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A Town Called Alice

(Reprint from News: March 13, 2002)

March 12, 2002


After 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.


Late 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.


Before 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.  For 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 to.


As 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. 


I’m 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 evident here.


Alice 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.


2-2812_Driving_to_Alice.jpg (23718 bytes)    2-2850_Alice_Springs_From_Anzac_Hill.jpg (55461 bytes)    2-2868_Alice_Springs_From_Anzac_Hill.jpg (50318 bytes)

Above left:  Heading up to Alice Springs.  That's an Australian speed limit sign.  The "100" refers, of course, to kilometers per hour.

Above center:  Looking south at Alice Springs, viewed from Anzac Hill.

Above right:  The shopping district of Alice Springs.


2-2880_Downtown_Alice.jpg (41708 bytes)    2-2882_Todd_Mall.jpg (60085 bytes)    2-2871_Todd_River.jpg (57070 bytes)

Above left:  Downtown Alice Springs on a sleepy morning.

Above center:  Todd Street Mall in Alice.

Above 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 hell.


2-2876_My_Cabin.jpg (52402 bytes)    2-2875_Inside_My_Cabin.jpg (36826 bytes)    2-2889_Filling_Up_Alice.jpg (34670 bytes)

Above 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.

Above 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.

Above right:  Fueling up in Alice Springs.  Note the Hungry Jacks in the background.


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