Somewhere, while I was asleep, the land changed from green farmland to red desert. The change was probably gradual—planted fields running into cattle pastures, the color slowly deepening, exposing the brittle ground until the desert rolling past the train window stretched for hundreds of miles in any direction. In the white morning sun, we stepped off the train platform and the intense heat of Central Australia, nearly 100 degrees by mid-morning, confronted us while we collected our baggage.
The train from Adelaide to the Alice, called the Ghan, is a cultural symbol, a pilgrimage of sorts that most Aussies replace with a plane ride these days. Once-upon-a-time, the thousand mile journey was made by caravans of camels piloted by Afghani riders delivering food, supplies and white explorers into the untamed center of the continent. The Ghan is a testament to their efforts. However, while modes of transportation have changed, Alice Springs is still a frontier, still an oasis in a vast red desert.
Pre-contact (before white interaction with Aboriginals), Alice was a meeting point for the many tribes in the area. The fact that a settler station was established precisely on top of this social hub is one of Australia’s many historical ironies. Today, Alice Springs is a mish-mash of social service offices, hostels, bars and dozens and dozens of Aboriginal art galleries.
It’s a funny place. Rough looking Aboriginal men and women lounge on well-manicured public park grass, retreating when a police car lumbers by, flashing its lights. But across the street, three air-conditioned galleries sell Aboriginal dot paintings, crafts and didgeridoos for thousands of dollars.
Bill, our director, calls it “Disney World meets the Third World.” Everywhere I look, Indigenous Australia shines through the cracks that the new K-mart, Pizza Hut, and tourism try to cover up. So this is the cultural hardship that our lectures referred to.
Not all of Alice is as depressing as I’m making it seem. I certainly didn’t sulk around for three days. In fact, digging a little deeper produced optimism. We visited the Aboriginal Arts and Culture Center, an Indigenous owned gallery that also coordinates educational excursions in the area. We toured the Royal Flying Doctors Service headquarters. The RFDS provides medical care and consultation to the many communities, black and white, in the central Australian outback. We listened in to a live broadcast at the School of the Air, the largest class-room in the world. Kids on opposite sides of the desert were practicing handwriting over a satellite connection with their teacher in Alice Springs.
On the last day, we went on an Alice bushwalk with Jungala, a guide from the cultural center. He showed up where to dig for water holes in a dry river bed and when to hunt emu and kangaroo. Finally, we went to a dance presentation at the center. Four Aboriginal men, painted with ochre and in loincloths performed ceremonial dances and invited us to learn them.
Some of the group recoiled, uncomfortable and surprised that they could commodify their own culture. They explained, “Most people don’t understand that we are role models. This is about showing our youth that they can be proud of their culture, showing you that you can be proud of our culture. This is as much education as it is entertainment.” And so I learned the fierce butterfly dance and made my first attempt at playing a didgeridoo.
Later that day, I went back to the center for a didj lesson. With six other Australian eight and nine year-olds I tried to reproduce the sounds of the kangaroo, kookaburra, dingo and emu through the eerie drone of the didgeridoo—I managed to master the old cranky goat sound. When I went to buy my own didj, I made sure the one I bought wasn’t touristy, was something I could learn to play and wasn’t something to put over the mantel. I bought it from a gallery in town, and didn’t ask where the proceeds went.