Alice Springs started out life around 1872 with the completion of the Overland Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Darwin and then onto the United Kingdom.
It was the site of a repeater station for the line that was built on the Todd River at an area they named Alice Springs.
It must have been a wet year as the normally dry river had water in it and was mistakenly thought to be a permanent waterhole. They named it after the wife of Sir Charles Todd, ex Postmaster General of South Australia. The river was named after him.
Prior to European settlement the area was inhabited by the Arrernte Aboriginal people for more than 40,000 years and was referred to as Mparntwe. There were three distinct groups encompassing the Western, Eastern and Central Arrernte people and the area they inhabited included the East and West MacDonnell Ranges along with the area that is now Alice of which the Central Arrernte are the traditional owners.
Alice Springs is the largest town in Central Australia, or the Red Centre as its known, and the second largest city in the Northern Territory after Darwin. It has a population of approximately 26,000, a very cosmopolitan mix made up of Australian Aboriginal, Australian, English, Irish, Scottish, German, Italian, New Zealand and North American. Almost 18% were born outside Australia. There is the old saying that many people arrive in Alice Springs with the intention of passing through but end up making Alice their home. It has a very relaxed lifestyle, favourable climate and is blessed with beautiful ancient mountain ranges, waterholes, fauna and flora.
A Town Like Stuart
The town of Alice Springs was originally called Stuart, named after John McDouall Stuart, an explorer who mapped a route from Adelaide on the south coast to the north coast around Darwin in 1861-62. It was this route that enabled the Telegraph Line to be built. The Stuart Highway between Adelaide and Darwin that runs through Alice Springs is also named after him in honour of his exploits. However there was confusion over the main settlement being called Stuart and the settlement at the Telegraph Station being called Alice Springs that in 1933, the town was officially named Alice Springs.
The route that Stuart had mapped opened the way for European settlement into the Red Centre with many pastoral Leases being granted. However numbers were still fairly small until the discovery of alluvial gold in 1887 at Arltunga, 100km’s east of Alice Springs, which caused a population boom. Camel trains, the original form of transport in the outback driven by immigrants from what is now Pakistan, travelled north bringing much need supplies. However, the Great Northern Railway from Adelaide was moving north and by 1891 had made it as far as Oodnadatta, 700km’s south of Alice, reducing the distance the camel trains had to go.
By 1929 the railway between Adelaide and Alice was complete making the use of camels redundant. The railway was named the Ghan after the cameleers who had made transport in the interior possible and been incorrectly referred to as Afghan Cameleers. In 2004 the original vision of a railway running from south to north was realised with the completion of the Darwin to Alice section meaning the Ghan now travels twice weekly between Adelaide and Darwin stopping at Alice on the way through.
Tourism Takes Off
The population of Alice remained fairly static as primarily a service town for the pastoral industry. It wasn’t until the development of Pine Gap in the late 1960’s, a joint Australian/US Defence Facility, and the burgeoning tourism industry in the 1970’s that Alice Springs really started to take off. Today Pine Gap employs approximately 800 people and tourism is the backbone of the economy with an estimated 400,000 visitors a year.
There are a host of local tourism operators in Alice, from accommodation houses and indigenous cultural tours and shows through to ballooning, scenic flights, walks on the famous Larapinta Trail, MacDonnell Ranges tours, etc, as well as many Alice based businesses running Uluru tours to the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park (Ayers Rock and the Olgas) and Kings Canyon and other parts of the Red Centre.
Ancient Mountains on the Doorstep
Alice Springs is located at the base of the MacDonnell Ranges that stretch for over 400km in an east-west direction in parallel ridges with flat valleys between. They were formed through massive earth movements some 300 million years ago, breaking up what was then a seabed as fossil remains testify. Being so old and weathered, generally they extend up only around 300 metres from the valley floor but are a sensational sight, particularly the way the strata has been tilted through nearly 90 degrees and then worn into beautiful bands in many stretches.
The MacDonnell Ranges provide a majestic backdrop to Alice Springs and provide a host of permanent water holes, stunning gorges and beautiful ancient ridges and peaks. The Ranges run for more than 640km’s in an east – west direction and are separated by Heavitree Gap, or Ntaripe to the local Arrernte, into the East MacDonnell and West MacDonnell Ranges. It is through ‘The Gap’ that the Stuart Highway and the rail line run through making Alice Springs accessible from the south.
The West MacDonnell’s are by far the most popular amongst tourists and locals with attractions like Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, Redbank Gorge, Standley Chasm, Glen Helen Gorge, etc, although there are some gems to be discovered in the East Macs as well such as Emily Gap, Jessie Gap and Trephina Gorge.
The Larapinta Trail is a walking track that runs for 223km’s along the backbone of the West MacDonnell Ranges and is gaining a world class reputation as one of the great walks to be had on the planet.