That Gum You Like

Road Trip, Vol. 1

Posted in Adelaide, Road Trip by Dave on December 10, 2009

hey kiddos–

So I left Melbourne on Tuesday at about 7pm. The late exit because I didn’t end up getting the car until about 4pm, and took three hours to frantically get an iPod connector and pack all my stuff. I had been planning to stay in a campground in Little Desert National park, and really it looked very nice. But it was a lot further away than I thought it was, and by the time I reached Keniva, the town you access the park from, it was about midnight. Also, I couldn’t find the campground, so I suppose it wasn’t so much the midnight as the fact that I had no earthly idea where I was going. It’s called planning folks.

So my plan for the trip as a whole had been to sleep in my car for the most of it, as a money saving technique and a surefire hilarious-story bonus detail. So I arrive in Keniva, can’t find the campground, and decide, well, may as well start now. I pulled into a parking lot conveniently located right by the police station, whipped out my blanket and pillow, reclined the seat, and tried to sleep.

Mine is red.

The picture does this beast far too much justice in the size department. Cramped is an understatement. After I couldn’t work it in the drivers seat, I tried lying across the back seat. After a few minutes getting intimate with my knees, I decided it just wasn’t going to work.

Okay, I imagine some of you at this point are thinking, “C’mon dave, I’ve seen you fall asleep sitting up at the dinner table in the middle of a conversation, and you’re telling me you couldn’t sleep in a car because it was too small?”. And you’re right. That’s not the whole story. The other half of the story is I got spooked, and bailed. A few things in my defense–it was midnight. this town was a straight transplant from rural Alabama. Before leaving Melbourne, I watched Wolf Creek, a horror flick about backpackers getting murdered in rural Australia. And the king of all reasons–both times I stopped for gas en route, the conversations I had with the various truckers went something like this:

“Where ya headed mate?”
“Uh, Keniva. Little Desert National Park.”
“Ah, American, are yas?”
“Yeah, east coast.”
“Ah. Well, good luck to ya, and y’know….be careful.”
**nervous laugh** “Of what, in particular?”
“Just be careful, mate”
**increasingly nervous laugh “Yeah, okay, thanks…”
“Some people out here don’t much care for tourists, that’s all.”

At this point I typically choked out a thanks and got back in my car. I’m almost certain they were joking, but as it got darker and the traces of civilization got further and further away, the joke stopped being funny.

Okay, so, yeah. The truth is, whatever the reason, I knew I wasn’t sleeping in that car. So I drove the rest of the way to Adelaide, and got in at about 3 in the morning. After it became clear that every hostel in town was closed and that the only open hotel was the surely very expensive (at least compared to the $24 hilton, it was 5 in the morning and I figured I may as well just stay awake until it got light. So I cruised around and saw some of the city, walked through the park, and as it got light, drove through the adelaide hills and watched the sunrise over some mountains. It was pretty awesome actually.

The rest of my day was spent cruising around Adelaide and trying not to fall asleep in bookstores and art galleries. I found an absolutely incredible bookstore in a tiny gallery called the Experimental Art Foundation. I’ve never seen a less commercially viable place of business in my life. The biggest sections were Philosophy and Experimental Lit. followed closely by Art and Literary Theory. All of the marginal sections in any reasonable bookstore, if they have them at all, were highlighted here. It was a dream come true for a snob like me, but it blew my mind how anti-profit the design and selection was. I have a lot of respect for the guy who runs it, who talked to me for quite a bit as I nosed through the store. As he explains it, because the gallery is supported by the government, he doesn’t pay taxes, and can survive as long as he doesn’t actually lose money. Which is enough of a challenge, as I discovered. He claimed that he got far more customers like me, just passing through town, than from the local community, despite the fact that he’s on the campus of the University of South Australia, which reportedly has a robust art program.

And quite a good one, to judge by their museum. I spent nearly an hour in their Sydney Ball exhibit, which was pretty great.

Shapes, guys. I love 'em.

