Animal Extravaganza in Alice Springs

I think I deserve congratulations for managing to avoid the overused “A Town Like Alice” cliche as the post title here.

Anyways, we had been camping for a week by the time we reached Alice Springs, so we decided to splurge and stay in a motel while in town, since it was forecasted to hit 40 degrees and air con would be nice. As Alice Springs was the first “big” city we had visited in quite a while, our first order of business was to order some pizza and catch up on the news with some cable TV. We also wandered around the city centre for a bit, and were excited because there were actual stores and stuff.

Learning About Alice Springs

While wandering we discovered that the tourist info centre does free walking tours each morning, so we decided to join in on one.

We strolled around town and learned about various people whom streets are named after. We also learned that the dry Tood River that runs through town generally floods about once a year. Alice actually has a boat race where people cut out the bottom of the boat and run with it. Apparently its the “only boat race in the world that is cancelled when the river does have water in it”.

Alice has a sweet open air cinema that is now a backpacker hostel. Unfortunately it was outcompeted by the indoor (air-conditioned) theatre, but they still show some movies to the guests staying there. It was also the place where they premiered “A Town Like Alice” and people apparently still talk about it (I don’t know who).

There is also the original jailhouse, one of the few remaining early buildings that hasn’t been developed over. Inside there are big iron rings in the ground to be shackled to. Apparently it was originally just for Aboriginals (I guess no “white fellas” committed any crimes according to the authorities) but once there were some white criminals, they made a small separate room for them. Once there started being female criminals as well that was too much for them so they moved to a new jail.

We also saw the “Palace in the Alice” – a governmental house where part of the Northern Territory was briefly governed from when Australia played with the idea of splitting it up. It was also the seat of the state government during WWII when Darwin was being bombed a lot by the Japanese. Also of equal importance (at least based on its extensive inclusion on the sign) is the fact that this was the place the Queen stayed when she visited here. Also noted on the sign is that Prince Charles got food poisoning while staying there on the same trip, which is kind of a weird thing to point out.

We learned that although tourism is a part of the economy here, there are several other major contributors. One is some kind of American satellite communication base not far from the town which is all very hush-hush. There is also a major prison not far away, but the other main job provider is the town hospital, which is the main hospital in the area and also a major hub of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Since we were feeling like we were on a roll of learning stuff, we decided to then go to visit the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the afternoon. They have this kind of cool hologram of John Flynn, the founder of the service, that tells you about it. Basically it’s like an air ambulance that provides medical service to all the people that live in remote areas of Australia. They have a fleet of over 60 special planes that fly around carrying nurses, doctors, and patients. They also have clinics where they come and provide preventative care and things like dental service (which is really hard to get when you live out in the middle of nowhere and are self employed, i.e. less health coverage). We also learned that they have these medicine chests with lots of numbered drugs in them. If you are at a cattle station or a mine or something and someone is hurt or sick, a doctor can talk someone through providing some basic treatment/medicine using the radio. We congratulated ourselves on our day of learning by cooking some kangaroo for dinner.

Outback medical kit.
Outback medical kit.
Model RFDS airplane.
Model RFDS airplane.

The next day it was super hot out so we went to see the new James Bond movie. I was excited because the popcorn deal also came with a Choc Top, a.k.a. ice cream cone dipped in chocolate.

In the evening we took a stroll up ANZAC Hill. It used to be (and still is) an Aboriginal site, but was appropriated for a war memorial. While I took a bunch of sunset pictures, Chris intently read all the plaques commemorating the different conflicts. Some of them were obvious (World Wars) and others were unknown to us (various South Asian conflicts Australia has been involved in).

The memorial on ANZAC Hill.
The memorial on ANZAC Hill.
Sunset over Alice Springs.
Sunset over Alice Springs.

The Alice Springs Desert Park

So, earlier on in the trip we had seen a documentary showing thorny devil lizards at the Alice Springs Desert Park, and Chris really really wanted to go. It’s kind of like a zoo showcasing the different Outback environments, and we ended up spending the whole day there because there were so many different presentations to see.

First up were the dingoes, which basically affirmed my belief that they are just dogs. Or at least the ones in the zoo are, as the keeper was able to pat them on the head, give them treats, and get them to perform tricks. Apparently about 60% of the dingoes in the area are hybrids with domestic dogs, which explains why some of them seem so tame I guess. Pure dingoes are actually becoming threatened because of so much cross-breeding with feral dogs.

Dingoes!
Dingoes!

Next up we visited the emus and watched a bird demonstration, where we learned to tell the difference between the different kinds of kites and saw a huge eagle swallow a mouse whole. We also saw a frogmouth owl, which can mimic a tree branch in hilarious fashion.

Snack time!
Snack time!
Tawny Frogmouth Owl pretending to be a branch.
Tawny Frogmouth Owl pretending to be a branch.

Since we were on a learning streak, we also went to a presentation about Aboriginal foods and traditions, where we learned the proper way to attract emus is by lying on your back and bicycling your legs. The guide talked about the old ways, where men would go out for a couple days hunting and the women would be responsible for basically everything else. Hunting is a bit of a chance game, whereas the gathering that the women would do was pretty much a surety, so that kept everyone going. There are a bunch of different seeds and a lot of varieties of desert tomatoes, but some are poisonous. According to the guide, the way that they learned which compounds were poisonous or medicinal was by the tribal elder/doctor experimenting on himself.

Bush tucker!
Bush tucker!

