“There is a peacock by the side of the pool.”
Well, okay, I didn’t actually say “dafuq.” Not verbally, at least. Instead, I whipped around, which is to say I swirled around because we were in the aforementioned pool, and faced Richard with my brow furrowed, eyes squinted, chin cocked to one side, and jaw slightly unhinged: the human race has created thousands of languages, but some expressions are universal.
“There is a peacock by the side of the pool. Look.”
Well by golly.
It had blue feathers. Their tips softly brushed atop the grass as it picked its way past the pool, head bobbing as though it had some Otis Redding playing in its mind—in other words, the kind of stroll that seemed to suggest this was a totally normal place for peacocks to take an evening constitutional.
In no time I was a rollicking mess of giggles, although it wasn’t so much over the presence of the peacock itself as Richard’s blasé, matter-of-fact announcement of something so absurd. Yet even more absurd was how entirely appropriate it all was. What was a peacock doing by the side of the pool? Perhaps the better question was what were two coaster enthusiasts doing in the pool, this pool, this pool that was part of a tiny blip of civilization in Australia’s coasterless—or, rather, just about anything-less—Northern Territory?
What the hell were we doing in Alice Springs?
The short answer is that we were there as a matter of inconvenient convenience for the sake of a big ass rock.
This is that big ass rock. It’s sometimes called Uluru (the Aboriginal term) or Ayers Rock (the yet another example of arrogant white men trying to claim everything for themselves term) or Uluru/Ayers Rock (the let’s pretend everyone’s a winner term).
Either way, it’s supposedly a Very Important big ass rock. Important enough that people willingly shed their dignity to take photos of it with iPads.
And so, when we were in the initial planning stages of this trip, I was adamant that we work in a stop to this place. Our trips never have enough nature-y type activities anyway, so if we were coming all the way to Australia, then goddammit, we had to visit this big ass rock in the middle of the outback because that is what you do when you visit Australia. How do people know you’ve checked off this continent on your worldly travels list?
You have a photo on your mantlepiece of you standing in front of a hunk of orange stone, that’s how. So visiting this rock, I insisted, was necessary.
Richard did not agree.
“It’s a fucking rock,” he tried.
“It’s a fucking grand and majestic rock and I would like to see it.”
“With the flight schedules, it’s going to use up three days of our allotted time. If you really want to do it, you’re going to have to sacrifice something—maybe some Sydney time or…” His face brightened. “Oh, or maybe Merimbula.”
I scowled. “But when I think of Australia, I think of this rock. Besides, if it was good enough for Kate Middleton to pose in front of, then why can’t we?”
“Kate Middleton didn’t pay the extortionate rates for the one and only resort in the area.”
“Yeah, fine, but supposedly seeing the sunrise there is one of those things people remember for the rest of their lives.”
“Darling. It’s a fucking rock.”
And so we went, arguing back and forth and round and round, until Richard not only finally agreed, but also managed to wedge it perfectly into the itinerary. In coaster enthusiast speak, that of course translates to: no credits would be relinquished, not even the long flatlined Orphan Rocker. We’d have to cut out the tour of the Sydney Opera House we’d planned, but hey. Priorities.
Which brings us to the pool at the Alice Springs DoubleTree.
Yulara, the “town” (a population of less than 1,000 makes the word “town” seem a little too glamorous) adjacent to Uluru, is a four hour drive from Alice Springs. While it has its own airport, there are no direct flights there from Perth. The most time efficient option, therefore, was to fly into Alice Springs and then drive to Uluru. However, with just one daily flight from Perth (or maybe it was every other day; I don’t remember), a night’s stay in Alice Springs was necessary because our late afternoon arrival precluded the option of making a drive that website after website dissuaded performing after dark.
I didn’t mind. In fact, I embraced it as an opportunity to experience a teeny bit more of the country’s interior, not to mention it would force some rare leisure hours upon us (hence the time in the hotel pool that evening). Sure, it would have been preferable to avoid detours, but it was as convenient as our schedule would allow. An inconvenient convenience.
An inconvenient convenience that was about to tilt precariously in favor of the former before toppling completely the next day.
It started with this. Well, the standalone car part. It was very convenient for me to giggle at the Richard-driving-this-big-boy-crisis-tank-in-the-Australian-outback-while-wearing-a-silly-stereotypical-Australian-hat part.
The experience of renting a car was our first encounter with the shameless plundering that comes with being trapped in a captive market. Folks, you are looking at a USD$700 rental car. Actually, let me put that into perspective. You are looking at an eight year old vehicle “with a large dent in its roof that suggested a previous encounter with a marauding rhinoceros” that cost $700 for a rental period of less than 48 hours.
