When people think of Australia, whether it’s the coffee culture or just the country in general, they tend to think of Melbourne or Sydney. In all honesty, I was one of those people that knew very little about the world “down under.” There are kangaroos and koalas and people say “mate” a lot, right?
I was in fact heading to Australia for my first time–in the good hands of an Australian boyfriend who hails from Alice Springs–on a two month trip to explore a land I knew very little about, coffee culture or otherwise. My lack of understanding was mirrored by those with whom I spoke before the trip. In my experience, when you tell people that you’re going to Australia for your first time, they immediately ask where you’ll be going.
“Well, we’re coming int Darwin and then taking the train to Alice Springs,” I would respond.
They look at you in silence, although if they’re Aussie, they just might follow that silence with a “why?”
Before the silence gets too awkward I'd add, “we’re flying out of Sydney, so we’ll do that and Melbourne at the end of the trip.”
They smile, satisfied. Finally a place that sounded reasonable to travel to.
Geographically speaking, Alice Springs is smack dab in the middle of Australia, in fact I heard someone there talking about a local politician who used to say that the great thing about Alice Springs was that it was equal distance from all of the Australian beaches. Emotionally speaking, Alice Springs feels like a town dropped right down in the middle of nowhere. The town is surrounded by bush, and you have the impression that if you wandered too far, you could quickly get lost.
You wonder how people set up here in the early days, deep in the heart of the Red Centre, with the extreme temperatures and the unforgiving, although beautiful, landscape. The Northern Territory, which Alice Springs calls home, is the least populated of Australia’s states and territories. With only around 230,000 people, the population density comes out to about 0.2 people per square kilometer. You’d probably find it easier to call a kangaroo your next door neighbor. It’s certainly not the place you go expecting coffee.
With the long trip to Darwin, complete with multiple day excursions to Kakadu National Park and Litchfield National Park, our stock of coffee beans had run out, somewhere along the rails of the The Ghan, the legendary train that connects Darwin to Alice Springs, and then to Adelaide. My policy is: always travel with your own coffee.
But eventually of course, you run out, which is the perfect excuse to see if there’s any good coffee to be had in your local destination.
I wasn’t in Alice Springs to explore the coffee culture, but I was pleasantly surprised by Page 27 Cafe. It was supposed to serve as a smoothie stop after a long morning run, but let’s be honest, after a long morning run, you also want coffee and breakfast, so I stayed for both.
With a funky interior, collection of mismatched chairs, and a old espresso machine turned into a table and a “breakfast all day” menu, it felt like a Portland or Seattle cafe in the late 1990s: the kind of place where you could get a good healthy meal and hang out and stay awhile. Flyers for local art shows and concerts lined the door, and by 8:30am on a Friday, the place was packed; this was certainly a local hub.
To be perfectly honest, I think we’ve lost a bit of this cozy feel in our quest for the ultimate in craft coffee. While there’s a time and place for the sleek, minimal espresso bar, those eccentric cafes that are the meeting place of a city, or even a neighborhood, are essential to our well-being. They’re where we gather, where we converse; as it turns out, the original function of coffeehouses. That’s what Page 27 felt like, a tucked away oasis where telltale signs of trendy cafe culture poked through—but where everyone could feel welcome, with no sign of pretension.
But the stop in Alice Springs was brief, allowing for only a couple of coffee explorations. With an adventure rental car, complete with funny Bill Murray quote on the side—“of course I talk to myself, sometimes I need an expert opinion”—and a tent on top, the only thing between us and the rugged road was a stop to buy food. And coffee of course. At Page 27 we tried a long black and a flat white, because when in Rome… but we were eager to get to our real adventure almost 500 kilometers away: Uluru. We made one last stop.
Alice Springs sort of feels like the Moab of Australia, except with fewer high end mountain bike shops, and as such, there’s an organic and healthy food market on the edge of town called Afghan Traders. It was here that I learned about DuYu Coffee, locally roasted in Alice Springs. In true Alice spirit, they make an exclusive blend for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
In honor of the train we had just taken to arrive in Alice Springs, as well as the name of the store, I settled on the Afghan Blend. Made with beans from East Timor and Papua New Guinea, origins I rarely see in Paris, it seemed like a good idea to adventure a little.
You may wonder why this Afghan theme in the middle of Australia. In the late-1800s, Afghan cameleers (although often from not just Afghanistan, but also surrounding countries) were brought to Australia to help with sustainable transport for trade and travel; horses just couldn’t cut it but camels could. I figured a coffee blend in honor of this part of Australian outback history was fitting.
In true outback fashion, this coffee was prepared over the next few days with the help of a gas stove that we’d position on the ground in the red sand. The desert was cold, requiring puffy jackets (file under: things you didn’t think you would need in an Australian desert), and strong, backcountry-brewed coffee was the ideal way to start the day. As it always is.
On our last morning, we caught the sunrise at Uluru. Water for brewing had been frantically boiled at the campground in the dark with the help of a headlamp, then popped in a thermos, so that we would leave in time to catch the morning colors. I ground the beans while on the road, then steadying the Primus French press on the floor of the car, attempted to mix it all together while we were still driving, so that it would be brewed by the time we reached the sunrise viewing area. In other words, truly “on the go” coffee; the kind that makes you question your sanity just a little.
To call Uluru just a “rock” would be the ghastliest of understatements. This place is magical, the bold red mound jutting out of the earth. It changes colors depending on where the sun is during the day. You can feel the energy, and quickly understand why this rock and this place have always had such an importance for aboriginal people.
As the sun rose in the sky, the colors changed. The rays started to warm the desert, and Uluru went from dark red to a sandier hue. Kata Tjuta, the collection of rock formations just a little further on from Uluru, stood in the background. This was one of the better coffee views I had experienced in quite some time.
Coffee is about exploring, getting the sense of a place through a drink. It’s the thread that can tie all of our experiences together, whether they take place in a well-known coffee metropolis or in the middle of the Outback.
So here’s to another cup and another stunning sunrise in a new place. And here’s looking at you Sydney and Melbourne.