As I ride my bike up the Stuart Highway towards town, I pass the same petrol stations and car repair shops every morning. Each one is full of caravans and cars stuffed with tents, food, spare tyres and sleepy children, all on their way to a big adventure. I wait for the traffic lights to change colour underneath a huge road sign. One arm points West (468 kilometres to Uluru) and the other, North (1497 kilometres to Darwin). I stick my frozen fingers under my arms to warm them up. Who knew the desert could be this bloody cold? But I soon learn that the frosty mornings always give way to sunny days.
I’m here in Alice Springs working as a legal intern in the Legal Aid Commission. Having held a lifelong interest in Indigenous law and justice, I decided this would be the best place to get some experience. One week into my trip, I pack my pencil skirts and blazers into the bottom of my suitcase. They are replaced with clothes infinitely more comfortable and better suited to my small Alice Springs office. For the rest of my stay, I ride home from work in the afternoon sun with bare arms and legs, my polar-fleece and stockings bundled into my backpack for the next morning’s ride.
Living in the quintessential Australian outback town feels both completely foreign and strangely familiar. The main street of Alice Springs is filled with shops selling the kitschy Australian dream. Windows overflow with Akubras, stubby holders, opal jewellery, and colourful t-shirts that are printed with Aboriginal art and slogans like “If its got tits or tyres, you’re going to have problems!’ It’s kind of like being in a very low-key Australian theme park ride, and I’m not quite sure whether I’m a visitor or part of the attraction. When travelling overseas, I tend to play up the way that foreigners view Australians, amused at how far I can go with stories of my pet kangaroos and crocodile wrestling father. Now that I am living smack bang in the middle of the red centre, it feels a bit surreal.
Growing up in Melbourne, I always considered my ‘Australianness’ from arms length, like a sort of unfamiliar curiosity. Only one of my grandparents was actually born in Australia, which means that my parents still carry around a hint of being on the outer. Maybe a piece of that has lodged itself deep into my own identity.
There are moments in Alice where I have to laugh at the ‘Australianness’ of it all. One evening, while walking to the supermarket to get dinner, I witness a dingo strolling past the IGA. That’s right. a dingo at IGA. Later, some local guys laugh and roll their eyes at me Snapchatting a sign over the meat fridge in the supermarket which asks “Are you game to try Skippy today?” I spend one afternoon at Alice Spring’s famous ‘Camel Cup’ (yes, camel racing is a thing). Another night, I find myself at the pub dancing to a Paul Kelly cover band, a can of XXXX in one hand, punching the air singing, “Vestey man roared and Vestey man thundered”. I’m way too drunk to appreciate the symbolism of a pub full of people in Central Australia singing “From Big Things Little Things Grow.”
Aside from the Australiana overload, Alice is a pretty cool little town. There are even a few cafés around where you could order a soy chai latte and no one would flinch. I feel welcomed by a tight-knit and eclectic community of fascinating people; artists, drug and alcohol counsellors, health workers, lawyers, radio show producers (to name some of the occupations of my housemates).
My weekends are spent exploring the surrounding landscape. Sitting in a hot, stuffy bus on a trip to ‘the Rock’ (as the locals call it), the desert rolls past for kilometres, spotted with rocky hills and spinifex. The red sand gets in all my shoes, staining the toes and bottoms of my socks a dirty orange. I hike gorges filled with icy dark water, and through rock formations that wouldn’t be out of place on the set of Doctor Who. The feeling of endless space is what I expect, I guess, from the desert. But I’m not prepared for the overwhelming wild beauty of the country, the horizons that don’t change for hours and the views that continue uninterrupted by houses or hills.
But life in the centre is not all blue skies and baby koalas. A white scar stains the side of Uluru, where tourists continue to scurry up and down despite signs asking people to respect the wishes of the Anangu people by not climbing. Closer to the city, policemen are stationed outside all the bottle shops, an intimidating reminder of the extreme alcohol policies in place in the Northern Territory. I sit in the Alice Springs Magistrates Court, and listen to interpreters busily translating judges remarks into Arrernte, Warlpiri, Pitjantjatjara or Luritja, for the benefit of the many defendants who do not call English their mother tongue.
My own dealing with the court and legal system creates a complex and confusing picture. The entrance to the court seems like a revolving door. Most of the people I meet through my work have had previous contact with the legal system. It seems to me that I am witnessing the end of a very long road, the direction of which was decided long before lawyers got involved. This is a part of Australian life that is hidden from us all the way down south. Sure, we ‘know’ about it. But we don’t really see it. The problems faced by our Indigenous communities, for lack of a better phrase, lie at the heart of our country. I believe that our identity as Australians is incomplete if we turn our backs on the people living in places like Alice.
Home now, I can see the lights of that other great Australian monolith, the MCG, out my window. Dressed once again in my Melbourne uniform of black everything, I have quickly settled back into the city life. After having heard a few of my best stories, conversations about my time in Alice don’t really come up very often. Still, as much as I try and scrub it out, I know that the bottoms of my socks will always be stained desert red.