Inside Story

Hot, wild heart

Despite its extremes, Mparntwe Alice Springs still maintains a grip

Eleanor Hogan 24 October 2022 4269 words

“The pandemic’s first year was also an unwitting social experiment”: Mparntwe Alice Springs, July 2021. Andrew Bain/Alamy

It’s January 2019, and the public library where I’m employed in Mparntwe Alice Springs heaves with people escaping the furnace outside. Since Christmas Eve we’ve had twelve days of temperatures above 40°C, including two record-breaking maximums of 45.6. Patrons line up well before opening time and then spend most of the day inside, charging phones, watching old westerns and listening to bush bands on computers, or sleeping in armchairs they’ve dragged beneath air-conditioning vents.

I’ve been back in Alice Springs since October 2018 to make repairs to my unit and live cheaply while I finish writing a book, Into the Loneliness, about two women who roamed outback Australia last century. I first moved here in 2003, and even after I shifted to Melbourne in 2010 I was never entirely absent, returning to Central Australia every few months to work on a research project.

January is typically when Alice people flee to the coast to avoid the heat, but this year it’s even hotter and more humid than I remember it during the noughts. In summers past, say long-term residents, the temperature usually fell to 15°C at night, but high maximums these days are accompanied by high minimums. One morning when I was making breakfast the temperature was already 39°C.

“Heat wave” — the term that’s used on the news — is surely a euphemism for what we’re experiencing. A 2015 CSIRO report says Alice Springs averaged seventeen days above 40°C each year during 1981–2010 and forecast the figure rising to thirty-one days by 2030. When fifty-five days exceeded 40°C between July 2018 and June 2019 I began to wonder when the desert capital will become uninhabitable.

By the year’s end, the town is awash. On Christmas Eve 2019 I wake to see brown water churning between the normally barren Todd River’s banks across the road from my townhouse.

During the year I’ve struck up an acquaintance in the library with a Luritja woman from Papunya, chatting with her whenever she brings in her grandkids to use the computers. When I admire how the rain overnight brought out the fresh bush scents, she disagrees. She didn’t like it at all; it was too hard to find anywhere dry to sleep. She’d been sleeping rough, of course, maybe in the saltbushes hemming the Todd or in the riverbed.

That’s where some of the library’s local Arrernte regulars sleep, along with the Warlpiri, Anangu, Alyawarr and Warramungu who come into Mparntwe from their communities, sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, for cultural purposes, or to shop for supplies, use services or catch up with family and friends. Some stay with relatives in one of Alice Springs’s seventeen town camps or sleep overnight in or around the riverbed, then eat and shower at the Salvos before coming to the library.

Local Indigenous leaders fear that climate change will drive many from their traditional homelands to towns like Alice, escaping from flooded communities and overcrowded houses unsuited to extreme temperatures. “We are already suffering through hotter, drier and longer summers in our overcrowded hotbox houses,” says Central Land Council chair Sammy Wilson.

After the deluge, the usually bare slopes of the West MacDonnell ranges, flanking the town, are festooned in green. It would be tempting to see this as a La Niña bonus if not for the fact that much of the greenery is buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris), an insidious invasive species introduced by pastoralists to feed cattle. Buffel overwhelms native grasses, driving out bilbies and other small creatures and impeding local people’s collection of bush foods. Because of its intense flammability, traditional fire management practices no longer work. As Arrernte Anmatyerr poet Patricia Perrurle Ansell Dodds writes, “It’s too dry now. / The summer is too hot. / That buffel grass is everywhere.”

Back in January a boy had appeared in my peripheral vision as I drove out of the library car park one steamy evening. When he rolled across my bull bar in a loose, graceful motion I slammed on the brakes, fearful of hurting him, then bit back my irritation, waiting for him to move. How old was he? Eight; ten at the most. He was playing chicken, trying to provoke me, and when I failed to respond, he staggered away melodramatically.

I eased out of the car park, a little shaken and annoyed, although I’d soon be home sipping a G&T on my balcony with its view of the MacDonnells. I regained my equilibrium, distanced myself from what this scene ws a reminder of — the youth crime wave said to be plaguing the town.

When I first lived in Alice during the noughts, youth crime was expected to rise over the summer holidays. Since then, reports suggest it has reached epidemic proportions all year round. Aboriginal kids as young as eight are said to be roaming the streets in packs at night and “running amok.” Most of my friends have a story about a window being smashed, a house broken into, or a car being taken for a joyride, sometimes repeatedly.

