12th July – Alice Springs

We’ve just arrived in Alice Springs after a really lovely few days in Adelaide, spending time with all Chris’s Adelaide aunts and uncles – I’ve loved meeting everyone, and Chris has loved seeing them all, most of them for the first time in 10 years. Everyone has been so friendly and welcomed us so generously, it’s been really wonderful to see what being part of the Melia family is like!

After we posted the last blog, from Kingston, we spent the next day driving to Adelaide along the coastal road and eventually arrived at about 5 p.m., just before it got dark. Chris remembered Karen’s house when he saw it – he visited Adelaide ten years ago and wasn’t sure he would remember, but he recognised it straight away, and Karen was home waiting for us. We had a lovely evening together, catching up on all our stories and all the family news, and eating Karen’s delicious home-made pumpkin soup and apple crumble (and I’m never buying custard ready-made again, Karen has taught me to make it properly!) Chris also got in touch with Ashley, Jean and Rosa, who are the other Melia aunts and uncles who live in Adelaide. We had written to everyone when we sent out wedding invitations, to say we were coming to visit and would love to see them, but we hadn’t known what dates we’d be there, so we just hoped everyone would be free to see us sometime while we were there – and everyone was very good about fitting us in at short notice! We made plans to have dinner with Ashley and his wife Moira on Monday night, lunch with Rosa and her husband Frank on Tuesday, and dinner with Jean and her husband Jim on Tuesday evening, which it turned out was also Frank’s birthday, so that was good timing, as their children and grandchildren would also be there. Then we planned to spend Wednesday with Karen, and she suggested we should drop back our van and then she’d take us round to see the sights. Then our flight out was on Thursday morning, and Karen very kindly offered to take us to the airport. So, we had a plan for the week!

As it turned out, Karen was working on Monday and Tuesday, and had offered to stay later to cover the start of the overnight shift for her colleague, and then sleep overnight at work, so she gave us a tour of the house and showed us how everything worked, and then gave us the house to ourselves for two days! It was an absolute luxury to spread out and unpack, and watch TV, and sit in front of the fire when I was cold, and make ourselves little snacks and drinks, and generally enjoy feeling at home! The first night we stayed up late watching Wimbledon – Mum and Dad were there, on Court 1, so we watched the boys’ final first hoping to catch a glimpse of them (no luck!) and then switched to the mens’ final when it started. Karen valiantly stayed up till after midnight but had to abandon the game and go to bed, as she was up for work in the morning – us lazy holiday-makers had no such constraints, so we stayed up till almost 4 a.m. to catch every minute of Murray’s promising first set, and the wonderful tennis Federer played to catch him up and overtake, and the rain, and the roof coming out, and the re-start, and Murray’s tears at the end – excellent stuff!

We slept late in the morning, and woke up just before lunchtime – Karen had made us individual shepherds’ pies and left them in the fridge for us, which was just unspeakably wonderful, to pop them in the microwave for a minute, and have a delicious lunch with no work at all! We had had vague thoughts of going out to explore Adelaide, but actually we really appreciated a lazy day instead – we unpacked, and cleaned the van ready to be returned in the morning, and did our laundry, and generally got ourselves sorted out. Then we went out to Ashley and Moira’s, via a quick stop to pick up a couple of bottles of wine and boxes of choccies for our various hosts!

When we arrived at Ashley and Moira’s, Moi has just arrived home from a long work day, a 7 hour drive out to the riverland, so she met us in the drive as we pulled up! She suggested that we should go out to the pub for a meal, which sounded like a brilliant idea to us – we’ve been eating out so little while we’ve been away, it’s a real treat for us! We went in for a drink first, and had a quick tour of their lovely house – I just love the indoor/outdoor living you get in Australian houses, they’ve got a lovely big courtyard with a pagoda and pull-down cafe blinds, so you can completely enclose it when it’s cooler, or open the roof vents and pull up the blinds when it’s warm. Facing out to it, with French windows, they’ve got a big dining room with a bar in it, with beer taps and glasses hanging from the top of the bar, and beer posters and disco lights and a smoke machine (which is sadly out of action at the moment). Outside in the courtyard there’s a pull-down screen and projector. Just a fantastic space for parties! They said it was a shame we weren’t there for the weekend, as Moi’s son Danny was holding the launch of his new company there – he’s bought four VW camper vans and converted them into mobile bars, complete with fold-back roof and fold-down bar with lights under it, and got liquor licenses and everything, and is going to provide a ‘VW Bar’ service for events! Sounds amazing, I wish we could have been there for the party! We had a lovely evening at a nice English-style pub with Ashley and Moi, I really enjoyed meeting them both and we had lots to chat about – the evening went much too quickly, of course!

