A Town Like Alice
like we'd expected. It wasn't
flat, dusty, brown . . . or even hot. Alice is situated in the MacDonnell
Ranges a few kilometres south of the Tropic of Capricorn. We were amazed
to find so much green grass and so many trees. The MacDonnell Range Holiday
Park was a gem; one of the best in which we've stayed. Our first drive into
town left some strong impressions. The town centre was bustling with people
and traffic. The Todd River, however, was bone dry and had been for over
Looking south over Alice Springs towards the Heavitree Gap where the main Stuart Highway, the Ghan Railway
and the Todd River all squeeze through the MacDonnell Ranges. The caravan park was just beyond the Gap.
The town has only been called Alice Springs since 1933; prior
to that it was known as Stuart. However, confusion with the town of Sturt
in South Australia necessitated a change and the name of some 'springs'
in the Todd River adjacent to the old Stuart Telegraph Station was adopted.
The Todd River was named after Sir Charles Todd who was the Superintendant
of Posts and Telegraphs. It was he who built the Overland Telegraph Line
in 1872 and the 'springs' had been named after his wife, Lady Alice.
In actual fact, there are no springs. The water believed to be from springs
was but the last pool in the river to dry up. We went to see it; it was
dry. So - Alice Springs takes its name from a woman who never set foot in
the place, and springs that don't exist. But, hey, it's a pretty name.
Alice's town centre was full of groups of Aborigines. As Bill Bryson so
succinctly describes in his book
blacks and whites coexist without either appearing to acknowledge the existence
of the other. Eye contact is studiously avoided.
But enough gloom and doom. During our stay in Alice the weather was perfect
- the sun shone every day and the temperature peaked in the twenties.
At night it became quite chilly which was ideal for sleeping. And there
were few flies! Everywhere else we'd been there were the interminable swarms
of flies crawling up our noses and into our eyes and ears. But, for some
reason, not in Alice.
If I might digress for a moment, on the subject of flies we had finally counteracted the menace by wearing
fine, green nets over our heads. They had elasticised necks and we wore
our hats over them.
Mrs B. demonstrates the latest fashion in insect deterrents.
It's so unobtrusive that she forgets it's there and licks her
ice cream. Can't wait until she blows her nose!
Most people wore them and the flies would crawl all over the outside
of the nets, trying to find a way in. It was easy to imagine that they
were becoming as frustrated as we had been before we wore the nets. It
gave us a delicious feeling of revenge! But back to Alice Springs.
MacDonnell Range Holiday Park
As I mentioned earlier, this park was one of the best - possibly
best - that we've seen so far, though one of the dearest, too.
Almost every day some free communal event was organised to bring campers
Note on 'Thursday':
Aborigine women are not allowed to play the didgeridoo. Playing this instrument involves breathing in through your nose while simultaneously
blowing out through your mouth. If women were able to perfect this technique
they would be able to berate their husbands without ever stopping for breath.
- Sunday: Free Pancake Breakfast cooked by the park staff - pictured below.
- Monday: A lecture and slides on four wheel driving by an expert, and separately, a Desert Food presentation.
- Tuesday: A Star Talk in the open air by an astronomer.
- Wednesday: Bush ballads, jokes and bush poetry held in the evening between three blazing log fires.
- Thursday: A Didgeridoo presentation where the techniques were explained. See note below.
- Friday: Another Desert Food presentation.
- Saturday: Left free so you could catch up on your drinking.
On Sunday mornings people brought their own plate, mug and cutlery; the staff wrote a name badge
for you and served you a large pancake. There was plenty of butter, sugar,
maple syrup, etc., supplied, and free coffee. If you wanted a second pancake
- they were really yummy - you could have one. They cooked sixteen at
a time and served over four hundred each Sunday. It was an ideal opportunity
to meet people, make new friends and put on weight.
Each Sunday morning the park staff cooked pancakes for everyone.
The MacDonnell Ranges sloped right down to the park's perimeter fence
creating a spectacular backdrop and affording some protection from northerly
winds. There was plenty of grass and many trees in the park, so lots of
Green and grassy. Our caravan and car at Alice's beautiful MacDonnell Range Holiday Park.
