Wasn't that a party!?!
Alice Springs Travel Blog› entry 19 of 34 › view all entries
August 22nd, 2009 – by: Documama
Coulda been the whiskey,
mighta been the gin,
coulda been the 3 or 4 six packs, I don't know, but look at the mess I'm in.
My head is like a football.
I think I'm gonna die!
Tell me, me oh me oh my.
Wasn't that a party!
Rovers Irish, "Wasn't That A Party"
While the drinking wasn't nearly that excessive, it was in fact quite a party.
It dawned a bright sunny day. Clearly headed for the 90s. The Henley-on-Todd Regatta has arrived.
For those of you not up on Aussie celebrations in the middle of nowhere, the HoT is a classically nutty Aussie event. Alice Springs sits on the Todd River, which is dry 98% of the time. For 48 years, they have been hosting this "regatta" in this dry river bed. It includes kayaks, boats, bath tubs, and a host of other "watercraft" with no bottoms and teams that carry them in relays. It lasts from 10 - 5 generally.
We scheduled our entire Aussie vacation around this event.
The grand finale is a battle between a Viking ship, a navy ship, and a pirate ship. These finale ships are built on top of Range Rovers and carry a dozen combatants with water cannons, water balloons, and powder charges of bran flour.
Actually, I don't think his words would have truly qualified as a "suggestion".....
He left first, dressed in the Viking equivalent of a furry toga, complimented by purple hiking boots, a rope belt, ball cap, and sunglasses. What every well-dressed Viking is wearing....in Alice Springs in August (which is just the beginning of spring here).
Kitty and I followed soon after. We wanted to see the parade of boats down on the Todd Mall, the pedestrian zone next to the river. We made the walk in about 25 minutes and found a shady spot, which was already a necessity at 10 am.
The HoT this year is accompanied by another event, the Variety. Each state in Australia has a Variety Club which raises funds for childrens illnesses. One of each club's big fundraisers is called The Bash. It's a multi-day off-road relay through the outback in cars that cannot be newer than 1973.
There is, oddly enough, no national Variety organization. However, this year they decided they would bring all their state organizations together for a major whoo-haa in conjunction with the HoT. Concerts, parties, etc. Big big deal, which has also swelled the ranks of attendees at the HoT.
So the Hot parade included the custom-made "boats" as well as the cars that are competing in the Bash.
We kept our eyes peeled for the Viking boat, which was suitably impressive. But John was not on it, which left us a bit perplexed. Till we got nailed in the back by a water cannon about 5 minutes later. John, apparently, was 20 or 30 yards behind the Viking boat on foot and caught us unawares. He was carrying a fire extinguisher apparently modified to spray water.
Thankfully, in this heat and low humidity, wet clothes dry pretty fast (humidity = 20%, believe it or not).
Once the parade was over, we headed to the festival grounds gate. We'd registered as participants on line but still needed to do something there. There was quite a looooooooong line to buy tickets and get in.
I put Kitty in line and I start working it. Head up to the guys at the gate. I don't intentionally use the Kitty Eyes (that she uses to get people to do things for her and it really really works) but I am as charming and as disarming as I can remember how to be and explain that I have already registered but since I did it online, I don't have a wrist band and I need to get inside to complete the process.
He thought about it for a minute, looked at all my white hair I think, and gave me a wrist band. Then I had to explain that there were actually two of us and I needed a 2nd wristband, which he gave me.
The "grounds" is a patch of grass next to the river with food and beer vendors, toilets, and a shaded grandstand. The regatta "course" is an enclosed area of the riverbed, surrounded by sponsor tents and crew assembly areas. Jeff called us then (he stayed behind and rode one of John's bikes in) and we met up. Grabbed some food and found a shady spot to watch the events.
The first thing is a parade of the boats people have built for the races. They usually represent local organizations, like the hospital or the US Army.
Yes, the US Army. There's a CIA base here and a US Air Force base nearby so there's a suprisingly large contingent (or "mob" in Aussie) of Americans here. We may be the first Americans John has hosted but we're not even a little unique in Alice, darnit.
The day proceeded with heats of custom boat entries, hamster-wheel races, boat races, filling-barrels-with-sand races, bathtub races, kayak races, canoe races (on a track and you "paddled" by poling yourself through the sand). (Use your imagination.)
But it got hoooooooooooooot quickly. It peaked at about 95 by about 11 and stayed there for the day. With the low humidity, you can get pretty drained without appreciating it. I found myself feeling pretty punky by noon and we were racing at 3:30! I had to conserve my energy!
