Friday, August 28, 2009

Never Miiiiind….

Have you ever gotten the words wrong to a song? Of course you have. Everyone has. There are web sites dedicated to this phenomenon, the best of which is called “Kiss This Guy,” after a mis-hearing of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”

So maybe a better question is, have you ever gotten the words wrong to a song…and liked your version better?

This happened to me with the Paul Kelly song I mentioned yesterday, “Careless.” Alert readers will probably have already guessed why I had no luck Googling the line, “How many cats in New York City?” I couldn’t find the line in any lyric database because the question is actually, “How many CABS in New York City?” I’ve been humming this wrong for the better part of two decades.

Paul Kelly is generally regarded as the closest thing Australia has to a poet laureate, and rightly so. He’s a master storyteller, and a brilliant songwriter. The collection I picked up in Australia, Songs from the South, has been in my car CD player for weeks now.

But, come on. Cabs? Really? Don’t you think the question of how many cats there are in New York is a lot more interesting? Taxis are regulated—someone somewhere must know the answer to that question. But how many cats…? I mean, how would you even count them all? My version really gives you something to think on.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Australia Is Not Done Surprising Me

As I mentioned before, Australian music had a lot to do with my interest in going to the country. I can trace much of this interest back to my favorite radio station ever, The River, WRSI 93.9, in Northampton, MA.

I accepted this station into my life in my late teens, when I was ready to graduate from top-40 radio to something more grown-up. The literate, melodic pop they were playing, heavy on singer-songwriters, filled a Tracy Chapman-sized hole in my heart that I hadn’t even realized was there.

Really only two quirks have ever kept this station from being the best radio station in the whole world. One is the fact that back in the day, the DJs didn’t always treat the vinyl as carefully as they might have. They also had a tendency to wander away from their posts, leading to a general belief in the Pioneer Valley that ’RSI, as we called the station, stood for “Records Skip Incessantly.”

The other quirk, which has continued into the compact disc era, is that their DJs have always been sparing about providing artist information after playing a song. This has led to all kinds of confusion on my part. For months after I started hearing them, I thought the Indigo Girls’s early songs were performed by Lucinda Williams, and I only got to know one of my favorite Australian groups, The Waifs, because I called the station and demanded they tell me who had performed that great song about the waitress.

With the advent of the Internet, this lack of attribution isn’t such a huge problem anymore either, but some songs are stubbornly hard to track down. I’m thinking of one song in particular, dating from the late 1980s. I knew that a man sang it, and I remembered that the song opened with an intriguing set of rhetorical questions, each unanswerable in its own way. Years after I’d last heard it, I tried Googling the opening lines, but so little came up that I began to worry I’d invented the whole thing.

This worry persisted until after I got home from Australia. A few weeks after my return, I finally got around to listening to one of the CDs I’d bought, a two-disc collection of Paul Kelly’s greatest hits. This purchase had been a little bit of a gamble. WRSI used to play a few of Paul Kelly’s songs, and I’d always liked them, but I worried that he couldn’t possibly have two hours’ worth of strong material.

I shouldn’t have worried. The album is great. The first disc is so good that each song left me wondering how the next one could top it. So I was completely unprepared for the excellent song “Sweet Guy” to segue into the opening lines of "Careless":

How many cats in New York City?
How many angels on a pin?
How many notes on a saxophone?
How many tears in a bottle of gin?

I know travel can be educational, but who knew that a visit to a Sydney music shop could clear up a 20-year-old mystery?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Goodbye to Oz

On our last morning in Australia, I woke up early to the sound of pounding rain. By the time dawn would normally be breaking, the rain had stopped, but I could see that it was still misty and overcast outside, with red mud puddles everywhere.

Pipi and I were in the hotel lobby before it was fully light because, having had so much fun riding camels in Alice Springs, we’d decided to go for an early morning ride at Uluru. When the tour operator showed up, though, he had bad news: Camels, he said, get “very silly” in the rain, and the ride would have to be cancelled. I said I’d pay good money to see a camel act silly, but he insisted that silly camels are not safe to ride. So we had a free morning before starting our trip home at around lunchtime.

