Friday, September 12, 2008 Australia Australia

In search of water in The Alice

ANZAC Hill, Alice Springs [Enlarge]

Alice Springs is a town in the middle of nowhere. Known in Australia as 'The Alice', it's about as close to the centre of Australia as you can get in a normal car. It's almost the halfway point between Darwin on the northern coast, and Adelaide on the southern coast. Twenty-six thousand people call it home. Back where we come from that would be a sizeable local town, but nothing notable. Here it's the largest place for 1,500 kilometres in any direction. It's a very nice place with art galleries, restaurants, shops, and interesting tourist attractions. But it is absolutely in the middle of nowhere.

The Alice began life about 150 years ago. The south of Australia had been settled, with towns like Melbourne and Sydney attracting people from all over the rest of the world, but communication was a major headache. How could this new British colonial outpost function when it took three months to get a message to London, and another three months to receive the reply? What Australia needed was the latest high-tech communications network: the telegraph. Darwin in the north was quickly linked to Europe through Java, Singapore and then overland up through Asia. But the last link from Darwin to the south of the country was still unconnected. A mere matter of three thousand kilometres of inhospitable, mostly uncharted desert was in the way. And there was one more minor problem: telegraph technology was still in its infancy and messages could only be sent 200 kilometres before needing a repeater station. At each repeater station they had to be decoded by a person, and then manually resent down the line to the next repeater.

Telegraph Station, Alice Springs [Enlarge]

So, just to be clear, it's 1850-something; you're 12,000 kilometres from home; winter is summer and summer, winter; the natives... well, they're not very friendly because you've just nicked their country; it's up to 50 degrees in the shade; there's no water... and you want to build a telegraph wire across a continent with manned stations every 200 kilometres. These days no one would even tender for the contract, that's if the Health and Safety Executive hadn't already vetoed it. Back then, the Victorian can-do spirit made anything possible. And so they just did it, trekking off into the unknown on (imported) camels with a roll of fencing wire.

We found out about this history at the brilliant Alice Springs Telegraph Station from a guy called Bruce, who was a very knowledgeable volunteer guide. We highly recommend this museum to any visitors because it doesn't just give you the telegraph history, you get an insight into what any nineteenth century settler would have faced in the outback. We were left wondering why anyone would have taken the skilled job as a telegraph operator... not to mention the wives and families that went with them—it was a commitment to seven years of almost total isolation, and your shopping came twice a year by camel.

Some things are easier out here now: groceries are delivered to supermarkets by road trains and you can buy anything from fresh avocados to tasty cheese. We know it's tasty by the way, because it's called 'Tasty Cheese'. You can also get 'Extra Tasty Cheese', 'Australian Tasty Cheese', 'So Low and Tasty Cheese' and 'Strong and Bitey Cheese'. But still, we kind of wonder why people choose to live here.

The original Alice Spring [Enlarge]

Just next to the telegraph station is the actual Alice Spring from which the town gets its name. It was, of course, completely dry (did you expect running water?), and had a few wallabies walking around on it, but we were reliably informed that you can dig down a metre or so and find water. We chose to go for a cold beer instead.

Sadly, we missed by just a few days the famous Henley-on-Todd Regatta held every year in The Alice. Inspired by the Henley Royal Regatta held in London, the Aussies don't let the fact that the Todd river is as dry as a bone stop them from having a regatta. In fact, the Alice Springs version is the only regatta in the world ever to have been cancelled because there was water in the river. Details as ever at Wikipedia.

This historic building was built in 1939 - old by Alice standards. [IMG_5163]
RFDS Visitors Centre [Enlarge]

We visited the Flying Doctor Visitor Centre in The Alice, which operates out of the actual Flying Doctors control centre. If you're ill in most of Australia, you really need these guys—and you'd better hope you're not too far from one of the hundreds of airstrips dotted around the country.

The Flying Doctors were started by a missionary named John Flynn. One of the stories which inspired him to do this is retold at the Flying Doctor Visitor Centre in Alice:

Darcy was a stockman in Western Australia. After being found injured by some friends, he was transported over 30 miles (12 hours), to the nearest town, Halls Creek. Here, Darcy was met by FW Tuckett, the Postmaster, and the only man in the settlement trained in first aid. Tuckett said there was nothing he could reliably do for injuries so serious, and tried unsuccessfully to contact doctors at Wyndham, and then Derby, by telegraph. He eventually got through to a doctor in Perth. Through communication by morse code, Dr Holland guided Tuckett through two rather messy bladder operations utilising the only sharp instrument available, a pen knife. Holland then travelled 10 days to Halls Creek on a boat for cattle transport, a Model T Ford, a horse drawn carriage, and even on foot, only to find that Darcy had died the day before. To rub salt in the wound, the operations had been successful, but the stockman had died from an undiagnosed case of malaria and ruptured abscess in his appendix.

One of those who heard him speak was a young man named Clifford Peel. Sometime later, during World War 1, Peel wrote to Flynn. He had seen aeroplanes used in France by missionary doctors. Slowly Flynn began to solve the technological barriers to the service, and eleven years after Peel's letter was sent from France the service got started. On an average early twenty-first century day the flying doctor makes 159 calls and sees around 600 patients from its 22 bases across the country. The running costs are government funded, but all capital costs like replacing aircraft and buying lifesaving equipment are met by fundraising.

So we enjoyed our relaxed couple of days in Alice. Next stop, the world famous local attraction, Uluru (Ayers Rock).