It’s been a long and arduous couple of weeks of eating, but have finally found my way into the Ngaanyatjarra lands and some civilised eating options. I arrived in the tiny community of Tjukurla from the tourist resort of Yulara at Uluru a couple of days ago, and have been eating fabulously, if somewhat humbly, since.
My enthusiasm for food has been somewhat diminished over the past fortnight by a persistent stomach bug that left me feeling exhausted with nausea but thankfully with few other symptoms. Not that I was missing out on much. With the exception of some excellent home cooked meals with friends in Alice Springs, eating since leaving Adelaide has been a rather mundane affair. Under siege from a meat craving, I ordered lamb shanks and mash at the dubious Glendambo Road House, our overnight stop between Adelaide and Alice. These shanks were enormous – quite literally an example of the proverbial mutton dressed up as her younger sister. But they were rather tasty and quite possibly the only redeeming feature of a place that otherwise makes no apologies for the appalling state of their accommodation. The bunk-house we were offered looks so bad that my travelling companion and I opted for sleeping rough on a tarp next to the ute rather than risk bed bugs. A sprinkling of rain initially left us doubting this decision, but then a cold, strong wind blew the clouds away and we slept contentedly under the magnificence of the Milky Way.
Ginormous Glendambo Shanks
Alice Springs is the dinner party capital of Central Australia, a consequence (so the locals tell me) of there being few other quality options worth repeat visits. One place that has piqued local interest is the Vietnamese Restaurant on the south side of “the Gap” near the market gardens that uses some locally grown produce. The place has an airy al fresco dining area decorated with coloured fairy lights that looks out on the MacDonnell Ranges, perfect for languid dining on warm desert nights. The food’s not bad either.
The tourist destination of King’s Canyon was our next stop. The canyon (well, more a gorge, really) was stunning. But the only accommodation options were at the tourist resort in the national park and we soon realised that eating was going to be an expensive disappointment. We narrowly escaped being fleeced at the resort restaurant, which has attempted to convert itself into a fine dining experience by placing table cloths over the plastic furniture and hiding the contents of bain-marie from public view. It looked like a bistro and smelled like a bistro, but as soon as we sat down I knew we were in for an expensive time of it. The waitress’ clumsy execution of the placement of a napkin in my lap set off alarm bells. One glance at the menu confirmed my fears: $38 for a steak and no mains under $25. We beat a hasty retreat to the bar for very ordinary pizza and Carlton Draught (which still managed to cost us close to $60).
Our eating options at Yulara, the tourist resort servicing Uluru and Kata Tjuta, were similarly limited by expense and quality. So we cooked for ourselves at the campsite, my companions enjoying such delights as tuna and corn omelettes and heat-and-eat spinach curry while I nibbled on the occasional piece of bread and butter in between bouts of nausea. I was treated to a proper dinner on my last night by my mate Ian. Ian had been determined to make his four days at the Rock a budget experience, so much so that he actually bothered to bring his own supply of tinned “Big Eats” with him all the way from Perth. Our simple meal at the café that night consisted of a hamburger and a pizza washed down with two bottles of wine. The experience cost him more than four nights’ worth of camping fees. I felt momentarily guilty until I remembered that I was shouting us two nights in a proper hotel room with crisp white sheets, a flat screen tv and the convenience of an ensuite (all in the name of a good night’s sleep – it worked).
A four hour drive west found me arriving at Tjukurla the next day at lunch time. With an esky full of fresh fruit and veges, I treated my host Vicki to three nights of simple nutritious meals of various tastes: lamb chops casseroled in tomato sauce; tofu vege curry; and pork chops marinated in soy and honey. On the third day, under pressure of a second person in the house, her septic system blocked up and the stench of raw sewerage overflowing into the shower stall and laundry drain overwhelmed all traces of delicious cooking smells in the kitchen. The problem, which she had lived with for six months, had recently been “fixed”, but in keeping with the lack of care that typifies so much of the work that happens out in Aboriginal communities, the contractor who initially did the job repaired the hole in her sewerage pipe with a bit of gaffer tape. Understandably it’s sometimes hard to maintain an enthusiasm for food in such circumstances. I know a number of people, particularly those who live alone, who struggle to continue to care for themselves properly when living out here.
I’m now in Warakurna and staying with my friend Edwina, who makes the best coffee in the Lands and is an expert in the art of preparing “donger delights” (for all of you who may not know, a “donger” in this context is slang for a transportable home!). Stay tuned.
P.S. Edwina has a pack of nine (yes, nine!) little puppies currently living under her veranda – just about enough for a tasty little puppy casserole. They are being fattened up on Weetbix and milk as I type this.