We had one last hot Aussie brekkie at the hotel and took the first shuttle to the Uluru Cultural Center, which had a lot of good exhibits about the Anangu people, including an interesting explanation of how the local people managed to regain some control of their land. The Cultural Center was a few miles away from Uluru, and all morning we were treated to what I think is an unusual sight, which is that of the rock half shrouded in low clouds that made it look perfectly flat-topped.

When we were done with the Cultural Center, we made our way to a shuttle stop. Waiting for the bus, I felt a strong pang of sadness because I knew that at this point, our trip was essentially over. We were still standing on red Australian soil, but we were done having Australian experiences. From this moment on, our very long day would be dedicated to the logistical details of getting out of the country.

This shuttle would take us back to our hotel, where we would pack and catch another shuttle that would take us to the tiny Ayers Rock airport. From there we’d get on a two-and-a-half hour flight to Sydney, where we might catch an aerial glimpse of the Opera House, or Bondi Beach, or one of the neighborhoods we’d explored three weeks earlier. But we’d be stuck in international travel limbo, and they’d be out of reach, on the other side of doors marked “Security,” and “Passport Control.” Soon our Australia would be the size of an airport departure lounge.

There were five or six of us on the bus back to the Ayers Rock Resort, and I noticed that none of us could take our eyes off Uluru, visible in the distance through the back window, and getting smaller by the moment. I wondered if everyone, like me, was trying to savor the last sweet crumbs of what had once been a towering three-week slice of vacation. It certainly seemed that way as we all bounced around the mostly empty bus, constantly changing seats to try to get the best last look possible of the rock formerly known as Ayers.

Still feeling a little melancholy at the airport, I started thinking about how few people live in this part of the world, and realized that hardly anyone on the flight would be leaving home; that the majority of people in the airport were, like us, heading back to where they belong. How many of them would be following Pipi and me all the way, from Uluru to Sydney to Honolulu and finally to San Francisco?

It would be easy enough to tell, if I really wanted to know. I would just have to look at my fellow travelers’ shoes. Mine, I realized just before boarding, were covered in the red dirt of Central Australia. Everyone’s were. Anybody who’d literally set foot outside on this muddy morning had ochre splotches on their footwear.

Normally stained shoes might bother me, but in this case, I liked the idea that my sneakers would always be marked by this trip. (I lack the courage to commit to a tattoo, but if my shoes want to bring back a souvenir of their travels, I have no problem with that.)

Ayers Rock Airport is truly tiny, with only two gates, each of which is a glass door opening directly onto the tarmac. There are no jetways—you just walk out the door and climb the stairs to your plane. I don’t think it would be hard to get on the wrong one. The food court consisted of exactly one restaurant. I bought the last two sandwiches in the whole airport for Pipi and me and ate mine staring at my dirty shoes.

Finally boarding was announced for our flight. I clicked my red heels together, said, “There’s no place like home, mate,” and left Oz behind.

Monday, August 24, 2009

One Real Thing

We had successfully determined that the Ayers Rock Resort is not what is real about Uluru. Whatever real experiences were to be found in the dead heart of the country would obviously be found at the rock, as far as possible from the over-priced shuttles, snooty restaurants, and other quotidian concerns at the hotel complex.

We’d already decided not to climb Uluru, but when we got there, we discovered that because it had rained the night before, park rangers had closed the trail to the summit. So nobody would be finding their bliss on top of Uluru that day. We decided to follow ours on the six-mile path that circles the monolith. We knew we didn’t have time to hike the whole path but we started around the rock in a clockwise direction, hoping fervently that Uluru’s reality wasn’t hiding on the far side.

We couldn’t have covered more than two miles, but Uluru had plenty of surprises for us on that short stretch. The path often gets so close to the rock that you can touch it. In places it’s relatively smooth, like granite; in some it’s almost scaly, like slate, and at least one section was full of pits like a meteorite (which people used to think Uluru was—it makes as much intuitive sense as any other explanation).

Much of the rock on this side is eroded by wind at the base, so that there is a low overhang near the path. There are petroglyphs in some of these hollows. In other places, the scoop worn away by the wind is so dramatic that if you stand under the roof, it looks like you’re inside a perfect surfer’s curl that is about to crash on you—it’s a disorienting effect.