Due to the limited resources, tribe members could only have children when someone had died, so that the tribe wasn’t overpopulating the region. The guide also showed us a chart with a complex wheel of “skin types”. This doesn’t actually apply to what skin tone you are, but what skin your parents were. In fact, you were only allowed to marry someone from the correct skin type, else you would probably be exiled. The skin types differ if you are male or female, but the basic premise is that if you follow the chart, you are mating with someone who is as far away on the genetic circle as they can be, to limit in-breeding. I don’t know if their methods have any scientific merit, but it was interesting nonetheless. The guide also talked about the difficulties that the youth have in pairing the “old way” a.k.a. traditional practices with the “new way” (modern life) which was interesting.

Skin type wheels.
Skin type wheels.

We finished off our day by visiting the massive nocturnal house (largest in the southern hemisphere), where we got to see malas and bilbies for the first time, which was super exciting (they are furry cute marsupials, sadly no photos because it was too dark). The whole park was actually originally created by a private donor to protect and breed the mala. Of course Chris’s favourite was the thorny devil. We also learned what a death adder looks like, so we know to avoid the heck out of that in the future.

Death Adder!
Death Adder!
Thorny devil!
Thorny Devil!

On our way out of the park we saw the craziest looking bird ever, an Australian Bustard. It makes an intense roar sound by puffing our a giant pouch in its throat. It is pretty terrifying actually.

Australian bustard doing its crazy mating call.
Australian Bustard doing its crazy mating call.

The Kangaroo Sanctuary

On our last day in Alice Springs, we went to visit the famed Kangaroo Sanctuary. This is actually the reason we spent so long in Alice – the sanctuary only allows visitors on Wednesday to Friday. The sanctuary is famous because it was built and run by one amazing guy, Chris ‘Brolga’ Barnes (nicknamed after the Australian crane because he is 6 feet 7 inches tall), and is the subject of a BBC documentary series called Kangaroo Dundee, now in its third season.

One of Brolga's kangaroos.
One of Brolga’s kangaroos.

We arrived at the sanctuary early evening on a coach with a group of other eager people and were greeted by Brolga himself, who explained the sanctuary to us. Brolga has basically made it his mission to rescue as many orphaned kangaroos in the Outback as possible, and originally lived in a shack on the sanctuary (today he has a house across the road and wife, because girls need indoor plumbing).

Roos in the sanctuary.
Roos in the sanctuary.

The most common cause of orphaned kangaroos is automobile accidents. Since joeys are held so snugly in their mother’s pouch, a collision that kills the mother on impact will often leave the joey unharmed. Sadly if no one finds the joey, it will eventually die of dehydration, or be eaten by birds. So the most important lesson we learned is that you should always stop to check when you see a dead roo on the road (exciting story about this to come in a later post)! Brolga estimated that he finds a joey in one out of every ten roos he checks. We were taught that the most important things to do if you find a joey are to put it in a pillowcase (or something similar) and keep it warm, feed it water NOT milk (unless for some reason you have specialty joey milk), and then take it to someone who knows what they are doing. There are so many orphaned joeys in the Outback that there is actually a whole network of wildlife carers (seemingly mainly older retired ladies who get to sit at home all day bottle feeding little roos in their homes).

Kangaroo feeding time!
Kangaroo feeding time!

The other main way that joeys are obtained is from Aboriginals. The sanctuary has a deal with the local Aboriginal population, so they now bring Brolga the joeys of any mother kangaroos they kill (the Aboriginals are allowed to hunt kangaroo to eat as it’s traditional). Sometimes the sanctuary also receives roos that have been kept as pets. The sanctuary actually obtains a whopping 300 joeys a year! Brolga raises some himself and others are given to local wildlife carers. When the joeys are big enough, they can be released into the sanctuary (it currently maintains a mob of over 40 roos) or the wild, if possible. Kangaroos can only be released back into the wild if they learn to fear humans, which is not always the case, especially if they have been kept as a pet for some time. If they don’t fear humans, a male kangaroo can be quite aggressive, which is dangerous.

Chris and baby Hope.
Chris and baby Hope.

While visiting the sanctuary we all got a chance to hold one of the joeys Brolga is currently raising. The goal of this is to make everyone realize how effing cute they are, thus encouraging you to stop and check dead roos on the road. And it works very well, because they are SO EFFING CUTE. The one we held is named Hope, she has a broken leg and is basically the most adorable thing ever. FUN FACT: If you gently blow on a joey’s nose it will give you “kisses”. This is because in the wild it will lick its mother’s lips in this way to drink her saliva. It’s also good bonding :).

Baby Hope!
Baby Hope!

The star of Brolga’s mob is Roger, the enormous alpha male. Roger has to be separated when people visit the sanctuary because male kangaroos will literally kick a man’s balls off if looked at the wrong way (two men have had their testicles kicked off and one has been kicked to death by his pet). Even though Brolga raised Roger from a joey, now Roger mostly wants to fight him and will chase him around trying to punch and kick him if he gets too close. We had seen this happen a few times of the TV show and were pretty excited we got to see it in real life! The funny thing is that Brolga uses himself as the bait to move Roger to different pens. As long as he is standing pretty close to Roger, it’s off to the races!

Brolga demonstrating Roger's aggressive tendencies.
Brolga demonstrating Roger’s aggressive tendencies.
Brolga demonstrating how to prevent Roger from punching you.
Brolga demonstrating how to prevent Roger from punching you.

As the sun set we walked around the sanctuary with Brolga, feeding the roos (sometimes from the bottle!) as he taught us about kangaroos and told us stories. The sanctuary is not only limited to roos, and there was also a emu and a (still in quarantine) wombat!

Bottle feeding little Sinead.
Bottle feeding little Sinead.

Eventually it got dark, and we were very sad to have to let the little joeys go. Brolga is in the process of building a wildlife hospital on the premises though and will need volunteers, so maybe we will get to come back :).

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