We took a 250 kilometre round trip to Palm Valley in the
Finke Gorge National Park one day. It isn't so much a valley as a canyon
between steep, red, rocky cliffs. The Red Cabbage Palms that grow there
are supposed to be unique in the world. Well, perhaps they are, but we saw
nothing to differentiate them from any other palms.
To reach them we had to drive for 20 kilometres down the dry bed of the
Finke River after leaving the bitumen - and back again afterwards.
Sometimes we travelled over boulders, sometimes through soft sand and often
over rocky shale that vibrated the car quite severely unless we reduced
speed to a crawl. The day was . . . an experience.
On the way to and from the Finke Gorge National Park we passed very many
large piles of camel dung on the roadside. However, hard though we looked,
we never saw a single wild camel. There are said to be over two thousand
of them around the place and we were warned that they like to lie down on
the road. Tooting the horn has no effect, apparently. You can safely leave
the car, photograph them, then politely ask them to
However, only when they are sick of being hassled will they get the hump
and decide to move elsewhere. Until then you just . . . wait.
The tall Red Cabbage Palms that we had gone to see (shiny foliage, quarter way in from the left)
were dwarfed by the canyon walls of the Finke Gorge.
The School of the Air
Another day the Tour Director, a.k.a. Pam, organised a visit to the
of the Air
where we saw a class in session. The pupils were five-year-olds
who were watching their teacher (who was just through a glass panel from
us) on television screens up to 2,240 kilometres away. Teacher and students
had the same reading book in front of them and the kids answered the teacher's
questions via a satellite link. There was a two second delay (due to the
link) before the children heard the teacher, and a similar delay after they
replied. We, too, were also able to watch the teacher on a monitor - the
same picture that the kids could see - and listen to their replies to her
questions. It was strange, the teacher on the monitor image was out
of sync with the flesh and blood teacher a few metres away.
The 'School of the Air' teacher talks to students over an area of 1.3 millions square kilometres.
There was a large map on the wall showing the location of
each child complete with the child's name and photograph. During class,
every child must be supervised by either a parent or somebody appointed
by the parents for that purpose. From what we were told, this method of
teaching gives much better results than a conventional classroom environment
and is much less stressful for the teacher.
The school has its own website. Click www.assoa.nt.edu.au
if you'd like to visit it.
Four times a year all the students come into Alice Springs to meet each
other and have a sports day. They also get the opportunity to have swimming
lessons, watch videos, have a pizza and go to a supermarket. Remember, these
kids are from remote cattle stations where there might be no other children,
where there's no mains power so the generator has to be started for the
school session and where the nearest neighbour might be 400 kilometres away.
Pam outside the door of the
'school that goes to the children'.
Several times a year two teachers will take a four wheel drive vehicle and
visit each pupil, eating with the family and staying overnight. This gives
them the opportunity to make personal contact with both student and parents,
and resolve any difficulties.
The advantages of this type of education are many:
- The parents are directly involved in their child's education.
- The teacher/pupil relationship has more of a one-to-one nature.
- There are no distractions due to the inevitable pests that always disrupt a conventional class.
- The children are not exposed to 'peer group pressure' to have the latest fashion in shoes or a mobile phone.
- They don't pick up bad habits or infections from the other kids, nor do they have the same unlimited access to television.
Not surprisingly, they don't 'grow up' as fast as their city counterparts in the
sense that don't become 'streetwise'. They catch up on that
side of their 'education' once they have completed Year 7 and
move on to boarding school in Alice where they will be with all the friends
they've made through the School of the Air.
Referring back to Bill Bryson's book, Down Under
, he visited the
School of the Air and commented on the scarcity of Aboriginal pupils. The
answer he received was that
the pupils have to be supervised
by a competent adult
they need a reliable, concientious
adult with core language and reading skills
. Bill remarks that
if the parents don't have those necessary skills, then neither will the
children when they grow up to be parents, and so it goes on. You are left
with the definite impression that nothing is being done to try and break
We, too, asked the same question:
Where are the Aboriginal children?
We received a different answer:
Thirty percent of our children
are Aborigines. You won't see their photographs on the board because Aborigines
believe being photographed takes away some of their spirit.
Also . . .
White children in remote areas live with their families.
There may only be one or two children on a cattle station. Remote Aborigine
communities, however, will have many children. If there's ten or more, the
government supplies a schoolroom, a teacher and a nurse.
You didn't tell us all that, Bill!
