31 January 2008

Not all Australian Gap Years are spent by the beach. Gordon Marshall let’s us in on the secrets of the Red Centre.

In 2002 I emigrated from my native Scotland to Australia and accepted a secondary school teaching position in a state school in Alice Springs (The Alice). I realised as I flew over the barren outback of the Red Centre and away from my life in the snowy Scottish Highlands that this was going to be unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Flying into Alice Springs one immediately notices the vast distances between distinguishable objects on the landscape stretching out before you and the changing colour of the earth below as it moulds from brown to green and eventually to an unforgettable bright red. Landing in Alice Springs Airport was a sight I will never forget as we turned sharply over the West Macdonnell Ranges towards a remarkable sunset—one of the finest sights on Earth.

However, it’s the people that really made this experience for me. I was met at the airport by my new head teacher who I expected to be all tied and booted up as every stereotype suggests. However, this was to be my first taste of a true Centralian welcome as I was greeted by a denim-wearing, sunnies-sporting, energetic teacher who shattered all my preconceived notions. The school itself comprised a few hundred students, aged 12 to 16, and a good proportion of Aboriginal students. There were a few culture shocks along the way including the laid-back style of teaching but altogether my time at the school was a fun learning curve and an insight into the real Australia.

I still get quite upset when I hear tourists disregard Alice Springs or even some Australians who have only flown over it. My personal experience of the Alice was a place full of unique and exciting characters from all regions of Australia as well as many places around the world. Alice is not red-neck as people might think. It is an eccentric, vibrant and stimulating town full of authors, artists, music types and a sizeable Gay & Lesbian population—Priscilla, Queen of the Desert doesn’t even start to show the diversity of the town. However, the eccentricity goes further than just dueting drag queens. Where else would you find a boat race in a dry, sandy river? The Henley on Todd Boat Race in the Todd River, that’s where! If the river even has a drop of water in it the race is cancelled. And where else can you ride a camel to Breakfast? The list goes on and on.

Sitting here in Cambridge the mind can easily wonder back to that mystical landscape and the unconventional characters that I met along the way. My teaching and life experiences there will be with me forever. I cemented this view and my commitment to Australia by taking my Australian Citizenship oath in Alice Springs in 2006 in view of the outback, followed by a Red Centre Dreaming evening and dinner. Central Australia is one of a kind both culturally and aesthetically. It’s refreshing, welcoming and you will find out more about yourself than you ever realised. Give it a try; you might just surprise yourself!