Thursday, 22 April 2010

A town like Alice

Alice Springs hunkers low between the rust red hills of the MacDonnell Ranges and the sandy bottomed Todd River. At 8am the day is cool and clear, with pale blue skies and a gentle breeze but already the air carries a hint of the temperatures to come.

By late morning the heat is shimmering from the corrugated iron roofs and the bitumen streets feel molten beneath your feet. Shopkeepers retreat to dim air-conditioned interiors; shoppers emerge blinking and squinting and disappear rapidly into vehicles.

A small group of Aboriginals doze in the shade on the green grass beside the library. Aside from the slow caw caw caw of a lazy crow, the town is silent. When a squabble breaks out among the group in the park the noise clatters down the quiet streets. The disagreement escalates and eventually one man separates from the group and walks with a swinging gait down the empty mall, muttering and throwing the occasional insult back over his shoulders. Then silence descends again and the town dozes through its unofficial siesta.

This has been a great year for rain here. The city had 600mm of rain this wet season against an average of around 300mm. Last year it received just 75mm all year (England's north, by comparison, averages 1,500mm a year and can reach totals of 5000mm). The hills around the city are covered with grass but the river remains virtually dry. Occasional shallow waterholes, the water lukewarm around your ankles, are filled with darting fish.

By 4pm the worst of the heat is retreating. The silver river gums that line the sandy river bed cast cool dappled shade; the vivid red of the surrounding hills and the indigo blue of the sky soften to paler shades. On the river bed, in the shade on the cool sand, a small group of Aboriginals drink cans of beer around a fire, their voices floating softly across to the banks.

A young woman wearing a floral skirt pushes her two sons on swings in the park. The youngest, a chubby toddler of about two with caramel coloured skin and baby curling blond hair, throws back his head and laughs in delight as the swing flings him high. In a neighbouring front garden, a young man, shirtless, holds a tiny baby to his bare chest with one arm and pushes a lawn cutter lazily with the other. ‘Alright,’ he calls languidly in greeting. On the verandah of the pub, condensation gathers on ice cold beer glasses as people sit, legs on the railing, washing away the taste of another day’s work.

Once the sun sinks a rapid and surprising coolness blows through the town, taking the edge of the heat and emotions. It’s possible to walk a little faster and laugh a little louder and then sleep, the water cooled air conditioned air blowing softly across your back. Stars take over the sky, a mass of gentle light that offer no competition to the growing moon.

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