We arrived into Darwin early in the morning. It was winter in Australia so a good bit cooler than it was when we left Bali. The Darwin airport is tiny, but it does have showers. What a nice perk!
I needed to get a local SIM card so that we would have mobile access in Australia. Since we had a long layover here, I thought that I would take advantage of this time to get this handled. There were no vendors in the airport, so I decided to set off to a local airport hotel for guidance. The clerk pointed me to a card in the hotel store and it should have been very easy to use. Only problem was that the Telstra web set-up would not accept my hotel address in Alice. This meant that I had to chat with an agent. Not fun.
The Darwin airport allows you 30 minutes of free wifi, but you need the wifi to set up the SIM card, and in my case, it took longer than 30 minutes. We had to move to different parts of the airport to ping off separate towers to finally get the plan up and running. I am still not sure why they required all of this information for pre-paid cell service! Most countires are happy to sell you a card and allow you to go on your merry way.
This airport downtime gave MA and me lots of chances to observe the goings-on at the airport. Apparently, there had been a serious security breach at the Sydney Airport recently that required an evacuation of the whole airport. This put everyone on alert, so those things that seem like not a big deal on a regular day get heightened alerts.
For example, a guy sitting near us left his bags alone while he went to get coffee. When he returned, there were four police officers waiting for him and he was subjected to a great deal of questioning. This guy did not seem to get the fact that the police were quite serious in their concern about his bags. at one point, he asked if he could step way to go pick up his coffee - I thought that lead police officer's head was going to explode!
Our flight for Alice Springs left midday, and it was then that I realized that we could have flown directly from Darwin to Uluru (which was our primary destination). MA had planned this section of the trip so she must have had a reason.
We arrived in Alice in time to see the sunset at Anzac Hill, a military memorial spot. There are plaques on display that pay tribute to Australian contributions to military conflicts. It also has incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding area.
Our first stop for the next day was at the tourist information office. MA had two main sites that she wished to visit - the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the School of the Air - and I was open to anything. We got our bearings and then went to find the Royal Flying Doctor Services station.
This is a very cool place! The first thing you see as you enter is a live map showing all the flights in operation at this particular moment. The service covers all of the Northern Territory, an area that has vast distances between people and care. The service provides not just emergency transport, but also primary and pre-natal care to those who do not have access to traditional medical facilities. They also provide medical transport to centers of excellence throughout Australia. Only 20% of the flights include a doctor - most are handled exclusively by highly-trained critical care nurses. The tourist office said that we would spend about 30 minutes at this site, but we were there fo nearly two hours!
Our next stop was the School of the Air. I had no expectations for this place but it too was incredible. This site provides live classes to 142 students scattered across 1.2 million square kilometers. Students can start school at 4 1/2 and continue through year 9 of schooling. Classes are spread throughout the day and each child is expected to spend 8 hours per day on his/her education. All students have a local tutor - often this is the child's mother but it may be someone outside the family. All kids come to Alice at least twice per year, and may come as often as 4 times per year, so that they can meet and interact with each other and their teachers.
The classes take place via satellite and each child is visible on the video screen. In addition to all of the technical equipment, including the satellite dish, packets of supplies are sent to the children so that they have everything they need to participate fully in classes. The children also receive 30 library books at a time. I cannot tell you how cool this set-up is but we spent more time there then we planned, as well. And we both now have t-shirts showing off the program.
Our final destination in Alice was Desert Park. I wish we had had the time to bike out there from town, but that will have to happen on a future visit. Desert Park is an area where the various animals of the Northern Territory are exhibited. It is not like a zoo - many of the animals are in open environments. For example, the bird program uses wild birds that respond to calls (and they know they will be fed!) to show us some of the unique birds that we might see in the area. There is also a place where red kangaroos are housed and you can walk among them (not interact with them, sadly, but I guess they really don't like people).
The park closes around dusk. You notice that most cars are off the road by dusk. This is so you don't hit wild animals! There are signs all along the roads to be aware of wild animals. They can do tremendous damage to your cars, and most rental car companies exclude damage caused by wild animals. Scary to think about...
We finished out the day with dinner at a steakhouse,. I thought MA would try one of the unusual animals on the menu (kangaroo??) but she stuck with steak. After dinner, we headed back to the hotel. We had a long drive ahead of us as we headed towards Uluru. But the answer to my question in the title of this blog is "yes" - it was worth the detour to Alice.