Alice Springs Under the Starry Skies of the Australian Outback

Alice Springs Under the Starry Skies of the Australian Outback

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If you wish to experience the Australian outback in all its rawness, Alice Springs is the place to head to. An isolated outpost in the centre of the map of Australia, Alice Springs is the quintessential frontier town. Its colonial structures wear a weathered look. The streets are wide, sprawling and free of traffic, but this being a desert town, there are few trees around. Located in extreme wilderness and surrounded by little more than spinifex – a form of desert grass – over a 1500 km radius, the town’s name, however, is a misnomer.  There is no spring anywhere in the vicinity, just a dried-up creek bed vaingloriously referred to as Todd river.  As for Alice, after whom the town is named, she seldom visited this remote settlement where her husband Charles Todd, Post Master General of Southern Australia, braved the unforgiving outback to lay the first overland telegraph cable across Australia in 1871.

In the 19th century, communication between England and Australia used to take three months – ships were the only lifeline between the Crown and its remote colony.   There was urgent need to speed up communications if the colony was to be governed effectively from London. The telegraph was already well established in other parts of the world and could provide the much-needed link to this remote colony down-under. So, the British government sent Charles Todd, a well-regarded astronomer, meteorologist and electrical engineer to set up an overland telegraph line all the way from Port Augusta in Southern Australia to Darwin on the northern coast.

The 3000 km-long telegraph supported by 36000 timber poles was considered an engineering feat at the time.  Messages would henceforth be relayed in Morse Code, all the way from Adelaide to Darwin via Alice Springs and thence via undersea cable to Singapore from where it travelled to England through the already existing telegraph line.

The original telegraph station in Alice Springs has been preserved intact, to commemorate the pioneering spirit of a people who overcame several odds to build the cable across mostly barren territory. Timber poles had to be brought from the coastal areas since nothing but spinifex grows in the outback. The pioneers, however, came head to head with the resident Arrernte people who probably came to Central Australia some 50,000 years ago. Australian aboriginal peoples have never been a single race or tribe and as such, lacked the unity to hold their own against the superior might of the new immigrants.  Consequently, the Arrerntes, who once roamed these lands free and fearless, ended up working in cattle stations or as domestic help in the households of the new settlers.

The shed adjacent to the Telegraph Station is a museum. It is in fact, located in “The Bungalow” where aboriginal and mixed-race children were housed as part of an unfortunate experiment to mainstream them. The museum has priceless photographs of aboriginal children under the care of Topsy Smith, herself an aboriginal woman.  The Bungalow continued to exist until 1942.

Alice Springs used to be called Stuart, after John McDouall Stuart whose northward push from Adelaide, in search of pastures for cattle opened up the outback to the white settlers. Today, Alice Springs supports a stable population of around 27,000, not counting the FIfo (fly-in, fly-out) miners.  Australia’s economy owes not a little to the minerals mined around this town – tin, gold, manganese, zinc, uranium, titanium, vanadium, bauxite etc, not to mention two gas fields – Dingo and Palm Valley – which fuel gas turbines to electrify Alice Springs. The best way to access these mines is to keep Alice Springs as the base and fly into the mining areas on workdays and hence the term Fifo.

There are also camel stations in the outback. Originally, camels were brought by Afghans – Pashtuns, Sindhis, Punjabis and Pathans, to Australia. Now camels are reared mainly for tourist benefit.  In fact, many have escaped into the wilderness where they have become feral.  It is not unusual to spot a darting Emu or a hopping wallaby as you drive through Alice Springs.

In the evening, I head to Earth Sanctuary World Nature Centre where the Falzon family runs an eco-tour company to showcase the treasures of the desert. What better treasure than the brilliantly star-lit night skies which only a place like the outback can serve up?  There being no ambient light, the entire Milky Way stretches all the way to the horizon.  It is an indescribably stunning sight which brings alive the cosmos which you had only visualised hitherto. Ben Falzon conducts a crash course in identifying the entire cast of the Zodiac.  Of course, this being the southern hemisphere, everything seems topsy turvy. We sit around a campfire and hear stories of the outback told engagingly by the two brothers – Ben and Dan and even bake a soda bread in the campfire! We round off the night with music from didgeridoos made of pvc pipes. It was truly a magical night which alone makes travelling to Alice Springs worthwhile.

Survival in the outback requires not only adaptation, but innovation. How do you reach education to a handful of settlements scattered over 1.3 million square kilometres (three and a half times the size of Germany or twice the size of France) most of it unconnected by road or rail? For over 65 years now, satellite broadband has enabled setting up the largest classroom in the world, so to speak, to reach children between the ages of 4 and 17 living as far away as a 1000 kilometers from Alice Springs. Classes can stretch upto an hour each and each week, the students get 9 to 16 hours of lessons delivered remotely by trained teachers.  Currently there are about 135 students mostly from remote cattle stations, but also include a sprinkling of indigenous children.   From time to time, the students physically assemble at the school to get to know their classmates better.  A teacher from the school visits every child at least once a year. The school is funded by the Northern Territory Department of Education.

Another similar innovation is the Royal Flying Doctor Service which renders medical aid to far flung communities using small airplanes which also double as ambulances and ICUs.  Started in May 1928, it was pioneered by Reverend John Flynn, a Presbyterian who wanted to provide a ‘’Mantle of Safety’’ to the people of inland who lived in isolation in far flung areas bereft of any medical facilities.  When John Flynn began his missionary work in 1912, there were only two doctors serving an area of 300,000 square kilometres in Western Australia and 1500,000 square kilometres in Norther Territory.  Today, RFDS has 1225 employees including pilots and medical staff and 67 aircraft, mostly Beechcraft and Pilatus PC-12, at its disposal, operating from 23 bases.   Of these, 38 are fully-equipped ICUs. At the visitors’ centre in Alice Springs, there is a real-time live map in which one can see the locations in which RFDS is active at any given time.  RFDS has clocked more than 20,000 hours of flying and has provided emergency medical help to nearly 300,000 patients scattered all over the outback. Above all, RFDS is funded by trusts and voluntary donations and is truly a testament to the determination of the medical profession to bring healthcare to far-flung communities so in need of it.

I drive up the Anzac Hill to get a bird’s eye view of the town. Despite its modest population, Alice Springs is spread out and is not exactly a walkable town. Todd Mall, the swanky shopping complex in the town centre has many shops showcasing aboriginal art. A few of them are run by the communities themselves.

Alice Springs was an important military station during the Second World War.  Pine Gap, the joint military base of the US and Australia, also known as ‘spy station’ collects data on ballistic missiles and develops early warning systems. It is a hush-hush place, around 20 kms away from Alice Springs.

The town is a pit-stop for the Ghan, a luxury train service that connects Adelaide to Darwin. From top of the Anzac Hill, we see the Ghan parked in its station.

Alice Springs Desert Park is a star attraction that houses the fauna typical of the outback. These include

On my last day at Alice Springs, I climb into a hot-air balloon which floats over the magnificent Macdonnell ranges. The sun comes up from behind the range to illuminate the outback.

(Published in Frontline dated Nov 24, 2017)

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