When we got home, we Skyped Mum and Dad to hear about how they’d enjoyed Wimbledon (fun, but wet, is the answer!) and chatted for two hours, which was lovely! We only got to bed around 2, so we slept quite late again the next morning, and got up just in time to get showered and dressed and out of the house to Rosa and Frank’s. They’ve just moved back into town from a property in the Adelaide Hills, so Rosa showed us round the house and told us all the plans they’ve got for it – it sounds like it’s going to be plenty of work, but will create some lovely spaces for them, a covered desk and a craft room and a workshop – the house is already lovely, so all these changes will just make it perfect for them! It was wonderful to meet Rosa and Frank and hear all their stories – they were the first of the family to emigrate to Australia, as ‘Ten Pound Poms’ on an assisted passage when Australia was desperate for hard workers to come and increase their population. They told us wonderful stories about life on the boat, and stopping in Durban for a day and being offered a job and nearly ending up as South Africans instead of Australians, and arriving in Australia, staying in the immigrants’ hostel until they found a job – it’s so interesting to hear how it was for them. There are now Immigration Museums all over Australia telling the story of immigration at various points in history, and these guys were all actually part of it in the 60s – it’s wonderful to hear about it.

We had a lovely lunch of quiche and potato bake and coleslaw, and apple pie for dessert, and sat swapping travel stories – Frank was in the Royal Australian Air Force, and they lived in various postings around the world, and have travelled a lot since they retired, including a trip round Europe in a campervan – so we picked up some good tips! We also heard about their children, Sheridan and Forde, and their partners and Sheridan’s children, Emily and Amelia – it would have been lovely to meet them all, but on such short notice Rosa just couldn’t get them all together, so we’ll have to hope we can meet everyone next time! Karen’s son Daniel is travelling in the US at the moment, so we haven’t met him either – hopefully we’ll meet him in the UK sometime, if we don’t make it back to Australia soon. Anyway, we suddenly realised it was after 3 p.m. and we should really get going to Jean and Jim’s, so we said goodbye to Rosa and Frank and headed across town to Jean and Jim, who live close to Karen.

It was so lovely to meet Jean and Jim, and hear their stories about Australia, and hear stories about when the Melias were all growing up, and about their amazing Mum – she had 15 children, brought them all up wonderfully, encouraged them in everything including moving to Australia, went out on the ship on her own to visit them in Australia, had an open house for all her grandchildren as they were all growing up – she sounds absolutely wonderful. We also got to meet Jean and Jim’s daughter Natalie and her husband David, and her lovely daughter Aimee who’s 16, and sons Elijah (5) and Lewis (2, but will be 3 in a few weeks’ time, as he told us excitedly!), and also Jean and Jim’s son Ben and his wife Amanda, who weren’t able to make it for dinner as they were ferrying teenage sons to and from various evening activities, but made the effort to come round for an hour to meet us and see Jim on his birthday, which was lovely. They all seem like a really close family, and we felt very welcome there – it was a lovely, chatty evening, and we had such a delicious roast dinner – a real treat! Jim had some great stories to tell about his time working and travelling in the Northern Territory, which was especially interesting for us as we’re on our way to Alice Springs and then Darwin! Karen came to join us after work, and we all sat around the table chatting for ages, with Jean and Karen telling lots of family stories, and the little boys in the living room playing with the toy truck that Lewis had bought Grandad for his birthday! We eventually headed home with Karen, after making plans for the next day to pick Jean up in the morning for our day out.

We got going quite early in the morning as we had a lot to fit in! We went first to collect Jean, then to drop off the van, which went smoothly – Apollo signed off on the van and agreed to refund our whole insurance bond, which was a relief, although annoyingly it will still take up to 14 days to be processed! Chris took note of the mileage – we’ve done just over 8,000km in the van in Australia, to add to the 5,000km we did in New Zealand! Once we’d done all the paperwork, we jumped in Karen’s car and went off for a day’s sight-seeing. We went first to a village called Hahndorf, which is where all the German immigrants originally settled, and built houses and shops in the German style – a very quaint place full of little shops and cafes. We wandered up the street browsing in the shops, and buying a couple of souvenirs – we spent ages in a lovely leather shop, admiring expensive handbags and belts, and laughing at all the silly notices put up by the shop owner, who obviously has quite a sense of humour! We stopped at Otto’s Bakery for a coffee and a snack (I had a HUGE chocolate doughnut, which kept me going for the rest of the day!) and then made our way down the other side of the road, via a shop selling fairy things that made me think of Glastonbury, and eventually back to the car.