This time round, the youth crime wave has become the main topic in what writer Robyn Davidson wryly calls The Conversation — the constant discussion about First Nations people among progressives in Alice Springs. Davidson, famous for walking with camels from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean, has been dipping in and out of the town since 1977 while many of the “white do-gooders” (as they are called by their detractors in town) associated with the land rights movement and Aboriginal-controlled organisations in the 1970s and 80s have retired or moved to the coast. Over the past decade, in their stead, my gen-X contemporaries have shifted into the senior ranks of the local chatterati while millennials have refreshed many creative and political spaces in town with their artistic and digital agility. An Indigenous middle class has also emerged, often holding key managerial roles in Aboriginal-controlled organisations.

To live in Alice Springs, regardless of whether you were born here or why you came here, is to be caught up in The Conversation. The reasons relate to Mparntwe’s role as what the late Arrernte artist W. Rubuntja called a “little Central Australian Rome — too much Tywerrenge [or Law].” It is a cultural, social and economic focal point for First Nations people from the cross-border region of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.

Because colonisation occurred later here than in the southeast, First Nations people consequently make up a greater proportion of Alice Springs’s population of 25,000 (a shade over one in five, according to the 2021 census) than of densely populated coastal cities. With the fallout from the encounter between First Nations people and settlers more evident in daily life, The Conversation in Alice Springs is more direct and less notional than the talk on the east coast.

Within eighteen months of my return to Alice Springs in 2018, my van’s passenger window has been broken repeatedly — once in my carport and three times in the library car park. Around the complex where I live, shattered car windows often glint in the grass like dew-encrusted cobwebs. Friends advise me to leave the van unlocked with a window half down so people can break in without shattering the glass. The windows remain intact but I sometimes find signs — an open door or glove box, a cigarette butt — that someone has rummaged around overnight.

A local glazier says he replaced thirty car windows each day during the recent midyear school holidays. Most shop windows in Todd Mall, the main business drag, are shuttered to protect them overnight, dampening what was once a colourful tourist precinct. Windows in the town council chambers and the library were often smashed while I worked there; once the aquatic centre fell victim to a midnight vandalism spree, with eighteen windows shattered and computers thrown into the pool.

The town is “under siege,” one headline declares. On community social media forums people cite the continued break-ins, loss of property and vehicle damage as reasons why they’re leaving town, posting photos and footage from home security cameras of break-ins. The issue of race frequently surfaces:

Sorry but the way I see it now is that anybody with white skin is simply not welcome.

Time to leave.

Where are the parents? comes the cry, along with exhortations to get tough on crime and employ more police to ensure no kids are on the streets after a certain time.

A friend who works with children in care in Alice Springs tells me about how, when she encouraged a boy to reflect on the consequences of theft, he replied, “Whitefellas have lots of stuff. They can always get more stuff.” One possible interpretation is that the rise in crime is an up-yours to the coloniser — to those who’ve taken so much and have so much — by young people exiled to the shadow zones of intergenerational trauma and poverty.

Whatever its causes, statistics lend weight to the perceptions of rising crime and rising rates of recidivism among young people. In 2019–20, NT Police proceeded more than once against 54 per cent of offenders aged ten to fourteen and 37 per cent of offenders aged fifteen to nineteen (with the older cohort making up 82 per cent of all offenders), indicating high rates of reoffending. Young people detained by NT police are overwhelmingly Indigenous.

That youth crime should have burgeoned in Alice Springs over the past decade seems no coincidence. During the noughts, the main Conversation topics within local social justice organisations were violence against women and substance misuse. Central Australia was experiencing record rates of alcohol consumption and associated harms, including assaults, mainly against Aboriginal people. These declined over the next decade following the introduction of alcohol harm-reduction measures, including the NT government’s Banned Drinkers Register, a Labor policy implemented in 2011–12 and then resumed in 2017, when Labor resumed office.

Many young people were consequently born to parents who drank alcohol to harmful levels and mothers who experienced family violence. According to an NT government report, “at least one child is subjected to domestic and family violence every day of the year in the Northern Territory.” Other children live with the effects of having witnessed family violence; still others leave unsafe and overcrowded living situations and gain a sense of identity in street gangs.

