IT HAPPENS abruptly, the change in the landscape, flying from the coast towards the centre. The swimming pools and the rooftops of suburbia give way to chequerboards of crops and grazing land. There are no signs of civilisation except for the occasional farm or hamlet with its gouged-out dam, and the slashes of orange dirt highways. This scenery fades out quickly, to be replaced by shattered banks of cloud hanging low over red, calloused earth. To some eyes, the landscape registers as barren and void: terra nullius.
This is where the real world ends, as most Australians know it, and the outback – as in “out the back of nowhere” – begins. Settlers originally feared this part of the continent as a hostile heartland that swallowed up explorers in search of an inland sea. Although the outback provides Australians with so much of their identity, most will never venture here, except for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Uluru. One of the unconscious fears that gnaw at the white Australian psyche is how precarious our grip is on this continent. We’re a coastal, rather than a desert, people: we cling to its edges in capital cities that poet A.D. Hope once described as “five teeming sores.” Underlying this fear is the notion of the emptiness, the deadness of the centre.
Alice Springs, or Mparntwe, as the place is known by its traditional owners, the Arrernte people, is at the continent’s centre. As you fly towards Alice, the reptilian spine of the MacDonnell Ranges rises out of the plains. According to the Arrernte, the ranges were created by ancestral beings – Yeperenye, Ntyarlke and Utnerrengatye – caterpillars who originated in the east at a break in the ranges called Anthwerrke, or Emily Gap. These caterpillars travelled west, calling and shaping the physical landscape into being. The ranges form the present town’s ramparts, shielding its southwest side like the remains of a European city’s Roman walls. They are broken by a further, larger granite cleft – Heavitree Gap, or “the Gap.”
Alice Springs is spread out on the other side of the ranges like a baseball diamond, its bottom tip cradled in the Gap. Stuart Highway cuts through town from near the airport, and goes straight on to Tennant Creek and Darwin. If you turn right just inside the Gap, the road heads past a brace of liquor outlets, cheap motels and backpacker hostels and up to Todd Mall, the main drag in the town’s centre. The Mall, a brick-surfaced strip of road, boasts cafes offering al fresco dining and galleries selling Aboriginal artefacts on either side. Tourists, identifiable by their strong walking shoes and hats with flyveils, toil up and down in the heat. Knots of Aboriginal people drift past like shoals of disconsolate fish. They sometimes have limbs misshapen and faces disfigured by violent acts, signs of a hard life. Some humbug tourists and passers-by, unfurling scrolls of canvas with, “You want caterpillar dreaming? Thirty dollars. Bush tomato dreaming – twenty dollars.”
The Todd River, or Lhere Mparntwe, is parallel to the Mall, forming the eastern side of the town’s diamond. Most of the year, the Todd is a dry, sandy highway running through the heart of Alice Springs. Occasionally storms engorge its banks, sometimes overflowing its causeways. When the rains stop, the water seeps away, leaving small shimmering pools, until eventually these disappear. The pinkish mud on the riverbed dries as though it still feels the thrust of water turbulence. Some gums growing in the river strain forwards, as if under the force of a deluge. But the Todd’s main cargo is human. A visiting Irish comedian once described it as “perhaps the only river filled with people rather than water.” People from communities often end up camping in the river because cheap accommodation is scarce.
A causeway near the Todd Tavern at the far end of the Mall connects the town to the Eastside, a fashionable suburban enclave with wide, native-gum-lined streets and large, old Territorian-style houses on suburban-size blocks of land. Sometimes wryly referred to as “the ghetto,” this part of town is home to Alice’s chattering classes, a large expatriate population who’ve come from cities “down south” to work in the local Aboriginal service-delivery industry. Causeways further along the river link to a lush suburban pocket known as the Golf Course Estate, mainly inhabited by the Americans who work in secrecy at Pine Gap, a US military base just out of town, built during the Cold War as part of Australia’s “all the way with LBJ” approach to foreign policy.
