A buzz of anticipation spread through the train when we began to see signs of development once more. For hours, all we had seen was red earth, low trees, and scrub. Now there were roads and fences, and buildings. On our right the airport came into view. To the left the white domes of the joint Australian-United States communications facility at Pine Gap looked out of place in the reds and greens of the landscape. Ahead, and stretching far to each side, were the rugged red-brown MacDonnell Ranges. The peak of Mount Gillen, its communications towers silhouetted against the bright blue sky, rose slightly above the rest of the range.
A few minutes later the train passed through Heavitree Gap, a break in the hills just wide enough to fit the railway, the highway, and the river. The blare of the train's horn echoed off the hills as we approached a level crossing. We had arrived in Alice Springs.
Buses collected us from the station, and once we were settled in our hostel rooms we had the rest of the day free.
'Hey, let's go for a ride around the town!' Travis was reading a brochure he had picked up from the front desk. 'The hostel has bikes for hire.'
'Yeah, why not?' Brett replied.
'I'm game,' I said. Since we rode so much at home, it seemed the natural thing to do.
A couple of the girls tagged along, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon exploring. We bought ice-creams, and rode the causeway across the dry Todd River—just so we could say we had crossed it—and then took in the 360-degree views from Anzac Hill, a rocky outcrop right in the middle of town.
We were surprised that the town looked so green. In the dry heart of Australia the dominant colour is red. The soil is red, the rocks and hills are red-brown, and some trees even have reddish patches in their bark. The straggly trees and bushes grow wide apart, and spinifex—the most common grass—grows in clumps so that you can always see the soil colour underneath it. Alice Springs, though, has an abundant supply of water and, with lots of trees and lawns, it looks green. It felt like an oasis in the desert.
One of the girls and I came in for heaps of stirring from my friends, especially Travis, who never misses an opportunity to make fun of a situation. The boy is irrepressible. In fact, he sees it as his mission to remind everyone around him that life is too short to take seriously. The cause of his stirring that day was that one of the girls, Zoë, found the road up Anzac Hill too steep to ride. She hopped off her bike and started to walk. I happened to be closest to her, so I got off and walked too so she wouldn't feel left out. Travis and Brett both would have done exactly the same thing, but that didn't stop them teasing Zoë and me relentlessly when we arrived at the top quite a while after they did.
'What kept you? We've been waiting for twenty minutes!'
'Didja get lost?'
Even Clare, Zoë's friend, got into it. 'Stopped for a make-out session, I reckon!' She gave us a searching look, as if she knew something we didn't.
Zoë and I laughed it off, but I had to admit to myself that I had really enjoyed talking with her as we'd pushed our bikes up the road.
After dinner we had a briefing session so our teachers could run through the program for our stay, and hand out rosters for kitchen and cleaning duty. Later we were free to chill out, go swimming in the pool or spend time in the games room. Most of us were tired after the long trip and opted to relax for an hour or two before heading for bed. Somehow Zoë and I drifted together and found a quiet corner where we could sit and talk. After a few minutes Clare joined us.
Travis was disgusted when he found us later. 'You could be playing table tennis with us,' he complained, 'not that you'd win, of course.' He huffed on his knuckles and polished them on his chest. 'What do you guys find to talk about for hours, anyway? It must be a very one-sided convo.'
'Girls can talk, too, you know,' said Clare. She bristled, thinking he was criticising her and Zoë.
Travis smirked. 'Yeah, but Michael can't. He has trouble stringing two syllables together, let alone whole sentences!'
'Hmmm, I see,' said Zoë. 'What's a syllable, Travis?'
'Oh, it's, um, it's a…' his voice trailed off as he pretended he didn't know. Well, I thought he was pretending. Zoë and Clare started to laugh. Travis grabbed Brett's arm and hauled him off, muttering to himself and shaking his head. 'Man, he's got it bad, Brett,' we heard him say as they left the room. 'One conversation with a pretty girl and he's dumped us.' That made the girls laugh harder.
'Is he always like that?' Clare asked. 'I thought he only clowned around at school to keep us amused.'
'That's the way he is,' I said. 'Trav and I have been friends since we were in grade two. He's never been any different—he's always been a real dag.' I spent the next hour telling them stories about some of Travis's many exploits.
