A closer look at Alice Springs

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Over the last few posts I’ve been documenting my trip to the Territory in June. It was deeply enjoyable especially getting to the Top End where I’d never been before. I had been to Alice Springs before – as far back as 2002 so I was keen to renew acquaintance and stay with a good friend, who was shocked when I reminded him had just moved there when I came calling 16 years ago. It was good to be back in the middle of Australia and experience Alice’s unique aura once more.

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Alice Springs has an impressive geography slap back in the middle of the Macdonnell Ranges. The place even has its own geological event named for it, the Alice Springs Orogeny, 150 million years of tectonic mountain building that created not only the Ranges but also the Uluru/Kata Tjuta formation 450km south-west. Seen here is Mount Gillen to the south of town as seen from Billy Goat Hill in the centre of town.

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Above is the view north from Billy Goat Hill over the town centre and Anzac Hill beyond. Billy Goat Hill as the name would suggest is where goats were herded in the past.  Known as Akeyulerre in Arrernte language, it was also a special place for local Indigenous people though it is now mostly derelict.

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This is the view from Anzac Hill looking south over the town and Heavitree Gap, the southern entrance to town. The outsized glass building on the left is the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. The four-storey $18 million courthouse opened in 2016 and has divided local opinion especially over the public/private agreement between the government and Sitzler Construction.

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Like most memorial places in Australia Anzac Hill is strong in remembrance of Australian action in overseas wars, especially the First World War. There is, however, a glaring omission when it comes to local conflict. The first European expeditions in the 1860s and 1870s came across groups of Aborigines , but these meetings were generally fleeting. The first cattle reached Alice Springs in 1872 and Europeans established pastoral stations.  Once settlers moved into the area, increased contact with the original inhabitants was inevitable. The consequences were monumental and devastating for the Aborigines, and the effect are still felt.

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Situated an easy 4km walk north along the river from the centre of town is the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the birthplace of the township. The Overland Telegraph route followed in the footsteps of John McDouall Stuart’s 1862 trek across Australia south to north. The station was established in 1871 along with 11 others to relay messages between Darwin and Adelaide and link with an underwater cable network to London. More modern facilities were then established in the new township of Stuart in 1932 (Corner of Railway Tce and Parson Street) and the Station ceased operation. The town was later renamed Alice Springs after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, Sir Charles Todd.

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This is the view from the Telegraph Station to Trig Hill. As the name suggests, the hill was used by ordnance surveyors to map the region.

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The view back to the Telegraph Station from the top of Trig Hill.

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A little further past Trig Hill is this small cemetery. There are three gravestones in the cemetery  and two more are buried in a secondary enclosure.

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Ernie Bradshaw died from tuberculosis aged 27. He arrived from Melbourne six months earlier hoping this dry country would improve his health. Ernest Flint, who worked on the Overland Telegraph line, died here aged 33 and was the first person buried in the cemetery.

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The Todd River is usually dry but despite not having any permanent waterholes it supports a wide range of plants. In the rare event rain does fall and the river fills up it heads south through Heavitree Gap for up to 140km before disappearing into the Simpson Desert. River flows are quickly soaked by the parched landscape and what is not evaporated filters through the soil and rocks to recharge the groundwater basin.

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It being a Friday evening I joined my friend on one of his weekly rituals, an end of week climb up Mt Gillen. I was glad of the company. The un-formalised and un-signposted route required local knowledge and some headlights for the tricky trip back down in the dark.

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My iphone did not do justice to the twilight views from the top of Mt Gillen.

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Alice Springs is a town like no other in the outback, a cultural as well as physical oasis. The town has a thriving art and social scene and a constant influx of young creative visitors. It also means that overseas acts such as Irish singer Mary Coughlan are prepared to break her own holidays to perform here – by happy coincidence on the weekend I was there. She played with her regular guitarist and a local talented bassist at the best pub in Central Australia – Monte’s. A great night in the middle of everywhere.

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