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.

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