Exploring Australia 6: Alice Springs

Alice Springs, Australia

Alice Springs, Australia

Alice Springs is seriously hot, heading towards 36°C as I stood in the station yard waiting for the most charming bus driver I have ever met to check in his passengers for the shuttle into town.

The drive between hotels crosses several watercourses:  each of them has all the paraphernalia of bridges, cutwaters and culverts, yet consists entirely of sand, dotted with opportunistic grass and trees, indicating that water is present below the river bed.

Alice Springs people tell of sudden flash floods, the most recent in January 2009, when no rain fell in the town but a storm further north sent so much water that houses in the Casino district had to be sandbagged.  When you ask Alice people about the last time it rained, they tend to mention years, like 2000 and 1988, though in fact a few inches falls each year.  Their idea of a drought appears to be anything up to a decade.

Elsewhere in Australia, farmers and local governments contend with the ironies of the climate:  I repeatedly read newspaper reports of farmers in one place rejoicing because their land was replenished by rainstorms while others desperately wondered how many months they could hold out in the drought;  in different parts of the country, authorities battle with flood disasters whilst elsewhere they squabble over apportioning available supplies.

For a town that didn’t exist until the early 1870s and only gained a rail connection in 1929, Alice Springs is extremely proud of its heritage.  There are tours of the Royal Flying Doctor Service [http://www.flyingdoctor.org.au/about-us/visitor-centres/vc-co], tracing the origins and development of a quintessentially Australian enterprise, without which much of the remote regions could not have developed, and the Telegraph Station Historical Reserve [http://www.nt.gov.au/nreta/parks/find/astelegraphstation.html], now a historic monument that shows where, how and why the location was first colonised by white settlers:  the original “spring” is actually a waterhole on the Todd River – Alice was in fact the wife of the postmaster-general of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd (1826-1910).

While I was in Alice Springs I bought Doris Blackwell’s Alice…on the line (apparently co-written with Douglas Lockwood 1965), an account of growing up there between 1899 and 1908 when her father was officer-in-charge of the telegraph station.  For a reader who has travelled to Alice Springs overland in the comfort of The Ghan and experienced the summer heat there, it starkly focuses the imagination on the conditions endured by the men who laid out and built the telegraph line and the families who came to this desolate and beautiful place to work and live.

On a Tailormade Tours half-day tour with an excellent driver/guide called Graeme, I also visited the Alice Springs Reptile Centre [http://www.reptilecentre.com.au], and met a two-foot lizard called Fred who ambles about the place getting under people’s feet, and drove to the top of ANZAC Hill, the vantage point that reveals the geography of the place, located on a narrow gap in the MacDonnell Range through which the railway and the road penetrate.

In a short stay I left interesting sites unseen, the Museum of Central Australia, the Old Ghan Museum & Heritage Railway, which runs a steam train along a surviving stretch of the narrow-gauge original line, and the National Road Transport Hall of Fame next door, housed in a hall big enough to contain a couple of road-trains and much else.

What I wouldn’t have missed, however, was the Outback Ballooning [http://www.outbackballooning.com.au] dawn flight over the outback, hosted by the inestimable pilot Frans and his driver Ron (apparently they swap roles from time to time).  A balloon flight is worth getting up before dawn for:  it offers time to see the night-sky in desert conditions, all the practical activity of inflating the balloon and, later, squashing it back into its five-foot-high carrier-bag, the eerie silence of drifting above the landscape with absolutely no sensation of vertigo, the entertainment of surprising kangaroos and horses going about their morning business and – since the route and destination are dictated by the wind – such points of local interest as the jail and the oil-refinery.

The champagne breakfast afterwards, a regular ballooning custom, was convivial:  the watermelon, chicken legs and pieces of quiche were washed down with champagne laced with apple and guava juice, a sort of antipodean Bucks Fizz, and the conversation warmed up considerably.  I spent the rest of the morning drinking strong coffee.

There’s enough to do in Alice Springs to while away several days:  in future I’d make a point of visiting in winter, when the temperature goes down to a cool 20°C.


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