One of many un-PC signs in the Hahndorf leather shop

Aunty Jean, Aunty Karen and Chris having a coffee

Then we carried on to Beerenberg, a strawberry farm and jam producer which is famous for its jams and sauces – Qantas use them in all their in-flight meals – and tasted a few things and browsed around. Then we carried on to the Melba Chocolate Factory – what an amazing place! We went all the way around picking up as many free samples as we could find, and trying to choose between all the different sweets and chocolates – anything you can possibly imagine making out of chocolate, or covering in chocolate, it was there! We ended up with some blocks of white chocolate and some milk chocolate-covered honeycomb – snacks for the plane! Actually, we didn’t eat much of it on the plane, so I’m now sitting here in my PJs, munching on honeycomb and drinking rum and coke as I write this – total indulgence! We’re staying in a backpackers in Alice Springs, and we had booked a double room, but they had none left so they’ve upgraded us to a deluxe room – it’s huge, with a sofa and a dining table and kitchenette, so we’ve unpacked and spread out across the room, and I’ve had a shower and got into my PJs, and am now sitting at the table writing this while Chris has a snooze.

Beerenberg jam making factory and shop

Like kids in a (Melba Chocolate Factory) sweet shop

Anyway… from the chocolate factory, we went on to the Big Rocking Horse, which was indeed extremely big! 18 metres high, as I can tell you personally, since we paid our $2 (with a buy-one-get-one-free voucher) and went climbing up the various steep ladders inside it to get to the top! Wobbly knees – Karen and Jean sensibly stayed on the ground and went to get a coffee! We had a browse round the Toy Factory shop, full of beautifully made wooden toys – I wanted to buy everything! We admired one of the peacocks wandering around, who fluffed up his feathers in a wonderful display for us. We also bought a bag (well, two, with the voucher) of animal food and went out into the menagerie to feed the various sheep, goats, alpacas, and a couple of lethargic kangaroos. Karen and Jean told us to save our food for the next place, which was the Gorge Wildlife Park at Cuddlee Creek – and they were quite right, compared to that the menagerie was not very impressive!

Jean, Nicki and Karen in front of the world’s biggest rocking horse

Climbing down from the horses head

Peacock displaying just for us at the toy factory

No! You’re a very naughty alpaca!

The wildlife park was only $15 entry, and Jean had a 2-for-1 voucher for that as well, so Chris and I paid $7.50 each for an absolutely wonderful couple of hours! It was a really brilliant place, not on the huge scale of Australia Zoo, so you could see everything easily in a couple of hours, but it was so nicely done, and very hands-on. You could feed just about every one of the animals – there was an open enclosure with lots of kangaroos and wallabies in it, including lots of albino kangaroos, which are funny-looking things, like giant white rabbits! Quite a few of the kangaroos had babies in their pouches, which was just the most amazing thing to see – the babies are nearly ready to come out for good, so they’re huge, and you can’t quite believe the mums are still happily carrying them around! We kept seeing them with their heads poking out, looking around, and then they’d pop back in and the pouch would close up. It was brilliant! I fed as many of them as I could tempt over, while Chris scuttled around trying to take good photos of the joeys while they were visible, and Jean and Karen kept their distance – they both hate wild animals coming near them, so they were really making a sacrifice to take us to the wildlife park! We fed some camels, and then went and hung out by the monkey cages, and watched the monkeys swinging around, and watched two of them having a huge fight and baring their teeth and screeching – then noticed that people were feeding the monkeys through the wire, too, so Chris held out a hand with a bit of food on it, and the monkeys reached out and grabbed his hand – brilliant! We watched some people feeding biscuits to the bats, and watched the keepers cleaning out the wombats, which made them go wombling around their outside runs, and went round all the cages full of beautiful brightly-coloured birds – it was lovely. Then, at 3.30, we gathered at the koala cuddling area, and waited for the keepers to bring out two koalas, which you could go and cuddle – I jumped straight in at the front of the queue and was very excited to get another chance to cuddle a koala! Chris had a go too, and Karen took photos, but wasn’t interested in a cuddle herself!

Feeding kangaroos again!

Albino kangaroo-let in her pouch

Don’t you wish your national emblem was cool like me?

Far too big for that pouch

Nicki being much braver than me (and getting slobbered on for the effort)

These monkeys had surprisingly soft fingers

Albino peacock

I hadn’t expected that a kookaburra would look like this

Wombat

Pelican, amazing colours

Nicki loves holding koalas!

