There are thousands of cattle grazing in Central Australia, providing a rich breeding ground for bush flies. So, visitors to ‘The Alice’, as Alice Springs is affectionately called, spend a lot of time doing ‘the Aussie salute‘ if they are outdoors during daylight hours without a netted hat or insect repellant.
A couple of mid-year overnight frosts will reduce the population for a few months but that hadn’t occurred before we disembarked from The Ghan to spend a week in Alice Springs and the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. I had come prepared, but I can tell you, there is quite an art to getting yourself protected from both the flies and the sun’s rays without making a mess of your face and your clothes!
Anyway, with that more or less sorted, we quite enjoyed ourselves in and around this relaxed and historic town, which has a population of about 25,000.
The most significant event in the town’s early history was the construction of the overland telegraph line from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north, to link up with an underground cable to the Dutch East Indies, now modern day Indonesia. This major feat of surveying, engineering and construction, which took place in the early 1870s, dramatically shortened the time taken for information to be exchanged between Australian residents and most other parts of the world. The telegraph station in the vicinity of what became Alice Springs was one of the most important in the network.
This marker, dedicated by the Institution of Engineers, Australia, celebrates the fact that the 3,178 kilometre line was constructed in less that two years under the direction of Charles Todd, whose name was later given to the ephemeral river that makes its way through the modern town. The name of Todd’s wife, Alice was given to the waterhole from which the telegraph station drew its water supply; the station precinct became known as ‘Alice Springs’; and, in 1933, that became the town’s name.
The heritage-listed telegraph station buildings are maintained in excellent condition and contain some modest technical displays and information boards.
The telegraph line, its workforce and the increase in European economic and government activities that it facilitated were not such good news for the Aboriginal residents of central Australia. Slowly but surely, many of them lost access to their traditional sources of food and water and to sites that were important for reasons of social cohesion and long-established cultural practices. Conflicts ensued, bringing down the force of the British colonial justice system.
In the early decades of the 20th century, salt was rubbed into these wounds when Australian authorities implemented a policy of separating Aboriginal mothers from children fathered by a non-Aboriginal man. In the name of ‘saving the half-castes’, as they were called, the children were taken, often by force, and placed in supervised accommodation. For several years in the 1930s, the old telegraph station outside Alice Springs was one such place, having become technologically obsolete in 1932.
Information boards at the old station share stories of the varied impacts of this practice, known now by the term ‘The Stolen Generations’. This matter continues to generate a variety of emotions and opinions but, nowadays at least, it is a story that is out in the open and is mostly being handled with sensitivity and positive purpose.
Next, something that is a source of untarnished pride across our nation – the Royal Flying Doctor Service. We visited its base in Alice Springs, where much of its pioneering work began.
The RFDS or ‘Flying Doctor’, as it is known, is the largest aero-medical service in the world, having grown from initial trials in 1928 to have 1,600 paid staff, numerous volunteers and a fleet of more than 70 aircraft operating from 23 bases. More details of its history are available here.
The service was initiated by John Flynn, a Presbyterian minister and head of the Australian Inland Mission. Now, I’m no fan of missionaries of any persuasion, but I have no difficulty acknowledging Flynn’s devotion to the well-being of Australians who lived in remote places. That is what drove him to find a system and resources for providing emergency medical care across Australia’s outback.
Since 1994, Flynn’s efforts have been celebrated on one side of Australia’s $20 note, which is why I bought the fridge magnet. The items depicted on the note include the plane that launched the first trial of the service; the pedal radio invented by an associate of Flynn to enable communication between remote locations and the service bases; and the ‘body’ chart devised by an RFDS nurse to help patients describe their symptoms. The last of these is still in use today, 68 years on! A new version of the note will be released later this year; it includes an image of another vital outback service, the ‘School of the Air‘, which was initiated by RFDS members and used the same pedal radio technology.
And here is the interior – minus all manner of medical equipment – and the exterior of one of the modern fleet of RFDS aircraft.
Just across the road from the RFDS base is an Australian reptile centre, where we came up very close and friendly with some of the inhabitants! For example, here is a Bearded Dragon lizard enjoying the warmth of Maggie’s hand.
Our next destination was the art galleries at the Araluen Arts Centre, where I was keen to view an exhibition called Still in my mind: Gurindji location, experience and visuality.
This exhibition commemorates and explores one of the most significant events in modern Australian history, the August 1966 walk-off by Aboriginal stockmen and their families from the Wave Hill cattle station, which was located on their traditional lands.
Although the strike was sparked by poor wages and conditions, it also focused attention on Aboriginal land rights, resulting in dramatic changes to Australian laws and land tenure policies, changes which continue to roll through the country to this day. A summary of the walk-off event is here, including the story of two famous songs which it inspired.
It was one of the most remarkable exhibitions I have ever seen. (You can find out more about it here.) I knew that the events were important – I was 12 at the time of the walk off and 20 by the time the land hand-back occurred – but I knew little of the detail. I was captivated by the way the exhibition blended so many forms of visual, spoken and written material, some historical, some new.
As Maggie knows all too well, I have an unquenchable thirst for information in such situations and I greedily took it all in. Then, ‘just in cases’ (that’s a Love Actually reference), I called into the gallery shop on the way out to buy the book produced in conjunction with the exhibition.
For my own records, I took a photo of my favourite image in the exhibition. It is called Aerial view of Jinparrak (Old Wave Hill Station) and is a large work painted in 2015 by two senior Gurindji artists, one female, one male, who lived at Jinparrak at the time of the walk-off. Obviously, it is not my right to publish an image of this remarkable painting on my blog. However, I will devote a subsequent post to it and show you where you can view it online.
Our last visit of note was to the Olive Pink Botanical Garden, Alice Springs’ modest but fascinating botanical garden.
Here, if you are fortunate, you can view the Sturt Desert Pea, central Australia’s most famous flowering plant. You won’t see many of these in my hometown – too cold and too wet for too much of the year, for starters!
And why does the garden bear the name of two colours, olive and pink? Well, that’s because a woman by that name founded it, lobbied to have it secured officially and was its first, honorary, curator. She was also famous as an anthropologist, campaigner for Aboriginal social justice and artist.
This image of Olive Pink adorns the wall at the garden’s cafe. Amongst other text, it says that she was once called “the most ferocious woman in captivity”. Now, that’s a serious rep! Reminds me of a couple of my female cousins, actually.