Central Australian Youth Link Up Service report seeing a rise in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and other neurological conditions. While the current incidence of the disorder is unknown, a 2003 study calculated its prevalence in the Territory’s Aboriginal children to be between 1.87 and 4.7 per 1000 live births, compared with an estimated national rate of 0.02 per 1000 non-Indigenous children. Parents and educators find these young people, afflicted by limited attention spans, hyperactive behaviour and other learning difficulties, difficult to engage in educational, social, recreational and other activities.

Their parents are often young: in 2019, a fifth of Aboriginal mothers who gave birth in the Alice Springs region weren’t yet twenty. Often they haven’t completed school and face limited job opportunities, especially in remote areas. Around half remote-living Indigenous people don’t receive income from either wages or a Centrelink allowance, so they fall back on families for support, lifting poverty among the broader group. Census data indicates that between 2006 and 2016 Indigenous poverty rates increased to 50 per cent in very remote areas while falling to 22 per cent among Indigenous people in the major cities.

Food, fuel and other essentials were already more expensive in regional centres — and higher still in remote communities — but have hiked further in Alice Springs and its satellite communities since late 2021. Petty crime can be driven by something as basic as hunger.

The rise in crime and poverty also coincided with the implementation of the Howard government’s NT National Emergency Response and Labor’s Stronger Families policy. The BasicsCard, an income management tool introduced in town camps and prescribed communities in 2007, was extended to all welfare recipients in the Territory in June 2010. Fifty per cent of recipients’ Centrelink payments and 70 per cent of child protection payments could be spent only on food, clothing and rent. Financial penalties applied if, for example, children failed to attend school.

The BasicsCard was accompanied by the Community Development Program, a work-for-the-dole program that required remote participants to work for longer hours than their non-remote counterparts. Unlike its predecessor, the long-running Community Development Employment Projects scheme, the CDP was designed without any input from local communities.

Because allowances under these schemes were suspended if participants were unable to meet requirements, poverty rose. An ANU analysis found increased rates of infant mortality, child abuse and neglect, and a rise in low birth weights and child deaths from injury — a sad irony, given that the first round of reforms came in response to the Little Children Are Sacred report.

The rate of family violence in the Territory remains staggeringly high, and in 2021 recorded the greatest annual increase (12 per cent) in family and domestic violence-related assault victims across the country. NT police data indicate that nine out of ten victims were Aboriginal, and eight were Aboriginal women. “It is not an exaggeration to say that intimate partner violence committed upon Aboriginal women in the NT is pervasive,” NT coroner Greg Cavanagh said in 2016. “Almost three quarters” of NT Aboriginal women have been victims of intimate partner violence.

The Tangentyere Women’s Family Safety Group in Alice Springs has developed resources and initiatives to assist women and men in tackling family violence, but the lack of women’s refuges and other services, especially in very remote areas, and long waiting times for already overburdened clinics exacerbate the risks for those seeking to escape violence.

Although the fallout from this crisis is devastating, even the most distressing incidents scarcely rate a mention in national media. Which is why campaigners from the Tangentyere group held a vigil one Sunday in July this year to mourn the deaths of a mother and child, allegedly shot by the woman’s forty-one-year-old partner in a murder-suicide out of town. About one hundred of us gathered on the lawn outside Alice Springs Court and laid flowers on the grass and wrote messages of support to the family. Friends and relatives spoke about the impact of the loss of this thirty-year-old Aboriginal woman and her fourteen-week-old baby.

While the campaigners hoped the vigil would raise national awareness of the high incidence of family-violence-related deaths among First Nations women, the deaths received little attention outside Alice Springs. Indeed, more coverage was given to the shooting of three whitefellas in a property dispute in north Queensland the following month. And the small turnout for the vigil seems telling, too, in a town that focuses so much outrage on property crimes.

Strange things happened in Central Australia during the pandemic. After the first lockdown was announced on 23 March 2020, the streets of Alice Springs became abnormally quiet. Heeding the strong messages carried by remote Indigenous and national media about Covid-19’s risks, people stayed inside their houses or returned to their communities.

Behind closed doors in the library, we continued to provide borrowing and printing services, and moved storytelling and other educational programs online. But we wondered what had happened to our regulars. What were the tjilpis (Pitjantjatjara for older men) who watched westerns in the library doing every day, and the cheeky kids who enjoyed using computer apps to make videos and create emojis?

That was the town’s longest lockdown. By mid May we were dining al fresco in cafes; by early June we were allowed to go camping again (the ban had been a great privation for locals). On the last day of May, about one hundred people gathered at the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens for the launch of local author Dani Powell’s book, Return to Dust — the first sign for me of a return to a fragile normality.

