Well, we’ve popped up in Alice Spring. We’ve come here for a few days of sight-seeing and photography.
Alice Springs is positioned almost in the geographic centre of Australia. The town has a population of 28,000 people and straddles the Todd River. The river is mostly dry, and now, like most months of the year, it is just a ribbon of sand that follows a line of ghost gums (the local eucalyptus tree). It has a typical desert climate – hot, dry days and freezing cold nights. Annual rainfall is less than 190 mm (about 7.5 inches).
Its early history revolved around the operation of a telegraph station that linked Adelaide to Darwin and then to the rest of the world. Up until WW2, the population of the town was less than 500 people but it became important as a railway and logistics town through which supplies were rushed north to Darwin for the defence of Australia. It’s now a major outback town that supports tourism, mining and pastoral activity.
The Todd River is noted for its famous annual Regatta ‘boat’ race which began as a joke at the expense of the original British settlers and the formal atmosphere of their river races . ‘Boats’ are made from metal frames and hung with banners and advertisements, and teams of ‘rowers’ run their boats in races through the hot sand of the river bed. The Regatta is an occasion of much frivolity – lots of fun and lots of beer.
We arrived here around lunchtime yesterday and spent the afternoon at the Alice Springs Desert Park. This fascinating park replicates the three most common desert environments of the area – Woodlands, Sandy Deserts and Dry River Country. In each of these parts of the park are wildlife reserves containing animals and birds that are typical of each region. It is 1300 hectares (3,200 acres) in size and about 12 kms out of town.
In the woodlands section, you walk through dry river beds,and areas that have been flooded, and past swamps and water holes. The plants here include river red gums, coolibah trees, and reedy plants. Animals in this habitat include finches, cockatoos, budgerigars, water birds, frogs, and fish.
The Woodland habitat includes enclosures for kangaroos, emus and Dingos.
The area of sand country is a re-creation of the sandy desert environment including clay, gypsum, and salt pans. Its hard to see any animals in this section because most are nocturnal. Some, like the Thorny Devil, can be seen in the large Nocturnal House.
Today, we drove out to the Aboriginal Settlement of Hermannsburg. On the way we stopped at two of the famous sights of the Western McDonnell Ranges. The first place was at Simpsons Gap. This is one of the most prominent gaps in the entire West MacDonnell Ranges. It features the towering cliffs of Simpsons Range, a permanent waterhole, and opportunities to spot its resident wildlife of Rock Wallabies. Its about 18 km from Alice Springs and can be reached along a well made side road that ends in a car park where a walking track that leads to the gap.
Further along, we stopped at Stanley Chasm. This narrow rock cleft cuts through the tough quartzite of the mountain range to form a picturesque natural alleyway. It has been created by surging flood waters over thousands of years. The guide books say that it is at its most impressive in the middle of a sunny day but it is much easier to photograph on a cloudy day when the shadows are less intense. As the light shifts across the chasm, the colours in the rock change in a magnificent display of colours and forms. There is a reliable trickle of water that ensures the presence of some plant species from a pre-historic time when Central Australia was a much more lush place. The chasm is called ‘Angkerle’ by the local Aborigines, but its European name honours Mrs Ida Standley who, in 1914 became the first school teacher in Alice Springs.
From Standley Chasm, it was another 86 km drive to Hermannsburg. This tiny town is situated on the Fink River, one of the oldest geological river systems in the World. It has a population of around 620 of whom 85% are aboriginal. It was established as an Aboriginal mission in 1877 by two Lutheran missionaries of the Hermannsburg Mission from Germany, who had travelled overland from the Barossa Valley in South Australia. They named their new mission after the city in Germany where they had trained. These missionaries left in 1891 but the settlement was continued by lay workers until, when in 1894, Pastor Carl Strehlow arrived. He learned the local Western Arrernte language and is credited with translating the Bible into that language. This were the days when Europeans believed that converting our indigenous people to a western form of Christianity and life style was the most appropriate thing to do. The historic area of the town still contains the original mission buildings.
From my perspective, Hermannsburg is a sad little town. Most of the government built houses are in a severe state of disrepair. Their yards are littered with discarded furniture, wrecks of worn out cars and discarded children’s toys. Key buildings are surrounded by high cyclone wire fences – even the BMX track. The only place without a high surrounding fence is the police station. I guess that they have an adequate lock up that keeps people in and doesn’t need a fence to keep them out. Most of the streets have large signs prohibiting the taking of photographs. Sadly, this type of environment is consistent with what I have seen in many places around the world where Indigenous people are caught up in a conflict between their own culture and that of the the westernised society that surrounds them.
Frankly, I have no idea what to do about this state of affairs. I despair for our aborigines and their dependancy on welfare, their poor health, education and high level of social disfunction. All I know is that trying to fix this type of complex problem with simple solutions is totally ineffective. We’ve tried throwing money at it and it’s made the issue worse, not better.
Late in the afternoon we travelled back to Alice Springs along the same way. as we had come. The countryside is relatively flat and the rivers / creeks are just dry beds of sand that are lined with taller trees than the surrounding plains because of the increased availability of moisture. Every slight depression along the road is marked as a “Floodway’ with markers that indicate water depth. Some of these are over 2 metres tall. There must be an unbelievable inundation of water through this area on the rare occasions that it rains!