The book by Nevil Shute ‘A town like Alice ‘ was later made into a film with Virginia McKenna and Peter Finch, It was my first introduction to the outback of Australia, albeit a synthetic one. In reality it is an unforgiving place; intense heat and the ever present interminable flies. There is little sign of habitation or people other than a scattering of Aborigine’s, cattle farmers, outback stations, police stations and watering holes. We had a 6 hour trip on a coach from our hotel in Yulara to Alice Springs with the promise of stopovers in places of interest on the way. Thankfully the Koala was still in charge of the drive so I knew we would be filled with information and facts along the journey.
You just cannot get your head around the size of the outback, in one of the presentations we went to they superimposed Central Europe into the outback and it swallowed Europe up. There are only two roads in and out; the Lassiter Highway from the south and the Stuart Highway from Uluru travelling North. John McDouall Stuart, I learned from the Koala was a fellow Scot born in Dysart in Fife, he came to Australia to escape a broken heart; catching a surreptitious glimpse of his girl hugging another man and unable to handle this rejection it set off a chain of events that would see him become a legend in Australian history.
Stuart was a surveyor turned explorer and the first man to reach the Northern Territories and make it back in one piece, he identified and named many of the elements he discovered in the area; the rivers and mountains in its landscape, often on behalf of his benefactors. There are markers to him almost everywhere in the area including a giant statue in Alice Springs. The Stuart Highway as it is now called is the main route north, we would rejoin it when we left Katherine and use it to get through Darwin, but for now we were driving along it toward Alice Springs.
The landscape is on repeat in the Red Centre and comprises mainly desert Oaks, spinifex (grass) and desert heath myrtle. Occasionally, but hard to see, cattle are sometimes roaming around or taking shelter from the blistering sun. Cattle farms are the main source of employment and income. Cattle stations can vary in size; we stopped at Curtin Springs Station which is a million acre cattle station. It’s position on the highway has allowed it to diversify according to the rising numbers travelling through. It manages to combine the onerous task of cattle farming here with ecotourism providing much needed watering holes, food and accommodation. The owner, now 93 is still living, his place reminiscent of his take on life and filled with humour everywhere you look; “ soup of the day” was beer, toilets marked Sheilas and Blokes told a pictorial story of Romeo and Juliet. While the showering facilities might look a bit sparse these are as close to luxury as your going to get in the outback. In the bar, a bottle of the ‘ f*****g good port’ kept the tourists amused and engaged in conversation for the short time they were there. While out in the beer garden the locals handled snakes or talked about the caged emus they keep. We had a swift beer here but not too much that would require us to need to sample the toilets.
Rounding up the cattle for feeding and watering on such a vast area of land could prove to be a bit of a challenge, so the Koala advised. The farmers operating on the Pavlov dog theory had educated the cattle to round themselves up. Watering holes were sought out by the animals and once they had entered the coral it triggered a mechanism on the gate that prevented them leaving. Some animals were shipped out to feed, there is so little here that fattens them. Farmers tended to select cattle that could adapt to their surroundings; the Belgian blue or Murray Grey cattle, for their small heads that mean easier births therefor less interventions and their ability to survive on very little water. This reflected the adaptive needs of survival in such a difficult terrain. Camels also roam freely here but despite my best efforts we only saw a few at Curtin Springs that were corralled ready for action should we want to foray into the Red Centre on camel back. Thankfully this was a short stop and we boarded the Koala’s bus with air conditioning and no flies in favour of the camel tour.
Standing alone at the entrance to Curtin Springs was a blue tree, not naturally blue but painted bright blue, it had no foliage and was an oddity amidst the greens and reds of the desert. On closer inspection the plaque along side the tree advised that this was part of a wider initiative called the Blue Project, to draw attention to mental health and wellbeing. The project aims to support people by providing them with a sign that in this area it is ‘ok not to be ok’, that people will support you. This initiative is now across Australia, although this was the only blue tree we had seen thus far, to heighten awareness of mental health. Incredible to see the family thinking of others in this way. Now some of the fun things around the site took on an entirely new meaning as they had almost all triggered a conversation with someone. Clever.
Our next stop was at the secluded Lake Amadeus, a salt lake, located in the midst of desert behind the sand dunes that occasionally line the highway. Amidst this repetitive bush terrain it was a sight for sore eyes, around 100 km in length it was named after a French Monarch at the time of it’s discovery. Bright white among the red terrain it was a spectacle we would have missed had we travelled the highway unescorted.
The expedition to the Northern Territories by Stuart, and others who were unsuccessful such was the unforgiving landscape, in the 1830’s was principally to scope the potential for development. Particularly for development of enhanced communication links between the North and South but so much more was discovered on this trip. Now 12 Microwave repeaters between Adelaide and Darwin enable better Television and communication links for the people there, but back in Stuart’s day it was essential to the development of the nation and his torturous expedition to the North facilitated much needed telegraph stations across Australia in remote areas and started new towns, such as Alice Springs Their inception in 1860 reduced the time it took to communicate with the UK to 5 days.
Our last stop before Alice, was the geographic centre of Australia, Erldunda. A cattle station, small zoo, toilets and petrol station are the only things of interest to see here. I wonder what Stuart would have made of it all, he returned to Scotland after all this hard work only to discover his sweetheart had been wishing a cousin well before he went off to war and not cheating on Stuart. I pondered the irony behind his expedition, whether the communication links we have at our fingertips today had been around in Stuart’s day, a text message or FaceBook plea to explain away this misunderstanding might have kept them together and the Red Centre would have remained undiscovered for another few years. Stuart died in London when he was 50 years old, far away from both loves of his life.