Alice Springs is like a steamy novel: “Breathing hard, she looked in wonder and surprise at the shiny face bearing down on her. Smooth, slightly moist lips touched, tongues flickered, then she drew away and asked, “You gonna turn into a handsome prince or what?”.

But this sister will have to wait a long time before these lizards turn into princes… or even a passable bricklayer. I looked hard at the people puckering up to the reptiles at the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, but didn’t pick up any pointers. Kissing lizards is an art form: the girl who showed us how to do it had been “doing it” for a long time and well, you gotta have some hobby to help pass those long summer nights.

Lizard lippin’ is one of the strange and unique experiences in Alice Springs and the best way to get around is on the Alice Wanderer bus. You get to learn about smooching with the wildlife, among other attractions, on this two-day hop-on, hop-off independent tour.

First up: Anzac Hill for great views of Alice Springs. The Anzac Hill lookout shows how Alice Springs kinda snuggles into a bit of a valley bordered by the MacDonnell Ranges. It looked relaxed as it spread out among green trees and baked in the sun.

Each stop saw us wandering into unique places like the Royal Flying Doctor Service and School of the Air, both with enormous distances for their personnel to cover – oh, it’s about the size of Britain. While one looks after the scattered population in need of medical attention, the other makes sure the kids don’t have any excuse not to do their schoolwork, even though they are at home rather than in a classroom. The doctors and nurses buzz around in small planes landing in paddocks about the size of London and the teachers sit in the best spot they can: thousands of miles away from their students using radio and internet to scold Johnny into doing his two times table.

Risky Business

I became a culture vulture at the Cultural Precinct, which takes a few hours if you really want to check out desert life. There are eight buildings to explore as well as seven Aboriginal sacred sites and two women dreaming tracks (get off the path, boyo). There’s also desert art in the art galleries, bones in the Museum of Central Australia and aboriginal artefacts from the 1930s at the Strehlow Research Centre, which is a lot more interesting than it sounds.

You can get into the insides of a giant caterpillar – the dreaming animal of the local aboriginal tribe, via their metal outdoor sculpture. The Central Australian Aviation Museum has early planes including a restored DC3 dominating the hangar and other bits and pieces, which once flew the sunny skies. More then a few crashed out here during the first half of the last century, so it certainly was a risky business being a desert pilot.

After seeing the dangers of flying in this area, I would have ditched the plane idea and picked a train. The Road Transport Museum contained the Old Ghan train, still perched on its railway tracks, and ready to roll out of there and stream across the deserts of Central and Southern Australia. The new one shoots from Adelaide to Darwin a lot faster and more reliably than this one used to. Sometimes it arrived late – not just minutes or hours but days, especially at the Finke River Crossing which flooded big time when the tropical rains came in from the tropical north. The train was stuck in the floods for six days and the driver had to shoot wild goats to feed the passengers. Aaaah, they were the days, me hearties – if only those old wooden walls could talk, eh?

Alice grew from a Telegraph Station built in 1872, which served as a relay for the single telegraph wire that crossed Oz from Adelaide to Darwin. The restored building contains rustic gizmos and gadgets: the ancestors of wireless internet, blackberries and strawberry-coloured mobiles.

Beady Eyes

My journey continued on to the Reptile Centre to see goannas, frill-necked lizards, thorny devils (met a few of those in my travels) and some of this country’s (and the world’s) 17 most venomous snakes (met even more of these travelling the world too). We got kissed by lizards, inspected at close range by snakes and looked over by the resident crocodile.

In between touring with the Wanderer, we munched on ‘roo and emu at the Overlander Steakhouse, heaved around on camels on the dry Todd River bed and zipped around town on the back of a Harley Davidson. Outside of Alice, the attractions include Kings Canyon, Palm Valley and of course the pilgrimage out to Uluru, a red rock of mystery and legend.

Alice is not without its festivals, too. Don a beanie on 30 June for the Beanie Festival – celebrating everything for the head that is woollen and beyond. Get into some high octane, low brain, insane on the desert plain from 10-12 June for the Tattersall’s Finke Desert Race, where bikes, cars and buggies hurtle from the town of Finke to Alice. Or you might prefer the plants and animals at the Alice Springs Show (7-8 July), or cheer Miss Camel on her Cup during the Voyages Lions Camel Cup on 15 July.

