Destinations Magazine

Australia's Red Center: Alice Springs

By Carolinearnoldtravel @CarolineSArnold

Australia's Red Center: Alice Springs

Tropic of Capricorn marker just north of Alice Springs

A Town Called Alice
(Diary entry from our visit to Alice Springs in April 1999)
   On Sunday morning we flew from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs, a distance of about 300 miles.  Although it was Easter, there wasn’t much celebration.  We noticed that some people are trying to promote the bilby, a marsupial with long, rabbit-like ears, as an Easter Bunny alternative--eg, the Easter Bilby--but it doesn't seem to be catching on. At the Desert Park in Alice Springs (where we actually saw a bilby in the night exhibit) they had a special exhibit of eggs to celebrate the rebirth of life.  They showed all kinds of eggs--birds, reptiles, insects and even mammals (the echidna.)  We got nabbed by a ranger on our way in who needed an audience to talk about the eggs but who managed to get sidetracked into telling us about his Aboriginal heritage and how he is part of the emu clan.
A Working Ranch (Station) and Bed and Breakfast

Australia's Red Center: Alice Springs

Flock of budgies seen at water hole at Bond Springs Station

    In Alice Springs we visited the shops and art galleries in the center of town and were tempted to buy some of the carvings and paintings but the ones we really liked were both too big and too expensive.  We then drove north of town about fifteen miles to the Tropic of Capricorn marker (to take a companion photo for our Equator shot from 1971 and the more recent Greenwich Meridian) en route to the Bond Springs Station, a working cattle ranch that was also our bed and breakfast.  We had our own small cottage and arranged to have dinner there which we ate on our own verandah as we watched the stars come out. 
   In the morning we went out for a bird walk along a dry creek bed and saw parrots, cockatoos, budgies, zebra finches as well as some kangaroos who seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see them.  Later in the day we had a tour of the station and got some insight into the challenges of grazing cattle over millions of acres in the outback.  I always had a romantic image of cowboys on horseback rounding up the cattle, but on modern stations like this one the cattle are mustered with airplanes, helicopters and motorbikes because it is quicker and more cost effective.  That evening we went to a barbecue and were served beef steaks from the station’s own cattle. At both Ayers Rock and Alice Springs we had terrific views of the night sky.  For the first time we saw the Magellanic clouds--which Magellan apparently used to figure out where south was.
The Telegraph Station

Australia's Red Center: Alice Springs

Sign at Old Telegraph Station, restored at site of original Alice Springs

   Our outings in Alice Springs included a tour of the old telegraph station (now a museum) which is at the site of the original Alice Springs.  The “spring” is actually a pool in a river bed and was named after the wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs.  The telegraph station, constructed in the 1870's, was the beginning of the town of Alice Springs and the line, which went between Adelaide in the south and Darwin in the north, provided, for the first time, a direct connection (via an undersea cable between Darwin and Java) between Australia and the rest of the world.  We got to talking with the managers of the Telegraph Station Museum and they showed us the three joeys (baby kangaroos) that they were taking care of after their mothers had been killed by cars.  One was so small that they kept it tucked into a purse sized cloth pouch.
The Flying Doctor
Australia's Red Center: Alice Springs

   Our other tourist destinations in Alice Springs were to the Desert Park (an exhibit of desert wildlife), the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the School of the Air, and finally a date grove where we had afternoon coffee and date cake before returning to Melbourne. 
   The Flying Doctor Service was started by a Presbyterian missionary in 1928 as a way of providing health care to people in remote areas.  Communication to the center in Alice Springs was by radio and when a call came in a pilot and a doctor would head out hoping that when they got there they would find a suitable place to land.  The radio service is also used to give medical advice for immediate treatment while the patient is waiting for the doctor to arrive. When we toured the center in the early afternoon, the log on the wall showed five emergencies had already been dealt with that day.  In the 1950's someone had the idea of using the same radio service to provide schooling to children who live on remote cattle stations and that became the School of the Air.
School of the Air

