Friday, May 02, 2008

What I Did On My Australian Vacation: Day Four

Day Four:

On Day Four, we left Melbourne behind and flew out to Alice Springs, in the heart of the Australian Outback.

The fist place we stopped in "The Alice" was the old telegraph relay station which was the initial reason for the town's existence. There are some original frontier buildings still standing there, as well as a display of old telegraph equipment. I think I got more out of it than I otherwise would have by virtue of having read a couple of relevant books. Several years ago, I picked up The Dig Tree by Sarah Murgatoyd, which was about the exploration of Australia's interior by Europeans and which impressed me greatly with the fact that the Outback eats people, or at least certainly did in those days. So that helped me form at least some vague idea of what a truly boggling feat it must have been to put a telegraph line straight through the heart of this wilderness. And just a few weeks ago, I happened to read The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage, which really brought home the fact that telegraph technology was as marvelous and as world-changing in its day as the internet is in ours, in extremely and fascinatingly similar ways. So it was rather cool to see a little piece of that history preserved.

Next, we visited the headquarters of the Royal Flying Doctors service, which maintains a medical staff and a small fleet of airplanes that can be dispatched almost instantly to rural areas which otherwise have no access to doctors. They showed us a little film, which was really a thinly disguised extended plea for donations, but since they are doing impressive life-saving work, and since most of their calls these days come from tourists rather than locals, I cannot remotely begrudge them for taking the opportunity to try to milk a few dollars from said tourists. (Indeed, I happily let them milk a few out of me.)

We also visited the Alice Springs School of the Air, where we got another film/plea for donations, a little tour, and a brief Q&A session with a staff person. The School of the Air provides education for children who live in isolated locations, and has done so since 1951. It originally started out using radio communications, but has now moved onto the internet. Most of the tour/film/talk was about current practices, which I was a little disappointed by, as I was much more interested in the institution's history. Teaching via internet, while a worthy practice, is considerably less impressive to me than running a classroom over the radio. Heck, I have a friend who does internet math tutoring from her home, using what seem to be pretty much the same methods as the School of the Air teachers, but my imagination chokes at the thought of trying to teach fractions via shortwave.

By the way, Alice Springs, from what I saw of it, seemed like quite a nice little town. Of course, mostly what I saw of it, other than the tour stops, was the shopping area. But even that area, while definitely geared towards tourists, managed to seem pleasantly livable rather than touristy and tacky. Mind you, it's probably a much less hospitable place in the summer... I heartily recommend April as a time to visit this part of Australia, as the weather was as gorgeous as it is possible for weather on Earth to be.

That evening, most of my traveling companions chose to go to an outdoor feast/aboriginal dancing-and-storytelling show. I figured this was probably going to be tacky, not to mention exploitative, and opted out. Which turned out to be a good call, as the folks who went came back reporting that the food was bad, the show was lame, and there was some kind of transportation mix-up that left them stranded without a ride for an hour afterward. They did receive a visit from some wild kangaroos, though, which everybody seems to have regarded as the highlight of the evening. And, as recompense for their troubles, they liberated a number of unopened bottles of wine left over after the dinner, something Linda the tour guide -- who had nothing to do with the screw-ups, it should be noted -- praised as being "in the Australian spirit," or at least in the spirit of the country's convict origins. Heh. My mother, at least, seemed to regard the whole thing as a we'll-laugh-about-this-later sort of adventure than as something to be genuinely annoyed about, which is cool, but I certainly wasn't feeling as if I'd missed out.

My friend and I opted instead to head to the Overlander's Steakhouse for what was almost certainly the most expensive meal I've ever eaten in my life, but one that made up for it in sheer novelty value, if nothing else. (Erm, any vegetarians in the audience may want to look away now.) Here's the menu for the meal we ordered (click to see full-sized):

There are two things to note here. One is that that's a metric crapload of food. The other is the nature of the appetizers, which consist of samples of crocodile, kangaroo, emu, and camel. (Yeah, this is the kangaroo-eating I mentioned in my brief and cryptic posts from the trip.) The kangaroo, in my opinion, was utterly delicious, with the emu being very nearly as good. Both tasted quite a bit like very lean beef, or possibly venison, though it's been long enough since I've had venison that it's difficult to compare. Interestingly, kangaroo was also served at the disastrous meal the others went to, and several of them complained that it was tough and unpleasant. And as I recall, somebody else mentioned on a blog comment that they'd found emu too dry. All I can say is, you guys must not have had it cooked right! Admittedly, the meat was a fair bit rarer than I usually like it, but maybe that's what made the difference. I suspect that kangaroo may be one of those things, like prime rib, that you simply don't order well done. I noticed kangaroo steaks on a menu somewhere else later, too, with "(rare only)" in a note next to it, so apparently I'm not the only person who thinks that. All I know is that I'm sorry emu never caught on here, and I'm really sorry that kangaroo isn't something I'm ever going to find on the menu at my local diner, because I'd probably order it on a semi-regular basis if I had the opportunity.