I climbed up to my top bunk and, after a round of goodnights, put in earbuds and switched on my MP3 player. I lay down to listen to the music, but I found my mind wandering back over the trip to that point.
We had left Sale early on Saturday morning. A three-hour bus trip took us to Melbourne where we boarded The Overland train, bound for Adelaide. The journey was completed in daylight, so we were able to enjoy the changing landscape as the hours and kilometres flew by.
In Adelaide, by the time we got to our hostel, found our rooms and had dinner, most of us were ready for bed. It had been a long, tiring day. Tiredness didn't prevent Travis from playing practical jokes, though. When I tried to get into bed I found it had been short-sheeted. A few seconds later a couple of the other guys in our room found theirs had been, too.
'What the…?' one of them cried.
I knew the answer immediately. 'Travis!'
That caused a stampede to his bed, where he was trying to look innocent. He ended up on the floor under a pile of bodies, begging for mercy. We let him up eventually, but not until we had plotted revenge. We pushed him out of our room and locked the door. He was forced to wander the corridor in his underwear for half an hour before we took pity on him and let him return. Our teachers, familiar with Travis and his escapades, ignored all his pleas for help and retribution. Eventually things calmed down, and I fell asleep thinking about the next leg of our trip—on the legendary train, The Ghan!
Early the following afternoon I stood on the station platform and gazed along the length of the train. Although The Ghan holds the record for the longest passenger train in Australia—sometimes more than one kilometre—"our" train wasn't a record-breaking one. It was still the longest train I had ever seen, though. There were two red locomotives with their silver camel logo, about thirty silver passenger cars with the logo in red and silver, dining cars, lounge cars, luggage vans, a power van, and a couple of double-deck vehicle carriers. I was full of anticipation. I had been waiting for that moment for a long time, ever since my grandparents had told me amazing tales about their honeymoon trip on the original Ghan in the 1960s. The train has changed and it follows a different route now, but the mystique of the old Ghan has somehow shifted to the new one, and the trip from Adelaide to Alice Springs is still one of the world's great train journeys.
The train's name is a legacy of the Afghan cameleers who transported goods and supplies by camel in the days before the railway was built.
There was a lot of excited chatter as we found our cars and made our way to our seats. Brett and I sat together and Travis was in the row in front of us. Right on time, The Ghan pulled out of Adelaide. In about 24 hours we would arrive in Alice Springs, almost 1600 kilometres away right in the heart of Australia.
We wound our way through suburban Adelaide, past industrial areas, and finally into farmland. We passed through Port Pirie, home to the world's largest lead smelter, and then skirted the northern reaches of Spencer Gulf before arriving at Port Augusta at the head of the gulf.
Port Augusta marks the change from productive land to desert, from closely settled areas to scattered homesteads. When we pulled out after a thirty-minute stop we headed into the never-never; a few kilometres out of town the country turned flat, with low scrubby vegetation and dry salt pans.
That evening we were treated to a spectacular sunset, and later a brilliant display of stars. With the light pollution of cities and towns far away, I discovered what the Milky Way really looks like. It was amazing, and awesome.
It was kind of surreal, speeding smoothly through the baked land in our air-conditioned cocoon, especially after dark. There was a full moon that night and everything around us was bathed in bright silver light, giving the landscape a ghostly look. I drifted off to sleep thinking about re-runs of The Munsters. Or was it The Addams Family? I reckon either would have felt right at home in the eerie atmosphere.
When we woke in the morning the desolate flatness of the evening had given way to rocky hills and jagged gullies covered with low trees and bushes. We sped past the "Iron Man," a sculpture marking the location of the railway's one-millionth sleeper, and across the 450-metre-long bridge over the Finke River. Shortly after that we spotted Chambers Pillar, a tall sandstone column, in the distance off to the east. An hour and a half later we were in Alice Springs.
Tuesday's program included visits to two outback institutions—the flying doctor and the school of the air. We also toured the historic Old Telegraph Station, one of a number of repeaters along the line that provided Australia's first link to the outside world.
The Royal Flying Doctor Service sends medical staff by air to deal with emergencies in remote areas. It provides a "mantle of safety" for the scattered people of the outback who are often days away from medical help. Many people died, or suffered from inadequate treatment, before the service began.
