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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Alice Springs

Perhaps it's the lure of the old Australian television production) of A Town Called Alice, in which, after all, the town of Alice Springs hardly figures: still, the lure is there. We may as well go see what's on the ground.

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Sorry, no international arrivals. This flight came from Darwin, which is mildly ironic since the next several folders show the road back.

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The road into town. Plenty of space, and a good road to boot.

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On the way in there's a railroad museum with a reconstruction of the town's original railroad station. The name reads Stuart, because the town was called that until 1935.

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Logo on the front of the diesel engine at the museum. CR stands for Commonwealth Railways, predecessor of Australian National.

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The engine.

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The builders plate, for buffs only.

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Dining car.

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Enough frippery. We've come to town and climbed Anzac Hill. The view is south over the town center, with the MacDonnell Ranges in the background.

A bit of history now, in the form of the order creating the town. "In pursuance of the provisions of 'The Northern Territory Crown Lands Consolidation Act, 1882,' I, the Governor, do hereby proclaim and declare that all that portion of the Crown lands hereinafter described shall, from the date hereof, be set apart as the site for a new town, to be called the Town of Stuart, and such lands are hereby reserved and designated town lands: --All that portion of the waste lands in the Northern Territory, situated at Alice Springs.... By command, J.G. Ramsay, Chief Secretary. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN!"

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The mountains are transected by the Heavitree Gap, named for a village in Devon that had been the home of one of the surveyors of the Overland Telegraph Line. That line was an 1,800-mile string of wire that figures frequently in the pictures ahead.

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You've got it: the panorama of central Alice. To end the confusion between Stuart and Alice, in 1933 the name Stuart was retired, even though John McDouall Stuart was more deserving of a place in history. He was the first man to cross Australia south to north, while Alice was the wife of Charles Todd, who followed in Stuart's footsteps and oversaw construction of the overland telegraph. Stuart does have lots of other bits of Australia named after him, including the Stuart Highway, which bisects Australia north to south, saltwater to saltwater.

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Alice was the capital of short-lived (1926-1931) Central Australia, which existed long enough for only a single Resident, John Cawood. The official Residency built then is almost a joke in comparison with the mansions in more important bits of the British Empire.

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Nice landscaping.

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Nearby, the Old Courthouse was built in 1928 and is now the office of the Northern Territory Film Office.

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Stuart town gaol, 1907-38.

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The most character yet: Todd's Tavern, named for the Charles Todd of the overland telegraph line.

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We've drifted over to the residential side of town and picked this as representative.

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Nearby, the town cemetery is neatly segregated by religion, but individuality will out, as in this tombstone of Harold Lasseter, who died in 1931 after decades spent fruitlessly trying to rediscover a deposit he believed he had found years earlier. Lasseter has a highway named after him, too. It's only 150 miles long, a lot shorter than Stuart's.

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Longevity on display. Australia's early Indian community, called Afghans, originated as camel drivers imported along with camels to run freight in pre-railroad days.

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That's long ago and far away.

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Woolworth's (no relation to the now-defunct American and British company) is the major retailer in Australia. We'll see it not only here but farther north in Katherine and Darwin.

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The Alice Springs Convention Centre, testimony to architectural globalization.

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How was this calculated in the days before Google Maps?

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We'll be heading up the Stuart Highway to Tennant Creek, Katherine, and Darwin.

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Near the sign: an ephemeral bridge. Well, that's not quite right. A bridge needed occasionally is better. It's for the times when the Todd River is in spate and fills its broad channel immediately on the edge of town.

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First stop: the Alice Springs telegraph station. This is the short, dead-end road leading to it.

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There's plenty of road-kill, if you need proof.

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Entrance sign.

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Speaks for itself but makes you wonder if half the official messages transmitted over the line were devoted to the sender's titles. The telegraph operators gleaned little good gossip, because official messages were encoded. Drat!

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The building on the right was the station master's residence, with a kitchen behind and, separately, on the left, barracks. The station master was a busy man who served also as postmaster, although mail arrived only every six weeks. He was also responsible for Central Australian Aborigines. In his spare time he served as the only judge, as an emergency doctor, and as a storekeeper for travelers.

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The telegraph office proper. The poles aren't for the telegraph line but for power coming from the nearby battery shed.

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Telegraph poles were a real problem. Here's an early form, soon replaced by steel.

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The station has its own cemetery. Flint died of rheumatic fever. He had been married seven months. Did the dying man have a sense of humor?

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