The bright, clear desert air of ALICE SPRINGS gives the town and its people a charge that you don’t get in the languid, tropical north. Arriving here is a relief after a long drive up or down the Stuart Highway. Its sights, notably the wonderful Araluen 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 centre of town occupies a compact area between the Stuart Highway and Leichhardt Terrace, along the almost perennially dry Todd River, bordered to the north and south by Wills Terrace and Stott Terrace respectively. Bisecting this rectangle is Todd Mall, a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with cafés and galleries. Get an overview of Alice’s setting by nipping up Anzac Hill (off Wills Terrace) for 360-degree views over the town and the MacDonnell Ranges.
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. It was Charles Todd, then South Australia’s Superintendent of Telegraphs, who saw the need to link South Australia with the Top End, which in turn would give a link to Asia and, ultimately, 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 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. The gold rush fizzled, but the township of Stuart remained, a collection of shanty dwellings serving 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 evacuation of Darwin saw Alice Springs become the Territory’s administrative capital and a busy military supply base.
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. In the 1980s the town’s prosperity was further boosted 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 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, and businesses in Alice are still suffering from this bypass effect.