On normal days though, at the end of each fun-filled, sun-baked, dust-ridden attendance at attractions, we always ended up at Todd Mall, in the centre of town, like everyone else. It’s a place to browse for goodies like books and camping equipment, while being stalked by mangy camp dogs. Yup, ya gotta be an animal lover out here, because in Alice you get a new appreciation of a unique part of Oz – which includes puckering up to small scaly lips while being watched by unblinking beady eyes. Ewww.

The experience: The Alice Wanderer does a circuit of the sights from 9am to 5.10pm, and runs every 70 minutes. You can hop off and on with the Alice Explorer anywhere you want. Phone (08) 8952 2111

May 31st, 2007

While trying to drive across the Simpson Desert, LIZZIE JOYCE and her partner were forced to hitch a ride with some dodgy truckers.

Early one January morning my boyfriend Dan and I set off on our trip across three states, covering 3,000 miles on what would turn out to be the best trip I have ever done, not to mention the most dangerous. We were attempting to cross the Simpson Desert on our way to Alice Springs from Sydney. We were fully prepared and set off in our 4WD loaded with equipment, including 60 litres of water, a double swag, a laser beam,
and an Epirb signal.

After 10 hours of driving, watching the landscape turn from highways and tall buildings to red earth and eternal horizons we glided past an old mining town called Cobar, stopped for a wee and drove on through, thankful that this ‘Hicksville’ town was not our destination. But while driving at an average speed of 120km per hour, the trusty car (which I was assured had “just had a full service and was made for driving across such terrain”) was disintegrating and the entire wheel was about to fall off.

Ugly mothertruckers

Suddenly, the brakes started to fail and smoke started pouring out the front passenger tyre. We were 120km from the last town and with at least 100km to the next, Dan decided we should drive on (without brakes) and see if we could make it to our destination. Luckily it didn’t last long anyway as the car stopped in defiance and we were forced to pull off the road in the middle of nowhere. Within minutes two semi-trailers driving in convoy by brothers, pulled up to offer us help and I’ve never been so glad to see two spectacularly ugly truckers before in my life. Freaky Brother One then began to undress me, with his eyes, almost frothing at the mouth at coming in such close proximity to someone of the opposite sex, while Freaky Brother Two was pretending to be a mechanic and baffling Dan with his bullshit. It was turning into Wolf Creek.

Nothing could be done with the car, and we had no choice but to accept a lift from Freaky Brother One to the nearest roadhouse 13km up the road. But then he said there wouldn’t be enough room in the cab so Dan should travel with his brother and I should hop into his cab by myself. By this point I was close to hysteria and there was no way I would be getting in that lorry by myself.

So we both hopped in with Brother Number Two. Dan settled in the middle of the very spacious cab which had enough room to house a small Albanian family! Relieved to be on our way to a phone box and in relative safety, (even if we were in being driven by an axe wielding maniac I had enough faith that Dan could knock him out if it came to it) I thought it would be plain sailing from here. After a couple of minutes on the road Brother Number One starts becoming agitated – he thinks he has lost his keys as he can’t use the radio to contact his brother. He pulls into the side of the road and asks me to hop out to see if he had left them in the door lock. This forced me into ungraceful acrobatic maneuvers in order to hang myself out the door and reach round to grab the keys, with freaky brother one more than enjoying the view of my ass in the air. The keys were there, so off we set again in stilted silence.

Roadhouse blues

Finally we caught sight of the roadhouse and saw our escape was only minutes away and we made a sharp exit from the freaky brothers. Good riddance!

The roadhouse turned out to be a petrol pump and a shop that was about to close. They had a phone though and we arranged for a tow truck to pick us up and take us back to the nearest town… Cobar (the Hicksville town we drove through scorning) where we would have to wait for the next three days for the car to be repaired. How ironic that the town we were laughing at turned out to be our refuge.

So we skipped the Simpson Desert and took another route to Alice Springs where we arrived two weeks later with the biggest smiles and the best memories!

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