( Anzac Hill… The Old Telegraph Office… The School of the Air and the Flying Doctor Service … the Reptile Center )
The next day saw us take a plane to Alice Springs in the interior of the country. In itself , Alice Springs, a town of 28,000, has nothing much to recommend it . It is merely a convenient jumping off point for Ayers Rock , the huge monolithic rock sacred to the aboriginies.We arrived in Alice springs around 11 AM and were transported to the our hotel where we freshened up and had a bite to eat.
We’d signed up for a half day tour of Alice Springs and , promptly at 2 PM , a little bus picked us up . Other than our group of eight , there was only one other tourist who had signed up , a tall rather taciturn chap in cowboy hat and boots ( we promptly nicknamed him ” Cowboy ” ) . Our first stop was Anzac Hill, so named because at the top is a memorial for the war dead of the First World War. We stood at the obelisk for some moments , then took in the views of the town spread out at our feet.
It was a very hot day , without a whisper of breeze , par for Alice Springs . The previous year there had been some uncharacteristically wet weather ( 40 inches of rain instead of the usual 5 inches or less ) and the surrounding terrain was greener than usual. Alice Springs itself was neatly laid out in a grid pattern and , with its Caltex gas stations and Woolworth stores ( both long disappeared from the U.S), it felt like a small American town from the seventies. My wife said it reminded her of Tucson , Arizona.
On our way to Anzac Hill , the guide had pointed out the dry river bed of the Charles River. Now, he pointed it out again and said that it was the site of a boat race each October . ” How could that be ? ” I wondered. ” Oh ,” he replied with a grin , “the boats have no bottoms ; contestants just get into their boats and carry them as they run for the finish line . One year , when it rained a lot , we had to cancel the boat race because there was too much water !” That’s Australian humor for you !!
From Anzac Hill , we went to the Old Telegraph Station . We walked among its buildings , read a bit of the history of the telegraph and what a monumental task it was to string wire and open up the interior of he continent.Seeing the barracks where the pioneers lived in , constantly on the lookout for aborigine attacks , all the while battling venomous snakes , insects, intense heat , and boredom gives one a new appreciation of their accomplishment . For instance , the earliest telegraph poles only had an eighteen month life before they rotted away or were eaten by termites. Then they had to be replaced. Still they strung the wire all the way to Darwin in the north and Adelaide in the south, almost three thousand miles in all — and this , a hundred and fifty years ago , without the aid of modern machinery.A stupendous effort ! As we walked the grounds , we came across dozens of grey and red macaws and a foot long black lizard that we steered well clear of.
The next stop was the School of the Air , an outback institution which provided lessons over the radio to children living on remote cattle stations ( ranches). Since 2001 , radio has been replaced by computers and the lessons are communicated by audio -visual means , much more effective than before.We got to see an actual lesson in progress but the small numbers of pupils served underlined the effort it took to serve each of them .The school guides the children through elementary and middle school ; they travel to the cities for their high school studies. The exhibits at the School of the Air underlined the size of these stations and the sense of isolation that children living in the Outback must feel. No wonder they looked forward to the two times a year that they all met in a central location for a picnic get-together.
There was also the Flying Doctor Service( est. 1930) which answers emergency calls from the remote stations . In case of accidents or serious illness , the ranchers would use the telegraph( nowadays the telephone or the Internet) to contact the Flying Doctor Service which sent out a plane with a nurse and a doctor to attend to the patient and bring him safely to an urban hospital .Reading the exploits of these members of the FDS , one is filled with admiration . What they did , they did out of a sense of adventure and dedication to helping their fellow-man… they certainly didn’t do it for the money.
Our last stop on the tour was at the Alice Springs Reptile Center where we passed up the opportunity to handle a snake and contented ourselves with looking at them in their glass cabinets . The woman curator told us that Australia is home to 18 of the top twenty most venomous snakes in the world. At the museum we saw #1 ( Taipan ) and # 3 ( Eastern Brown Snake ) . The taipan, she said , is so poisonous that one drop of its venom is sufficient to kill 13 people ; the brown snake is almost as venomous but less deadly because its fangs deliver less poison per bite. Luckily , these two are shy and not aggressive as some others . Cobras , mambas and kraits ( all non- Australian snakes) are deadlier and claim many more victims each year because they are more common , live in more populous areas and are more aggressive .
In Alice Springs , we got our first glimpse of aborigines , groups of whom were sitting patiently, desultorily in the shade of trees by the roadside. Like the Native Americans in the U.S , they have found it difficult , or rather impossible , to adjust to modern ways ). Alcoholism is rampant among them and they find it very difficult to hold down a job. There’s is a sad story ( More of this later .. See my next post on Ayers Rock).
That was the last stop before we went back to our hotel . That night was a 2 for 1 promotion at the casino -restaurant and it seemed that half of Alice Springs was there to take advantage of it . Even so , the prices were quite high and we wondered , not for the first time , how the locals could afford to party like this . We wound up waiting an hour and a quarter for our food (mediocre hamburgers , steak sandwiches and fish & chips), but the excellent Fourex (XXXX) beer and the Victoria Bitter made the waiting easier.