We were able to see the communications centre at work and we heard about the history of the service, as well as its present-day operations. In the museum I was fascinated to see an original pedal wireless. Isolated people needed a reliable way to call for the doctor. The answer was a Morse code transceiver powered by a generator operated by pedals like those on a bike. It not only made contacting the doctor easy, it also allowed the people to talk to each other, relieving their isolation and loneliness.
The Alice Springs School of the Air was another service created to meet an outback need. Children living in remote areas had a difficult choice—leave home to attend boarding school or stay at home and enrol in correspondence school. Either way, they were disadvantaged—separated from their families on one hand or deprived of interaction with teachers and other students on the other.
These children were all taught to use the flying doctor service's radio network, so the school took advantage of this and made it possible for teachers to communicate with their students. The radio also provided social "visits" for children who lacked contact with others their age.
Today the Alice Springs school is one of sixteen in Australia. It has about 120 students living in an area of one million square kilometres, and the most distant student is more than 1000 kilometres out of town. Two-way satellite communication and computers have replaced radios, so students are able to see and hear their teachers as well as speak and listen to their classmates. During our tour we were able to watch a session in progress.
It was all fascinating stuff, but I was a bit overwhelmed. I went outside and leaned against a wall, deep in thought. I was born and lived in a place where all the things I needed—friends, school, shops, sports facilities, restaurants, cinema and even the beach—were close at hand. I could reach most places quickly on my bike. I didn't need a two-way radio to call for a flying doctor; I lived just around the corner from the hospital, for goodness' sake. People in the outback could be hundreds of kilometres from everything. One story we heard was of a family who lived on a cattle station along the Tanami Track, over 700km from Alice Springs. In the 1960s a "good" trip to town took one and a half days; a "bad" one could take six days, and during The Wet they might be completely cut off for weeks. Even today, with phones, TV, satellite communication, and air travel, they are still isolated. I just couldn't comprehend how kids of fifty and a hundred years ago coped. I guess you don't miss what you never had, but it must have been really hard for them. They just didn't have a lot of the things I considered normal. What must it have been like for a twelve-year-old to go off to Adelaide or Melbourne to attend boarding school? They must have suffered culture shock!
'Michael! Earth to Michael!'
I jumped. Zoë had startled me.
She laughed. 'Where were you? Mars? I've been talking to you for, like, ten minutes.'
'Really? That long?'
She laughed again. 'No, but it felt like it. I thought you'd gone into hibernation or something.'
It was my turn to laugh. 'Oh, I'm sorry, Zoë. I tend to wander off in a world of my own, and not notice anything around me. The guys are used to it. Travis stirs me about it all the time.'
'What were you thinking about?'
'Oh, I just can't get over the distances out here—the vastness, and the emptiness. I was thinking about how I take for granted a lot of things kids out here don't have at all. One of those kids lives a thousand kilometres from the school…a thousand kilometres! That's halfway back home to Sale! It just seems incredible. What must it have been like before the flying doctor and the school of the air…and the train? It's only—what—77 years since the flying doctor began, and the railway was a year later. And the school didn't start until the 1950s!'
I took a deep breath and tried to calm down. I'm really intense when I get excited about something. 'Sorry, Zoë,' I sighed. 'I'm getting wound up here.'
She smiled, stood in front of me, and put her hands on my waist. 'Hey, I don't mind. I like deep thinkers; they're so much more interesting than…than…'
She paused, searching for the right word.
'Shallow thinkers?' I asked, with a grin.
She giggled. 'Yeah, that'll work.'
We both laughed at that.
'Well, I don't know about deep, but guess I am a thinker.'
'Yeah…and I like it!'
She was looking at me intently as she spoke. The look in her eyes—and her words—melted my heart. I wanted to kiss her. I think she wanted to kiss me, too. It was like someone had waved a magic wand and Zoë and I were alone in the world.
Then the door burst open. 'Hey, Zoë, have you seen— oh, no! They're at it again!' Travis, in his inimitable style, reminded us that we weren't alone at all.
Brett followed him out the door. 'Ah, there you are. Come on, you two. We're supposed to be walking to the telegraph station. Everyone's been looking for you.'
