What makes my family the happiest on our adventures? Sleeping in! Truthfully they love the adventure and get cranky if we don’t do enough activities. But correctly spaced throughout the trip, sleep-ins are like mini-vacations. We eat at the busy Alice Springs McDonalds for breakfast and even Amanda, a lifetime vegetarian, reluctantly admits that McDonald’s breakfast is decent and cheap.
McDonalds even makes a decent flat white, the brilliant Australian contribution to coffee beverages. We love them and frequently brew them at home with our little espresso machine. Flat Whites are rarely done correctly in the States or Europe. The key to a flat white is steaming the whole milk to a lower temperature so it doesn’t scald and stays creamy. Most baristas in the US and Europe just think it’s a latte.
I’m going to make a heretical statement and say Australian coffee is generally better than Europe. Why? There are full sized commercial machines everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Truck stop? Carnival? cheesy motel? They all have restaurant grade machines and trained baristas. But the real thing is they use fresh milk, not the UHT crap commonly used in Europe (especially France and Italy) that makes drinks tastes burnt even before they are scalded.
Add to that the fact that they know how to make the best espresso drink (the flat white) and you have a trifecta of coffee enjoyment. And yes even McDonalds in the middle of the Outback does it pretty well.
The bus picks us up from our hotel and a woman with what sounds like an Australian drawl drives us to the oldest cattle ranch in the Northern Territories. What would a bunch of mostly vegetarians do at a cattle ranch? Ride quad bikes of course!
‘Hi I’m Frosty!’ the tall guy says as we get out of the car. ‘Sign the forms, it’s all common sense’. He looks 50 but might be younger. The intense desert sun ages people. ‘HEY’ he barks to Amanda when she says something to Lily on the side. ‘This is my backyard. I take safety seriously and I’ll have you listen. One mistake on these machines and you’ll be going home with one fewer family member.’
Amanda points out to me that we’ve done ATVs on three of our last four trips: Vietnam, Tunisia and now Australia. I guess we like them! What’s cool about this one is they let Lily and Emma each have their own vehicle. And they are big too – 450hp Polaris bikes. ‘American made’ Frosty comments.
‘There is a little wind, so you can be 100m apart and not get too much dust in your face.’ On days with no wind, they have to space people a fifth of a mile apart. Needless to say, there is a lot of dust. Red dust. ‘I’m going to make those white pants red by the time you leave’ Frosty says to the german guy wearing white pants in the outback.
Frosty tells us a bit about cattle ranching. Most of the Outback is cattle farming country. As long as water can be supplied, the grasses are plentiful to eat. The biggest hassles are the dingos and to a lesser extent the donkeys and camels, all of which get shot by helicopter a few times a year to reduce the population.
The bike is too much for Lily though. She doesn’t have the experience, confidence or muscle to maneuver the curves and rocky parts. Frosty gives her a kind of scolding – meant well and only with the intent of keeping her safe. She tears up but never gives up. At the end he’s very supportive and complimentary of her. ‘You’ve improved a thousand percent, Lily’.
The girls order Domino’s pizza. It’s better than the options at the hotel and easier to get a table. Our hotel apparently has the best restaurant in Alice Springs – a thai/Indian combo but there it’s all meat. Amanda and I order the only veggie things on the menu Bok Choy and an curry potato dish. Both are good!
Alice Springs is the largest city in the Outback. At 25k population, that’s saying a lot. But compared to the truck stops called ‘towns’ it’s a regular big city. It grew in importance early in Australia’s settlement because it was a telegraph station, connecting Sydney with Asia and the rest of Europe, cutting down the time it took to send a message from 8 weeks by ship to 48 hours.
Saturday marks day 16 and our last full day of adventure. Tomorrow we start the 4 flight, 27 hour trip back to our home. Again we get McDonald’s for breakfast and walk to the bike shop ‘Outback Bikes.’ We get fitted for hard tail 29er bikes, the kind I have at home.
I have a little experience with mountain biking, but am definitely still a beginner. Our girls have done a lot of things in our travels, and circus back home but biking has never been something we’ve done much. I remember Lily crashing out on a bike in China and freaking out.
