Alice Springs is the major administrative center for Central Australia, servicing an area of roughly 546,000 km2. It is almost literally the center point of the Australian mainland - being around 1,500 km from both Darwin and Adelaide on the Stuart Highway. It is also roughly half way between the east and west coasts as the crow flies.
The town’s population is 28,600 or around 12% of the Northern Territory population. The regional population is just over 38,700.
Central Australia (also known as the Red Centre) is famous for spectacular landscapes in an arid environment. It is situated on the northern side of the MacDonnell Ranges and is on the (normally dry) Todd River. The ranges run east-west and are a drawcard for nature lovers with pristine swimming holes and hiking trails dotted throughout magnificent gorges.
The land around Alice Springs is covered with scrubby grassland with several different deserts further afield. The Simpson Desert in the South-East of the Northern Territory is one of the largest wilderness areas in Australia. It features giant red sand dunes and amazing rock formations including those at Rainbow Valley and Chambers Pillar.
Although officially classed as having a desert climate, its average annual rainfall of 285.9mm could place it in the semi-arid category. The annual rainfall can vary dramatically as can the average temperatures. In summer the average maximum temperature is above 40°C while winter nights can plummet to 5°C or lower with clear skies.
For more than 30,000 years the Arrernte Aboriginal people lived in the region they referred to as Mparntwe. Dreamtime stories tell of ancestral figures such as Utnerrengatye , Ayepe-arenye and Ntyarlke who created the MacDonnell Ranges and other distinctive land formations. These stories relate to a broad geographical area which extends from Mt Zeil in the West MacDonnell Ranges to Port Augusta in South Australia.
The 3 main sub-groups – Western, Central and Eastern Arrente people – speak a number of different languages and dialects and are a vital part of the community to this day. Arrernte people also live in communities outside of Alice Springs and on outstations. Many still observe the traditional law, tend to the needs of the land and raise their children to understand and experience all aspects of their culture.
Exploration and expansion
European association with the region began with John Stuart during his attempts to cross the Australian continent from south to north in the mid-19th century. His first 2 attempts were unsuccessful partially due to hostile encounters with the Aboriginal encounters around the MacDonnell ranges region. It was his third attempt that resulted in Stuart and his party successfully reaching Chambers Bay on the northern coast in 1862.
Stuarts aim was to find a viable route for the Overland Telegraph Line as pressure was on to have it reach Darwin (then known as Palmerston) to coincide with the arrival of the submarine telegraph cable that would link Australia with the rest of the world. It was during the exploration of the MacDonnell Ranges by WW Mills that he came across a waterhole on the Todd River and named it Alice Springs in honor of Alice Todd who was the wife of Sir Charles Todd, the South Australian Superintendent of Telegraphs.
The telegraph repeater station was built next to the Alice Springs waterhole (in the mistaken belief that it was a permanent water supply). The township that evolved a few kilometers away was actually called Stuart but most people referred to the combined area as ‘Alice Springs’ - creating much confusion.
Camels, Afghans and gold
The discovery of gold at Arltunga, east of Stuart, in 1887 along with the gradual expansion of the Port Augusta to Government Gums Railway (also known as ‘The Afghan Express’ and later ‘The Ghan’) sparked a growth spurt in the region. The train line originally terminated at Oodnadatta and, until it reached Stuart in 1929, almost everything was transported between the townships by camel train.
The cameleers were immigrants from the region of British India now known as Pakistan. These ‘Afghan’ cameleers were originally based around Hergott Springs but most later moved to Stuart when the train line finally reached there. They continued to transport goods further north.
The Stuart Town Gaol was built in 1909 when the town had less than 20 European residents. The first prisoners were mostly Aboriginal men charged with cattle theft.
Francis Stewart Briggs was the first pilot to land in Stuart in 1921. Then, in 1926, the Reverend John Flynn built Adelaide House as the town’s first hospital. Flynn later went on to establish the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
For just 4 years from 1927 – 1931, Central Australia was actually a separate Australian territory with Stuart as its administrative center. Also in 1931, the town of Stuart and the smaller settlement around the Alice Springs Repeater Station were officially joined and renamed Alice Springs.
When gold was discovered at Tennant Creek in 1932, the Alice Springs economy also prospered.
During World War 2, the town became a strategic military post for the transportation of troops and supplies to Darwin. It was also the place Darwin’s residents were evacuated to when their city was bombed by the Japanese. The Australian Army were also responsible for building much of the local infrastructure including roads and an airstrip. During this period the US Army also established operations in the region.
As pastoral, mining and military activities continued to develop in the first half of the 20th century, Alice Springs established its place as the center of the center. Long distances and local needs made ‘Alice’ a hot spot of innovation. It soon become home to the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the School of the Air and an oasis for people in numerous remote communities.
‘The Alice’ community
The 2006 census showed that around 20% of the Alice Springs population are Australian Aboriginal. The reality may be much higher as many others also identify as Aboriginal. Up to 60% are Australians of English, Irish or Scottish decent. In the mix are a significant number of residents from the USA, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the Philippines. A look at the list of local restaurants will show the town is also home to Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and Indian ethnic groups. The main languages spoken after English are Arrernte, Warlpiri, Luritja, Pitjantjatjara, and Italian.
Around 2,000 residents hold US citizenship and major American holidays such as Thanksgiving are celebrated here. In a town well-known for its sporting events, baseball and basketball are also popular.
Alice Springs has a large itinerant population made up of tourists passing through or exploring the Red Centre, visiting Australian Aborigines from other regions and also mining and cattle station employees on short-term contracts.
The town is sometimes known as the lesbian capital of Australia. In 1983, The Pine Gap Women's Peace Protest drew a large number of same-sex couples. Many chose to stay on and are now part of the diverse community.
One aspect of the community that most are not proud of is its high crime rate – especially within the Aboriginal community. In recent years, the community, government, police and other parties have made a significant effort to address the issue and find effective ways to tackle it.
Employment and tourism
Local industry includes mining, military and pastoral activities along with education and research. However, by far the biggest employers are the Northern Territory Government and the tourism industry.
The first passenger train finally crossed the continent from Adelaide to Darwin on the famous Ghan in 2004 - over a century after the idea was first conceived. This generated interest world-wide and created a new boom in Central Australia.
Today people come from far and wide to join in the many festivals and events such as the Henley on Todd Regatta, the Desert Song Festival and the Tatts Finke Desert Race. The ancient natural attractions of the region including Uluru, Rainbow Valley, and the MacDonnell Ranges also continue to draw tourists and artists year after year.
Alice Springs has been immortalised in many forms of art and literature during its young lifetime. Lasseter’s Casino was featured in the hit movie ‘Priscilla – Queen of the Desert’, Aussie bands like Midnight Oil have referred to it in song, and then there is Neville Shute’s famous novel ‘A Town like Alice’. Ironically, the book was not really about Alice Springs at all but about the founding of a fictional Top End town modelled on the prosperous ‘Alice’.