After nerding it up in the museums, I spent the rest of the afternoon in the Botanical Gardens reading comics. [Garth Ennis’s Preacher and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. Amazing and disappointing, respectively. Preacher highly recc’d if you like: absurd violence, foul language, books that make you feel gross for reading them, and the Golden Compass]. Around six I checked into a hostel. Okay hostels are ludicrous and I felt like an alien, but I don’t have the time to do the subject justice. I’ll probably end up staying in quite a few more, so I’ll write more about them as I get a better sense of what’s crazy and what’s not.

After a few beers at the local Pub, the fantastic Grace Emily, I crashed mega early. Like, 8pm early. 32 hours awake was enough for me.

Today I’m headed off to Port Augusta, the reported “Crossroads of Australia”. I think this is where the Outback starts, so I’ll be looking for a steakhouse.

Chockers in Renmark, Knackered in Adelaide

Posted in Adelaide, Renmark by Dave on November 11, 2009

What’s happenin’ kids? Another long wait between updates, my apologies, but not nearly as bad as last time, I don’t think. Nothing too new in the lovely port city of Melbourne, but this past weekend I finally escaped it’s sprawling clutches and ran off to find some rural goodness in South Australia. Specifically, a little town called Renmark, pop. 10,000, located right on the lazy banks of the Murray River.

A co-worker at the Boeing plant had gotten to asking me every Monday or Tuesday if I had “gotten up to anything that weekend”, and was apparently somewhat frustrated with my continual denial that I hadn’t been raising hell or wrestling wallabies. So two Fridays ago (Oct. 30) he announced to me that he was quitting work and moving out to Renmark to meet up with a buddy of his, and that I should come up for the weekend and see some of the real Aussie country. Eager for a break from my usual routine of falling asleep with a book on my chest in the park or watching movies till my eyeballs started bleeding, I readily accepted without bothering to ask any details, except when we left. Thursday, giving me a week to figure out how I was going to get back to Melbourne for work on Monday.

By the time Thursday rolled around, I had worked out the following plan. I would drive up to Renmark with Justin on Thursday, stay till Saturday morning, when I would take a bus to Adelaide at 730am and after spending the day there fly back to Melbourne Sunday morning at 650am. A somewhat ludicrous plan, to be sure, considering the concept of paying for a hotel is anathema to me by this point and I was planning on sleeping in the airport terminal, but the temptation of an 80 dollar plane ticket was too much to resist.

Thursday morning Justin picked me up at work, and after a picking up a furniture-loaded trailer from the father of the guy he was going to see, we hit the road. The scenery shifted quickly from the suburban sprawl of Melbourne to long loping fields full of hay or grapes to stark, empty desert. The last few hours of the drive brought us across some of the most barren, empty, country I’ve seen outside of the American Southwest. Scrubby plants sticking up out of the famous, endless, red dirt, periodically interrupted by a few blink-and-you-miss it towns where a gas station is the only sign of civilization (and even that is a questionable form of civilization. These people still use the word “petrol”).

After eight hours in the car, we arrived in Renmark at about four or five in the afternoon and met up with Ramsey. Ramsey is an old family friend of Justin’s, and had moved to Renmark about a year ago after spending some time recovering from a motorcycle accident. As I picked up from the endless shit-talk, Ramsey’s idea of recovering apparently involved spending two and a half years visiting damn near every bar in Australia and buying rounds for the house out of a seemingly bottomless insurance compensation.

Seemingly being a key word here. It would seem that well had run dry by the time I blew into town—Ramsey was starting work, and had blown the last bit of the cash on a place to live so he could finally move out of his girlfriends place. The twist is that he bought a church.

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Party Central.

