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A Town Like Alice

Alice Springs!

Nothing 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 a year.

Alice Springs

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 Down Under, the blacks and whites coexist without either appearing to acknowledge the existence of the other. Eye contact is studiously avoided.

Pam behind Fly Net

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 the 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 together. 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.

Pancakes


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 birds.

Caravan at Alice

Green and grassy. Our caravan and car at Alice's beautiful MacDonnell Range Holiday Park.

Palm Valley

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 go away. However, only when they are sick of being hassled will they get the hump and decide to move elsewhere. Until then you just . . . wait.

Palms

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 School 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.

Teacher; School of the Air

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.

Pam outsidethe School of the Air

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: 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 and 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 the cycle.

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 Ghan

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 Ghan

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 wasn't 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.

Two Locos

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 Say Die

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. Heaven!

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 days.

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.

Chasm



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

Waterfall

before 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.

Dry Swimming Hole

After 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 swimming.

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 Bring 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

Rock Art


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 mystery.

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

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.

Eagle and Devils

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 some day.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 7 was completed on 27 February 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level3.