They shooed us out into the street. Zoë and I looked at each other and laughed as Travis muttered to Brett, 'We're gonna need to keep an eye on them tonight. We have to leave for Uluru early in the morning.'
'Man, I'm tired!'
We straggled off the buses at our hostel after a three-day excursion to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and Kings Canyon. It had been an amazing three days.
There was a chorus of wows and whoas when we first saw the enormous bulk of Uluru rising out of the plain. It was probably 20 kilometres ahead and loomed larger and larger as we approached along the highway. But if that was awesome, we were completely blown away later when we stood at the foot of the great rock. It's hard to describe just how huge it is; it towers nearly 350 metres above its surroundings, and it's more than nine kilometres around at the base.
Uluru is a sacred place for the local Aboriginal people, with many culturally significant sites on and around the rock. We were all fascinated as our tour guide told us about Uluru's history and its traditional owners and their culture. We visited their caves and waterholes, and tried to imagine how they lived. We saw their paintings and heard some of their Dreamtime stories. We learned about bush tucker, how to light a fire the Aboriginal way, and how to throw a spear using a woomera.
We capped off our day watching the colour of Uluru changing in the light of the setting sun. The different colours are caused by the filtering effect of the earth's atmosphere changing as the sun dips towards the horizon. We watched, in awe of nature, as the colour changed from brown to orange to dark red to bright red, until, just before the light faded completely, the whole huge rock seemed to glow like hot steel. The most beautiful creation of an artist or an architect couldn't hold a candle to that! It was magical, and the whispered conversations and dozens of pairs of eyes all trained in the one direction showed that it was a special experience for everyone there. This half-hour alone was worth the long trip from Alice Springs.
I'd had a great day. Seeing The Rock was a truly awesome experience, but the day was special for another reason—the growing friendship between Zoë and me. She had hardly left my side all afternoon, and as we stood together watching the sun set on Uluru, she took my hand and laced her fingers through mine. My heart jumped, and a nice shiver ran down my spine. Her hand felt soft and warm, and I found myself hoping that it could stay there for the rest of my life. I'd never had a girlfriend—in fact I'd never really had any friends who were girls—and this was a new, but very pleasurable, experience.
I went to sleep that night thinking of Zoë.
The following day we visited Kata Tjuta, a group of monoliths further to the west. These rocks have great significance for Aboriginal people, too, and the engravings there were interesting. Somehow, though, I was more impressed by Uluru; perhaps because it is just one big lump of rock, while Kata Tjuta is many smaller ones. Or perhaps because it was while we were watching the sun set on Uluru that I discovered that Zoë really liked me.
In the afternoon we said goodbye to the national park and headed for Kings Canyon. That was full of surprises. It is surrounded by desert, but its steep walls hide pockets of tropical palms, ferns and cycads, sheltering them from the harsh conditions outside.
There was a walking trail around the top of the canyon. The five of us—Brett, Travis, Clare, Zoë and me—set off to take in the sights. At one point, standing on a shelf of rock jutting out from the canyon rim, with the red rock of the opposite wall in front of us, we looked down into lush green vegetation and permanent waterholes.
'Wow! Those old Aboriginals knew how to pick a home site, eh?' Travis quipped.
He was standing right at the edge of the shelf—but that was Travis; he was game as Ned Kelly and liked to live life on the edge. I didn't. Going close and looking over once in a while was fine with me. I wasn't really afraid of heights, but getting too close to any edge always reminded me that there was a nasty sudden stop at the bottom if I fell. In this case the drop was one hundred metres. Straight down, with nothing to break the fall.
'Trav! For goodness' sake get away from the edge. I don't want to have to scrape you off those rocks down there!'
Brett took him by the arm. 'Come on, mate, before Michael freaks out.' He gently pulled Travis back.
'Ah, Mikey, you're a wuss sometimes. But I still love ya!' He gave me a typical Travis grin, daring me to react.
I did. I punched him on the arm. 'Don't scare me like that! You had Zoë worried too.'
It was true. She had such a tight grip on my arm my fingers were beginning to tingle from lack of blood. She suddenly realised how hard she had been holding me.
'Oh, Michael, I'm so sorry. I hate heights…and this is definitely a height!' She let go, and I shook my hand to get the blood flowing again.