Chris likes it too :O)

We left after the koala cuddling, having had a lovely day, and went back to Jean and Jim’s for a drink before we went home. Jim had a present for us, that he’d searched out after our conversation the day before – it’s something he was given during his Northern Territory travels, an Aboriginal rock axe – a chunk of rock, sharpened along one end, which is probably tens of thousands years old. A very cool item to bring home with us! We eventually said goodbye to Jim, Jean and Aimee, who was staying the night, and went back to Karen’s via the Chinese takeaway – another indulgent meal, which we really enjoyed! Then I packed, while Chris spent some time online organising a hire car for Darwin – we’ve booked a room at a backpackers’, and a hire car, and have made some loose plans for how we’re going to spend our few days there.

This morning we left a bit later than we meant to, and ended up getting to the check-in desk at the airport after a hasty goodbye to Karen, two minutes before the check-in closed – it was all fine though, we got checked in and made it to the gate with lots of time to spare, it’s so easy flying on a domestic flight! We watched a movie on the plane called Red Dog – it’s an Australian film based on a Louis de Bernieres novel, and it was fantastic, I really recommend it. When we got to Alice Springs, it was lovely and warm, and we bundled up our coats and jumpers and collected our backpacks, and got on the airport shuttle bus, which was paid for by the backpackers we’re staying at. We checked in, dumped our stuff in our room and went out exploring, armed with a vague map from the guy at reception – it was about a 15 minute walk into town, and we found it to be a funny sort of place, it sort of reminds us of an African town. Most of the buildings have high fences, and there’s quite a lot of barbed wire around, obviously all very security-conscious. There are lots of organisations serving the Aboriginal community – health clinics, cultural organisations, child-care centres – but all with a sort of ‘mission clinic’ feel about them, and the Aboriginal people you see all around town all have a shuffling, hangdog look about them – it seems like a sad situation. There are little groups of people sitting on the grass, people walking down the street, people sitting on benches – but none of them smile, none of them make eye contact, it’s a very strange sort of situation. There are Aboriginal craft shops and art galleries all over the place, and I suppose you have to hope that the tourist dollar is doing some good, but it’s not very evident in the people you see wandering around.

We walked into town and stopped at the first cafe we found, which turned out not to be a great choice, a bit pretentious and self-consciously hippie, with lots of vegan options, dreadlocks and reggae music, but high prices and poncy food! If we hadn’t been so hungry we might have wandered on, but we plumped for all-day breakfasts. I enjoyed my bacon and eggs, although Chris’s eggs and beans weren’t quite what we expected, fresh haricot beans with caramelised onions, not a cheap baked bean in sight! After lunch we wandered through town till we came to the Reptile Centre, which had a show starting 15 minutes later, so we went in and paid our admission, and wandered around looking at lizards in tanks for a few minutes until the show started. It was excellent, a very informative talk from one of the keepers, who introduced three different lizards and a snake, with some facts about each of them, and then let everyone come up and have a go at holding them (and letting the blue-tongued lizard ‘kiss’ your face!) After the show, we went out to the rest of the centre to look at the snakes and lizards there – including a large goanna named Frank who wanders around the room, and comes over to sniff at people like a puppy – and the one tank with a crocodile in it, and an underwater viewing area. Just as we were about to leave, a chap who turned out to be the owner came along and told us he was about to do a talk and demo with the croc, so we stayed, and it was brilliant – he told us lots of interesting croc facts, and then swatted the water with a long stick to mimic a bird landing, which made the croc lash about and snap his jaws and gave us a great view from the underwater window!

Baby Olive Python

The imaginatively named Blue Tongued Lizard getting Nicki’s scent

Frank the Spencer’s Goanna (Spencer’s Monitor) lizard

Salt water crocodile at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre

We came back to the backpackers after that, via a stop at the shop to buy some coke to go with our rum, and we’re going to get an early night tonight once we’ve re-packed our bags – we get picked up at 5.45 a.m. tomorrow for our Uluru trip! We’re staying at the same place on Sunday night when we get back, and they’ll store our luggage for free, so we’re just going to pack one bag with what we need for the three-day trip, and leave the rest here. We’ve bought a big bottle of water each today, which we’ll be able to keep re-filling during the trip, and we get all our meals provided, so we shouldn’t need much apart from our clothes and sleeping bags. I’m taking our fleece blanket as well, I hear it gets cold at night in the desert!

We’re really looking forward to the trip, and in our next blog we’ll tell you all about it!

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