Okay, so not exactly a church, but a hall used by the Lutheran church across the street for whatever functions they had going (exorcisms? ritual sacrifice? what’s a Lutheran?) Apparently they didn’t need it any more, and Ramsey picked it up for a song with grand plans to turn it into the den of debauchery it was always intended to be. After dropping our stuff off in the hall, we headed “downtown” and got a beer at the sports bar, before making our way over to Ramsey’s girlfriend’s house for a “Barbie.” [Okay, seriously, I’m not kidding, they said Barbie. It was the first time I’d heard it, and I had to turn a laugh into a cough pretty quickly….)

Emma’s house, in the “suburbs” of Renmark (scare quotes because these people talk about their 10,000 person town as if it was some burgeoning metropolis, which brought a chuckle when the downtown is half a block and the suburbs a 100 house development), used to be right up against an apricot (ape-ri-cot, in these parts) farm, but the town had recently hit a stride of growth and the farm was being converted into another development. The company building the houses out back was the one that Justin and Ramsey were shortly going to start work for, so we took an amble through the frames of the future suburb and beyond, into the scrubby outback. After watching Ramsey’s whippet, Basil, chase down a few Kangaroos, we went back in and had dinner.

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Australian steak on the Barbie is serious business.

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This steak has more meat than I do.

These steaks kicked my ass, and I emerged the winner. After finishing mine and half of Justin’s I sat back and nearly collapsed in soporific ecstasy (the Aussies refer to this state of extreme fullness as “chockers”), and went to bed for real shortly after. We crashed at Emma’s that night, as there was no place except the hardwood floor to sleep in the hall.

Saturday morning dawned bright, loud, hot, and generally unpleasant, although I suppose the ‘slab’ (i.e. case) of Cooper’s Pale Ale (the winner so far in the best Australian Beer contest) we had polished off the night before could have played a role in that. To be fair, the weather in Renmark is extreme. Saturday reached a peak of something like 40 centigrade (104 F), and was generally considered a pretty cool day. The prediction for this week was three days over 45 C, which is pushing into absolute madness territory. The locals deal with the heat through a time-honored tradition of mocking the sweaty tourists, feigning ignorance to the existence of sleeves, and beginning their beer drinking before noon, if possible. As a sweaty tourist whose shirts all still have sleeves, beer was my only hope.

Ramsey was signed up to help a friend with some work on a vineyard, leaving Justin and I to our own devices. Justin was eager to get the TV in the hall working, so after making a delicious egg sandwich for breakfast, we set out to get bunny ears and an aerial (right? I had no idea these still existed). After managing to get one fuzzy channel playing an endless marathon of a painfully inane kids show, we decided to see what we could see in town. After fifteen minutes of that, we gave up and bought a slab and sat drinking in the cool shade of the gum trees on the banks of the Murray. The Murray runs right through Renmark, and like many rural river communities, life revolves around the cool water skirting around the town. Most locals own a ‘tinny’ (and overpower them with hilariously large motors. I saw a 50 horse on a 15 foot flat bottom…) and spent most of their time floating around the river, fishing and camping. Any local who learned I wasn’t going to make it upriver claimed I would be missing the best part of Renmark, but I suppose these are the breaks.

Ramsey called in the early evening to give us the plan for the rest of the night. We were expected at Emma’s at 630 for another barbeque, this time with a few more guests, and after that everyone was headed to the Club. “There’s a band playing tonight, it should be pretty good,” says Ramsey, “I think it’s a Pink cover band.” You heard right, friends, a Pink cover band. Pink is strangely huge in Australia in general (like Hasselhoff in Germany huge) and the affection for the woman and her music extends across gender and age lines in a way that would be regarded an exceptionally strange phenomenon stateside. So I guess I wasn’t surprised that Ramsey was excited to see a Pink cover band, though I suspected that the truth was that he was more excited about the surely epic night that the band would bring.