My mother, by the way, made a face when I told her about this later and said she'd refused to eat the kangaroo because she didn't like the idea of eating anything "cuddly." To which I pointed out that she'd just ordered veal the night before, but it's a mistake to try to apply logic to people's food preferences, really. The reason I mention this is because my friend then responded, "Just think of them as bouncy cows!" and kangaroo meat thus will now always be "bouncy cow" in my mind. Heh. Emu, by the way, is "beef bird," which is what we immediately dubbed it upon tasting it.

The camel I thought was a bit stronger and gamier-tasting than the other red meats, although my friend pointed out that it was difficult to compare it properly, as it came in a plum sauce, which the others didn't. It's quite possible that the difference in palatability was to some degree psychological, as camels simply aren't tasty-looking animals. (Camels, by the way, live wild in the Australian outback, in herds descended from domestic camels initially brought in as riding animals. So camel really is an authentic Australian game meat! Who knew?)

The crocodile, while perfectly edible, was much less to my taste, having the consistency of slightly undercooked chicken and a mildly fishy taste. But it gives me an odd, triumphant feeling to chow down on something that normally regards itself as being higher than me on the food chain.

And I'm done talking about eating animals now, honest. I will, however, mention that pavlova, which is a desert whose description defies my ability with words, except to say that it was incredibly light and delicately fruity, needs to be imported into the United States right now, so that I may order it for dessert with every meal henceforward. Thank you.


  1. I've more read about the Flying Doctors than seen anything about them, and the School of the Air, but both were marvelous endeavors, so admirable. I hadn't thought about the telegraph before as like the internet, but how apt a comparison that is.

    We were more like your mom, refusing to eat kangaraoo, although I think it was because they were endangered when we were there.
    We did try both mutton and water buffalo at different points.
    Mom rode a camel! She went out early in the morning with a group at Ross River (which we flew to from Alice Springs) to do a balloon flight. They rode camels to it, and back again after their balloon landed off-course and they straggled through the bush homeward, wishing for water. Mom wished for a giant glass of Coke with condensation sliding down the sides, by which several others deduced she was American. *g*
    Ross River is where a friendly burro stuck his head in the doorway in the morning. :)

    I mainly remember that as we looked for a good and safe place to walk and eat one of the days we were in AS, that we were told not go past certain train tracks, as that was the bad part of town (with the indication that it was the aboriginal part), and we talked a little about racial politics back home and there in AS.
    Also, we saw a KFC there, the first we'd seen in country, and the first Woolworth's I'd ever seen.

  2. I recommend The Victorian Internet if you're interested in the whole telegraph/internet comparison. Most of it is just a history of the technology and so on, but it also does a really good job of pointing out the parallels, and they're amazing. F'rinstance, telegraph operators used to chat with each other over the lines when there were no messages, and they developed their own set of abbreviations, equivalent to "afk, brb", say. And people sometimes became good friends over the wire only to meet up in RL years later, with the same varying results as people have when doing that today... It's really surprising and cool.

    I read somewhere that kangaroos, or at least the kind they get meat from, were never actually endangered, but they were represented that way in the US because some congressman's wife thought they were cuddly and got him to claim they were endangered and ban the import of meat. I don't know if that's true or not, though.

    We did stop at a camel farm outside of Alice Springs -- I'll cover that on Day Five -- but I didn't ride one. The balloon ride was tempting, though, but even in my new-found morning person-ness, I didn't want to get up way before dawn to do it.

    Racial politics seems to be every bit as complicated in Australia as in the US, and I don't pretend to have anything like a decent grasp on the subject. I do know that Alice Springs is the one place where I saw aboriginal people around in any numbers.

    My mom and aunt got all excited when they saw Woolworth's stores, because they apparently remember Woolworth's fondly from their youth. Me, I only remember it vaguely and couldn't exactly bring myself to get excited about it. :) It was different from the ones we used to have in the US, anyway, being a supermarket, rather than a general discount store.

  3. "Bouncy cows" *snorfl*

    I notice that the rump steak doesn't specify which animal, but I'm guessing beef, since the other species pictured are mentioned elsewhere.

    What species of bread product is "damper"?

  4. Yes, the rump steak came from a regular, non-bouncing cow. :)

    Damper is a very dense sort of bread that apparently used to be a standard ration in the outback. I imagine it's less nice when it's been sitting in a bushman's pack for a week, but the damper we had was fresh-baked and tasty. Could almost have made a meal in itself, though.

  5. I was with you right up to the camel...somehow camel, with plum sauce no lesss, just doesn't do it for me. :)
    Sounds like a great meal...the most exotic thing I've had was frog's legs...

  6. Someone, frog's legs sounds less appetizing to me than camel, really.