|We had been driving for perhaps 90 minutes in a largely mindless silence when at last Allan spoke. He said, "How are you off for urine?"
"I have all I need, thank you. Why do you ask?"
"It's just that I notice we're nearly out of petrol."
"Truly?" I leaned over to confirm that Allan could indeed interpret a fuel gauge—if not perhaps quite as frequently as one might wish.
"Interesting time to notice, Allan," I observed.
"This thing just seems to suck up fuel," he replied, shamelessly blaming the Testosterone. "So where are we?" he asked after a moment's further reflection.
"We're in the middle of nowhere, Allan."
"I mean in relation to the next town."
I looked at the map. "In relation to the next town, we are"—I looked again, just to confirm—"in the middle of nowhere." I did some measurements with my fingers. "We appear to be about 40 kilometers from a dot on the map called Larrimah."
"And do they have petrol there?"
"One sincerely hopes so. And do you think we have enough to get there?"
"One sincerely—and if I may just say bloody well—hopes so."
We chugged into Larrimah on the last vapor of gas. It was an all but dead hamlet, but it did have a gas station. While Allan fueled up, I purchased a stock of bottled water and snack foods for future emergencies. We vowed that henceforth we would jointly keep a steady eye on the fuel gauge and not let it dip below the halfway mark. There were greater stretches of emptiness to come.
Ten hours and 919 miles after leaving Darwin, we arrived, dry and dusty, in Alice Springs, a grid of ruler-straight streets set like an enormous helipad on a plain beside the golden slopes of the Macdonnell Ranges. Because it is so bang in the middle of nowhere, Alice Springs ought to seem a miracle—an actual town with department stores and schools and streets with names—and for a long time it was a sort of antipodean Timbuktu, a place tantalizing in its inaccessibility.
Nearly all guidebooks and travel articles indulge the gentle conceit that Alice retains some irreproducible outback charm, some away-from-it-all quality that you must come here to see, but in fact it is Anytown, Planet Earth. We passed strip malls, car dealerships, McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets, banks and gas stations. Only a scattering of Aborigines strolling along the dried bed of the Todd River gave any hint of exoticism.
We took rooms in a motor inn on the edge of town. My room had a balcony where I could watch the setting sun flood the desert floor and burnish the slopes of the Macdonnell Ranges beyond—or at least I could if I looked past the Kmart plaza across the road. In the two million or more square miles that is the Australian outback, I don't suppose there is a more unfortunate juxtaposition.
A half-hour later I joined Allan out front, where he was staring at the same scene. He looked at me. "You Yanks have a lot to answer for, you know."
Over dinner, we made plans for our stay.
"What is there to do for two days in Alice Springs?" Allan asked.
"Quite a lot, in fact," I said encouragingly, and pulled out a brochure I had taken from a rack in the motel. I flipped through it. "There's the Alice Springs Desert Park, for one thing."
He inclined his head a fraction. "What's that?"
"It's a nature reserve where they've carefully recreated a desert environment."
"In the desert?"
"They've recreated a desert in the desert? Have I got that right?"
"And you pay money for this?"
He nodded contemplatively. "What else?"
"The Mecca Date Garden."
"A garden where they grow dates."
"And they charge money for this as well?"
"I believe so."
"Is that it, or is there more?"
"Oh, much more." I went through the list of other attractions—the Old Telegraph Station, Frontier Camel Farm, Old Timers Folk Museum, National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame, Road Transport Hall of Fame, Sounds of Starlight Theater.
Allan listened intently, sometimes requesting a soupçon of elaboration, and considered all this for some moments. Then he said, "Let's go to Ayers Rock."