Brett and Travis cracked up, pointing to the red marks Zoë's fingers had left on my arm. Clare joined in after she had a closer look.
'Zoë,' she managed to gasp between laughs, 'If Michael ever gets bitten by a snake he won't need a compression bandage!'
The idea of Zoë as a human snakebite treatment was so funny I couldn't help laughing along with them, and then Zoë started, too. Knowing she could see the funny side of it and laugh at herself calmed me. I hadn't finished with Travis, though. I tried to glare at him. 'You did that on purpose, didn't you? You knew I'd freak out.' I hit him again.
He yelped, and pretended to be hurt, but his grin gave the game away, and I was laughing too. 'Bummer!' he said, 'That's the trouble with smart people. They always catch on too quickly.' Almost in the same breath he added, 'I'm hungry. It must be dinner time.'
It was quite cool after the sun went down, and we sat around a campfire telling yarns. The moon was still bright, so there was just enough light for us all to see each other; it was like each person who got up to speak was in the spotlight. It was a very entertaining evening, but for me the highlight was sitting with Zoë snuggled up to my side with my arm around her.
The next morning we had a couple of hours to explore the canyon, then we had to leave so that we would arrive back in Alice in time for dinner. It takes a lot to wear down a lively pack of teenagers—each seemingly feeding off the others' adrenaline—but all the walking combined with more than twelve hours' driving had done it. After tea most of us were too tired to do more than sit around talking quietly. Some of the kids phoned home or caught up on emails and a few found enough energy to play table tennis. The rest of us were ready for bed. Even Travis was quiet for a change. I went to sleep deliriously happy; I'd just had my first kiss.
Saturday dawned bright and sunny, like every other day since we had arrived in Alice Springs.
That day I felt different, though. I'd received a goodnight kiss from a beautiful girl. My girlfriend. My girlfriend! Wow, that sounded good, even if I hadn't spoken it aloud. I had to tell someone!
I didn't need to tell Brett and Travis. They could tell that something had happened, and they guessed what it was—and then started stirring. Gee, they could be tiresome! The Most Important Event in my life and all they could do was tease me. I retaliated the only way I could. 'You're just jealous!'
Finally they let up, and I escaped and found a phone and called home.
'MUMI'VEGOTAGIRLFRIEND!' I was shouting in a whisper, if that's possible. I was shouting because I was excited, but whispering because I didn't want to make a fool of myself in front of the other kids—like every other teenager, I had an image to preserve!
Mum didn't reply. Instead, I heard her call for Dad. 'There's some loony on the phone shouting at me quietly, and I can't understand a word he's saying.'
'Oh, is that you, Michael?'
I sighed. 'Yes, Mum.'
'Okay, I've put the speakerphone on. Can you say that again so Dad can hear it?'
She must have leaned right down to the microphone. She whispered, but it was as if she was right inside my ear. 'That you have a girlfriend!'
'MUM!' I realised she had been winding me up. 'Man, I've had enough grief from Trav and Brett, without you starting too!'
She laughed. 'Go on—tell him!'
I spent the next half an hour feeding coins into the payphone. Mum and Dad wanted to know all about Zoë and how we'd got together. Oh, and I had to tell them where we had been and what we'd seen, too.
After breakfast we all headed out to join the crowds at the Henley-on-Todd regatta.
The Todd River "runs" right alongside the business centre of Alice Springs. It's normally dry, like the sense of humour of the Centralians who began the annual event. The fact that the river hardly ever holds water didn't deter them—in fact the regatta had to be cancelled one year because it rained and the river actually had water in it.
The "boats" in the races were bottomless frames, powered by crews running inside. There were heaps of events but the funniest was the one in which teams of men carried ladies in bathtubs. For me, the highlight was the last event of the day. Three four-wheel-drive vehicles, disguised as "battle boats," churned along the course firing flour mortars and water cannons at anything and everything—including spectators. Our whole group fell about laughing when Travis ended up soaking wet and covered in flour. He wore it as a badge of honour, even though he had to walk through town to get back to the hostel to change. I was never able to confirm it, but I suspected that someone had a quiet word with the captains of the battle boats, and marked Travis as a special target. No one else I saw was so thoroughly wet or so completely covered in flour.
