Ever since reading Neville Shute’s ‘A Town Like Alice’ when I was about sixteen, I’ve had this great desire to see Alice Springs. Alice is famous for a number of the more famous Australian icons such as the Flying Doctor Service and the School of the Air. It is also well known for its famous boat Henley on Todd; the river so rarely has water in it that this boat race is run by people ‘wearing’ or carrying boats with the bottoms cut out and carried along the dry river bed. The year there was water in the Todd River this boat race had to be cancelled!
We flew from Darwin to Alice Springs which has a small airport but fresh and modern looking. It is possible to drive from Darwin via Katherine or up from Adelaide if you have time available and can cope with the very long and hot drive.
SCHOOL OF THE AIR:
From the airport we went straight to visit the School of the Air which is the largest (physically) classroom in the world. We were there in time for an assembly where all the teachers were introducing themselves to the pupils who were part of this school of the air class. There was a short film explaining how the service has changed over the years when they began using two way radios up to the present day and using the internet. It was very interesting and surprising how few children the service caters for. It is a very costly service and the children include those from the huge cattle farms and a number of Aboriginal children in isolated areas as well.
THE ROYAL FLYING DOCTOR SERVICE:
We went from The School of the air to the Royal Flying Doctor service which serves a huge area geographically and is funded by the government for running costs but relies on donations for capital expenses such as the planes and equipment. We were given a talk before being allowed to view the working area of this amazing service We were advised that we should be drinking at least 2 litres of water per day in the heat and we were able to enjoy some lovely cold tap water in the canteen. My husband enjoyed his first real Aussie meat pie and I had a small cold trifle which was jolly refreshing.
THE FIRST TELEGRAPH STATION:
We then went to the historical village built round the First Telegraph Station. There were more houses in the original settlement but still there and restored were the school teacher’s house, the Telegraph operator’s house, the barracks and a few other buildings such as the blacksmiths, the carriage and other storage buildings. All round the settlement were labels telling you a bit about each building and explaining how the people lived and who they were. There were photos of the families and other furniture and artefacts too.
There was a building dedicated to an explanation of how half caste Aboriginal/white children were removed from their mothers and taken into care – educated and brought up in the settlement. There were some of these children’s stories retold on boards too which I found quite upsetting. It was a shameful period in Australian history which is still having an effect on these people’s lives today. If you have seen the film ’Rabbit Proof Fence’, then you will have an idea of how this awful idea was implemented.
We then went up to the Anzac memorial which is on a small hill and from there you get a good view of the whole of Alice and surrounding area. War memorials are greatly respected in Australian towns and this one is no exception. It is in a great position above the town and is kept very nicely.
OUR BUSH BBQ:
As part of our your we were offered an optional extra of a Bush BBQ. A couple who owned about 250 hectares local to Alice began this business of offering Aussie Bush BBQs to tourists on their farm. This 250 hectare farm is too small for cattle and too dry and infertile for anything to grow so they decided to ‘‘farm’ the tourist industry at $75 Aussie per head. They used to do this every day of the week but now they only do a couple each week. We calculated that in our group there were 40 people at $75 a head was not a bad evening’s work. They did nothing to the property just let it be the natural bush.
They had built a large corrugated iron roofed shed beside the dry river bed. There were a couple of generators for electricity and the BBQs. They had a few enormous cool boxes for the drinks and the cold food.
At 6.30 we were collected by Geoff and Alice in two mini vans. During the drive Geoff told us quite a lot about the local flora and pointed out ghost gums, red gums, coolabahs trees and nulla trees. When we arrived on their property he drove around looking for wallabies and we were lucky enough to see at least 20 of differing sizes, both males and females.
We first went into the dry river bed and Geoff showed us how to throw a boomerang. Boomerangs are not thrown at an animal to kill it as some people think they are used to throw over a waterhole to make the water fowl fly and then they could be killed by spears or other weapons. The idea of it returning was to save going to find it or falling in the water. The throwing ability of our group was mixed – some truly pathetic attempts while others were quite good. It certainly gave us an appetite for our barbequing steaks which were ready to go on the fires as we were trying to throw our boomerangs.
By this time the flies had disappeared and we were able to shed our glamorous fly nets and hope that our insect repellent would keep the mossies away. We made our way towards the fire and BBQ area where there was a large roofed hut with tables and chairs. We were offered beer, red or white wine or soft drinks and then Geoff made 3 big dampers in cast iron pots which he then put on cinders and placed hot cinders on the pots too. Then the meat was put on the Barbie – steaks and sausages which were really good and there was a choice of baked potatoes, beetroot, tomato and cucumber, coleslaw, pineapple and coconut. Desert was a huge piece of damper with golden syrup.
After we had eaten our fill we then moved our chairs out into the open and Geoff gave us a star gazing guide and we looked up at the stars, we saw the Southern Cross and also a satellite. On our return drive back to our hotel in the minibus we were treated to a |CD of Australian folk songs such as ‘Waltzing Matilda’ ,’ Click go the Shears’ and other similar songs which rounded off a very Australian evening in the bush. It was a really great evening.
For me this area and the Top End of Australia are the real Australia that you read about in books, the romantic stories of shearers, cattle drives, the Flying Doctors and the School of the Air. This is a tough life where the land unforgiving and harsh, where the flies are more plentiful than people. The flies are a pest and I really hated them. I was happy with my fly net as this kept them away from my ears and moth but I still couldn’t stand them buzzing around me. There is no way I could live out in this area. It is hot, 40°C and above for the summer months and then the flies all day, once the sun goes down you get a break from the flies but then out come the mosquitoes to chomp on your exposed bits. No, it was great to visit and see these Australian icons and I have a huge respect for those that live there now and an even greater admiration for those people that lived there in times past – they were a tough lot.