Town Called Alice
eating lunch at the Ayers Rock airport (hey, I like airports, O.K.?), I left around 2 p.m. and
drove to Alice Springs. During the long drive there, I crossed over the sandy Finke River
and I'm still kicking myself that I didn't take a picture of it, because I
learned later that the Finke River is probably the oldest river in the
world. Compared to the other six continents, Australia is a VERY old
place. There hasn't been any mountain-building here for eons and there are
rainforests in northern Australia that haven't changed much in over 100 million
years. That's 35 million years before the dinosaurs became extinct, which is
an awfully long time.
that afternoon, I rolled into “The Alice” as Aussies call it,
which is located smack-dab in the middle of
the country and, with a population of about 25,000, is the largest city in
central Australia. I’ve wanted to
visit Alice Springs ever since I was a little kid when I pored over world
atlases and wondered about distant places, including this one in the middle of
the Australian desert with the funny name.
I arrived in Australia a few months ago, I was imagining what
Alice Springs was like. I figured it was hot, flat, dry, barren, and dusty with lots
of Outback-type pubs – kind of like the Wild West. As I’ve discovered, though, it’s not like that at all.
one thing, it’s much more lush than I envisioned, with lots of trees and
grassy parks. Actually, with its multi-story buildings and pedestrian shopping mall,
it looks much like any modern city. It's
not flat at all, because a mountain range runs through the southern edge of the
city. Also, to
the dismay of some, it even has a bunch of fast-food joints, including KFC,
Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Burger King (oops, I mean “Hungry Jacks”).
Alice Springs draws in a lot of tourists (over 250,000 visited last year)
including, for some reason, a lot of young, single travelers or
"backpackers,” as they’re called here in Australia.
It also has a lot of interesting places to visit and it’s quite unlike any city I’ve ever been
interesting as “The Alice” is, though, it’s also a bit seedy.
Most of the motels and houses are barricaded by high walls and, in some
cases, barbed wire, and for the first time during my trip to Australia, I saw a lot of graffiti on walls and broken
window glass in parking lots. There’s
a large Aborigine population in Alice Springs, some of whom I saw staggering
around town and panhandling, and there are a lot of idle adult Aborigines who sit in
the parks for several hours during the day with nothing much to do.
Although the whites and Aborigines seem to get along pretty well, from
the looks of things, there’s a relatively high crime rate here and my level
of… not anxiety but, rather, alertness… inched up to the highest its been on
my entire 12-month trip so far.
not implying that Aborigines are dangerous because, although I’m still trying
to figure out the Aborigine situation here, my general impression is that
they’re not any more "dangerous" than whites (yeah, yeah, some of my best friends are Aborigines…).
However, as with any group which has high levels of unemployment and
substance abuse, there’s bound to be a higher level of crime, and that’s
Springs is definitely an interesting and colorful city, but because of the
barbed wire, walled motel compounds, and the high lodging costs, I decided to
cut my visit short here after spending only a couple of nights.
During my day-long tour of Alice Springs, I visited several interesting
sites, including the old Telegraph Station, Anzac Hill, the Royal Flying
Doctor Service, and the School of the Air.
Oh, and I also had lunch in the Hungry Jacks, my first fast-food meal
since leaving the U.S. in December. And
in case you were wondering, Whoppers in Australia taste exactly the same as
Whoppers in the U.S. -- but I don’t know
if that’s good or bad.
left: Heading up to Alice
Springs. That's an Australian speed limit sign. The "100"
refers, of course, to kilometers per hour.
center: Looking south at Alice Springs, viewed from Anzac Hill.
right: The shopping district of Alice Springs.
left: Downtown Alice Springs
on a sleepy morning.
center: Todd Street Mall in Alice.
right: Here's the Todd River which is almost always dry. Each winter,
though, local residents hold the "Henley on the Todd"
regatta here. Participants step into their "boats," lift them up, then run like
left: Home sweet home (er,
cabin). After passing hundreds of caravan parks (i.e., private
campgrounds) in New Zealand and Australia over the past four months, I finally
stayed in one because I wanted to try out a cabin, which are very popular here.
center: My cabin wasn't much, but it was cheap.
Cabins are more suited to large families, I guess, so I think I'll stick to motels.
right: Fueling up in Alice Springs. Note the Hungry
Jacks in the background.
Telegraph Station – Where It All Began
first European crazy enough to travel through the deserts of central Australia
was a guy named John Stuart, who led a party through the Alice Springs area in 1862 during
the first successful south-north crossing of Australia.
