolling hillside view and highly-rated restaurant. We pause to buy a few more bottles and soak up the fertile scene, but there’s a mining town to explore and I need to get a feel for this left-hand driving thing. I take the wheel, ease us out of the lot, signal a right-hand turn and accidentally engage the windshield wipers.
Burra gets a full page of glowing prose in the guide book, so we rumble east on gravel roads over the low hills to Route 32 north. This would be a great time for some of those minidiscs I put together, but the player’s inoperable and I get more and more steamed over my little topless beach mishap the farther I drive. The low hills box in the horizon in all directions; the yellow grass flows up and over the shallow ridges. Yellow everywhere. By the time we reach Burra we’ve about had enough. It’s the biggest town we’ve seen on this little road trip, with at least a few streets of activity off of the main road, but barring any major attraction we won’t be stopping the car for long. There’s a historic road beneath a statue of a happy miner perched on a 50-foot post. The road leads up to a view of the mine shafts and dilapidated engine houses, with a pool of unnatural water that changes from green to blue as the clouds pass.
Melanie and I check out the panorama and the little plaques pointing out the crumbling wheelhouses and mine equipment. Eric and Cindy never leave the car. We drive south in silence.
The silence is broken by Melanie as I attempt to pass a car on the right. Hey man, things looked clear from my side. I just about clipped the dude’s mirror.
I flip through the phone book at the apartment looking for electronics shops – maybe in the morning I can make some frantic calls trying to find the best price on a minidisc player, and then rush out and back before we have to load the car for the first leg of our drive to Melbourne. We take a cab in the gathering dusk to Rundle Street, the active section of Adelaide on the other side of the river. The west end of Rundle Street has a lot of restaurant action, along with a surprising number of shoe stores open late on a Sunday. We choose an Indian restaurant and grab a table on the sidewalk under an umbrella; it starts to drizzle again soon after we sit. I spot a Sony sign down the street and bolt to the store – they want $A390 for a basic minidisc player?! I return to my meal in sullen silence. That’s $US260 for a player that won’t record, and I only paid $US200 for my recording unit. I’m not sure I want to know how much the recorders cost. Now there’s all that time I invested in recording discs for the road trip, so I need a player, but if I don’t get a recorder I’ll still have to get a recorder-player when I get back to the states, and then maybe some kind of freak power adapter for my Australian unit that won’t recharge on US current, but I don’t have time to research the models… oof. Gimme another Lemon Ruski.
As we pay our check a tall blonde girl in motorcycle gear leans over from the next table and asks us where we’re from. Turns out she’s from Columbia Maryland, where I work, and she’s been working in Australia as an energy consultant for the past year. She’d originally planned to take a year off to travel the world, but the Australians made her an offer she couldn’t refuse, so she’s been living large at the Hyatt on the company dime and biking between Adelaide and Melbourne on the weekends. This is too much for the ladies in the landing party, whose neck hairs stand on end in envy. As we head down the street to the pedestrian mall she makes one recommendation, that we stop in the little seaside town of Robe on our way to Melbourne.