Outback 3 Alice
Alice Springs is more or less halfway between Adelaide and Darwin, almost in the geographic centre of Australia, and definitely in the middle of nowhere. It's everyone's idea of a remote town, even if they've never been anywhere near the place.
And it's where I bought one of my favourite T-shirts of all time: it said, Hard Rock, No Cafe.
The Northern Territory's third-largest town was first settled in 1872, when a repeater station was built as part of the overland telegraph line (from Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin) on what was believed to be a permanent water source of the Todd River, which often has '(usually dry)'* written after it on maps. Alice Todd was the wife of the former Postmaster General of South Australia. These were times when rather obscure people were deemed worthy of everlasting tribute.
Ten years previously, a Scottish explorer, John McDouall Stuart, had been the first to cross the continent from south to north and back again, right through the centre. The overland telegraph line followed his route and led to the opening up of Australia's interior for settlement, although it didn't take off until the discovery of gold at Arltunga, 100 kilometres east of The Alice, in 1887.
You can, of course, visit the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, and marvel at the engineering feat that was the overland line. The Station is a couple of kilometres north of town along the Stuart Highway, or you can walk for half an hour or so along the Todd River.
Then there's the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) 'tourist facility' is on Stuart Terrace at the bottom of Hartley Street, which runs parallel to Todd Mall. This new and improved visitor centre was opened in 2012 (see here).
A wander down Todd Mall is essential if you want to get a feel for the town. There are several Aboriginal art galleries, lots of other shops selling appealing products and souvenirs, a good bookshop and pleasant coffee shops and cafes.
Adelaide House, also in Todd Mall, was Central Australia's first hospital, built in 1926 by John Flynn, who founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). How nice it was to see a lovely stone building for a change.
The Araluen Cultural Precinct is on Larapinta Drive, which heads out west, about 2 km from the town centre. Here you'll find an arts centre, the Strehlow Research Centre for Aboriginal Culture, the Museum of Central Australia and an aviation museum.
A perhaps less well-known attraction in The Alice is the National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame, housed in the Old Alice Springs Gaol in Stuart Terrace. Stories, photographs and artefacts have been collected in celebration of the significant role of women in Australia's pioneering history and culture. We didn't have time to visit this, unfortunately, even though it had been highly recommended. I remember being fascinated by the resourcefulness of early women settlers in remote arid regions of Australia in Tibooburra and Longreach museums on previous Outback trips.
If you don't have much time in this town, you must visit the Desert Park. On Larapinta Drive 8 km west of town, this outdoors natural history museum nestles at the foot of the MacDonnell Ranges and is divided into three sections – Woodland, Sand Country, and Desert Rivers – and you can follow a trail through all three. You'll come across the most wonderful walk-through aviaries and a large Nocturnal House, which is so dark it's tricky to spot some of its less active inhabitants. As you walk the walk you'll come across emus and roos and dingos, and there is a variety of presentations and guided walks to choose from.
I'd been told that I absolutely must watch the free-flying bird show, and thank goodness we got there in time for the afternoon session in the amphitheatre. (The two shows a day are at 10 am and 3.30 pm.) All the 'acts' were extraordinary, but two of them were stunning. I have been to similar shows before, and I understand that, by the clever use of signal words and titbit rewards, you can get a Bush Stone-curlew to walk across an arena at your command. But to persuade a Torresian Crow to chase two Wedge-tailed Eagles one kilometre up? There was a delightful moment with a Southern Boobook. I know why these owls are so-called, but had never heard their call. This owl was obedient but silent until he was given his cue to leave: 'boobook', he said as he flew off stage. I will never forget either of these.
The unbelievable Thorny Dragon, or Thorny Devil, was on our list of must-sees for this trip, and we achieved that ambition at the Desert Park. We saw a huge variety of birds – in aviaries, of course – including the Chiming Wedgebill, whose piercing, repetitive five-note call could turn one's mind. We saw a massive male Australian Bustard (in far too small an enclosure, unfortunately) and realised we must have only ever seen the female of the species. And a huge Red-tailed Black-cockatoo. Perhaps everything in the Desert Park is larger than life.
There was a lot of colour in The Alice, and not just in Papunya Tula Artists Gallery, where we bought two paintings. As a result of our visit to the Gallery, we left town considerably poorer than when we arrived.
Ultimately, Alice was often all about colour, whatever you were looking at.
We stayed at Chifley Alice Springs Resort, which we liked. The room was spacious, clean, comfortable and nicely decorated, with a lovely green outlook over the banks of the Todd River. It's a quiet part of town but only a couple of minute's drive from the centre. We enjoyed dinner the first night in the Barra on Todd restaurant, and breakfast both mornings, included in the reasonable room rate.
On our second evening in The Alice we ate at the rather more celebrated Hanuman restaurant at the Hilton, where the Indian-Thai fusion food was delicious. I drank Albariño, a light white from Galicia in northwest Spain, which I wouldn't have expected to be on any wine list in the middle of nowhere. We got chatting to two women on the next table, one of whom was very sniffy about dining at Chifley. She was about to move back to live in Sydney so she must have known what she was talking about.
I really liked Alice, but that doesn't mean I didn't feel deep unease when I saw examples – and there were many – of Aboriginal disadvantage. My discomfort stems from the yawning gap between me, swanning around their country in my 4WD, and their limited economic and social opportunity. I reflect what I believe to be white Australians' deep awkwardness about 200 years of failure to atone for huge wrongs and bridge a vast range of living standards among its peoples. Even where Traditional Owners have successfully exploited our desire for ethnic artefacts and cultural education, the relationship between us is enormously compromised by the silence of shame. I smile and greet but quickly move on. How can I hope to communicate meaningfully where centuries of settlers before me have failed.
As we left Hanuman, there was a kerfuffle on the pavement outside. There was shouting and lurching and a clear sense of unease, if not distress. It is not good enough to say, 'Well, what could I have done about it?' Intervention was out of the question, but walking away looked complacent and uncaring.
It is the most intractable of problems. The contrast of lives can be seen at the Civic Centre, where a white Australian mans the public toilets; along main routes where flash tourist buses cruise but whites don't normally walk; and around every street corner. I don't know whose thongs these were, but they made me wonder. As did reading this article, earlier in the week, about the state of Aboriginal housing communities on the fringes of town, in the Alice I didn't see.
* Todd River is ephemeral and has zero to very low flow for at least 95 per cent of the year.
This post was last edited on 31 October 2016