We spent ages reliving that day. It had been a blast. It was also Clare's birthday, so we had a special dinner, complete with cake and sixteen candles, in her honour.
Sunday was a free day, which everyone appreciated. Most of us spent the day just relaxing and hanging out in small groups. Zoë and I managed to find time to be together away from the others. We spent that time talking, getting to know each other better. We were amazed at how much we had in common. The rest of the day we spent with Clare, Travis and Brett and had a thoroughly enjoyable time. It was obvious that the others were thinking of Zoë and me as a couple, and that was really neat. I was pleased that Travis and Brett weren't put out because Zoë's presence had suddenly altered the dynamics of our friendship. In fact they both told me quietly that they "approved" of my choice of girlfriend. I wasn't too sure about the choosing part—it was more like Zoë had chosen me—but it was reassuring to know they were happy.
On Monday we had an early breakfast and took a bike tour to Simpsons Gap. The hills surrounding the town looked softer in the early morning light and the quiet of the bush was broken only by the chattering of the many birds. We rode along through river red gums, bushes and wildflowers. We even saw a couple of wallabies and a few lizards. We had all morning, and there was plenty to stop and look at, so no one was in a hurry. We had lunch at Simpsons Gap and spent time exploring before buses took us back to the hostel.
In the evening we attended a performance of Sounds of Starlight, a musical "journey" through the outback. It featured the didgeridoo but included modern instruments, as well as jokes and stories and spectacular images of Central Australia. It was incredible, even taking my attention away from Zoë, which prompted more teasing from the others.
We were allowed to sleep a bit later on Tuesday. We all cheered when that was announced. After all, we were teens and we needed our sleep! The teachers just rolled their eyes and muttered to each other. They told us they would prepare breakfast, and it would be ready at eight-thirty. If we weren't on time we'd go hungry because we needed to be at Alice Springs Desert Park by mid-morning.
The park was amazing. I had always thought deserts were barren and nothing lived in them. Boy was I wrong! I couldn't believe the number and variety of plants and animals that make their home in such a dry environment. Each is perfectly suited to the conditions and has its own role to play in the ecosystem. Guides gave a running commentary as they showed us around. We learned about Aboriginal culture, food and crafts. We saw rare nocturnal animals and we watched wedge-tailed eagles and other birds of prey in action. I think we all left with a new appreciation for the desert and a new admiration for the Aboriginal people and the way they love and care for their land.
That evening we had a camel ride, and what an experience that was! Getting on wasn't too hard, since the camels folded their legs and sank to the ground. The lurching as they stood up was a bit like being on a roller-coaster, and the ride was something else. I made a new discovery—camels don't move like other four-legged animals. Horses and cows, for instance, move their diagonally opposite feet together, which produces a smooth forward motion. Camels, on the other hand, move the two feet on the same side together, which results in a rolling, pitching ride. It was weird, but fun. I don't think I'd ever want a camel for a pet though; I really didn't like the way my camel looked at me out of the corner of its eye. It gnashed its teeth, too, and that sent a shiver down my spine.
The end of our trip was fast approaching. On Wednesday we split into two groups for the remaining three days. One group stayed in town and made day trips to national parks and historic sites, while the other took a three-day excursion into the desert to study some of Central Australia's unique plant and animal life and visit historic sites and conservation areas.
We had been allowed to choose a group and Travis, Brett and I had put our names down for the desert. We had loved exploring the area around home, so this seemed right up our alley. I was relieved to find that Zoë and Clare were also on that trip; I'd feared that we were going to be separated. Three days without Zoë…I couldn't bear the thought!
The desert trip was a load of fun, leaving us with awesome experiences and a host of memories to take home. Tom, our Aboriginal tour leader, was amazing. He somehow kept us interested and entertained, and at the same time managed to educate us.
Our first stop was the art centre at Santa Teresa Aboriginal community. It was fascinating. As well as the usual "dot" paintings there were all kinds of other art and crafts. We met a couple of the artists and were able to watch them at work.