For almost two years, as we resumed life in our own Truman Show in the middle of the desert, the virus seemed hypothetical. We went through the motions of sanitising and physical distancing (mask wearing never became widespread, except where mandated). Because of the Territory’s relative isolation, sparse population and, most of all, strict border controls, the virus’s spread was curtailed until quarantine restrictions were lifted for vaccinated travellers just before Christmas 2021. For me, the pandemic’s most difficult aspect was not being able to visit family in Sydney because of the prohibitive cost of fourteen days’ quarantine when I returned.

Alice Springs didn’t experience its first Covid-related death — an Aboriginal woman from Mutitjulu, who was the third fatality in the Territory — until 31 January this year. By the time five-day Covid isolation ended nationally, the Territory had recorded seventy-three Covid-related deaths and a fatality rate of 0.07 per cent. While any loss of life is tragic, these figures are remarkably low given that the region’s indices of disadvantage are among the worst in the country.

The effectiveness of the Territory’s Covid response stems from advocacy early in the pandemic by the Combined Aboriginal Organisations and peak Aboriginal health bodies, and especially by Donna Ah Chee, the chief executive of the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress, who initially lobbied for strict border controls.

The pandemic’s first year was also an unwitting social experiment. Property crime rates plummeted from April to August 2020, which some local commentators attributed to the existence of a curfew of sorts. A more compelling hypothesis is that crime fell after the coronavirus supplement lifted the JobSeeker and Youth Allowance by $550 fortnightly in March 2020, temporarily raising welfare recipients’ income above the poverty line.

“For the first time some households have been able to afford basic needs like accommodation, food, winter clothes, whitegoods or repairs to motor vehicles,” reported the Northern Territory Council of Social Service in October 2020. As the supplement was phased out from late September through to December that year, property break-ins resumed their previous high levels.

When people ponder the distance, the climate and the crime they often ask me and my friends how we can live here.

Despite the town’s extremes, it’s possible to experience many things here that have been lost in other urban areas. You can usually commute to work in ten minutes from any direction. You can escape to the bush for a walk or a swim in a waterhole, or to camp overnight, often without much preparation. You can immerse yourself quickly in the dramatic landscape — giant orange rocks cast by ancestral beings, wild dogs (Akngwelye) and caterpillars (Yeperenye, Ntyarlke and Utnerrngatye) churning across the land — and its moodiness, all bold primary colours in bright sun one day, brooding pastels in overcast weather the next. You can enjoy a sense of social ease, bumping into anyone at any time, and you can slot quickly into the town’s social, cultural and sporting lives.

To me, Alice Springs’s greatest strength has always been its community-driven activities, of which it boasts an extraordinary number. The town wheels through a calendar of iconic and idiosyncratic creative and sports events, including Parrtjima, the country’s only Aboriginal light festival, the Anaconda mountain-bike race, the Finke Desert Race, the Beanie Festival, Word Storm (the NT Writers Festival, every second year in Alice), the Bush Bands Bash, the Desert Mob exhibition, Desert Song and the Desert Festival.

In early October, composer Anne Boyd’s Olive Pink Opera was performed with the support of the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir in the botanic gardens, on the site where the eponymous anthropologist camped in a tent during the 1950s.

While Alice Springs is best known for its visual arts — Albert Namatjira’s landscapes, the central and western desert art movements, the annual Papunya Tula Art Exhibition — it is also an incubator for experimental work by Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists. A recent exhibition, Footy Show, at Watch This Space, showcased First Nations artists exploring their relationship to football. Indigemoji, Australia’s first set of Indigenous emojis, was produced by young people guided by senior Arrernte cultural advisers, and Awemele Itelaretyeke is an app with two audio walking tours made by traditional owners to help users learn about Mparntwe’s history, culture and language.

Some of Centralia’s most hard-hitting creative achievements over the past decade have been in film and television: Warwick Thornton’s prize-winning Sweet Country (2017), which premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, is a Western based on the local story of Willaberta Jack, and Penelope McDonald’s Audrey Napanangka (2021) explores the life and work of the Warlpiri artist. Dylan River (Thornton and McDonald’s son) directed Finke: There and Back (2019) for Brindle Films, which follows several Finke Desert Race participants, including local filmmaker Isaac Elliott, who competes on a modified motorbike after an accident left him confined to a wheelchair.