About a kilometre north on the Todd is the Bush Telegraph Station, sometimes claimed as the “real reason” for the establishment of Alice Springs. Built in 1872, it was part of the push to run an overland telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin, then to connect Australia to Asia and the rest of the world. The site was chosen for its proximity to a soak, or waterhole, that Charles Todd, the local postmaster and builder of the telegraph line, named after his wife, Alice. The town was first named “Stuart” in 1888, after the first European explorer to chart the interior. Once the settlement had developed greater critical mass in 1933, its name changed to the softer, more congenial “Alice Springs.” The words roll into “Allypring” in Aboriginal English. Tour operators, national weather announcers and others from out of town often refer to the place as “The Alice.” But many locals simply call it “Alice.”
No place to hide
It was quite true; this town had everything a reasonable girl could want – a hairdressing saloon, a good dress shop or two, two picture houses... She turned into the milk bar at about nine o’clock and bought herself an ice cream soda. If this was the outback, she thought, there were a great many worse places.
— A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute, 1950
I CAME to Alice Springs in late 2003 in search of a “desert change.” I had been working as a public servant in Indigenous affairs since 1998, including for the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. As a government bureaucrat, I often used Alice Springs as an entry point for canvassing information from remote communities and organisations delivering services to Aboriginal people in central Australia. Over the years I became more interested in the issues facing this region – enough to consider living there.
In mid 2003, I drove up from Adelaide to Alice Springs with some colleagues to investigate the outcomes of a coronial inquiry into the deaths of three petrol sniffers on the Anaŋu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in central Australia. We travelled long distances to remote hamlets where we sat in the dirt and talked to Aboriginal people, and slept on swags near the side of the road, fearful of being stampeded by feral camels in the middle of the night.
After this trip, an Aboriginal co-worker suggested that I apply for a job in Alice Springs: the place was always in need of good professionals, she told me. I obtained a position in a government organisation in Alice Springs relatively quickly, and left Sydney almost on a whim. I felt as if I had jumped ship, although it wasn’t so unusual for me to move: something of a wanderer, I had lived in Manchester, Melbourne and Canberra for significant periods.
To some degree, I was seduced by the Centralian landscape and its unexpected contrasts: green and rolling in some parts; burnt orange with the spare, blackened remnants of vegetation in others. I was also tired of the insularity and status anxiety associated with living in Sydney, the city that most embodies Australia’s preoccupations with consumerism and the coast. The grittiness of everyday life in Alice Springs, the thought of being brought face to face with some of the nation’s core issues, appealed to me. I had an idea, too, that I would write about life in the Centre, to try to communicate what it was like, living between two populations.
After six months of living in Alice Springs, my employer folded and I was offered an all-expenses-paid relocation back to Sydney. But I was in no hurry to leave. I had set up a life: a new circle of friends, a yoga class, a reading group, a cycling club, a hairdresser, and so forth. Like Jean Paget in A Town Like Alice, I sensed the possibility of the place. Real estate was affordable by Sydney standards, work was readily available for middle-class professionals, and there were lively cultural and sporting communities to join, all combined with the exceptional landscape and the sheer curiosity value of the place. True, local cinema offerings were somewhat B-grade, but otherwise most things were easier and more proximate than in a major capital city. The internet also made much possible.
When I told friends and family that I experienced a better quality of life in Alice Springs than in Sydney, they looked at me blankly: wasn’t it the stabbing capital of the world? It was hard to explain the split between the “good life” at hand for expatriate professionals and the backdrop of the local Aboriginal population’s poverty and hardship – a split that is fundamental to the nation’s reality.
This divide was no more apparent to me than in my experiences with housing in Alice Springs. For the first six months, I lived in a government-owned unit in a pocket of suburbia informally known as “Larapinta” because of its location on the western road of the same name. It was seven kilometres from the centre of town, with a front-row view of Mount Gillen, a foreboding promontory in the West MacDonnell Ranges. Before leaving Sydney I consulted an online directory, which indicated that my new home would be on the very last street in the town’s furthest-flung satellite. A colleague who’d been brought up in Alice told me that my new suburb was “where the single mums lived” and full of snakes.
