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There's no town quite like Alice

By John Edward YoungStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1986

Alice Springs, Australia

ALICE Springs sits bull's-eye, dead center in this vast island-continent, smack in the middle of the desert. The entire state of the Northern Territory, all 1,346,200 square kilometers of it, is home to less than three-quarters of 1 percent of Australia's population.

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Settled originally as a supply dump and repeater station for the Overland Telegraph in the early 1870s, Alice Springs had two precious commodities -- a small water hole, after which the town was named, and the Todd River. Alice, as the town is affectionately known, was named after the wife of Sir Charles Todd, then South Australia's superintendent of telegraphy. Completion of that telegraph link in 1872 cut communication time between Adelaide and Mother England from several months to just seven hours.

Back in 1903, with its entire female population at seven, Alice was sleeping sounder than a fairy-tale princess. What roused her was no prince on a white charger but a cross-country iron horse railroad and the discovery of gold and other minerals in the outback.

After the bombing of Darwin during World War II, the territorial administration moved here. Then Nevil Shute's novel ``A Town Like Alice,'' and the subsequent ``Masterpiece Theatre'' television series, brought world attention to this remote area. That combined with the town's proximity to Ayers Rock, one of Australia's natural wonders, now brings half a million people here each year, making tourism the largest industry.

Alice combines the delightful color and contradictions that make this continent endlessly fascinating, even in this largely forbidding area.

Kangaroos bounce along the street as you make your way to Alice's K mart. Flocks of pink and gray galah cockatoos squawk overhead as you cycle off to the local Piggly-Wiggly Supermarket. You may even have to double-park beside a camel when you ``pick up a bucket'' at Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Alice is young, growing, and still very much an active frontier town. It's the accommodation camp for exploring the outback, home to local surveyors, miners, geologists, and scientists, and base camp to the cattle stations nearby. Many people work in aboriginal affairs and government administrative services. The average age of the population is 35. Most residents live comfortably in low, modern ranch-style homes, topped with solar collectors.

Alice now thrives with a population of 22,000 and an annual growth rate of 7 percent -- one of the highest in the country.

It may be stretching the point to call Alice Springs the New York City of the outback, but then there's no town around to challenge it. Alice now even boasts its very own single set of traffic lights!

From the air, the uncompromising parched red sand is interrupted by the Macdonnell Ranges, a string of jagged mountains that from the air resemble the half-buried backbone of some gigantic prehistoric creature. Alice nests at the foot of the Macdonnells, flat, dusty, and spreading. Strict zoning laws keep buildings no higher than three stories.

The surrounding desert supports a surprising number of feral animals, both indigenous and imported. Kangaroos in a variety of species abound along with parrots, cockatoos, lizards, five-foot flightless emus, Australia's native dog -- the dingo -- and British-introduced rabbits.

Camels were imported from Afghanistan during the last century, with their Afghan cameleers. They helped build this town and were indispensable in the exploration of the outback. All these animals compete for food, if not space, with great tended herds of cattle in the center and water buffalo north in Darwin.