Stuart was searching for a fabled inland lake but didn’t find much in
central Australia other than sand, rocks, and bush flies. To top it off, after reaching the
northern coast, he almost died on the return trip south.
How a group of men on horses could have crossed 2,000 miles of desert
without a map (and without Happy Meals) blew me away.
It’s challenge enough, I thought, to travel through this area in an air-conditioned
Camry with a six-speaker stereo system.
In 1871, nine years
after Stuart’s visit, a telegraph cable was laid under the ocean from the
island of Java to Darwin, on Australia’s northern tip, thus linking Australia
with the rest of the world. To carry the messages south across the Australian desert, a dozen
telegraph repeater stations were constructed, including one here at Alice
Springs, which was the first white settlement in central Australia.
Once the telegraph system was in place, news from London that had taken
three months to travel by ship was able to reach Australia in about 12 hours.
it operated between 1871 and the 1930’s, the Alice Springs Telegraph Station
was manned 24 hours a day as telegraph operators relayed messages in Morse Code.
Operators wrote down weak messages as they arrived from one direction and
then, using a separate keying device, sent these messages down the other line
where it was received by the next telegraph station, located a few hundred miles
away. This process was repeated
until the message reached the intended destination.
Alice Springs Telegraph Station is now a historical park and it’s located
about a mile north of town, just a few yards from the original springs that were
named “Alice” (after the wife of an official in Adelaide).
Many of the original buildings are still there including the Telegraph
Room, which plays a continual recording of a Morse Code message.
I listened closely but all the dots and dashes in rapid succession just
sounded like gibberish to me and, even with a printed Morse Code guide to the 26
letters to refer to, I couldn’t decipher a single letter.
It amazed me that anyone could listen to that staccato and translate it
into English. Considering that a
message from London was copied and relayed perhaps 30 times before it
finally reached Australia several hours later, I wondered how often a message
like, “The Queen is ill” got garbled into “Old dogs are blue.”
Code, of course, isn’t used anymore except to earn a merit badge in the Boy
Scouts. However, the same
“on-off” principal laid the foundation for modern computer and digital
technology, including modems and fiber-optic communications.
I think Samuel Morse would be proud... and so, probably, would Alice.
left: These are the original
Alice Springs on the Charles River.
center: The original telegraph building, a few yards away. Note the telegraph
right: Here's the telegraph room, which plays a continual recording of
an actual Morse Code message. It all sounded like Greek to me, though.
driving across the Outback during the past week, I’ve thought a lot about how
people here have adapted to this dry and desolate environment.
It’s apparent in little things that, at first glance, seem a bit odd
such as huge tanks that collect rainwater from the rooftops to use for drinking,
the telephone poles made out of iron instead of wood, and the 150-foot long
Road Trains. But what about
services like health-care and education? Again,
the Outback is a unique area, so it’s no surprise that those resourceful Aussies have
developed unique solutions.
in 1928, an Australian reverend named John Flynn created The Royal Flying Doctors
Service (RFDS) to provide free medical services for people living in isolated
areas of the Outback. The RFDS is still operating and each day, RFDS planes criss-cross
Australia performing emergency medical services as well as scheduled clinics,
serving folks who live in remote cattle stations, roadhouses, and in Aboriginal
communities, most of whom are hundred of miles from the nearest hospital.
Not only do these doctors make house calls, but they often fly over 500
miles in the process… not even Dominos can top that kind of service.
a single plane and pilot in 1928, the RFDS has grown to a staff today of about
500, operating 40 planes from 20 bases around Australia, including the base that
I visited in Alice Springs. Each year, the RFDS flies over 10 million miles and performs
about 24,000 aerial evacuations, all at no charge to the patients.
It’s a non-profit organization that operates almost solely on private
donations, which explains the numerous signs that I’d seen during the past few
weeks in small towns announcing RFDS benefit raffles and dances.
Australians are quite proud of the RFDS and rightly so. More
information on the Royal Flying Doctor Service is available at
the way, while I was in the RFDS Gift Shop, I spotted a cute stuffed bear
wearing goggles and a leather RFDS flight jacket.
“Waldo” (whom I named after Robert Redford's pilot character, Waldo
Pepper) is now propped up on the Camry’s back seat and greets everyone who
passes by with a furry wave.
left: The Royal Flying
Doctors Service building in
center: Our nurse-guide telling us about the RFDS.
right: The RFDS Operations
||Left: Waldo, my back-seat driver.
more interesting than the RFDS, I thought, was the School of the Air,
Australia’s solution to long-distance education.