The new 'Ghan' train provides one of the great railway journeys of the world.
Only one passenger train per week runs the full 3,000 kilometre distance
from Adelaide to Darwin, and one on the return route. Other services run
half the way, either commencing or terminating at Alice. We could always
tell when the Ghan was due by the number of cars parked near the track, and the people hanging around with cameras. So we joined them.
The Adelaide-bound Ghan passing through The Heavitree Gap in the MacDonnell Ranges. Ten coaches are visible in the picture; there
are fifteen more plus two car transporter wagons still out of site! (Our Pajero can be seen just under the front of the loco with the shameless Mrs
B in pink, waving at the driver.)
The train was hauled by two locos on the leg from Darwin
to Alice (pictured below on arrival at Alice station). The rear one was
shunted off before departure for Adelaide. Naturally I asked the question
and was told that there had been overheating problems using a single loco
on the northern (hotter) half of the journey, so they brought along a spare.
I must stress that I
speaking to the General Manager of National Rail, so perhaps the reply from
the bloke who was topping up the carriage water tanks with a hose shouldn't
be taken as an official statement from the Railway.
The journey from Adelaide to Darwin takes forty seven hours, including a
four hour stop at Alice. There are two levels of service, Red Kangaroo and
Gold Kangaroo. Take the cheaper, Red service and you sleep in your seat.
The Gold service gets you a bed.
Just for fun I compared the power output of our 3.2 litre diesel Pajero
with that of the loco pulling the Ghan. The Pajero gives 121 kW max; the
plate on the Ghan loco rates it at 3,000 kW. They'd need twenty five Pajeros
to pull that train - one for each carriage and even then they'd have to
leave the car transporters behind. But at least our silver Pajero would
be colour co-ordinated with the coaches.
For the interest of West Australians, the locomotives were built by A. Goninan & Company of Bassendean, Perth.
However, the propulsion system was furnished by the General Electric Company,
U.S.A. That, of course, would be the part that's overheating.
One day the Tour Director, bless her heart, organised a visit to the Royal
Flying Doctor Service headquarters in Alice. It was very interesting but
then I found out the real
reason for our visit there - the RFDS
has an excellent café incorporated. All proceeds go the RFDS so we
felt obliged to eat there . . . several times.
Alice Springs Cultural Precinct
Later we visited the Alice Springs Cultural Precinct where
there's something for everyone. This is where our UHF pocket radios came
in handy for staying in touch as Pam went off to look at arty stuff and
Aboriginal mumbo jumbo leaving me free to visit the Central Australian
Aviation Museum. There I found a fascinating story which anyone at all
into aviation will enjoy. I've called it Never Say Die. Click this button
to go there: Never
The rest of the museum was interesting, too - not too formal, more like
a maintenance hangar in which you were free to wander and touch things.
Next to the Museum was a small building housing the wreck of the Kookaburra.
When the great Charles Kingsford Smith disappeared in April 1929 while on
a flight from Sydney to England, two associates of his, Keith Anderson and
Bill Hitchcock, set out in the Kookaburra to look for him. However, an engine
problem forced them down in the desert. Although unhurt, they were woefully
ill-prepared to survive such an eventuality and both were dead within three
In the meantime, Smithy and friends were rescued unharmed. The bodies of
Keith and Bill were recovered but the Kookaburra was left where it was to
suffer the ravages of time and bush fires. After resting undisturbed for
half a century, the remains were found by entrepreneur and adventurer, Dick
Smith. They now reside in a special little building in the Cultural Precinct.
Plaques on the walls tell the story in detail.
Also adjacent to the Aviation Museum is the Memorial Cemetery where Harry
Lasseter and the famous Aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira, are buried.
Wonder what they talk about at night?
Naturally the Cultural Precinct comprised of much, much more than I saw.
There is a curved, rusty, steel-covered walkway called the Yeperenye
(Caterpillar) that the brochure describes as:
... a major creative ancestor of mparntwe and one of the most important of all Arrernte totems.
Yep, okay, each to his own. There are art galleries and a sculpture garden. There's
a museum and a research centre. There are crafts and a historical house.
Philistine that I am, I saw none of these.