One benefit of arriving on one of the 14 days out of the year that it rains is that you get to see the rock’s true color. Uluru normally shows an oxidized rusty red surface. Underneath her blushing exterior, though, Uluru is a gray iron lady. On the day we visited it had rained overnight, and rivulets of water were trickling down the rock. In places, the flow was enough to wash away the red layer. The wet, raw rock underneath showed a metallic spectrum of colors, from platinum to bronze to blue steel.

Pipi and I stopped at one such place. There were a surprising number of trees around—this spot felt like an oasis. At the base of the rock, there was a long shallow pool, almost like a moat between the rock and the path. If I listened very closely, I could just hear water trickling down the rock face and filling up the pool.

While straining to hear the almost imperceptible stream, I realized that as quiet as the sound was, it was the loudest thing I could hear. For the first time in three weeks I was in a place that was almost completely silent. There were no city noises. No train wheels grinding against rails. No wind howling across the Outback. Nobody good-naturedly bellowing, “How ya going?” Even the birds were quiet. Everywhere you go in Australia, even in the urban areas, there is a constant chorus of parrots squawking, mynas chirping, and ravens chortling. But not here. Here was all the cool, calm quiet I hadn’t even realized I was missing.

Suddenly I knew what, for me, was the real thing about Uluru. It was the tranquility. There was peace and quiet all around me, and all I had to do to find it was to take a break from looking for it.

Which certainly made me glad I hadn’t climbed up a thousand-foot mountain in search of it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In Search of Something Real About Uluru

Uluru turns out to be one of those places where it’s a lot easier to identify what’s not real about it than it is to see the real parts.

One unreal thing about the area is that there is no real residential community. There is only a large hotel complex, the Ayers Rock Resort, with several different properties catering to everyone from campers to luxury travelers. The resort has a few shops and restaurants, but there is no place around Uluru that feels like a real town.

The resort is located about a half-hour’s drive from the rock itself. If you’ve rented a car, you can come and go as you please, but if you haven’t, you are at the mercy of the hotel shuttles, which operate regularly but cost a staggering AU$40 per person (about U.S.$33) on top of the one-time AU$25 park-entry fee.

Getting around the resort is easy enough. It sprawls, but there is a free bus that circulates among the various properties. Pipi and I took it after dinner the day of our hike. This dinner was to be our last one in Australia, and we wanted to cap it with a memorable dessert, so we set off for the nicest property.

We found there the two most pretentious restaurants in all of Australia. The first one wouldn’t let us in because, they said, they were full. (Some strange confluence of events seemed to have sent the occupants of half of those full tables to the restroom at the exact moment we arrived.) Even if there hadn’t been the problem of too many phantom diners, we still wouldn’t have been allowed to order dessert, because their policy was to seat only patrons who agree to order two or more courses.

The situation was even more hopeless at the other restaurant. At this establishment--which, to review, is located in a vacation spot, in the middle of a desert, in the country that brought you the tank top as everyday wear--we ran afoul of a dress code. I could have gotten back on the bus, gone back to the room, and changed out of sneakers and into nicer shoes, but the dessert selection was so avant-garde awful—think prune and chickpea ice cream—that capitulating was unthinkable.

We ended up back in our room, satiating our sweet craving by devouring the last of our Tim Tams. These cookies are about as fair dinkum Australian as you can get, so there, finally, was one real thing about our evening.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Uluru at Last

Finally, we caught a glimpse of the big rock we’d traveled hundreds of miles inland to see: Uluru (pronounced “Ooolooroo,” with equal emphasis on every syllable).

We arrived at our hotel in time for a late lunch, and took the first available shuttle to the rock. The shuttle lets passengers off right at the base of the trail used to climb to the top of Uluru. This surprised me because I already knew that visitors are strongly discouraged from summiting.

My guidebook says that Uluru is considered to be a sacred place by the local Anangu people, and that seemed reason enough not to climb. I wouldn’t swing from the rafters of the Blue Mosque, so why should I be allowed to leave footprints all over Uluru? A display at the visitors center elaborates, explaining the top of Uluru is a place traditionally reserved for men who have been through a special initiation ceremony, meaning that even Anangu women would not be allowed to climb. Seen that way, I felt like I definitely had no business on top.

Near the trail entrance, there are numerous signs asking visitors again not to climb. Two caught my eye. One was printed in several European languages, although for some reason English was not one of them. I could read enough of the French to get the gist of it: The sign reminds you that if you should manage to kill yourself climbing, this will not only be a huge issue for you, it will also make your parents and friends very sad. The Anangu will also be sad, it says, so just think about that before you go risking your life on the steep, slippery rock.