Through the use of two-way radios, School of the Air teachers conduct classes each day with
Australian children who are scattered far and wide across immense distances.
There are several Schools of the Air around Australia including one in
Alice Springs, the original home of the School.
This year, the Alice Springs school is teaching 130 students, some of whom
live over 600 miles away.
the help of a tutor (usually a parent), students complete their radio and
written lessons and then mail their homework in to their teacher on a regular basis.
No, I don't think an excuse like "The dog ate my homework" works too
well here in Australia, either -- although "The dingo ate my homework"
might. Anyway, when they’re not on the radio, teachers grade the written work and mail
it back, sometimes via RFDS planes, and at
least once a year, each teacher hops into a 4-wheel drive and heads across the
Outback to visit their
students. In addition, all the kids come into town a few times each year to meet the
other children in their radio “classroom,” which is the only time during the year
that some of the kids get to interact with other children… or visit a town.
Here's Lazy Harry
singing the Aussie classic, Home Among The Gum Trees.
RealPlayer. If problems, see
spent over an hour at the Alice Springs School of the Air, looking at the
displays and watching an
interesting video, which, towards the end, had one of the cutest things that
I've seen so far in Australia -- a dozen little "School of the Air"
kids singing Home Among the Gum Trees. Jeez, I still have
goose bumps and a smile from seeing that.
After the cute video, I watched through a glass window as an instructor
gave a foreign language lesson in Indonesian, which apparently is the most popular
foreign language in Australia -- equivalent, I guess, to learning Spanish or
French in America. And speaking of cute, I
also bumped into a very cute blonde woman tourist here from, amazingly enough, my
hometown of Portland, Oregon. Yeah, I would've asked for her number but she was
attached at the hip to a rather large, hairy boyfriend, so I refrained.
Still, it was nice (and rather strange) to hear an American accent again.
School of the Air is a cool concept and it's a great place to visit. It's also amazingly
successful, with most pupils landing in the top
10% of all students nationwide, and with a large percentage eventually going on to
college. For more information,
their website is at www.assoa.nt.edu.au.
left: Entrance to the Alice
Springs "School of the Air."
center: Inside the Visitor Center with student
projects on display. Is this place cute, or what?
right: School of the Air
teacher broadcasting a lesson in Indonesian.
||Left: Some of the School of the Air students. These
kids are scattered
across the immense Outback.
16, 2002 (Winton, Australia)
11, 2002 (Ayers Rock, Australia)
8, 2002 (Coober Pedy, Australia)
5, 2002 (Port Augusta, Australia)
1, 2002 -- Part 2 (Robe, Australia)
1, 2002 -- Part 1 (Robe, Australia)
18, 2002 (Bega, Australia)
7, 2002 (Auckland, New Zealand)
2, 2002 -- Part 2 (Taupo, New Zealand)
2, 2002 -- Part 1 (Taupo, New Zealand)
25, 2002 (Hokitika, New Zealand)
20, 2002 (Geraldine, New Zealand)
16, 2002 (Te Anau, New Zealand)
12, 2002 -- Part 2 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
12, 2002 -- Part 1 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
1, 2002 -- Part 2 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
1, 2002 -- Part 1 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
24, 2001 (Wellington, New Zealand)
20, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
16, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
14, 2001 (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)
10, 2001 (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)
3, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bellingham, Washington)
3, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bellingham, Washington)
18, 2001 -- Part 3 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
18, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
18, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
6, 2001 (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
September 15, 2001 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 (Webster, South Dakota)
18, 2001 (Watertown South Dakota)
17, 2001 (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)
14, 2001 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)
6, 2001 (Manlius, New York)
23, 2001 (Middleton, Massachusetts)
22, 2001 (Boston, Massachusetts)
20, 2001 (Pomfret, Connecticut)
18, 2001 (Denton, Maryland)
16, 2001 (Cumberland, Virginia)
14, 2001 (Roanoke, Virginia)
9, 2001 (Sevierville, Tennessee)
8, 2001 (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)
5, 2001 (Manchester, Tennessee)
30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
29, 2001 (Corinth, Mississippi)
27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
19, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
* * * * * * *
Travels (2001-02) >
Australia Trip >
March 13, 2002