Stunningly set at the geographical centre of Australia, ALICE SPRINGS may have a population of under 30,000, yet it’s still the largest settlement in the interior. A modern, compact town in the midst of the MacDonnell Ranges, it makes an excellent base from which to explore Australia’s spectacular Red Centre. The bright, clear desert air gives the town and its people a charge that you don’t get in the languid, tropical north. Arriving is a relief after a long drive up or down the Stuart Highway – there are leafy pedestrianized streets, air-conditioned shopping malls, sophisticated art galleries, cinemas and decent coffee. Its sights, notably the wonderful Aurelian Arts Centre and the out-of-town Desert Park, are worth leisurely exploration, and a couple of nights is the minimum you should budget for. Timing your visit for one of the town’s quirky festivals, from dry river-bed regattas to the Camel Cup, is also worth considering.
The area has been inhabited for at least forty thousand years by the Arrernte (also known as Aranda), who moved between reliable water sources along the MacDonnell Ranges. But, as elsewhere in the Territory, it was only the arrival of the Overland Telegraph Line in the 1870s that led to a permanent settlement here. Following John McDouall Stuart’s exploratory journeys through the area in the early 1860s, it was the visionary Charles Todd, then South Australia’s Superintendent of Telegraphs, who saw the need to link Australia with the rest of the empire. The town’s river and its tributary carry his name, while the “spring” (actually a billabong) and town are named after his wife, Alice.
With repeater stations needed every 250km from Adelaide to Darwin to boost the OTL signal, the billabong north of today’s town was chosen as the spot at which to establish the telegraph station. When a spurious ruby rush led to the discovery of gold at Arltunga in the Eastern MacDonnells, Stuart Town (the town’s official name in its early years) became a departure point for the long slog to the riches east. Arltunga’s goldrush fizzled out, but the township of Stuart remained, a collection of shanty dwellings serving a stream of pastoralists, prospectors and missionaries.
In 1929 the railway line from Adelaide finally reached Stuart Town. Journeys that had once taken weeks by camel from the Oodnadatta railhead could now be undertaken in just a few days, so by 1933, when the town officially became Alice Springs, the population had mushroomed to nearly five hundred white Australians. The 1942 bombing and evacuation of Darwin saw Alice Springs become the Territory’s administrative capital and a busy military base, supplying the northern war zone.
After hostilities ceased, some of the wartime population stayed on and Alice Springs began to establish itself as a pleasant if quirky place to live, immortalized in fiction by Nevil Shute’s novel, A Town Like Alice. The town’s postwar prosperity was further boosted in the mid-1960s by the establishment of Pine Gap, a US base southwest of town, and in the mid-1980s by the reconstruction of the poorly built rail link from Adelaide and the sealing of the Stuart Highway. The town’s proximity to Uluru, which gradually became a global tourist destination in the 1970s and 1980s, saw the creation of the many resorts and motels still present today. This trade took a knock when direct flights to the rock were established, but Alice Springs and the surrounding area remain a worthwhile destination in their own right.