It was the second sign, though, that really cinched it for me. It had a quote from a local tribal elder saying simply (in English): “You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place.”

This sounded like something out of the Book of the Tao, and I loved it. I decided that the elder’s words could almost be interpreted to mean that the Anangu discourage visitors from climbing not so much because they find the ascent offensive, but more because it drives them crazy to see us wasting so much energy on what seems to them like a pointless endeavor.

What, then, is the real thing about Uluru? I had no idea, but I hoped I would find it on the Anangu-approved trail that circles the base of the monolith. (Photos from our hike are here.)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Is That Uluru?

When traveling between Alice Springs and the Ayers Rock Resort, I think a lot of people mistake this monolith for Uluru. (At least I hope I’m not the only one who has done this.)

The rock pictured here is actually Mt. Conner, a few meters shorter, a few million years older, and 55 miles distant from Uluru. Both Uluru and Mt. Conner pop up out of the desert in a similarly dramatic fashion, and both were probably formed by the same process of erosion.

One major difference between the two is that the former Ayers Rock is now often called by its Aboriginal name, Uluru, while Mt. Conner appears stuck with its plain old European moniker.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Lonely Highway

A lot of people—including me, until very recently—think Alice Springs and Uluru are just a kangaroo hop away from each other. In fact, they are separated by almost 300 red, dusty miles. It took us close to six hours to make the trip by bus. It took this long partly because there were a number of stops for photos and shopping, and partly because the road pictured is the second-largest road between Alice and the rock.

This road is the Lasseter Highway, and yes, I was standing right in the middle of it when I took the picture. Seeing this made me wish that for this part of the trip, at least, I had rented a car. Driving on the opposite side of the road in a major city like Sydney would probably be beyond me but on a road like this, I think the only hard part would be staying awake.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Emotional Emu

I guess I’d be in a bad mood, too, if I were left out in a cage in the rain. So I’m not hating on the bird or anything. I’m just making an “I” statement, which is that I was very scared of this emu. It was as tall as I am (okay, I’m not all that tall but I would be FOR A BIRD!) and it had red eyes. My sister used to have a cockatiel (an Australian bird, incidentally), and it could leave a welt if it put its little mind to it. I shudder to think what a bird 400 times that size could do.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Dingo Ate My Preconceived Notions

We took a bus from Alice Springs to Uluru, a distance of almost 300 miles. This coach tour came with narration and several planned stops. The very first one was at a camel farm that had several other exotic animals on hand. We were told there was enough time for a quick camel ride, but it was beginning to rain, so we just said hello to the dromedaries, waved at the alpacas, gave the angry emu a wide berth (seriously, I don’t know if it’s rain or tourists that they don’t like, but I think that thing would have taken a finger if we let it), and set off in search of the dingo puppy we’d heard lived on the farm.

We found him here, hiding under a rock because of the rain. He wasn’t overly friendly, but he let us pet him. I didn’t get the impression he wanted to eat anyone’s baby, although naturally no one offered him one. Either someone was pulling our leg about it being a dingo (entirely possible, although this is what they look like), or else these animals have gotten a bad rap.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Walking a Mile on a Camel

As I mentioned a few posts back, early explorers of Australia often used camels to get around because they could handle the desert conditions much better than horses. Camels were also used to help transport people and supplies when rail lines were first being laid in Australia.

When the bulk of the exploring and building was done, a lot of camel drivers made the grimly practical decision to let the camels go free, even though there was no reason to think the domesticated animals would survive in the wild. But they did, to the point that today there are so many camels in Australia that some are exported back to the Middle East.

No one knows how many camels there are down under. Estimates run from the tens of thousands into the hundreds of thousands. All we can say for sure is that with this many camels, riding one isn’t really an exotic experience. But it felt like one when we went for a sunset camel ride at a farm just outside of Alice Springs.

Luckily the riding didn’t involve a lot of skill—the camels just loped along very slowly in a single-file line, led by a rancher on foot. It wasn’t even very hard to get up on the camels. Unlike horses, camels can kneel right down on the ground, making it really easy to step into the saddle. The only hard part came when the camel stood up. They’re really tall, and they rock forward and then back as they stand up straight. The lurch is a little bit scary and so is being up so high, but we got used to it quickly.