It was nearly 240 kilometres by rough four-wheel-drive track from there to Old Andado station, our overnight stop. It felt like we had really plunged into the never-never; there was nothing but the desert's amazing colours, vegetation—mostly spinifex and gidgee, and terrain-mountains, gibber plains, sand dunes and floodplains. The expression "back of beyond" took on a new meaning. We managed to spot several indigenous bird species, including the letter-winged kite, a variety of raptor, and detoured to a conservation reserve to see a stand of waddy trees, a rare species of acacia found in only three spots in Australia. We arrived at our camp late in the afternoon.
Old Andado homestead is located between two high red sand ridges and the land around it looks barren and dry. The heritage-listed buildings are interesting for both their design and the materials used. The house is part mud brick and part timber and corrugated iron. The saddle room, which leans every which way and seems to defy gravity, is built of logs and has a thatched grass roof. Its veranda dips so low we had to stoop to walk under it. The meat house is built of timber slabs with a wide, low veranda all the way around. It also has a thatched grass roof. The homestead has some original 1950s furniture, and the girls were fascinated by the black wood-burning stove and old-style dressers in the kitchen.
After dinner we went spotlighting, hoping to see some of the local nocturnal animals. The plains rats must have received advance notice of our arrival, for they were nowhere to be found. We were disappointed. These small, rather cute rodents, are a threatened species; seeing one would have been a special treat. I was amused by their scientific name, pseudomys australis. Were they lurking somewhere using an assumed name? We did find a colony of mulgara. These tiny mammals are anything but cute. They live in burrows in the sand dunes to escape the heat, and usually only come out at night. We nearly missed "our" family because they were almost the same colour as the dunes. An interesting attribute of the mulgara is that it is believed to obtain all the water it needs from its prey—small rodents (perhaps that's where the plains rats went), reptiles and spiders.
We returned to camp and finished the evening sitting around a campfire talking and singing. Brett had his guitar and talked us into holding an impromptu talent quest, which was won by Tom, our tour leader. Zoë sat between my legs and leaned back against my chest, and I wrapped my arms around her. She was warm and cuddly and I leaned around and kissed her. She returned the kiss and we drifted off into our own world until a loud 'Ahem!' from one of the teachers caught our attention. I was glad the firelight was providing the only light because I felt myself blushing furiously when all the other kids started whistling and making kissy noises.
Night falls quickly in Central Australia, but dawn breaks early. And bright. And cold. There were groans all around when we were woken at 7:00 am to get the tents down and packed, but we cheered up when we found hot tea and damper waiting for us.
We headed south into the sand ridges of the Simpson Desert, searching for more local wildlife. We managed to see a couple of canegrass dragons and some eyrean grasswrens. The dragons, with their light-coloured stripes and long legs, were pretty good-looking for lizards. It seemed really special to see the grasswrens because they had been thought extinct until 1976, although Tom said they were fairly common in a good season. These pretty brown-and-white birds shelter in the clumps of bluish-green canegrass common in the area. One of them ran off when we disturbed it—at such a high speed that its feet hardly seemed to touch the ground. We caught sight of a gibberbird, too. Tom told us we were privileged to see one of these because they are shy and reclusive.
We crossed into South Australia and set up camp at Mount Dare homestead. Dinner included kangaroo-tail soup and witchetty grubs as well as kangaroo steaks with roast veggies, and damper for dessert. That night was cooler than usual and most of us headed for the warmth of our sleeping bags after a chat around the campfire.
Our final day in the desert dawned bright, clear and frosty. We were grateful to have the work of breaking camp because it helped us get warm. By mid-morning the chill had gone and it was a very pleasant 25°C.
After visiting a couple of historic sites and a conservation project, our final stop was at the Lambert Centre, the geographical centre of Australia. Then it was 'go west, young man' to the highway and a "short" three-hour drive back to Alice.
That evening was spent catching up with the other group and swapping stories. We all chipped in and bought thank-you gifts for our teachers. Some of us went for a final wander around the town centre. In the time we had been in Alice Springs I'd heard several people say that it reminded them of Sale. It did me, too. I don't know what it was—perhaps the flatness, or the layout. It was bigger than Sale, but somehow it seemed familiar.
Saturday morning we packed and headed for the airport. We were in Melbourne by lunchtime. Our buses were waiting, and by late afternoon we were back in Sale. It was good to be home, but I think most of us had the feeling we'd left another home in Central Australia.
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