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6 March 2000, Melbourne, Victoria to Alice Springs, Northern Territory

Our shuttle bus was scheduled to pick us up between 6:45 and 7:00am, so we were up at 5:30, cleaned up, ate a quick breakfast and checked out of the hotel. After a ten-minute wait by the concierge’s desk, the bus arrived and we hauled our bags out. After three more pick-ups, the bus headed for the airport, dropping us off exactly an hour before our flight.

The Quantas check-in queu was quite long, with about 50 people waiting to check in. However, Quantas had every counter position open, and was very organized about getting customers to positions as they came available. There was a Quantas employee at the head of the line watching for open spots and directing customers to them. There was also an electronic message board that beeped and displayed the position number whenever an agent was available. The beep became a bit annoying after a while, but it kept people moving. It seemed to me that the beep sounded just like the opening note in the introduction to the song Tainted Love, so that song kept going through my head as we stood in the queue. The line moved very fast, and we were checked in in less than 15 minutes.

The flight to Alice Springs wasn’t direct; it stopped in Adelaide first. The plane we were on was continuing to Alice Springs, but the flight crew changed, so we had to get off and wait in the terminal. After about twenty minutes we got back on the plane for the ninety-minute flight to Alice Springs. I had the window seat, but couldn’t see much due to cloud cover. Here we were flying to one of the driest parts of Australia, and it was overcast and raining. As we got closer to Alice Springs, there were gaps in the clouds, and I could see very red ground with very little vegetation. I felt like we were flying over Mars.

Eventually, I saw more vegetation including scrub trees and grassy areas. The green grass was quite a contrast to the red dirt that surrounded it. It was raining lightly when we landed in Alice Springs. The airport is small and there is no taxi-way here, so our 737 turned around 180 degrees at the end of the runway and taxied back to the terminal.

The plane unloaded from front and rear stairs (we went out the front), and we walked about 100 yards to the terminal building. Our bags were already on the carousel when we reached baggage claim, so we picked them up and headed back to the Hertz counter to get our car. I was surprised at how busy the car rental counters were. There were at least eight people ahead of us at Hertz, and the other four companies were busy, too. The man behind me in line has been coming to Alice Springs for years, and said he had never seen it this busy.

We eventually got the keys to the car — a blue Ford Falcon. That takes me back. I drove a 1967 blue Ford Falcon in college, eighteen years ago. This one is different from the one I had then: it’s newer, darker blue, and has the steering wheel on the wrong side. The wiper and turn-signal levers are reversed, too, so I keep turning on the wipers before I make a turn: one sweep for a right turn, two for a left. Maybe the other drivers will figure it out and I won’t have to use the real turn signals at all. The car looks a lot like the Ford Taurus sold in the U.S. We loaded our massive bags into the car — they wouldn’t both fit in the trunk — cranked it up, turned on the air conditioner, and looked at our Hertz map of the Northern Territory. It’s odd to see a map that covers over 2000 km north to south with so few roads on it.

We found the hotel on the Alice Springs detail map, but not the airport. We didn’t know which side of town we would come into, but we followed the road signs to Alice Springs. After about 5km, we came to a road that is on the detail map, so we figured out we were coming in from the south. After going too far, making a couple of wrong turns, and getting our bearings back, we found the hotel.

The Rydges Plaza Alice Springs is a nice enough hotel. It was built in the 80’s during the tourism boom prompted by the book A Town Like Alice. The style and decor still scream 80’s, but it’s air conditioned, the rooms are big, and we won’t be here much. The Fodor Guide says it is “by far the best hotel in Alice Springs.” It’s quite popular with tour groups. We saw three busses pull in while we were in the lobby or bar. I don’t know how many showed up when we weren’t looking. The place is full of retired Americans. We may be the youngest guests registered here.

The Plaza does have pretty gardens, well-manicured lawns, a big pool and two tennis courts. There’s also a golfcourse withing walking distance out the back door. The staff have been very nice.

Once we had settled in the room, we started planning for the rest of our stay. We made dinner reservations for each night (having learned that lesson in Melbourne) and made a reservation for a sunrise hot-air balloon ride on Wednesday morning. Outback Ballooning will pick us up at the front door of the hotel at 5:00am (ick). We’ll have a half-hour flight, then a champagne breakfast. It should be a lot of fun, and we’ll be sure to get lots of pictures. After making the reservations, we planned how to spend Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Plaza has a coin-operated laundry, and we had just about run out of clean clothes. While I worked on Sunday’s journal, Chris loaded the dirty clothes into my suitcase, rolled it to the laundry room and started washing. After about two hours, the journal was posted and all of our clothes were clean and folded. While Chris was in the laundry room, an older gentleman walked in, checking the place out for his wife. Chris recognized his accent as American and asked where he was from. “All over, ” he said, “Right now, from Sarasota, Florida.” He asked Chris where she was from, and she said “A little town in eastern Wisconsin north of Milwaukee.” He asked what town and she said “Kaukauna.” He then told her that he had graduated from De Pere High School, about five miles south of Kaukauna. Small world.

We were running low on cash, so we asked the hotel clerk where the nearest ATM was. It turns out that there is one at the Lassiter Casino down the street. We walked down there, snapping a few pictures, including one of Chris and one of the Todd River that “flows” by the hotel. It rarely actually has water in it, and this day was no exception despite the rain showers. We got to the Lassiter, found the front desk and asked about the ATM. The clerk gave us directions (behind reception, in the foyer of the restaurant).

Before we went to the ATM, we looked into the casino off of reception. All we saw were “pokies”, or poker machines. They are like electronic slot machines with video screens instead of wheels, but the concept is similar. You put your money in, you press some buttons, and you lose your money. We found the ATM, walked back to the hotel and got some drinks in the bar. We had wanted to sit by the pool, but the pool bar is only open on Friday and Saturday, and we couldn’t take bar drinks out there.

After drinks, we put on nicer clothes, ate dinner ate the hotel restaurant — supposedly one of the better ones in town — then went back to the casino to see how our luck was running. We both sat down at neighboring pokies, fed a $5 bill into the slot and started playing. Every once in a while, we’d get a payout, but nothing we could retire on. Our credits steadily went down, even though we could hear occasional big payouts from machines nearby. When we had no more credits left, we got up and walked out, with absolutely no desire to feed the pokies any more. Back at the room, I turned on the TV (no remote and only 6 channels) for the first time in a week. I watched about half an hour of Drop Dead Gorgeous while Chris read A Town Like Alice, then we went to sleep.

Next day