Image Credit: Barry Skipsey/Australian Geographic

Alice Springs Desert Park

  • December 16, 2014

With characters as colourful as its landscape, Alice Springs is an outback town with distinct personality

THE EPICENTRE OF THE Northern Territory, Alice Springs is a town like no other.

Aside from her rugged desert landscape, crystalline blue sky and haze of eucalypts, Alice Springs is chock-full of fascinating characters who came for a week and stayed for a lifetime.

Straddling the ephemeral Todd River, Alice Springs is the second largest town in the Northern Territory and the geographical heart of Australia, or as locals are given to saying, "the town closest to every beach in Oz". In reality, it's 1200km as the crow flies to the nearest ocean and about 1500km to the closest major cities, Adelaide and Darwin.

Before white people first walked this patch of wide brown land, the Arrernte people alone had occupied it - a place they call Mparntwe - for more than 30,000 years. A rich combination of waterholes, gorges and ranges, it was shaped in the Dreaming by wild dogs, caterpillars, euros, travelling boys and two sisters.

European settlement came much later. In 1861 explorer John McDouall Stuart led an expedition through central Australia to establish a route from the south of the continent to the north, passing to the west of present-day Alice. Ten years after that, while working on the Overland Telegraph Line (OTL), surveyor William Mills found a waterhole and named it Alice Springs in honour of the wife of his boss, Sir Charles Todd, superintendent of telegraphs for South Australia.

The area adjacent to the waterhole was established as a repeater station for the OTL, which on completion in 1872 linked Adelaide to Darwin and London, and opened up the interior for permanent settlement.

It wasn't until World War II, when Alice Springs became a military staging post and supply depot for the four-day trip to Darwin, that the population passed the 500 mark. When the Japanese threatened Darwin, Alice became the NT's temporary capital, and military personnel and equipment moved south too. Resident troops topped out at about 8000, but 200,000 Aussie and US personnel passed through during the war years.

Today it has a population of approximately 28,000, 12 per cent of the Territory's population - and they live in a city divided into 17 suburbs and 19 Aboriginal town camps. Here you meet teachers, doctors, nurses, miners, painters, chefs, tattoo artists, rangers and tour operators - to name just a few.