Thursday 21 March 2013


A Town Like Alice is one of my favourite books.  In it, the town of Alice Springs features as a kind of icon, a vision to cling to in the midst of war (most of the events of the book take place in the Malaysian jungle during World War II).  In my head, it was a kind of oasis in the middle of the red desert of the Northern Territory and although I was assured that it had changed a lot since Nevil Shute wrote his book, I was still determined to visit.

I arrived mid-afternoon (me and a few hundred other train travellers), stepping off the Ghan into the dry desert heat.  I was lucky: temperatures the previous week were above 40 degrees, but it was only about 37 the day I arrived.  Be prepared!  Because of the dry heat, you should wear a hat and sunglasses, apply sunscreen liberally and, above all, make sure to carry a bottle of water wherever you go.  I myself nearly succumbed to a nice case of sunstroke, so you can't be too careful.

Another thing to be prepared for: Alice, for all that tourism is a major part of the economy, is not your cosmopolitan flat-white-purveying, designer-shop-hosting town that you encounter all along the south/eastern seaboard.  Being isolated as it is, I imagine freight costs must be prohibitive - whether this is the main reason or not, I couldn't say, but don't expect to find a wealth gourmet cuisine in the town.  I did hear tell of one hipster cafe, but I had to make do with Gloria Jean's where the staff were friendly and the iced coffee hit the spot.

After I checked into my hotel (an Ibis - Alice is not blessed with a great range of accommodation, especially of the independent/boutique type - at any budget, see above) I headed, first, to the HQ of the Royal Flying Doctors.

The RFDS was very much a part of my romantic notion of the Outback (doctors! flying! in shorts and long socks! bringing health to the wilderness!) and visitors to their Alice Springs centre provide them with much needed funds.  However, there isn't a huge amount to see: a film about the service (which is certainly inspiring) and a small museum showing changes in medicine since the RFDS was founded.  I will add, however, that the film did get me a bit choky as you realise that people literally owe their lives to this service.

I wandered around town, taking photos of some of the original buildings, all of a similar single-story, tin-roofed style.

I then made the slightly less than wise decision to walk out to the old telegraph station which is what Alice owes her existence to - the town was founded around, first, the telegraph and then the railway.  The walk was beautiful and not that far (around 4km along the dry Todd River) but I underestimated the toll the heat would take and I found the 40 minute walk pretty challenging - despite hat/sunglasses/sunscreen/water.  Hint to future visitors (at least those visiting in summertime) - minimise walking!

One thing I did notice as I walked - the Indigenous population is much bigger (as a proportion of total population) in the Northern Territory than in Victoria and hence you are much more aware of the social inequality they are experiencing.  The 'no grog' signs dotted around Alice are testament to the toll alcohol abuse has taken on Aboriginal Australians.

Everywhere I walked I saw groups of Indigenous people, old and young, sitting in the shade.  Let me stress that this is not a problem in and of itself but it was a reminder that the wrongs experienced by the Indigenous community are a long way from being addressed.

The telegraph station eventually reached (and duly photographed),

and I fell in with some kind fellow tourists who gave me a lift back into town - via Anzac Hill where we got this great view:

The other place I wanted to visit in Alice - and did, the morning before I left - was the School of the Air.  My primary school library randomly had a copy of an old 1960s book about boys and girls in Australia and I remember being fascinated by the notion of doing your lesson by RADIO with no teacher even in the same room to keep an eye on you.  The whole thing seemed entirely wackadoo and fantastical.

These days, lessons are done via the internet (they have a special Skype-like programme customised for the school's particular needs) and we watched a teacher teaching a class of 4 and 5 year olds who were all learning, not just the usual things 4 and 5 year olds learn, but how to use the equipment.  (When they want to raise their hands, they click a hand icon on their screen...)  I found the school inspiring but also unexpectedly sad.  One of the pupils (though this is at the extreme end of the spectrum) lives 1000km from school.  Can you imagine?  I'm not sure I can.  Once a term, our guide explained, they try to get all the kids into Alice for a week and the kids look forward to this like Christmas.

As well as seeing the lessons (you can see into the broadcasting studios/classrooms where the teachers transmit their classes) there's a film, and a small display of equipment - including the famous pedal radio that enabled services like the School of the Air and the Flying Doctors to keep in touch with their community spread over such a vast distance.

This map - showing the thousands of kilometres covered in the school catchment area -  charts all of the children who are enrolled in the school and where they live.

I loved visiting Alice Springs and am glad that I could fulfill the dream of - well, not quite a lifetime but a long time.  But if the Ghan really made me appreciate the vastness of Australia, Alice Springs made me question the price paid for trying to inhabit such a fundamentally uninhabitable (or scarcely habitable) place.  But it did make me appreciate Nevil Shute's evocation of Alice Springs as an icon and an oasis.  To someone who lives on a remote Cattle Station and doesn't see a neighbour - let along a stranger - from one week to the next - a town like Alice must be like heaven.

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