The barbeque at Emma’s house, though not matched in size, was equally delicious as the night before, and the added guests delighted in that old Australian party game “Make Fun of the American.” Popular categories include “Gridiron”, “What the fuck are you doing in Renmark” “That Bush guy sure sucked, huh?” “Clark Kent” and “I’m surprised you aren’t fatter.” Really though, I had a great time at the barbeque, and the Renmark locals are easily some of the nicest, most down-to-earth Australians I’ve met since arriving. With these people, the only thing that matters is that you’re there. It doesn’t matter what roundabout path you took to arrive, once you’re sitting on their veranda and drinking a beer with them, it’s instant acceptance. Which is a pleasant change from American social politics, where I more often feel some need to prove myself (particularly with my peers), and my right to be sitting at the table. It’s not so much a value judgment; I think the flip side is that although Australian’s are far more comfortable with you on the surface, they are less likely to be actually open with you. I haven’t had a serious conversation with a local since arriving, and while that’s not purely a bad thing, it does feel like an incomplete kind of relationship.

But enough of this half-baked theorizing. I’m sure that what you want to hear about is the Pink cover band. We arrived at the club to find the band in full swing, as well as a packed house. Italics, not scare quotes. Everybody and their cousin was at this club. Within ten seconds of arriving I saw a girl who couldn’t have been older than fifteen and a dude who had to be at least seventy bobbing his foot-long beard with the music. Now I don’t care much for Pink, but this band put on a hell of a show. Smoke machines, elaborate lights, a singer who at least looked like Pink, and band that was fully capable of recreating the, um, full complexity of Pink’s oeuvre. Needless to say, I spend much of my time on the porch overlooking the river, which had become a placid reflecting pool in the bright lights of the club. This kind of social situation is not particularly my scene, and I knew I had to get up at 630 to catch my bus, but I ended up staying till 2am, pretty much exclusively because every time I tried to leave I saw or was accosted by someone hilarious. Highlights: A barrel-chested dude who had to be at least seven feet tall and his 4’10” wife, the woman who claimed I was Spiderman (“No ma’am, I believe you’re thinking of Clark Kent”), the retiree who wouldn’t take no for an answer and essentially dragged me onto the dance floor (she could bust a move, for the record), a guy who asked me if I wanted to see a shark fight a gator the next day and a very drunk hippie with a braided beard who cryptically informed me that if I wanted to really see Australia, I had to go to New Zealand. [Almost everyone knew immediately I was American. I still can’t figure it out. Maybe I smell like McDonalds or something.]  But I eventually made my way back to the hall and promptly passed out on the stage.

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Slept great, dreamed of Jesus.

The next day dawned just as hot and unpleasant as the one before, too hot even to sleep on the bus. My arrival in Adelaide was marked by the following thoughts: “Oh my god it’s hot. Holy shit, this is seriously hot. I can’t believe how hot it is. This is incredible.” I soon decided standing in the black tar parking lot wasn’t improving the situation any, and found my way into the center of the city. After a cursory tour of the Art Museum (saw another Francis Bacon, and a bunch more I forget), I found my way into the botanical gardens. I don’t care about plants, but I do care about shade, and I frittered away a big chunk of the day drifting in and out of a nap under a huge tree.

Exhausted (i.e. knackered) from the past two days (drinking beer in the hot sun is the new working), I wasn’t up for much exploring, and I didn’t think I could survive much time in the heat anyway, so after leaving the gardens I killed some time watching An Education in a local movie theater. A fine source of air conditioning, and although I didn’t care much for the movie, I would recommend it highly to moms (particularly those raised in the sixties. HI MOM!). I then headed out to the airport, planning to fall asleep on a bench until my flight the next morning. I had only begun to set my plan into action on a strangely comfortable row of chairs before the security guard approached me, and informed me of some hilarious news. Apparently the terminal closes at 11 in the Adelaide airport, and I was going to have to find another place to sleep. The guard was perfectly friendly about it, and recommended the coffee shop’s outdoor terrace area as a good place to catch a few winks.

Unfortunately, due to a combination of a hard wooden bench, no pillow, some serious breeze, and a couple of obnoxious Germans, sleep eluded me for the evening.  I was allowed back in the airport at four the next morning, caught my flight at 650, got back to Melbourne and spent the day in a coma. Fucking knackered, mate.

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