Alice-based production company Brindle Films, founded in 2011 by Rachel Clements and Trisha Morton-Thomas, produced the ABC TV comedy series 8MMM Aboriginal Radio (2015), and The Song Keepers (2018), the NITV/SBS documentary about the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir on tour. Isaac Elliott also worked with Brindle Films on the Netflix TV series MaveriX (2022), about dirt bike riders in the red centre.

Locally made documentary In My Blood It Runs (2019), which screened on ABC iView and Netflix, introduced viewers to the challenges encountered by ten-year-old Arrernte/Garawa boy Dujuan Hoosan in navigating cultural life and Western educational systems in Alice Springs. SBS crime series True Colours (2022), created by Erica Glynn (Thornton’s sister), portrays First Nations people’s social and cultural realities in Central Australia in a way rarely seen on TV. With white characters appearing as marginal figures, it features strong performances by untrained locals including singer Warren H. Williams, Arrernte elders Sabella Kngwarraye Ross Turner and Rosalie Kumalie Riley, and lead actor Rarriwuy Hick.

Books and publishing also have a high profile in Alice Springs. Although Dymocks closed its local store in 2013, local bookseller Red Kangaroo Books, run by the Capper–Druce family in Todd Mall since 2007, battled on, featuring on one list of “21 of the Best Bookshops in Australia to Visit in 2021.” As “the only bricks-and-mortar independent bookshop still standing in Australia between Port Augusta, Darwin, Broome, and Broken Hill,” the shop attributes its success to its “fiercely local” focus, stocking (often hard-to-come-by) books on Central Australian subjects and by Centralian authors.

Community-publishing outfits have long flourished in Alice Springs, especially those dedicated to producing books by First Nations people. The Institute for Aboriginal Development Press, which has published First Nations dictionaries and resources since 1969, has recently been joined by Running Water Community Press, which has produced anthologies of local women’s poetry including Campfire Satellites: An Inland Anthology (2019) and Arelhekenhe Angkentye: Women’s Talk: Poems of Lyapirtneme from Arrernte Women in Central Australia (2020). The first book in its new truth-telling series is local stolen generations survivor Frank Byrne’s Living in Hope (2022), an earlier version of which won the Small Press Network’s Most Underrated Book Award in 2018.

Other notable First Nations publications include Central Land Council’s collective memoir, Every Hill Got a Story (2015), and ninety-year-old Kanakiya Myra Ah Chee’s memoir, Nomad Girl (2021).

Among the most inspiring local ventures are the First Nations children’s books published by intergenerational Arrernte learning initiative Ampe-kenhe Ahelhe Children’s Ground. Led by local Arrernte elders, Ampe-kenhe Ahelhe began providing education to First Nations children on Country and in people’s communities, combining Arrernte and Western educational priorities. Since 2019, its Arrernte educators have produced nine educational resources featuring seven local languages, the latest of which include Tyerrtye Atyinhe (My Body), Althateme (McGrath’s Dam) and Intelhiletyeke, a First Nations colouring book.

“We’ve been following government nearly all our lives — this is a new beginning,” says Ampe-kenhe Ahelhe director M.K. Turner. “We are following a new path, our own path as First Nations people for the future of our children. At Children’s Ground, the community is taking the lead. We are very proud of that. We are the government of ourselves.”

When the Yiddish poet Melekh Ravitsh arrived by train in Alice Springs in 1933 he experienced “an uncontrollable joy and fear.” “One feels,” he wrote, “that one is in the middle of the hot, wild heart of the most remote of all continents — Australia.”

I can relate to the intensity of Ravitsh’s response. Unsettling feelings take hold of you on being confronted by Mparntwe Alice Springs, destabilising your perception of Australia. The town continues to draw people like me — rootless wanderers above the ground, as a Māori elder once described the Pākehā — back to the Centre. With its sharp light throwing so much into relief, there is rawness about living in the place.

Here you live on the precipice of the prosperity so many Australians take for granted, where the marginalisation, the poverty, the trauma and the damage to Country that resulted from dispossession of First Nations people are all too apparent. At the same time, it is a privilege to see this other, remote Australia, to live and work alongside First Nations people, to catch a glimpse of what Country means to them, even if the depth and complexity of this relationship is hard to grasp.

“The town grew up dancing,” the late W. Rubuntja wrote. “And still the dancing is there under the town… We still have the culture, still sing the song… It’s the same story we have from the old people, from the beginning here in the Centre.”

May the dance never end. •

Funding for this article from the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund is gratefully acknowledged.