I convinced Kitty and Jeff to retire to a nearby pub with a/c. It was packed with competitors which was a joy to watch all on its own.
The whole competition is being MC'd be a pair or three of blokes who sound like they're doing a radio show (though it turns out one of the is an auctioneer). They keep your attention focused. It can't be an easy job but they did a bang-up session.
As 3 pm crept closer, Kitty and I started getting nervous. We weren't assigned to a team, we were just loose contestants and we weren't sure how this worked. We finally decided to wander down to the contestant area to see if we could figure out how things worked and how to find a team short by a body or two.
Kitty, blessedly, made yet another new best friend, Judi. Judi competed, I swear, in about half the events that day! She's a nurse with the Royal Flying Doctors Service and about Kitty's age. We explained our dilemma so she set about to putting together a team of strays for the 6-person race.
Now, let me take a moment to explain the "boat". It's got a boat-shaped metal frame with 2 internal cross-bars, making room for 6 bodies/sets of legs. There is a mast with a canvas flag. The boat is about 2 or 3 feet high and you pick it up by the sides and run like crazy towards a barrel, where you attempt to execute a turn and make you way back to the starting point.
A race only takes 2-4 minutes and it's maybe 50 yards to the barrel turnaround point. And, of course, it's all in sand.
Only a few things to think about.
Judi got us a team of her, us two, Andrew (a Variety guy) and two other gals who were just game for an adventure. We got lined up. I was on starboard (right) in the stern (back). And we're off! I'm running like crazy and we make the turn.....and I completely spin out and fall out of the boat, rolling a couple of times in the sand.
And did my loyal crew do a Man Overboard drill, saving my (sand-filled) ass? Hell no! They didn't even notice I was gone, not even Kitty! They pounded their way to a third place finish (out of three boats, so not so good).
But it was a hoot, so when Judi asked us if we wanted to join an 8-person boat, we said sure! This time it was a bunch of guys, several with very long legs, and we three ladies. I was still on starboard this time but I was right behind the lead guy. The one with reeeeeeally long legs, from Wisconsin & Massachusetts.
And we're off! And I can not even keep up with the boat. The bar behind me that defines the next person's space is at my back pushing me along and I am hanging on for all I'm worth. Why in heaven's name did I get in a boat with a guy who's about 6'2"?? I was laughing the whole way. At least this time I didn't fall out but we were still 3rd out of three.
Completely winded, we gave Judi our profound thanks and went off in search of Jeff, hoping he got some good pics.
Aside: If you are Thom Unger or Tom Beachem, this event is totally you. Seriously boys, this needs to be on your bucket list. You would be entirely completely and 100% at home at this event. (end aside)
We found another shady spot and watched the rest of the activities. Now that my athletic endeavors were over, I could drink! 'Cause you know I'm such a heavy drinker. But those beers sure tasted fine!
Watching the crowd was just as much fun as watching the events. The costumes, the goofy kids, the people and competitors wandering through with water cannons and catching crowd members unawares...
Finally, it was time for the Grand Finale. The big boats lined up. We found a closer spot where we could barrack (the Aussie phrase for "root", which means something completely different to an Aussie!) the Vikings.
The boats raced around, chasing each other and dousing each other with water and bran flour. Every time they launch a flour bomb, there's a huge boom that rattles the crowd. The pirate boat soon runs out of steam (apparently they'd been tooting around town showing off their boat and ran their battery down!) so it's down to the Vikings and the navy.
The Vikings are merciless (and have also apparently won over the announcers, who are almost shamelessly barracking for them) and when the time is called and the crowd votes, it's no contest. The Vikings have won the day!
We won't be sleeping on the sidewalk.
Though it's only just 5 pm, we decide we'll go ahead and get some dinner in town.
- the west coast
A quiet bartender wanders up, takes our orders, and comes back to chat. He's quite interesting, has been to the US, and we invite him to guess where we're from.
Daaaaaaaaaamn, he's good!
He says he knew for sure we weren't from California because we weren't "fake" enough (with apologies to my lovely California friends!). He said if we were from the west coast, he'd put us more in Oregon or Washington.
The burgers, with fried egg (me and Kitty) and kangaroo (Jeff) really hit the spot. We have another beer and head home.
Shortly after we arrive home, John comes in the gate.....in his underwear and and a medal. He is one happy guy. They've taken the prize away from the pirates, their traditional foes and much celebrations have ensued (never do learn what happened to his clothes). We spend the evening talking about the day, talking about Australia and America, talking about politics, talking about the Aboriginals and the evolution of human society until we all discover we're about cross-eyed with fatigue and head to bed.
Yes, it really was a party.
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