‘The trails aren’t that hard’ says the bike store guy ‘even the ones labeled red aren’t that bad. And the green ones are totally paved.’ I decide to try the green to the yellow and maybe see if we can handle a red trail.
Again the weather is perfect. 65 degrees, dry and sunny. We lather on sunscreen, put on layers and hats and bike through Alice Springs to the trail system just at it’s edge. We ride along the Todd river bed, again lined with gum trees that send deep roots to the underground water. There are roaming groups of what look like local families of aboriginal origin walking the dry river bed.
Aborigines make up 30% of the quarter million population of the Northern Territories and en even higher percentage in Alice Springs. Like Native Americans in the US, there are significant programs to support the tribes and communities that don’t want to assimilate. There are massive social issues here, many originating from the treatment of aboriginal groups including poverty, high rates of alcoholism and Australia’s worst crime rate.
I’m reminded of how naive our adventure travel can be. We really don’t see life as it is, we see a superficial, tourist sanitized version that gives us a glimpse but not a real view of life as it is in the places we visit. It’s a luxury, a first world luxury to see the planet as this safe, fun playground when it is anything but.
The road turns to dirt and rocks. We barely get 100 yards and Lily looks weepy. She’s feeling unstable on the bike, and is still scared from yesterday’s experience. We hold her. ‘It’s fine honey, you aren’t letting us down. You can go back and hang out at the shopping area. Who do you want to go back with?’ ‘Emma’ Lily says shyly.
Emma wants to go on, but she wants to comfort Lily more. They turn around and head back to town for some ice cream. Amanda and I push on and the terrain gets rougher. I have to think about my line, stay in a really low gear and pedal aggressively to get up and down the hills. It’s incredibly fun, but challenging.
Amanda turns around after another mile. They said this was intermediate but it’s pretty hard. It’s like a ski slope where you never really know how hard a blue is going to be. This one is challenging. I’m having the time of my life though, and Amanda is happy to let me go solo.
I love this! The trails are narrow with big rocks you have to avoid, steep cliffs, rocky hills and switchbacks through the desert. The bike handles well, but I do have to exert a lot of energy to keep moving. And stay hydrated, I must stay hydrated.
After 90 minutes of this I’m close to my edge of exhaustion. And of course that’s when I take a spill, into some sharp boulders. I have bloody scrapes in three places and a torn shirt from the fall. It scares me but I know that fear only makes things more dangerous so I take the time to calm down and continue back to town where I meet the family, safely eating food at a cute cafe.
We give Lily the afternoon off. She needs a nap after that. I’m exhilierated and psyched for our last event – the Alice Springs ‘show’.
The show is what we might call a state fair. There are livestock competitions and sketchy carnival rides, game hucksters and bad food. (Yes they have great coffee.) It’s such a big event for the locals that the first day of the event is a government holiday!
Emma, Amanda and I wander the site. It’s gritty and dusty and loud. There is a chainsaw wood carver but most of the events are over. We get some soft serve ice cream and look at the prize winning cows and horses. The rides are really expensive – nearly $8 a ride for typical meh carnival ride.
We leave earlier than planned, not wanting to wait a few hours for the fireworks. Everyone is wiped from trip fatigue and sun. I find a cute little Italian place run by Thai’s that does a surprisingly good pasta plate. Lily gets the bolognaise but she says she likes mine the best. I use the Marcella Hazan recipe and it’s one of the few things I miss being vegetarian.
And with that our epic trip to Australia ends. I wish we had time for more. There were a lot of ups and downs on this one but nothing was difficult except the cost and the time to get here.
We’ll take the flight back Alice Springs to Sydney via Adelaide and then from Sydney to Houston on United’s longest flight in their schedule (16 hours). By the looks of the seat map we won’t have the same luck we had on the way in (empty rows to ourselves.)
But we’ll be fine. And then we get to see our beloved home, garden and dog. Sometimes that’s the best part of travel, coming home.
Next up, Germany over Christmas and New Years. That will bring us to exactly 365!