Standleys Chasm and Simpsons Gap
Standleys Chasm, pictured left, is a 'must see' beauty spot
if you visit Alice. It is situated about 50 kilometres west of the town in the MacDonnell
Ranges. The chasm is a very narrow gorge, worn away by water over millions
of years. It has sheer, towering rock sides and is famous for its lighting
effects. The gap runs north-south and the sun, of course, passes over from
east to west. Thus the chasm is in shadow until just
midday when sunlight travels down the west wall until it fills the gorge
with intense light before retreating back up the east wall to leave the
everything in shadow once more. In the picture the sunlight has reached
the bottom of the west wall and is moving across the floor of the gorge.
To reach the chasm we had to walk up a steep valley where we we surprised
to find water running from the hillside to form a small stream. There was
even a little waterfall and - naturally, in that desert environment - where
there is water there is abundant plant and bird life. Lower down in the
valley, however, the stream bed was dry though the vegetation indicated
that the water was not too far below ground.
leaving Standleys Chasm we visited Simpsons Gap, another gorge, this one
wider with a sandy, dry river bed running through it.
We saw nobody disobeying this sign.
However, another visitor to the gorge told us that the last time he was
there the river bed was full of water and, despite the sign, children were
At the head of the gorge were several pools and the rock walls were home
to a colony of black footed wallabies as well as a wedge tailed eagle. Pam
saw the eagle leave its nest on a high ledge and glide out of the gorge
followed by loud squarks from its young. The human equivalent of
me back some lollies, Mum
, perhaps. We didn't see any wallabies though
other people did. They are best seen at dawn and dusk.
On returning to Alice we stopped off at a tyre depot to have a slow leak
in a front tyre repaired. They found that the leak was from a previous 'illegal'
repair that had been made to the tyre which could not be successfully mended.
Ho-hum! $264 later we left with a new tyre. The good news was that the damaged
tyre was already 90% worn. The bad news was that so are two others.
Emily Gap and Jessie Gap
The Macdonnell Ranges continued on to the east of Alice and there we found
two more gorges, Emily Gap and Jessie Gap. Both gorges contain samples of
Aboriginal rock paintings. The paintings represent three caterpillars which
are of great significance to the Arrernte people (the local Aborigines).
The caterpillars are called Yeperenye, Ntyarlke and Utnerrengatye.
Aboriginal rock art. Any resemblance to
a 1950s fridge is coincidental. Look harder - they are clearly caterpillars.
Apart from the rock art, both gorges were really beautiful. There were birds
nesting on ledges high on the cliff faces. We couldn't actually see the
birds or the nests from the floor of the gorge, but we knew they were there
from the white streaks on the rock face below the ledges. Or it could have
been more Aboriginal art? We also saw a rock wallaby, very briefly, high
amongst the rocks. It made up for missing out on seeing one at Simpsons
Gap. Strangely, there used to be a colony of rock wallabies high in the
Pennine Range of mountains in Yorkshire, England. Perhaps they're still
there. How such an animal can survive in that bitter climate is a complete
Both the Emily and Jessie Gaps were cut through the rock by water erosion
over millions of years. The floors of both canyons are flat, sandy river
beds. After heavy rain the rivers will flow, but it might be years before
it happens again. The water table, however, was not far beneath the sand
of the river bed, and in both gorges we found pools in dips along the base
of the rock walls.
The names Emily and Jessie were popularly believed to have been taken from
Sir Charles Todd's daughters but this is now known to be false. Their origin
is a mystery.
Emily Gap. The rock art is just left of centre, recessed behind the white sign.
The Desert Park
We were strongly advised to visit the Alice Springs Desert
Park and allow ourselves at least three hours there. In truth, we could
have spent a whole day in the park without getting bored. There were so
many talks available that we were having to dash about and see the park
between the many presentations which were excellent! Mrs B. has covered
it in her Journal so I'll be content with showing you a picture of a Wedge
Tailed Eagle that gave a free-flying display before alighting for its reward.
I also somehow managed to photograph a pair of Thorny Devils through the
glass in the nocturnal house.
The 'wedgie' (left) and the thorny devils (right).
The closer devil was feeling amorous but his mate had a headache.
Perhaps as well. I mean . . . how would they manage it?
This is the last entry for Alice Springs, a place we really enjoyed. It
started life as a desert telegraph relay station and has developed into
a thriving town in an environment as pretty as its name. I hope we return
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