I’ll just give you a second to react however you normally react when you hear about a heinous robbery. Done? Okay.
We wouldn’t be returning to Alice Springs. Instead, we would be flying out of Yulara’s airport, which meant a one way drop off fee. And that’s fine, that’s sort of expected in a place like this. The part where the rental car companies make off like Ocean’s Eleven is in their charging by the kilometer after surpassing each day’s meager complimentary allowance (100 kilometers in a place where freaking OUTER SPACE is sometimes closer than the next town). Uluru is 460 kilometers from Alice Springs. A lot of people make that drive. Factor in fuel, acknowledge the absence of competition in a place as desolate as the Australian interior, and you’re pretty much looking at a full fledged looting operation where the extent of your control lies in deciding whether it’ll be Avis, Hertz, or Thrifty that you let piss all over you.
But what could we do? We were stuck. Out of desperation Richard sold ourselves to Avis and we did our best to forget about how cheated we felt for consenting to such degradation.
At least they thanked him.
If you could overlook the fact that ASP’s Avis desk was the springboard for the corruption that came to epitomize the Uluru experience, though, Alice Springs wasn’t a bad place.
To be honest, it was quite lovely in spots.
It was far greener than I expected. I’d always pictured the outback as a patchwork of reds and browns and oranges, and while there’s certainly plenty of that, I was surprised to see the green fuzz of vegetation start to creep in as I gazed upon it all from 30,000 feet. By the time we made our final descent into Alice Springs, the only color outshining the green was the deep blue of the sky. I guess that explains why there were so many riverbeds on the way into town, although not a drop remained in any of them—they were just shallow troughs with small mounds that would have been tiny islands had there been water.
It was also far, far hotter than I expected. I mean, I knew it would be hot, but walking outside was like opening the pizza oven at the restaurant where I used to work. The heat blasted you with such stifling intensity that you could actually smell it in your first few breaths, a torrid wave so heavy and dry and thick that it seemed to constrict your airways.
We ventured into town that evening in search of dinner and then second dinner because Australia went 0 for 2 on the Caesar salad front. The dressing on that evening’s fare was so vile I couldn’t finish it, although judging from the appearance of the lettuce, that could have been because the recipe apparently called for a teaspoon of soil. Hence, we returned to the hotel armed with Doritos, Ritz crackers, a package of multigrain bread rolls, and a Snickers bar.
(Nothing like a few fond reminders of home, you know?)
And now, darkness having fallen, we were in the pool guffawing at a peacock.
You know, I think I am doomed to always think of Alice Springs in avian themes. Before visiting, the name Alice Springs could only conjure one thing in my mind, and that was the rather tasty chicken entrée named after it at Outback. And now, a few hours later, the only thing I could really say with conviction was that bacon and cheese covered chicken seemed to have about as much to do with Alice Springs as tempura octopus hot dog bites do with Des Moines.
Not that I was surprised. Have you ever thought about the bullshit that goes into restaurant names? There’s a restaurant on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor called the Rusty Scupper. A scupper is a drain on a boat deck that draws away rainwater. If it’s rusty, then we’re talking orange tinted, metallic tasting water that either drains into the sea or joins the cesspool of bilge water in the hull. Does that sound appetizing to you? Yet tourists eat that shit up because it makes them feel oh so nautical and authentic. I can just imagine the Outback executives trying to “Australianize” their largely American menu:
“Well, we have this cheesy chicken bacon thing that’s pretty much the same as the cheesy chicken bacon things at Friday’s and Applebee’s and the like. How do we make this Australian?”
“Easy. Here, someone come stand by this map of Australia…how ’bout you, Al? Okay, now close your eyes…now put your pointer finger somewhere on the map…good, and now open your eyes. What’s it say?”
“Uhhhh…well there’s really nothing where I pointed.”
“Well, what town is the closest to your finger?”
“Let’s see…ah. Alice Springs.”
The peacock continued past, its feathers just grazing the grass, its head bobbing to a soundless rhythm. It disappeared down a short slope covered in darkness and didn’t return that evening. And in that peacock, I saw us visiting Alice Springs, here long enough to only graze the surface before disappearing down the highway to the tempo of that implicit eagerness we share to keep traveling onward.
Two coaster enthusiasts and a peacock by the side of a pool in Alice Springs.
It was appropriate.
It was absurd.
It was appropriately absurd for such a transient stopover of inconvenient convenience for the sake of a big ass rock.