After the adventures in the outback, it was great to have a few days in Alice Springs to have a look around the town before heading further north.
Staying at Neil’s home, my friend from Grimsby, it was easy to get around the town. Neil had to help friends at a music festival they had organised out in the McDonnell ranges for a few days, but before I went out there to meet him, I had the use of his mountain bike to explore the area.
Thankfully, despite my record with all things bike-like, the wheels and pedals stayed on long enough for me to make it to the home of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the Alice, a service I only really knew of because of a slightly old programme I used to watch as a kid. I say watch, I remember turning it over a lot of the time.
The visitor centre is based in the town, the centre of Australia and hundreds of miles away from any other city – the exact reason why the flying doctors are needed in this country. Having now experienced how vast the outback is, and how frighteningly alone you can feel when stranded somewhere within it, I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone in the remote communities dotted all over the bush to have an accident or fall ill.
That’s where this service comes in, providing aircraft, doctors and medical boxes to those who need it. Covering an area of 7.1million square kilometres, the aircraft land on special runway strips dotted all over the back country, and in emergencies, can even land on the roads. It helps out more than 250,000 patients every year, including a number of tourists. It cost $12 to go into the centre, which is in the middle of being refurbished and, if I’m honest, wasn’t really worth the money. Instead, I thought of it as a donation for a brilliant service. As it says, the inland area contains many lonely graves of people from the days before the flying doctors, who would have lived had they received medical care quickly enough.
I then set off in search of the telegraph station, the site of the first European settlement in the outback. I thought it would be on a hill somewhere, and instead found Anzac Hill, a lookout point where you can see across the city. It was a struggle to bike up the steep incline, but the view was worth it at the top.
From there, you can see how the Alice sprawls out within a valley, the famous Stuart Highway running through it from left to right as it joins the north and south coasts of the continent.
Its named after John Stuart, who led an expedition through Australia in 1861, and ten years later the settlement here started when a repeater station for the overland telegraph line which linked Adelaide, and indeed the country, with Darwin and the rest of the world.
The line opened up the centre of Australia for settlement, and that settlement was now a sprawling city, a place where the indigenous and European populations live side by side. There are undoubtedly divides between both, and its sad to say, but the many Aboriginals that I saw seemed to spend their days endlessly wandering around the streets or sitting under trees in the shade. There is a huge problem with high unemployment, crime and alcohol abuse among the Aboriginal people, and despite vast sums of money from the Australian government being put into projects to help, it doesn’t quite seem to be enough of the right sort of help.
Some people here argue that the indigenous population is not doing enough to help itself, and while there are many that work and earn a living, the general opinion from people I spoke to was that more support was needed. That being said, being shouted at by a group of them while wandering home one night was slightly unnerving, but I laughed it off and made my way past without any problems.
After taking some time to take in the view, I sped back down the hill and on to the telegraph station, some of the oldest houses in the area. Located by the Todd River, which is mostly a dry riverbed, it is next to a permanent waterhole – the Alice Spring.
The settlement was optimistically named Alice Springs after the wife of the former Postmaster General of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd, from whom the Todd River takes its name. Strangely, the water sits around thanks to a base of granite that it can’t seep through, meaning that despite all the heat and dry conditions, there is always life-giving water here.
That’s why it was picked as a main repeater site for the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, the first communications link from the south of the continent, linking through to Java, Singapore and on to Europe. Teams of workers, led by Todd, took more than 30,000 wrought iron poles, insulators, batteries, wire and other equipment, shipped in from England, and linked the northern and southern coasts. The poles were placed 80 metres apart for the entire 3,200km link, and in some of the worst conditions, but it allowed the development of the nation.
As I was cycling back to Neil’s house, I noticed the moon appeared brighter and larger than normal. It turns out it was a so called ‘supermoon’, a phenomenon where it appears 30 per cent larger and brighter when the point it is closest to Earth coincides with a full moon. I took the opportunity to further practise with the manual settings on my camera, getting some fairly decent results considering it’s a simple compact job. A decent tripod would have helped matters further!
My last day in Alice wasn’t actually spent in the city, but about an hour and a half away in the MacDonnell ranges, at a music festival called Wide Open Space. Its an annual outback festival, celebrating music, the arts and desert culture, and my friend Neil’s housemate was one of the organisers.
