Alice Springs: “What’s in a Name?”
Alice Springs is a pretty interesting town. Surrounded by desert with the MacDonnell ranges running east and west, it is smack dab in the middle of the country approximately 750 miles from the nearest ocean and about 930 miles(1500km) from Adelaide to the south and Darwin to the north. Since I was in Uluru and headed to Darwin and then to the Kimberley, I decided to stop in “Alice” and check it out. And you have to admit the name is kind of intriguing.
Alice Springs was actually the name given to what was thought to be a permanent waterhole discovered by a government surveyor exploring the area for the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL). The surveyor named the waterhole after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraph Sir Charles Todd, and the repeater station was eventually built adjacent to it. The OTL was completed in 1872, and the settlement became known as Stuart after the famous explorer John McDouall Stuart who earlier in 1862 had led an expedition through the center of Australia to the north coast. (Stuart Highway is named after him). To avoid the confusion of two names, the town was officially named Alice Springs in 1933. And then there are camels.
An expanding country requires ingenuity, and before there was a railway line linking Alice Springs to Adelaide, provisions had to somehow reach central, outback settlements. Since horses and steer weren’t suitable in the desert, camels were. Between 1870 and 1920 approximately 20,000 camels and 3000 Afghan Cameleers (called Ghans) drove camel trains across the desert delivering supplies. They were crucial to the exploration and development of the interior, and it is only in recent years that their story has been told. Today, many tours around Uluru and Alice Springs feature camel rides. (Australia’s wild camel population is the largest in the world, and if you’re looking for a good movie, watch Tracks, a true story).
Considered the central hub of the Australian outback, I immediately liked the town. With a population of about 26,000, it’s bustling, diverse (I met a bearded lady working at one of the coffee shops…didn’t ask), with a good energy that offers everything a traveler would want, especially great Indigenous art galleries. Eye-opening to me was the fact that this was my first real experience with contemporary Aboriginal Australia and a peek at some of the present day challenges that exist.
As I’ve mentioned before, airbnb is a great accommodation option. As luck would have it, I booked a room with a lovely young family at their home about a 30 minute walk from the CBD. Clare is a teacher originally from the Melbourne area, Moga, her partner hales from Sudan and is studying Law, and Danny their four year-old will soon have a sibling. Clare and Moga have traveled extensively throughout Australia, love art and culture, and were a great resource of where to go and what to see….one of many benefits staying with locals!
I spent my first day ambling around town and hanging out at Todd Mall, the town’s focal point. With outdoor cafes, shops, and galleries lining both sides of the pedestrian-only street, it’s a pleasant and lively place. But I quickly learned not to use the public loo because “there might be someone passed out in there” but to use a pay toilet in the mini mall nearby.
Like our native Americans, Aboriginals have had a long, sad history of alcohol problems, and since Alice Springs is a central hub, it draws Indigenous people from outlying communities to its great services and often trouble breaks out. I did notice that each day at one end of Todd Mall there was a constant police presence at what appeared to be a local hangout.
Alice Springs has had, in the last several years, a history of violence, domestic and otherwise. Adding to the problem are the deplorable conditions at “town camps” (Indigenous public housing). I did drive by a couple of these camps, and they looked to be pretty run down and miserable. You get the sense that a strong racial divide exists here. Adding fuel to the fire, a few months ago the Northern Territory Government decided to put a private company, Zodiac, rather than an Indigenous community housing group in charge of managing the camps. Like the racial tension that exists in US, it’s much more complicated than what I am presenting here; nevertheless, it’s not a good idea to be out walking alone at night.
On a positive note, the town has much to offer. My hosts recommended a very good cafe in town which happened to be part of and next to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Museum. Royal Flying Doctor Service’s inception and vision is credited to Reverend John Flynn, a missionary in the central outback in 1912, who wanted to provide better medical services to remote areas of Australia. This service still operates today.
Close by is the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame and the Alice Springs Reptile Center. I wanted to see the Araluen Arts Center, a bit of a walk heading out of town. Since it was late in the afternoon, I took a suggested short cut, crossed over a sketchy part of town and almost got lost. Arriving twenty-five minutes to closing time, the Center let me in for free, and I was able to see this year’s 39th Alice Prize show celebrating contemporary Australian art from across the country.
Realizing it was late and I should get a cab, I walked out to the lobby, and, low and behold, there were Clare and Danny! After a little playground time, Clare took the long way home pointing out other places of interest. Still got good mojo going on. (Thank you Peter Rivard for your “blessings!”)
With one full day to get in a tour, Moga suggested Palm Valley, one of the family’s favorite places. When I visited the i site center to book the tour, I found one that also included a visit to the Hermannsburg Historic Precinct.
Hermannsburg was the first Aboriginal mission in the Northern Territory established in 1877. Later, it was home to the famous painter Albert Namatijra. Today, Hermannsburg is internationally renown for its pottery, which originally started as a training program in the 1990s for Indigenous families living in the area. Our tour stopped here first for high tea before continuing on to Palm Valley. (I much prefer high tea to coffee break!)
I am happy to say that this tour company–Alice Wanderer–had a great tour guide who was only 23 years-old but really knew the land and loved what he was doing. Tours are really the way to go if you don’t have a lot of time. Who you share your tour with is the luck of the draw as is getting a seat assignment on a plane. The average tour age is somewhere in the late 50s, mostly couples. Earlier that morning we were kept waiting when picking up three women from Sydney. When they finally showed up, they were wearing what looked to be night club attire. (Note: dress comfortably and wear good walking shoes). I bumped into two of them the next morning at a pharmacy. One of the women had broken her toe and was waiting for medical attention–unfortunate because they were heading south to Uluru the next day.
Getting out beyond Hermannsburg to Palm Valley, part of Finke Gorge National Park, is about a 2 hour drive from Alice Springs. It’s 4 wheel driving most of the way and truly spectacular scenery along the Finke River, the oldest river in world. Palm Valley is so named because it is the only area in central Australia where red cabbage palms are able to survive thanks to small pockets of spring fed pools. It’s a real outback oasis!
When we arrived back in town, it was dark. My hosts had offered to pick me up, but since I was the last person to be dropped off, my tour guide insisted on delivering me to my front door.
At this point, I’ve been five months on the road. I think I’m officially a seasoned traveler. It’s exciting to be heading farther north to Darwin, Australia’s most northern city and the tropics… where hungry crocodiles live!! Seasoned traveler could take on a whole new meaning..