Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Mrs Todd's Billabong

Alice Springs started life as a telegraph station. It's half way between Adelaide in South Australia and Darwin in the Northern Territory. That is to say it's about 1500 km from both of them, and further again from the East and West coasts. Much further. In 1865, the British parliament approved the construction of a telegraph line to stretch from Port Augusta in Southern Australia, across the emptiness of Central Australia, to Darwin with the ambition of connecting eventually to the telegraph line in Java, and so on to Mother England. (Just 57 years earlier, it had taken a full year for the news of the Sydney mutiny against Governor Bligh to reach London - this was real progress.) Alice Springs was the halfway point and a repeater station for that telegraph line.

By the time we landed in Alice Springs airport, we had flown two and a half hours over, well, mostly nothing. Below us, the pale colours of uncharitable Australian farmland gave way to the completely unworkable sands that make up the Red Centre. Once we got off the aircraft and walked to the terminal building (it was well hidden belong scrub on the edge of the runway, giving us the impression of having landed on an abandoned airstrip), that red sand started to accumulate on our shoes. A brief but costly taxi ride through the unimaginatively named Gap to the centre of Alice Springs left us outside the Aurora hotel, ready to check in, unpack and explore.

Within one hour of getting there, I sent the following text to Simon back in Brisbane: "Alice is a hole". Nothing happened in the intervening hours of our stay to make me revise this opinion.

The town was originally called Stuart (as in Stuart highway - the road that follows the route opened up by explorer John Stuart) but was changed to Alice Springs in the 1930s. So who the flip is Alice? She was the wife of Sir Charles Todd, the top man in South Australia's postal service. The 'Springs' in question were in fact a Billabong - a seasonal and sometimes stagnant waterhole rather than a clean source of fresh water. The river through Alice was named the Todd river after Charles himself, but in these parts rivers are not the permanent fixtures that most of us are used to. The Todd river hasn't passed though Alice for more than two years. It's just a dried up riverbed, marked out by gum trees that can tap the remaining underground water. So both Alice and Charles were unfortunate enough to have given their names to geographic entities that, for most practical purposes, don't exist.

The Alice Springs that we were expecting doesn't exist either. The town that started life as a telegraph station is now home to a node on the US military communications network, and manned by as much as 2000 Americans (I saw none - perhaps they don't exist either). The technology has changed, but the function remains the same: take a signal from point A and forward it to point B. The Book of Lies (aka The Rough Guide to Australia) told us we would find a metropolitan atmosphere, in part thanks to the large US population. What we found was a flyblown, unwelcoming shambles, that didn't extend to any great extent beyond the central pedestrian section of Todd Street. Most of the aboriginals in sight were either propped like sacks of potatoes at the edge of the road, or wandering the public spaces aimlessly. Every now and then a group of young kids on BMX bikes flits across the road or path, like a small flock of birds, causing cars to brake suddenly. There's a piece of graffiti that reads "Fuck Racist Cops" where somebody has crossed out the first word and replaced it with "Support". Both of these sentiments seem to me in keeping with the atmosphere of this town.

All the aboriginal art dealerships we saw were in white hands. I heard English, Scottish, Australian and Dutch accents coming back across the desk at us, as we wandered from shop to shop looking for something that we'd like to buy. We eventually found some pieces that we liked - one for ourselves and another for Simon and Leah - in the Mbantua Gallery.

We left at 6am the following morning on a six hour bus trip to Uluru (more on that later). It's the first place we've been to in Australia that I have no desire to revisit.

1 comment:

ds99 said...

Who the flip ? Your wife shows no such self-censorship !

Good to see the Alice hasn't changed much then. Can't believe the book of lies tried to talk it up.