‘Alice Springs. Alice is a bonza place, oh my word. A girl’s got everything in Alice –two picture houses, shops for everything, fruit, ice-cream, fresh milk,…swimming-pool,….and nice houses to live in. Alice is a bonza town,’
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
I reread the book “A Town Like Alice” as we made our way across the Outback a few weeks ago, to remind myself about what Nevil Shute wrote about the town in the late 1940’s. We were to find out if Alice was still a “bonza” sort of place nearly 70 years later, as we found ourselves there far, far longer than we expected.
It had started off so well, we had looped back to Alice Springs after our sojourn at Uluru and the MacDonell Ranges to restock. We had a quick night in the same caravan park we had been the previous week for washing and water filling, after school we piled in the front.
Steve turned the key….nothing. It didn’t even turn over. He tried again a few more times….still nothing. A whole series of warning lights on the dashboard lit up…then the whole lot went black. Bugger!!
With exploration, we found out it was what we had feared – battery problems. After some fiddling, Steve decided to give it one last time before he called the garage. This time not only did the truck not turn over but there was a massive BANG, that nearly gave our poor neighbours a heart attack. The explosion had caused a big chunk of the battery lid to come off. Double bugger!!
The garage confirmed that both truck batteries were shot and they could order new ones. This is when it was brought home to us, how far Alice Springs is from the more populated coast and just how big Australia is. Replacements were located over 1,500 kms away in Adelaide and would take 6 days to come by road train, the May Day long weekend in the middle slowed things down a bit. Now all we had to do was find things to do in Alice for a week.
We are just so, so thankful that the batteries gave up where they did. For the 10 days before we had been camping out in the desert, often several kilometres from a dirt road, with no mobile signal. We have an emergency satellite beacon but this would have been a mechanical issue not an emergency. We had planned to head north to Darwin, although there is a paved highway the distance is huge; population is very low and widely, widely spaced. We saw several vehicles being brought into the campsite on the back of recovery trucks, after being rescued from hundreds of kilometres away. So to break down in a clean; well run campsite; just outside a town; with friendly neighbours; and they even had good wifi (a real rarity in Australian sites, we’ve found) was so lucky.
The girls, as always, were completely relaxed about our location and situation. As long as they are with us and living in the truck, they seem completely unfazed by what life brings us on this trip. We filled the week with a trip to the cinema; exploring the historical bits of town; reading; extra school; and the girls and I got to go to church. We ate out a couple of times at a local “club”, as they had a free bus from the campsite but didn’t indulge in the horse race betting or slot machines.
Alice with its population of about 25,000 seemed a friendly sort of place, although it does have some crime issues and we were advised not to walk around at night. It has a mixed population of white, aboriginal and new immigrants but they all seem to get on pretty well. The town is also a service centre for a huge area around it. This was brought home at the church we went to, the main pastor was away on his monthly visit to preach at Tennants Creek, a mere 500kms away! On the May Day holiday we went into town to see the Bang Tail Muster, a community parade.
We were all really relieved when the auto-electrician e-mailed to say the batteries had arrived and even more relieved when he fitted them a few hours later and the engine started first time. What a sweet sound!
By then it was too late to take our planned long drive north, so we decided to check out the main tourist site in Alice, the Telegraph Station. It had been just that little too far to walk there and back in the heat for the girls, earlier in the week. On a practical note, it also gave us a chance to check that the engine actually started a couple of times. Just a few kilometres from the centre of town it felt like you were back in the Outback with red sandstone outcrops; silvery-grey spinifex grasses; and noisy galahs. It interesting to see how the town developed from such a remote outpost. It was part of the Overland Telegraph Line which cut the time for a message from London to Australia, a remote part of the Victorian empire, from many months to 3 hours.
So as we prepared to hit the road, we reflected if Alice lived up to its “bonza” moniker. Yes, I think it did, especially considering it is the middle of absolutely nowhere, but hopefully we won’t get stuck here again.