There's no town quite like Alice

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

Although camels once provided most of the pulling and hauling, they have largely been driven off the road by the ubiquitous Toyota four-wheel-drive vehicles -- almost standard equipment here. There is still a Camel Farm and museum on Emily Gap Road, where some 30 dromedaries are available to rock-and-roll tourists about for a small fee.

In Alice one finds a delightful and entertaining Monty Python zaniness that lies as close to the surface as the water table.

Witness the Camel Cup races that take place each May. The stubborn and unpredictable nature of the beasts only adds to the bizarreness of the event.

Then there's something called the Henley-on-Todd Regatta, complete with boat and canoe races and all sorts of aquatic festivities. The only thing missing is the water. Not to worry. The gallant crews simply stand inside bottomless boats, lift them waist-high, and charge, screaming, down the bone-dry river. Others are paddled with shovels down the river on a track. The regatta once had to be postponed because it rained, filling the Todd River with -- horror of horrors, water. Although rainfall averages about 10 inches a year, there have been stretches of 2 years without any measurable precipitation.

Sports are eagerly pursued here even though summer days can get hotter than a tin of Billy tea. Basketball, rugby, netball, and football are popular. A superb 18-hole golf course opened last October. Lack of public transportion makes cycling almost mandatory. Soaring is available -- and even scuba diving. ``It's becoming quite popular,'' a ruddy-faced salesman in a sporting goods store confirmed. ``We have some water holes over 50 feet deep.''

As everywhere else, evenings at home glow with the blue-green light of the ``telly,'' and video rental stores abound here. ``We only get one channel on TV, so there's not much choice. That's why everyone has a VCR,'' a young saleswoman remarked. ``Right now `Rambo' and `Baby' -- you know, the one about the baby dinosaur -- are about even. But `Mad Max' is doing pretty well. Anything with Mel Gibson,'' she swooned. ``He's the absolute end.''

No trip is complete without a visit to the School of the Air, on Head Street. You may stop in between 1:30 and 3:30 and watch and listen while teachers broadcast lessons via two-way radio to 140 students aged 4 to 12. Sixty percent of the students are on isolated cattle and sheep stations; the rest are children of mobile construction and mining workers. Each year 30 children are taken to a major city to experience life there. ``We have to teach the kids things like how to behave in traffic and supermarkets, and how to handle money. Some kids will get a handful of change at a store and just throw it away,'' school principal Fred Hockley remarked.

``Now remember, Friday will be dress-up day,'' said the attractive young teacher from behind a glass, soundproofed wall, speaking to preschoolers. ``Now I want you to think of an Australian animal that you can dress up as and wear to the radio. Right now, I want you all to pick up your green crayon and draw a green fish.

``Now something red. What did you draw, Bruce? A dingo? Very good!'' she continued.

The school welcomes about 50,000 visitors a year. ``It may be the only place in town that doesn't have an entry fee,'' Mr. Hockley joked. Practical information

Alice Springs can be reached by air from most major cities in Australia, and by rail from Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, and Darwin. Most people combine their visit here with a trip to Ayers Rock. Touring coaches offer a variety of trips. Prices depend on the degree of comfort -- or discomfort -- you are willing to endure. And, of course, you can explore the outback by four-wheel-drive vehicle. For more information, contact the Australian Tourist Commission, 489 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017; (212) 687-6300. In California write A.T.C., 3550 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, Calif. 90010; (213) 380-6060.

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