Pipi and I both rode a big guy named B.J. Like all the camels there, B.J. had one hump, which I rode in front of and Pipi sat behind. I’d heard that camels can be foul tempered, but B.J. was nothing but accommodating, and by the end of the ride we decided that we liked camels almost as much as kangaroos.

We wandered through the desert for about an hour, watching the sun set through increasingly atmospheric clouds. We saw wild kangaroos. Afterward, we got to stick around and help feed the camels hay with the rancher and his wife, a self-described Bondi Beach girl who still can’t believe life led her to the desert. Apparently she came to Alice Springs on vacation, and like Mary Anne Singleton in reverse, realized she’d found her place and decided to stay.

We liked Alice Springs, but not enough to do anything rash. We would be sticking to our itinerary, and early the next morning we departed for Uluru, or Ayers Rock, the giant, mysterious monolith that pops up out of the desert in the middle of the country

Monday, August 10, 2009

Thorny Devils

Pipi and I both arrived in Australia with ideas about things we were hoping to encounter. For example, I’ve known since I was a teenager that I like Australian music and furry Australian animals, and I planned our itinerary in such a way that I could experience both.

Pipi, too, arrived with a dream about something she’d like to see, but it wasn’t anything she’d known about since high school. In fact, it wasn’t something she’d known about when she got on the plane. Pipi fell in love with a thorny devil lizard she saw in documentary during the flight across the Pacific.

For this we have the excellent Qantas in-flight entertainment system to thank. There were so many films, documentaries, and TV programs to watch that I don’t think we saw very many of the same shows. I did steal a few glances at the reptile documentary while I was watching (but mostly listening to) something about the band Hunters and Collectors. I noticed that Thorny devils are cute by lizard standards. They have spiky armored skin, and look like little stegosauruses, only adobe-colored and about the size of a kitten. They even walk a little bit like newborn kittens, with a funny stuttering gait that makes them look like they’re not quite sure what to do with all those legs yet.

Thorny devils are native to central and western Australia. We never saw one in the wild, but we did encounter two lizards in captivity at the Alice Springs Desert Park. This was a peak experience and we watched them snuffle up ants for quite a while. (And dreamed about getting one to live in our kitchen. One winter in our old apartment I thought we’d have to get an aardvark to keep things under control.) We were nearing the end of our trip, and getting close to seeing everything we had reasonable hopes of seeing.

Friday, August 07, 2009

R.I.P. Sam the Koala

Thirsty little Sam, the koala who survived the bushfires near Melbourne last winter, died in surgery recently. I do realize that the real tragedy is the huge number of animals--not to mention all the people--who died in the actual fire, but still, this makes me sad.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Change of Plan

We had an ambitious plan for our one whole day in Alice Springs. This plan involved the Aboriginal culture museum, a museum devoted to women of the outback, and the Alice Springs Desert Park, featuring the flora and fauna of Central Australia.

The park was our first stop. Gradually, though, it dawned on us that we could spend all day here. So we did. We took our time, seeing all the animals and reading every sign that caught our eye. It felt liberating to jettison our itinerary.

Among the many tidbits of information we learned at the park is that Central Australia used to be covered by an ocean, and that there are only two or three bird species in the world that use tools, and this park has an example of one—an eagle that uses rocks to crack open emu eggs.

We also stumbled upon a lecture on Aboriginal culture given by a man from the Aranda group (or “mob,” to use his word). We got a crash-course in the complicated customs and rituals that enable people to survive on land that doesn’t have a lot to offer. The talk was pretty interesting, and we felt a little more comfortable about our decision to skip the Aboriginal museum and give our one activity for the day the attention it deserved.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

When You See the Southern Cross for the First Time…

…You inevitably hum that song to yourself.

This particular night in Alice Springs wasn’t the first time I’d ever seen the Southern Cross. The very first time was several years ago in New Zealand, and yes, the Kiwi friends who showed it to me did serenade me with a chorus of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song.

On this trip, I saw the Southern Cross dimly from an observatory in Sydney, and spectacularly late one night going through the outback on the Indian Pacific train. Alice Springs, though, was the first place I’d ever had the chance to take its picture.

