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A Town Called Alice

I got up on Tuesday morning and packed up at the Yulara campground, then spent a few hours wandering around Yulara Village.  After buying a few kitschy souvenirs, I drove over to the Ayers Rock Airport and had lunch (hey, I like airports, O.K.?)  I left Yulara around 2 p.m., heading east down the long one-way highway that I'd driven a few days earlier, on my way towards Alice Springs. 


Back on the Stuart Highway, 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.


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

Around 5 p.m., 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’d 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 all alone in the middle of the Australian desert with the funny name.


Before arriving in Australia a few months ago, I was trying to imagine what Alice Springs must be 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, and 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 lots of tourists (over 250,000 visited last year) including, for some reason, many young, single travelers – or "backpackers,” as they’re called here in Australia.  It also has a lot of interesting places to visit.  Overall, and given its unique geographic setting, economy and diverse ethnic makeup, it's unlike any city I’ve ever been to.


Above:  Looking south at Alice Springs from Anzac Hill.

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 it's 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 impression is that they’re not any more "dangerous" than whites (yeah, yeah, some of my best friends are Aborigines…).  What I have determined is that there seems to be a fair bit of racial discrimination in Australia directed against the Aborigines, much like the discrimination in the U.S. directed against blacks and Latinos.  And, as with any group that 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 high lodging costs, I decided to cut my visit here short after spending only a couple of nights.  But during my stay here, as I'll describe in more detail below, 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 ate lunch at 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 a good thing.



Above left:  The shopping district of Alice Springs.

Above right:  Downtown Alice Springs on a sleepy Wednesday morning.



Above left:  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, and then run like heck.



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 decided to stay 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, as I discovered, so I think I'll stick to budget motels.

Above right:  Fueling up in Alice Springs, with a Hungry Jacks in the background.

The Telegraph Station:  Where It All Began

The first European who was crazy enough to travel through the deserts of central Australia was an adventurous 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 bushflies.  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 hot and barren desert without a map (and without Happy Meals) blew me away.  It’s challenge enough, I thought to myself, to travel through this area in an air conditioned Camry with a six-speaker stereo system.


Above:  These are the original Alice Springs on the Charles River.

In 1871, nine years after Stuart’s visit, a telegraph cable was laid under the ocean from the island of Java, north of Australia, to Darwin, which lay on Australia’s northern tip, thus linking the continent of 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.


When it operated between 1871 and the 1930s, 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.


The Alice Springs Telegraph Station is located about a mile north of town and is now a historical park.  The station is just a few yards from the actual “Alice Springs," which had been named in the early 1870s in honor of the wife of Australia's Telegraphic Superintendent, Sir Charles Todd, down 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 alphabet 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.  Then again, I'm amazed that younger folks today can listen to the staccato of certain rap music and translate it into English.  Considering that a message from London back in the 1870s was copied and relayed perhaps 30 times across the globe 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.”


Morse 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.



Above left:  The original telegraph building, a few yards from the springs.  Note the telegraph wires.

Above 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.

The Flying Doctors

While driving across the Outback during the past week, I’ve thought a lot about how people here have adapted to this dry and barren 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, telephone poles made out of iron instead of wood, and the 150-foot long Road Trains that I pass on the highways – or even worse, that pass me.  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.


Above:  The Royal Flying Doctor Service building in Alice Springs.

Back in 1928, an Australian reverend named John Flynn created The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) to provide free medical services for people living in isolated areas of the Outback.  The RFDS still operates (no pun intended) and their planes criss-cross Australia each day performing emergency medical services as well as scheduled clinics.  The RFDS serves 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, they often fly over 500 miles in the process.  Not even Dominos can top that kind of service.


From 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 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 I had 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 www.flyingdoctor.org.au.


By 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 fearless pilot character, Waldo Pepper, in the 1975 movie) is now propped up on the Camry’s back seat and greets everyone who passes by with a furry wave.



Above left:  Our nurse-guide describing the RFDS.

Above right:  And here's the Operations Center.



Above left:  The small but interesting RFDS museum.

Above right:  Waldo, my back-seat driver.

Calling All Students

Above:  The colorful entrance to the Alice Springs "School of the Air."

Even 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.


With the help of a tutor (usually a parent), students complete their radio and written lessons and then mail their homework 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.


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 four-wheel drive vehicle and heads across the Outback to visit their students in person.  In addition, all the kids come into town a few times each year to meet the other children in their radio “classroom."  That's 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.


I spent over an hour at the Alice Springs School of the Air, browsing through the displays and watching a fascinating video.  Towards the end of the 10-minute video, they showed one of the cutest things I've seen so far in Australia:  a dozen little "School of the Air" children singing Home Among the Gum Trees.  Jeez, I still have goose bumps and a smile from that one.


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.  It's equivalent, I guess, to learning Spanish or French in America.  And speaking of cute, I bumped into a young blonde woman here visiting from, amazingly enough, my hometown of Portland, Oregon.  We had even worked on some of the same transportation projects in the 1990s, amazingly enough.  I would've asked for her number but she was attached at the hip to a rather large and muscular boyfriend, so I refrained.  Still, it was nice (and rather strange) to hear an American accent again after having not spoken to an American in weeks.


The School of the Air is a great concept and it's a fascinating 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.



Above left:  Inside the Visitor Center with student projects on display.  Is this place cute, or what?

Above center:  A School of the Air teacher broadcasting a lesson in Indonesian.

Above right:  Some of the School of the Air students.  These kids are scattered across the immense Outback.



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