AT LAST, after driving nearly 1,500 km from Darwin, slightly less than the distance from Auckland to Queenstown by road and ferry, I made it to Alice Springs.
The town known locally as the Alice, or just Alice, has a population of just over 25,000, making it the largest town in the Northern Territory outside of the Darwin area.
According to a history on its council website, Alice Springs began its existence as a station on the overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin that went in in the 1870s, about ten years after Stuart’s famous 1861–1862 expedition along the same route.
In the middle of a desert area that wouldn’t otherwise supply enough water for a town, Alice Springs is what would be known in Arabia, or the Sahara, as an oasis.
It takes its name from Alice Todd, the wife of the first superintendent of the telegraph station.
As with much of the Northern Territory, Alice Springs didn’t support many town-dwellers until the 1930s, and therefore only has a handful of buildings from the early days.
These form the town’s Heritage Precinct: which is pointed out by a three-way sign next to the Visitor Information Centre, which also points to the railway station and the local lookout of Anzac Hill, all within walking distance.
The Visitor Information Centre is in the middle of town, on the corner of Parsons Street and Todd Mall: you can’t miss it.
Highlights of the Heritage Precinct include Adelaide House, built in 1926, which is now a museum.
Adelaide House began its existence as a hospital and an early headquarters of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. It was also where the RFDS perfected a pedal-powered radio for use in districts that hadn’t yet got electricity.
(This was a sensible idea, but the Brits always seem to have thought it was rather funny: I think that’s Spike Milligan doing the pedalling in this clip.)
Another historic building is the Residency, built in 1928 for the one and only Government Resident, or chief administrator, of Central Australia: a territory, briefly separated from the Northern Territory — renamed North Australia during the split — that had Alice Springs as its capital. Central Australia only lasted for a few years before being absorbed back into the Northern Territory, but the Alice got a very nice Residency building out of this brief separation. It’s now a community centre.
These days, the area around Alice Springs often goes by the more informal name of the ‘Red Centre’: a name that has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with its reddish, iron-containing rocks and soils.
Much of the Residency is done in a folksy-looking textured block, and is in the form of two buildings under one roof with a ‘breezeway’ between them.
Known in parts of America as a ‘dog run’ because a dog could run through it, or even as the core of a ‘shotgun shack’ because of its gun-barrel-like qualities if straight, a breezeway is one of several old-fashioned methods for keeping houses cool that used to be quite common in the days before air conditioning.
The Queen and Prince Philip stayed at the Residency in 1953: the locals do concede that it was perhaps one of the quirkier palaces the royal couple stayed at on their tour.
I did not, of course, stay at the royal residence. Instead, I pitched my tent at a campground called Alice’s Secret Traveller’s Inn, for $25 a night.
Though it was spring, the temperature got down to 8 degrees C overnight. I might have been uncomfortable if I had not brought warm clothing and a sleeping bag with a hood.
For, no matter how hot it gets in desert areas during the day, the starry nights are often cold: all the more so as Alice Springs is 545 metres above sea level, a fact that shaves off another degree or two.
Indeed, the record wintertime low at the Alice is several degrees below freezing. Under those conditions, the breezeway at the Residency gets nicknamed the ‘freezeway’. So, do be aware of that, and don’t leave your warm gear behind!
Close by is the railway station, where the Ghan excursion train stops and where the sunshades cast a striking pattern. The name Ghan is short for Afghan, and refers to the way that transport from Adelaide to the oasis of Alice Springs and beyond was once based on camel trains organised by Middle Eastern drovers, known as Afghans though most of them came from other countries. Pretty amazing, eh? Just like the Sahara.
There is a museum dedicated to the region’s road transport history, from camels to the present day. This includes the famous or notorious road trains, the trucks that pull more than one trailer.
I also climbed Anzac Hill, the town lookout, which like other prominent features in Australia has Aboriginal stories about it and of course, Aboriginal names, one of which is Untyeye-artwilye and another Atnelkentyarliweke, as well. These are the names used by the local Aboriginal people, the Arrernte.
The name Anzac Hill comes from a war memorial built on top in 1934, at about the same time as the oasis started to become a town.
Here is another view from the top, before the sun started to go down.
The hill is associated in Arrernte lore with various totem animals or creator beings, including three species of caterpillar.
I hung around on the top of the hill and caught the typically wonderful Australian sunset, first yellow, then red.
Here is a video of a couple of scenes I filmed at the top, first by the memorial and then looking out over the town.
While I was there, there were a couple of arts festivals going on downtown. It’s an amazingly artistic place, some of the art Aboriginal and some of the other art the sort you’d find anywhere.
I visited cafes and art shops in shaded lanes.
There was a rally in town in support of the Yes vote in the upcoming Voice Referendum: a worthy proposal for an Aboriginal advisory body in Canberra that was nevertheless voted down by white Australia a few days after I was in the Alice, partly because of ridiculous scare stories spread by the far right.
Here is a video I made of the rally, with an interview at the end in which an Aboriginal academic talks about the referendum.
I suspect that behind some of the opposition there also lay material interests from mining companies and others who might have feared a recommendation, from the advisory group (if set up), that they pay more rent or royalties on Aboriginal lands they have long occupied.
(Killers of the Flower Moon territory in other words, even if, as in the USA, indigenous people haven’t been massacred over such matters for many decades, though they used to be.)
I also went for walks in the nearby countryside, such as the bed of the Todd River, which does not flow all year round.
Some of the vegetation was curiously light-coloured, as if being too dark would cause it to overheat in the sun. These were probably the most drought-resistant species, I suspect.
I protected myself with a purple sun-umbrella, which creeps into one or two of the shots above as well.
There are lots of other things to do in the Red Centre, such as visiting the Glen Helen Gorge Waterhole (featured in the classic 1971 film Walkabout), exploring more national parks, and looking for gemstones in fossicking areas.
You can find many of those places on the Red Centre Wider Region Map, which I show here but which is downloadable, along with other tourism maps, from discovercentralaustralia.com/visitor-information/maps-guides.
These additional things to do include a trip to Uluru or Ayers Rock, of which more in my next post!
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