Out From Alice Springs
The Surrounding Area
While there is much to see in Alice Springs itself, there are many interesting sites in the surrounding area and some are not very far away. Others are further, but it can be well worthwhile to make the effort and spare the time to visit some of these places.
Of course, on any trips around in this dry area it is important to take precautions and make sure the right equipment is taken including plenty of water and a First Aid kit. They may not be needed but it would be foolish to go unprepared. The desert is very unforgiving for the unwary.
Background of Alice Springs
The original inhabitants of the area were members of the Arrernte aboriginal group. According to various authorities they have been living in the surrounding desert for thousands of years. They had named the area Mparntwe.
In 1861-2 John McDouall Stuart led an expedition that explored the area as they travelled through Central Australia in order to establish a route from south to north. Ten years later, with the building of the Repeater Station of the Overland Telegraph Line that eventually linked Adelaide with Darwin, Europeans began to settle near the springs and the small settlement that grew was known as Stuart. The river, which occasionally has water in it, was named the Todd River after Sir Charles Todd and the springs were named after Lady Alice, his wife.
In 1933, the town was renamed Alice Springs. Today it is also known as Mparntwe.
The Local People
The population of Alice Springs is now a little over twenty-five thousand. People of many nationalities have made it their home, including a number of Americans as it was made a base during the Second World War and became strategically important after the bombing of Darwin.
There are still about eighteen hundred of the original inhabitants living in the area. They speak the Arrernte language; it is taught in schools as well as English and is often used in local media and by government officials.
In the surrounding gorges and caves there are interesting aboriginal paintings that are very ancient. A number of the Arrernte people continue the traditional way of painting and these are very popular with tourists, both to see in the galleries in Alice Springs and to purchase.
Ross River Homestead
Ross River is widely known in Australia for Ross River Fever, a mosquito-borne disease that affects the body rather like arthritis and can last for up to a year. It is to be found in other areas and countries of the Pacific as well, but there are times of the year when there are very few mosquitoes, due to the arid climate.
Notwithstanding, Ross River Homestead in Central Australia is a great place to visit or stay and it is out some distance from Alice Springs. It offers a number of activities including both horse and camel riding or trekking, a Billy-Tea and Damper experience, very proficient whip-cracking demonstrations and even boomerang throwing.
Just south of the gap that is the entrance into Alice Springs there are date farms. These farms with their stately palms beckoning in the breeze are interesting places to visit. They offer shade and different kinds of dates so that the tourist can explore the various flavours and textures.
Some of the farms also have fun facilities for visitors and they provide a lovely oasis where tourists can rest and enjoy a refreshing cup of tea or coffee accompanied by date scones. There are usually date ice-creams and even chocolate-covered dates. Boxes of different kinds of dates can be purchased to take back home as souvenirs or gifts for those not fortunate enough to be visiting the Red Centre.
Gemtree Caravan Park
A drive out from The Alice is an exciting prospect for fossickers. As the tour is scheduled to leave the Caravan Park at 8.30 a.m., it requires an early start. After driving for some distance along the Stuart Highway towards Darwin, the signs indicate the Plenty Highway. This really is the Great Outback. It feels miles from anywhere. We follow the Plenty Highway east, drive past the Hartz Mountains on the right and after about 130 km we reach the Gemtree Caravan Park.
Here dusty vehicles wait to join the tour. It costs around $75 for one or two people and this includes all the equipment needed. Mobile phones are out of range but at least there is a pay-phone here. Then we are off; the lead vehicle has already disappeared in a cloud of dust. We reach a private site that seems to be in the middle of no-where. We are shown what to look for: zircons and garnets. It gets exciting. We find that zircons often look like brown glass - it's much like Fosterite, broken glass of beer-bottles!
As we lean on our spades the silence is amazing; it almost presses in on us. The breeze sings gently in our ears. Then we begin to hear distant sounds: small, invisible birds. To work! The contents of shaken sieves are dunked in drums of water that were trekked in all the way from town. Soon there are exclamations of delight as small semi-precious stones are discovered.
At the end of the day everyone is thrilled with their finds. They may have blemishes, but we've found them ourselves!
The Train Museum
Back near the railway station we found the Train Museum. As we had some time before the Ghan was due to leave, we went exploring.
We found that the original transport to Stuart (Alice Springs) was by camel trains. These were imported and operated by men from Pakistan who were known as Afghans and they transported both people and goods.
In 1929 a narrow-gauge train line from Adelaide was completed and this came to be called The Ghan. The train journey was quite lengthy with stops to boil the billy and have tea and a chat with people along the way. In 1980 the gauge was changed to the standard width and on 4th February, 2004, the first train passengers travelled on a new, extended line from Adelaide to Darwin. it is still known as The Ghan, but is much more luxurious that it's early predecessors.
The Train Museum has engines and carriages from past eras and some have been restored and can be entered and examined freely. It is very interesting and evocative of past era.