I looked out from my unit in Larapinta directly onto a rocky, tussocky hill and the end of my street abutted Crown land. It was untrammelled, scrubby bush crisscrossed by a tangle of tracks made by bikers of various sorts, unable to be bought as freehold unless sold off by the government or native title holders. I often went for an early evening jog along the fenceline of other people’s backyards, up a ridge to a trig point with a 360-degree view of the town and the surrounding ranges. I thought of the area as the “wild west.”
My unit was in a section where mainly white, middle-class types lived. On the other side of the crossroad that ran from the highway up to my street was a bay of housing commission accommodation, largely inhabited by Aboriginal families. Things were definitely livelier and noisier across the road: kids rode their bikes until late, adults drank on porches and there were often sounds of fighting at night (admittedly, I heard the same while living in inner-city Melbourne).
When I later went house-hunting in Alice Springs, a financial adviser told me that although some land agreement deals had been done with local native title holders, it was unlikely that property would ever depreciate in value. Aboriginal people would get first dibs on the new land parcels, and once they moved in, no one else would want to buy land there, because all their relatives would come to visit. There were some Aboriginal people who were “like us” and wanted to live quietly among the rest of the population, but they had broken off ties with their relatives to do so. As for the suburb where I was living at the time – well, it was very beautiful, but it was never going to increase in value because of all the Aborigines there.
I often heard gripes from white and even black townies about Alice being too expensive: that “those Arrernte” should “free up some land and give us somewhere to live.” Within a couple of years, land use agreements were made, the town steadily spread, and local real estate encroached further into the Crown land out west. A more upmarket suburb was built beyond Larapinta, capitalising on the view of the ranges.
I ultimately bought a townhouse near the Gap on the south side of Alice Springs, five minutes’ drive from the town centre. The area was described to me by one real estate agent as the “Redfern” of Alice: “Young people like to move into these places and do them up, don’t they?” she said. I later discovered that my townhouse had been part of a housing commission zone ten years earlier. Ironically, its Aboriginal population was relocated out of sight to Larapinta when the Gap became a more sought-after residential area for those working at the nearby hospital and hotels.
ONCE I had moved in, I often sat on my balcony overlooking the Todd River of an evening, enjoying a drink and my view of the West MacDonnell Ranges. From my vantage point in the security of the gated complex, I watched community people drifting up and down the river, probably looking for somewhere to sleep. Sometimes shouts and cries from the riverbed woke me during the night.
Despite being so close to the local Aboriginal population, and working for organisations dedicated to them, I knew little about their daily realities. I often felt the presence of an “us” and “them” divide between the black and white populations, beyond frontier tensions; of a new layer of paternalism where Aboriginal people were positioned as the recipients of white aid. Genuine friendships between Aboriginal people and those working on Indigenous issues, including me, seemed few and far between: it was novel if an Aboriginal person, even your malpa, or co-worker, visited your house or met your children, at least among my contemporaries.
As an expatriate living in Alice, I knew I was inescapably part of an ongoing missionary impulse, of a secular order of nuns: it’s mainly women who come to “do good” in central Australia. I was aware my intentions were mixed. But I wanted to shuck off the policy framework in which I had been thinking and working, to write in a way that reflected the realities of living in the nation’s centre and to communicate experiences that had become familiar to me which I realised were unknown or not well understood outside central Australia.
Alice Springs is a place of extremes – of climate, of distance, of attitudes, of social privilege, of racial and gender divides – that are often highly conflicted. As a friend who lived there for several years commented, “There is a sense in Alice that you cannot hide from yourself. I think this is because you cannot fail to be part of the climate, the remoteness, the racial history, the connection with the country and the beauty of the ranges. The town by definition is an isolation, yet this is the very reason why there exists such a strong community. To live in it, in some ways, is to render yourself very much exposed.”
One of the features of central Australia is the bright, almost harsh light that is present all year round, except on the most overcast midwinter day. In writing my book, I wanted to move beyond the polarities of political debate and media perceptions and to throw light on the texture of the town’s everyday existence by describing a typical year in its life. •