Here’s how you find the Southern Cross: There are two bright stars on the far left of this photo. If you draw a line through them and extend it, it bumps into the constellation, which is fairly close to being upright. There are five stars, but I can only see four in the photo, and the one on the far right is dim. The cross is proportioned like a kite.

The Southern Cross is no Scorpio, or Orion (who is sometimes visible in the Southern Hemisphere, but he stands on his head—it gives me vertigo to even think about why that is). The Southern Cross is not very dramatic. But it’s elegant, it’s iconic, and it is off-limits to us northerners. Catching a glimpse of it really did make me feel just a little bit more like I understood why I came this way.

(See, actually if you’re from the Northern Hemisphere, you hum the song to yourself pretty much every time you see the Southern Cross.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A River Runs Under It

I didn’t mean to be too harsh on Alice Springs. The Aboriginal situation was troubling, but I did like the town. I came to Australia hoping to find some of the characters and customs, invariably described as either “offbeat,” or “quirky,” that are so often seen in Australian movies. I found them in Alice, where even the pigeons are a little off. Look closely at this one—he looks pretty normal, except he’s got a Mohawk. That’s one tough-looking pigeon.

We visited at the wrong time to see the wacky sporting event that is Alice’s claim to nautical fame, but it was enough for me to know that I had visited the only town in the world with a boat race that is cancelled if there is too much water. Or really any water. This race is the annual Henley-On-Todd Regatta. It happens every August and is run along the course of the Todd River.

The Todd is dry for all but a few days every year. Only a sustained downpour will make the riverbed fill up, and this just doesn’t happen much in the Red Centre. (It was explained to me that in central Australia, rivers run upside down, with the sandy bottom visible and the water normally flowing just underground.)

Most years, the regatta takes place on bone-dry land. Participants compete in Flintstones-style bottomless boats. Racers carry the vessels and run with them along the riverbed. A trickle of water is no big deal, but if the actual river should make an above-ground appearance that day, the race has to be postponed. (This really did happen in 1993.)

A hydrophobic boat race definitely qualifies as quirky in my book, and added to Alice’s appeal. In addition, we had a good dinner at a restaurant with a menu emphasizing bush tucker ingredients, and I finally got a picture of myself with a bottle of the Pure Blonde lager I’d been seeing all over.

One last appealingly oddball aspect of Alice Springs is that it was the queerest place we went in all of Australia. At dinner, surrounded by short-coiffed, sensibly-shod women who appeared to be either lesbians or German tourists (for some reason it can be really hard to tell the difference), Pipi wondered aloud if an Olivia cruise was in town. I didn’t even realize she was joking until I was gently reminded that we were 750 miles from the ocean. Alice Springs is just that kind of surprising place, and we could have used more time there.

Monday, August 03, 2009

A Town Called Alice

On the afternoon of the day after we left Adelaide, we arrived in Alice Springs, a town of 27,000 that is about as close to the middle of nowhere as I’ve ever been. It’s also as close to the middle of Australia as most visitors ever get. This whole area is known as the Red Centre, and is indeed both red and central.

Two things about Alice reminded me of Arizona. One was the MacDonnell Ranges, a ridge of adobe-colored, weathered hills that looked like rocks I’d seen in the Southwest.

The second thing that made me feel like I was in Arizona was the sad collection of dilapidated houses on the outskirts of town. Watching the news the day we arrived, I saw a report about the Aboriginal people who lived in these houses. The structures were provided by the government but were so inadequate that residents had taken to cooking in their front yards. The situation shocked me a little, and reminded me of a depressing college road trip across a Native American reservation in Arizona.

Alice Springs was the first place where Pipi and I saw Aboriginal people in any number. I don’t mean to make the situation sound entirely bleak. A number of businesses in town did seem to be Aboriginal-owned, and galleries sold a lot of quality indigenous art. But it was hard to ignore the aimless crowds of Aboriginal people congregating in the dry riverbed that runs through town. Some sat reading like they were at the beach, some painted, and some stared into space like they were just taking a personal moment to regroup. But as we crossed the river on our way to dinner, it was clear that most were hunkering in for an evening spent drinking around bonfires.

Pipi and I were a little taken aback, especially since we had seen so few homeless (or under-housed) people so far in Australia. We had been hoping to learn something about Aboriginal culture, but this wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. Luckily, we were soon to see a more positive side.