I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Australia is a really big country. Even now that I’ve travelled across some of the biggest, emptiest bits, my brain still struggles to really accept it. And in more or less the middle of this big country is Alice Springs, a town in the middle of nowhere if ever there was one. The population is around 25,000, about the same as Skegness, and to get to anywhere bigger you’d need to drive for 16 hours on the Stuart Highway, either north to Darwin or south to Adelaide.
But the strange thing about Alice Springs is that it doesn’t feel particularly like an outback town stuck in the middle of nowhere. You don’t get to the edge of the town to see buildings abruptly give way to rolling desert and think wondrously, ‘if I walked in this direction non-stop I’d see nothing but bushland and desert for 20 days until I hit the Pacific coast’; there’s nothing in the people or the buildings that hammers home that you are in the middle of a desert, with no permanent river for hundreds of miles. Instead it feels more or less like any old small town. The town merges undramatically into the surroundings like towns do, high street becomes suburbs becomes light industry becomes bushland; the buildings are unremarkable with lots of concrete squareness and a few shopping centres; there’s even a Kmart and a Target.
That’s not to say that it is an unpleasant place to be, quite the opposite. As a popular tourist destination there are plenty of attractions to fill visitors’ time before or after their visit to Uluru, including a Reptile House, a Desert Park, and lots of Aboriginal art shops. There are also a few museums, including the wonderfully named Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, a collection of exhibits located in the former town gaol telling the stories of the first female European settlers in the outback, and more generally notable women of Australian history. The stories and pictures of these tough women, dressed up in Victorian and Edwardian finery in the heat and the dust, are fascinating, particularly that of Bertha Strehlow. In 1936 for their honeymoon, she and her husband went on an expedition into the outback with a team of camels, fighting thirst, disease and the heat. Bertha became seriously ill following a miscarriage during the trip, and would certainly have died if not for the assistance of an Aboriginal group that came upon them and nursed her back to health.
What is now the town of Alice Springs was originally a hamlet called Stuart, sitting between a Heavitree Gap, a space in the MacDonnell Ranges that is symmetrical and perfect enough to be man-made. First settled in the 1880’s when gold was found nearby, the population remained tiny until the Second World War, when it was used first as a depot base and later as a home for civilians after the evacuation of Darwin. Anzac Hill, overlooking the town and Heavitree Gap, pays tribute to this as well as being an important location for the Arrernte Aboriginal people.
Prior to the town being settled, Alice Springs began in 1872 as a telegraph repeater station on the line from Adelaide to Darwin and from there on to Europe. The site of the telegraph station, a few kilometres from the town, was named after what was mistakenly thought to be a permanent waterhole on the Todd River. The river, named after Sir Charles Todd, Postmaster General of South Australia, is dry for most of the year to the extent that several walking trails go straight through the river bed without so much as a stepping stone. I found this one afternoon as I walked along the river bank to the Telegraph Station a few days after an unseasonal thunder and hail storm and heavy rain. Because of this, parts of the river actually had water in it and arriving at the Telegraph Station I found my trail disappear down into the river and continue on the other side. Instead I followed a trail beyond the Telegraph Station, past a small cemetery housing some of the first telegraph operators, and up to the small rocky lump of Trig Hill. There were no other people around here at the edge of the bush, and I tried not to think about snakes and spiders, but in the end I encountered a much more welcome kind of wildlife. My guide on the Uluru tour a few days before had explained that we wouldn’t see much if any big wildlife – camels, wallabies or kangaroos – because the desert is big enough that they can easily and willingly avoid the roads and the people. But sure enough, on the walking trail I heard a rustle and a whine like a puppy from the bushes, and when I stopped, a young kangaroo hopped across the path, followed by two adult kangaroos. They all froze and stared when they saw me, and hastily hopped on a few metres when I moved, then stopping and staring again to see what I would do. Whenever they moved they went in the same direction as the path, so I followed them in this pattern for about ten minutes; I stopped, they stopped, we all stared, I walked on, they hopped on.
The second leg of my train trip felt much quicker than the first, and was much quieter. While the one Red Class carriage had been full leaving Adelaide, from Alice Springs it was less than half full, so everyone was able to spread out and be comfortable. The sun was setting as we left, and when I woke up the next morning we had left the Red Centre; the ground was brown, although still with a distinct orangey tint, and there was more greenery and farmland. At about 9am the train stopped in the town of Katherine for a few hours, for the all-inclusive passengers to do a cruise along the gorge, and I took the opportunity to go for short walk along the gorge and through the bush. It was a nice surprise excursion, a very welcome leg-stretch, and a lovely first experience of the Top End.
Returning to the train for the last few hours of the journey, I went to get a cup of tea from the café car and got chatting to the Train Manager, Wayne. Once the return to journey to Adelaide was complete, he would be going on a solo road trip to visit his daughter in Mount Isa, in outback Queensland, before carrying on to the north Queensland coast. I told him about my plan to drive a campervan from Darwin to Broome, and not only did he give me my tea for free, as a ‘fellow traveller’, he was also one of the first people I’d talked to who didn’t react like I was doing something scary and dangerous. “It’s a great thing, to drive around the country. Good on ya, mate”.