Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Pub crawl down the guts

Pub crawls are a great Aussie tradition. I'm sure they didn't start here but they have certainly been embraced as an intrinsic part of our culture. So with 1,150km to drive in two days from Katherine to Alice Springs and seemingly a whole lot of pubs in between, it seemed un-Australian to not give it a crack. The Stuart Highway that runs north-south down the centre of Australia is named for the explorer who in the mid-1800s found a way through this rugged terrain, leading to the building of a telegraph line connecting Adelaide and Darwin and the opening up of a major Australian stock route. In the years that followed, drovers would drive their cattle along this route, moving them great distances to seek better feeding grounds or to get them to market. Along the way, a number of pubs opened up as places for the weary drovers to rest their bodies and for them to consume a bevy or two. So unlike many of the highways that lead across the more desolate parts of Australia where the only salvation every hundred kilometres or two is a roadhouse comprising a petrol station and some dodgy food, there is actually some history to this route and some historic pubs to be explored. Another motivating factor in choosing to do a pub crawl along this route was the way that the pubs have evolved to modern day establishments. Each of them seemed to provide something worth seeing as well as an opportunity to break up the long drive.
First pub out of Katherine was at Mataranka. Home of the famous hot springs and according to some people that we met, also the home of the finest home made pies in Australia. These were made at the servo there, though you could pick one up and bring it back to the pub to wash down with a beer if you fancied. And we did fancy that. The pies were pretty good, but the pub was a bit of a hovel. We shot through from there pretty quickly and hung out at the hot springs for a while instead, searching for turtles in the warm weedy waters at Bitter Spring. Once we were back on the road, the next stop was the Larrimah Wayside Inn. Sporting a huge pink panther sitting next to an oversized stubby, this was more of an indication of things to come. Not satisfied with the local history, many of the pubs along this route had decided to tart themselves up with bizarre decorations or themes. Larrimah also fancied that they had the best pies in the region, so we scoffed down some of theirs too. Subsequent pubs were the Daly Waters pub full of bizarre paraphernalia such as hundreds of bras hanging off the bar, the Newcastle Waters which last served a beer in the 1970s but which we were counting all the same, the Renner Springs pub and the Elliott Hotel. I've never driven a pub crawl before for pretty obvious reasons. And it was on the road out of Elliott that I was greeted by the last thing a driver on a pub crawl wants to see; a random breathtest unit. The police pulled us over and offered me the little unit to blow into. I knew that I was well under the legal alcohol limit, one of the benefits of pubs being more than 100km apart. I felt that this was indeed a responsible kind of a pub crawl, mixing pubs and a long drive with some semblance of balance. And I also felt a sense of pride that I was taking my children aged eleven, nine and four months on their first ever pub crawl. Responsible parenting at its finest.
Many many years ago, I had taken younger sister Nat on her first pub crawl too. She had recently moved out of home for the first time and was living in South Yarra. She had sublet a room in a flat from a guy who was a devout vegan and made her sign a document on moving in, stating that she would not bring meat, alcohol or tobacco into the apartment as a condition of the lease. So one lunchtime I went around to celebrate her new found freedom with her. We ordered in a nice capriciossa pizza full of ham and washed it down with a nice bottle of champagne, simultaneously breaking two of the key rules of the house. After that we decided to go up to Chapel Street for a bit of a pub crawl. We started in the South Yarra Arms and had a couple of tequila slammers. Our pub crawl sort of came unstuck there and we stayed for about another five before the barman decided that it was probably time to refuse us service. It seemed a little unjust to me, but we wandered up Chapel Street to the next pub just the same. After one slammer in the new pub, we were refused service. We were clearly a little more inebriated than it seemed to me. Our pub crawl had now completely run aground but, not one to easily take a hint, I ducked in to a bottle shop to pick up a cask of wine with a view to heading over to visit some friends. That was when all that alcohol really started to kick in for Nat. One minute we were walking together down the street, the next she was lying on her back looking up at the sky with a goofy look on her face. I tried to get her to her feet and she just giggled, as much chance of standing as a jellyfish. And then she just passed out. I half dragged, half carried her back to the front of her building and flagged down a random passerby to help me carry her up the stairs to her second storey apartment. He seemed a bit suspicious that something was not quite right with the picture, but he generously helped me anyway. I got Nat into her bed which is where she was when all those drinks and food decided they no longer wanted to remain in her stomach and proceeded to launch themselves out quite rapidly. I raced to the kitchen and got a large cooking pot for her to deposit the upcoming meat and alcohol into, probably not something that her landlord would really have approved of, but that was all I could find. It was all a bit late anyway as her bedding was covered in vomit, as was the floor. I needed to clean the whole mess up in the next three hours before he got home or she was certain to be evicted. So once she seemed to have settled down, I pulled the soiled sheets from her bed so that I could give them a wash. The apartment didn't have its own laundry so I made my way out to the communal one, carrying the vomit soaked bundle. Just as I stepped out of the flat the door automatically closed behind me. With a sense of impending doom, I dropped the sheets and tried the door knob unsuccessfully. Locked. I banged on the door and started screaming to Nat. No response. She was now comatose on the bed. What was I going to do? She was still covered in vomit as was the pot beside her bed and perhaps also the floor. A vision of her throwing up in her sleep and meeting a Bon Scott like demise came into my mind and I started to panic. I raced downstairs and looked for another way to get in. Her second storey bedroom window was open. If only I had a ladder. South Yarra is a particularly affluent part of Melbourne and next to her apartment building was a luxurious house hidden behind a security gate with an intercom. I felt desperate so pushed the button and waited for a response. "Hi there. My sister lives next door and is unconscious on the bed. I've locked myself out and can't get in. I know this is a strange request but do you have a ladder I could please borrow so that I can climb through her window", I pleaded optimistically. I was met by a brief silence, followed by a "wait a minute". The male voice soon appeared at the gate, sized me up and down and glanced up to the open window. I guess he must have believed me, because he appeared shortly after with a ladder. I clambered up and somehow was able to put things right. By the time my friend Brian came over to whisk me away, everything was pretty much done. I asked Brian to take Nat to the bathroom to help her into the shower while I finished up hiding the evidence in the kitchen. I wandered in to see how she was going and there under the running water of the shower was Nat. Topless from the waist up, black tights and boots on below, just standing with the streaming water pouring over her. After cleaning her off and getting her back to a clean bed, Brian and I left the scene and went out for dinner. I returned some time later, sneaking in this time with the aid of a key and crashed out on the floor in Nat's room. Around 6am she awoke and whispered a questioning "Greg"? After confirming to her that I was in fact there she questioned further, "what happened? I don't remember anything". It is only the taste of tequila that she remembers from that day. She hasn't been able to drink it since.

