The romance of Alice Springs, which I derived from the film ‘A Town called Alice’ fell flat on its face when we finally arrived there. Of course this wasn’t the Springs of the film, we would catch that a bit later when we visited the old Telegraph Office. In fact the key elements of Alice Springs trip were the visits we experienced on day two, but I’m getting ahead of myself let’s start at the beginning.
From the Stuart Highway we eased into Alice Springs through the narrow gorge between the East and West MacDonnel range of mountains. En route we were informed that Americans form over 1 000 of the 28 000 people that reside here mainly working out of Pine Gap a joint defence facility, one of three in the world, the others being located at Quantico and Yorkshire in the UK. The other place of interest was the maximum security correction facility just on the outskirts of Alice. Although Lassiters Hotel here is worthy of mentioning since it is where Priscilla Queen of the Desert was filmed.
Our hotel was situated on the edge of town with a meandering footpath along the dry as a bone River Todd, which was dry owing to the low rainfall in the area. We were informed it had not rained since September 2019, but despite this drought it was to rain while we were there. Aborigine families congregated by the river each evening in small groups of about 10 or 12 in number. In Alice we saw many more of these indigenous people than previous stops and it was an insight to the challenges that they experience. Many, unable to cope with western diets are plagued by diabetes, kidney problems and alcoholism. It is a sad indictment of the assimilation into Australian society that this has failed so spectacularly. Not that they need to assimilate of course, but western life has impacted on their health even if other elements have not impacted on their lifestyle.
The tigress pointed out BoJangles, on the left hand side of the current road we were on and proposed that it might be worth a visit then continued to draw our attention to potential restaurants and other places of interest in the town. The town resembled an industrial estate, with flat roofed buildings some adorned by beautiful murals of Aborigine life. The idyllic pictures did not appear to reflect the reality for most of the indigenous people we encountered. Finally dropped at our hotel the evening plan was a bush tucker barbecue and pick up in less than an hour. The long drive from Uluru over we were glad to find a great welcome at our hotel.
Our second day at the Springs was considered by us to be a bit of marching time until we boarded the Ghan, we had three stops to endure before then. But we were wrong these visits were equally fascinating. The first was to the School of the Air ( the world’s largest classroom). Based on the Flying Dr’s model the idea of educating children in the outback was first started in 1951. It covers an area of 1050 square kilometres and those children who are 50 kms from a school are eligible to enrol. The first lessons were communicated by two way radio but the internet had vastly advanced the quality of teaching interaction and individual lessons. Children are supported at home by a home tutor, sometimes the parent, and will spend a week in the school three times a year collectively with all the children. In the Northern Territories this is about 101 children eligible from 4 and a half years old. Each child is furnished with around $18 000 dollars of equipment including a satellite dish, computer, printer and web cam. Aboriginal children currently make up one third of the children in school. This model provides good outcomes for children who are attaining above average against those who attend school. We bought a book to donate to the library and dedicated it from our granddaughter’s (the mermaid) school in Livingston Village.
The trip to the Telegraph Office was the romantic aspect of Alice Springs I was hoping for, small buildings retaining the original furnishings and equipment. These were free for you to wander around in and gave a real sense of the life that early settlers here had to endure in the heat. The ‘spring’ aspect of the town was in fact a soak and not a spring at all but some how Alice Soak didn’t have the same appeal. Although given the amount of alcohol we saw locals consuming perhaps the factual name was more appropriate.
We then were transported to the Royal Flying Doctor’s service which came into operation in 1917. They cover an areas of 7 million kilometres in Australia and about 800 kms in Alice Springs. The RFDS have 40 aircraft in the fleet and 23 bases across Australia with an annual budget of $304 AUD. We had a great experience in both facilities and were about to embark by coach to our final stop on Anzac Hill when it came to light that the driver had kerbed the coach and the door would not open. We had now to wait for the repair service to arrive and who knew how long that might take.
We were now into this trip by about 2 and a half weeks, we had bonded at the barbecue and amalgamate anticipation for our trip on the Ghan was evident. So when the door refused to open more than a few inches, the team spirit we had been nurturing over the past few days kicked itself into action. The Lion and the Liverpudlian leant their backs into the 10 tonne coach (our luggage included maybe nearer 12 tonnes) above the wheel arch and tried to lift it. Yep share your views, crazy alpha males; however this strength finally reached the brain cells and was diverted to pulling the door a few millimetres more. They then looked around for a skinny person able to ease their way inside and start her up and release the door. A few pairs of eyes fell on me momentarily but I knew they were being kind as they quickly dismissed that idea. Then out of no-where the horse whisperer stepped up on behalf of the team to take on this particular challenge. And it was a challenge but there did seem to be a match between her delicate frame and the space to get inside. With space to spare she lithely slipped between the door and the frame and was inside in a flash. The driver, a female with bright pink hair, watched amusedly as she tried to speak to the company on the phone and we waved at her incessantly to get the instructions as to how we might start this beast up.
The horse whisperer sat on the bouncy driver’s chair, seeking guidance from the driver, then deftly put the keys in, pressed a button and started it up, releasing the suspension that raised the bus and opened the door. A loud cheer of delight went up from the group as we finally boarded the bus and paid homage to the horse whisperer who revealed all of the confidence came from passing her HGV some years ago, you just never know what talents people have up their sleeve. As we all piled in, we kept asking if she would also drive the Ghan if it broke down.
We had a short visit to the moving tribute at Anzac Hill with memorable and informative signage that provided a summary of the war and conflict many had fought in and lost their lives. A fitting tribute looks down on the sad and desperate Alice Springs . We made one final stop before we headed to the Ghan and that was to BoJangles.
BoJangles is the local hostelry, used predominantly by the Aborigines whom the owner fiercely protects from prying cameras. But this grubby little pub was full of character and interest, from the boots on the ceiling, the coffin of Ned Kelly and the gun inset into the bar. every wall, every corner had something to catch your attention. As we prized our flip flops from the stickiness of the floor we enjoyed being part of a group in this little pub, and caused quite a stir among the locals. But it was a sad indictment on social policy in the country to see how the indigenous people are living. It will be difficult to reconcile difference and live in harmony here. We left the Springs with mixed feelings about the trip to Alice and what the reality of life for the poorest in this area was really like. Only the Ghan promised to divert us from this tragedy…….