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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Tennant Creek

The Stuart Highway brings us from Alice north.

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A fine, fine road north, with nary a pothole on its nearly 1,000-mile course to Darwin. Even more amazing for Americans, there's no barbed-wire keeping you on the straight and narrow. This is the Stuart Highway, named for John McDouall Stuart, who--it's history time again!--arrived in Australia in 1838. He set out to claim the 2000-pound reward offered to the first person to cross Australia south to north. After traveling about 10,000 miles in 33 months, in 1862 Stuart made it to the north coast on his third attempt. Ten years later, the Overland Telegraph was opened along roughly his route.

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Gird thyself. At least it's kilometers instead of miles.

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Triple trailers are about the most exciting thing en route, which is not to say that the drive is boring, only that these longhaulers catch your attention as they merrily fishtail down the highway. You'll see.

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Signs seek to shield the Aboriginal population.

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Not messing around.

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The Charles River, bone dry. As we move north, the country gets wetter until finally, somewhere around Katherine, the road crosses a river that's actually wet.

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One of zillions of termite mounds.

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Unpaved roads branch off the highway, here with mailboxes for folks who have a hike to get their mail.

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Branch road: high, wide, and handsome.

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A hundred miles north of Alice, the first dot on the map: Aileron, named for an airplane part. There are various uncertain explanations, but in any case the name is a good reminder of the importance planes continue to have in these parts.

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Lacking in conventional distractions, the highway boasts a profusion of monuments, often erected at private expense. Here's the one marking the Tropic of Capricorn. The longitude is just shy of 134 degrees east.

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With a corrugated steel roof and wraparound screened porches, this is a regional adaption of the Bengali house, in this case portable if the occupant decides to relocate.

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Another 40 clicks up the road: the first town. Its name presumably comes from the tea-tree (Leptospermum spp.), so-called because its leaves were used as a tea substitute. ("Presumably" means I'm guessing.)

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Grocery-store shelves, like airports, are a handy indicator of economic development. The lesson here is that, although most people would say we're in the middle of nowhere, we're actually very much within a modern supply-chain network. The store's most popular item, alas not shown here, was a man-sized stack of Heinz baked beans.

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The local school.

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Clinic.

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Residential street.

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Sixty miles farther up the road, the Barrow Creek telegraph station. The wraparound veranda must have been a blessing.

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The unassuming telegraph pole is one of thousands that were schlepped into place. You might think they're not worth noticing, but you might reconsider after reading the sign shown in the next picture.

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More than you wanted to know?

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Another of the small cemeteries attached to these stations.

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Back to the road.

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The highway we've been on is the second one built along this route. The first was built during World War II. It survives in places.

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A little geological diversion: they're the exfoliation blocks called the Devil's Marbles.

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We've arrived on the main street of Tennant Creek, 300 miles north of Alice and with three times that many residents. A third are Aborigines. It's early in the morning, which is why the place seems so shady, as well as deserted.

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Sunrise at the Goldfields, its name a reminder that the town was established after gold was discovered by a lineman. That was in 1925, which explains why the building is relatively new.

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The strip.

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Think the merchants have a security problem?

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The single grocery store is similarly screened.

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It's just a grocery store!

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Such a variety of yogurt: we're back to supply-chain marvels--and the quest for eternal youth.

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Land was cheap, and somebody had dreams of gracious living.

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Didn't pan out. Substantial yard fencing is very common.

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Many houses in town bear these grim signs, part of the government's campaign to reduce alcoholism within the Aboriginal population. So you're a senior citizen? No matter, you'll still be carded to verify that you're not on the list of those forbidden to drink.

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Bureaucracy! The fine for spoiling the sign is bigger than the fine for violating the sign's injunction.

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This is a once-popular "Sidney Williams" prefabricated steel-frame and steel-sheet building. Now part of the United Australia Church, this example was originally part of Rev. John Flynn's Australian Inland Mission.

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The local Catholic church.

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Tennant Creek cemetery.

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Most of the tombstones are grimly uniform, but here's one that tells a one-word short story.

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A grave whose occupant didn't want to be disturbed.



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