By ERWIN CHLANDA
In some Italian towns “celebrations of big shoulder-borne processional structures” take place on certain days, with up to 100 people carrying each of them.
Boats of a different nature feature in the Henley on Todd in Alice Springs.
Alice is also the town where a procession heads south, travelling in utilities and trailers full of provisions, camping gear and booze, some 12,000 people, half of the town, to celebrate the Finke Desert Race.
What would Viterbo, Sassari, Nola and Palmi, and The Alice, be doing if COVID took away from us, perhaps forever, what we have created over decades, hundreds of years?
A town’s character is formed by what it does.
The Finke and Henley on Todd are much more than a tick on a tourist’s bucket list.
Created almost entirely by volunteers, and each event taking pretty well a whole year to organise, they are manifestations of a healthy community.
That service work spreads well beyond the people actually doing the job, to embrace their families and mates.
They’re getting together for yarning, joking, exchanging information, giving advice, meeting socially, creating business opportunities.
Will these opportunities be diminished by COVID? Will people come to the fore who prefer to rely on others (the governments?) doing the job?
From the town’s thousands of volunteers, one to stand out is Jol Fleming (pictured).
He raced motorbikes in 1980 and 81.
That’s the way it is in the Finke world: “I bought the TT500 from Eddie Baldissera on which Peter Kittle had come 3rd in 1978. Or 1979.”
Tragically and ironically, Jol was not hurt in the Finke but in 1981 suffered permanent injuries as a passenger in a car roll-over (the driver dropped a cigarette and lost control trying to pick it up).
Undaunted, Jol with mates formed a tag-along 4WD touring business, a wilderness camp at the edge of the Simpson Desert and an off-road driving school. That was for crust.
What Jol did for love – with many others – was turning a bunch of mates racing each-other on weekends into a global motoring event.
He was its Race Director for 15 years – that’s for bikes and cars, which have vastly different rules.
He upgraded the ancient high frequency radio communication (the kangaroos were eating the wiring between the races), to UHF and satellite and from there equipping every bike and car with an individual transponder so that each vehicle’s position can be pinpointed in real time.
Says Jol: “It was a steep learning curve.”
He recalls the question: “When will the cars beat the bikes?”
Mark Burrows, for all times, provided the answer in 1990, says Jol.
Time to get cracking on the Finke, Henley on Todd and a thousand other Alice Springs issues with a new future?
We asked three prominent local psychologists who between them have many decades of problem solving in Central Australia.
CRAIG SAN ROQUE
On community events, for benefit of local life and well being, and community events for economy and financial gains – the difference?
I think we need to look at the intention or the purpose of the event.
People gather around the Finke: Is it an economic intention? If so that’s fine.
On the other hand we can call it a community intention: The Finke is about family relations, people helping each other, the courage and skills of the race and the bikes, and going out to camp. The Finke as a community event is not just about bringing tourists and money into Alice.
What other than money would we lose if we could not have Finke for a long time?
We would miss out on the discipline, the excitement, the companionship of that very challenging event.
You are in a group that puts on ancient Greek plays in fantastic outdoor settings. Quite a few people are involved in that. You also rely on people from interstate for that to happen. If your group fell to pieces, what sort of town would Alice Springs become?
There is creativity in the community. People will get together and say, OK, this is our situation. Looks like we’re not going to have these visitors. So do we just lie down and do nothing? Well, of course not. We will be looking to regenerate without depending too much upon these visitors.
Alice Springs, as it is now, with its diverse cultures, racial make-up – this incredible mix and potential – we could, if we think creatively, regenerate local events for the situation as it is now – for well being and for the economy. If the COVID problem gets worse it means we are isolated in Central Australia.
Alice people can invent new forms for the Finke, for local performances, for film, music, virtual reality tourism, and especially events with the young people, to keep the place alive while we wait it all out.
Alice is not short on creativity and imagination. It means we have to turn our intention to the new situation. That’s the challenge. That’s innovation.
People who are involved in “something bigger than themselves” report greater happiness and contentment with their lives. They have better physical as well as mental health.
Despite market economies trying to force people into a competitive and individualistic mind set, the desire to collaborate and be involved with other people working towards a common goal is a human need hard wired into all of us.
COVID is undoubtedly a challenge requiring new thinking and adaptation. But when existing events may no longer be possible in present form or not at all, it also creates spaces for new ways of doing things or other events entirely.
More Australians holidaying within Australia also brings opportunities.
As long as we open ourselves to new ideas and exploring other possible USP’s (unique selling points) I have no doubt that the extraordinary community spirit, and creative leadership that drives so many iconic Alice Springs events, can be refocused to develop a “refreshed” Alice to the rest of Australia … and the world!
Change is the only permanence! However, Alice Springs and her people are a very resilient bunch. This sense of pride, optimism, adaptation and endurance has been evident across the town and region over a very extended period. And, yes, volunteers are vital to any community’s growth and sustainability.
It takes a courageous change in attitude to make the difference, however. People learn to be and do things differently. Such invites a sense of creativity in how we re-imagine events that will now have altered parameters. The whole COVID issue has been very tough but it’s a sense of tenacity and sheer determination that has seen many people successfully manage those trials and tribulations.
Community spirit is alive and well … it’s just that it’ll be manifested differently over times ahead. We are committed to contributing positively to the betterment of our town, region, Territory and nation. We are the mortar that helps hold the community bricks together.
This pandemic will not go away. We must simply learn to manage its existence. Like all living organisms, it fights to stay alive which is why it mutates in an effort to do so. It’s difficult to plan ahead with any sense of confidence because the parameters change on an hourly basis. But isn’t that how life has always been?
We plan ahead with the expectation that whatever our intended goal, it will materialise. Such has never been guaranteed. We only know the breaths we have already drawn and the one we are in now. A next breath is promised to no-one.
Staying optimistic in the face of adversity is a challenge. But it’s a challenge we can choose to embrace and make the most of.
“Alice Springs – she’s a bonzer place.” A Town Like Alice, Neville Shute.