Alice Springs is a little more than two hours north by plane from Adelaide. The town has about 20,000 residents and is the capital of the Northern Territory. Before delving into its histories, a few words about the Outback. The term is actually American in origin and referred to the land or space behind a house… In other words, it literally means “ out back.” The phrase caught on to describe the vast, but sparsely populated desert interior because it is “ out back” for the majority of Aussies living near the oceans.
Let’s review recent history first. The original settlement of Alice Springs was founded in the 1870s about five miles down a dry riverbed from the town you see above. It was part of a telegraph line construction project between Adelaide to the south and Darwin to the north. This 2000 miles was constructed and operated with eight stations, roughly 200 miles apart. Each station had two operators and three linesmen to maintain the connections. The man charged with finding this sight followed the local riverbed and stumbled on a series of freshwater pools. He named one after “Alice,” the wife of the postmaster in Adelaide
A few more words about this river… The top picture shows Mrs Bear waking across the riverbed. The second photo shows just how wide this river can be in flash flood stage. Now go back to the top photo and notice the height of the water marker, up to two meters high on the stick. Can you imagine how intense the rain would have to be to fill up this WIDE wash?? I really can’t!! It almost never rains here, but when it does…
Back to the history… The station persisted and a second settlement with auxiliary services was built at the site of the current town. It didn’t really boom until WWII, when the Aussies established a military base here. Today, Alice Springs is still a tough place to live, but it has a solid tourism base, government offices, and a really interesting set of government schools ( more on this later).
On to the older history… A visit to the Outback is not complete without an education into Aboriginal culture and history. And theirs goes back more than 40,000 years. Historians have concluded that, over this 40,000+ years, there were hundreds of distinct Aboriginal groups with their own territories, languages, and cultures. It wasn’t until the last 200 years that all of these separate groups were classified as one people.
A trip to Alice Springs Is an introduction to the Aboriginal culture. Here is a little bit about how they lived in this incredibly difficult environment. The people tended to live in small groups, no more than 15 or so. This is because their nomadic lifestyle required much travel to gather and hunt for enough food and water. Our guide told us that is took about two square miles to feed one person. So larger groups could not have found enough food to subsist upon. Lifespan was short, about 45-50. And only very young women could carry a pregnancy and give birth. It required such strength and higher body fat that most women experienced menopause in their early 20s. Men hunted with spears and assorted clubs and boomerangs, and women gathered. Aboriginal people believe that your spirit comes from the earth. They had no concept of afterlife, believing that your spirit simply returns into the earth when you die. Their subsistence was so harsh that their basic codes of conduct were equally harsh. Break a rule and your arm or leg was injured to the point where you probably couldn’t survive. An elderly person who could not keep up was abandoned. Many Westerners find this culture extreme, but survival in extreme stresses requires extreme measures. Today Aboriginals make up about 3% of the population, but have control of about 50% of the land. The entire Ayer’s Rock resort is on Aboriginal land. More on that in a couple days.