Australia's Red Center: Alice Springs

Studio at School of the Air where classes are broadcast

   The School of the Air now has its own facility and teaches about 200 children, some of them living as far as 1000 kilometers from Alice Springs.  We listened in as a teacher gave a lesson to a six year old student.  Kids get group lessons by grade level each morning for an hour and then once a week each child gets an individual lesson.  The kids get lesson packets every two weeks in the mail and the work is supervised either by a parent or a governess.  We saw samples of work on display at the school headquarters and it was well done.  In many ways these kids have all the advantages of individual attention in their home schooling and at the same time they are able to grow up on their cattle stations and be part of that life too. 
   School of the Air goes to grade 7 and after that the kids go to boarding school.  Our tour guide on the cattle ranch where we stayed had grown up there and went to School of the Air with his brother and two sisters.  (We saw the room that they had used for their lessons.)  Although we had driven into the ranch on a dirt road that was in bumpy but reasonable condition, until recently there was no road at all.  Getting into town was an ordeal, especially if it rained and the creeks filled with water, so School of the Air was the best option.
A Self-Sufficient Life

Australia's Red Center: Alice Springs

Sunset, Bond Springs Station

   It is hard for us to realize how self-sufficient people have to be in the outback.   At Bond Springs they have maintained the original homestead buildings as part of the National Trust so you can see how people really lived when they first came to the outback. The first house was one tiny room with dirt floors and a canvas bed.  Later a slightly larger house was built.  (I had always thought that quilts were a uniquely American craft but when we visited the homestead we saw on the bed a wedding quilt that had been made for the couple by the bride and groom's mothers.)
  The current family home was built in the 1930's and has at its heart a high ceilinged kitchen with a giant table where we ate breakfast..  Even at Bond Springs, which now seems quite modern, it has only been recently that the station has had telephone service and they still have to produce all their own electricity.  Despite the obvious hardships, the people who live in the outback love it and can't imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else.  When we told one of the staff at Bond Springs that our home was in Los Angeles, she seemed genuinely sorry that we had to live in a city.
Vacation Reading 
   I am reading a book called We of the Never-Never, a memoir of Jeannie Gunn, a woman at a cattle station in the early part of the century.  During the rainy season they would be cut off for weeks when rain swollen rivers became impassable and then it would take weeks after it dried for wagons to travel from Darwin.  Her solution to the perpetual fly problem was to construct a net that enclosed the entire dining room--table, chairs and all!  The book was made into a movie that we saw the last time we were in Australia. (The outback is the Never-Never because once you live there, you never-never want to return to city life.) Art is reading another classic, A Fortunate Life, about a man whose life would seem to be anything but fortunate.
Window Seat
   I always take several books to read on vacations and never read any of them partly because I always buy books on the trip (like We of the Never-Never) and start reading them and partly because when I'm on the airplane I find it much more interesting to look out the window than to read.  Our flight to Uluru (from Melbourne via Sydney) took us over miles and miles of desolate desert where you could see the patterns of salt deposited across the bottom of enormous dry lake beds.  It is hard to imagine that there are times when these lakes actually have water in them.
Desert on a Grand Scale
   Our trip was so full that I have just touched on the highlights.  At moments the Australian desert reminded us of experiences we’ve had in American deserts such as at Joshua Tree National Monument, in the Mojave, or in Borrego Springs, east of San Diego, but the scale and distances in Australia are so much grander.  There is also the sense with the Aborigines that they are part of a really distant past--in a time long before there was any human life in the Americas. The Red Center is definitely the most foreign place we've visited in Australia and it’s a long way from anywhere.  Its like flying from LA to Denver and realizing that there is nothing in between.
[Our trip to Alice Springs was during a three month stay in Australia in 1999 when Art was working in Melbourne.  I have been to Australia a total of five times.  We returned to the Red Center on our trip in 2002.]

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