Our pub crawl towards Alice was more successful in the regard that we actually made it to a lot more pubs and nobody was scarred from the experience. In fact nobody was even drunk. I expect that this won't be the case when the kids get older, as being falling down drunk from a pub crawl seems to be an Australian rite of passage that most go through. This was a much more wholesome affair, even managing to take in the geographical wonder of the Devil's Marbles on the way through. Probably the most bizarre pub that we stopped at was the one at Wycliffe Well, about 120km south of Tennant Creek. This place claims to be the UFO capital of Australia with regular sightings having been made since World War II. As such, the pub is something of a museum of UFO sightings and all things extraterrestrial, having recently hosted an international UFO convention. I guess out here in the middle of nowhere must be the Aussie equivalent of small farming towns in Iowa in the US. It was at this pub that our crawl came to an end. Unfortunately, thanks to the pub's free WiFi, work reared its ugly head through my email and I felt we needed to race on to Alice so that I could deal with a potential work crisis. We were still 380km north of Alice Springs so we raced past the last couple of pubs and instead just gunned it down the long straight Stuart Highway and across the arid landscape of central Australia. We were even making it in good time too until the car decided that sitting on 110km/h in 40 degree temperatures while towing three and a half ton of caravan was not optimal driving conditions. About 100km short of Alice, the automatic transmission temperature light came on, the car lost power and we ground to a halt. Apart from an electrical issue back in February, the car had been comfortingly reliable. Breaking down in such a remote location however was quite far from comforting. Not only for what it potentially meant for us now here on the side of the road, but also because we were planning a trip down the Oodnadataa and Strzelecki tracks, through some of the most remote parts of the world. Top of the list of things to take on such a journey is a reliable car in top nick. A half hour sitting on the roadside allowing the car to cool down and then a more conservative drive for the last leg of the journey saw us arrive in Alice without further incident. Alice was to be the next place where I needed to set the family up before I jetted off for work, this time to Singapore for a conference. Now I needed to also fit in a service for the car to make sure the transmission was as it needed to be. We were right in the middle of Australia. Still thousands of kilometres left to drive and not a place to become complacent and take things for granted. Perhaps the car overheating was a timely reminder. I would be more conservative in my driving from hereon in. Probably a good idea to give thousand kilometre pub crawls a bit of a miss too.

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