ALICE SPRINGS, Australia — Six-year-old Pearl Powell found a harsh and desolate wasteland when she arrived in the outback in 1917. The journey from Adelaide had taken two weeks--three days by train to Oodnadatta and the rest of the way by horse and wagon. "Wasn't it a traumatic experience for such a little girl?" I asked as we sipped billy tea in a billabong a few miles outside Alice Springs, the Northern Territory's best-known town. Hungrily, I awaited her reply, certain she was going to tell of death-defying escapes from the aborigines and of nearly perishing of thirst in a scorched, forbidding wilderness. "For us children it was just one big picnic, one big adventure," Powell said with a smile. "I remember the first night out from Oodnadatta. We camped out and the men put up a tent. We slept on mattresses and heard dingos crying in the distance."
"Didn't that scare you?"
"No, not really," she said. "Mum said that it was only wild dogs having a fight or something. We didn't take that much notice."
So much for terrifying encounters.
We were chatting with Powell in a picture-post card setting at the Wiggly Waterhole, a billabong where she drove cattle as a youngster and romped with her brothers on the gentle red slopes of the dried-up Todd River bed. Our camp was in a green, wooded area of mulga scrub and ghost gum, a eucalypt typical of the Northern Territory's Red Centre. The tree is so named because its stark white trunk and boughs appear ghostly on a moonlit night.
Rains Bring Color
Spring in the outback had been unusually wet, the wettest in a good 20 years. After the heavy rains the red and harsh terrain had burst into a mosaic of color, bringing forth the spinifex grass and wildflowers in grand and glorious profusion.
Even the birds were joining in the floral celebration, chattering and twittering above us like winged welcoming committees--birds like the yellowish little corellas that rest in the river gums of inland watercourses; the mulga parrot, which resembles a parakeet, and the noisy galah (ga-LAW), a pink-bodied, white-tufted, gray-winged parrot that can be taught to say a few words.
Powell, a sturdy woman of 76 with brown hair almost untouched by gray, rose from her camp chair and pointed to a bough overhead. "There's a galah now," she said.
A Billy of Water
Our companion and guide, Geoff Purdie, had built our campfire and hung a billy of water over it to boil tea. Billy tea, as any fair dinkum Aussie will tell you, is made by boiling the water once, removing it and placing it back over the fire after the tea leaves have been added.
"I put gum leaves in this," Purdie said. "After it boils again, you swing the can around your head and that makes the tea leaves go to the bottom."
This is the real Australia, I thought, reminiscent of the "Jolly Swagman" of song, who camped by a billabong and "sang as he watched and waited while his billy boiled."
The small and ubiquitous outback flies were out in force, flitting about the face and ears. They're more cantankerous than carnivorous. We had no cause, however, to chase the pests away with the famed "Australian salute"--a waving of the hand in front of the face in a casual, unmilitary fashion. A fly repellent we had bought at an Alice Springs pharmacy, plus Geoff's bush hats with corks dangling from the brim, did the job.
This setting, this come-to-life painting by Namatjira, was a perfect forum for Powell to continue her tales of this austere land, this countryside that Australian author and former United Press International correspondent Robert Wilson said is "worn to its bones by millions of years of erosion."
Despite Pearl's fairly unaffected approach to the rigors of those pioneer days, I had a feeling that life in the outback must have been less than one big picnic for her . . . much less.
Sent to Isolated Town
Her father, Frederick Alfred Price, had been sent from Adelaide in 1916 to become postmaster/manager of the isolated telegraph station at Alice Springs (not the present town, but the original water hole named for the wife of South Australia's superintendent of telegraphs). His family arrived the following March.
The station, which had been established as a fort to counter attacks by aborigines, was staffed by a station master, assistant and four linemen, and had become the "capital" of this vast land, after the construction of the 3,000-kilometer overland telegraph line between Port Augusta and Darwin in 1872. But the local natives, the Aranda, proved to be a friendly people.
Price was more fortunate than some of his predecessors, however. In the summer of 1872 three telegraph station managers traveling north to take over the stations at Barrow Creek, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs found that the environment was cruel, unrelenting. One of them died of thirst and the others survived only by turning back and drinking the blood of their horses.
Even as late as 1926 the white population of Alice Springs (then called Stuart) had reached only 40.