It was one of Neil’s friends, Emma, who gave me a lift out to the bush and to the dusty bowl that was home to stages, funky festival goers, bands and beer. Emma is a cross-media reporter for the ABC in Alice Springs, a very similar job to mine back home, and the journey soon passed as we swapped tales and stories from journalism on opposite sides of the globe. We were so engrossed in talk about each others jobs, that Emma briefly ended up missing a turn, much to our amusement.
The long dusty roads led us to some incredible scenery, and there was a great atmosphere at the site. It was very much a small-scale Glastonbury, with a very friendly and relaxed feel about the place. There was an underlying beat from the stage, everyone was chilled out, and the sun was beating down through clouds of dust being kicked up by dozens of dancing feet in the main arena.
As the festival was ongoing, I decided to climb up to the top of one of the ridges overlooking the campsite.
I knew the sun would be setting shortly, and it was my last chance to see one of the stunning sunsets in the outback, where the sky passes through such a vivid rainbow of colours before darkness falls.
It was a tough hike, clambering up the deep red rocks which would often slip under your feet, and pulling myself up through a gulley. There were plenty of other festival-goers around with the same idea, and we were helping each other with the tough bits. At one point, someone from the top started shouting for us to bring up some wood. Most of us had our hands full making sure we didn’t have a painful fall to the bottom, and so politely laughed off the request.
At the top, however, we could see why – a few people had set up camp, complete with a camp fire, right on the top of the mountain. And what a spectacular view they had – the ranges stretching as far as the eye could see, people dancing below, music still heard as clear as if you were down by the stage. The beauty of being in the middle of nowhere – in a wide open space, to steal the name of the festival – is the complete silence and isolation. Somehow it seems to help the acoustics.
Soon the sun began to sink from the sky, turning a deep yellow, then orange and red, casting a glow and the red centre desert and mountains around me. The flicker of the campfire to my right grew ever more noticeable as the 30 or so people that were alongside me found a rocky seat and watched the natural spectacle.
Many sat in silence and watched, others meditated, others cheered and hugged friends. As the sun disappeared over distant mountains, it was one of those moments when you realise just how quickly it sets. With the last sliver of light gone, everyone turned around into the opposite direction, watched, and waited.
Within minutes of the sun disappearing in the west, over in the east, a giant moon began to slowly rise above the mountains. It prompted cheers and wolf howls from many of those stood alongside me.
“It looks like a giant baby’s head,” shouted one bloke, clearly having had a few too many Coopers ales.
As the moon rose higher in the sky, another set of cheers came from a larger crowd of people stood on the top of a smaller hill near the stage, as it became visible from their vantage point. Then, 20 minutes later, another set of cheers from everyone else down on ground level. It was a great couple of hours, taking in the atmosphere, admiring the view and trying to savour the experience.
The next problem was how I’d left it far to late to return back to the ground, and like a few others, had the tricky task of making my way down a mountainside in darkness. Thankfully, the moon was bright and my iPhone torch app once again paid dividends, lighting the way just enough so I knew where to put my feet.
I was going to stay the night at the festival, but with it winding down and the bar shut, Emma offered me a lift back to Alice Springs. I was also thinking of making the train I was booked on north to Darwin the following day when I said goodbye to Neil, knowing it might be the last time I see him for a while. There was no guarantee he could make it back in time before my train leaves, as he was helping his housemate with packing away everything the following day. But we had met up again, and that’s what mattered – a friendship rekindled, and one I know we’ll keep up. He’s hoping to be back home in the UK for a few weeks in the next year or so, and so I hereby keep my promise to him of dinner and a night out on me when he returns.
After a week of staying at his house, borrowing his car, getting it stranded and repaired in one of the most remote parts of the world, a cracking bacon bun and coffee when I returned and fantastic memories of the outback, it’s the least I could do. We’d had a great time catching up, and it was brilliant to find him so happy with his life in the Alice. I’m sure it won’t be another 12 or 13 years before we meet again, and who knows, maybe one day I’ll find myself in the red centre once again.
For now, its back on the rails north and to Darwin, courtesy of The Ghan.
*To see more on the Wide Open Space festival, visit the website at www.wideopenspace.net.au